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  • Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe.

  • This time we're soaking up the off-beat delights of the Czech Republic.

  • Thanks for joining us!

  • To get a fair look at any country, you need to venture beyond its dominant city.

  • Here in the Czech Republic there's a world of cultural riches outside of Prague -

  • and in this episode, that's our focus.

  • We'll discover stately squares with no tourists; eat stinky cheese and wash it down with Europe's

  • best beer...

  • Honza: ...the stinkiest cheese in the whole country.

  • See the trophies of a bored yet trigger happy prince and learn of an evil Nazi hoax. Then

  • we'll follow the epic story of the Czech nation on canvas, paddle through the bohemian countryside,

  • and delight in a fairytale town that comes complete with jaunty Gypsy music.

  • Buried in the heart of central Europe is the Czech Republic. Skipping Prague, the capital,

  • we start in Olomouc in Moravia, before visiting Moravsky Krumlov, Trebon, Terezin, Konopiste,

  • and Cesky Krumlov.

  • As Europe unites into one vast free trade zone, it's employing its own kind of internal

  • Marshal Plan, investing hundreds of billions of dollars into its own infrastructure. Here

  • in the Czech Republic they have a new express train zipping you in less than two hours from

  • Prague to here...Olomouc.

  • Its circa-1950s train station is a fascinating blend of old and new: Bright and happy workers

  • put down their hammers and sickles long enough to greet you - a reminder of the country's

  • recent communist past. Just a short tram-ride from the station gets us to the old town center.

  • Olomouc, the historic capital of this region, is the Czech Republic's fifth-largest city

  • with 100,000 people and home to a leading university. With its wealth of cafés, clubs,

  • and student life, Olomouc gives you vibrant local culture - without the tourist crowds

  • and high prices of Prague.

  • I'm joined by my Czech friend and co-author of my Czech Republic guidebook, Honza Vihan.

  • Rick: So, Moravia, is that a political unit or an ethnic region?

  • Honza: Moravia is region in the Eastern part of the Czech Republic.

  • Rick: And how would you describe the Moravian people?

  • Honza: Well to generalize the Moravians are more emotional and friendlier then the people

  • in the western part of the country.

  • The fortune and misfortune of Olomouc comes from its strategic location at the intersection

  • of Central Europe's main east-west and north-south trade routes. The city's historic core is

  • simply workaday Moravia. Trams clatter through the streets - as they have for a century.

  • The town's economy is lively even without much tourism.

  • Standing in front of the Town Hall surrounded by the vast square and its fine noble and

  • bourgeois residences, you can imagine the importance of Olomouc in centuries past. The

  • people here are proud - as if their fine city was still ruling Moravia...which is hasn't

  • done since about 1640.

  • Locals brag that their city is the home to the country's second most important bishop

  • and its second most important university. Perennially number two, Olomouc actually built

  • its bell tower to be six feet taller than Prague's. But, when it comes to plague monuments,

  • Olomouc is unrivaled..... this baby is the tallest and most grandiose anywhere.

  • Throughout Central Europe squares like this are decorated with similar structures, erected

  • by locals to give thanks for surviving the plague. The tip of the column features the

  • Holy Trinity: God the Father making a blessing, Christ sitting on a globe, and the dove representing

  • the Holy Spirit. Tumbling below the Trinity, the archangel Michael - with his ever-ready

  • sword and shield - reminds us that the Church is in a constant struggle with evil.

  • It all sits upon a tiny chapel where, on the day the column was inaugurated in 1754, the

  • mighty Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa - who traveled all the way from Vienna - knelt to

  • pray - devout, yet envious. Proud little Olomouc, way out here in Moravia, had a plague column

  • grander than Vienna's.

  • A series of allegorical fountains decorate the old town. Most were inspired by classical

  • mythology. This one, featuring Julius Caesar, is dedicated to the legendary founder of the

  • town.

  • The modern turtle fountain is a popular meeting place for young mothers, and a fine place

  • to watch toddlers enjoy the art.

