Difference between revisions of "Czech Republic"
Revision as of 02:54, 25 July 2006
The Czech Republic  (also known as Czechia) is a small landlocked country in Central Europe, situated south-east of Germany and bordering with Austria to the south, Poland to the north and Slovakia (with which it used to form one country of Czechoslovakia) to the south-east.
Cities in Bohemia
Cities in Moravia
Cities in Silesia
Following the First World War, the closely related Czechs and Slovaks of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire merged to form Czechoslovakia. During the interwar years, the new country's leaders were frequently preoccupied with meeting the demands of other ethnic minorities within the republic, most notably the Sudeten Germans and the Ruthenians (Ukrainians). After World War II, Czechoslovakia fell within the Soviet sphere of influence. In 1968, an invasion by Warsaw Pact troops ended the efforts of the country's leaders to liberalize Communist party rule and create "socialism with a human face." Anti-Soviet demonstrations the following year ushered in a period of harsh repression. With the collapse of Soviet authority in 1989, Czechoslovakia regained its freedom through a peaceful "Velvet Revolution." On 1 January 1993, the country underwent a "velvet divorce" into its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Now a member of NATO (since 1999), the Czech Republic has moved toward integration in world markets, a development that poses both opportunities and risks. It's also European Union (EU) member since 2004.
The Czech Republic is not a large country but however small, it has a rich and eventful history. From time immemorial Czechs, Germans, Jews and Slovaks, as well as Italian stonemasons and stuccoworkers, French tradesmen and deserters of Napoleon`s army, have all been living and working here, and all influencing one another. For centuries they have jointly cultivated their land, creating works, the majority of which still command our respect and admiration today. It is thanks to their inventiveness and skill that this small country is graced with hundreds of ancient castles, monasteries and stately chateaux, and even entire towns that give the impression of comprehensive artefacts.
Habits and Customs
Citizens of the EU, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not need a visa. The Czech Republic has not fully implemented the Schengen agreements yet, so there are still ID/passport controls on the EU borders. Specific details for all countries can be found at Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Check czechembassy.org for more current information.
Ruzyne Airport - located about 10km west from the center of Prague is a hub of Czech national carrier - ČSA Czech Airlines, a SkyTeam member. Other international airports are in Brno, Ostrava, Pardubice, Karlovy Vary and Uheské Hradiště. There are dozens of lowcost airlines going to/from Prague. Ryanair is newly flying to Brno. Other nearby airports are Nurnberg (200 km) and Munich (320 km) in Germany, Vienna (260 km) in Austria, Wroclaw (200 km) in Poland (might be a good idea if you want to go to the Giant Mountains) and Bratislava (280 km) in Slovakia.
International train service runs from most points in Europe with direct connections from Slovakia, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. If you are in Bavaria, the cheapest way to go to Czech republic is to take a "Bayernticket" (up to 5 persons per ticket, which costs 25 EUR; only regional trains) to the border and then buy a Czech group ticket there.
The timetable for almost all intra-city and inter-city transport can be found at www.idos.cz .
There are domestic flights from Prague to Brno and Ostrava. They are operated by CSA Czech Airlines. There were also flights operated by Discovery Link, from Prague to Brno, Uherské Hradiště and Ostrava and between Uherské Hradiště and Ostrava, but this airline stopped its flights in 2005.
A cheap and excellent mean of travelling between Prague, Brno, Plzeň and Liberec are the buses from Student Agency. Line to Ostrava via Olomouc was introduced recently. The buses leave in Prague from Florenc Bus Station. To get to Liberec use the Černý Most station (metro line B) in Prague. Except for the Praha-Ostrava line, the busses are way, way faster and more efficient than the Czech train system.
The train goes to even the most remote locations of Czech republic and apart from the buses it is going also outside the rush hours. However apart from modernized main corridors the rail network is the same as was in late nineteenth century and therefore it is quite slow to get anywhere. The trains tend to meander around the countryside and while this may sound like a nice afternoon ride, it's usually more hassle than it's worth. Due to weird discount policy of czech railway operator the standard tickets are two times more expensive than the bus. However you get 50% discount for return ticket, for group tickets (two are a group) or with a special "customer" card (its price is mostly covered by the first ride discount but it takes some time to make the card and you need a photograph).
The Czech Republic is an excellent place for cycle touring. There are lots of pleasant country lanes, picturesque villages (always with a pub), it's easy to find the way, and the trains have bicycle racks in the baggage section for when you get tired.
