Czech Life

From the outside, at least, the Czech Republic seems like a straightforward place. But look a little closer and this small, Central European country of just 10 million people reveals its societal complexities. While the Czech Republic is undeniably a country of beautiful churches and cathedrals, these days, the majority of the population are actually atheist or agnostic. And though overwhelmingly populated by Czechs, the country is also home to several immigrant communities, most notably from Vietnam and Ukraine.

A Nation of Czechs & Vietnamese

Compared with Western European countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands, the Czech Republic remains relatively homogenous. According to the 2011 census, nearly 95% of people living here identify themselves as either Czech or Moravian. (The figures mask the number of Roma in the country, estimated by the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre at somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.) Of the rest, only about 2% are Slovaks, with smaller numbers of Poles, Germans and Hungarians. But it wasn’t always this way. Until the start of WWII, the territory of Czechoslovakia was home to around three million ethnic Germans (about 30% of the total population at the time). Many of those people were either killed in the war or forcibly expelled in the months after the war ended.

What the census numbers don’t reflect, however, is the increasingly diverse mix of people coming into the Czech Republic to work, either permanently or temporarily. These include relatively large populations of Ukrainians and Russians, and, perhaps most curiously, Vietnamese. Partly because of close ties forged between the former communist government and the government of Vietnam, the Czech Republic has emerged as the destination of choice for Vietnamese people moving to Europe.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it’s thought that Vietnamese guest workers may total as many as 90,000. Indeed, the Vietnamese surname Nguyen is one of the more common family names in the country, according to a survey conducted by Czech website www.kdejsme.cz. Most Vietnamese people live in Prague or the western Bohemian city of Cheb. Many make a living by running neighbourhood grocery shops, known in Czech as a večerka.

A Modern Day Lack of Faith

Despite having an active and often violent religious history that stretches back several centuries, Czechs take a much more hands-off approach to the question of organised religion. Surveys indicate that well more than half of all Czechs are either atheists or agnostics. Just 16% or so of the population professes a strong belief in God, according to a 2010 Eurobarometer poll on the subject – that's the lowest percentage in the EU.

The largest church in the country is the Roman Catholic, which claims membership of around a third of the population (including, if the Eurobarometer numbers are to be trusted, a fair number of nonbelievers). This compares to neighbouring Poland, where 90% of the population say they are Catholic, and Slovakia, where the figure is around 70%. Protestant and other denominations make up another 5% or so.

A national scepticism towards organised faith can be traced as far back as Jan Hus in the 15th century. It was Hus, after all, who railed against the excesses of the Catholic Church in his day. In addition, Catholicism has always been bound to some degree with the Austrian conquest and overzealous efforts by Jesuit monks in the 16th and 17th centuries to convert the local population. In more recent times, the former communist government went out of its way to discourage organised religion, going so far as to lock up priests and close down churches.

There are anecdotal signs of a modest rebirth in faith. More and more couples are choosing to be married in a church, and parents are increasingly opting to baptise their children. Also, interest appears to be growing in more esoteric and spiritual beliefs.

Restitution for Churches

For the past 25 years, Czech courts have been busy adjudicating disputes between former property holders, who had their property seized by the communists in the late 1940s and 1950s, and the current owners – often the state.

While the law is complicated, in general if you lost property in the confiscations, you had a decent chance of getting it back. That is, unless you were a church. For years, both Catholic and Protestant groups had been lobbying the government to gain back their nationalised lands, churches and buildings. That effort finally bore fruit in 2015 with the implementation of a landmark government ruling that called for returning to the churches their land and buildings.

While the details are still being worked out, the law so far has provoked some unintended consequences: instead of helping the churches, in some cases it's actually hurt them. While many churches received a windfall in buildings and property, as part of the act they also lost state support for paying their employees. That's left many parishes with a big financial hole to fill.

World Beaters at Ice Hockey

Czechs excel at many international sports, including tennis and speed skating, but they are true masters when it comes to ice hockey. Since the debut of the annual World Hockey Championships in 1920, the Czech and Czechoslovak national teams have won gold no less than 12 times and taken home a total of 45 medals. Ice hockey plays such a role in the country’s psyche that if you ask a Czech what the most significant year was in modern history, you might not hear 1989 or 1968, but rather 1998. That was the year the Czechs beat the Russians 1-0 for gold at the Nagano Winter Olympics, and the country erupted with joy.

These successes are no doubt rooted in the competitive nature of the junior leagues all the way up to the country’s national hockey league, the Extraliga, where perennial powers HC Sparta Praha (www.hcsparta.cz) and HC Slavia Praha (www.hc-slavia.cz) battle for the top spot.

Czech players are a staple on the rosters of many teams in the North American National Hockey League. Past greats – and still household names – include Jaromír Jágr (b 1972), who won the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 1991 and '92, and who still plays for the NHL's Florida Panthers. Dominik Hašek (b 1965), the ‘Dominator’, was once regarded as the world’s best goaltender after winning a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2001.

Tennis

In addition to ice hockey, Czechs have excelled at international tennis. This is a source of national pride and the reason why nearly every park or field of green in the country has a tennis court nearby. Indeed, two of the sport’s all-time greatest players, Ivan Lendl (b 1960) and Martina Navrátilová (b 1956), honed their craft here before moving to the big stage. Lendl dominated the men's circuit for much of the 1980s, winning a total of 11 Grand Slam tennis titles and participating in some 19 finals matches (a record only broken in recent years by Roger Federer).

Navrátilová’s feats, if anything, are even more impressive. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, she won some 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including a whopping nine victories at Wimbledon, the last coming in 1990. At one point she won six Grand Slam singles titles in a row.

Czechs continue to do well in the international game. Two top Czech women are currently ranked in the top 10 of world players: Karolína Plíšková (b 1992) was the runner-up at the 2016 US Open and Petra Kvitová (b 1990) won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014. Another recent star is Tomáš Berdych (b 1985).

Where Tolerance Ends: Czechs & Roma

Generally speaking, Czechs are a remarkably tolerant people, with relatively open attitudes when it comes to race, religion and sexual preference. That tolerance tends to fly out the window, however, when discussing the subject of the country’s Roma minority.

The Roma, descendants of a tribe that migrated to Europe from India in the 10th century, have never been made to feel particularly welcome. Despite making up just 3% of the population (assuming an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Roma), they are a perpetual object of prejudice, harassment and occasional incidents of violence.

Part of the problem stems from communist-era housing policies that tended to group Roma populations together in run-down ghettos in city centres. Some Czechs living near Roma settlements feel that these areas tend to be unsightly, loud and dangerous.

