Czech Republic

Loket, Czech Republic

The main reason most people will go anywhere near Loket, never mind into the place itself, is on a day-trip or a weekend break to the grand thermal spas of Karlovy Vary. These people comprise students on coach trips from Prague, Asian camera-tourists who would take a picture of a lamp-post if you told them it had cultural significance (and would probably capture the lamppost for posterity anyway, just in case it did), cheapskate German retirees driving over the border for cut-price spa treatments, and oil-rich Russians trying to show off to their mates. Most of the Germans and Russians wouldn’t be interested in Loket even if you told them about it.

I’m fairly sure intrepid backtracking sorts and Asian tourists (who in spite of my mocking, love a medieval castle and are attracted to beauty of all kinds) would be interested in the sequestered hill town of Loket, a gem in Czech Republic’s small unheralded borders.

It’s odd quite what people think Prague actually is, in relation to the wider country or whether the majority visiting realise Prague old town represents only the most grand expression of Bohemian and Gothic culture in the country, not simply all of it gathered in one place. For whatever reason, it’s not like France where everyone is bustling out to the small towns at their earliest opportunity. Hardly any bugger ventures out of the capital. And yet there are dozens of Czech towns which have some astoundingly beautiful aspects, usually a harmonious blend of architecture with the natural surroundings, which people simply never visit and Loket is one of them.

It’s annoying to think of the scores of French towns I’ve been dragged through (which had a modicum of civic pride but were otherwise nothing more than pleasant) when I could have been coming here.

Take a bus from Karlovy Vary’s bus station, an amusing step away from the grandeur in the centre to a windswept dilapidated depot on the other side of the river. Google-searching public transport to Loket might make you think there’s hardly any options available, but you’d be wrong. There’s a regular bus that passes through and will drop you off into Loket after about 25 minutes. The bus is a typically elderly machine, and the concern isn’t so much whether the seatbelts work as to whether the bus is going to fall apart entirely around you. The journey takes you on a cranky, rattling chug through a pleasant winding wooded road, without too much in the way of sweeping vistas, which I think is what makes the eventual reveal so impressive.

Loket’s situation, aesthetically as much as any other, could hardly be more idyllic. Over the crest of a hill the town is suddenly displayed below, sticking out from a promontory, the hill top dramatically facing a u-bend along the meandering River Ohre. Loket’s translation ‘Elbow’ makes the most sense from this position.

The medieval castle and arched bridge over the river makes for a most magnificent sight, complimented by the beautiful baroque and bohemian painted houses dotted around it.

After the grand reveal, your clapped out bus (and driver) deposits you near the gate into town, but be sure to take a five minute walk back up the hill to enjoy the view as it develops and the angles change, similar to Cesky Krumlov but on a smaller but perhaps even starker scale.

Loket is dominated by its castle, however, the castle in no way defines the place. You can enjoy a good couple of hours exploring the streets (all of which are interesting in their own ways) wandering back up and down the alley ways and taking in the sights. As with most Czech towns, the Namesti is a good place to start, with the requisite gnarled gothic centre piece, cobbled streets and wholly charming array of traditional townhouses lining the perimeter in a shell-like shape.

The castle itself could hardly be avoided though, and you’ll find it decent value as the museum uses the space of the buildings well, giving you both an idea of its use, plenty of vantage points and exhibits. Don’t forget to look down the cellar for the castle’s pet dragon, one of the more strangely pathetic sights on my last trip.

With the hills and forests around, you will find yourself most enjoying Loket as part of a trek, and luckily there are so many trails that you can tailor this to fit your own needs and limitations. Most of them have a deal of vantage points, and the local environment has a calmness that you’ll find most relaxing. Although the place is small, there’s no reason simply to stay for a day given the natural amenities in the area allow for quite a lot of exploration.

Don’t leave Loket unless you’ve walked the perimeter of the interior and exterior and decided which spot is your favourite!

At some point thoughts inevitably turn to food and drink, and a further feather in Loket’s cap is the brewery Pivovar Svaty Florian, located in the centre of town itself and attached to a hotel. They have a cellar-style Pivnice which is servicable for a trip of this kind, and will pour you a degustation so you can try the various beers. Don’t leave before trying their delicious ‘Special’ beer, a strong concoction similar to a Bock. In addition to this you can order the traditional hearty pub grub to wash it down with.

