Bohemian rhapsody

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2007, 12:00am

The tourists are stacked shoulder to shoulder on the Charles Bridge in Prague, which has become 'the new Venice'. But those who flow into the city in such vast numbers tend to flow straight out again, their Czech curiosity seemingly satisfied by a brief burst of bohemia.

Yet just an hour away, the real Bohemia beckons with ancient town squares, Gothic spires and bell towers, chateaux, gabled houses, frescoes, music and lazy rivers. Startlingly cheaper and a far less stressful experience than the capital, this great expanse conjures a mood evoked by classic fairytales.

And tales are being told. British newspaper The Times decreed, 'For a summer of culture with a dash of one-upmanship (the neighbours won't have heard of it), head for the Bohemian beauty of Cesky Krumlov, a pocket-sized Prague deserving its billing as the prettiest town in the Czech Republic.'

Bohemia, however, is not as bohemian as one might expect. Thanks to what one history text describes as 'the profound influence of the imported secondary meaning of the word', visitors are almost unconsciously on the lookout for beards, berets and bongos. The translation of the German word 'bohemian', now used only in poetic contexts, is Czesky, which also means Czech. Hence Bohemians prefer to call themselves simply Czechs to avoid confusion.

The first point of entry is the fortified town of Tabor, a centre of Gothic and Renaissance architecture 100km south and an hour by train from Prague. Founded in 1420 by radical Hussites following religious reformer Jan Hus, who was fleeing Catholic rule in Prague, theirs was to be a new form of society, an ideological Eden. For more than a decade its armies held out against popes and kings but it was all over in less than 15 years. What remains of that inspiring but disastrous nose snubbing are 12km of 15th-century tunnels below the town square, 800 metres of which are open to the public.

Visitors enter the tunnels through a small museum and gift shop. An increasingly popular attraction is the banquet room on the floor above, which has been used to shoot scenes in several movies, including Van Helsing, The Illusionist, XXX and Blade 2. In the square, the spirit of Cinema Paradiso is regularly evoked by travelling cinema companies, which unpack a large portable screen and draw the townsfolk for a night of flickering images under a starry sky.

The square, fed by a complex of winding streets lined with puppet shows and garden restaurants, has a famed clock tower with a 24-hour face that hints at the legendary quirkiness of the place. It is thought the outside world's interpretation of the word 'bohemian' came from the excessive non-conformism that arose in Tabor.

Most travellers who decamp from Prague for the south or west have at least one of three things on their mind - beer, spas or castles. Enthusiasts of the first discover Bohemia is where much of the language of ale originates. Pilsner beer was born in the old Czech brewing town of Plzen (or Pilsen) on the Radbuza River, and its breweries, bars and restaurants work hard at recreating an atmosphere suggestive of that time.

Almost as thick on the ground as pizzerias in Italy, Czech breweries dot the landscape, from boutique operations to globally known names. Ceske Budejovice, birthplace of the brew that became Budweiser in the United States - Budweis is the town's German name - proudly houses the plant that now produces the hugely popular Budvar beer. Famed for its Renaissance and baroque buildings, it has the biggest town square in the country and is popular as a dining stop.

The spas, which are near the German border, are not hastily added hotel facilities hoping to cash in on a 21st-century craze. They are architecturally stunning towns with therapeutic mineral waters frequented, for centuries, by those in search of rejuvenation. Beethoven, Bismarck, Marx, Goethe and Chopin all visited the enchanting Karlovy Vary on the Tepla River. The river was originally named Karlsbad after the Bohemian king and Holy Roman emperor Charles (Karl) IV, who is said to have stumbled upon the springs during a 1358 hunting expedition. Twelve of the more than 60 hot springs are used for treatments.

Discover not just spas but a total spa culture in a quartet of lively locations - Karlovy Vary, Marianske Lazne, Frantiskovy Lazare and Jachymov. The boasts of their effects are many: increased virility and fertility, relief of rheumatism, heart flutters and disorders of the nervous system, and a welcome wind-down from life's pressures.

Nestled between two arms of the Vltava River, Unesco World Heritage site Cesky Krumlov was once on the main trading route between Bavaria and Italy, wielding considerable power as the headquarters of the most powerful aristocratic houses in the land and the official residence of the esteemed Rosenbergs (Rozmberks) for 300 years. Its history extends back to the Bronze Age.

The original Cesky Krumlov Castle was founded by the lords of Krumlov in the first half of the 13th century. Today, the small city's skyline is dominated by two imposing landmarks: the chateau-castle complex of more than 40 historical buildings, with a reconstructed cylindrical tower and a 16th-century bear moat, and the grand gothic Church of St Vitus. They were neglected under commun-ism, but 15 years of restoration have rendered them irresistible to visitors.

In summer, Cesky Krumlov is a vibrant cultural centre with concerts staged in the halls, courtyards and gardens of the enormous castle. Classical-music buffs flock to performances by the likes of Russian soprano Olga Makarina, US tenor Bruce Fowler, the Wihan Quartet, the Prague Chamber Philharmonic and Czech guitar maestro Stepan Rak. Operas, ballets and plays are presented on a revolving stage in the castle garden. In August, an international music festival offers jazz, folk and baroque music and organ recitals. In October there is a film festival.

Visitors stroll through the streets below the castle, tucking into trout and chips in cosy dining dens and pubs, scoffing bear meat at the Eggenberg Brewery, bantering with wandering jugglers and clowns and snapping up reproduced medieval artefacts.

The myriad attractions of the castle also include the rococo marble chapel of St George, Renaissance cellars, the magnificent baroque theatre, 11 hectares of castle gardens with the rococo summerhouse Bellaria, the Eggenberg Hall (housing a 17th-century, 24-carat gold coach), a lapidarium exhibition of original baroque statues and the Masquerade Hall of wonderfully kitsch 18th-century murals.

Though day-trips from Prague are common, Cesky Krumlov, an hour's drive from the capital, has a thriving bed-and-breakfast culture plus a number of classy small hotels. With its stirring and sweeping views, its intimacy and inescapable sense of romance, the city has become a honeymoon destination, not just for Czechs but for Austrians, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Slovakians and those from farther afield, including Southeast Asia.

Bohemia may not necessarily mean beatnik, but it does stand apart as something out of the ordinary.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( flies from Hong Kong to Prague.