There are no easy answers. Under increased pressure in recent years from international groups, Czech authorities have introduced more enlightened policies to try to educate and mainstream the Roma population. To date, these have had only mixed results.

The Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre is a watchdog organisation that has kept a close eye on Czech authorities grappling with a rise in anti-Roma violence. The group maintains an informative website at www.errc.org.

EU Scepticism

For a country that so passionately protested during the 1989 Velvet Revolution to rejoin the West and put itself back in the heart of Europe, it may come as a surprise for visitors to learn how unpopular the EU remains among many Czechs.

A recent survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found some 44% of Czechs believe that the country's membership in the union is disadvantageous. That figure is some 10 percentage points higher than the EU average. While support for the EU continues to drop nearly everywhere in Europe, Czechs rank towards the bottom in supporting the union.

The influence of former President Václav Klaus may be in part responsible for this sentiment. In office for 10 years until stepping down in 2013, Klaus fashioned himself as a disciple of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, including the 'Iron Lady’s' legendary derision for all things EU. Klaus was, among other things, heavily influential in the country's decision to postpone adoption of the euro until an unspecified point in the future.

Klaus's successor in office, Miloš Zeman, is similarly wary of the EU. Since taking office in 2013, the populist president has been openly critical of the EU, blaming it for the flow of Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015 and 2016, among other things. In mid-2016, he famously called for a national referendum on both EU and NATO membership, saying that Czechs must be permitted to exercise their opinions on both.

Regardless, the positive effect EU membership has had on the country is undeniable. Since the Czechs joined the bloc in 2004, billions of euros have poured across the border to help improve waste management, air and water quality and food-testing, as well as many other aspects of life. As you travel around the Czech Republic, amid all the construction, you will see that much of it has been funded by the EU.

Czechs' Best Friend

It’s sometimes said 'Russians love their children and Czechs love their dogs'. That’s not to say Czechs don’t love their kids (of course they do), but dogs occupy a special place in the hearts of many people here. Around 40% of Czech families own a dog (one of the highest ownership rates in Europe), and the most popular breeds remain those adorable apartment-sized ones, such as dachshunds, terriers and schnauzers. Among larger breeds, the most sought-after are German shepherds, Labradors and golden retrievers.

Czechs routinely bring their dogs along when they go out for dinner, and all but the fanciest restaurants normally allow dogs (on a leash) to accompany their owners. Waiters might even bring a bowl of water to the table and, indeed, many restaurants keep doggie water bowls on hand just for those occasions.

While it’s normally OK to allow a dog to run free in a park (and leash laws are routinely ignored), there are special occasions when dogs are legally required to be leashed. The most common, of course, is on public transport. Large dogs should also normally be muzzled on trams and metros. In Prague, you're also expected to buy your dog a fare – 16Kč a ride. Fines for not obeying the rules are steep.

About the only time dogs run foul of Czech society is when it comes to soiling footpaths. In recent years, efforts to keep roads and pavements free of dog doo-doo have gained pace, and in many places around the country you’ll see stands with paper bags for owners to clean up after their animals.

Oddly, when it comes to naming their dogs, Czechs seem to have a soft spot for English names. As you wander about and see the dogs romping around, don’t be surprised to hear 'Joey' or 'Blackie' or 'Jeffie'. That’s simply a local resident calling his or her canine in. Most likely, it’s time to go home.

Sidebar: English News Websites

  • České noviny (www.ceskenoviny.cz/news)
  • Radio Prague (www.radio.cz/en)
  • Prague Daily Monitor (www.praguemonitor.com)
  • Expats.cz (www.expats.cz/news)

Sidebar: Restricted Service

The communists discouraged priesthood and church attendance. Priests were hounded by the StB (Státní bezpečnost, the Czech secret service) and people who attended services were persecuted. Priests were ordained in secret and performed religious rites behind closed doors.

Sidebar: Refugee Crisis

After hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees crossed into the EU in 2015 and 2016, the Czech Government voted against EU relocation proposals to relieve pressure on countries such as Italy and Greece. By 2016, only 1156 Middle Eastern refugees had applied for asylum in the Czech Republic.

Sidebar: Guest Workers by Country

  • Ukraine (130,000 estimated)
  • Slovakia (100,000)
  • Vietnam (90,000)
  • Russia (40,000)

Sidebar: Gay Pride

The Czech Republic has earned a reputation for its acceptance of homosexuality. The country's first gay-pride march, in Prague in 2011, drew thousands onto the capital's streets. The event, held in August, is now a staple of the summer calendar.

Sidebar: EU Membership

The Czech Republic, along with nine other countries mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, joined the EU on 1 May 2004. It was the EU’s biggest-ever expansion.

The Arts

Czechs have always been active contributors to the arts, and no trip to the country would be complete without a stroll through the museums and galleries to admire the work of local painters, photographers and sculptors. In the evening, you'll be spoiled for choice with offerings of classical music, jazz and rock. Two Czechs, Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, are household names in classical music. Czechs are less well known outside the country for visual arts, but are still impressive in this field.

Music

Czechs have eclectic tastes, ranging from the ever-popular Mozart, who conducted the premier of Don Giovanni in Prague in 1787, to Elton John, who sold out Prague's 18,000-seat O2 Arena in a matter of hours in 2016.

The rock and pop scene has evolved greatly since 1989, when it was dominated by dissident-era rock bands and highly influential (but well past their prime) international acts like the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones. Those bands were soon drowned out by a flood of international acts and newer trends like electronic music, trance, techno, hip-hop, rap, world and indie. One of the surprise bands to emerge in recent years has been Čechomor, which combines harmonies and Czech folk traditions in songs that are simple and yet hauntingly beautiful.

Classical

Classical music has a long, rich tradition in the Czech Republic, and Czechs have basked for centuries in the reputation that they know good music when they hear it. It was audiences in Prague, after all, who first ‘discovered’ the genius of Mozart long before the listening public in Mozart’s home country of Austria warmed to the composer.

Early classical music was heavily influenced by Austrian composers, but began to develop distinctly Czech strains in the mid-19th century with the Czech National Revival. As part of this national awakening, Czech composers consciously drew on Czech folk music and historical legends for their compositions. The best-known composer to emerge from this period was Bedřich Smetana (1824–84). While Smetana wrote several operas and symphonies, his signature work remains his Moldau (Vltava) symphony.

Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904) is the composer that most non-Czechs will have heard of. He too was heavily influenced by the Czech National Revival, which inspired his two Slavonic Dances (1878 and 1881), the operas Rusalka and Čert a Kača (The Devil and Kate), and his religious masterpiece, Stabat Mater. Dvořák spent four years in the US, where he composed his famous Symphony No 9, From the New World.

Czech mastery of classical music continued into the 20th century, with the compositions of Moravian-born Leoš Janáček (1854–1928). Janáček’s music is an acquired taste, though once you have developed an ear for his haunting violin strains, it tends to stay with you. Janáček's better-known compositions include the operas Cunning Little Vixen and Káťa Kabanová, as well as the Glagolská mše (Glagolitic Mass).

In recent times, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (b 1973) is a leading light in the younger generation of opera singers. She has carved out a career as a major concert and recital artist – performing at the Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Edinburgh festivals, among others – and has recorded best-selling albums of Mozart arias, French baroque music and Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

Jazz

Jazz imported from the US first burst onto the local scene in the 1930s, and has remained a fixture of the Prague music scene ever since (though it was frowned upon by the communist authorities as decadent Western art in the late 1940s and '50s).

Czech jazz came into its own in the 1960s, and one of the top bands of this period was SH Quartet, which played for three years at Reduta Jazz Club, the city’s first professional jazz club. The club is still going strong (though it's no longer quite the centre of the jazz scene). Another leading band from this period was Junior Trio, with Jan Hamr (b 1948) and brothers Miroslav and Allan Vitouš, all of whom left for the US after 1968. Hamr became prominent in American music circles in the 1970s and '80s, scoring films and television shows, as Jan Hammer. Hammer's theme music for the popular 1980s TV series, Miami Vice, reached number one on the Billboard hits chart in 1985.

Today, the scene feels no less relevant, particularly so in the capital. On any given night in Prague, you can catch a number of decent shows at one of several active jazz clubs.

Rock & Pop

Rock has played an outsized role in Czech history, perhaps to an extent unique among European nations. It was rock (or more specifically the rock of the US band the Velvet Underground and clandestine Czech counterparts such as the Plastic People of the Universe) that nurtured and sustained the anticommunist movement in the 1970s and '80s. Late former president Václav Havel was a huge fan, and numbered among his closest friends the members of the Rolling Stones, the late Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed, and even late absurdist rocker Frank Zappa.

Rock music blossomed during the political thaw of the mid-1960s and home-grown rock acts began to emerge, showing the heavy influence of bands such as the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones. The local 1967 hit single 'Želva' ('Turtle') by the band Olympic bears the unmistakable traces of mid-decade Beatles. One of the biggest stars of the time was pop singer Marta Kubišová (b 1942). Kubišová was officially banned by the communists after the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, though she was rehabilitated after 1989 and still occasionally performs. Her voice and songs, to this day, capture something of that fated optimism of the 1960s, pre-invasion period.

The Warsaw Pact invasion silenced the rock revolution. Many bands were prohibited from openly performing or recording. In their place, the authorities encouraged more anodyne singers such as Helena Vondráčková (b 1947) and Karel Gott (b 1939). Many popular songs from those days, such as Gott’s classic 'Je jaká je' ('She is What She is'), are simply Czech covers of the most innocuous Western music of the day.

Rock became heavily politicised in the 1980s in the run-up to the Velvet Revolution. Hardcore experimental bands such as the Plastic People of the Universe were forced underground and developed big cult followings. Another banned performer, Karel Kryl (1944–94), became an unofficial bard of the people, singing from his West German exile. His album Bratříčku, Zavírej Vrátka (O’ Brother, Shut the Door) came to symbolise the hopelessness of the Soviet-led invasion and the decades that followed.

The Velvet Revolution opened the door to a flood of influences from around the world. Early '90s Czech bands such as rockers Lucie and Žlutý pes soon gave way to a variety of sounds, from the Nina Hagen–like screeching of Lucie Bílá to the avant-garde chirping of Iva Bittová, in addition to a flood of mainstream Czech acts. The best of these included Psí Vojáci, Buty, Laura a její tygři, Už jsme doma and Support Lesbiens.

A look at the list of top music acts today shows the charts still dominated by old-schoolers such as Gott and Bílá, but a couple of fresher faces have emerged, including teen idol, pop-rocker Tomáš Kluš, pop balladeer Kryštof, indie folk singer Lenka Dusilová, and hip retro-folk acts like Čechomor and Zrní.

Iconic Czech Songs

Czechs tend to be patriotic when it comes to their own music. Pop songs from the 1960s and '70s are beloved because they’re sappy and inflected with nostalgia for simpler times. Tunes from the 1990s and 2000s tend to sound more authentic, with a harder edge. Together they form the perfect soundtrack when streaming from your music player as you stroll around town. Here is a highly subjective list of favourites:

  • Trezor (Safe; 1964) by Karel Gott. The Czech crooner extraordinaire is still going strong today.
  • Želva (Turtle; 1967) By Olympic. The Czech ‘Beatles’ in their day had the moves, the tunes and the hair.
  • Stín Katedrál (1968) By Václav Neckář and Helena Vondráčková. One of the most beautiful pop songs to emerge from the 1960s.
  • Modlitba pro Martu (Prayer for Marta; 1969) By Marta Kubišová. A sad song that for many Czechs still instantly recalls the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion and clampdown that followed.
  • Bratříčku, Zavírej Vrátka (O’ Brother, Shut the Door; 1969) By Karel Kryl. ‘Shut the door’ echoes the hopelessness many felt after the Warsaw Pact invasion.
  • Sluneční hrob (Sunny Tomb; 1969) By Blue Effect. This progressive rock, jazz fusion hit is arguably the best song to come out of a very good decade for music.
  • Láska je láska (Love is Love; 1995) By Lucie Bílá. The ballad of mid-'90s Prague from a tough woman with a voice you won’t soon forget.
  • Proměny (2006) By Čechomor. Beautiful music from a band that almost single-handedly made folk music hip again.
  • Falling Slowly (2007) By Markéta Irglova and Glen Hansard. Addictive Czech/Irish tearjerker that won an Oscar for the film Once.
  • Pocity (Feelings; 2013) By Tomáš Kluš. Likeable teen pop of the type designed to make young hearts swoon.

Visual Arts

Ask about Czech visual arts and many visitors will probably draw a blank. Some may be able to conjure up art-nouveau images by Alfons Mucha, but that’s about it. However, the Czech Republic has much more to offer than Mucha’s sultry maidens. The country has both a long tradition of avant-garde photography and a rich heritage of public sculpture, ranging from the baroque period to the present day.

