Touring Southern Bohemia

I've always had a love affair with Prague. It’s a combination of the history, the scenery and the beautiful people. There’s an element of mystery to all the castles and beauty of their individual stories. Royal families and the elite would live within an outrageously extravagant confinement of castle walls, while commoners would only dream of what was beyond the fortifications that kept them out. As outlandish as it might sound, it’s what so many of the fairy tales we grew up reading were all about. What I didn’t know about Prague was that beyond the city limits, the Czech Republic offers an entire land of stories.

PRAGUE
For gay visitors, Prague is the perfect place to begin your exploration. It’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. No matter where you look, there’s stunning imagery and architecture—not to mention superb shopping. Streets filled with high-end stores and boutiques will satisfy every type of shopper. In the center of the city, there’s even a massive indoor mall, if that type of shopping is more your thing.

My favorite thing to do in Prague has always been to just walk outside of my hotel and get lost. And since the street names are a little confusing if you don’t understand or speak Czech, getting lost is easy to do. Wandering the streets, it isn’t uncommon to stumble upon many cafés filled with people working, drinking or just people-watching. Sprinkled within the city are also some LGBT-friendly or LGBT-specific hole-in-the wall shops. And they are pretty freaking awesome.

They weren’t filled with tourists, but instead welcoming, friendly locals. I came across a couple of shops where I walked in, ordered a large beer and just chatted up the bartender. Two new favorites I stumbled upon include the two-story Q Cafe and the colorfully fun Café Érra. The gay scene doesn’t end with small coffeehouses; gay parties and clubs are also easily accessible. Prague Saints (praguesaints.cz) features online guides, hotel recommendations and event listings. It’s a great tool for gay visitors.

The city is filled with hotel options, all with different price ranges and distances from the city center. The Kempinski Hotel Hybernská is a fairly new property situated in a former Baroque palace, right in the heart of Prague. It’s first-class service from the moment you walk in, and the attentiveness of employees is clearly evident. The hallways of the former palace are filled with one-of-a-kind art that leaves you speechless. But where it counts, the hotel is extremely modern and high-tech, especially in the rooms.

I was able to stay in a duplex suite, which had me wishing I wasn’t traveling alone. The room was so impressive that I felt like I should be sharing it with someone. The downstairs had a beautiful living room, work area, bath and eat-in kitchen. The spiral staircase led to a loft-style bedroom with a glamorous, glass-walled bathroom that provided a look down below. My room was only one class of many suite types the hotel offers. Kempinski has special deals throughout the year and was even a partner with Prague Pride 2012.
For the ultimate in luxury and classic elegance when booking a hotel, the InterContinental Prague has you covered. Don’t let the utilitarian outside architecture of the hotel fool you (it’s very Soviet-era)—this place is pure luxe. I stayed in a corner suite, which made my New York apartment truly feel like a shoe box. The three-room suite had everything from a massive dining table and guest bathroom to a private office for when you just need your personal workspace.

The beauty of InterContinental hotels is that they have a club level. The one in Prague offers snacks and alcohol for guests (a perk worth the upgrade). Atop the hotel is the most spectacular view of Prague, accompanied by one of the best restaurants in the city, Zlatá Praha. The rooftop establishment serves international cuisines as well as local Czech favorites, and their brunch is regarded as one of the finest. It’s easy to fall in love with Prague when viewing its skyline from the rooftop of the InterContinental. It’s there where I planned my driving tour of southern Bohemia.

KUTNÁ HORA
My first stop was the quaint little town of Kutná Hora. It’s so unbelievably different from Prague that I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. But after some quick exploration, it was clear that the nearby castles, churches and cathedrals would entertain me. During medieval times, Kutná Hora became the second most important settlement in the Czech lands—after Prague—due to a rich vein of silver ore discovered under the town. Today the silver mines are deserted, but a well-preserved historical center makes it clear that this was once was a thriving royal town.

