I know a place in Europe that has a bucolic, stream- and lake-rich countryside worthy of England's Cotswolds; storybook castles and palaces equal or better than anything in the Loire or Rhine valleys; complex beers that give Germany and Belgium a run for their euros; and good wines from ancient hill towns as enchanting as those of Tuscany. In my Slavic Elysium, you glide serenely amid rolling pine-clad hills and fields adorned with carp ponds, beer hops growing on racks, and brilliant yellow rapeseed. It's an unindustrialized, very lightly touristed region where living, eating, and traveling all cost a fraction of what they do in all the above. Rooms to let at $2 a night and hot dinners for $1? Nen problem - just ask. Many Americans have at least heard of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic (once part of Czechoslovakia, it's the land of Martina Navratilova, Madeleine Albrightova, and Ivana Trumpova, not to mention a new member of NATO). That glorious city - as I wrote in the November/ December 1999 Budget Travel - is a must-see doable at truly bargain rates. But few folks have any real clue about the cultural, historical, and natural riches of the area south of Prague - where most prices are so low that even in the middle of an expensive continent, it can still be considered one of the cheapest places on earth.
The most bucolic, historic, and all-around appealing itinerary is the 260-mile route from Prague south to Vienna, Austria, a comfortable road currently being marketed under a "Greenways" program intended to shore up adjoining trails for hikers, bikers, and horsebackers, as well as to give a boost to economical development and "sustainable tourism." You can easily manage it on your own (trails are signposted), or via the "official" Greenways tour operator, Greenways Travel Club, repped in the U.S. by Summit International Travel (see box). Contributing part of its take to the nonprofit Greenways organization, Greenways Travel Club runs packages ranging from prearranged but independent to fully escorted (some also now use minibuses).
All the towns are served from Prague by inexpensive regular buses (and in some cases by trains), but the best way to see the countryside is to rent a compact Skoda (the cheapest model, but reliable) in Prague from agencies like Czechocar (2/6122-2079, czechocar.cz, from 1,700 crowns/$50 a day) and do the route round-trip, or one-way to Vienna, or to the city of Breclav, where you can take a four-hour train ($9.70 in first class) back to Prague. Your drive southward will be pleasant and pretty much a breeze on good roads; though English isn't exactly on the tip of every tongue (a Czech phrase book's an excellent idea, especially for small-town menus), the average American shouldn't have any trouble getting around and having a grand old time. I wish I could tell you about every single spot I love - the spas of Renaissance Trebon, the memorable ancient chateau and castle towns like Jindrichuv Hradec and Vranov nad Dyji. But here, from north to south, are five areas not to miss:
Tabor: Tunnels & heretics
55 miles (1 hour) south of Prague
A quick zip down Route E50, one of my favorite Bohemian towns (pronounced "TAH-bor") was the Waco of the Middle Ages - turned into a hilltop military garrison in the fourteenth century by a rebellious Christian cult which held off the armies of the Holy Roman Empire for 17 years. The Hussites, as these tough mothers were called, even carved out eight miles of defense tunnels - by hand - under the streets; you can visit a museum on them and their general, stormin' Jan Zizka, as well as actually go down into some of the tunnels. In spite of its riveting history and charming Star, Mesto (Old Town), Tabor has been nothing like the tourist draw it deserves to be, and only now is its hotel and restaurant situation coming more into its own. Go in September for the big medieval festival (contact local tourism at 361/486-230, fax /486-100; email@example.com).
You can "do" T bor in a few hours and continue on your way, but an overnight to fully absorb the atmosphere can be a kick. The priciest digs in town are the recently renovated, turn-of-the century Hotel Kapital (Trida 9 kvetna 617, tel. 361/256-096, fax /252-411), just down the street from the Old Town. Behind its five-floor pink facade, 50 white stuccoed rooms with private baths, TVs, and phones go for $29 double (including daily buffet breakfast in the cute little dining room). Even more economical options have opened more recently. Right off the late-Gothic main square, Zizkovo namesti, the nine-room Penzion Bylinkarstvi (Trzni 274, tel./fax 361/256-419) is named for the herb (byliny) shop up front, and owner Eva Horov charges a mere $14.70 a night, including private bath, boob tube, fridge, and breakfast. Across the square, the six-room Kostnicky Dum (Strelnick 220, tel. 361/252-283, fax /253-339) is also a good deal, its similarly equipped rooms with a view starting at $23 for two, while a studio apartment's $26.