  • This astronomical clock was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. Today's version was

  • rebuilt in 1953 by the communists - with their kitschy flair for propaganda. In good Social

  • Realist style, you have earnest chemists and heroic mothers rather than holy saints and

  • Virgin Marys. In this region so rich in agriculture, these symbols of the 12 months each feature

  • a seasonal farm activity. High noon is marked by a proletarian parade, when a mechanical

  • conga line of milkmaids, clerks, blacksmiths, teachers, and first defenders are celebrated

  • as the champions of everyday society.

  • As with any full service astronomical clock, there's a wheel with 365 saints, so you'll

  • always know whose special day it is. And this clock comes with a Moscow-inspired bonus - red

  • bands splice in the special days of communist heroes: Lenin died on the 21st day of the

  • year; Stalin's saint was Tomas - day 355.

  • We can't leave Olomouc without experiencing one of the city's greatest attractions; its

  • notoriously stinky cheese.

  • Rick: So we know about the great Czech beer. But what's with this famous cheese from Moravia?

  • Honza: The Olomouc zarushki? Well it's the stinkiest cheese in the whole country.

  • Rick: [Laugh] Really: Honza: If there is one thing you associate

  • with Olomouc, it's this cheese. My mom comes from this region, when I was a kid when she

  • would start eating this at home, me and my dad we would just clear out of the kitchen.

  • So the thing that makes this cheese is the way it ages. It ages under the aged meat so

  • the meat itself has to be aged to age this cheese. Then you have to age in order to like

  • this cheese. Rick: And what are you putting on it?

  • Honza: That's young onion, young, strong onion. Rick: Why is that important?

  • Honza: Is good for you as a man. Rick: [Laugh]

  • Honza: It stinks but is good. Rick: And what is this?

  • Honza: This, these are really strong mints so you can go and kiss your wife when you

  • go home.

  • Thirty miles south of Prague is Konopiště, the lavish residence of the Archduke Franz

  • Ferdinand. Its interior dates from about 1900, when the heir of the Hapsburg throne, Franz

  • Ferdinand, moved in. Against the wishes of his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, Franz Ferdinand

  • married a Czech countess, Sofie. To escape family problems back in Vienna, he purchased

  • Konopiště and moved here to raise their 3 children and wait his turn to be emperor.

  • Money was no object as Franz Ferdinand turned his castle into a palace with all the latest

  • comforts: As one of the first castles in Europe to have an elevator...a shower with hot and

  • cold running water...and even a new-fangled flush toilet, Konopiště shows "modern" living

  • around the year 1900.

  • The archduke had lots of time on his hands as his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef held onto

  • power from 1848 all the way until 1916. While he waited, Franz Ferdinand amassed one of

  • the best collections of arms and armor in the entire world. The exhibit, mostly Italian

  • from the 16th to the 18th centuries, raises weaponry to an art form.

  • And for Franz Ferdinand, guns were more than showpieces. Obsessed with hunting, he traveled

  • around the world, shooting at anything with four legs: deer, bear, tigers, elephants,

  • and this Polish buffalo. He actually recorded over 200,000 kills in his log. Keep in mind

  • Royal hunting was a kind of massacre game with his aids sweeping doomed animals into

  • the archduke's eager sights. Over 4,000 trophies decorate the walls and halls of his castle.

  • Franz Ferdinand did more than his share of shooting. But in 1914, he himself was shot,

  • along with his beloved wife Sofie, in Sarajevo. His assassination sparked WWI which ultimately

  • ended the rule of the Hapsburg family - whose crown he had waited so long to inherit.

  • Another site near Prague is Terezin, a town built in the 1780s with state-of-the-art walls

  • designed to keep out German enemies. In 1941, the Nazis evicted its 7,000 inhabitants and

  • packed in 60,000 Jews, creating the Terezín Concentration Camp. The town's historic walls,

  • originally meant to keep Germans out, were now used by Germans to keep the Jews in. But

  • this was a concentration camp with a devious twist.

  • This was the Nazis' model "Jewish town," - in reality a concentration camp dolled up for

  • propaganda purposes. Here in what they called a "self-governing Jewish resettlement area,"

  • Jewish culture seemed to thrive, as "citizens" put on plays and concerts, published a magazine,

  • and raised their families in ways that impressed Red Cross inspectors.