Within Kutná Hora is one of the most fascinating churches in all of Eastern Europe: the Sedlec Ossuary (often referred to as “the bone church”), which has a rich, unique history. In the 13th century, Jindrich, the abbot of Sedlec monastery, returned from a visit to Palestine with a pocketful of soil and sprinkled it on the cemetery surrounding the Chapel of All Saints. The direct association with the Holy Land made the graveyard a coveted burial site among the aristocracy of Central Europe. During the 17th century, the number of burials outgrew the space, and the older remains were exhumed and stored in the chapel. It’s estimated that the chapel now contains the bones of up to 40,000 people!

It’s completely chilling and at the same time sobering to enter the bone church. In 1870, landowners commissioned a wood-carver to decorate the chapel with the bones to create a reminder of the impermanence of human life and inescapable death. Now massive piles of skulls and bones fill each corner, and decorations made of remains adorn the space. After all the bones and graveyard, I was ready for something totally different and, say, a bit lighter. That’s when I headed to what I consider to be the Disneyland of the Czech Republic, minus the rides and long lines.

CESKÝ KRUMLOV
If you wanted to build the perfect movie set for your medieval period piece, Ceský Krumlov may be the best possible living representation of what to replicate. The town is so perfect, it almost looks fake, as if it actually was a movie set (hence the earlier Disneyland reference). But realizing how very real it is triggers the magic within your imagination. Yes, it’s extremely touristy and oversaturated with souvenir shops, but Ceský Krumlov is still worth the visit.

The state castle and château are a complex of 40 richly decorated Renaissance and Baroque buildings and palaces, creating an impressive noble residence situated around five castle courts. The château dominates the historical center, packed with more than 300 Gothic and Renaissance town houses. Within the grounds is a Baroque theater, one of the oldest castle theaters still preserved in Central Europe. If you want a peek inside, make sure to make reservations early, as it’s purposely not open to the public without a private guide to ensure the theater is protected. On my circle back to Prague, I opted for two more quick stops that aren’t on the typical tourist map, but instead came as recommendations from locals.

TÁBOR
Underneath the houses and streets in this town is an incredibly well-constructed labyrinth and series of tunnels. Reaching Tábor via the extremely narrow streets that lead to it is an adventure on its own. Within the center of the city is Žižka Square, a picturesque little area that will have made the side trip worth it. If only passing by, this is where you will spend the majority of your time doing the “point and shoot.” Within the square is a 22-room boutique hotel, Hotel Nautilus, which offers low rates for uniquely decorated luxury rooms. And within Nautilus is Goldie, the restaurant most consider to be the best in Tábor.

Chef Martin Svatek has created his take on traditional Czech gastronomy in a modern, lighter concept. His use of fresh regional ingredients shines through in every dish. Chef Svatek is extremely proud of his food and the awards he has won during his career, which has been completely focused on Czech cuisine. Anyone who visits Goldie is welcome to meet with him and enter the kitchen, where he’ll proudly show off his facility and staff.

ZVÍKOVSKÉ PODHRADÍ
This tiny village is home to Zvíkov castle, which is in an early Gothic style. It’s situated overlooking the confluence of two rivers, making a dramatic impression on passers-by. The village offers great trekking and cycling, but the main attraction is the local brewery: Pivovarsky dvúr Zvíkov.The brewery has aimed to revive the brewing tradition of the ancient brewery of Zvikov castle, where beer was made for centuries. In those times, several dozen people worked in the castle brewery. Today, one master brewer does it all, and this brewery is passionate about its beer Visitors are encouraged to meet with the brewer, tour the facility and sample the variety of beers. It didn’t take long before I was trying each and every one, which easily convinced me to purchase take-home bottles for my last couple of nights back in Prague.

Returning to Prague, I knew there was one more thing I needed to do before flying home: attend a ballet at the National Theatre. Opened in 1862, this Renaissance Revival opera house and theater is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world. After watching a Czech ballet interpretation of Cinderella, I was left in awe not only of the performance, but also of the inside of the magnificent building. This is where I had my true fairy-tale moment.

My love affair with Prague had expanded to an entire region within a country after my experience in southern Bohemia. The welcoming Czech people made traveling through the region shockingly easy. And even though most locals laughed when I attempted to speak a little Czech, there was one phrase I nailed that was never second-guessed by anyone: pivo, prosím, (“a beer, please”).