The modern day Czech Republic consists of the Republics of Bohemia and Moravia. The country has a long history of being run by other people, as part of the Holy Roman and Hapsburg Empires. It briefly gained independence as part of Czechoslovakia after the First World War.
Although a Czechoslovak state did not emerge until 1918, its roots go back many centuries. The earliest records of Slavic inhabitants in present-day date from the fifth century A.D. The ancestors of the Czechs settled in present-day Bohemia and Moravia, and those of the Slovaks settled in presentday Slovakia. The settlers developed an agricultural economy and built the characteristically circular Slavic villages, the okroulice.
The peaceful life of the Slavic tribes was shattered in the sixth century by the invasion of the Avars, a people of undetermined origin and language who established a loosely connected empire between the Labe (Elbe) and Dnieper rivers. The Avars did not conquer all the Slavic tribes in the area, but they subjugated some of them and conducted raids on others. It was in response to the Avars that Samo–a foreigner thought to be a Frankish merchant–unified some of the Slavic tribes and in A.D. 625 established the empire of Samo. Although the territorial extent of the empire is not known, it was centered in Bohemia and is considered the first coherent Slavic political unit. The empire disintegrated when Samo died in 658.
A more stable polity emerged in Moravia. The Czech tribes of Moravia helped Charlemagne destroy the Avar Empire (ca. 796) and were rewarded by receiving part of it as a fief. Although the Moravians paid tribute to Charlemagne, they did enjoy considerable independence. Early in the ninth century, Mojmir–a Slavic chief–formed the Moravian Kingdom. His two successors expanded its domains to include Bohemia, Slovakia, southern Poland, and western Hungary. The expanded kingdom became known as the Great Moravian Empire. Its importance to Czechoslovak history is that it united in a single state the ancestors of the Czechs and Slovaks.
The Great Moravian Empire was located at the crossroad of two civilizations: the German lands in the West and Byzantium in the East. From the West the Franks (a Germanic people) conducted destructive raids into Moravian territory, and German priests and monks came to spread Christianity in its Roman form among the Slavs. Mojmir and his fellow chiefs were baptized at Regensburg in modern-day Germany. Rostislav (850-70), Mojmir’s successor, feared the German influence as a threat to his personal rule, however, and turned to Byzantium. At Rostislav’s request, Emperor Michael of Byzantium dispatched the monks Cyril and Methodius to the Great Moravian Empire to introduce Eastern Christian rites and liturgy in the Slavic language. A new Slavonic script, the Cyrillic alphabet, was devised. Methodius was invested by the pope as archbishop of Moravia. But Svatopluk (871-94), Rostislav’s successor, chose to ally himself with the German clerics. After the death of Methodius in 885, the Great Moravian Empire was drawn into the sphere of influence of the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, the Czechs and Slovaks adopted the Latin alphabet and became further differentiated from the Eastern Slavs, who continued to use the Cyrillic alphabet and adhered to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Czech was invaded by Nazi Germany at the start of the Second Worldwar. Although nominally independent again after World War 2, as a member of the Warsaw Pact it was basically run from Moscow, who were considerate enough to send in the tanks to crush a couple of popular movements for change/democracy. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union saw true independence and democracy restored again, although shortly afterwards Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Getting There and In
The Czech Republic is easily accessible. Many airlines fly to Prague; British Airways, Czech Airlines, EasyJet, etc..
Transfer flights via various European airports are also available. Travelling within Europe you can get there by road and rail too.
As of 1st May 2004 the Czech Republic is a member of the European Union (EU) which means that there are no restrictions on passport holders of other EU countries staying, living, and working in the Czech Republic. At the airport or border they’ll just examine your passport and wave you through without stamping it, and probably without speaking to you.
Passport holders of other countries will still get their passports stamped, and may be asked to provide evidence of a return ticket or that they have sufficient funds for their stay. This is unlikely though. It’s always a good idea to contact the Czech Embassy in your home country to check (sorry!) that you don’t need to obtain a visa prior to your arrival. As of May 2004 Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis didn’t, but this can change.
Food and Drink
Traditional Czech food is your typical Eastern European stuff. The national dish is pork, served with cabbage and dumplings. There are also adventurous variations on this, such as pork stuffed with cabbage. Game and other roast meats are also quite common, as is fish, particularly carp (although it’s hard to find the traditionally cooked Prague Carp in restaurants now due to the pollution of the Vlatava). You’ll still find plenty of traditional Czech restaurants throughout the country, but the restaurant scene in Prague is very cosmopolitan. Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Italian restaurants are plentiful, there are lots of good pizza places, and plenty off more off-beat places. Food is extremely reasonable; even in Prague a meal in a normal Czech place away from the tourist hang-outs can come to less than Ł2.
One of the most distressing elements of the fall of the Berlin wall was the proliferation of American fast food that followed it. Nowadays McDonalds and KFC are everywhere. Thankfully, in Prague at least, if you want fast-food you’re admirably served by the kiosks of Wenceslas Square, which are open all night and serve beer too.
