I am one lucky Wine Chix. I received an invitation from the Czech Tourism Department to explore the wine, food and activities of the trending Czech Republic via Prague and South Moravia. It was a short trip – just five days, but oh what a great five days it was. I had the opportunity of a lifetime not just to explore, but to discover the soul of this sensual country.
No one should need an invitation to visit Prague and the wine districts of the Czech Republic. You should go just because it’s an amazing place to be a part of. I think foodies, shoppers, and wine lovers will especially love what this area has to offer. Soft adventure opportunities abound – so get your bicycles, fishing poles, and wine glasses out and ready to use. My suggestion is to go during the fall like I did. The tourist crowds have thinned a bit. The weather is beautiful and the festivals are beginning to find their groove.
Prague is a city that needs to be seen on foot. Meeting with a group of nine international writers in the lobby of the Andel’s Hotel , local guide Martina Kaderová set us off on a 4.5 walking tour of Prague. That is not a typo. Most American’s would hide if they thought they were going to be walking for more than 20 minutes, let alone 4.5 hours. Certainly this California girl would have second thoughts about such a long walking tour. But as it turned out, it was a real treat – easy, breezy and mostly downhill once the tram deposited us at the top of the castle district. The first thing tourists learn is to look up. All the really cool sites are framed against the sky. Towering castle spires, 400-year-old astronomical clocks, and gorgeous statues are all heaven bound.
Wear flat shoes, bring a camera and allow several hours to tour Old Town, the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge. Stop a while at the various wine gardens and restaurants to acquaint yourself with the local food, wine and beer. All beautiful, all wonderful.
After our walking tour we strolled to the Restaurant V Zátši from the Charles Bridge for dinner. Opened in 1991 as one of the first private restaurants in Prague it showcases a quiet and intimate ambience. The night I was there, it was packed… and for good reason. We were treated to a pre-fixed Bohemian meal of traditional Kulajda Soup, Mead Roasted Quail, Pan Seared Fillet of Pikeperch, Crispy Duckling, Red Cabbage, Herb Dumplings and Duck Sauce with Cumin and Warm Rhubarb and Apple Tartlet – all served with complimentary local wines. I especially like the Tramín and Riesling. The dinner and wines came to about $117 US per person. We took public transportation back to our hotel. I was beginning to feel like a local.
Day 2 found us on a bus with our guide Martina and Czech Tourism rep Pavel Macek heading out to Bystřice nad Pernštejnem. Bystřice nad Pernštejnem is a small town with a population of 9,007 that serves as a public administration center. The town is a center of cultural and social life in the area. There are nine educational institutions there. The scenery between the deep valley of the river Svratka and the foot of Žďárské vrchy (the Žďár highlands) leads me to believe that there will be a rapid development of tourism in the future which will include breathtaking unspoiled hiking, biking, fishing and camping.
The mayor told me, “We are not so much interested in sharing our region with mass bus tours, but with families, singles and couples who want to stay awhile and enjoy the natural beauty.” Lunch was at the restaurant Agrofarm Habři. We all took the opportunity to continue our exploration of local food, wine and beer. We got to order off the menu, so there were lots of different dishes to look at. I had the local garlic soup and a salad that reminded me of a Greek Salad (not exactly, but similar). I was also introduced to the Czech version of Coke. I liked it for its less sweet, less bubbly taste.
Next we headed out to the Pernštejn Castle where we toured the small castle and had a private wine tasting. The castle is located on a rock above the village of Nedvědice and the rivers Svratka and Nedvědička, in the South Moravian wine district. Pernštejn came to be known as the marble castle because of the marble-like stone used to frame the doors and windows. Pernštejn Castle is a very rare example of a near perfectly preserved castle that that looks today almost exactly how it did 700 years ago. It’s open April – October.
