Inspired by Ailsa’s rivers theme it was fun revisiting a recent trip through the beautiful Czech Republic to contemplate time spent along the Vltava River!
Rivers were a spectacular part of a six-month trip through Eastern Europe last year. It was a pleasure admiring them and learning about their vast history and the role they played in each country’s development. One river that became dear to me is the Vltava, the longest river in the Czech Republic.
As I made my way through Bohemia experiencing České Budějovice, Český Krumlov, and Prague, the Vltava was an ever-present feature of the landscape and culture. Czech composer Bedřich Smetana celebrated the well-loved river in a cycle of beautiful symphonic poems titled Má vlast (My Country).
The medieval city of České Budějovice is in the Vltava’s middle basin. It was my home for a month while exploring the Bohemian countryside. My apartment was near the river and Přemysl Otakar II Square with its medieval buildings and towers. The Vltava’s middle basin has dramatic gorges, rapids, and reservoirs with hydropower dams built along many larger lakes. It was an endless source of delight.
In 1265 Bohemian King Přemysl Otakar II chose the confluence of the Vltava and Malše Rivers to found České Budějovice. The city flourished during the 14th to 16th centuries and was an important landmark in the Kingdom of Bohemia. During the 19th century the Vltava and Malše Rivers increased the speed of transportation between European cities and enabled the city to make revolutionary technical progress. The river helped boost silver mining, beer brewing, fish farming, and the salt trade industries as they grew and prospered.
Bicycling or hiking along the Vltava is a perfect way to explore Czech cities and the lush countryside. One path outside České Budějovice leads you through breath-taking scenery and swimming holes to beautiful Hluboká Castle in the town of Hluboká nad Vltavou. Hluboká Castle with its fragrant English gardens and surrounding Kompozice Park is a Czech National Cultural Monument.
Black Tower, a 16th century belfry tower, was near my apartment and its ancient black stone and beautiful sounding bell became my most familiar landmark in České Budějovice. The reward for climbing the steep winding stairway to the viewing deck is a sweeping panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, red rooftops of České Budějovice, and of course the ever-present Vltava River.
The village of Lipno nad Vltavou is a popular Czech destination in Southern Bohemian near the Šumava Mountains. Its history dates back to the 16th century when the settlement was involved in the timber industry and inhabitants made their living rafting timber on the Vltava River. The village is a 1.5 hour train ride from České Budějovice. From the train station it’s a two-mile walk on a pleasant trail that wraps around Lipno Lake, the largest lake in the Czech Republic and known as the “Czech Sea”.
The medieval town of Český Krumlov is about a 30 minute drive from České Budějovice and one of the first places in the Czech Republic listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s positioned in a lush valley surrounded by the Vltava River with the Blansko Forest to the north and Šumava National Park to the south.
The area is popular with sports enthusiasts for camping, river rafting, hiking, biking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing. A stunning mix of spectacular Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles Český Krumlov is famous for the architecture of its medieval castle complex. I climbed the castle tower to enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the town and the Vltava River – a lovely experience!
After several weeks in smaller Czech towns and villages a month of exploring the larger city of Prague was a welcome change. Surrounded by the Vltava River Prague is the center of Bohemia and the heart of the Czech Republic. One of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the world, it’s known as the “Golden City of 100 Spires”. Its eclectic variety of architectural styles includes Gothic, Medieval Romanesque, 19th century Neo-Baroque, Art Nouveau, 20th century Art Deco, and Cubist. The dynamic city is divided into quarters and districts and my apartment was on the cusp of Stare Mesto (Old Town) and Nove Mesto (New Town) in District 1 – a great location in a busy, exciting part of the city.
I arrived in August 2013. Two months earlier torrential rain had drenched Central Europe turning rivers into raging torrents that claimed lives and destroyed homes and buildings across the Czech Republic, southern Germany, and Austria. Volunteers and Prague’s fire brigade erected metal flood barriers and sandbag walls to keep the Vltava at bay.
Tranquilized tigers at Prague’s Zoo were moved to the safety of higher, drier ground. Schools were closed and the transport system shut down. The famous Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava and usually teeming with tourists closed.
One of the first Prague treasures I visited was Museum Kampa near Charles Bridge on the left bank of the Vltava. The museum suffered severe damage during the June flooding. Kampa Park constructed an outside gallery of large, impressive photos documenting the 2013 flood and showing how the residents of Prague pulled together to recover and save their city.
