Sunday, 21 October 2007

Hello Winter!

As the Czech Republic prepares for winter, travellers start to wonder which of the tourist attractions they've heard so much about will still be open and which of the summer destinations are also worth visiting in the colder months.

Český Krumlov
1) Český Krumlov's chateau is the second largest in the country and is the town's main historic attraction. Unfortunately it's closed from the beginning of November to the end of March.
2) The Egon Schiele Art Centre is a museum/gallery of world class with an excellent permanent collection and recent temporary exhibitions of both Keith Haring's and Salvador Dali's work. The Schiele museum is open year round from 10am to 6pm, 7 days a week.
3) Much of the appeal of Český Krumlov is simply wandering it's romantic cobbled streets, squares and lanes. If you'd like to get a little further under the surface of the town, Krumlov walking tours operate year round and the offerings include a brewing history tour (with tasting) and a ghost tour.

As the most popular destination outside Prague, Český Krumlov has extensive tourist infrastructure. The tourist information centre is open year round, as are Hostel Krumlov House, Hostel 99, Travellers' Hostel, The Old Inn and Pension Tilia. Unfortunately the town's best restaurant, The Two Marys' closes in the winter, but the Gypsy Bar and Na Louži will stay open. Advantages of visiting Krumlov in the winter are that you stand a good chance of seeing it frosted with snow, there's a lot of competition among accommodation providers, so you may benefit from discounts, you'll avoid the heavy crowds of summer tourists and might actually get an impression of a small Czech town in the hills as opposed to a major Czech commercial tourist destination in the hills.

On a scale from one to ten, as a winter destination, Český Krumlov is an 8.

Kutná Hora
Most international visitors go to Kutná Hora as a daytrip from Prague. It's also however a rewarding overnight destination, even in winter.
1) The 'Bone Church' is the town's most famous attraction. It's certainly not every day that you see a cemetery chapel filled and decorated with thousands of human bones. It's open year round from at least 9am to 4pm. In winter it closes between 12 noon and 1pm for lunch. If you arrive this late for some reason, there are a couple of places in the same street to get a warm drink or something to eat while you wait for 1 o'clock to tick around.
2) St Barbara's cathedral is arguably the most spectacular in the country. It's open to visitors year round (except on Mondays) from at least 10am to 4pm, but even when it's closed you can enjoy the exterior and the views across the river valley from the vantage point behind the cathedral.
3) The Museum of Silver mining is closed through the winter, but the minting museum in the Italian court and the Alchemy museum on the main square are open; again from 10am to 4pm.

Like Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora is a wonderful place just to aimlessly wander. It has a grittier more Gothic atmosphere than pretty renaissance Krumlov or grand baroque Olomouc, and places like the Dačicky beerhall and restaurant V Ruthardce are good places to try the local fare in front of a roaring log fire. As a winter destination Kutná Hora gets 8/10.

I need to preface anything I say about Olomouc with the declaration that I live here; I'm almost undeniably biased. With that in mind though, I'll stick as much as possible to cold hard facts.
1) The former Olomouc Castle now houses the Archdiocese museum, which is the only one of it's type in this country. There's an extensive permanent collection and the temporary exhibit for the first half of the winter includes works from artists like Picasso, Klimt, Hundertwasser, Kokoschka and the aforementioned Egon Schiele. At 50Kc admittance, it's a fraction of the price of similar facilities in Prague or Krakow and its free every Wednesday and Sunday.
2) Olomouc is a city of 105,000 people and 20,000 University students. While the University is not so much an attraction in itself, the vibrant cultural and social life and the many inexpensive cafes and bars complement outdoor sightseeing when the weather is unfriendly.
3) And outdoor sightseeing there is aplenty. The Holy Trinity Column on the main square is the largest plague column in Europe and is the monument that is UNESCO world heritage listed in Olomouc. The seven fountains of Olomouc will have the water removed to protect against freezing and when the last of autumn's leaves drop, the parks around the city walls lose much of their attraction, but the twelve churches, two big marketplace squares, the archbishop's palace and the narrow cobbled streets and lanes, especially in the old Jewish quarter, provide hours and days of outdoor sightseeing opportunity.
4) Such a large historic city that has until this year been overlooked by mass tourism and the major guidebooks is an opportunity to immerse yourself in local life and one good place to do this is at a game of ice hockey. The Olomouc team have home games on these dates.
5) Christmas markets transform the main square of Olomouc from the beginning of December until the 23rd. There are free concerts every afternoon, loads of stalls selling hot food and drink and a good chance of the whole thing being under a frosting of snow.

