The sights that attract most visitors away from the capital are Bohemia’s picturesque towns and castles, and its famous spa resorts. The castle at Karlstein, for example, stands in splendid isolation above wooded valleys that have changed little since Charles IV hunted here in the 14th century. Further south, the historic town of Český Krumlov retains a medieval atmosphere. Still popular as a therapeutic retreat, the spa town of Karlsbad is located in the leafy Teplá valley and offers a welcome respite from Prague’s crowds.
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Karlstein Castle was founded by Charles IV as a country retreat and a treasury for the imperial crown jewels. The present structure is largely a 19th-century reconstruction by Josef Mocker. The original building work took place between 1348 and 1365, supervised by the French master mason Matthew of Arras, and after him by Peter Parler. You can still see the audience hall and the bed-chamber of Charles IV in the Royal Palace. The central tower houses the Church of Our Lady, with its faded 14th-century wall paintings. A passage leads to the Chapel of St. Catherine, whose walls are adorned with semi-precious stones. The Chapel of the Holy Rood in the Great Tower, where the crown jewels were once kept, has gilded vaulting studded with glass stars. At one time, the chapel held 129 panels painted by Master Theodoric (1359–67), one of the greatest painters of Charles IV’s reign. Some panels have been restored and can now be seen in Prague’s St. Agnes’s Convent, along with other medieval art.
After deposits of silver were found here in the 13th century, Kutná Hora evolved from a small mining community into the second most important town in Bohemia after Prague. The Prague groschen, a silver coin that was in circulation all over Europe, was minted at the Italian Court (Vlašský dvůr), so-called because Florentine experts were employed to set up the mint. Strongly fortified, the Italian Court was also the ruler’s seat in the town. In the late 14th century, a palace was built, containing reception halls and the Chapel of St. Wenceslas and St. Ladislav. They can be visited by guided tour. Kutná Hora’s Mining Museum, housed in a former fort called the Hrádek, and the splendid 14th-century Gothic Cathedral of St. Barbara are also worth visiting.
Legend has it that Charles IV discovered one of the sources of mineral water that would make Karlsbad’s fortune when one of his staghounds fell into a hot spring. By the end of the 16th century, more than 200 spa buildings had been built in the town. Today, there are 13 hot mineral springs. The best-known is the Vřídlo (Sprudel), which, at 162˚F, is also the hottest. Among the town’s historic monuments is the 18th-century Baroque parish church of Mary Magdalene. The elegant 19th-century Mill Colonnade (Mlýnská kolonáda) is by Josef Zítek, the architect of the National Theater in Prague. Karlsbad is also known for its Karlovy Vary china and Moser glass, and for summer concerts and cultural events.
Of all the Czech Republic’s medieval towns, Český Krumlov must rank as the finest. Almost entirely enclosed by a bend in the River Vltava, the beautifully preserved Inner Town (Vnitřni Město) appears to have changed very little in the last few hundred years, although some buildings suffered severe flood damage in 2002. A maze of narrow cobbled streets radiates out from the main square (Náměstí Svornosti), which is lined with elegant arcaded Renaissance buildings including the former town hall. On one of these streets – Horní – is the magnificent 16th-century sgraffitoed Jesuit College (now a hotel) and, opposite, a museum explaining the town’s history. Schiele Centrum is housed in a 15th-century former brewery. The museum has an excellent collection of works by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Český Krumlov’s most famous sight is its 13th-century castle – the Krumlovský zámek – in the Latrán quarter. In the older, lower part of the castle complex, the splendidly restored castle tower can be climbed for superb views of the whole town. Other highlights of the castle include a Rococo chapel, a lavishly decorated ballroom – the Maškarní sál – and the ornate 18th-century Rococo theater. The castle gardens provide a tranquil spot to sit and relax, while performances of opera and ballet take place in the gardens’ open-air theater in July and August. In summer, renting a canoe from one of a number of outlets in the town is a good way to enjoy the fine views of Český Krumlov from the river.