Сzech Republic - Resorts
If you’ve been hiding a designer dog or an ostentatious pair of sunglasses in your luggage, then Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad in German) is your chance to give them both an airing. This fashionable town is the closest the Czech Republic has to a glam resort, but Karlovy Vary is still glam with a small ‘g’. Well-heeled hypochondriacs from Germany, Austria, Russia and, increasingly, Arab nations make the pilgrimage to try to enjoy courses of ‘lymphatic drainage’ and ‘hydrocolonotherapy’ – all activities that should be outlawed under several international agreements.
If you’re really keen to discover the dubious pleasures of a steam inhalation session or a sulphur bath, you’ll need to make a prior appointment. If not, there’s good hiking in the surrounding hills, and a busy arts and entertainment programme. Sample the tepid mineral-rich water on offer, or just have a drink at the riverside cafés. In our opinion, a beer or a coffee is a better option than the sulphurous gunk everyone else is sipping on.
For centuries it has been known as Zlatá Praha or Golden Prague - a glittering jewel of art and architecture nestling snugly at the heart of Europe. Home to emperors and kings, artists and astronomers, this beautiful and fascinating city has worked its subtle magic on generations of visitors, and lent inspiration to musicians and writers from Mozart to Dvořák and Kafka to Klíma.
There are glitzy shopping malls, designer restaurants and cool cocktail bars galore, a feast of film and music festivals, and a packed programme of opera, ballet and drama. Smoky jazz cellars and rock basements compete with DJs and dance clubs into the small hours - no matter how late it is, there's always a party happening somewhere - and then, heading home after an all-nighter, there's the mystical silence of the mist-shrouded Charles Bridge at dawn.
As well as its cultural treasures, Prague offers another precious commodity - the liquid gold of Bohemian beer. The Czechs have been brewing since at least the 9th century - they invented Pilsner, the world's first clear, golden lager, in 1842 - and Czech breweries still produce some of the world's finest beers.
Above all, Prague is to be explored at leisure, whether venturing along the medieval lanes and hidden passages of the Old Town, strolling through the many wooded parks or taking a leisurely cruise along the Vltava. Everywhere you go you will uncover some aspect of the city's multilayered history - in its time Prague has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, the first Czechoslovak Republic, the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the Communist Republic of Czechoslovakia, and the modern, democratic Czech Republic.
Despite the onslaught of mass tourism, the city's dark and mysterious soul survives, haunted by the shadows of Kafka and communism. For those willing to wander off the beaten track, to risk getting lost in the city's maze of alleyways and courtyards, a deeper, truer experience of Golden Prague awaits.
With flashy Prague being the city at the top of many travellers’ must-do list, Brno, just 210km to the east, could be forgiven for developing a slight inferiority complex. But in reality the people of Brno are perfectly OK with their city’s lot as the Czech Republic’s second city.
Despite having a population of less than 400, 000, Brno behaves like the cosmopolitan capital it is (ie of Moravia), and stately boulevards and parks give it an almost Parisian air. This vaguely Gallic ambience is further enhanced by a population with contagious enthusiasm for caffeine, chat and culture, which they energetically bring to life in the city’s cafés and bars.
Brno has an after-dark reputation for keeping its top button firmly done up, but spend a few hours in a local pub and you’ll soon see that traditional Moravian reserve melt away. Maybe it’s because they don’t have to share their old town with legions of tourists.
And even if Brno’s historical hub is small change compared with the architectural overachievement that is Prague, the city can stand alone with an array of excellent galleries and museums, a brooding castle fortress and a robust confidence in the relevance and importance of surrounding Moravia, comfortably away from the sometimes myopic focus of the national capital.