  • The Germans wanted the Jews to accept this new reality - harsh, but at least life would

  • go on. Children made dolls of their friends "in transport" - as if relocating was just

  • the start of the next stage of their lives. They drew carefree memories of life before

  • incarceration and they made scrapbooks about life in the camp. The museum comes with a

  • recreated barracks furnished with actual belongings of Terezin inmates.

  • Sinks were installed - looking good for human rights abuse inspectors from the outside world...but

  • never actually plumbed with water. Group showers became a routine part of life here. The fatal

  • last shower many Terezin residents would later take at Auschwitz looked no different...except

  • there were no windows.

  • Tolerable as this sham Jewish town seemed, virtually all of Terezín's Jews ultimately

  • ended up dying either here or at the extermination camps farther east. As you explore the camp,

  • ponder the message of all such memorials: Forgive, but never forget.

  • Today, the Czech Republic - independent and enjoying an unprecedented prosperity - is

  • dotted with plain and sleepy towns. These non-descript, work-a-day places go about life

  • oblivious to modern tourism. But one particularly ugly town hides an artistic pearl.

  • Moravský Krumlov has only one real restaurant and shops shut down by 5:00. The concrete

  • ugliness of the circa-1950s main square (rebuilt after the town was bombed out by Russians

  • in WWII) feels a world-apart from the rest of the country.

  • But...there's one good reason to visit Moravský Krumlov: Discovering the Slavic Epic, by the

  • Czech Republic's greatest painter, Alfons Mucha. His masterpiece is tucked away in the

  • town's decaying castle.

  • Around 1900, Mucha made a hugely successful commercial career for himself as the Art Nouveau

  • poster artist and illustrator of ads and magazine covers.

  • His specialty: pretty women with flowers, portraits of rich wives, and slinky models

  • celebrating the good life. But he grew tired of commercial art.

  • Mucha dedicated the second half of his career - 18 years - to painting the Slavic Epic [correction: Slav Epic],

  • 20 huge canvases designed to tell the story of his nation on a grand scale.

  • The art fills this humble space only until a suitable home can be found in Prague.

  • In this self-portrait young Mucha is the seer - a conduit, determined to share wisdom of

  • a sage Slav with his fellow Czechs.

  • Mucha paints a brotherhood of Slavic people - Serbs, Russians, Poles, and Czechs - who

  • share a common heritage, deep roots, a hard fought past, and ultimate triumph. Through

  • this series of epic events, Czechs can trace their ethnic roots:

  • Mucha, with his romantic nationalist vision, shows how through the ages Goths and Germanic

  • people have brought terror and destruction to the Slavs....the Slavs whose pagan roots

  • are woven deep into their national character. The establishment of the Orthodox Christian

  • faith provided a common thread for Slavic peoples. To maintain their identity, they

  • stood up to the Roman Church with courageous religious leaders boldly confronting Vatican

  • officials. The printing of the Bible in the Czech language was a cultural milestone.

  • Then they endured three centuries of darkness during the time Czechs were ruled by the Catholic

  • Austrians. Mucha's final canvas shows the ultimate triumph of the Czech people as, in

  • the 20th century, they join the family of nations with their Czech ethnicity intact.

  • The Slavic Epic.

  • A short drive takes us to another popular stop: Třeboň. Its venerable square is lined

  • with playful arcades artfully blending both Renaissance and Baroque building styles. The

  • town was built by 17th-century businessmen, whose wealth came from fish farming. From

  • one of the outdoor cafés, you can watch the parade of local life in the shadow of another

  • plague monument.

  • The bank sports a relief extolling the virtue of working hard and stowing your money right

  • here. And a happy fisherman cradles the historic...and wiggly...source of this town's wealth.

  • Centuries ago lake-builders ofeboň employed ingenious techniques. They transformed what

  • was a flooding marshland into a clever and delightful combination of lakes....oak-lined

  • dikes... and fertile meadows. Rather than unprofitable soggy fields, the nobles wanted

  • ponds swarming with fish. Today - five centuries later - Třeboň remains the fish-raising

  • capital of the Czech Republic.

  • 16th-century landscape architects struck an amazing balance between civilization and nature,

  • which today is a protected ecosystem. Nature enthusiasts visit to bird-watch, bike along

  • dikes held together by roots of centuries-old oaks, and of course, catch a few fish.

