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April 24th, 2023

The Czech Republic also known as Czechia, is a landlocked country in Central Europe. Historically known as Bohemia, it is bordered by Austria to the south, Germany to the west, Poland to the northeast, and Slovakia to the southeast. The Czech Republic has a hilly landscape that covers an area of 78,871 sq km / 30,452 sq mi with a mostly temperate continental and oceanic climate. It’s slightly smaller than Austria and the state of South Carolina.  The capital and largest city is Prague.

The Duchy of Bohemia was founded in the late 9th century under Great Moravia. It was formally recognized as an Imperial State of the Holy Roman Empire in 1002 and became a kingdom in 1198. Following the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the whole Crown of Bohemia was gradually integrated into the Habsburg monarchy. The Protestant Bohemian Revolt led to the Thirty Years’ War. After the Battle of White Mountain, the Habsburgs consolidated their rule. With the dissolution of the Holy Empire in 1806, the Crown lands became part of the Austrian Empire.

In the 19th century, the Czech lands became more industrialized, and in 1918 most of it became part of the First Czechoslovak Republic following the collapse of Austria-Hungary after WW I.  Czechoslovakia was the only country in Central and Eastern Europe to remain a parliamentary democracy during the entirety of the interwar period. After the Munich Agreement in 1938, Nazi Germany  systematically took control over the Czech lands. Czechoslovakia was restored in 1945 and three years later became an Eastern Bloc communist state following a coup d’état in 1948. Attempts to liberalize the government and economy were suppressed by a Soviet-led invasion of the country during  the Prague Spring in 1968. In November 1989, the Velvet Revolution ended communist rule in the country and restored democracy. On  December 31st, 1992, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved, with its constituent states becoming the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Czech Republic is a unitary parliamentary republic.  It is a welfare state with a European social model, universal health care and free-tuition university education. The Czech Republic is a member of the UN, NATO, the EU and more. It became a participate in the Schengen region in 2007.

The white, red, and blue colors of the flag are both symbolic and historic. White (or silver) is the traditional color of Bohemia and represents the sky. Moravia is symbolized by the color red which also represents the blood shed for the freedom of the state. Blue is the traditional colour of Slovakia.

Diesel price:  33.5 KC  or €1.40 per litre which is about $5.80 USD  per gallon

Currency: The Czech Koruna (crowns) – CZK; 1 KC is about $0.047 USD and $0.064 CAD

EU License plate letter:  CZ

Beer: Pilsener Urquell – the Czechs are famous for their beer!

On our drive to the border, Fran learned that we could purchase a vignette for the toll roads in Czechia but it didn’t seem to want to let her purchase one online.  We had already planned to stop at the first gas station since gas is cheaper here than in both Germany and Austria, so we hoped we could get one there.  The lady inside did not speak English other than to say “online”, so Fran walked around the little area there with no luck.  Once we got on a Czech cell signal through EE, she got online and on a different website was able to purchase the vignette – It cost €12.50 for ten days.

We did get diesel and it’s the cheapest we’ve had since Turkey!  (see above)

We had reviewed all the possible sites to see in this country and have narrowed it down to three places.  The first was a ways away so we had some miles to cover.  Seeing how it was a wet day, it was a good day to push on.

The countryside was pretty green (and wet!) but some trees were still in budding mode.  The roads (being non toll as it was way shorter) were not in the greatest shape in some places but nothing horrific. The farmer’s fields were being readied for planting.  The countryside is quite hilly and there are lots of tiny and small villages and there is evidence of logging being carried out.  We’re up at 49.9º north now.

In the early afternoon, the rain began to slow down and by the time we arrived in Kutna Hora it had stopped.  We came here to see the “bone church”.

The Sedlec Ossuary  is a Roman Catholic chapel, located beneath the Cemetery Church of All Saints, part of the former Sedlec Abbey in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic. The ossuary is estimated to contain the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have, in many cases, been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel. The ossuary is among the most visited tourist attractions of the Czech Republic, attracting over 200,000 visitors annually.

In 1278, Henry, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Sedlec, was sent to the Holy Land by King Ottokar II of Bohemia. He returned with a small amount of earth he had removed from Golgotha and sprinkled it over the abbey cemetery. The word of this pious act soon spread and the cemetery in Sedlec became a desirable burial site throughout Central Europe.

