The Czech Republic is a landlocked country smack bang in the middle of Central Europe, bordered by Germany and Poland to the north and Slovakia and Austria to the east and the south. It’s a country of rolling hills and plains, with lots of forest too – over a third of the country is covered in forest. It’s a country steeped in history, peppered by ornate castles and peopled by beer loving Czech’s. Beer and castles, what a great place!
One of the first questions I ask when coming to a country for the first time is ‘How old is it?’ In the case of the Czech Republic, the answer is very old and yet very young. As a child in the 1980s, I knew the name Czechoslovakia, and for many years after I became confused when I saw a map with the ‘Czech Republic’ written on it. Why did they change their name, I always wondered, from quite a grand sounding one, to something more mundane. The answer of course is in the name. Czechoslovakia was a country that came about in 1918 after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which it had been a part for hundreds of years. The Czech region and Slovakia were joined together to form one country, despite having different cultures and languages.
During World War II, Czechoslovakia was taken over by Nazi Germany. It was liberated in 1945 by the Allies, and in 1946 the Communist Party were democratically elected. Does that sound like an oxymoron? Well so it came to be, for in a 1948 coup d’etat the Communist Party (with Soviet support), took full control of Czechoslovakia and abolished democratic elections. This put the West in a state of panic, and was a major turning point in the start of the Cold War with the adoption of the Marshall Plan and the formations of NATO and West Germany happening soon after. In 1968, the Czech’s grew fed up of Communism and started to move towards reforms. This became known as the Prague Spring. Alas it was not to be. Half a million Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops marched into Czechoslovakia and occupied for it for the next two decades, while the West looked on.
While the Prague Spring was not a success in that it resulted in more direct Soviet control of the country, it was something to be proud of for the country. There wasn’t any military confrontation, but peaceful protest which has to be commended. A lovely example of this non-confrontational resistance is the tactic of painting over road signs or turning them the wrong way. An army from Poland marched into the country, spent a day wandering round lost, and then were routed out of the country by some strategic signpost alterations. How clever is that (of the Czech’s, not the Poles!). Not something that would happen in the modern world of Sat-Nav’s and smartphones.
The peaceable Prague Spring also paved the way for the equally peaceful Velvet Revolution. This started with a student protest in Prague on 17th November 1989. 200,000 protestors grew to half a million within 3 days, and by November 28th, the Communist Party announced it would relinquish power and dismantle the one party state. Democratic elections were held in June the following year, and several years later, ‘Czech’ and Slovakia peacefully went their separate ways. The rest of the world could learn a lot from Czechoslovakia.
I know, I’ve missed out a big chunk of history, barely mentioning anything pre 1918. Unfortunately, there isn’t the time or the space, but suffice to say that for a millennia or more before then, the country was called Bohemia. There are many stories associated with Bohemia, but they are for another time.
Famous People From the Czech Republic
One thing I usually do when researching a country is to look up a list of its most famous citizens, past or present. Invariably this comes up with a long list of people whose accomplishments may be renowned in their own country but who haven’t made it into the consciousness of most other nations. There are however surprisingly quite a few names that I recognise. Arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, Martina Navratilova, is a Czech, albeit aged 18 she defected to the USA (apparently the communist regime told her she was becoming too Americanized and said she should go back to school rather than concentrate on tennis). Navratilova went on to become one of the greatest tennis players of all time, winning countless titles in the 1970s and 1980s and holds many tennis records to this day. Another great tennis player, Ivan Lendl, is also Czech, although he too moved to the US early in his career.
Next we move on from great tennis players to a great composer. Antonin Dvorak was a Czech composer who went on to receive worldwide recognition. In his composing he made use of traditional folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia, and tried in his music to convey the Czech national spirit. His most famous works are the Slavonic Dances and the symphony ‘From the New World’. The Czech Republic has also had its fair share of great writers including Franz Kafka and also Milan Kundera, whose novel ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is about the Prague Spring. Kundera moved into exile to France in 1975, and his books were banned in his own country until the fall of the Communist government.
Before we move on, I wanted to mention a Czech writer you’ve probably never heard of, whose creation will probably live on long beyond any other. Karel Capek, now little known writer, wrote all sorts of works including some science fiction (ever read ‘War of the Newts’? Didn’t think so!). What he did however was introduce the robot…
With respect to the illustrious personages just mentioned, the Czech’s aren’t famous for their people, but they are famed for their beer! According to a report from the Kirin Beer University (yes, there really is a university dedicated to the study of beer), the Czech’s consume more beer per person than any other country on Earth. What’s more, they’ve been top for the last 20 years, ever since they split from Slovakia and became the Czech Republic. Wow, these guys must be serious drinkers! They’ve been drinking beer a lot longer than that however. Brewing was taking place at the Brevnov Monastery in 993, and from the 13th century they were brewing in Pilsen and Budweis (Plzen and Ceske Budejovice to give them their Czech names) which has led today to the immensely popular Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser brands.
Food in the Czech Republic
So the Czech’s have got it all figured when it comes to drinking but what about food? The Czech’s are extremely fond of their soups, and many Czech meals start with soup. Potato soup, garlic soup, dill soup and sauerkraut soup are all popular, and there are all sorts of wonderful combinations – Kyselica for instance is a Wallachian soup made with sour cream, bacon, potatoes, eggs and sausage! For main course, Czech dishes including a beef goulash, fried cheese and the traditional roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut (sauerkraut seems to feature a lot in Czech cuisine). Puddings include Crepes, Honey Cake, Apple Strudel and Fruit Filled Dumplings.
One thing I always find interesting is how Christmas traditions vary between countries, including what the traditional Christmas dinner is. In the Czech Republic, as with a few other European countries, Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, in the evening Czech’s sit down to a starter of Fish Soup, followed by fried Christmas Carp with Potato Salad. So if you are bored of the usual Christmas Turkey, or whatever the traditional Christmas dinner is where you are, you could always try Carp and potato salad!
In the Czech Republic – Karlovy Vary
Now before leaving the Czech Republic – or Czechia as they like to be known these days – I need somewhere to visit, somewhere real. As usual, I go by name – Karlovy Vary – because it doesn’t sound like a place at all. It was named after the Holy Roman Empire, Charles IV, who founded the city in 1350. He’d been staying nearby, organised an expedition into the surrounding forests and found a hot spring which he claimed had great healing powers. The hot springs are the place’s chief draw to this day, with the official website calling it a “Spa town like no other”. They are also the place’s top attraction according to Trip Advisor. The ‘Vridelni kolonada’ or Spring Colonnade is the best place. There is a beautiful colonnade and attractive park to take a walk or relax in, but the waters are what it’s all about. What you do is choose a porcelain mug from the side selection available, then after you have purchased you can go and sample the natural waters. There are several different hot water springs to choose from, temperatures vary but the hottest is about 72 degrees. There’s also a three metre high hot geyser which you can taste the spray from. Opinions vary as to the waters various qualities, with some professing it is good for your health, others saying that it is the nicest water they’ve ever tried, and one reviewer summing up his experience well – “The fun part is picking out a jar but don’t worry about getting a big jar. The water is pretty hard to stomach!”.
Apart from the various colonnades and waters, the other attractions appear to be churches and other historic buildings. Oh and there’s a cat memorial. Yes, it’s a small statue of a cat on a plinth. It gets an average 4.5 stars out of 5 on Trip Advisor. The only English language reviewers appear bemused. It’s just a statue of a cat, it’s not even very big, of interest to cat lovers (maybe)… It must be a Czech thing.
Karlovy Vary By Dudva (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons