The name, Czech, comes from the Slavic tribes who subdued the surrounding tribes in the late ninth century and created the Czech/Bohemian state. Legend says the name came from their leader, Cech, who brought them there. In 1993 Czechoslovakia split, peacefully, into two countries and today they are called Czech Republic and Slovakia. Although the Czech’s are not happy that their nation is called Czech Republic, they have not been able to agree on a new name. Many Czechs refer to themselves as Bohemian.
Czech Republic is a landlocked country in central Europe. Her neighbors are: Germany to the north and west, Poland to the northeast, Slovakia to the southeast and Austria to the south. Czechs make up most of the population, however there is a small minority of Moravians in the eastern hilly region and also some Slovaks. The official language is Czech, however German, Polish and Romani are also spoken.
Czech Republic has a long and sordid history of invaders and was part of many empires. Most notably, in recent times, was Hitler’s invasion, in 1939. Over 100,000 Jews lived in the Czech lands in 1939, yet only several thousand remained or returned after the Holocaust in 1945. Czechoslovakia remained under communist control until 1989 when the Democratic Party won control, thanks to what was known as the Velvet (or gentle) Revolution.
The capital city, Prague, is nick-named, “The Golden City of one thousand spires.” The Hradcany Castle was built as the residence of the King of Bohemia and today is where the president of the Czech Republic resides. It is just one of many castles, as Czech Republic has one of the highest densities of castles in the world. Prague is now an internationally known tourist destination. It is a beautiful and romantic city surrounded by the Vitava River. There is Old Town, on one side of the river and Lesser Town, on the other.
The magical and historical atmosphere is captured through ten centuries of architecture, sculptures and monuments. Prague is also home to one of the oldest universities in Europe, in continuous operation. The Charles University has educated students since 1348 and educated they are, as 90 percent of the population has completed at least a secondary education.
Another major attraction is the Charles Bridge. A stone gothic bridge donned with many baroque statues, it connects the Old Town and Lesser Town. Commissioned by the Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, constructed in 1357, it is said to have been built with egg yolks mixed in the mortar to strengthen the construction. The Charles Bridge has survived many floods, including one in 2002 that was the worst in the past 500 years. Who knows, maybe this is ‘eggsactly’ why it remains standing.
Speaking of bridges, there is a tradition on a bridge, near the impromptu John Lennon wall, where love padlocks are found on a pedestrian bridge. Couples lock on a padlock to symbolize their love and throw the key in the river. This bridge in the Mala Strana district of Prague is considered to be one of the top ten love lock bridges in the world.
A couple of more interesting legends surrounding Prague; the Crown jewels and the Astronomical clock. The Crown jewels are amazing artifacts from Charles the IV of 1347. It is said these priceless treasures, the crown (which is dressed with precious sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pearls and said to have a thorn from Jesus Christ’s crucifixion), the sceptre and orb, are all made of gold and laced in gems and now held secure in the iron safe of the Prague Castle. It requires seven keys held by seven dignitaries, from the Prime Minister to the Mayer of Prague, who all must be present and insert a key for the safe to be opened for any viewing of the jewels.
The Astronomical clock in Old Town, was created in 1410 and considered a mechanical marvel. The maker had his eyes burnt out with a poker by the powers that be so that he would never recreate such an amazing piece of work anywhere else. It is most spectacular, as every hour on the hour, the 12 apostles, followed by the skeletal figure of death, are mechanically paraded across the clock. Tourists gather around every hour to witness this exceptional marvel.
Czech Republic is renowned for its glasswork. It has a century’s long history of being internationally recognized for its high quality craftsmanship, beauty and often innovative designs. Hand-cut, engraved, blown and painted, decorative glassware, ranging from champagne flutes to enormous chandeliers, ornaments, figurines and other glass items are among the best known Czech exports and immensely popular as tourist souvenirs.
Český Krumlov, is a quaint little village in Czech Republic, a few hours outside of Prague and is like stepping back in time. The clay-tiled roofs of the town spread out below an imposing, yet beautiful, fairy-tale style, castle on a cliff. In true epic tales, in the 1600s, the Lord of the castle’s son, was a depraved bastard of the Holy Roman Emperor, who ended up murdering and disfiguring the local barber’s daughter. Built in the late 13th century, it has been remodeled and restored several times over. Castle Krumlov boasts architectural features from a number of historical periods, including rococo gardens and an ornate Baroque theater. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the most recent restorations have all but erased the signs of neglect from the Communist era.