In 1318 the city suffered a famine, then in thirty years late during the Black Death, 60,000 residents died; in the Hussite Wars in the early 15th century, another ten thousand were buried in the abbey cemetery, so it had to be greatly enlarged. Around 1400, a Gothic church was built in the center of the cemetery with a vaulted upper level and a lower chapel to be used as an ossuary for the mass graves unearthed during construction, or simply slated for demolition to make room for new burials.

After 1511, the task of exhuming skeletons and stacking their bones in the chapel was given to a half-blind monk of the order.  In 1870, František Rint, a woodcarver, was employed by the Schwarzenberg family to put the bone heaps into order, yielding a macabre result.  

Four pyramid shaped mounds occupy the corners of the chapel. A chandelier of bones, which contains at least one of every bone in the human body, hangs from the center of the nave with garlands of skulls draping the vault. Other works include a coat of arms of the House of Schwarzenberg.

Along with Sedlec Abbey and the rest of the Kutná Hora city centre, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, because of its unique Baroque architecture.

The message of the bone decorations is “memento mori  – remember that you will die”.

Photographs are not allowed inside the chapel so here are some shots of photos that were displayed upstairs:

And from Google:

One of the four pyramids

As we’d done nearly 400 km / 250 mi today, with no tunnels, we called it a day and parked outside an aqua/sports centre for the night.  We went in search of an ATM to get some Korunas and some fresh bread before settling in.

It rained a little over the course of the night and by morning it looked like a better day.  Upon leaving we went to get groceries and then drove about 85 km / 52 mi into the city of Prague, hitting some rush hour traffic at 9:30 in the morning.  We are now at about 50º north – similar to Vancouver, Canada.

Fran had found little in the way of cheap overnight parking so we opted for one of the three campgrounds in the city – a rarity!  PragueCamp offers power, water, showers, toilets, wifi and a washer and dryer (extra fee) and it’s on an island in the Vltava River south of the main part of the city.  There is access to the left bank via tram up to the castle and to get to the right bank from the island, there’s a passenger ferry.  Public transport for seniors is free!

We got parked and Doug hooked up the power and we walked over to jump on the tram to the castle and tour the left bank.  The weather was damp feeling and rain threatened most of the morning and it actually more than sprinkled before we stopped for lunch.

We visited the “Lennon Wall” which is considered a symbol of peace, love and freedeom and also walked by the Lennon Wall Pub.  The wall is constantly changing and has been painted over many times through the years.

Why is it called a Lennon Wall?  After John Lennon’s death on the 8th of December 1980, a young Czech artist made a graffiti dedicated to John Lennon on this wall. More people supported this initiative and the plain white wall turned rainbow with quotes of John Lennon’s songs and wishes for world peace.  The wall reflects the lower end of street art and the higher end of graffiti.

We stopped at the church that houses the Prague Infant Jesus only to discover a mass was in progress so we decided to come back later.

Walking towards the castle next to see the changing of the guard, we passed the “kolo Velkoprevorskeho mlyna” artwork:

Prague Castle is not just a castle but a castle complex built in the 9th century. Since 1918 it has been the official office of the President of the Czech Republic. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in World War II, Prague Castle became the headquarters of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. According to a popular rumor, he is said to have placed the Bohemian crown on his head; old legends say a usurper who places the crown on his head is doomed to die within a year. Less than a year after assuming power, on May 27, 1942, Heydrich was ambushed during Operation Anthropoid, by British-trained Slovak and Czech resistance soldiers while on his way to the Castle, and died of his wounds, which became infected, a week later. 

 The castle was a seat of power for kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept within a hidden room inside it.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world, occupying an area of almost 70,000 square metres / 750,000 square feet, at about 570 m / 1,870’ in length and an average of about 130 m 430’ wide.

It is so big, is so spread out and has so many buildings within it (palaces, offices, museums, churches etc) photographs cannot do it any justice.

Here are a few shots of various buildings etc.: 

The huge St. Vitus cathedral is on the same grounds as well.