The Nationale-Nederlanden building – known as Prague’s “Dancing House” – is another treasure situated along the Vltava near Jirásek Bridge. It’s a spectacular modern glass building built in the mid-1990s in New Town. Its “daring, curvy outlines” standout amidst Prague’s historic Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture. Architects Vlado Milunc and Frank O Gehry initially named it the ‘Astaire and Rogers Building’ after the legendary dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers”.
Petřín Hill, a large wooded park near the Vltava in the middle of the city, is another favorite place in Prague. Much of the stone used to build Prague’s major sites was quarried from Petřín’s peaceful hillside. Now it’s a popular urban recreational area covered with grass, gardens, and trees. Midway to the top of the hill you can stop at a small outdoor café to enjoy views of the Castle Complex and a cup of excellent espresso. From Petřín Hill Observation Tower views of Prague and the Vltava are unforgettable.
Automobiles aren’t allowed on Prague’s famous Charles Bridge but it’s always interesting to walk across marveling at the view and enjoying lively activities in progress, including local musicians and artists displaying their creations. Finished in 1402, Charles Bridge was commissioned by Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The second bridge built over the Vltava was the chain bridge built by the Hapsburg’s Franz Josef I – Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, and King of Hungary.
A favorite café near Charles Bridge on the right bank of the Vltava is School Restaurant. The funny, entertaining waiters are friendly and the food is delicious and reasonably priced. The river bank is a perfect spot to admire Prague’s atmosphere and watch the eclectic crowds streaming by the banks of the Vltava.
Holešovice is in Prague’s northern suburbs in District 7 along the Vltava River. I went there to visit the Prague Zoo and nearby botanical gardens. Getting to Holešovice from Old Town involved taking two different trams and a bus. I got off at the wrong stop and wasn’t sure which direction to go. A friendly Czech man who spoke some English passed by and pointed me in the right direction. It was a pleasant two-mile walk along the Vltava to the zoo. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in the area, only runners, skaters, and bicyclists.
Czechs are kayaking enthusiasts and they often set up competition courses along the river bank to prepare for a competition or practice maneuvering through a challenging man-made obstacle course. On the way to the zoo, I passed a kayak competition in progress complete with loudspeakers and a sports commentator.
The Rudolfinum is one of Prague’s most beautiful neo-renaissance buildings. It’s in Jan Palach Square in Old Town along the banks of the Vltava. I attended a classical concert there performed by Prague’s Parnas Ensemble. The ensemble’s performance was outstanding!
Vyšehrad Castle, a 10th century hillside fortress overlooking the city, is a very special place and accessible from many directions. I got there by climbing the old stone steps along the Vltava River. It’s not a difficult climb and the lush parks leading to the castle give the area a magical and eerie aura which is clearly felt by visitors. Vyšehrad Castle has many myths, some dating back to the 8th century.
One entrance passes through Leopold Gate, a part of the castle’s 17th century defenses. Like each building in Vyšehrad, Leopold Gate has its legend. In 1741 the French army occupied Vyšehrad, and it’s said that at the full moon the ghosts of the French soldiers who died there keep appearing. A cobbled walkway passes by a Romanesque church and leads to the spectacular 11th century neo-Gothic Basilica of Saint Peter and Paul with fifteen bells and an underground crypt. Vyšehrad has an elaborate graveyard with ornate tombs where many Bohemian heroes and great Czech personalities are buried. It’s a spectacular place to visit!
Czech National Theatre, known as “Prague’s Golden Chapel”, was a stronghold of Czech culture within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The prestigious theatre is an icon of Czech national and cultural identity. It’s located on the right bank of the Vltava River in Old Town next to Legions Bridge which connects with Malá Strana. The National Theatre has a characteristic golden roof making it stand out even from a distance. The interior ceiling is decorated with eight painted female figures representing the different art forms. It’s a spectacular sight!
Another must see is the Kafka Museum on the Malá Strana bank of the Vltava. The City of K. Franz Kafka and Prague exhibit opened in Prague eight years ago. The “symbiosis” between Prague and Kafka’s life and work is well-known. He wasn’t Czech and wrote in German, but he was born in Prague in 1883 and lived there most of his short life.
The Prague Castle Complex is one of Prague’s most popular attractions. The magnificent buildings have mysterious legends and folktales dating back to the 9th century. The complex hosts concerts, exhibitions, and a constant flux of tourists from all over the world. Within the complex, the stunning St. Vitus Cathedral has “overlooked the roofs of Prague and the Vltava River for eleven centuries”!
The rivers of Czech Republic are an amazing moving part of this special country. I cherish my memories of the Vltava, feel enriched by the experience, and hope to visit its banks again.