  • eboň's other claim to fame: its peat spa. Patients come - mostly on their doctors orders

  • and therefore covered by the national healthcare system - for weeklong stays. And gawky tourists

  • can line up for a soak too. With clinical efficiency...["Rick Steves"], I'm suddenly

  • part of the system - like it or not. Soaking in the black, smelly peat sludge is thought

  • to cure aching joints and spines. We'll see about that. The treatment continues with a

  • cursory hose-down. Its capper - a no-nonsense massage - gives a relaxing opportunity to

  • judge the power of peat.

  • Moving on, we enter the region of Bohemia. This part of the Czech Republic closest to

  • Germany, is much appreciated for its pastoral countryside. And floating a few hours down

  • the Vltava River through Bohemian forests and villages you see why. Families and gangs

  • of friends enjoy multi-day river trips. These guys aren't letting a little rain dampen their

  • spirits. Anyone passing through can rent a canoe and enjoy a paddle - short or long.

  • Float companies pick you up and drop you at convenient and scenic spots of your choice.

  • Going with the flow takes you to my favorite stop in the Czech countryside outside of Prague...

  • Český Krumlov.

  • The enchanting town of Cesky Krumlov - buried in the hills of Bohemia, lassoed by its river

  • and dominated by its castle - feels lost in a time warp. Its delightful Old Town of shops

  • and cobbled lanes, characteristic little restaurants, and easy going canoeing options, makes it

  • a favorite with tourists.

  • And there's no shortage of accommodations. Our home is the Castle View Apartments. Plush

  • and thoughtfully-equipped - my room is typical of the work locals are doing as even medieval

  • lofts are being renovated to meet the needs of the growing number of visitors. Open beams,

  • a handy kitchenette...and - as its name promises - a castle view, make this a fine temporary

  • home.

  • With the natural moat provided by the Vltava river, it's no wonder this place has been

  • a choice spot for ages. The 16th century was the town's Golden Age, when Český Krumlov

  • was a cultural power hosting artists, scientists, and alchemists from all over Europe.

  • The town's many tourists set their sights on the mighty castle of the Rožmberk family.

  • For three centuries - until about 1600 - the Rožmberks - Bohemia's top noble family - ran

  • the city from this perch. Its 16th-century Renaissance paint job is fancifully restored.

  • Visitors wait their appointed time for a tour in the castle courtyard. The interior gives

  • a glimpse of the ultimate in Bohemian noble living through the ages. Imagine being a guest

  • - back in the 16th century - of this man, Count Rozmberk. You'd enjoy the scenes frescoed

  • here which celebrate a Rozmberk family wedding. Then, riding his assembly line of fine living,

  • you'd dine here. Come back two centuries later, and you'd dine here and if the countess tired

  • of your company, she'd retire to her adjacent bedroom...but only after a servant lit the

  • candles on her Meissen porcelain chandelier.

  • And of course the party would go on...perhaps with a Venetian-style masquerade party in

  • the ballroom. For a little fresh air, you'd hike down this corridor, 150 yards, to the

  • count's formal garden. But don't forget...at 8pm, the candles would be lit...for a play

  • in the Baroque theater.

  • Europe once had several hundred fine Baroque theaters like this. Using candles and oil

  • lamps for light and pyrotechnics for special effects eventually most of them burned down.

  • Today only four survive that are in beautiful shape and open to the public like this one

  • here, at Krumlov Castle.

  • Baroque theater was all about melodrama - lighting, perspective, and sound effects were all melodramatic.

  • Even the weather was thrilling - with machines to make horrifying wind...a driving rain storm...and menacing thunder.

  • Even back then...it was all about special effects.

  • Tonight, the liveliest place in town is the local Gypsy Bar - good food and lively music.

  • The easiest way for a traveler to experience the traditional Gypsy or Roma culture is through

  • its music - always crowd pleasing and fiery.

  • Rick: How many Roma are there in Europe? Honza: There are 12 million Romas mainly in

  • central and Eastern Europe. Rick: 12 million!

  • Honza: That's more than the Czechs or Austrians. Rick: Where did they come from?

  • Honza: The Romas came to Europe in the middle ages from India, had long been persecuted.

  • Hitler targeted them just like the Jews. The communists put an end to their nomadic