Simon Jenkins steers off the Czech Republic’s main tourist route for a week of culture and adventure in Southern Bohemia.
Since the fall of Communism, Prague has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the old Eastern Bloc. But while every year millions sample the pleasures of the Czech Republic’s cosmopolitan capital, few venture south from here to the rolling hills, deep pine forests, winding rivers and fertile farmland between Prague and the Austrian border. Southern Bohemia is an area which rarely figures on the main tourist agenda, but offers plenty, particularly for those seeking a little gentle adventure. And at its heart is one of the most interesting, beautiful cities in the whole of Europe.
Our week begins at Prague’s Vaclav Havel Airport, named after the writer and dissident who led Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic after the fall of communism in 1989. From here, most traffic takes the short motorway journey into Prague, but instead we are heading 100 miles south to a region closely bordered by Austria and Germany.
Our first stop is Blansky forest, where a long gentle cable car ride through a tunnel in the trees brings you to Klet Mountain’s astronomical observatory and giant telecommunications mast. It’s the highest point for miles and a popular spot for walkers and cyclists.
The restaurant here offers our first encounter with the rich and sturdy cuisine for which this region is famous. Garlic soup and beef goulash are ideal for re-fuelling the walkers and cyclists who have trekked up here, for those of us who have taken the lazy option it seems almost superfluous.
Weighed down with this hearty calorific ballast, we accept the challenge to ride back down the mountain on a scooter. Plenty of visitors scale Klet with the express intention of careering back down its narrow winding paths on souped-up versions of children’s scooters. It’s very easy. A few little steps provide initial traction before gravity offers significant acceleration, though fortunately these scooters are equipped with disc brakes to ease you through the corners.
Which would all be very well but for my own sense of my absolute invincibility. Two minutes in and already I’m thinking myself an expert, the Barry Sheene of scootery. It was all bound to end in tears – and sure enough, a mile or so into the descent my outrageous confidence is ridiculed by a sharp bend which catches me unawares, throwing me off the path and into the mesh fence.
A little stiff, but with no lasting damage, the following day we start the next leg of our adventure, a rafting journey along a meandering stretch of the Vltava river. We float gently downstream, through farmland and villages. No-one seems to be paddling too hard, but thankfully the river’s flowing this way, so we’re literally going with the flow.
Our first destination is Kamp Branna, a spartan but lively campsite where giant teepees offer basic but clean accommodation. Wooden pallet beds radiate out from the central fire pit, where we roast smoky sausages and toast slices of dense rye bread, before someone gets a guitar out and sings campfire songs, and we drift off into sleep.
The next morning, as the skies clear into glorious sunshine, the final leg of our Vltava voyage brings us into Cesky Krumlov, built up over 10 centuries around a bend in the river.
Krumlov was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 1992; to approach by river beneath this huddle of homes, churches and towers, is to experience it at its romantic, picture-perfect best.
With its architecture reflecting Gothic, Viennese and Baroque influences Krumlov’s castle is the second largest in the country, after Prague. And in a land whose history has been one of periodic occupancy by its neighbouring states, it is remarkable that the castle remained intact throughout its 700 years; it was never burned, seized or even attacked.
It’s a short hop from here to the town of Budejovice and another national treasure. Beer has been brewed in these parts since time immemorial; Budweiser Budvar is one of the very best in the world. Brewery visitors can get up close and personal with the process and learn about the brewers’ adherence to strict German beer purity laws.
Budvar’s latest novelty is Cryobeer, brewed to a formidable 7.5 per cent ABV but then frozen and served to bar and restaurant customers in icy one-litre flasks. Having a lower freezing point, the alcohol is first to thaw, so the first few slithers of Cryobeer we try are a mind-blowing 24 per cent ABV. As more of the actual beer de-frosts, the strength diminishes, but it still makes for a sociable end to a few days of eye-opening Czech adventure.
Flights: Jet2 run each-way flights between Leeds-Bradford and Prague on Thursdays and Sundays, with prices starting at around £45 per person one-way. jet2.com
Transfers: A daily shuttle bus from Priague Aurport to Cesky Krumlow costs around £25 per person.
Brewery Tour: Budvar brewery is open 9am-5pm daily from March to December and Tuesday-Saturday in January and February. Guided tours cost around £4pp. visitbudvar.cz/en/
Rafting: Numerous companies offer raft-hire on the Vltava river. Prices start at around £50 a day.