It is a Roman Catholic metropolitan cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. Until 1997, the cathedral was dedicated only to Saint Vitus, and is still commonly named only as St. Vitus Cathedral.

This cathedral is a prominent example of Gothic architecture, and is the largest and most important church in the country. Located within Prague Castle and containing the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the cathedral is under the ownership of the Czech government as part of the Prague Castle complex. The current cathedral is the third of a series of religious buildings at the site, all dedicated to St. Vitus.

(we didn’t go inside).

We were there in time to see the changing of the guard at noon.  This video is longer than our usual ones so feel free to fast forward as the action is slow!

After that it began to rain and it was so damp and cold!  We looked for a place to get warm and have some lunch.  Doug ordered beef goulash:

And Fran tried Czech fried cheese:

We enjoyed our dishes and asked for tartufo for dessert but they did not have any so we paid the bill and left.

We walked back and went into the Our Lady Victorius church where mass was over and we saw the Infant Baby Jesus.

This is the cabinet the Baby Jesus is kept in:

And here’s a shot of just the Infant from Google: 

The church is quite gilded inside.

While eating we had decided that walking around in the dampness (although it stopped raining by now) was not enjoyable and since it looked drier but not much warmer tomorrow, we opted to go “home” and head out again tomorrow as we have time to spend a second night.

Doug went to look for a haircut while Fran went back.  Upon returning she went for a shower and when Doug returned he found out we could use the washer and dryer for a very small fee so Fran did two loads of laundry as the machine is not that big.  The sun poked out a few times in the afternoon and that helped dry the clothes she hung up outside that can’t go in the dryer.

Next morning, Doug went over to return the laundry room key and it seems the camping price was higher than expected and they charged extra for power.  After discussing it with the young man, he didn’t charge for power and Doug thinks he ended up not paying for laundry so the $31 a night was not so hard to take.  You do have to consider we are right in a capital city with full services, so really it’s not horrific.

We caught the tram back into town today as the ferry requires change in crowns and we didn’t have much.  Today we were going to take in the sites on the right bank of the river, the main part of the downtown area.

In order to get there we had to cross the famous pedestrian Charles Bridge but before getting there we stopped in a McDonald’s to use the bathroom and decided to get some McMuffins in order to use the facilities;  turned out even if you purchase food, you have to pay!  (We have been to some places in Europe where their bathrooms require a code but you are given that code on your receipt when you order.) However upon checking it out, Fran crawled under the kids bar and Doug managed to get past the turnstile.

Afterwards, right before crossing the bridge we saw a little shop making a sort of chimney cake:

They looked quite good so we decided to share one:

It’s called a trdlo and we got the apple and cinnamon one without cream – yummy!

At the entrance to the bridge is the Lesser Town Bridge Tower:

And then we went across checking out some of  the many statues that line the bridge:

The Vltava river is flowing quite high:

The weather today is dry but still rather cool – barely reached double digits C / 50 F and the sun came out some but not nearly enough for us.  We wished we had gloves/scarf/toque at times.

On the other side of the bridge is the Old Town Bridge Tower:

And there was building on the other side with a great banner:

Now the nice looking buildings of the city began and the “eye candy” continue all morning.

The symphony hall:

An apartment building:

We wandered around the Old Jewish Quarter a bit:

Josefov is a town quarter and the smallest cadastral area of Prague, formerly the Jewish ghetto of the town. It is surrounded by the Old Town.   Jews are believed to have settled in Prague as early as the 10th century. The first pogrom was in 1096 (the first crusade) and eventually they were concentrated within a walled Ghetto. In 1262, Přemysl Otakar II issued a Statuta Judaeorum which granted the community a degree of self-administration. In 1389, one of the worst pogroms saw some 1,500 massacred on Easter Sunday. The ghetto was most prosperous towards the end of the 16th century when the Jewish Mayor, Mordecai Maisel, became the Minister of Finance and a very wealthy man. His money helped develop the ghetto.

In 1850, the quarter was renamed “Josefstadt” (Joseph’s City) after Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor who emancipated Jews with the Toleration Edict in 1781. Two years before Jews were allowed to settle outside of the city, so the share of the Jewish population in Josefov decreased, while only Orthodox and poor Jews remained living there.  Most of the quarter was demolished between 1893 and 1913 as part of an initiative to model the city on Paris. What was left were only six synagogues, the old cemetery, and the Old Jewish Town Hall (now all part of the Jewish Museum in Prague and described below).