In addition to walking in the cities, there are a great number of hiking paths and scenery-rich trails going through the Czech Republic's forests and natural areas, and the Czech Tourist Club (Klub českých turistů, a member of the European Ramblers Association) has mapped and marked these trails so that walkers can easily locate and navigate thousands of kilometers of scenic paths. You can buy maps of their paths on their website, or in the Czech Republic in most bookstores, tobacco shops or muzeums (green maps, marked with the organization's symbol and the words EDICE TURISTICKÝCH MAP KČT 1:50000 at the top)These maps are based on military maps and very precise. It's also possible to go by train to a small village at the edge of a forest and find the on-site map of the surrounding area, and four possible paths will be visible, marked in red, yellow, green, and blue. nearby such a map will be a set of directing signs, usually posted to a tree, pointing the initial direction on any of the colored paths. the path's color will be marked on trees throughout the path: three short horizontal bars, the outer two white and the innermost the color of the path you're on. this symbol at times will appear as an arrow, indicating a turn. (this symbol incidently became a campaign for the ODS party, in the recent Czech elections) bus and train stops will also be indicated on signs.You can also register to become a member of the Czech Tourist Club, whereby you can camp for 30-50Kc a night in cottages around the CR (available only in the CR).
Traveling by boat is an interesting way to get between Budapest and Prague. (but prepare to take it some time because you have go around the whole Europe, Vltava (Elbe) mouths into the North sea, Danube mouths to the Black Sea)
Take care to use very clear gesture with the thumb pointing up. A gesture looking like you were pointing to the ground may be mistaken for prostitution solicitation.
Try a letter (A4) sized paper with destination writen on it so it is clearly visible where you like to go. See some other Tips for hitchhiking.
The main language spoken is, not surprisingly, Czech. Czech people are very proud of their language, and thus, even in Prague you will not find many signs written in English (outside of the super-tourist areas). Many older people are also unable to converse in English, so it's good to learn some Czech before heading off. However, most young people speak at least some English, as it is taught in almost all schools since 1990.
Most Czechs speak a second and often a third language. German is probably the most widely spoken second language among older people. People born before 1980 speak some Russian, although the occupation of the Czech Republic by Russia has given this language strong negative connotations. Younger people often speak English, and sometimes French. Other languages are not so common, although people understand Slovak and may understand other Slavic languages (Polish, Croatian, etc). Don't expect older people to understand English outside of Prague. Learn some Czech vocabulary - it's not that hard! It's the polite thing to do.
The currency of the Czech republic is the koruna (crown), plural koruny. The currency code CZK is often used internationally, but the local symbol is Kč (for Koruna česká). 1 koruna is made up of 100 haléř, abbreviated to hal..
The exchange rate is approximately 30Kč = €1, 42Kč = £1 GBP, 25Kč = $1 (US), or 20Kč = $1 (Canadian). As of 30 April 2006, €1 = 28.42Kč (European Central Bank)
Coins are issued in 50hal, 1Kč, 2Kč, 5Kč, 10Kč, 20Kč and 50 Kč. Notes are issued in 20Kč, 50Kč, 100Kč, 200Kč, 500Kč, 1000Kč, 2000Kč and 5000Kč. Notes 20Kč are valid but their occurence in circulation is rare. See some banknote samples.
Some major stores will accept Euros, and it's also fairly common for accommodation providers to quote the price in Euros.
Never exchange money on the street. There is no "black market" with better rates, but there is a good chance you'll end up with a roll of worthless paper. Be very careful when you are exchanging money at a small exchange kiosk. They try to use tricks in order to give you a bad exchange rate. Ask for the total amount you will get and recompute it by yourself. Do not trust "0% commission" in big letters signs (usually there is "only on CZK buy" amendment in small letters). Here www.kurzy.fin.cz you can get good overview of reliable exchange places and rates.
Major stores throughout the country accept Visa and EC/MC, as do all the tourist stores in Prague.
Entering Prague on the train, particularly from the southeast, one sees the infamous panelaks, or giant concrete housing blocks. Czech and Slovak housing blocks have a very surreal quality to them - driving past the Brno suburbs late at night is visually reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner. Petrzalka in the Slovak capital of Bratislava is the biggest panelak complex. Czech writer Iva Pekarkova’s novel Truck Stop Rainbows does an amazing job of expressing the particular sort of inhumanity panelaks are known for breeding. If someone lives in a building that is an exact copy of all the others for miles around, so alike that even residents get lost, what does that bode for the community living there? In a particularly ironic twist, the real-life panelaks are crumbling as quickly as the communist regime that built them: literally falling apart at the seams.
