Thought Prague was the only city worth seeing in the Czech Republic? Stuart Wadsworth heads to the lively student town of Olomouc, in beer-loving Moravia, where brilliant Baroque architecture is blissfully unsullied by British stag parties.
For many years now, Prague has completely dominated tourism in the Czech Republic, so much so that most other towns are, unfairly to say the least, put in the shade. Even Lonely Planet has changed the name of its guide to ‘Prague and the Czech Republic’, devoting over half its publication to the capital. Whisper it quietly, but Olomouc may just be the hip new choice to go in Czech for those weary of Prague’s sugar-coated sights. A lively student town with a population of around 100,000, Olomouc lies in central Moravia in the eastern half of Czech, roughly half way between Prague and Krakow. As the erstwhile Moravian capital, the town retains a sense of regional importance without ever feeling flashy. Locals are rightly proud of their graceful old town which dates from the 11th century; while the trickle of foreign visitors who make it here feel privileged to have discovered such an under-rated gem.
Best of the Beaten Track
After Prague, Olomouc has the second largest and second oldest preservation zone in the Czech Republic. Most visitors will find themselves drawn to Horni Namesti (Upper Square), which contains a wealth of architectural sights. The splendid 15th century baroque Town Hall in the centre of the square with a tapering tower features a highly unusual astronomical clock on one side, almost completely destroyed by the Nazis and remodeled during Communist years to display scenes of proletarians at work to mark the passing hours rather than saints. Just across from here is the UNESCO-listed Holy Trinity Column, a magnificent 18th century monument ornately decorated with sculptures of various saints. It is supposedly the biggest single baroque structure in Central Europe. Head via the Lower Square, east to the old city walls through pretty Bezruc Park – ideal for a picnic or romantic stroll – and up to the city’s grandest church, the Wenceslas Cathedral, dating from 1131 but rebuilt in the 19th century in neo-gothic style. The nearby bishops’ Premysl Palace is also well worth a look, not least for its impressive 15th century frescoes. Another church just to the west of here and past the university buildings – St Michael’s – is recommended for a climb of its bell-tower and superb views of the city. A short stroll from here is the impressive Olomouc Museum of Art which features three levels of excellent contemporary Czech painting and sculpture.
Olomouc gradually reveals its layers and pays spending time just strolling around and soaking up the atmosphere, discovering its charms. Its parks and botanic gardens are well worth seeing, while an unusual architectural project lies in the suburbs, where an old grain silo has been converted into a family house. One of Czech’s draw cards is of course its beer, and dropping into any of the countless cafes and bars to sample a brew or two is a must. One of the best in town is Svatovaclavsky Pivovar, a micro-brewery which also features a beer spa in which you can relax in a bath of beer for an hour! Moravia isn’t only famous for its beer though, producing decent local wines too, which can be sampled in one of the many ‘vinarna’ (wineries) around town for a fraction of the price in western Europe.
Another Czech passion is ice-hockey, and Olomouc has a pretty decent team and stadium to which, if you visit during winter months, you might go to see a fight and hope a game breaks out. Further afield, a stroll to the north-east of the town and over the Morava River takes you to Hradisko Monastery, a beautiful baroque building, whilst bus 11 from the train station takes you to Svaty Kopecek (Holy Hill), rising to the east of the town, containing another splendid monumental church and giving great views of the city and its surrounds. A short walk from here is the city zoo, containing over 300 species, and lovely forests which offer countless walking opportunities if you fancy exploring the environs. Hiring a bike would be a great idea to get here as roads are generally very quiet and cycle-friendly. A great day trip would be to Helfstyn Castle, a fantastic romantic ruin atop a hill some 40km to the east of Olomouc.
Experience & Events
As if they needed an excuse to drink beer, Olomouc and its citizens are treated to a four-day beer festival at the end of every June. Visitors can expect to be regaled by over 40 musical performers to accompany their quaffing of the frothy stuff. Also taking place in June, is the annual Olomouc city celebrations, in which historical pageants, battle re-enactments, traditional dancing and local music are offered for a family-oriented weekend. The Bohemia Jazz Festival comes to town every July, in which the cream of Czech jazz players can be seen, whist the Baroque festival will showcase excerpts from a Baroque opera during daily performances at the Jesuit Convent. There are several Olomouc Flower Shows throughout the year, and the annual air show at Neredin airfield is also worth catching every August.
