Prague is perhaps deservedly the main pull for tourists visiting Czechia (formerly the Czech Republic). Its mind-boggling, brightly-colored buildings and intricate history make for several weeks’-worth of visiting. But to escape the throngs of people and to see lesser-known places, Czechia has a myriad of equally fascinating sites to visit within an hour or so of Prague. And when you have a Czech sister-in-law to show you around, you have a chance to go fully Bohemian!
The second most-visited castle in Czechia (after Prague Castle), Karštejn has a unique and thrilling history. Perched above the Beroun River, its Great Tower is 200-feet high and dominates the otherwise hilly skyline. To reach the castle, there is a 30-minute walk up a lane lined with tourist shops and restaurants which becomes more narrow and steeper as you advance to the top. Reaching the entrance involves steps, but also breath-taking views.
The castle was founded by Charles IV, who was crowned King of Bohemia in 1347 and was one of the most dominant rulers in the Middle Ages. The world-famous Charles Bridge in Prague was built by (and is named after) him, but Karlštejn bore particular importance as it became the centre of the Holy Roman Empire when it was used as a safe depository for the Empire’s imperial insignia.
We booked an English-speaking tour and were soon hearing stories of the king’s four wives–their portraits are hung in the Courtier’s Hall. The king’s knights each had cupboards personalized with their own coat of arms in the Hall of Knights right next door.
You can see some of Charles’ skill in human psychology in the beautifully wood-panelled Audience Hall. He purposefully positioned his throne to face away from the windows so that he had the benefit of seeing his guests clearly while his own face stayed in the shadows.
The village of Chrustenice is about an hour and a half from Prague and is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place. There were 10 of us in our tour group and the information was only given in Czech, although they do provide English guide sheets. It only lasts an hour, but that one hour can get quite cold: we had been forewarned to dress well as temperatures drop to eight degrees Fahrenheit very quickly once you enter the mine.
We all had to wear hard helmets and were advised that if we had issues with claustrophobia or a fear of the dark, it might be better to wait outside. Younger children are discouraged from taking the tour since once you descend into the mine, you are in and turning around is not an option. Having said that, my four-year-old niece loved it and was allowed to join the tour thanks to her mother’s insistence!
Mining in this area goes back to the year four BC. The Boii tribe’s furnaces and iron products were discovered in the 20th century in these mines. The word bohemia comes from the Latin name for the tribe, Boiohemum. While the first gallery was constructed in 1861, the mining business really kicked off in the early 19th century.
Visitors get a real feel for the life of a miner in the dark chambers and tunnels in this now-defunct mine. However, sight is not the only sense that will be tested if you choose to visit. Miners had to manually dig out the chambers and we were given a demonstration on how a hole had to be dug out with a pneumatic drill. This created an unbelievable noise as the sound reverberated off the tunnel walls. The miners would then put explosives into the holes and the detonation helped expose more iron ore. (This wasn’t part of our demonstration!)
To show us the lack of light available to horses and miners, the guide switched off the light bulbs and lit a birthday cake candle — meaning there was almost no light at all. Horses were used in the mine to pull the heavy wagons closer to the surface, but they were terrified of the dark and the frequent switches from daylight to almost pitch black.
The trip back out of the mine was on a genuine miners’ train and built for one man per seat. It rattled us to the end of the tour in almost total darkness and back to out the warm air outside. The tour lasts an hour and you are waved off with the miners’ words of “Zdař Bůh,” meaning “May God give you speed.”
Kladruby Stud Farm
I almost abandoned my regular life forever to this place in the village of Kladruby nad Labem! It’s a full day out to complete four short, but separate tours including the house, the village, the stables, and the carriage barn. All the buildings are painted a soft, mint green with large open spaces in between. It feels very grand and from another age entirely. It is one of the oldest stud farms in the world and has now landed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Currently managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the stud farm was once owned and run by the Habsburg family for over 350 years. Although the first written record of the house dates back to 1540, the castle was built around the remains of an older fortress. The tour of the house highlights the fascinating quirks of Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife, Sissi, who were frequent residents here.
There is a discreet sophistication to the interior, adorned with paintings of horses. This includes portraits in the Registry Room, where the cultural and historical importance of the Kladruber horses and their breeding was rigorously noted (and is still to this day in a registry book of over 15,000 pages). The dining room displays china made at the world-famous Březová porcelain factory, where pieces were manufactured for the ill-fated Titanic.
The Church of St. Wenceslas and St. Leopold is still used regularly for mass by local villagers and is directly connected to the main house by an oratory designed for the use of the imperial family when they stayed at Kladruby. Our village tour included a visit to the saddle maker, where the smell of leather and leather oil brought flashbacks of a pony-filled childhood for me. Saddles, bridles, and other leather harnesses are all hand-stitched or made by using foot-powered sewing machines. We went on a carriage tour of the village – albeit a virtual one on a static carriage wearing virtual reality goggles.
