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ITINERARIES

Hradcany
Hradcany, the residential area around the west gate of Prague Castle, was made a town in its own right in 1320. Before it became a borough of Prague in 1598 it suffered heavy damage in the Hussite wars, and in the Great Fire of 1541. Nevertheless, the area is an outdoor museum of well-kept antiquities.

Hradcany Námestí has kept its shape since the Middle Ages. At its centre is a column by Ferdinand Brokoff (1726) commemorating Prague's struggle against the plague. Startling Scwartzenburg Palace and other examples of baroque- and rococo-style residences make the area an architecture buff's dream.

A short walk west will bring you to Loretánskí Námestí, created in the 18th century when Cernin Palace (now home to the foreign ministry) was built. The square's main attraction is the Loreta (1626), an extraordinary baroque place of pilgrimage designed to resemble the house of the Virgin Mary. It's surrounded by several lovely chapels and an eye-popping treasury, which features the tasteful Prague Sun, made of solid silver and plenty of gold and inlaid with 6222 diamonds.

Another worthwhile destination in the Hradcany is Strahov Monastery (1140, completed in the 18th century), which features a baroque church where Mozart is said to have tickled the ivories, and the Strahov Library, with its unreal collection of tomes and education-themed frescos. It was a functioning monastery until the communist government closed the doors (and imprisoned most of the monks); monks have been trickling back in over the past few years.

Josefov (Old Jewish Quarter)
This slice of Staré Mesto contains the remains of the once-thriving neighbourhood of Josefov, Prague's former Jewish ghetto.

The half-dozen old synagogues, a ceremonial hall and the powerfully melancholic Old Jewish Cemetery were perversely preserved by Nazi leaders, who declared them to be a 'museum of an extinct race'. Instead, all have survived as a memorial to seven centuries of oppression.

The Old-New Synagogue (1270) is Europe's oldest working synagogue; you step down into it because it predates the raising of Staré Mesto's streets against floods. Men must wear hats (conveniently for sale at the entrance), while women are relegated to an anteroom where they can observe male-only services. It's worth the trouble.

The Pinkas Synagogue (1535) is a handsome place of worship inscribed with the names, birth dates and dates of disappearance of 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian Holocaust victims, while the 1868 Spanish Synagogue, named for its striking Moorish interior, offers an exhibit on Jews in the Czech Republic from emancipation to the present day.

Perhaps the most visceral of Prague's memorials, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Europe's oldest surviving Jewish burial ground, has been a monument to dignity in the face of persecution and suffering since the 15th century. Thousands of crumbling stones from other, long-razed cemeteries are heaped atop as many as 100,000 graves; in contrast are the elaborate bas-relief markers from the 17th and 18th centuries. The oldest marker (1439; now replaced with a replica) is that of Avigdor Karo, a chief rabbi and court poet to Wenceslas IV.

Malá Strana
Malá Strana (the Small Quarter) clusters around the foot of Prague Castle. Most visitors pass through on steep Royal Way, as they climb to the castle, but the narrow side streets of this baroque quarter are worth examining. Almost too picturesque for its own good, the district is now a favourite for movie and commercial sets.

Malá Strana started up in the 8th or 9th centuries as a market settlement, and was chartered in 1257 by Premysl Otakar II. Its castle-front location has long attracted visitors, friends and foes alike: It was all but destroyed in the Hussite wars of 1419. Charming churches and palaces in the area date from the 17th and 18th centuries, with Renaissance facades that were later 'baroquified'.

Along the Royal Way, Nerudova Ulice is the quarter's most architecturally important street. Gems like the House of Two Suns, where poet Jan Neruda penned Tales of the Little Quarter (along with plenty of influential liberal essays and articles), and Bretfield Palace are two great examples of Czech artistry.

Dominating the quarter is St Nicholas Church, not to be confused with the eponymous chapel on Old Town Square. This exquisite building, with its huge green cupola, houses the largest fresco in Europe, Johann Kracker's 1770 Life of St Nicholas.

Also fine for strolling are the grounds of Wallestein Palace, where summer concerts are often held, and quiet Vojan Park, established in 1248.