Czechs today have many celebrations and one that has been around for centuries, is Czech Easter, called Velikonce, which means “Great nights.” Many villages observe their own unique Easter customs and traditions. Egg decoration is one tradition, but another interesting tradition is the pomlazka; a braided whip constructed of pussywillow twigs. For centuries young boys on Easter Monday would go caroling and symbolically whip girls on the legs. Even farmers’ wives, would whip livestock and everyone in the house, including men and children. Why, you ask? To chase away illness and bad spirits and bring good health and youth to everyone who gets whipped. Christmas is another treasured holiday and one where carp is served as part of a nine course meal. Carp are raised in manmade ponds and then sold in large tubs in the town squares, a few days before Christmas.
The Czechs also grow hops and adore their beer. In fact, they are the number one beer drinking nation in the world and have been brewing it since 1118. Czechs love meeting in pubs and sharing a local brew with friends and family. If you were to visit there, it is considered good manners for the man to walk into a restaurant or pub ahead of the woman. This is so the man can clear a path and find a spot for them to sit.
One of the more famous spirits in Czech Republic is called Becherovka. It is an herbal bitters, produced since 1794 according to a secret recipe. It is said to have medicinal qualities to cure almost anything, from being a digestive aid to soothing arthritis. Only two people in the world know the formula, (carried on from generation to generation) and once a week, those two enter a room to mix all the herbal ingredients together. Alone it has quite a bite. It’s much more refreshing when mixed with tonic water. Right away, you’ll notice that things have smoothed out. The bitterness is still there, but restrained. The expansive taste of cloves and cinnamon (and perhaps allspice) are especially evident.
A favorite pastime in autumn, is mushroom foraging. Thousands of Czech nationals gather annually during the St. Vaclav Day (the weekend closest to September 28) and head to the forest to collect their treasured fungi. These mushrooms are delicious in soup, which is often their first course of a meal.
The cuisine of the Czech Republic is heavily influenced by both their neighbors and previous rulers. Their cuisine shares many common dishes with Austria, Hungary, and Germany. These dishes include: goulash, wiener schnitzel and gnocchi, to name a few. Czech food reflects their short growing season and historic availability of meat. Czech cuisine is not really known for its use of vegetables (except mushrooms, potatoes and cabbage), but that is slowly changing. Pork is the most commonly eaten meat and the national dish is a roast pork with dumplings and sauerkraut, called Vepro Knedlo Zelo.
So let’s eat Czech style:
Nakládaný Hermelín (Pickled soft Czech cheese)
We decorated the table in the Czech Republic flag colors of red, white and blue. We also used their very cool looking, double tailed lion, which is on the coat of arms. In celebration of the love lock bridge and for May 1st, the Time of Love, (where couples gather at the statue of Karel Hynek Macha, the Czech romantic “poet of love”, in Prague’s Petrin Park) we decorated with roses, their national flower. We began the meal with a reading of the epic poem Maj (May.) The poem, written in a remarkably beautiful style, tells about the tragic love of two young people and has become a masterpiece of the Czech, Romantic period and Czech literature in general.
We began with a toast of a good Czech pilsner and “Nazdrovie” (to your health) and “doubrou chut” (bon appetite.) Our Czech feast started off with pub fare; a delicious, pickled soft cheese smeared on freshly baked bread. It was scrumptious and perfectly paired with the beer.
Next we had a small portion of the soup that was made with mushrooms, potatoes and dill. This soup recipe comes from the mountain region of Krkonose. It was creamy, hearty and would easily make a wonderful lunch with some nice crusty bread. I served only a small sampling because I knew what was yet to come.
The main course was a very popular dish called, Svíčková na smetaně. This beef sirloin was outstanding and was complemented with a vegetable cream sauce. The meat was perfectly tender and the cream sauce was delectable. (I wanted to lick the plate, which I didn’t do, as that would not be considered good manners.) And oh my, those bread dumplings for which the Czechs are famous, they are something to be treasured. This meal is typically served with a side of loganberries, which are similar to a cranberries and that is what I used, served with a slice of lemon. The meal was reminiscent of an American Thanksgiving feast, even though it was beef instead of turkey.
For dessert, we put on some polka music, for which the Czechs are most famed and cherished the Palačinky. This is a pancake rolled with strawberry jam and smothered in whip cream with a strawberry on top. It is immediately evident why this is so popular. Awesome, I could eat this anytime of day… Outstanding!
As we leave this country called Czech Republic, we do so with the most inspiring film that I hope you can somehow find, as it is truly worthy. The documentary is called “The Woman in Room Six.” It is available on Netflix and is about a 109 year old woman from Czech Republic, who was a Holocaust survivor and a musician. If we can all just be a little more like Alice-Herz Sommer, wow, what a world it would be! Here is the link to a snippet. https://youtu.be/8oxO3M6rAPw