Fairy Tale Trip
Prague to Pilsen journey includes chateaus and gingerbread.
The Czech Republic has been busy getting itself a makeover in an effort to leave behind a slightly dubious reputation as Europe's number one stag party destination. Replacing the Microbrewery Tours that used to dominate the itinerary of most visitors, we head to some of the Czech Republic’s lesser known highlights – from Prague to Pilsen (2015's family friendly European Capital of Culture) via World Heritage sites that resemble a gothic Disneyland, French style chateaus in the countryside and Champions League football teams. All are just an effortless two-hour drive from the capital. As we find out, the country caters to all, awash with jazz clubs, film festivals and fashion weeks for the adults, puppet museums, gingerbread tours, and even authentic sporting experiences for the kids.
But let's start our journey in historic Prague in Central Bohemia, an almost mythical, magical sounding place these days but actually a former kingdom in its own right under the Roman Empire and the Habsburgs' Austrian Empire. This is a land of fairy tales and nowhere is better to relive them than the recently opened Karel Zeman Museum, which film director Tim Burton described as “extraordinary.” Its own director, Mr. Jakub Matějka takes delight in describing this hidden gem right in the historic city center as "the museum of film tricks." And indeed it is. In Zeman's fantasy world you can pilot the famous submarine from "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" or walk around the Baron Munchausen moon, or just ride a flying machine. Post the footage on social media and have all the family asking, "Where did you go again?"
A 10-minute walk from the museum means an afternoon exploring Prague's traditional tourist spots. A stroll and dance by the riverside where jazz bands have really taken over is still essential, but we have acquired wheels and so we head to the tiny city of Dobříš, just 25 miles south of the capital. I call in a favor from a colleague who has spent the last few years making family favorites like “The Musketeers” for the BBC, series producer Colin Wratten setting up a visit to the magnificent Dobříš Chateau, rebuilt in a Rococo style from 1745 onwards. With its remarkable facade, in the style of French King Louis XVI (you know the one, his wife was Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cake." and all that), the enormous chateau was even turned into a glove factory in the 19th century.
Today we've turned up with the kids’ plastic swords and shields to re-enact our own “Two and A Half Musketeers.” Colin sits me down for a glass of famous Pilsen beer and tells me that his job as producer of the drama, now sold to 147 countries, is easy enough due to "an abundance of extraordinary 17th century buildings that are owned by film-friendly landlords. The Czech Republic is the best and cheapest place to go in Europe to film. The locations and countryside of the Czech Republic gives our production a feature film scale. We don't use studios. Everything is shot on location. And there are literally hundreds of chateaus like this one."
Colin's ringing endorsement gains credence by the hour in Bohemia so, having speedily recovered from three near fatal plastic sword wounds, I load up and head two hours’ drive farther south to the crown jewel in this world of make believe: Český Krumlov.
B. Český Krumlov
Located 25 miles from both the German and Austrian border, Český Krumlov's main feature is a 13th century castle of such breathtaking splendor it was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The children are in holiday heaven again here, first taking selfies with semi-wild bears - from a very safe 30 m high up vantage point - in the castle moat. It's been a free attraction since the 16th century and the bears, it's pleasing to report, seem content and no doubt equally happy that the selfie stick brigade are 30 m away. After walking the extensive castle grounds, which seem to float in wispy clouds hundreds of meters above the old town below, we've worked up quite an appetite, so there's only one place to head: The Gingerbread Shop of Český Pernik. More like a museum dedicated to the 16th century art of Old Bohemian gingerbread making, the bakery upstairs uses hand pressed wooden molds to shape the bread which, once you've bought it, you can't eat because it breaks your heart to bite the head off a stag or a Saint Nicolas.
Still, we do eat some normal biscuits, although loading up on as much gingerbread as you can stomach is rather like eating too much fine chocolate; there is a law of diminishing returns.
So we decide to rest our bloated, happy stomachs, and set off early the next day on a two-and-a-half-hour drive northwest to Pilsen or Pilzen or even Plzen, or, simpler put, “The European Capital of Culture” as it is better known in 2015.
The recently opened Techmania Science Center and the NASA-inspired Space Center next door (where I even tried out the Apollo Mission landing pod) plus the life-size puppets at the Loutek Museum, curated by national and local Pilsen treasure Jiji Koptik, are worth far more time than the hour we gave to each. But our time is short as Jiri has not only arranged for us to hear his “Jazz Quintet Pilsen” group (because "you hear jazz everywhere now in the Czech Republic”) but also a visit to the local Ice hockey club HC Škoda Plzeň, who are incredibly child friendly with their guided tours and even provide opportunities to get on the ice.
We've also lucked out arriving on match day for Viktoria Plzen, playing in their stunningly beautiful newly renovated 12,500 seat stadium. After twice qualifying for the European Champions' League group stages in the last few years and entertaining the likes of Manchester City and Bayern Munich, the club is the pride and joy of the town, sitting as it does in the shadow of the world famous Pilsner Urquell brewery. I'm informed that many visiting fans do the brewery tour before the match but I wanted to appreciate the quality of the football, which was of a pleasingly high standard. Alas, our whistle-stop tour of the Czech Republic comes to an end with the sound of a referee's whistle and a 90-minute drive due east back to Prague airport. The Czech Rep has been an absolute fairy tale of surprises and delights.