Czech Republic

prag5 20120322 1471236780The Czech Republic, or Czechia is a small landlocked country in Central Europe, situated south-east of Germany and bordering Austria to the south, Poland to the north and Slovakia to the south-east.


The Czech Republic is not a large country but has a rich and eventful history. From time immemorial Czechs, Germans, Jews and Slovaks, as well as Italian stonemasons and stucco workers, French tradesmen and deserters from Napoleon’s army have all lived and worked here, all influencing one another. For centuries they jointly cultivated their land, creating works that still command our respect and admiration today. It is thanks to their inventiveness and skill that this small country is graced with hundreds of ancient castles, monasteries and stately mansions, and even entire towns that give the impression of being comprehensive artifacts. The Czech Republic contains a vast of amount of architectural treasure and has beautiful forests and mountains to match.


Habits and Customs


Easter (Velikonoce): On Easter Monday it is customary for guys to (slightly) spank girls and women with a wicker stick with colorful ribbons at the end (pomlázka), in the hope that the girls and women will in turn give them colored eggs, candy or drinks. Obvious tourists are often (but not always) exempt.


prag7 20120322 1362306378Witch Burning (Pálení čarodějnic) or Night of Witches (čarodějnice): On the last April evening, bonfires are lit around the country. "Witch" figurines, as a symbol of evil, are made and burned in the fire. This is the reinterpretation of the old pagan festival (Beltane) influenced by Christian inquisition. Because probably most Czechs would prefer the witches over the inquisitors, in many fires no witches are burnt, and the feast is celebrated in a more original pagan way - witches are those who should celebrate the night, not be burnt. It doesn't stop jokes like "Honey, hide or you will be burnt tonight!".


Last Ringing (Poslední zvonění) is a traditional celebration of the end of the last year at a high school. It is celebrated usually in late April or early May, a week or more before the final exams (maturita in Czech) take place (the time may be different in different schools). Students get a free day and usually do silly things in silly costumes. They go to the streets and collect money from people passing by, sometimes threatening them with water, writing on their faces with a lipstick or spraying them with perfume. The collected money is used at a party after the exams.


Feast of St. Mikuláš (St. Nicolaus, Santa Claus), Dec. 6: On this day, St. Mikuláš roams about with his consorts, an angel and a devil. He gives small presents and candy to children to reward them for their good behaviour throughout the year, while the devil chastises children for their wrongdoings over the course of the year and gives them potatoes, coal (or sometimes spankings) as a punishment. Old Town Square in Prague is a great place to watch the festivities.


Christmas (Vánoce): Czechs begin celebrating this holiday on Christmas Eve and continue to celebrate until the 26th (the Feast of Stephen). Presents are placed under a Christmas tree (by Ježíšek (The Baby Jesus) as little children believe) and taken after dinner on Christmas Eve. Potato salad and carp is a traditional Christmas meal, and for this reason one can see live carp being sold out of huge tanks throughout the streets of Czech cities and towns just before Christmas.


Historic regions

Bohemia


krumlov5 20120322 1999440667Although the modern adjective bohemian refers to Bohemia, that usage was based on a broad stereotype and also a poor grasp of geography, so don't expect the Bohemians you meet to be nomadic or anti-conventional artistic/literary bohemians, or to see anything out of Puccini's "La Bohème". And no, Bohemian Rhapsody (its lyrics sprinkled with Italian and Arabic) is not a local anthem!


So the word Bohemia/Bohemian came from the name of the Celtic tribe Boii. The term Bohemian had ended up meaning more or less Czech by the end of the 19th Century with the awakening of Slavic nationalism. However, it was also used to refer to any inhabitant of Bohemia, including the vast number of Germans that used to inhabit the region until the end months of WWII.


Moravia and Czech Silesia


Moravia, along with Bohemia (the other half of the Czech Republic), was among the first regions of continental Europe to undergo the Industrial Revolution; however it did not experience the mass urbanisation of Bohemia. The region is therefore still home to gorgeous vineyards, orchards, fields full of "organic" produce, and filled with scenic mountain vistas and cute little villages. Even the regional capital, Brno, is renowned for its small town charm. There is an extremely extensive rail system, and the region contains historic factories such as ZbrojovkaBrno (weapons) and the Baťa factory in Zlín (shoes).


The dialects of Czech spoken in Moravia are slightly different from those spoken in Bohemia, particularly in Prague. Moravians pride themselves on their dialect and learning a few stereotypical regionalisms may go down well (or terribly, depending on just what it is you think you're saying and what you end up saying).


karl2 20120322 1002851339The region's strategic location at the Moravian Gate (a pass through the imposing mountain ranges of Central Europe) has led to a confluence of a great amount of history.


Travel tips


There is an unofficial English page about Czech train travel tariff, but not quite up to date. And consider a calculator of domestic and international ticket prices. It uses same system as cash desks at train stations, so its interface can be a bit user-unfriendly for a newbie.


If you travel in a group on weekends, you can use a daily pass SONE+ for unlimited travelling on Saturday or Sunday. It is valid for group up to 2 adults and 3 children. The pass is valid in all trains including IC and EC, but in SC you need a compulsory reservation. The whole-network variant costs CZK 600 and regional variant costs CZK 200 to 275. Buying online and printing the ticket yourself gives you a small discount of 3% and you'll avoid the queue at the station.