While Olomouc generally lacks good budget accommodation, and specifically any kind of hostel scene, the excellent Cosy Corner Hostel more than makes up for this. Centrally located, right on the edge of the old town, it is one of the best hostels in central Europe. Comprising two dorm rooms and four privates, all decorated with stylish old-school wooden furniture, it is reasonably priced at between 10 and 15 Euro a night. Run by friendly, knowledgeable staff, the hostel is also the best place for local information, tips and ideas about what to see and do in Olomouc. If you are searching for something a bit upmarket, look no further than the Hotel Arigone, a great little boutique hotel in the University area with wooden beams, parquet floors and stylish furnishings with a cosy wine bar. Housed in an 18th century building, it oozes class and atmosphere, and is still reasonable at about 40 Euro per person with breakfast.
While it is hard to argue Olomouc can compete with Prague on the culinary front, it still punches above its weight for a small Czech town. A great place for a large lunchtime buffet feed is The Crack – an Irish pub serving up excellent authentic Nepalese food, cooked by a Nepalese chef. Evening a la carte options are also great. For traditional Czech fare, Hanacka Hospoda is a good option, with enough fried cheese, goulash, dumplings and sausages to sink a ship. Drapal, another gastro-bar on two levels, serves much the same function, as does the afore-mentioned Svatovaclavsky Piwowar. Be sure to try the locally-produced pungeant Olomoucké syrečky cheese. A slightly classier option is U Andela, an atmospheric place serving Moravian specialities decorated with all manner of bric-a-brac like old typewriters and sewing machines. It also serves great beer. If it’s a nice coffee and a cake you’re after, try café 87, with a locally-renowned chocolate pie and a pleasant airy atmosphere. For the best views in town, head to Konvikt, with views from a terrace over the city walls. More upscale, Villa Primavesi, also doubles as an art gallery and boasts fantastic terrace views out over the city walls too, so you can dine like a king.
There seems to be a boom in teahouses in Olomouc, as three have appeared in the same area in the south of the old town. For my money, Assamica is the best, with a relaxed Oriental vibe. For bars, you are spoilt for choice but for typical Moravian ambience, you should check out Ponorka (aka Submarine bar), somewhat of a local institution and centre for local gossip, animated discussion and general revelry. U Kudeja is a little way out of the centre but serves an array of Czech micro-brews on tap and has a characteristic Czech bar atmosphere, while Moritz produces its own beers on the premises and is another lively place for a pint or three. For something a bit livelier, Metro and Vertigo provide a typically grungy student appeal, while for music buffs the Tibet Jazz Club is a great new comfortable venue for local bands playing jazz, blues, rock or reggae. U-klub, to the east of the old town, doubles as a lively night club and music venue.
The closest international airport is Brno, but practically speaking Prague is the best option with many destinations offering cheap budget flights with the likes of Easyjet and Ryanair. From Prague, the express train takes about 2-3 hours and runs several times a day. Significant train reductions can be had for bookings of two or more. From Bratislava in Slovakia you’ll need to change in Brno; coming from Krakow is much cheaper if you get off the train or bus at Cieszyn, walk over the border and get a train from the Czech side.
The hit-and-miss resource Wikitravel.org has a very informative page on Olomouc, while the excellent Czech site in English www.discoverczech.com has many hints and ideas about Olomouc and the surrounding area in general.
The Rough Guide to Czech has sadly been discontinued, but the ever-reliable Lonely Planet still exists for Czech, even if it’s become Prague-centric. America’s safest travel writer Rick Steves has written an alleged travel guide called Europe Through the Back Door which includes Olomouc. No serious traveller to the Czech Republic should ever go without either Franz Kafka or Milan Kundera in their pockets; The Trial by Kafka is a brilliant parable about living in a totalitarian bureaucratic nightmare, while The Joke subtly satirizes the Czech state during Communism. Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is a comic classic about a soldier who defects from the army during WW1 and comes up against an implacable state machine. More light reading can be had in the form of Terje B Englund’s Czechs in a Nutshell, which answers questions as varied as why Czech men are partial to wearing socks with sandals and why Czech women are not averse to extra-marital affairs…
Soundtrack to the City
Featured image by Overdrive_cz