We did a cool tour of the “Speculum Alchemiae”:

In the 16th century, Prague was the domain of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). Rudolf II is known for having been a major patron of the arts and sciences. He was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1576 and came to rule in the city of Prague in 1583. Until his death in 1612, Rudolf II helped make Prague into one of the leading centers of scientific research and artistic production in Europe. He hosted some of the most important scientists, philosophers, and artists on the continent at that time. He was also obsessed with living forever and had his alchemists work on potions for eternal youth, love and memory.

This underground space, re-discovered after the massive flood of 2002, contains the equipment and the crucible used (supposedly) to turn lead into gold. A couple of mummified crocodiles sit on the mantle of the office; the alchemists used to refer to it as a “dragon” to inspire awe in their visitors. 

This was the place where experiments were conducted, hidden from the eyes of the inquisition: for good measure, a tunnel (the beginning of which is shown during the guided visit) led directly from the castle across the river, to the laboratory and another to a safe escape in the woods out of the city… alchemists can never be too careful. 

In the shop there were potions available for sale but, of course, not using any of the medieval ingredients like opium!  There was a love potion, a memory potion, an eternal youth potion and liquid gold.

This was a cool tour and better than expected; it was not so much about the potions but about the history of the tunnels and their use.

The main square was huge and quite a nice site:

The town hall in the centre has an astronomical clock:

And nearby was the Powder Tower:

The Powder Tower or Powder Gate is a Gothic tower in Prague. It is one of the original 13 city gates in Old Town. Its construction began in 1475. The tower was intended to be an attractive entrance into the city, instead of a defensive tower. The foundation stone was placed by Vladislav II. The city council gave Vladislav II the tower as a coronation gift. While it was being built, it was called the New Tower.

Vladislav II had to relocate due to riots, so the tower building stopped. He returned in 1485 to live back in Prague Castle, where he lived for the rest of his life, along with the rest of the Kings of Bohemia who lived in Prague. Kings would not return to use the tower or Royal Court until using it for coronation ceremonies starting again in 1836, where they would pass through the tower to go to St. Vitus Cathedral.

The gate was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century, hence the name Powder Tower or Powder Gate. The gate suffered considerable damage during the Battle of Prague. The sculptures on the tower were replaced in 1876.

Then it was on to the main post office to see the nicely decorated walls inside with its glass ceiling:

And then a walk along Wenceslas Square with shops and restaurants:

We saw the huge statue of Frank Kafka that is eleven metres tall and made of 42 rotating panels.  It rotates a quarter turn every 15 minutes.

Then we made our way to the Café Louvre – the spot where Kafka and Einstein used to go to chat (but of course not together!).

We each had a beer and Fran got a piece of truffle cake with mango sauce – amazing!

Before heading back across the river across the Shooters island bridge, we saw the National theatre which was quite something too:

We were back at Minou before 4 and spent another quite night after planning our next moves. It was even colder tonight barely staying above freezing.

Thursday we awoke to mostly sunny but quite cool skies.  After exercising, showers, dishes and tea, we hit the road to begin heading more south but don’t expect it to warm up much for a bit.  We have less than three weeks until we fly back to the US for Serena and Kurt’s wedding – we fly out of Paris.

Today we went less than 100 km / 60 mi to the “Beer City” of Pilsen.  Since we’ve done a number of brewery tours in our lives, we skipped the Pilsen Urquell brewery although we did park there for free!  We instead walked into town to the Beer Museum where you can purchase two tours and get free beer!

We bought tickets for the beer museum and the underground tunnel museum; the latter had an English tour at 11 so instead of staying there and doing the beer museum right away, we walked into the downtown core to the main square – again another huge but quite picturesque square.

Here we saw a beer spa but upon looking into the price – €50 a person – we opted to skip that.

Another museum we wanted to check out that we’d never done before was the puppet museum – puppets were a big thing in Europe in the last 19th and early 20th centuries.