Also off Zizkovo, opposite a little Russian Orthodox church, copious homestyle Czech chow's cheap in a former brewery, now the wood-paneled, pub-like Svejkova Hospoda (Spitalsk, namesti 509, 361/257-733), part of a national chain. Deer medallions top out the price list at $4.25, while roast trout with cabbage, veggies, and typical bread dumplings will run you $2.90. Comparable numbers but somewhat more "international" fare ($2.80 Kung Pao chicken sound yum?) prevail at the more "mod" Divadelni Kavarna Ponte in the Oskar NedbalaTheater (Palack,ho ulice, 361/253-785), where you can amuse yourself with a postprandial performance for $3.50 a head or less. Or for an unvarnished old-timey feel and solid grub at even more unbeatable prices, check out the old warhorse Beseda on the north side of Zizkovo namesti (No. 5, 361/253-723).
Ceske Budejovice: Roll out the barrel
30 miles (45 minutes) south of Tabor on E55, 80 miles (11/2 hours) from Prague
Here, when you say "Budweiser," you've said it all, because South Bohemia's main city (pop. 98,000) is where that legendary name originated. Once called Budweis by the Germanic Habsburgs, Ceske Budejovice's modern moniker's more of a mouthful-pronounced "CHESS-keh BOO-dyeh-yo-veet-seh" - but pivo (beer) is still king and still world-class. Visits to breweries like Budvar, Samson, and Jihoceske Pivovary have to be arranged ahead and cost $1.65 for an hour-long tour ($2.75 also nets you a-hic-shampling of the shuds). Afterward, stroll the moat-encircled, Baroque city center, with the country's largest town square; shop for world-famous yet amazingly inexpensive Czech crystal; climb the imposing sixteenth-century Cern Vez (Black Tower) with its typical onion dome; and, six miles south, gawk at one of the country's most popular castles: Tudoresque, crenellated, thirteenth-century Hluboka. (Local tourist office: tel. 38/680-2005, fax /635-9480; firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Cesk, Budejovice's lodging scene - especially in the Old Town - isn't quite the bargain basement found elsewhere in the region. Case in point: $48 per well-appointed double in the very central, nicely renovated former brewery Maly Pivovar (Karla IV 8-10, tel. 38/636-0471, fax /636-0474). Or, attached to the old city wall, the five-room Penzion Klika (Zatkovo nabrezi 17, tel. 38/731-8360, fax /731-8171; rents doubles and triples starting at $38 and dishes up homestyle combination platters in its restaurant for $3.80 and under. You'll find cheaper digs a bit farther out, such as Pension Macelis (Prazsk 115, tel. 38/28582), on the street leading out to the highway, whose three sweet doubles with bath go for $20 including breakfast. Downstairs in the modest but stylish dining room, full Czech meals run less than $5.90. Far more touristy but still worth the visit is the atmospheric Masne Kramy at Krajinsk 13 (tel. 38/326-52), just off Old Town's main square. A fourteenth-century former gallery of butcher stalls, it now offers Budvar on tap (41[cents]) and tasty local fish, venison, and goulash specialties for $1.65 to $4.25.
Cesky Krumlove: Bohemia's polished jewel
16 miles (20-30 minutes) southwest of CB, 97 miles (3 hours) from Prague
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most famous destination hereabouts, C?esky' Krumlov ("CHESS-kee KROOM-lawv") boasts an Old Town that's an almost suspiciously picture-perfect, Brothers Grimm-like mix of ancient buildings and winding lanes straddling a hill, the Moldau (aka Vltava) River looping below and the huge Rozmberk family hrad (castle) looming above. Apart from wandering the cobbled lanes, you can visit that impressive Renaissance bastion (English tour $3.25, kids $1.60), tour the Eggenberg brewery ($4.40 with tasting), and check out the local museum and church. Personally, I love to do Krumlov from a different P.O.V. by kayaking or canoeing the Moldau - hardly whitewater but enough to work up a sweat; kayak rentals start at $7.50 per day from Vltava travel agency (Kajovsk 62, tel./fax 337/711-978; ckvltava.cz). Or take to the surrounding hills on foot or horseback (rentals $6.50/hour from Jezdecky Klub Slupenec, tel. 337/711-052).
Being the most popular local destination, Krumlov's prices can get up there, but the budget traveler is left with loads of choices, with prices checkable at the "Infocentrum" (tel./fax 337/711-183; email@example.com) in the main square, namesti Svornosti. Doubles start at roughly $20 a night from March through May and $5-$10 higher from June through September, but there are also cheaper rooms to rent (look for signs announcing "Zimmer Frei" or "ubytovani"), plus hostels for $5.90 per person. The Vltava travel agency also runs a five-room pension whose nicely renovated, bath-equipped doubles start at $21 ($32 in high season); breakfast is $2.20 extra. But right up the street at Kajovsk 66, Miroslav and Vlastimil Votrel have refurbished a 500-year-old merchant's house as the Pension Na Louzi (tel./fax 337/711-280; ck.ipex.cz/hotlouze); their seven rooms ($32 for two) have plank floors and decor harking back to the 1930s.