If you want a more straightforward drinking option try the hospoda U Gardnera, a really no-nonsense locals place that won’t be heaving with tourists and will guarantee you a good beer at a good price.

One slight regret is that a beautiful Victorian chain bridge was destroyed and replaced with the new rather grey one, which although elegant at a distances becomes gradually duller and less impressive as you get closer. There also seems to be a rather unnecessary enormity about it.

Loket_retezovy

There are always regrets, though, such is life.

All things considered, Loket could be half as beautiful as it is currently and still be many times more beautiful than most places. If you aren’t able to visit the extraordinary Czech town Cesky Krumlov on your next visit to the country, but can visit Karlovy Vary, you can come to Loket. Visiting Loket will give you a starter-sized portion for what’s in store. A dramatic gem hidden away in a valley, shrouded with trees as though to cover its modesty, and with an element of romantic timelessness that will stay with you forever.

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Třeboň, Czech Republic

I read recently Czech Republic are considering changing their country name to ‘Czechia‘, the anglicised shortened version of Česko. This is distressing news, partly as I would have to edit my blog posts but also just, urgh. Yes, there are other republics we don’t announce (France for example), but some things just fit, don’t you think? We’d all just got used to Czech Republic. The Czech’s own version Česko, is far better, in my opinion.

Down in the south of Czech Republic, in what feels like the deep end of Czechia’s bosom, lies Třeboň (pronounced more like T-rjjjeb-onnyn, but just say Tshebon because you’ll never get the knack of the r). This is a lakeside town, one of those quintessential lakeside towns that are embarrassed enough by the nearby natural beauty to try and make the human settlement pleasant as well. Not only does Třeboň achieve this, it seems to  reached that point then got carried away, like an artist focused in a tunnel vision of explosive creation with the eventual output being something of almost surprised exquisite beauty, as if it had never intended to reach such lofty heights.

What’s the fuss about? Are those photos not doing it for you? Well, if you don’t enjoy tranquility, beauty, lakes, castles, forests, parks, cobbles with a big brewery attached, maybe look elsewhere. Go for some netflix and chill with a Doritos chilli heatwave packet or palm-slap Chronicles of Riddick into the VHS.

The big thing here, along with the unfettered beauty, diverse flora and fauna is the closeted sandbox feeling of provincial safety, the kind you often get with isolated lakeside towns. This is one of those places where everyone knows each other, and got me thinking of a Czech version of Twin Peaks more than once. It is local life at its most local. Trapped pensioners trapped with trapped teenagers, and a load of fishermen inbetween minding their own business and hoping modern life isn’t on its way any time soon.

The old town is the epicentre of the artists great works, the central square being supernaturally gorgeous, grand yet modest, not even an inch taller or a paintbrush flourish longer than required, as if they found the perfect design and see no need whatsoever to tamper with it then, now and hopefully forever. The surrounding streets with colourful meticulously clean facades and cobbles will briefly take you out of your Czech surroundings into something almost more akin to a Scandinavian fishing village, such is the scrupulous cleanliness and bright painted fronts.

It must be said that the place is really very small and exploring the centre will take no more than an hour. The castle area, parkland and lake, along with the dramatic and faintly eerie Schwarzenberg tomb with romantic carved figures of angels (yet another UNESCO inscription) extends what you can get out of this town and makes it well worth a day and night of your life. There are numerous fish restaurants but I would recommend Bily Jednorozec, which is in all the guide books but the quality of ingredients and standard of cooking here is superior for the Czech Republic and to a loftier standard than the average pub fare, and constitutes a nice break from the roast duck, ghoulash and potato pancakes.

If you can’t spare a day of your life for this place then frankly join poor old Schwarzenberg and get in grave.

In summer the lake transforms into a bit of a playground with the usual watersports activities on offer and reportedly attracts quite a few out-of-towners. However, when I was there all tourist activities were in hibernation. Quite a shame as it was a lovely warm sunny day and I’d like to have at least rented a bike. If this is your thing, please be aware nothing will be going on before May.

You mentioned a brewery. So I did. Bohemia Regent is a reasonably well known regional beer that does export across Europe, including the UK now thanks to JW Lees. It is based and brewed in the centre of town in the original buildings. They do some quite traditional Czech style including one of the most stereotypical dark lagers in central europe, but their brewery also does a delicious yeastier version of the light lager, and a semi-dark lager which is superb. Their brewery tap is open and welcoming even off season and dropping in for a beer seems like the right choice at any time of day. The food is decent but they have no English menus and the staff don’t know English well enough to point out “this dish has liver in”, which is fairly important if you don’t like liver.