Painting

The Czech Republic can look back on at least seven centuries of painting, starting with the luminously realistic 14th-century works of Magister Theodoricus (Master Theodorus). His paintings, which hang in the Chapel of the Holy Cross at Karlštejn Castle and in the Chapel of St Wenceslas in Prague's St Vitus Cathedral, influenced art throughout Central Europe. Another gem of Czech Gothic art is a late-14th-century altar panel by an artist known only as the Master of the Třeboň Altar; what remains of it is at the Convent of St Agnes in Prague’s Old Town.

The Czech National Revival in the 19th century witnessed the return of a Czech style of realism, in particular by Mikuláš Aleš and father and son Antonín and Josef Mánes. The National Revival sought to emphasise the natural beauty of the Czech countryside, and landscape painting from this time is soul-stirringly beautiful. You can see some of it at the National Gallery's Veletržní Palác in Prague.

In the early 20th century, Prague and Brno became centres of avant-garde art. One of the most important groups of early trendsetters was the Prague-based 'Osma' (The Eight). The capital was also a focus for cubist painters, including Josef Čapek (1887–1945) and the aptly named Bohumil Kubišta (1884–1918). The functionalist movement flourished between WWI and WWII in a group called Devětsíl, led by the adaptable Karel Teige (1900–51). Surrealists followed, including Zdeněk Rykr (1900–40) and Josef Šima (1891–1971). Many of the best works from this period hang in the National Gallery's Modern and Contemporary Art Exhibition at Veletržní Palác.

Visual arts were driven underground during the Nazi occupation, and in the early years of the communist period painters were forced to work in the official socialist realist style, usually depicting workers and peasants building the workers’ state. Underground painters included Jiří Kolář (1914–2002), an outstanding graphic artist and poet whose name when pronounced sounds something like 'collage' – one of his favourite art forms.

The Underappreciated Alfons Mucha

Alfons Mucha (1860–1939) is probably the most famous visual artist to come out of the Czech lands, though because he attained his fame mostly in Paris, and not in his home country, his reputation remains more exalted abroad than in the Czech Republic.

Mucha is best known for his poster of French actress Sarah Bernhardt, promoting her new play at the time, Giselda. The poster, with its tall, narrow format, muted colours, rich decoration and sensual beauty, created a sensation. You can see the original lithograph at Prague's Mucha Museum.

Although firmly associated with art nouveau, Mucha himself claimed he did not belong to any one artistic movement, and saw his work as part of a natural evolution of Czech art. His commitment to the culture and tradition of his native land was expressed in the second half of his career, when he worked on the decoration of the Lord Mayor’s Hall in Prague’s Municipal House, designed new stamps and banknotes, and created a superb stained-glass window for St Vitus Cathedral.

He devoted 18 years of his life (1910–28) to creating his Slovanská epopej (Slav Epic), which he later donated to the Czech nation. The 20 monumental canvasses encompass a total area of around 0.5 sq km and depict events from Slavic history and myth. The massive work is on a long-term tour of Asia and is still looking for a permanent home.

Photography

Czech photographers have always been at the forefront of the medium. The earliest photographers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, worked in the pictorialist style, which viewed photography as an extension of painting.

It was after independence in 1918 and during the 1920s and '30s that early modern styles captured the Czech imagination. Local photographers seized on trends such as cubism, functionalism, dadaism and surrealism, turning out jarring abstracts that still look fresh today. Two of the best photographers from that time include František Drtikol (1883–1961) and Jaroslav Rössler (1902–90).

During communism, photography was enlisted in the service of promoting the workers’ state. Picture books from that time are comically filled with images of tractors, factories and housing projects. Serious photographers turned inward and intentionally chose subjects – such as landscapes and still lifes – that were, at least superficially, devoid of political content. Arguably, the best Czech photographer from this time was Josef Sudek (1896–1976). During a career that spanned five decades, Sudek turned his lens on the city of Prague to absolutely stunning effect.

Current Czech bad-boy photographer Jan Saudek (b 1935) continues to delight his fans (or dismay his critics) with his dreamlike, hand-tinted prints that evoke images of utopia or dystopia – usually involving a nude or semi-nude woman or child.

Sculpture

Public sculpture has always played a prominent role in the Czech Republic, from the baroque saints that line the parapets of Charles Bridge in the capital (and churches around the country) to the monumental statue of Stalin that once faced Prague's Old Town from atop Letná Hill. More often than not, that role has been a political one.

In the baroque era, religious sculptures sprouted in public places; they included ‘Marian columns’ erected in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for protection against the plague or victory over anti-Catholic enemies. One such Marian column stood in Prague's Old Town Square from 1650 until 1918. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the Holy Trinity Column, still standing in Olomouc.

The placing of the statue of St John of Nepomuk on Prague's Charles Bridge in 1683 was a conscious act of propaganda designed to create a new – and Catholic – Czech national hero who would displace the Protestant reformer Jan Hus. And it was successful. John of Nepomuk was canonised in 1729 and the Nepomuk legend, invented by the Jesuits, has passed into the collective memory.

The period of the Czech National Revival saw the nation's sculpture take a different tack – to raise public awareness of Czech traditions and culture. One of the most prolific sculptors of this period was Josef Václav Myslbek, whose famous statue of St Wenceslas, the Czech patron saint, dominates the upper end of the capital's Wenceslas Square.

The art-nouveau sculptor Ladislav Šaloun was responsible for one of Prague’s most iconic sculptures, the monument to Jan Hus that was unveiled in the Old Town Square in 1915 (to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Hus being burned at the stake).

Probably the most imposing and visible sculpture in the Czech Republic – and reputedly the biggest equestrian statue in the world – is the huge, mounted figure of Hussite hero Jan Žižka that dominates the skyline above the Prague working-class district of Žižkov (the city district named after him).

Weird Art of David Černý

David Černý’s sculpture is often controversial, occasionally outrageous and always amusing. Although temporary Černý installations occasionally pop up here and there, the following are permanently on view in Prague:

Quo Vadis (1991) In the garden of the German embassy in Malá Strana. A Trabant (an East German car) on four human legs serves as a monument to the thousands of East Germans who fled the communist regime in 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and who camped out in the embassy garden seeking political asylum.

Viselec (1997) Above Husova street, Staré Město. A bearded, bespectacled chap with a passing resemblance to Sigmund Freud, casually dangling by one hand from a pole way above the street.

Kun (1999) In the Lucerna Palace shopping arcade, Nové Město. Amusing alternative version of the famous St Wenceslas Statue in Wenceslas Square, only this time the horse is upside down.

