By Rick Steves
Wedged between Germany and Austria, the Czech Republic is one of the most comfortable and easy-to-explore countries of the former Warsaw Pact.
And if you venture into towns and villages away from Prague, you’ll find undiscovered historic districts, authentic cuisine and a simple joy of life.
Trebon, a well-preserved town south of Prague, is centered around an inviting Renaissance square. Its claim to fame is its nearby biosphere of artificial lakes that date back to the 14th century.
Over the years, people have transformed what was a flooding marshland into a clever combination of lakes, oak-lined dikes, wild meadows, Baroque villages, peat bogs and pine woods.
Rather than unprofitable wet fields, the nobles wanted ponds that swarmed with fish — and today Trebon remains the fish-raising capital of the Czech Republic.
The city is all about fish: On the main square, the bank has a statue of a man holding a big fish over its door. Another statue honors the town’s 15th-century megalomaniac lake-builder Jakub Krcin (now considered a hero since his medieval lakes absorbed enough water to save Trebon from a 2002 flood that ravaged Prague).
When you come here, you have to eat fish. So I ordered all the appetizers on the menu of a local eatery tapas-style: “soused” (must mean “pickled”) herring, fried loach, “stuffed carp sailor fashion,” cod liver, pike caviar and something my Czech friend and guide, Honza, translated as “fried carp sperm.”
Trebon is also renowned for its spa, where people come from near and far to soak in peaty water. Soaking in the black, smelly peat sludge is thought to cure aching joints and spines.
The big, busy town of Trebic is another Czech gem with a wonderful main square. Just over the river is its historic Jewish district.
Trebic’s Jewish settlement was always relatively small, and only 10 Trebic Jews survived the Holocaust. What’s left, though lonely and neglected, is amazingly authentic. The houses have been essentially frozen in time.
Among the 100 or so preserved buildings are two synagogues, a town hall, a rabbi’s house, a poorhouse, a school and a hospital.
In the 1970s, the ghetto was slated for destruction; the communists wanted to replace it with an ugly high-rise housing complex. But because the land proved unable to support a huge building project, the neighborhood survived.
Today, it’s protected by the government as the largest preserved Jewish quarter in Europe.
One of the most moving sights is its cemetery. This evocative memorial park is covered with spreading ivy, bushes of wild strawberries and a commotion of 4,000 gravestones (the oldest dating back to 1631).
Parts of Europe are getting crowded, tense, seedy, polluted, industrialized, hamburgerized and far from the everything-in-its-place, fairy-tale land so many travelers are seeking.
But traveling along Czech byways, you’ll enjoy traditional towns and villages, great prices, a friendly and gentle countryside dotted by nettles and wild poppies, and almost no Western tourists.