Czech puppetry is an important cultural and social phenomenon that spread in the mid-19th century. Puppetry started in various regions of today’s Czech Republic in the mid-18th century.   Puppeteers who travelled from city to city performed in Czech and thus helped develop the level of Czech language among common people.

Gradually, a tradition of puppeteer families started and puppetry was inherited as a family craft. Puppeteers carved puppets themselves, often based on Baroque sculptures. A puppeteer controlled all puppets and voiced all characters.

It was pretty inexpensive and rather cute.

famous Czech puppets: Spejbl and Hurvinek

It even had a play section for children to make the puppets move themselves:

On our way back to the beer museum we stopped at the oldest restaurant in Pilson U Salzmannu – for one of our free beers and a bit to eat.  Doug got potato pancakes and Fran ordered crepes.

We then toured the beer museum on our own which was much larger than we expected.

world’s smallest beer stein
bottling apparatus
Doug the bartender

Now we still had time for our second beer before the tour and there’s a pub on site so we sat down and enjoyed an unfiltered beer – it was better than the regular Pilsen Urquell.  We bought two one litre cans from the shop and our usual country souvenir.

At one o’clock, along with about eight others, we took the underground tunnel tour of Pilsen.  There are apparently 13 km / 8.25 mi of tunnels under the downtown core of Pilsen and the tour covers about 800 m  – about a half mile of them.

Originally dug between the 13th and 19th centuries, the Pilsen Historical Underground consists of one of the longest network of tunnels in Central Europe, which were originally created for storage and to transport water and sewage, but are now just another feature of the city’s rich beer brewing history.

The city of Pilsen in Czechia is best known for being the birthplace of the now world famous “pilsner” variety of beer, but its industrial history is very nearly as important. As early as the 13th century the populace of Pilsen began creating cellars two and three stories deep beneath their homes, many of them connected by a series of tunnels. These were mostly used for food and supply storage initially, including a large amount of beer thanks to the Pilsen’s long history of brewing. But as the system of tunnels grew, they began to be used for waste, disposal and also water storage and transport. By the end of the tunnels’ construction, the city had over 12 miles of underground passage ways and one of the most advanced sewer systems in Czechia at the time.

The tunnels eventually fell into disuse and became of more archeological interest as researchers were able to unearth artifacts from the middle ages buried in the refuse once used to fill dry wells. Today visitors are able to explore a good length of the tunnels, which in portions have been remade to resemble what they must have looked like during their heyday. Notably, there is a replica water wheel. 

The tour took about an hour and while it was interesting we found the guide spoke way to fast much of the time (despite asking her to slow down – that lasted maybe five minutes) so we missed some of the info.

view to a closed section of the tunnels
view down the tunnels
one of 20 wells in the 800 m section we toured
wooden pipes
pipes made of stone

So now it’s 2pm and we return to Minou.  Leaving Pilsen, we found diesel for €1.32 a litre! Fran had found a free camp spot with amenities just across the German border so we stopped for diesel (it’s more expensive in Germany) and crossed the border.

We really enjoyed the city of Prague – it continues to hold its charm and has not become too modernized.  The signs are still hardly in English (which can be a bit trying but nothing that cannot be overcome) and the people are friendly enough – many do speak English.

We drove 502 km / 311 mi in the Czech Republic.

Fun facts about Czechia:

  1. There are over 2000 castles and chateaux in the Czech Republic, more than in any other country in Europe.
  2. The largest ancient castle in the world is the Prague Castle, 570m long and 128m wide.
  3. Prague’s Old Town is the home to the third oldest astronomical clock in the world.
  4. Czech people are the world’s heaviest consumers of beer. The first pale lager, Pilsner Urquell, was brewed in the Czech city Pilsen in 1842.
  5. The most popular sport is ice hockey.
  6. Soft Contact lenses were invented by a Czech chemist in 1959.
  7. The Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in the world. Around 39.8% of Czechs consider themselves atheist and 13.4% are undecided.
  8. The country is famous for tennis, particularly, female players: Martina Navratilova has been statically the second best female player in the 20th century (right behind Steffi Graf).
  9. Charles University in Prague, founded in 1348, is the oldest university in Central Europe.
  10. More than 2/3 of the Czech population goes mushroom-hunting, also known as mushrooming, once a year