Tuesday 28 June 2016

Beer and Bones: Exploring the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic really love their beer. This is a selection
Matt bought to try when we arrived

Czech Republic, 20th – 24th June 2016

It was time to put Austria behind us and move on into the Czech Republic. We’d been in Western Europe for a long time, where there are motorhomes everywhere and things are generally rather easy.  The Czech Republic marks our first Eastern European country in a while (depending on where you define East), and for the first time in months we weren’t sure what to expect or where to stay.  There was a certain kind of adventurous spirit about the act of crossing the border into unknown territory that we’ve not felt in a while, amplified by the fact that we were in the less touristy more rural part of the country, Moravia.

Courtesy of Tesco bakery: pastry, covered in chocolate and
stuffed with a mystery cream/icing filling
Our first observation was that Skodas are absolutely everywhere (Skoda is a Czech company), including trolley-busses and trams.  The second is that there are a lot of fields and flat land in this region.  Some things feel very familiar: Tesco’s exist here, as does KFC and O2.  The language however is very different and the currency is different (1 Euro is about 27 Czech korunas).  Beer is very cheap: it starts around €0.24/bottle (19p) for the cheaper stuff and you can get branded varieties for about €0.80/Litre (64p).  In the supermarkets prices vary between about 70-100% of their Euro equivalent and eating out is cheap (you can get ice cream for about €0.75/scoop and a large pizza for about €4-5).

Above: Just some (about 5 shown) of the many food & drink
places at Autokemp Merkur
Below: Trailer holiday homes

As it is unknown territory for us I wasn’t too confident about freecamping, so our first overnight spot was at Autokemp Merkur (GPS: 48.89630 16.56787, Free WiFi) at Pasohlávky on the shore of the Nové Mlýny reservoir, with two lagoons within the campsite.  At 240 Kč (korunas) it’s probably our cheapest official campsite to date (just under €9/£7.20), but doesn’t include showers and electric hookup would be extra.  As well as tents the site had holiday bungalows and cabins to rent and a real mix and match of vehicles, with permanently sited vans, small old tourers, trailer conversions, and a few more modern motorhomes like ours dotted about.  It looks like in July and August the place would be heaving with Czech holiday-goers as there were a variety of different snack bars, restaurants and pizzerias, burger vans and ice cream stalls, many of which were still closed up.  A lagoon in the middle was home to a cable-waterski run, and windsurfing and pedalo hire was available elsewhere on the campsite.  There were a few younger groups in tents but things seemed to quieten off around bedtime, spare for one noisy group next to us: an army of ducklings, who squawked from their nest on and off until sunrise.  For cuteness reasons, I think I will let them off.
Our spot on the strip of land between the two lagoons with water to the front and behind
In the Czech Republic, for a vehicle under 3.5T you need a vignette for all the main motorways as well as a few A-roads (for over 3.5T there is a different toll box system).  We consulted our map and decided it looked like it would be too difficult and time consuming to get from place to place avoiding the vignette roads.  The easiest way to buy a vignette is at a fuel station, where 310 Kč (about €11.50/£9.20) gets you 10 days.  We were confused about the sticker at first as the adhesive appeared as though the vignette should have gone on the exterior of the vehicle so Matt went back into the fuel station to check, where they showed him it was double-sided so you stick it on the interior of the windscreen with the vehicle registration pointing towards you rather than the road.

Camp Alpa
Brno is the second largest city in the country (although still not huge at 400000 people; it’s not a big country), so we drove in and looked around for somewhere to park with little luck.  Our usual resources have limited content for the Czech Republic but there is a free app for the country you can find here, which has a database of campsites.  After our Brno parking attempts failed we headed out of town to the town Ostravačice to stay at a place found on the app, Camp Alpa (GPS: 49.20688 16.41614, 255 Kč).  It’s more of a basic site on a grass field behind a restaurant with some bathrooms & camping huts.  It’s about 20 kilometres away from Brno not far from the main road to Prague, with Brno accessible by public transport.  There is a timetable in reception for the local buses which are roughly every twenty minutes during the day but less frequent in the evenings.  You will need a 90 minute ticket (34 Kč each) which you can buy on the bus (ask for Brno centre), getting off when you see the tram lines at the Stary Liskovec bus stop and catching a tram into the centre using the same ticket (to get back from the centre you buy tickets from a machine at the tram stop).

