Fionn Davenport joined Anton Savage on the Hard Shoulder another episode of Europe’s Hidden Highlights, this week he visits Bohemia.
Just beyond the suburbs of Prague the landscape changes - a land of rolling hills, rich farmland and thick forests dotted with castles, chateaux and picturesque towns.This is Bohemia: rural, rustic yet surprisingly elegant too. Within two or three hours’ drive of the capital is a region that has for centuries provided an escape for generations of city-dwellers, and attracted the European elites.
The day I flew to Prague, I saw on Twitter that it had been 20 years since former Czech football star Patrick Berger scored an impressive hat-trick for Liverpool against Chelsea. I watched the YouTube link and remembered what a good footballer he had been.
By the time I landed, however, I’d forgotten about the vague coincidence. I was on a golf junket to an
unlikely golfing destination, a country more associated with beer and gothic architecture than with a
good walk spoilt. My first stop was Albatross Golf Club, a short drive from the airport and the Czech
Republic’s top-ranked course.
Sitting in the fancy clubhouse, enjoying a sandwich and a coffee, I notice the guy sitting at the table next to me. Older, a little greyer but instantly recognisable. Handsome and athletic - a more mature- looking Jamie Dornan. I stood up and walked over, not even trying to hide my smile. “Patrick Berger?”I explained the coincidence. “A nice hat trick,” he says with smile. “Reminds me I could play a bit.” I fawn a bit more, he counters with charming false modesty and then I ask him about his golf game. “Ah, not so good as my football,” he replies as we stand for the inevitable selfie. “my handicap is stuck at 7. Golf is hard!”
As a long-time golfer who has never managed to get below 12, my heart bleeds for you, Patrick. Plzeň (Pilsen in German) is famed among beer-heads worldwide as the mother lode of all lagers, the fountain of eternal froth. Pilsner lager was invented here in 1842. It;’s an hour from Prague It’s the home of Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský prazdroj), the world’s first and arguably best lager beer – ‘Urquell’ (in German; prazdroj in Czech) means ‘original source’ – and beer drinkers from around the world flock to worship at the Pilsner Urquell brewery.
The city is close enough to Prague to see the sights in a long day trip – but you could easily spend the night. There’s an amazing science centre too.
Karlovy Vary, about a 90-minute drive west of Prague Airport, deep in the forested valleys of western
Bohemia – known locally as Vary, but better known in history as Karlsbad. For a couple of hundred years this was Europe’s most famous spa town, the place where Casanova,Beethoven, Mozart and the It Crowd of old would strut their stuff and take cures in the therapeutic mineral springs that bubble away beneath the ground.
The town slumbered after World War II and the drawing of the Iron Curtain, when most of the visitors were retirees and Eastern bloc workers on state-sponsored stays. Thankfully, communism didn’t sacrifice form over function so apart from a couple of brutalist-style buildings from the 1970s, it’s still quite a looker.
Rows of colourful art nouveau buildings hug a wooded valley split by the slow-flowing Teplá River, along which run the pedestrianised streets of the old town. This is where the sick, the sexy and the sophisticated would amble, past the grand cafes, elegant shops and beautiful colonnades that housed the mineral springs from whence the town’s fame sprung.
Hotel Pupp – for decades it was the Russian-flavoured Grand Hotel Moskva, one of the preferred lodgings of the upper echelons of Eastern Europe’s communist parties. It covers nearly the whole of the southern end and oozes old-world glamour. It was featured in the James Bond film Casino Royale and inspired Wes Andersons Grand Budapest Hotel. These days its a budget-blower, but worth the splurge if you can snag one of the rooms in period style (you have to ask).
Hotel Imperial Karlovy Vary (spa-hotel-imperial.cz) has doubles from €75 Cihelny Golf & Spa Resort, 18 hilly holes designed by Gary Player just outside Karlovy Vary. At first glance, the course seems a bit cramped and squeezed into the hills, but it’s a brilliant test of golf, even if some holes are a real test of your cardiac fitness and errant drives will be severely punished – just as the fitness-mad and exacting Gary Player would have liked.
A little more Bond….Montenegro is doubled as Loket, 14km from Karlovy Vary A cluster of houses in sweet-shop pinks, greens and blues huddled around a fairy-tale castle, this tiny village stands on a loop in the river Ohře so extreme it almost makes an island (loket means 'elbow' in Czech, a reference to the river bend). In fact, ‘JW Goethe’s favourite town’ (as the tourist bumph likes to describe it) is so pretty, if you saw it in a film you’d think it was a painted backdrop. Mariánské Lázně (better known abroad as Marienbad) is smaller and greener than Karlovy Vary, making it feel more like a classic spa destination (but also meaning there's even less to do in the evening). In its heyday, Mariánské Lázně attracted celebrities such as Goethe, Thomas Edison,Britain's King Edward VII and even American author Mark Twain. These days, most of the visitors are German day trippers.Besides the colonnades, the town is ringed by deep forests that make for great walks.
Golf: Royal Golf Club Mariánské Lázně,This is the Czech Republic’s oldest course, founded in 1905 for the sporting amusement of wealthy visitors to Marienbad.
Český Krumlov, in Bohemia’s deep south, is one of the most picturesque towns in Europe. It’s a little like Prague – a Unesco World Heritage Site with a stunning castle above the Vltava River, an old town square, Renaissance and baroque architecture, and hordes of tourists milling through the streets – but all on a smaller scale; you can walk from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes. There are plenty of lively bars and riverside picnic spots. In summer it’s a popular hang-out for backpackers, and in winter, when the crowds are gone and the castle is blanketed in snow, it's a magical place.
The 13th century castle is fab; as is the private museum dedicated to the works of Viennese painter Egon Schiele (his mother was born in the town). The centre of the Old Town is defined by náměstí Svornosti, with its 16th-century Town Hall and 18 th -century Marian Plague Column.