The southernmost region of the Czech Republic, Bohemia is a land of dramatic castles, medieval towns and tranquil river valleys. Best of all, it's still surprisingly free of crowds
Just the name Bohemia conjures up images of a mysterious land with dramatic castles, medieval villages and feudal dynasties. In many ways, even today, that’s pretty close to the truth.
When I took a trip to explore southern Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic, the first thing that struck me was how quiet the region was. Even the bigger towns had a tranquil ambience, and once out into the enticing green countryside, the roads had little traffic and everywhere lazed in an air of calm.
I based myself in Ceske Budejovice, the largest town close to the centre of the district. It’s a magnificent place, set at the point where the Malse flows into the River Vltava. The original layout of the town centre has remained largely unchanged since it was founded in the 13th century, and yet, despite its age, Ceske Budejovice retains a contemporary, almost youthful feel.
Being a university town certainly helps, and each evening the huge main square buzzes with chatter and laughter, as it becomes a focal point of the community. The buildings, spires and even the ornate Samson’s Fountain at its heart, are all beautifully lit, creating a magical atmosphere. During the daytime it’s far more relaxed, and I enjoyed the opportunity to stroll around, passing the hotchpotch of architectural styles – each seemingly grander than the last. Looking down on it all is the famous Black Tower, which has become a symbol of the town.
I was staying at the small but excellent – and appropriately named - Hotel Bohemia, close to the town centre. As I had hoped, being the capital of this region means there are excellent links both by road or public transport to all the surrounding areas. Trains are something Bohemia should know about, since it was here that the very first railway in mainland Europe ran.
The less hilly lands to the north and east of Ceske Budejovice are littered with deep blue lakes and rivers, creating a picturesque landscape against the equally deep green of the trees. My first stop was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular historic attractions. Overlooking Lake Bezdrev is the vast and imposing chateau at Hluboka nad Vltavou. The white stone towers rise dramatically from the surrounding forest, giving panoramic views and a sense of how dominant this must have been when it was first constructed.
A little further east is a wholly different type of chateau, although no less striking in its appearance. Together with the castle, it overlooks the river, and guards the historic town of Jindricuv Hradec. Circular towers, and curved, whitewashed fortifications are the style here. I spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the pretty old town centre, with its narrow lanes and steeply sloping red-tiled roofs. The roads in this area are good, even when staying away from the major routes to enjoy the smaller and more attractive country byways.
The range of architectural styles varies almost town by town, I suspect partly due to the region's location at the very heart of Europe. A lot is also owed, no doubt, to the various ruling dynasties, from different directions, that have played a part in the Czech Republic’s history.
In the north, for example, the buildings in the appealing town of Tabor are taller, more colourful, and less ornate. I walked into the old centre, taking time to visit the stark grey castle, and sat in a café near the church. I had noticed how many beautiful flower gardens there were near here, and the waiter explained that this area has wonderful soil, thanks to the extensive waterways, and is one of Europe’s best areas for peat.
To the south, I headed into the higher countryside close to the Austrian border, and the ancient town of Cesky Krumlov. Even as I approached, the huge chateau and castle complex that dominates the skyline hinted that something special was in store. I wasn’t disappointed. The twisting narrow lanes hail back to a time when horse and cart were dominant, and the Cesky lords were a force to be reckoned with. The chateau complex is the second largest building complex in the country, and enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. In the grounds is a popular theatre with revolving stage, and the magnificent interior, especially the Hall of Mirrors, is breathtaking.
I continued along the winding valley of the Vltava, to visit Bohemia’s largest and most important monastery complex. Just a couple of miles before you reach Austria is the walled town of Vyssi Brod. If I’m honest, from the outside I wasn’t so impressed. The tall slender church spire was notable, but the three-storey white buildings with their red-tiled roofs were nothing special, I thought. However, once inside it was a different matter. Exquisite Gothic-style paintings adorn the altar, and all manner of other treasures made this the most pleasantly surprising stop on my tour.
There is never enough time to see all – or even most – of an area properly on a brief visit. The best you can do is to try to get a good overall impression, and I felt I had done that in southern Bohemia. After a brief stop at Rozmberk Castle, overlooking a dramatic horseshoe bend in the river, it was time to take a leisurely, scenic drive back to Ceske Budejovice for my last night. I have visited different parts of the Czech Republic at various times, and it always has the ability to surprise and intrigue me… and I’ll be back for more soon!