Old Town Square
The centrepiece of Staré Mesto is the huge 1.7-hectare Old Town Square. It has been Prague's working heart since the 10th century, and hosted its largest market until the beginning of the 20th century. It's surrounded by a maze of alleys and is home to some of Prague's most famous monuments.

Despite the over-the-top commercialism and crowds of tourists swarming the place, it's impossible not to enjoy yourself here - cafes spilling onto the pavement, buskers and performing dogs, and silly horse-drawn beer wagons all conspire to elevate the area from ridiculous to sublime.

It's also a great venue for outdoor concerts, political meetings and other public events. Landislav Saloun's brooding Art Nouveau sculpture of Jan Hus dominates the square the same way the martyr's memory dominates Czech history. It was erected on 6 July, 1915, 500 years after the religious reformer was burned at the stake.

Stroll down the Royal Way to the Vlatava, where the Charles Bridge has endured traffic for 600 years - thanks, legend says, to eggs mixed into the mortar. Monuments and statues of historic importance, dating from 1657 to 1858, provide a dramatic frame for views up and down the river. Don't get completely caught up in the crush of beauty and tourists, however; pickpockets work the bridge day and night.

Petrin Hill
This 318m (1043ft) hill is topped with a network of eight parks, comprising one of Prague's largest green spaces. It's great for cool, quiet walks and postcard-perfect views of the 'City of 100 Spires.' Once upon a time, the hill was draped with vineyards, and you can still see the quarry that provided stone for most of Prague's Romanesque and Gothic buildings.

You can tone your thigh muscles hiking up from Hradcany or Strahov, or take the funicular railway for the same price as a tram ride. Just south of the cable-car terminus is Stefanik Observatory, where anyone can enjoy an enhanced view of a clear and starry night.

North of the terminus on the summit is Petrin Tower, a 62m (203ft) copy of the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1891 Prague Exposition. You can climb its 299 steps for a small fee. On a clear day, you'll be able to take in sublime views of the central Bohemian woodlands.

Prague Castle
With a magnificent cliff-top outlook, a 1000-year-old history going back to a simple walled-in compound in the 9th century, and a breathtaking scale that qualifies it as the biggest ancient castle in the world, Prague Castle is the indisputable centrepiece of the Czech capital. Spend at least half a day in awe here.

Prague Castle (Pražský Hrad, or just Hrad to the Czechs) claims its 'largest' title by the following figures - 570m long, an average of 128m wide and occupying 7.28 hectares. As the most popular tourist attraction in Prague, at least there's plenty of room to spread out.

The castle has been the seat of Czech government since Prince Borivoj founded the first fortified settlement here in the 9th century, though president Václav Havel chose to live in his smaller (and less touristed) home on the outskirts of the city.

Some of the complex's highlights, like the Spanish Hall and Rudolf Gallery, are only open one Saturday a year (usually in early May). The rest of the castle's collection of architectural and artistic marvels, created over the course of the last millennium, is on exhibit.


Off the Beaten Track

Karlstejn Castle
Karlstejn Castle is unquestionably the most photogenic castle in the Prague region. It's also the most visited castle in the Czech Republic - get there early to beat the busloads of tourists angling for that postcard-perfect snap.

The castle was founded by Charles IV as a royal hideaway and a treasury for the crown jewels and various holy relics. Perched on a scenic crag above the Berounka River, its 19th-century remodelling job did nothing to compromise the handsome facade. Top drawcards include the audience hall and imperial bedroom, in the south-facing palace; Marian Tower, with Charles' private quarters and remnants of the lovely frescoes that adorned Charles' private St Catherine Chapel; and the Great Tower, where royal regalia was once kept. The heart of the complex is the lavish Chapel of the Holy Cross, with more golden gilt, semiprecious stones and priceless panels by famed painter Master Theodoric than you can shake a scepter at.

Nearby is the Karlstejn Wax Museum, focusing on merchants from the Middle Ages, and the Museum of Nativity Scenes, featuring the baby Jesus rendered in everything from sheet metal to sugar.