The stables are the equivalent for horses of a five-star hotel. Rows of stalls face each other in immaculately-kept barns with stallions in one barn and mares in another. Each stall has the horse’s name, date of birth, and the names of its parents. The indoor riding school is lit by an enormous chandelier.
This is Czechia’s only National Stud Farm and area where breeders raise the country’s oldest breed, the Kladruber. The stables focus on the breeding of the Old Kladruby Whites, which have been listed as part of the country’s living national heritage. (The black Kladrubers are bred in another location near Chrudim.) These horses are used by the royal courts of both Denmark and Sweden. We watched on as a regal pair were put through their paces leading a carriage.
Finally, we visited the coach house, which stores a beautiful display of carriages and sleds. The collection includes carriage owned by the Archdiocese of Prague, and was used for key ceremonial purposes such as transporting the archbishop for his inauguration. Gloriously garish, it resembles something Cinderella would have been swept away in. Next door, the Livery Room displays ceremonial uniforms and harnesses, and upstairs provides a history of the stud farm.
Rafting down the Berounka River
One thing guaranteed to keep everyone entertained on a hot day is river rafting! We deposited the car at the end point of our trip downstream and took the train to Beroun to equip ourselves out with rafting paraphernalia. Beroun is a pretty little town which sits on the Berounka River, about an hour southwest of Prague.
The crew – four adults and five children – jumped aboard the raft to start the eight-mile trip to Zadní Třebaň. It was a relaxing way to spend a day. Sometimes we hopped out and pulled the raft down the river when the water was too shallow, taking turns paddling and discussing the best strategies to row down the tiny weirs.
There was also an opportunity for barefoot rock climbing at Kozel-Alkazar and a lunch stop at Srbsko. Czech staples like chicken schnitzel, deep-fried cheese, blueberry dumplings, and Kofola (a Czech version of coke) provided us with the energy required to convince the children on the trip to row the rest of the way. We celebrated our arrival with a Pilsner Urquell, a beer which is brewed just upstream, in Plzeň.
The Caves at Koněprusy
Another fascinating tour worth booking is one to the Koněprusy Caves, which are about six miles from Beroun in the Czech Karst Nature Reserve. The caves were rediscovered in the 1950s, but were formed from Devonian limestone over 400 million years ago.
They weave through the underground darkness for more than one mile to a depth of 229 feet. However, you won’t go down to the very bottom on the tour. It reaches a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit and although the surrounding area is dark, the route is well lit.
The tour is in Czech, but English notes are provided. There are some stunning formations to see, especially in the Prosek’s Dome. Koněprusy “roses” decorate the walls of the cave and are estimated to be 1.5 million years old. Legend has it that thieves made counterfeit money in the caves in the 15th century. The forgers gained access to their workshop down below through a naturally-formed chimney that allowed them to reach ground level.
Replicas of animal bones that fell into the caves throughout the centuries can also be viewed. The real bones are located in the National Museum in Prague and date back to 600,000 years ago. They include a deer, an ape, and a rhinoceros.
My sister-in-law’s parents live in the pretty town right near Švihov Castle. Originally built in the 15th century, it was well-protected by not one, but two moats. Only part of one of remains today, and is home to a friendly, 14-member family of coypu.
A huge courtyard makes up the central part of this semi-artificial island. You enter the castle itself through a gate in the tower. The tour is in Czech, but the guides all seem to speak English.
The Chapel of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary has an amusing story behind a protruding stone on the back wall. It has a little hole in it and this bulge represents a chubby friar’s bottom. The superstition is that if you put your finger into the little “hole” and make a wish, good things will come to you. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a church!
Klatovy Town and Catacombs
Klatovy dates back to the 13th century, and is now a bustling hive of activity both for locals and tourists. During World War II, Klatovy was the central point for the local resistance. Parts of the town were destroyed by bombing in 1945. We admired the Black Tower, which was completed in 1555. We also made the effort to climb the 226 steps up for the view at the top, where once a bugler announced the time to the surrounding area.
The catacombs are just next door under the Jesuit church, a slightly spooky but immaculate crypt completed in 1676. It was used to bury the Jesuit priests working in the order, but also for local dignitaries, as well. Over the years, around 200 people were buried here and the bodies went through a natural mummification process. Unfortunately, the ventilation system was damaged in the 20th century, and only 38 mummified bodies survived. These can still be viewed within their specially-ventilated, glass coffins.
The exhibition also includes religious artifacts and a history of the Baroque Jesuit era. Information on the mummification process is also available for those who are looking for a detailed guide.
What are your favorite sights in Czechia other than Prague?