Although many train stations were repaired and modernized, the rest is still like a trip back in time to the communist era. There is no need to be afraid but try to avoid them in the late night hours. Trains are generally safe (there are regular police guards assigned for fast trains) and very popular mean of transport and they are widely used both by students and commuters. Therefore especially the principal rail axis Praha-Pardubice-Olomouc-Ostrava is crowded during peak times (Friday and Sunday afternoon) and seat reservation is recommended.


czech77 20120322 1951650120Prague has a pretty good network of local trains connecting it with suburbs and surrounding cities called Esko (S-Bahn). The Prague public transport tickets (e.g. CZK 32 for 90 minutes) are valid on these trains (Os and Sp category) for travel within the area of Prague.


Language


The main language spoken is, not surprisingly, Czech. The Slovak language can also be often heard, as there is a sizable Slovak minority and both languages are mutually intelligible. Czech people are very proud of their language, and thus, even in Prague you will not find many signs written in English (outside of the main tourist areas). Many older people, especially outside the large cities, are also unable to converse in English, so it's good to learn some Czech or Slovak before your arrival. However, most young people speak at least some English, as it has been taught in most schools since 1990.


Most Czechs speak a second and often a third language. English is the most widely known, especially among younger people. German is probably the most widely spoken second language among older people. Russian was taught very extensively under communist rule, so most people born before c. 1975 speak at least some Russian (and often pretty well). However the connection with the communist era and the Soviet led invasion in 1968 (as well as today's Russian-speaking criminal gangs) has given this language some negative connotations. It is also not very useful with younger people, as it is not, despite the common misconception, mutually intelligible with Czech (beyond some similar words and simple sentences). Other languages, like French or Spanish, are also taught in some schools, but you should not count on it. People may also understand some basic words or simple sentences in other Slavic languages (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, etc).


krumlov9 20120322 1917330398The Czech and Slovak languages are very difficult for English-speakers to grasp, as they, like their sisters, can be tongue-twisting languages to learn (especially Czech) and take time and practice to master, especially if you're not really familiar with the other Slavic languages, including Russian. However, if you can learn the alphabet (and the corresponding letters with accents), then pronunciation is easy as it is always the same - Czechs and Slovaks pronounce every letter of a word, with the stress falling on the first syllable. The combination of consonants in some words may seem mind-bogglingly hard, but it is worth the effort!


The Czech language has many local dialects, especially in Moravia. Some dialects are so different that they can be sometimes misunderstood even by a native Czech speaker from a different region. However all Czech people understand the standard Czech (as spoken in TV, written in newspapers and taught in schools) and should be able to speak it (but some are too proud to stop using their local dialect). Some of them are even unable to speak standard Czech but write it correctly.


Czechs have different writing style, and the Slovak language is softer. The vocabulary is similar, with occasional words not understood. The younger generation born after the dissolvent of Czechoslovakia are growing apart and have problems to understand each other.


Currency


The currency of the Czech republic is the koruna (crown), plural koruny or korun. The currency code CZK is often used internationally, but the local symbol is Kč (for Koruna česká). 1 koruna is made up of 100 haléř (haléřů), abbreviated to hal., but coins are only issued in whole koruna values from October 2008 on.


prag12 20120322 1933606928The exchange rate is approximately 25Kč = €1, 30Kč = £1 GBP, 20Kč = $1 (US), or 16Kč = $1 (Canadian). As of 29 Nov 2010, €1 = 24,74Kč.
Coins are issued in 1Kč, 2Kč, 5Kč (all stainless steel), 10Kč (copper-colored), 20Kč (brass-colored) and 50 Kč (copper-colored ring, brass-colored center). Notes are issued in - no longer used, 100Kč (aqua), 200Kč (orange), 500Kč (red), 1000Kč (purple), 2000Kč (olive green) and 5000Kč (green-purple). Be aware that all 20Kč banknotes, haléř coins, and older-style 1000Kč and 5000Kč banknotes from 1993 are NOT a legal tender.


Some major stores (mainly bigger chains) will accept Euros, and it's also fairly common for accommodation providers to quote the price in Euros. At shopping areas along the Austrian border and petrol stations in the whole country change is given in Euros, but supermarkets and similar stores in downtown Prague (and probably other cities) return only Kč, even though they accept €.


Never exchange money on the street. Also, if you're in Prague, don't exchange it in the banks. The "real" exchange rate you should be looking for can be found here. There is no "black market" with better rates, but there is a good chance you'll end up with a roll of worthless paper. Be very careful when you are exchanging money at a small exchange kiosk. They try to use tricks in order to give you a bad exchange rate. Ask for the total amount you will get and recompute it by yourself. Do not trust "0% commission" in big letters signs (often there is an "only when selling CZK" amendment in small letters, and buying CZK still includes a commision). On this website you can get good overview of reliable exchange places and rates.


Generally, exchange offices on the airport, rail stations and main tourist streets do not offer a good rate. Local people exchange money in exchange offices in less frequented areas, such as around the "Politických vězňů", "Opletalova" or "Kaprova" streets. In some cases, one can get a better rate by using ATMs instead of changing cash.


Major stores throughout the country accept Visa and EC/MC, as do all the tourist stores in Prague.

Based on Wikitravel's article on Czech Republic.