Alternatively though the Panelaks in contrast to what one finds in Western European or American housing projects, are relatively safe and friendly places albeit it bland. The dark external shell hides a generally quite nice internal environment that is usually well maintained by the inhabitants living inside. The majority of people who live there are a cross section of the lower to middle classes of Czech society (including a large number of students and retired elderly people). Haje in Prague at the end of the red (C) metro line is well worth the half hour metro trip to experience a real live communist 'settlement.'
On the bright side, recently more flats in these panelaks have been being bought, changing these developments from Communist compartments into owned and cared-for properties. Unlike in Western Europe, panelaks in the Czech Republic are being lived-in and owned increasingly by the middle class, which tries to paint them lively colors and individualize their appearance inside and out. Some residents in such buildings don't find them isolating at all, and on the contrary feel that they foster a communal atmosphere.
Try knedlíky. (It's very hard to translate it, usually it is translated as dumplings but it has only little common with them. Sometimes you can hear a German variation knödel but I wouldn't recommend using it.). It looks like almost entirely white bread and is used as a side-dish. Svíčková na smetaně (see later) or Vepřo-knedlo-zelo, the combination of pork, knedlíky and sauerkraut, is very tasty. Do not forget to drink Czech beer with it.
Other Czech dishes include roast duck, carp at Christmastime, palačinky, thin crêpes, usually filled with fruit and topped with whipped cream; bramborák, garlicky potato pancakes; smažený sýr, fried cheese - like a giant mozzarella stick, except made of Edam (most popular cheese in Czech republic) - served with boiled potatoes or french fries; párek v rohlíku, long, thin hot dogs with crusty rolls and mustard or ketchup; svíčková na smetaně, beef sirloin with a creamy root vegetable (carot, root celery) sauce, served with a tablespoon of cranberry or cranberry-like sauce and whipped cream, usually with knedlíky; and guláš, like Hungarian goulash, but thinner and served with knedlíky. If you must, you can always get hranolky - french fries. And of course, the ubiquitous zelí (cabbage), which is served with absolutely everything.
Don't expect many fresh vegetables unless in the countryside - peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are the most commonly seen side dishes, usually pickled.
US-citizens may be surprised when they find "American potatoes" in the menu. These are like fried or baked potatoes, usualy spiced.
Czech Republic is the country where modern lager beer was invented (in Plzen). Czechs are the heaviest beer (pivo in Czech) drinkers in the world, drinking about 160 litres of it per capita per year. Going to a cosy Czech pub for a dinner and few beers is a must!
The best-known export brands are Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), Budvar (Budweiser; different from American, lawsuits concerning the brand are being held for years) and Kozel. Other major brands include Gambrinus (fantastic), Staropramen (also fantastic), Radegast, Starobrno. Although many Czechs tend to be very selective on beer brands, tourists usually do not find significant difference. And remember, the only Czech beer is on a tap - bottled beer is a completely different experience.
Beers are sometimes listed by their sugar content, which is measured in degrees. The difference is mainly in the contents of alcohol. Normal beer is 10 degrees, lager 12 degrees with alcohol level between 4-5%.
Wine (víno in Czech) is another popular drink, particularly wine from the south-eastern part of the country - Moravia. Try Veltlínské, Rulandské or red wine Frankovka.
From liquors, try Becherovka (herb liqueur, similiar to Jagermeister), Slivovice (plum brandy) and Tuzemský rum (as it is made from potatoes, and not from sugar cane as the Cuban rum, it is sold under brands like "Tuzemák" to conform EU market rules). Be carefull all are about 40%.
From non-alcoholic drinks, popular are mineral waters, however most of them are of very strong mineral taste. Try Mattoni or Magnesia, both of them taste like normal water and still claim to be good for your health. Mineral water can be bought even with several flavors, but do not expect miracles. If you want bubbles, ask for "perlivá". If you want it non-carbonated, ask for "neperlivá".
Restaurants and pubs do not offer water for free. Surprisingly, beer as a national drink is usually the cheapest drink you can buy, with prices from 15 Kč - 60 Kč (0,50 - 2 EUR) per half litre, depending on the attractivity of the pub for tourists.
Grocery stores in Prague do not sell what most North Americans consider over the counter drugs, such as aspirin. You will need to go to a pharmacy, which are not open every day and often open for only a few hours a day.
Czechs don't appreciate the country being referred to as part of "Eastern Europe"; the unwelcome 40-year association with the Soviet bloc was an anomaly in this central-European country's history. Commenting about how "everything is quite cheap here" comes across as condescending about the country's economic status.