UNESCO takes great care in choosing what to induct into its World Heritage list. The Czech Republic, therefore, is rightfully proud of its 12 sites that have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. There are castles there, of course, but there are also gardens, churches, an entire village and the entire town centers of two places, including Prague. Needless to say, visiting these sites is enough to keep you busy for a while.
First mentioned in 1263, Holašovice has a lot of history behind it. Essentially just a tiny village full of white walls and quaint red roofs, it might not look like much until you hear more about it. It is built in a style called South Bohemian Folk Baroque, and it is uniquely well preserved for buildings, let alone whole villages, in this style. Plus, it survived two occurrences that could easily have wiped it out: first the plague epidemic in the 16th century that left only two of its inhabitants living, and then the communist regime in the 20th century that led many people to desert their farms, leaving the village abandoned. It was restored beginning in 1990 and placed onto the UNESCO list in 1998.
Once you step into the little town of Kutná Hora, it may seem unbelievable that this charming little town was once an important political player on the European stage. This is because from the 13th-16th centuries, it was the center of silver mining in the area, and as such it gathered a lot of wealth. The buildings are all mostly in the Gothic style typical of the time when the town was at its peak. Two things well worth seeing are The Cathedral of St. Barbora, which features a fascinating blend of the Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles that reflects the time period during which it was being built, and the Sedlec Ossuary, a church decked out floor to ceiling in human bones pulled from the neighboring cemetery.
History and wine together, there’s hardly anything better. At the Lednice-Valtice Cultural Area, you can have both, plus two castles. The precursor to the current castle at Lednice, one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic, it became the main home of the Liechtenstein family in 1249. They kept it until just before World War II, in the process developing the whole area into a wonderland of architecture and landscaping. They were forced out to Vaduz in 1939, and the Czech state is the current owner. Now, you can explore the whole area, and buy some of the best Moravian wine from the neighboring town of Valtice.
The two UNESCO items located in the Moravian town of Třebíč largely reflect the character of most of the Czech lands in the last millennium. One is the Basilica of St. Procopius, built in 1240-1280, the style of which toes the line between Romanesque and Gothic. Třebíč’s other property on the list is the Jewish Quarter, placed there because it is one of the best preserved Jewish ghettos in Europe. Together, they offer testament to how diverse the Czech lands tended to be, both culturally and religiously speaking.
The Villa Tugendhat, built in 1928-1930, it was one of the first structures built in the modern style in Europe. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed it on commission by the Tugendhat family, a wealthy Jewish family living in Brno, the city where you can find it and the second largest in the Czech Republic. The family was unfortunately forced to escape to Switzerland in 1938, and the villa suffered under the hands of first the Nazis and then the communists. You can now visit and have a tour, or if you’re interested in the whole story, Simon Mawer has brilliantly brought it to life in his book The Glass Room.
What you’ll find at Zelená Hora is the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk, a unique architectural wonder built in honor of one of the Czech Republic’s hometown saints. He was martyred by being drowned in the Vltava River that runs through Prague in 1393, but he received his early education in Zelená Hora. Construction on the church started when the Catholic Church started his beatification process in 1720, and the style is mainly Baroque with some Gothic touches. The most interesting part of it, however, is its shape, which combines circular elements with the repeating appearance of things in sets of five, because of the five stars that crowned him in the sky on the night of this death. When viewed from above, the church and its surrounding buildings look like a star.
Holy Trinity Column, Olomouc
Central Europeans had a habit of building magnificent monuments to God to celebrate the end of plague epidemics, and these monuments would most often take the form of large columns decorated with angels, saints, and the like. The Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc is possibly the most impressive of these, in addition to being an astounding show of Baroque sculpture in the world. Built from 1714-1716, its builders and designers were all citizens of Olomouc and the saints on the column were almost all somehow connected with the city, so it also has an element of local pride to it.
If you want to see the epitome of Renaissance charm, look no further than Český Krůmlov. The town has gained a lot of fame amongst visitors to the Czech Republic because of its gorgeous center, which includes a large Renaissance castle and impressive theaters. There are numerous festivals here throughout the year, and in the summer you even have the chance to raft down the river into the town. It does tend to get quite crowded during the tourist season, however, so your best bet to see the city at its most peaceful and beautiful is to either come during the off season or stay overnight to take advantage of it in the late evening and early morning.
Even if you think you’ve seen enough castles and gardens to last a lifetime, Kroměříž will still wow you. The castle was actually mainly a residence for bishops, although the Leichtenstein family also had a hand in its development. The landscape, which includes both a magnificently manicured (and colorful, if you come at the right time) Baroque garden and a sprawling English garden, are highly enjoyable to walk through on a nice day. When you’re in the town, you can also enjoy the beautiful town square and the numerous good pubs that surround it.
Prague’s Historical Center
Prague, of course, needs no introduction, and its UNESCO-listed historical center is what draws its millions of visitors to the tiny, unknown country of which it is the capital. The area’s first buildings appeared around 800, and it has seen continuous development since then. It experienced the most growth in the 14th century under the reign of King Charles IV, who bestowed his own name on the Charles Bridge, part of the Old Town and now the only stone bridge running across the river. The city’s whole center is part of its UNESCO listing, so while you’re wandering around and flitting in and out of pubs, know that you’re doing it on historically-sacred ground.
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