It serves an essential purpose as sadly, the nightlife was absent on my visit. I took a trip to the characterful cellar bar U Certa, all upturned barrels, gothic designs and wax flaking off everything, however it was made less atmospheric by the fact no fucker was in there except me. Despite my attempt at conversation the barmaid herself seemed to be happier not saying anything either, so all that was left was to sup an average pint of Svijany (albeit costing hardly anything) then leave.

Matters turned even more desperate when I attempted to visit the other bars she had recommended. One closed at 9 in the evening, the other was a desolate waiting room of death. A preserved in aspic 1980’s era working men’s club, all tables and chairs in perfect order, a games section in the corner occupied by no-one except ghosts. Had it not been for the delicious Kozel on tap. I could not think of a single cheerful thing to say about it. It was that bad I revisited U Certa later on, where thankfully there were actually a few humans there.

How the effing-hell do I get to Třeboň? Not too difficult actually. Despite being nestled in South Bohemia, taking a trip from Prague to Ceske Budejovice and Cesky Krumlov will give you the opportunity to take the half an hour journey from Ceske Budejovice bus station. If you’re arriving from Brno you’ll need to take country roads through Trebic, Telc and on to Trebon. A bus comes and goes four times a day, but turn up early for it as Czech bus drivers seem to think timetables are for pussies.

Telč , Czech Republic

Among the more remarkable human settlements in central Europe, Telč has been carefully sequestered in the rural south of Czech Republic, away from prying eyes and unrequited interests of some who would seek to turn it into a prime tourist destination useful only for squeezing every last coin out of throngs of gawping tourists being led around by tour guides with microphones and flags attached to their necks.

 

None of that here to worry about. Despite the entire town centre’s inscription on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites, you’re as likely to find a cabal of tourists here in the off-season as you are a to find herd of bison singing Sur La Pont. The off-season appears to be every month of the year outside a bit of July and August. Even the Chinese don’t seem to know about it. Enjoy the space and the calm by yourself.

What’s the big fuss?

A mixture of intangible, inexpressible delight. That is the main effect of being in Telc’s central ‘square’ (more of a wedge). Much like the Piazza Del Campo in Siena, some feelings say it better than words ever will. As I have to at least try, I will at least say that there are two rows of beautifully painted unique town-houses with porticos stretching from one end to another. There are fountains, a chateau, and beautiful church. It doesn’t stop there. Surrounded by lakes, Telc is just as pretty from without as it is from within. A parkland stroll provides you with a full glimpse of its beauty. The reason to be here is to experience a place almost entirely given over to delighting the senses.

That’s nice but I bet you can’t get hammered or laid in this dainty little burg. Wrong. While the central square is eerily dark and quiet after 10pm, there are a couple of café bars that remain open. The real action is happening outside the centre, firstly at the noisy rock bar ‘Derby’, then up the road towards the station at the enticingly named ARMAGEDON, which isn’t anything to look at, indeed it’s drab with a capital D, but with friendly chatty locals and English football on the telly, it’s a good place to get a conversation going with some down-to-earth locals. I got home at 2am with a big smile on my face.

I stayed at the homely guesthouse Ubytovani Maja, a short walk from the chateau, where I was greeted by the rotund and jovial owner, speaking not a word of English and about a dozen words in German, yet somehow managed a half-sensible conversation along with several beers, all washed down with slivovitz in the middle of the afternoon. The Czech’s don’t do things by halves. He may have some opinions bordering on fruity but the place was clean, homely, comfortable and quiet. The breakfast is absolutely enormous.

How do I get here then, smart-arse? Start at Prague or Bratislava, then go to Brno. Enjoy Brno, it’s great. Get the train or bus to Trebic. Trebic is a lovely small town west of Brno. Enjoy Trebic for a morning, even stop for lunch. Get an early afternoon bus to Telc, remembering to walk inside the autobus station in Trebic to experience a real-life Life on Mars experience. Is it 1973? Remember to get there early because Czech intercity buses sometimes turn up and leave early. If there’s no-one at the stop the bus will leave even if it’s 15 minutes early – you have been warned!