Miminka (2000) On the TV Tower, Žižkov. Creepy, giant, slot-faced babies crawling all over a TV transmitter tower – something to do with our attachment to media. We think.

Brownnosers (2003) In the Futura Gallery, Smíchov. Stick your head up a statue’s backside and watch a video of the former Czech president and the director of the National Gallery feeding each other baby food.

Proudy (2004) In the courtyard of Hergetova Cihelná, Malá Strana. Two guys pissing in a puddle (whose irregular outline, you’ll notice, is actually the map outline of the Czech Republic) and spelling out famous quotations from Czech literature with their pee. (Yes, the sculpture moves! It’s computer controlled.)

K (2013) In the courtyard above the Národní třída metro station in Nové Město. This rotating bust of Franz Kafka, carved from 39 tonnes of mirrored stainless steel, plays on notions of Kafka’s tortured personality and self-doubt.

Theatre

Theatre remains a popular and vital art form in the Czech Republic. Openings for key performances, such as Tom Stoppard’s riveting Rock ’n’ Roll at Prague's National Theatre or Václav Havel’s acclaimed Odcházení (Leaving) at Archa Theatre, are often sold out months in advance and duly discussed in the papers and by the public for weeks after.

Unfortunately for non-Czech-speakers, much of the action remains inaccessible. Occasionally, big theatrical events will be subtitled in English, but the bread and butter of Czech drama is performed in Czech. In Prague, two theatres, Archa and the Švandovo Divadlo Na Smíchově, are committed to English-friendly performances and occasionally host English drama in the original language. Outside of the capital, non-Czech performances are rare indeed.

Theatre has always played a strong role in Czech national consciousness, both as a way of promoting linguistic development and defending the fledgling culture against the dominant Habsburg, German and later communist influences. Historical plays with a nationalist subtext flourished during the 19th century as part of the Czech National Revival.

The decade-long construction of the National Theatre in Prague, and its opening in 1881, was considered a watershed in Czech history. The theatre tragically burned down shortly after opening but was completely rebuilt, following a public outcry, just two years later.

Drama flourished in the early years of independent Czechoslovakia in the 1920s and '30s, but suffered under the Nazi occupation, when many Czech-language theatres were closed or converted into German theatres. Under communism, classical performances were of a high quality, but the modern scene was largely stifled. Many fine plays during this period, including those by Havel, were not performed locally because of their antigovernment tone, but appeared in the West.

The centrality of theatre to Czech life was confirmed in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution, when Havel and his Civic Forum movement chose to base themselves at Prague's Laterna Magika theatre for their epic negotiations to push the communists from power.

Sidebar: Best Classical Music Festivals

  • Prague Spring (www.festival.cz)
  • Prague Proms (www.pragueproms.cz)
  • Dvořák Festival (www.dvorakovapraha.cz)
  • International Music Festival of Český Krumlov (www.festivalkrumlov.cz)
  • Janáčkovy Hukvaldy (www.janackovyhukvaldy.cz)

Sidebar: Best Books by Václav Havel

  • To the Castle and Back (2008)
  • Open Letters, Selected Writings (1992)
  • Disturbing the Peace (1991)
  • Summer Meditations (1991)

Sidebar: Smetana’s Moldau

Smetana’s Moldau (Vltava) is arguably the most-beloved piece of classical music among Czechs and is traditionally played to start the annual Prague Spring music festival.

Sidebar: Audience Favourite

Mozart actively embraced Czech audiences. Following the premiere of his opera Don Giovanni in Prague’s Estates Theatre in 1787, he famously said of his adoring Prague public, ‘My Praguers understand me’.

Sidebar: Theme Song

Jan Hammer’s theme song for the popular 1980s TV show Miami Vice remains one of the most popular jazz recordings of all time, selling some four million copies in the US alone.

Sidebar: Communist-era Crooners

Communist-era crooners Helena Vondráčková and Karel Gott are still going strong today, and if you're lucky, you might be able to catch an occasional performance in Prague.

Sidebar: Slav Epic

For decades, Mucha’s Slav Epic was on display in the remote town of Moravský Krumlov, 200km southeast of Prague. For a few years until 2016, the panels were exhibited at Prague's Veletržní Palác. The art works are now on a long-term tour of Asia. Where they'll go after that is anyone's guess.

Sidebar: Puppetry

Marionette plays have been popular since the 16th century, and puppet plays since before that. This form peaked in the 17th and early 18th centuries. A legendary figure was Matěj Kopecký (1775–1847), who performed original pieces.

Sidebar: Rock 'n' Roll

Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose legendarily opened his May 1992 concert at Prague’s Strahov stadium with the words, ‘OK, you ex-commie bastards, it’s time to rock and roll!’

Sidebar: Pop Music

An unavoidable part of the modern Czech music scene is a strong nostalgia for the 1980s and '90s (and not necessarily the hits). Popular radio stations play a syrupy mix of Bryan Adams, Queen, Kylie Minogue and Roxette, among others.

Sidebar: Street Art

Street art has long been a legitimate form of dissent in the Czech Republic. In the 1980s, the Lennon Peace Wall in Prague's Malá Strana was a vital anticommunist protest space (long before it became a tourist attraction). The capital's Chemistry Gallery, in Holešovice, exhibits some of the best street art today.

Sidebar: Controversial Sculpture

A number of David Černý’s works are on display around the Czech capital, including the ‘Babies’ that can be seen climbing the side of the Žižkov TV Tower.

The Czech Republic on Page & Screen

For a relatively small country, the Czech Republic has made some outsized contributions to world literature and film. One of the most influential authors of the 20th century, Franz Kafka, was born and raised in Prague, while grad-school heavyweight Milan Kundera hails from Brno. In film, the same keen, comic eye for the day-to-day animates directors and film-makers. That sensibility triumphed in the 1960s as the Czech New Wave took the world by storm with its bittersweet take on mundane life in a dysfunctional dictatorship.

Czechs in Print

The communist period produced two Czech writers of world standing, both of whom hail originally from Brno: Milan Kundera (b 1929) and Bohumil Hrabal (1914–97). For many visitors, Kundera remains the undisputed champ. His wryly told stories weave elements of humour and sex along with liberal doses of music theory, poetry and philosophy that appeal to both our low- and high-brow literary selves. His best-known book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (also made into a successful film in 1988), is set in Prague in the uncertain days before the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion. Look out, too, for Kundera's The Joke and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Ask any Czech who their favourite author is and chances are they will say Hrabal. His writing captures what Czechs like best about themselves – a keen wit, a sense of the absurd and a fondness for beer. Hrabal is also a great storyteller, and popular novels such as I Served the King of England (1971) and The Little Town Where Time Stood Still (1974) are both entertaining and insightful. Hrabal died in 1997 in classic Czech fashion: falling from a window. In 2014, US-based Archipelago Books published a new translation in English of Hrabal's Harlequin’s Millions.