Downstairs, the dark-paneled restaurant serves food just like my Czech grandmother used to make (and some almost as good); the $2.90 kralik po selsku (rabbit in cream sauce) with potatoes and veggies is among the South Bohemian specialties, while hotove jidlo (daily combo plates) can be shoveled down for as little as $1.20-$1.45.
Meanwhile, up in the main square, I can't possibly leave out the fifteenth-century Zlaty Andel (namesti Svornosti 10, tel. 337/7123-1015, fax /712-927), a 27-room hotel, restaurant, pastry shop, beer pub, florist, and who knows what else - not because of its 25 clean, modern, well-equipped rooms ($49 a double), but especially thanks to Room 5. It's an enormous under-the-roof duplex tarted up in what I can only describe as Czech Austin Powers: wall-to-wall shag, wet bar, a shagadelic gold-glitter-lined four-person tub, and a huge teddy bear at the foot of an even huger brass bed. Sleeping up to five, it's yours for just $70 a night - does that make you horny, baby?
Finally, don't miss eating (or just drinking) at Krcma Barbak n, the cherry-tree-shaded rear patio of the Pension Barbakan (Horni ulice 26, tel./fax 337/5017; austere but impeccable doubles $35). Swill a bottle of local Eggenberg beer (41[cents]), svaren, vino (mulled wine, 85[cents]), or mead ($1.05-$1.50) and dig into a prix fixe garlic soup, quarter-chicken, bread, and half-liter of Regent brew for $2.90. The rest of the menu's pretty good too; the service just OK; but the view overlooking the river and town-magical.
Telc & Slavonice: Moravian Masterpieces
45 miles (1 hour) from Cesky Krumlov, 97 miles (3 hours) from Prague
Another UNESCO special, the region's second-best known magnet is the South Moravian town of Telc? ("telch") - supercompact, surrounded by water, and famous mostly for its fabulous centerpiece, namesti Zachariase z Hradce, an elongated plaza of gable- and arcade-adorned Renaissance town houses. At the western end, the sprawling, lordly chateau makes for a catchy tour (40 minutes/$1.50), as does a nearby gallery dedicated to a supposedly well-known Telc painter, Jan Zrzavy. Otherwise (except in July and August, with their constant stream of summer festivals and goings-on), there's not a whole helluva lot to do except soak up the atmosphere. Or bike the gorgeous surrounding countryside; ask about $4-a-day rentals at the Infocentrum on the south side of nam. Zach, at the sign of the green double "i" (tourist info also at 66/724-3145; telc.cz; firstname.lastname@example.org).
And do squeeze in sixteenth-century Slavonice ("SLAH-vo-neet-seh"), a half hour (16 miles) or so south on Route 406. A rockin', rollin' entrepot once upon a time, this now sleepy little gem has some of the most over-the-top Italianate sgraffitto (two-tone exterior artwork) in Europe. Take a group tour in summer (otherwise do it yourself with a pamphlet from the museum at the corner of the triangular main plaza, Dolni namesti), then climb the town hall clock tower and check out the underground chambers where some olden-day Slavonicies used to hibernate in winter.
Accommodationally speaking, in Telc the rock-bottom picks are the ubytov ni (rooms to rent), mostly in the $5.90-$11.75 range. The cheapest are the two small but clean and comfy doubles (plus one single) run by the Farni Sbor Ceskobratrsk, Cirkve Evangelick, (a mainline Protestant church) at n in. Zach 21, 66/724-3888. With TV, shared bath, and kitchen, they're a steal at $2.35 per person per day ($1.50 for kids under 15); get a sneak peek at these and others in a scrapbook at the Infocentrum. As for hotels, the most reasonable on and around n in. Zach are the 12-room Celerin at the top of the square (No. 43, tel. 66/721-3580, fax 721-3581) and the cute ten-room Hotel Telc around the corner (Na Muostku 37, tel. 66/724-3109, fax /722-3887), fairly similar in amenities and prices: doubles with breakfast about $33. A potato's throw from the Horni Brana (south gate to the Old Town), the 13-room Na Hrazi (Na Hrazi 78, tel. 66/721-3150, fax /721-3151) is at the top end, charging $52-$55 for its more updated doubles; the basement pub is popular with locals. In many cases, by the way, you can get a discount of about 10 percent by booking through a Czech travel agent.