Our wine tasting at the castle was magnificent – about 16 wines – led by a local sommelier. The cool Czech weather and sandy soil produce better whites than red. My overall impression was solid winemaking skills produced very good wines such as Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cab, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and local white favorites Pálava (a young vine originating in Morava in the 70’s gaining huge popularity in recent years. Grapes are partly grayish, partly reddish, spicy in taste with tough skins.
The wine itself has a golden hue, vanilla and spicy tones as well as Muscat notes. Smooth, very round, slightly acidic it goes well with spicy dishes, meat in a sweet marinates as well as goat and sheep cheese) and Tramín (Gewürztraminer). Think lean wines on all varietals. The 2008 Sauvignon Blanc was especially memorable. Cost per bottle is about $15-$20 US.
Ending day 2 we transferred to Znojmo, the historical city of Moravia associated with a slew of wine traditions including the Historical Vintage Festival, historical sights, and delicious gherkins. The tour people had my attention now as we were in one of the most famous Czech wine districts. We stayed for two nights at the Hotel Prestige which was in walking or bicycling distance of many wine cellars, the festival, and the big Vintage Festival which attracts over 80,000 a year. Dinner was in the hotel’s restaurant. Must say… a great bar, many choices of wine and a solid local menu made this a pleasure to dine at. Also would like to note that both the Andel’s Hotel in Prague and the Hotel Prestige offered in room Internet. There is a fee of anywhere between $10-$20 per 24 hours.
Our final 2 days were spent discovering the Znojmo wine region. While some of our group went cycling others went shopping. Each of the 10 wine-growing regions in Moravia is connected by its own wine trail loop. Visitors can choose from one-day trips or longer tours on which to discover local culture, wines and sites, all from a 750 mile network of cycling trails. Our group picked up bikes at the local train station and cycled for a little over an hour. The trail was challenging, but invigorating. Be aware you will be on city streets, larger automobile roads and quaint small village streets. The cost for a six hour bike rental is about $7 US. Bicycling and wine tasting is a widely popular activity and should be a priority for you to try. Those of us who went shopping were also not disappointed. The Czech has invented itself into an international shopping site. Europeans – especially from the eastern blocks – come here for glorious bargains on shoes, handbags, clothing, glass, and jewelry (especially garnets). One whole day can be dedicated to shopping. This California girl was dazzled by the lovely craftsmanship and plentiful selection. I scored big in the shoe and sunglass department and was sorely tempted by some brilliant gold sapphire hoop earrings. If the bus hadn’t been touting its horn for me, I’d be living large with new gorgeous earrings.
Lunch was a very interesting experience at Restaurant Moravský sklípek in the town of Šatově. The food was excellent with most of us opting to try the local favorite potato dumplings with homemade smoked meat and stewed cabbage (about $5 US) and the oh so delicious crepe like dessert Palačinka ($3 US). The shopping group arrived before the biking group and was offered a taste of a harvest time wine known as Burčák.
Burčák – roughly translates as “Young Wine.” It originates as an intermediary product during winemaking, several days after fermentation begins. We drank Burčák that had been crushed just 4 days earlier. This fun fizzy grape juice can only be called Burčák for two to three days, when the sugar and alcohol is approximately balanced – about 4-5% alcohol. The importance of this beverage is defined in the Vintner and Winemaking Act, which specifies when Burčák may be offered for direct consumption. The partially fermented grape juice may be distributed for consumption only if it is made exclusively from grapes, which were harvested and processed in the Czech Republic. The act also specifies that it may only be sold between the 1st August and 30th November of the current year. I am glad I was there because it’s really special. It’s way too sweet to drink much of as it is often made from the Muscat grape, but it matches the festive nature of Czech fall and all its festivals. And it’s incredibly cheap – about 75 cents a glass.
We also had a great wine tasting in the cellars of the restaurant. Centuries old this cave now offers wine lockers for rent for about $45 US and includes the ability to store 75 bottles of wine, offers 3 hosted tastings a year, use of the caves for private parties, and a complimentary bottle of wine each year. A steal of a deal. Our wine tasting was 6 lovely wines from one of the largest producers in the Czech Republic and included Pinot Noir, Grüner Veltliner (a fragrant white Austrian grape wine), Rhine Riesling, Sav Blanc, Cab Rosé, and Pálava. Most notable were the Cab Rose and the Sav Blanc.