There's actually more open in Olomouc during the winter (and university semesters) than in the summer; there's a regular program of live music at the jazz club, Uni-klub, student club '15minut' and at the theatre on the square. Poets' Corner Hostel is open year round, but the daily walking tours from Olomouc Tours are now by arrangement only. Especially with much of the budget accommodation being right in the historic centre and the skifields of the Jesenik mountains being so closeby, Olomouc is 9/10 as a winter destination, but remember I might be biased.

Karlovy Vary
Actually I'm biased about Karlovy Vary as well. I don't know why, but I've never liked it all that much. The place is quite nice architecturally but has the atmosphere of a resort town for overweight and overfunded Germans, Russians and Arabs. Which makes it not much fun for everybody else, especially those of us on a budget.
1) That said, there's one thing I really enjoyed doing, which was the tour of the Moser glassworks factory. Bohemia is famous for its crystal and the Moser company is one of the most notable manufacturers. There's a small crystal museum on the factory site which is open year round and the glassworks tour begins there, but only on weekdays and the last tour begins at 1pm.
2) Another good museum on factory grounds is the Becherovka Museum. This herbal liqueur is a favourite among Czechs, and you're much more likely to find them drinking it than absinthe. If you haven't tried it you'll have your chance at the museum; three shots are included in the price of the tour (100Kc). The museum is open year round from 9am to 5pm, 7 days a week.
3) Karlovy Vary is another good place to take a peek at a game of Ice Hockey. Becherovka is one of the local team's major sponsors. The club are close to the top of their league so far this year, so whether it's due to spiderlike goalman Lukas Mensator or a shot of Becherovka in the drink bottles is open to debate. Karlovy Vary home games on these dates.
4) The famous hot springs of Karlovy Vary are probably a great asset to beating the winter chills. You can bring your own drinking vessel or buy one of those awkward-looking porcelain spa cups from dozens of stalls. For a sauna or swimming in a heated pool, the Elizabeth spa is a good bet.

It's probably just as good in winter as it is in summer, but as unbiased as I try to be, I can't bring myself to rate Karlovy Vary more than 7/10.

I really like Telč, but I don't think it's very good as a winter destination.
1) The chateau is one of the two highlights of Telč, but it's closed from November through March
2) The main square is the other; it's a beautifully restored example of a renaissance main square and is protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. But there are only so many times you can walk up and down, the fountains will have their water removed and the outdoor cafes will be closed for the winter.
3) There are also a series of ponds surrounding the old town. In summer, you could go boating and if there's water in them when you visit, they provide nice reflections for photographs. Part of the fish harvest that happens in late autumn is draining the ponds and this creates a great muddy expanse that doesn't smell too good. Pity, because Telč is one of the country's prettiest little towns.
There's a good hostel in Telč, but it's already closed for this year and seems unlikely to reopen before next May. At least there'll be fresh fish on the menus at the U Marušky or Švejk restaurants. Telč in winter 4/10.

Now let's see, have I forgotten anything? Oh yes, Prague. Well, Prague is Prague and there are dozens and dozens of websites with the same details repeated again and again and again. It's probably one of the ten most visited cities in Europe, if not the world, by tourists, so you'll never run out things to do there. In your pocket has a good roundup of information and Gordon's city spy maps are another source. Prague Free Tours operate year round and Sir Toby's hostel, Hostel Elf and the Czech Inn all get consistently high reviews and are open year round.

Wherever you decide to go, remember your warm hat, order a bowl of soup or cup of tea if you feel yourself getting cold and maybe I'll see you at the hockey...


Michael said...

You've missed out Liberec: two types of skiing, (probably) the best ice hockey team in the whole country, shedloads of bars and, for those with Prague number plates, an indoor acqua-centre with plastic palm trees.

Captain Oddsocks said...

That's true , I did. Liberec is a great place too. I've only been there once, but I'd be keen to spend some time up in that part of the country a and have a proper look around.
Hockey team better than the Olomouc Roosters though, I dunno...;-)

JuLes said...

Wow - pictures of snow! I have to say that after our world tour Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic are high on the list for a return visit. Spring is in swing here in Albany though it's a little cool still after Georgia and The South.

Hope to check out more of your site now that the scenery isn't moving so quickly!

Nelly said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Captain Oddsocks said...

Nelly, I removed your comment because I'm not accepting advertising in this way. Feel free to repost your thoughts without the details of the accommodation agency if you wish.