Konopiste
This 14th-century, French-style chateau, about 2km (1.2mi) from the town of Benesov, and an hour-long scenic train trek from Prague, was once owned by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Though he's best known for being assassinated by the Black Hand (the repercussions of which included World War I), it's Franz's trophy collection that brings in the crowds.

The archduke was an obsessive hunter, as you'll learn on any of three guided tours through the wood-paneled palace. Stuffed animals both local and exotic, preserved in their entirety or as heads staring blankly from just about every wall in the place, make this a taxidermist's dream vacation spot.

If that's not enough, go around to the back of the chateau to take in the archduke's St George fetish: scores of paintings, sculptures and other representations of the mythical dragon-slayer (what you see here is only about a tenth of the hoard).

Kutna Hora
It's hard to imagine today, but in its time this town about 65km southeast of Prague was Bohemia's most important after Prague. This was due to the rich veins of silver below the town itself, and the silver groschen minted here was the hard currency of central Europe at the time. Today the town is a fraction of its old self, but is still dressed up in enough magnificent architectural monuments for it to have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996. With a pastel-hued square dotted with cafés, medieval alleys with facades from Gothic to Cubist, and a cathedral to rival St Vitus, comparisons with Prague are hard to resist. Kutna Hora is certainly as densely picturesque as Prague, and blessed with warmer people and lower prices.

The historical centre is compact enough to see on foot. Those who need their dose of 'culture' will have no trouble finding their cravings fulfilled by the fascinating sights on offer. For a truly macabre sight, there is a cemetery at Sedlec with a Gothic ossuary decorated with the bones of some 40,000 people. For some beautiful religious architecture minus bones, visit the Gothic Church of Our Lady, the St James Church, the 17th-century former Jesuit College, which has Baroque sculpture in front of it, the Cathedral of St Barbara and the Ursuline Convent, which houses an exhibition of antiques. If you are interested in the town's mining history, visit the Hradek Mining Museum and the medieval mine shafts.

Pruhonice
This attractive village, about 15 minutes by metro from central Prague, features the usual parcel of adorable restaurants, shops and other tourist detritus perfect for browsing with your mother-in-law. The real draw, however, is the photogenic 13th-century chateau now occupied by the Czech Academy of Sciences.

The chateau was restored at the end of the 19th century, and the artists and architects in charge of the project only enhanced the regal mix of neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance styles that make this among the finest such buildings in Europe. Next door, the small Church of the Birth of Our Lady, consecrated in 1187, still has some 14th-century frescoes visible. It's open for Sunday Mass at 5pm.

Surrounding these picturesque edifices is a 250-hectare (618-acre) landscaped park, now a state botanical garden, that is the best in the Czech Republic. On weekends it's packed with Czech families, but on a drizzly weekday morning you could have the exotic gardens, sweet-smelling woods and three artificial lakes literally to yourself. In May, rhododendrons bloom in rainbows.



