|Destination: CZECH REPUBLIC|
Clean, fast and cheap - Prague's excellent subway system is a good way to get around
© AA Photo Library
Czech pronunciation is difficult, but worth mastering if only for place names. Some Czechs - particularly young city dwellers - may speak excellent English, and a grasp of German is also useful.
The cuisine is heavily meat-based - dumplings with pork and duck are popular dishes - and can be quite flavorful. Coffee and cakes are a highlight, and the cafés (kavárna) are excellent. This is the home of light beer, and the products of České Budějovice (Budweis) and Plzeň (Pilsen) are only the most famous among a multitude of local varieties.
It's worth looking through bookstores, despite the language barrier, as the illustrated books are a treat. For souvenirs, take home Bohemian crystal, porcelain, lacework, garnets and prints.
Easter is as important a holiday as Christmas, and is marked by the bizarre fertility ritual of boys whipping girls' legs with birch twigs.
On St. Nicholas' Eve (December 5), neighborhood St. Nicholas figures walk the streets with an angel and a devil, giving candy to good children and coal to bad. Christmas dinner is traditionally carp - sold live at street stalls to be eaten on Christmas Eve with potato salad and schnitzel.
Prague is even busier than usual in May and early June, when it hosts the Prague Spring International Music Festival: Reserve accommodations several weeks in advance for this period.
Public transportation is an enjoyable way of seeing the republic. Almost every town has a railroad station (nádraí), and side trips are cheap. The fast trains (rychlík) stop at major cities; local trains (osobní vlak) are slow, stop everywhere and usually have only second-class carriages.
The Czech Republic suffers from a shortage of hotels and hostels, although this is fast changing. Many historic hotels have been overhauled and there's been a surge of new accommodations in converted buildings. A sign saying Zimmer frei (“rooms available”) indicates a bed and breakfast in a private home.