About 30km north of Prague, the town of Mělník lies on a high ridge overlooking the junction of Bohemia’s two greatest rivers, the Labe and the Vltava.
The location has been inhabited since at least the 9th century, when it was a fortress of the Pšovan tribe. These river valleys from Prague to the wide bend of the Labe at Roudnice were the heartland of the earliest Czechs; the original Slavic settlers who arrived in Bohemia during the great migration of nations in the sixth and seventh centuries AD.
The first known rulers of the early Czechs, the Přemyslids, became the most famous and legendary dynasty of Czech kings. They were closely connected with the Pšovans of Mělník when Prince Bořivoj married Ludmila, daughter of the last Pšovan prince Slavibor, and future grandmother of Czech patron saint Wenceslas.
In the 10th Century, the Pšov fortress was replaced by an early Přemyslid castle named Mělník. Around it grew a settlement that was granted city status in the year 1274 and continued its association with the Bohemian queens when it became a queens' dowry town under the rule of Charles IV.
Mělník today is a town of about 30,000 people and is among the most rewarding destinations for a daytrip from Prague. The most striking building in Mělník is the imposing clifftop church of Sts. Peter and Paul, but a visit to the adjacent chateau, a wander through the streets of the historic old town and visiting at least a couple of the wine cellars, cafes and restaurants is a must.
Originally Romanesque, the imposing church of Sts. Peter and Paul was modified over the centuries and its current appearance dates from reconstruction after a fire in 1555. The soaring clock tower can be climbed for views across Mělník’s rooftops, the vineyards stepping down to the river junction, and the forests and plains beyond.
The church interior is impressive but perhaps the most memorable thing is the ossuary beneath the altar. Through a separate side entrance a narrow staircase descends into a crypt piled with the bones of up to 15,000 people, mostly victims of the plague but some showing obvious battle wounds. The mounds of bones are taller than a tall person and some of the skulls have been arranged into patterns, including the Latin inscription ‘Ecce mors’; ‘Behold death’.
After a visit to the crypt, there are two good options for a walk in the fresh air; a descent through the hillside of terraced vineyards to the water’s edge, and a stroll around the cobbled streets and lanes of the historic old town.
Mělník’s main square has two straight sides and one long curved side lined with brightly painted houses of two or three floors and interrupted only by the town hall and its steeply roofed clock tower. Cars park to one side but the square is otherwise open bar a shallow fountain and a gathering of park benches and small potted trees.
Beside the church looking over the river is the Mělník chateau, which evolved from the original Přemyslid castle. The interiors are accessible on a self-guided tour with a supplied text, and the oaky wine cellars are also open to the public.
Mělník lies at the centre of Bohemia’s winemaking region and any of the wine cellars scattered across the well-preserved historic centre of town or even the chateau itself are good places to sample the local drop. There is also excellent traditional food available at restaurants like U Benišků and a nifty little teahouse café spread across the four floors of the old gothic Prague gate tower.
Direct buses run between Prague’s Holešovice station and Mělník at least a dozen times each day and cover the 33km in about 40min for 45Kč. Full entry price to the chateau is 80Kč for the rooms and 25 for the cellars; there’s no fee to visit the church interior but climbing the tower will set you back 20Kč and entry to the ossuary is 30Kč.
Expect to pay 75-100Kč for a meaty meal at U Benišků and about 40Kč for a glass of wine at any of the local bars. If you’d prefer something for home the chateau cellars have the local Ludmila reds and whites in attractive bottles for 110-140Kč.
Tuesday, 24 February 2009