Big adventure in Little Prague
Dusk is approaching and the sumptuous old town of Olomouc bathes in the last of the day’s sublime sunlight. Flagging a touch after an afternoon’s sightseeing around a city dubbed “Little Prague”, I swap the undulating cobbled streets, lined with colourful antique buildings and opulent churches, for a buzzing little hole-in-the-wall vinoteka (wine bar).
Pausing from his conversation with an ageing damsel — who, I fancy, may have looked like Czech model Eva Herzigova back in the day — the affable barman takes my order and pours me a glass of wine. I end up staying for two.
His reds (from the Svatovavrinecke grape) are full and bold, the whites (Moravian Muscatel) are a crisp, fruity reminder that the Czech Republic isn’t all about beer. My bonhomie swells when he tells me what I owe him: 20 korunas ($1.05).
Pronounced “Ollamoats”, Olomouc is in Moravia, the often-ignored eastern part of the Czech Republic. Unlike Bohemia — the country’s western region, which includes tourist hotspots Prague, Pilsen and Ceske Budejovice — Moravia isn’t renowned for its pilsner (pivo) production.
But it is one of Europe’s oldest viticultural zones. Grapes have been cultivated here since Celtic times (before the Romans arrived), and it’s said the locals quaffed wine because the water was too unpalatable to drink.
These days, the Moravian vineyards win awards across Europe and in the US. In Olomouc, you’ll find as many vinotekas as Bohemian-style pubs. Some are sleek and stylish; others are un-signed and set up like a grandma’s kitchen.
Olomouc's wine culture seeps through the city.
Bargain tipples are just some of the perks of visiting Olomouc, which is two hours from the Czech capital by rail and within fairly easy reach of Vienna and Bratislava (three hours away), Budapest (five) and Krakow (six).
Architecturally, Olomouc belongs in the illustrious company of this famous quartet, albeit on a smaller, cosier scale.
The historic centre is compact, easily walkable and chock-a-block with photogenic buildings, churches, statues and fountains, in everything from Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque to Art Nouveau styles.
So picturesque are some of the streets that I often find myself in a trance, although I’m soon jolted out of it by the sound of a tram rattling towards me (the tram, handily, links the railway station and the city centre).
Fortunately, there’s no danger of getting run over around Olomouc’s two giant adjoining central squares. These pedestrianised gems are a relic of the time when Olomouc was the Moravian capital.
Tourists gather to see Olomouc's Astronomical Clock.
At noon each day, crowds gather at the heart of Olomouc’s Upper Square. The huge, green-spired town hall boasts an elaborate astronomical clock, which is an odd contrast to the famous one on Prague’s Old Town Square. Whereas apostles, and a bell-ringing skeleton, star in Prague, Olomouc’s medieval clock was given a communist- style (or Socialist Realist) makeover under the Soviets, who had driven out the nazis in 1945.
Amid tepid applause, I watch as blacksmiths strike the hour on their anvils and a dozen proletariat figures parade to traditional folk songs played on a massive glockenspiel.
I’m more impressed by the Upper Square’s other attention-grabber — the Holy Trinity Column, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site likened to the Buddhist shrine of Borobudur in Indonesia. This Catholic relic was built to celebrate the end of a plague that struck Moravia between 1714 and 1716 — one of a series of disasters to afflict Olomouc. The worst was the Thirty Years War, a bloody conflict that rocked central Europe from 1618 to 1648, when Olomouc, then an important centre of trade and religion, was occupied and demolished by Swedish armies.
Olomouc is studded with impressive churches. I’m drawn to the neo-Gothic St Wenceslas Cathedral, named for the patron saint of the Czech Republic and subject of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. In the late 10th century, he was murdered by his brother, the wonderfully named but apparently wicked Boleslav the Cruel. The cathedral shoulders the Archdiocesan Museum, which was built over the remains of Olomouc’s medieval castle, and flaunts Catholic jewels and paintings dating back a millennium. Its showpiece is an ostentatious gold coach that a leading cardinal rode to Olomouc in 1783.
The bucolic outskirts of Olomouc are an easy bike ride away from the city.
Along with its vinotekas, Olomouc has plenty of decent cafes (serving surprisingly good flat-white-style coffee) plus a range of splendid spots to drink beer. St Wenceslas micro-brewery has its own beer spa, specialising in massages, beer baths, and wheat and cherry-flavoured grog.
Although Olomouc lacks Prague’s fine-dining options, culinary choices are varied and cosmopolitan. I lunch at the Nepalese-run Himalaya, which offers Kathmandu-inspired all-you-can-eat buffets for just over 100 korunas. Himalaya shares Olomouc’s converted old military barracks with the Crack, an Irish pub.
Olomouc has eluded the rowdy stag/bucks brigades that have infested swathes of the former Soviet bloc but there’s lively nightlife here, particularly during term time.
Olomouc has the oldest university in the Czech Republic after Prague’s Charles University, and a fifth of the city’s 100,000 residents are students. They frequent Olomouc’s pubs and vinotekas, jazz and blues clubs, cocktail bars, ambient teahouses and the Moravian Theatre, where the renowned Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra often performs.
For Antipodean hospitality, and good local tips, check out Poets' Corner — a long-running and homely Australian-run hostel/guesthouse on the old town’s doorstep.
And don’t skip Olomouc’s bucolic surrounds. Blessed with pretty lakes, caves, waterfalls, fairytale castles, grandiose palaces, historic battlefields and, of course, wineries, the Moravian countryside hides a wealth of tantalising day-tripping possibilities.
Trains leave Prague for Olomouc every hour, with fares about 220 koruna ($11.50) one way. See en.cd.cz for timetables.
The modern, stylish four-star NH Olomouc Congress Hotel has double rooms from €90 ($132); nh-hotels.com
Poets’ Corner has double rooms from 900 koruna. The cosy hostel is open to all ages. In the week before my arrival, an 80-something Kiwi was among the guests. hostelolomouc.com
For more information on Olomouc’s tourist attractions, see tourism.olomouc.eu.
© The West Australian
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