After the tasting we walked about 15 minutes to Chateau Satov also known as The Painted Cave Winery. On the way through narrow streets we discovered many private entries to the extensive underground caves in the area. It was fun to see people sitting out in front of the many unmarked cave entrances on casual chairs drinking wine from the various cellars. At the painted caves we were treated to a 30 minute tour of the most interesting caves ever. A project of love that spanned 1914- 1967 a one armed folk painter painted various “life” and fantasy scenes over the many years. It was not until the early 60’s until there was any light in the caves. The artist utilized candles on his hat to light the cave walls. The guide told us only one scene has been lost – that of Hitler saluting enthusiastic crowds. It was changed after the war to a smiling baby waving to her mother.
Our last day was spent exploring the famous Znojmo Historic Wine-Harvest Festival. It takes place throughout the town of Znojmo. From the original grand costume spectacles and new-wine celebration (Burčák), the traditional Znojmo grape harvest festival (first held in 1966) has developed into a stylish, 2-day fun-packed presentation of music, dance and entertainment. It occurs very September it attracting tens of thousands of visitors from across the country.
The event is dominated by a ceremonial procession through the town on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon made up of several hundred people in period costumes, horses and jugglers ending with the arrival of king and queen – Jan Lucemburský with Eliška Přemyslovná. The procession ends with a festive scene on the main stage. Once that part is completed visitors are treated to jousting knights, music everywhere, historical markets with craftsmen, merchants and endless stands serving food and Burčák wine. Music lovers and Burčák aficionados will especially love this festival, but I can heartily recommend it for families, singles and couples of all ages.
Not to be missed during the festival is the Znojmo Underground- one of the most extensive underground labyrinths in central Europe located right in the middle of the festival. The underground dates back to the 14th century. The classic tour route features an excursion of the underground corridors and passages with a presentation focusing on the history of the origins of the Underground and its further development in the course of time. Since March 2009, the classic tour route has been extended with the “Mysterious Underground” exposition, during which visitors see an alchemist’s workshop, rocks, bats and goblins brought to life, as well as dungeon cells and many more. The atmosphere is augmented by special light and sound effects. The tour is about an hour and requires good balance and flat shoes.
I was sorry to leave Znojmo, but it was time to hop on our bus for the 2-hour return to Prague for our individual flights home the next day. We arrived at the centrally located Hotel Adria in an upscale historical, business and shopping area of the city. Wow is all I can say for all the store choices. The district was alive with hundreds of shoppers. Wish I could have been one, but I needed to check my email (in room Internet was $20 US for 24 hours), pack and get ready for dinner. The hotel’s upscale Art Nouveau style TRITON Restaurant (1912) is located in a unique stalactite cave and features a gourmet menu, a wine-cellar and ancient statues as a backdrop. Quite an upscale dinner experience featuring a special Prague Ham appetizer, 1/4 Roast Duck with Red Wine Cabbage and Potato Dumplings and Apple Strudel with Sour Cream. Most of the writers chose beer as their beverage of choice; I had a local Sav Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Some tips for you when visiting the Czech Republic:
1. English is spoken in most tourist areas. Get off the beaten path and you’re likely to need an iPod app to help translate.
2. Although part of the EU, local currency is not the Euro, it is the Koruna or Czech crown. You can use Euro dollars in some places, but not all. US dollars are converted to Koruna not Euros at the hotels.
3. Soft adventure possibilities abound in this wonderful place. Take full advantage of the biking, walking and fishing tours. Use a guide for your first couple of days.
4. Internet is available but is expensive for in-room service. Many hotels offer Wi-Fi in the lobby or will direct you to a nearby Interne Café.
5. Eat and shop locally. Be adventurous.
6. Bring a suitcase for all the wonderful items you’ll be bringing back.