Historically Brno was an industrial centre, which the Habsburgs dubbed ‘the Austrian Manchester’.  That’s hardly the most glowing endorsement, but once you get past the meshwork of tramlines and electric bus cables, the main city centre is largely pedestrianised.  There are several interesting landmarks to see including a castle and the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, which rings its midday bells at 11am.  This supposedly dates back to the Thirty Years’ War when Brno was under siege for over three months in 1645, and when the Swedish army claimed they could have the town by midday, the town rung their bells an hour early in response.

The town hall: allegedly the stonemason
was never paid, so made the middle column
wonky in response
One of the many Skoda trams

Brno is a university town so the population feels rather young, which was something that became very apparent to us when we were walking the grounds near the Cathedral and stumbled across one garden where the three other couples who were populating it all seemed rather publicly enamoured with each other.  The prices are refreshingly cheap and there’s a nice selection of cafés and bars; you can find lots of outdoor seating areas where you can grab a beer for €0.80 (Czech beer of course).  It’s not the largest city centre but it’s still a very nice destination for a day visit.

The next day sent us travelling towards Telč, a town halfway between Prague and Vienna in the Bohemian-Moravian highlands.  Here we had our first night outside of a campsite, staying in a mixed parking area (GPS: 49.18714 15.44858) where 24hr parking in a camper is 150 Kč.  Telč is a UNESCO listed town, with the centre being unusual for being such a vast open square, surrounded by buildings all of a similar size and shape, with pastel facades and columned archways.  We stopped at a restaurant for a beer and as the weather was too hot to motivate any desire to cook, we made use of the Czech prices to indulge in pizza and more beers.  After that, it was an evening of utilising the many free WiFi hotspots near the van to plan ahead.

The heat hadn’t diminished at all the next day, choosing to soar up to around 33 degrees.  We were guzzling water faster than we could chill it, and the poor fridge-freezer struggled to run at maximum power.  I started sporting a wonderfully unattractive sweat-moustache look, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Greece.  The air conditioning started humming away at we drove north to our final stop before Prague, Kutna Hora.  Despite being a normal-sized town this place somehow warrants having two cathedrals, both with rather elegant exteriors.  For staying at Kutna Hora there are three campsites but the most central is Santa Barbara Camping (GPS: 49.95372 15.26021, 310 Kč, Free WiFi, Showers extra).  Like Camp Alpa it seemed like most of the trade came from the restaurant/bar at this time of year, with lots of locals flocking there for drinks in the evening. We got parked here on a pitch between hedges and set up camp with the awning out to get some shade. We took the chance to get some overdue laundry done for a bargain 50 Kč (€1.85/£1.50) and hung out to dry in the sun.

Our main purpose for coming here was to visit Kostnice v Sedlci, or the Sedlec Ossuary.  I don’t know what it is fascinates me about the macabre, but like the Chapel of Bones in Évora this place drew me in.  It is the final resting place of the bones of an estimated 40,000 people.  Around the end of the 15th century bones were moved from the cemetery into the underground chapel (which is larger than the main chapel above), where according to legend they were arranged into pyramids by a half-blind monk who then got his sight back.  Various rearrangements were made over the following centuries, with intricate forms such as huge goblets constructed from bone in the Baroque period, and in 1870 a coat of arms.  Due to its proximity to Prague it was quite busy with day visitors and tour groups, but it was a very interesting sight.

On Friday morning we made use of the campsite WiFi to tune into the BBC news, so we could see the referendum results for Brexit and watch Cameron’s resulting speech.  We were disappointed with the result, but not surprised.  I’m not going to dwell on the subject for too long as we have no intention of letting this become a political blog, but from a personal perspective it’s going to make things a lot harder for us when we return to travelling in a few years with the possible visas and different insurance cover that may be required, as well as make things more difficult for Matt from a career choice standpoint, as it will limit the opportunities to work in the German car industry which was something we’d considered.  But we can only wait and see what happens next, and find a way to work through the new complications thrown into our path.  We’re not going to sit around mourning things that are out of our control; time is our greatest asset, and we’re going to spend it enjoying the rest of this trip while we still can.

Next stop: Prague.

- Jo


  1. Wonderful blog as always with great information, what a inspiration you are about the current situation, happy travels to you both ☺

  2. HI Guys, Have been following you travels and looking at your great photos. Czech Republic has some great places. We were there in 2014 and you blog is bringing back some memories.Kutna Hora was one of my favorites. Safe travels. Ewout and Jenny [travelbunyip]

    1. Hi Ewout and Jenny, We didn't know what to expect from the Czech Republic before getting there having done almost no prior research but were pleasantly surprised with some interesting places.
      It won't be long until it's time for your travels, enjoy!
      Regards, Matt