Other major talents who came of age during the period from the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 to the 1989 Velvet Revolution include Ivan Klíma (b 1931) and Josef Škvorecký (1924–2012). Klíma, who survived the WWII Terezín concentration camp as a child and who still lives in Prague, is probably best known for his collections of bittersweet short stories of life in the 1970s and '80s, such as My First Loves and My Merry Mornings. Klíma's long-awaited memoir My Crazy Century was published by Grove Press in 2013.

There’s no shortage of new Czech literary talent. Names such as Jáchym Topol (b 1962), Petra Hůlová (b 1979), Michal Viewegh (b 1962), Michal Ajvaz (b 1949), Emil Hakl (b 1958) and Miloš Urban (b 1967) are taking their places among the country’s leading authors, pushing out old-guard figures such as Kundera and Klíma, who are now seen as chroniclers of a very different age.

Until relatively recently, few books from these younger novelists had been translated into English. That’s changing slowly, however, as the writers start to find an audience in English. In 2013, Portobello Books published Topol's acclaimed The Devil's Workshop. This followed successful debuts in English for Hůlová's All this Belongs to Me, and Urban's thriller The Seven Churches, among others, a couple of years earlier.

Franz Kafka & His Contemporary

No discussion of 'Czech' literature would be complete without a discussion of Franz Kafka (1883–1924), easily the best-known writer to have ever lived in the country and the author of modern classics The Trial and The Castle, among many others. Though Kafka was German-speaking and Jewish, he’s as thoroughly connected to the Czech capital as any Czech writer could be. Kafka's birthplace is just a stone’s throw from Prague's Old Town Square and the author rarely strayed more than a couple of hundred metres in any direction during the course of his short life.

Kafka’s Czech contemporary, and polar opposite, was the pub scribe Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923), author of The Good Soldier Švejk, a book that is both loved and reviled in equal doses. For those who get the jokes, it is a comic masterpiece of a bumbling, likeable Czech named Švejk and his (intentional or not) efforts to avoid military service for Austria-Hungary during WWI. Some Czechs, however, tend to bridle at the assertion that an idiot like Švejk could somehow embody any national characteristic.

Best Post-'89 Czech Literature

More and more books by younger Czech writers are finding English-language publishers. Here's a short list of favourites:

  • The Seven Churches (Miloš Urban, 2011) A brilliant modern-day Gothic murder story set among the seven major churches of Prague’s Nové Město by one of the rising stars of Czech literature.
  • All this Belongs to Me (Petra Hůlová, 2009) Hůlová’s debut novel chronicles the lives of three generations of women living in Mongolia. It was a local sensation on its first Czech printing in 2002.
  • Bringing Up Girls in Bohemia (Michal Viewegh, 1996) Humorously captures the early years of newly capitalist Prague.
  • The Devil's Workshop (Jáchym Topol, 2013) Translated by Alex Zucker, this darkly tragi-comic novel weaves in elements of modern-day Terezín, overrun by tourism, with Holocaust memories from nearby Belarus.

Czechs on Film

Though films have been made on the territory of the Czech Republic since the dawn of motion pictures in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1960s and the Czech New Wave that Czechoslovak film finally caught the attention of international audiences.

Despite being under communism, the 1960s was a decade of relative artistic freedom, and talented young directors such as Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel crafted bittersweet films that charmed moviegoers with their grit and wit, while at the same time poking critical fun at their communist overlords. During that decade, Czechoslovak films twice won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film: Little Shop on Main Street in 1965 and Closely Watched Trains in 1967. Forman eventually left the country and went on to win Best Picture Oscars for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.

After the Velvet Revolution, Czech directors struggled to make meaningful films, given the lack of funding, strong international competition and nonstop critical comparison to the high standards set during the New Wave. That said, younger directors have had some success in crafting smaller, ensemble-driven films that focus on the hardships and moral ambiguities of life in a society rapidly transitioning from communism to capitalism.

Films such as David Ondříček’s Loners (2000), Jan Hřebejk’s Up and Down (2004), Sasha Gedeon’s Return of the Idiot (1999), Bohdan Sláma’s Something Like Happiness (2005) and Petr Zelenka’s Wrong Side Up (2005) are all different, yet each explores the familiar dark terrain of money, marital problems and shifting moral sands.

A Taste For Historical Films

In more recent years, historical films have made a big comeback, particularly films that explore WWII and the Nazi and communist periods. The best include director Adam Dvořák’s Lidice (2011), Hřebejk’s Kawasaki Rose (2009), Tomáš Lunák‘s Alois Nebel (2010), Helena Třeštíková's Lída Baarová – Doomed Beauty (2016) and Sean Ellis's Anthropoid (2016). The latter was a joint international effort that tells the story of the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in 1942 and the subsequent hiding and capture of the paratroopers who killed him.

In 2013, HBO released a critically acclaimed three-part miniseries, Burning Bush, on Jan Palach, the Czech student who immolated himself in 1969 to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country the previous year. The work of prominent Polish director Agnieszka Holland, the series is widely available on DVD.

Running slightly against this grain – at least in the sense of pursuing a more international audience – has been director Jan Svěrák, who continues to make big-budget films on more general themes. In 1996 he took home the country’s first Oscar since the 1960s – for the film Kolja.

Hollywood Discovers the Czech Republic

In addition to Czech films, the Czech Republic has managed to position itself as a lower-cost production centre for Hollywood films. Part of the pitch has been the excellent production facilities at the Barrandov studios, south of central Prague in Smíchov. The effort has paid off and dozens of big-budget films and television shows, including the first instalment of Tom Cruise’s epic Mission Impossible (1996), have been filmed here.

Best New Wave Films

Many of the best Czech films from the 1960s are available on DVD or through streaming services such as Netflix. A few all-time classics include:

  • Closely Watched Trains (1966) Jiří Menzel’s adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal’s comic WWII classic set in a small railway town won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1967 and put the Czech New Wave on the international radar. Watch for the scene where young Miloš gently broaches the subject of premature ejaculation with an older woman while she lovingly strokes the neck of a goose.
  • Loves of a Blonde (1965) Miloš Forman’s bittersweet love story between a naïve girl from a small factory town and her more sophisticated Prague beau. Arguably Forman’s finest film, effortlessly capturing both the innocence and the hopelessness of those grey days of the mid-1960s.
  • Black Peter (1963) This early Forman effort wowed the New York critics on its debut with its cinematic allusions to the French New Wave and its slow but mesmerising teenage-boy-comes-of-age story line.