Czech beer is one of the wonders of the civilised world, and a religion unto itself in the Czech Republic. Nearly all are Pilsner-style lagers (the world Pilsner coming from the Czech town of Plzen), although some breweries do a dark beer as well. Bottles Czech beer has been widely available in the UK for the last 10 years or so, but nothing compares to the draught versions you get in the pubs of Prague. Just try a pint of Pilsner Urquel, Budweiser Budvar (which has no connection whatsoever with the watery American piss of the same name; a Yank brewer simply stole the name of a Czech village, Budweis, and used it for his inferior piss), Staropramen, Gambrinus, Kozel, and you’ll never be able to face a Fosters or Stella again. I could go on for hours and drink the stuff for even longer. Czech beer is brewed in accordance with similar laws to the German purity laws, which means that it isn’t pumped full of chemicals and you can drink as much as you want without getting a serious hangover. And the price of such liquid perfection? Well, it depends where you drink, but if you go in a normal, non-touisty Czech bar a pint could be yours for as little as 40 to 50p. Even in the fancy bars on Wenceslas Square the most you should get charged is Ł1, which is a rip-off for Prague. Is it any wonder that the Czechs have the highest per capita beer consumption in the world? In Brno most bars we went in charged around 18 to 20 crowns (35 to 40p) a pint.
Imported beer is available but considering the standard of Czech beer this would not be the equivalent of going to Paris and eating at McDonalds, it would be the equivalent of going to Paris and eating the worm-riddled faeces of a tubercular tramp that had been lying on the pavement outside McDonalds for a week in summer. Incredibly, just off Wenceslas Square is an “American Sports Bar” where you can buy American-style Budweiser for 3 or 4 times the price of its Czech equivalent.
With all that excellent beer there’s no reason for you to drink anything else, but a couple of notable alternatives are available. Firstly there’s absinthe, the suicidally strong green spirit which is still illegal in many European countries on the grounds that it contains wormwood, and if you drink enough of the stuff it tends to drive you insane (van Gough cut off his ear after a bender on it). Well, it’s distilled in Prague and it’s readily available, popular and cheap here. A shot in a bar should cost less that Ł1 (it’s about Ł5 a shot in the few London pubs that sell it) and you can buy a half litre of the stuff in shops for less than Ł5. It’s an absolutely mental drink. It smells very sweet, and the taste isn’t that alcoholic, although the strength of the alcohol takes your breath away. It’s traditional to drink it by first dipping a spoon full of sugar in, then setting fire to the sugar, then pouring the result into the glass, which then tends to set fire to the rest of the drink. Wait until the glass cools down before trying to drink it.
The other alternative is Czech wine, which is quite drinkable, and extremely cheap. White wines from the Moravia region (near Brno) are the best known internationally and probably the best quality, but Czech reds are good quality too; I’ve never been disappointed with a bottle of frankovka, although my favourite Czech red grape variety is probably modry portugal. You can afford to experiment; even in a decent restaurant you’ll be charged around Ł5-7 a bottle. Surprisingly, the Czechs even produce decent sparkling wine; I can recommend anything produced by the Bohemia Sekt company, which will set you back all of around Ł2 for a 750ml bottle in most shops and supermarkets, nice to bring a few bottles back with you.
Various Useful Facts
The official language is Czech, closely related to the other Slavic languages. It is based on the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. The Lonely Planet eastern European phrasebook has a section on Czech, but the Rough Guide European phrasebook is bigger and better. German is the most widely spoken second language, but in most hotels, restaurants and bars in the major towns and cities you should be able to get by in English. Even learning and using only one or two words of Czech will get you a friendlier reception (and better service) from the locals. Vital words are pivo for beer and prosim for please.
The currency is the Czech Crown, which is reasonably stable. It’s freely convertable, and unlike a few years ago you can now get hold of them easily in the UK (certainly most of the bureaux de change at Heathrow buy and sell them). Bureaux de change are widespread throughout the Czech Republic, but for better rates of exchange change your cash at the airport or in banks rather than the little kiosks in tourist areas. As the Crown is freely convertible there’s absolutely no point in trying to change money on the “black market”. Cash machines are common, and nearly all will give you cash on your credit cards. Most will also take Cirrus and Delta too. Most shops, restaurants and hotels in Prague will accept credit cards, some will accept payments on the Maestro card. Some tourist oriented shops and restaurants will also accept Euros, but not at a rate of exchange that would make it worthwhile unless you’ve got a bundle of Euros you want to get rid of.
Renovation of the Charles Bridge in Prague, which began last year in conjunction with the bridge’s 650-year anniversary, continues. The bridge, which connects the Old Town and Prague Castle, remains open (and crossable) even during construction. Eastern Europe somehow feels like a modernized Old World and a new frontier all at once. Whether you’re rambling the Riva or strolling across Charles Bridge, fascinated by modern history or marzipan, Eastern Europe is full of surprises for the intentional traveler.
Even more information:
- Czech Tourism – Official travel site of the Czech Republic provides news and information including special interest holidays, events and map.
- A-Z Travel Guide to Czech Republic – Travel information for the country including accommodation, visa requirements, culture, food, shopping and maps.
- CzechSite Travel Guide – Travel guide with updated travel and culture news.
- Dana Chaloupka – Guided tours in Prague and the Czech Republic for individuals and groups.
- Giant Mountains – Information on the highest mountains in the country, with accommodation reservation, image galleries, and a feedback form.
- ITIS Travelers – Czech Republic – Travel guide for independent travelers, containing details of budget accommodation and transport information.
- Kotalikova – tourist guide – Sightseeing in the Czech Republic for individuals and smaller groups.
- Living Prague – Guide to Prague written by a tourist who now lives in the city.
- Lonely Planet – Czech Republic – Comprehensive facts and advice for traveling along with background material on the culture and history of the country.
- My Czech Republic – Travel, culture, and community guide. Lists accommodation, tours, travel and language information.
- Travel.State.Gov – Czech Republic – Offers travel information including Quick Facts, embassies and consulates, entry and exit requirements, safety and security, local laws, health, transportation and Fact Sheet. From the U.S. Department of State.
- World Travel Guide – Czech Republic – Tourist and business travel information with facts on climate, visa, health, passport, currency and customs requirements.