Apart from the reasonably priced Na Hrazi and Celerin dining rooms, one of the best mixes of food, atmosphere, and price is the Restaurace U Zachari se, on the plaza near the Celerin at No. 33. Large, whimsical wooden puppets punctuate a woody dining room slinging a mix of local and international fare, with complete meals as cheap as $2.60. For $1.10, try the huge, refreshing sopsky salat (cucumber salad with goat cheese), and don't miss the super poached pear with cottage cheese and chocolate syrup (76[cents]). For an intensely local experience, head in the direction of the Horni Brana to the cozy U Marusky at Palackeho 28, with lace curtains, a wood deck to one side, '30s folk music on the stereo, Starobrno beer on tap (29[cents]-41[cents]), and home cooking at old-time prices (as little as $1.50 can get you stuffed).
Morovia's wine country: Grapes, chateaux & Judaica
Mikulov 68 miles (90 minutes) southeast of Telc, 150 miles (3 hours) from Prague
With their vineyards, rolling landscape, and charming historic towns, you could call the P lava hills and surrounding areas Moravia's version of Tuscany. For a base, a good bet is Mikulov, just a half-mile from the Austrian border. Dating back to the mid-thirteenth century, it's a major winemaking spot (a Moravian tradition since Roman times, some of the stuff's even pretty decent); there's also an attractive Old Town, a castle with a wine museum, several other unique historic landmarks, and a strip club catering to Austrians. Moravia's notorious for being more strongly Catholic than Bohemia - but oy, Mikulov back when was a center of Judaism like you can't believe; walking along Husova street in the old Jewish quarter, you can still see the seventeenth-century synagogue. Not far away, off Brnenska street, is a spookily atmospheric Jewish cemetery even bigger than the famous one in Prague. Other area attractions include the huge, eye-popping chateaux of the Lichtenstein family in Lednice and Valtice (which also sponsor popular summer Baroque festivals).
But those greedy for the grape will have their hands (and mouths) especially full, since many of the 300-odd local winemakers offer visits and tastings (typically at $3 or so a visit) - not just in Mikulov but also Znojmo, Lednice, and Valtice (which holds a big trade fair in April, with tastings available for a cover of 59[cents], then 15[cents] to 30[cents] a slug). The second week in September is vinobrani (harvest), a great time for wine festivals and tasting burcak, young wine. The area's crammed with picturesque vinarny and vinn, sklepy (wine pubs); don't miss Mikulov's Pod Koziin Hradkem (Kozi Hradek), built into a grotto; $2.35 buys two liters of house wine plus bottles of water and plates of cheese, salami, and bramboracky (potato pancakes). For details on wine and more, check with the regional tourist office reachable at 625/510-613, fax /510-448; mikulov.cz.
That office can also lend a hand with lodgings and reservations. The main game in Mikulov is the Rohaty Krokodyl (Husova 8, tel. 625/510-692, fax /511-695), which has a pub, a restaurant with some creditable grub (combo platters $1.40-$2.60), and 13 nice rooms - lacking only phones - for $35 double. For dinner out, grab a $1.50 cab to the best vinarna in town, U Nas Doma U Moravcu (1 kvetna 610), built in the style of a wine cellar and boasting Mikulov's only salad bar; entrees are $2.60-$5.25. My picks in Valtice: Vinarsky Dvuor (Mal Strana 198, tel. 627/352-737 fax /352-425), doubles $29; Valtick Rychta restaurant (Mikulovsk 165, 627/352-366). In Lednice: Penzion Jordan (Podivinsk 55, tel./fax 627/340-285), doubles $15-$18.
Breaking your crown
The Czech currency is the crown (koruna, plural koruny or korun), divided into 100 haler?uo; US$1 most recently bought about 35 kc?.
Czech those phone codes!
When calling all these numbers from the United States, first dial 011-420. From elsewhere in the Czech Republic, first dial zero; within the same town, drop the initial area code.
Get more information on the area from the Czech Tourist Authority at 212/288-0830, fax 212/288-0971; czechcenter.com. For Greenways details, try Friends of Czech Greenways (in the U.S., 718/258-5468, fax 718/258-5632; pragueviennagreenways.org or gtc.cz).
Flying to Prague, CSA Czech Airlines (800/223-2365, 212/765-6022) has the only direct nonstops, with economy round-trip running only $478 until April 30, midweek departures out of New York. Low season fares generally run some $600 to $700 from New York. You may get comparable rates from consolidators on British Airways via London, KLM via Amsterdam, and so forth.
Summit International Travel, Greenways Travel Club's representative in the U.S. (800/527-8664; summittours.com), accepts bookings for fully escorted Vienna-to-Prague excursions from May through October; via minibus and including ten hotel nights and daily breakfast and dinner and even beer and wine for $1,985 per person. Other Greenways Travel Club products include beer and Jewish heritage tours, as well as hiking/biking itineraries - some self-guided but with all arrangements premade-starting at $55 a day.