Sidebar: Hollywood Films Shot in the Czech Republic

  • Amadeus (1980)
  • Mission Impossible (1996)
  • Everything Is Illuminated (2005)
  • Casino Royale (2006)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
  • The Illusionist (2006)
  • Anthropoid (2016)

Sidebar: Karel Čapek

The Czech language is highly inflected, giving writers ammunition to build layers of meaning simply by playing with tenses and endings. The undisputed master was interwar writer Karel Čapek, author of several novels, including the science-fiction work RUR, from where the modern word ‘robot’ derives.

Sidebar: Expat Envy

The 2002 bestseller Prague by American writer Arthur Phillips is not actually set in the Czech capital, but in Budapest in the 1990s. Phillips apparently chose the title to reflect the envy his expat characters felt for their countrymen hanging out and partying at the time in the Czech capital.

Sidebar: Czech Poets

Czech contributions to literature are not limited to fiction. Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert (1901–86) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984, though Seifert is not universally considered by Czechs to be their best poet. That distinction often belongs to poet-scientist Miroslav Holub (1923–98).

Sidebar: Jan Švankmajer

Czech film-maker Jan Švankmajer is celebrated for his bizarre, surrealist animation work and stop-motion feature films, including his 1988 version of Alice in Wonderland (Něco z Alenky) and his 1994 classic, Faust (Lekce Faust).

A Nation of Beer Lovers

No matter how many times you tell yourself, ‘today is an alcohol-free day’, Czech beer (pivo) will be your undoing. Light, clear, refreshing and cheaper than water, Czech beer is recognised as one of the world’s best – the Czechs claim it’s so pure it’s impossible to get a hangover from drinking it. (Scientific tests conducted by Lonely Planet writers have found this to be not entirely true.) Brewing traditions go back nearly 1000 years, and the beer has only gotten better since then.

Types of Czech Beers

Nearly all Czech beers are bottom-fermented lagers, naturally brewed using Moravian malt and hand-picked hops from Žatec in northwestern Bohemia. The brewing and fermentation process normally uses only natural ingredients – water, hops, yeast and barley – though some brewers these days use a chemically modified hops extract that, regrettably, probably wouldn’t pass German purity laws.

While both light – světlé – and dark – tmavé or černé – beers are readily available, the overwhelming favourite among Czech drinkers remains the classic golden lager, or pilsner, developed in the city of Plzeň in the mid-19th century. These light lagers are marked by a tart flavour and crisp finish. It’s worth pointing out that the word ‘light’ here refers to colour and is not to be confused with the light, low-calorie beers sold in the US and other countries.

Dark beers are slowly gaining in popularity but run a distant second to light beers at most pubs, and among old-school beer drinkers dark beers still retain a faint wisp of not being entirely a man's drink. It's perfectly acceptable, even common, in pubs to order half and half, a Czech ‘black and tan’, known locally as řezané pivo (literally 'cut' beer). This is an agreeable compromise that reduces the tartness of the pilsner without adding the heaviness of a dark beer.

Czech beer drinkers are conservative, and more exotic brews such as wheat beer (pšeničné pivo) and yeast beer (kvasnicové pivo) have only recently begun to gain traction. You’ll rarely find these at traditional pubs, but they’re often a staple at the growing number of brewpubs and at more modern, multi-tap places that specialise in a wider variety of beers.

Drinking By Degrees

By tradition, Czech beers are usually labelled either dvanáctka (12°) or desítka (10°) – or sometimes even a jedenáctka (11°) – a designation that can lead to understandable confusion among visitors. This measure does not refer directly to the percentage of alcohol; instead, it's an indicator of specific gravity known as the ‘Balling’ rating (invented by Czech scientist Karl Josef Balling in the 19th century).

In technical speak, 1° Balling represents 1% by weight of malt-derived sugar in the brewing liquid before fermentation. In practice, a typical 12° brew, such as Pilsner Urquell, tends to be richer in flavour (as well as being slightly stronger in alcohol) than a 10° label, such as Gambrinus, which will be slightly sweeter and less bitter.

Czech beers are also rated according to the alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content, and the law recognises a handful of categories: 'výčepní pivo' (less than 4.5% ABV), 'ležák' (4.5% to 5.5% ABV) and 'special' (more than 5.5% ABV).

The Land of the Giants

Although there are more than 100 breweries around the country, the local market is dominated by a handful of giants. The largest and most important remains the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Plzeň, which in December 2016 was sold to Japan's Asahi Group after having been part of SABMiller's beer portfolio for several years. Pilsner Urquell produces not only its signature 12° brew, but also the 10° Gambrinus (often shortened to 'Gambáč' and inexplicably the country's most popular beer) and Velkopopovický Kozel. Pilsner Urquell pubs around the country, including the brewery's own chain of casual restaurants, often called Pilsner Urquell Original, will normally carry the first two beers, and usually the dark version of Kozel.

The country’s number-two brewer is Prague-based Staropramen, owned by American giant Molson Coors. The company's brands include the flagship Staropramen lager and Granát, a semi-dark, as well as international names such as Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, which are produced under licence. Staropramen pubs, including the ubiquitous brewery-owned chain Potrefena Husa, usually carry the brewer's light lagers (including an increasingly popular unfiltered variety), as well as Stella, Hoegaarden and occasionally Leffe. While it was once viewed as nothing short of blasphemy to order a Stella in a Czech pub, we’ve – gasp – even seen Czechs do it.

Beers made by Budvar (Budweiser) of České Budějovice, the country's third-biggest brewer, are a little harder to find in Prague but are common throughout southern Bohemia and much of the rest of the country. The brewery's 12° premium lager is worth seeking out, as its highly regarded premium dark. The Budvar Brewery is partly state-owned and, despite a long-running battle with the far-larger US-based Budweiser, owned by the Anheuser-Busch InBev group, and persistent rumours of an imminent privatisation, it remains the only major brewery in the country that's still 100% Czech-owned.

Microbrewers & Multi-Tap Pubs

The takeover of the Czech Republic's breweries by multinational companies has been accompanied by a welcome resurgence of interest in traditional beer-making and a growing appreciation for smaller and regional breweries.

