I had visited the Czech Republic only once before, and that was a few years ago in the summer after graduating, when a friend and I flew into Prague to begin a little three country tour in those sun-filled months. We hadn’t ventured out of the capital and I don’t think I would have returned to explore more of the country, having left Prague feeling satisfied we’d seen a great deal and had had a truly Czech experience - but that all changed when a friend invited me to visit his home, in the rural town of Nachod, North East of the Czech Republic and this time, in mid-winter.
My friend, Franta is the kind of person who can make a joke out of anything and turn the most banal of things into a memorable episode of ridiculousness. And so, after arriving an hour late due to snow on the runway at Prague airport, we were finally reunited. With food in hand to welcome his weary traveller, we headed for the train station, but not before purchasing a bottle of traditional Czech rum, Božkov for the 2.30 hour journey to Nachod.
A carriage just like the one Harry Potter rides in on his maiden voyage to Hogwarts, was our nest on the night train to from Prague to Hradec Kralove, from where we would drive the rest of the way. It’s exciting enough arriving in a foreign country at night, but covered in a fresh layer of crisp snow and bundled up in our cosy little carriage listening to music, sipping on drinks and looking out over an increasingly blanketed landscape made the journey East a night to remember.
Eager to show me around Nachod, we wrapped up and set off towards the town square. Nachod is set within the valley of the river, Metuje and nestled within an undulating landscape. Delicately decorated for the Christmas, the centre looked divine, but my eye was drawn to a castle on top of a hill. This was to be our destination. A morning hike up a winding snow-covered trail through dense forest to a castle is a pretty epic start to the day. Tempered ever so slightly by an unsuccessful game of eye-spy due in whitened surroundings.
Since being founded in the 13 century, the castle had undergone several renovations; parts have been rebuilt, restyled and fortified to the tastes of its various owners and their social and political needs. On approach it looked majestic, mounted on a high bank and underscored by a footpath which sliced through the hilltop.
Cream and brown geometric tiles patterned the exterior walls like glazing on a cake. Since the end of the 18th century the castle was an important cultural centre and today a gallery is located in one of the out-buildings displaying the work of local artists. The Castle grounds had a further surprise, a bear pit inhabited by two brown bears, Dasa and Viklok appropriately dress in their winter coats.
Since this is the place my rogue tour guide grew up, there were plenty of stories to be told at each site. A peaceful walk down the hill towards the town turned into a reminiscent brawl of how he and his friends had carried out an intoxicated barrel roll along this route a few years ago.
The afternoon road trip across a frozen land took us to the little town of Nové Mesto nad Metují, where festive decorations and life-size nativity scenes decorated an already colourful market squares.
The town has a statue of the Czech national music composer, Bedrich Smetana, in small park in front of the Chateau in Nové Mesto nad Metují town. The Chateau was closed but you could sense it's grandeur from the Stone Bears which guarded the entrance.
Road tripping with a friend is always fun and exciting, add driving in heavy snowfall, through forests passes and pretty, festive villages and you’re amongst a concoction of the most wonderful of rides.
We managed to arrive at the area of Babiččino údolí. Even in heavy snowfall, it wasn’t hard to imagine how this fairytale-like place inspired the Czech writer, Božena Němcová, to write her best-seller, 'Babička' which translates to 'Grandmother,' - whom she visited in her summers here.
Hunting has an undisputed role in the history of the Czech Republic and was a weekly, sometimes daily event in the Family I was staying with. Franta’s grandfather was a gameskeeper and his Dad hunts as a hobby. Dinner this evening was from his latest successful hunt, a wild boar. I’m not a vegetarian, (luckily!) and my friend’s mother is a wonderful cook, serving this up Czech style with fried peppered potatoes, a spicy side sauce and a platter of vegetables.
As well as the iconic castle, Nachod’s other noteworthy sites is a brewery which until 2009 was owned by the town itself. This evening however, we headed for a bar to drink traditional Czech beers with friends on the town square.
We travelled one hour to the city of Hradec Králové, a metropolitan city full off character and activity, where we met up with my friend’s sister, Martina and her family. After one of the warmest welcomes I've ever had (presented with my own batch of personalised cupcakes!) we headed out for a walk around the town and decided to explore The White Tower.
The White Tower is a beautifully refurbished bell tower located in the centre of the town and the tallest building in the city. We climbed up the narrow staircase to the top viewing gallery for a unique, panoramic view of not only of Hradec Králové, but also the distant peaks of the 'Giant Mountains' Krkonose and the Orlicke Mountains. Having spent the last few days driving through the country, I couldn't wait to reach the top and look out across this striking landscape and colourful town below.
My experience of Czech people has been limited to Franta, his family and friends who are all gregarious, kind individuals both inquisitive and eager to share stories and to have fun. After stopping off for coffee, we headed to a shopping mall where I believed we were going to the cinema. It turned out to be a ‘5D’ cinema. Ever been in one of these? You can selected 5-10 minutes movies clips (we chose from the thriller section) and ‘enjoy’ a simulation played out in moving seats which pulled you out of the path of zombies and held you tight while you got squirted with water and things niggled at your ankles. This unexpected trip confirmed all I know about the fun-loving nature of the Czechs.
Soon we headed back to Martina's flat to relax and chat over a glass of wine before setting out into the snowing evening. When we arrived home to Nachod, our hosts were waiting for us with more beverages (Alas!) home brew of a rather high percentage encouraged a night of music and laughter before finally heading to bed.
Feeling rather sadden at the thought of leaving this winter wonderland (and recovering from the alcohol consumption of the previous day), we enjoy the morning in the warm and cosy confines of the house before venturing out to begin the journey back to Prague airport.
Before leaving I was given a little souvenir of my stay, a coffee cup with Nachod’s castle on the front.
Winter can transform a place; a forest becomes a monochrome painting, an open field a whitewashed, dreamy space. The landscape of the North East of the Cezch Republic lends it to Winter's accessories, it's far from a featureless place; the colourful pastel-hued towns look pretty and pristine amongst the snow, all dressed up in festive decorations and nativity scenes this time of year and a drive through the valleys will take you past Christmas tree after Christmas tree.
Next time you plan on taking a few days off to escape, consider a Winter break in Eastern Europe and experience all that these places have to offer in these magical months.