Museums addresses

The Czech Museum of Fine Arts Husova 19-21, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2222 0218
Prague City Gallery Mickiewicova 3, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 3332 1200
Gallery Krizovniku Køižovnické nám. 3, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2110 8226
Bilkova Vila Mickiewicova 3, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2432 2021
House U Zlateho Prstenu Týnská 6, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2482 7022
Troja Castle U trojského zámku 1, Prague 7 phone: (+4202) 689 0761
Hrdlickovo Museum UK Vinièná 7, Prague 2 phone: (+4202) 2195 3214
Museum of Army U Památníku 2, Prague 3 phone: (+4202) 2020 4926
Museum of Fly Kbely Mladoboleslavská ul., Prague 9 phone: (+4202) 2020 7504
Army Historical Museum Hradèanské námìstí 2, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 53 6488
Vax Museum - Palace Rapid ul.28.øíjna, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2419 5203
Museum of W.A. Mozart And Duskovi Family Mozartova 169, Prague 5 phone: (+4202) 54 3893
Mucha Museum - Kaunicky Palace Panská 7, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 628 4162
Prague City Museum Na Poøíèí 52, Prague 8 phone: (+4202) 2481 6772
Toy Museum Jiøská 4, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2437 2294
Marionette Museum Karlova 12, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 26 9383
Museum MHD Patoèkova 4, Prague 6 phone: (+4202) 32 5776
Police Museum Ke Karlovu 453/1, Prague 2 phone: (+4202) 29 8940
Museum of Baby Jesus Karmelitská 9, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 5731 6780
National Museum Václavské Námìstí 68, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2449 7111
National Technical Museum Kostelní 42, Prague 7 phone: (+4202) 2039 9111
National Gallery - Modern Art Dukelských hrdinù 47, Prague 7 phone: (+4202) 2430 1024
National Gallery - Old Czech Art Jiøské námìstí 33, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 5732 0536
Lapidarium of National Museum Výstavištì 422, Prague 7 phone: (+4202) 37 3198
Lobkovicz Palace Jiøská 3, Prague 3 phone: (+4202) 53 7306
Bedrich Smetana Museum Novotného lávka 1, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2222 0082
Antonin Dvorak Museum Ke Karlovu 20, Prague 2 phone: (+4202) 29 8214
Naprstek Museum Betlémské námìstí 1, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2222 1416
The Museum of Czech Literature Strahovské nádvoøí 1, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2051 6695
Beer Museum U Fleku Køemencova 9, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2491 5118
Post Museum Nové mlýny 2, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 231 2006
Prague Panoptikum Národní 25, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2108 5318
The Picture Gallery of Prague Castle Prague Castle, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2437 3368
Strahov Monastery Strahovské nádv. 1/132, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2051 6671
Prague Jewish Museum Jáchymova 3, Prague 1 phone: (+4202) 2481 0099


Other Czech Republic Attractions

Karlovy Vary
World famous for its regenerative waters, Karlovy Vary is the oldest of the Bohemian spas. In spite of its purging qualities, it still manages a definite Victorian air. The elegant colonnades and boulevards complement the many peaceful walks in the surrounding parks, and the picturesque river valley winds between wooded hills.

Krivoklat
Krivoklat is a drowsy village beside the Rakovnicky potok, a tributary of the Berounka River. Half the pleasure of going to Krivoklat is getting there - by train up the wooded Berounka valley, dotted with bungalows and hemmed in by limestone bluffs. Krivoklat Castle was built in the late 13th century as a royal hunting lodge, and contains an exemplary late-Gothic chapel, impressive halls and the requisite prison and torture chambers. There's no hunting in Krivoklat anymore, as much of the upper Berounka basin, one of Bohemia's most pristine forests, is now the Krivoklat Protected Landscape Region and a UNESCO 'biosphere preservation' area.

If you've got the gear and an extra day or two, consider a hearty walk along the 18km trail up the Berounka valley to Skryje. Along the way you'll pass the Nezabudice Cliffs (part of a nature reserve), the village of Nezabudice and Tyrov, a 13th-century French-style castle used for a time as a prison and abandoned in the 16th century. The summer resort of Skryje has some old thatched houses. You can also walk down the other side of the valley for a closer look at Tyrov.

Moravian Karst
If it's picture-postcard views you're after, the Moravian Karst is a beautiful heavily-wooded hilly area north of Brno, carved with canyons and honeycombed with some 400 caves, created by the underground Punkva River. Traces of prehistoric humans have been found in the caves.

Moravské Slovácko Region
This region is one of central Europe's richest repositories of traditional folk culture and one of the most delightful places to stay in the republic. The region's special flavour arises not only from a mild climate but also from the character and temperament of the people - friendly, easy-going and full of life.

Kutna Hora
It's hard to imagine today, but in its time this town about 65km southeast of Prague was Bohemia's most important after Prague. This was due to the rich veins of silver below the town itself, and the silver groschen minted here was the hard currency of central Europe at the time. Today the town is a fraction of its old self, but is still dressed up in enough magnificent architectural monuments for it to have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List in 1996. With a pastel-hued square dotted with cafés, medieval alleys with facades from Gothic to Cubist, and a cathedral to rival St Vitus, comparisons with Prague are hard to resist. Kutna Hora is certainly as densely picturesque as Prague, and blessed with warmer people and lower prices.