The microbrew trend is most pronounced in Prague, which boasts more than a dozen brewpubs where DIY brewers proffer their own concoctions, usually accompanied by decent-to-very-good traditional Czech cooking. Because of the discerning beer-drinking public, standards are remarkably high. Additionally, these pubs are often free to experiment with more exotic variations, such as wheat- and yeast-based beers or fruit-infusions, that bigger breweries seem loathe to take on.

Alongside this brew-your-own trend, there’s been a similar increase in the number of taverns that offer beers produced by the country’s smaller, but highly regarded, regional breweries. This represents a change in how pubs normally operate. Traditionally, the big national brewers have forced exclusivity deals on pubs whereby the pubs agree to sell only that brewer’s beer in exchange for publicity material, discounts, and mountains of swag such as beer mats and ashtrays. Increasingly, however, more and more pubs are setting aside a ‘fourth tap’ (čtvrtá pípa in Czech) for dispensing independently sourced smaller brews of invariably excellent quality.

The big brewers are not taking the trends lying down. To compete with the microbrews, the larger breweries have come up with no end of innovations, including offering unfiltered (nefiltrované) beer (cloudier and arguably more authentic than its filtered cousin) and hauling beer directly to pubs in supersized tanks (called, unsurprisingly, tankové pivo). Tank beer is said to be fresher than beer transported in traditional kegs. Who are we to argue with that?

King of Beers vs the Beer of Kings

In this big wide world, who could have imagined that two major brewers located thousands of kilometres apart on different continents would each want to sell beer by the name ‘Budweiser’? As remarkable as it seems, that’s the case, and for more than 100 years now, US-based Anheuser-Busch, owned by the Anheuser-Busch InBev group, and the Czech Budvar Budweiser brewery have been locked in a trademark dispute to determine where each brewer can sell their beer and what they can call it.

The dispute arose innocently enough in the 1870s, after the co-founder of the American brewery, Adolphus Busch, returned home from a tour of Bohemia. Busch wanted to create a light lager based on his experience abroad and dubbed his new concoction ‘Budweiser’ to lend an air of authenticity. Ironically, the American claim may actually predate the Czech one. Though beer has been brewed in the town of České Budějovice for some 800 years, the Czech ‘Budweiser’ name was apparently only registered in the 1890s.

By the early 20th century, the two brewers, eyeing eventual overseas markets, were already locked in battle. In 1907, they agreed that the American company could use the Budweiser name in North America, while the Czechs could keep it in Europe. That fragile compromise held up remarkably well for decades, though there have been signs for years now that it's fraying around the edges.

Anheuser-Busch InBev sells what many consider its inferior Budweiser brand in parts of Europe under the ‘Bud’ label. In some markets, including in the UK, the courts have ruled that neither company can claim ownership over the name, allowing both companies to use Budweiser. The American Budweiser is not sold in the Czech Republic. In the US, Czech Budweiser is sold under the somewhat awkward name of ‘Czechvar’.

Meantime, rumours abound in the Czech Republic about the eventual privatisation of the state-controlled Czech brewer and its possible sale someday to the far-larger Anheuser-Busch InBev group. Such a move wouldn't shock many people, though true beer lovers would likely shed a few tears into their beer mugs.

Feature: Beer & Books

Perhaps nowhere else in the world is there a stronger link between beer and literature as in the Czech Republic, and in contrast to many cultures where novels are often concocted in coffee houses or literary salons, as often as not Czech books are written in (and are about) pubs. The great Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923), author of The Good Soldier Švejk, wrote many of his best works in a pub. Švejk more or less starts out with the main character swilling beers in the neighbourhood saloon.

Bohumil Hrabal (1914–97), arguably the country’s favourite writer, was actually raised in a brewery in Nymburk, and recounts many of his funny brewery memories in his book Cutting It Short. He spent many an evening whiling away the hours at Prague’s famous U Zlatého Tygra, before falling from a hospital window to his death in 1997.

Sidebar: Best Smaller Breweries

  • Primátor (www.primator.cz)
  • Klášter (www.pivovarklaster.cz)
  • Svijany (www.pivovarsvijany.cz)
  • Bernard (www.bernard.cz)
  • Únětický (www.unetickypivovar.cz)

Sidebar: Brewery Tours

  • Pilsner Urquell Brewery (www.prazdrojvisit.cz)
  • Budweiser Budvar Brewery (www.visitbudvar.cz)
  • Velké Popovice Brewery (www.kozel.cz)
  • Staropramen Brewery (www.staropramen.com)

Sidebar: Beer Gut Mistruth

According to a 2003 British study, drinking beer does not give you a beer gut.

Sidebar: Beer Philosopher

Argentinian expat Max Bahnson has established himself as a local beer expert, and his blog, Pivní Filosof (the Beer Philosopher; www.pivni-filosof.com), is a great place to catch up on local trends and beer lore.

Sidebar: Heavy Drinkers

Czechs drink more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world (around 140L per head per year), and the local hospoda or pivnice (pub or small beer hall) remains the social hub of the neighbourhood.

Sidebar: Life Is Good

The Czech language is filled with proverbs about beer. Our favourite is ‘Kde se pivo vaří, tam se dobře daří’, which translates loosely as ‘Where beer is brewed, life is good’.

Architectural Highlights

Many of the architectural movements that swept through Prague were felt in the countryside as well. From the Gothic splendours of Karlštejn to the breathtaking Renaissance castle at Český Krumlov and the wacky bone church in Kutná Hora, the country's architectural treasures are not limited to the capital.

Spa Architecture

The spa craze that swept Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave the Czech Republic some of the continent's most stunningly beautiful spas, including Karlovy Vary's Mill Colonnade and the main Colonnade in Mariánské Lázně.

The Bone Church at Kutná Hora

The eerie ossuary at the Sedlec monastery near Kutná Hora, dating from the 19th century, defies easy architectural description, or any other type of description for that matter.

Český Krumlov Castle

This soaring Renaissance tower, remodelled in the 16th century, dominates the charming riverside town below and is visible for miles around. Český Krumlov itself is a nearly perfectly preserved example of Renaissance town planning.

Karlštejn Castle

Emperor Charles IV had this Gothic castle built in the mid-14th century to house the crown jewels. Now it's the most popular destination for day-trippers outside of Prague; book your tour in advance and get an early start.

Hluboká Castle

The 19th century was all about imitation in architecture. This delightful folly, in neo-Gothic style, was created by the noble Schwarzenberg family, who consciously modelled their home after Windsor Castle in the UK.