The historical centre is compact enough to see on foot. Those who need their dose of 'culture' will have no trouble finding their cravings fulfilled by the fascinating sights on offer. For a truly macabre sight, there is a cemetery at Sedlec with a Gothic ossuary decorated with the bones of some 40,000 people. For some beautiful religious architecture minus bones, visit the Gothic Church of Our Lady, the St James Church, the 17th-century former Jesuit College, which has Baroque sculpture in front of it, the Cathedral of St Barbara and the Ursuline Convent, which houses an exhibition of antiques. If you are interested in the town's mining history, visit the Hradek Mining Museum and the medieval mine shafts.

Mikulov
Picturesque but totally underrated, Mikulov and its castle sit precariously on a hill in the centre of the flat wine-growing region of Palava, a UNESCO-designated biospheric reservation. One of South Moravia's highlights, Mikulov has some very impressive monuments, but it should come as no surprise that Mikulov is most popular for its excellent white wines. It's very close to the border with Austria and is a perfect stop-off to or from Vienna.

The castle, perched over the west side of the town, has been painstakingly restored after being burned by the Germans in WWII. The museum includes local archaeology and natural history, paintings and weapons, but the best displays are on regional folk traditions and wine making. In the cellar is the largest wine barrel in central Europe. Mikulov used to have a strong Jewish community and still has a synagogue, though it was damaged during WWII and neglected during Communist rule. There's also a 15th-century Jewish Cemetery. The town's main square has many Renaissance and Baroque houses and churches to linger over, including the town hall, the graffitoed Canon's Houses and the Dietrichstein Family Vault. Hiking enthusiasts will enjoy the good walks in the surrounding hills, with ruined castles and superb views of the Mikulov area.

Telc
This charming 13th-century town in South Moravia was originally founded as a settlement around a Romanesque church. During its rule by the lords of Hradec, from 1339 until the end of their line in 1604, a castle and ponds were built, and after a huge fire in 1530 most of the town's houses were rebuilt in Renaissance style. This architectural unity probably contributed to UNESCO's decision to add the little town to its world heritage list.

Dominating the centre of town are the Renaissance castle, the towers of St James Church and the Baroque Holy Name of Jesus Church. Among the square's charming Renaissance houses, don't miss the town's smallest house in the south-east corner, an object lesson in the use of space. Heading north out of the square is a narrow lane to the old town's Small Gate. Southwards down towards the Great Gate is the imposing Romanesque Church of the Holy Spirit, dating from the early 13th century.

Zlata Koruna
At little Zlata Koruna (Gold Crown) above the Vltava you'll find one of the country's best preserved Gothic structures - a Cistercian Monastery, founded in 1263 by Premysl Otakar II to demonstrate his power in the region. The village's main square is actually built inside the monastery. Originally called the Saintly Crown of Thorns, in later wealthier days the monastery was renamed the Gold Crown (hence the town's name). In 1420 it was damaged by the Hussites, and later restored. The Monastery Cathedral, completed at the end of the 13th century, is clearly Gothic despite its facelift.

For literary types, the mostly Gothic frescoed walled complex also houses a Museum of South Bohemian Literature, but equally interesting is the oldest part of the monastery, the vaulted chapterhouse and the Gothic church.

Ceský Krumlov
Ceský Krumlov is one of Bohemia's most beautiful towns, with a well-preserved historical centre that is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The city's castle is the second largest in the Czech Republic, after Prague Castle, and it dominates the town from a hill overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Vltava river.

The town's traffic-free historic centre is a magic area of narrow cobbled streets lined with Renaissance and Baroque facades. Half the townspeople dress in Renaissance costume to welcome the summer solstice with a procession, street theatre, mock duels and chess matches played with human pieces.

Šumava
For large, tranquil forests, largely unpolluted and undamaged by acid rain, you can't go past the Šumava Mountains, which stretch along the border with Austria and Germany. The only wildlife left behind by past hunting are birds, though deer have been re-introduced. Wildflowers abound throughout the range.



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