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Trip Report Driving the Czech Beer Trail

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On Monday DD departed for an International Scout Jamboree in the Salzkammergut: 10 days with 4.000 Scouts from 20 countries! On Tuesday DS departed for the US: 10 days to goof off with friends! DH had a UN holiday on Thursday (end of Ramadan). Certainly I, the Trailing Spouse, could make a long weekend work for a couple of practicing empty nesters, no?

Of course I could! In no time at all I planned a Beer Trail weekend--Czech beer for DH, Czech crystal and pottery for me. And of course, epicurean ecstasy for both of us. With the weekend bag in the roof carrier and the back seats lowered in the MomMobile for our canine toddler, DDog, to ride in luxury (hence the "practicing" empty nesters), we happily bid "Tschuss!" to hot and steamy Vienna.

Our route: Vienna—Jihlava—Palhrimov—Plzen—Ceske Budejovie—Trebon—Telc—Vienna.

Lots of barley fields along the road to Jihlava. We reached the town by late morning and found the brewery rather easily, as almost everything in Europe can be found by heading toward "Centrum,” no?

At 11:30 in the morning Pivovar Jihlava was buzzing (no pun intended) with patrons enjoying pints of Jezek, a traditional floor malt lager (This means the barley was spread across a floor and allowed to germinate; ours was an educational journey, as well!). The brewery dates to 1452, and once served the Viennese Courts of the Holy Roman Empire. We commoners enjoyed our kleines Biere with the Czech version of my favorite Central/Eastern European Shopska salad, this one with olives, while DDog enjoyed a fresh Hundewasser and some social time with other dogs in the garden.

Jihlava has a pretty town square, save for the Soviet functionalism smack in the middle. Not even the pastel paints used on the socialist housing throughout the country could improve this. From Jihlava to Pelhrimov we motored through numerous indistinguishable small towns. Kind of like Ohio, but with Communist-era PA address systems and utility poles. Corn on one side of the road, wheat or barley on the other.

Pelhrimov was described as having a "compact but striking square." Compact, yes. Striking, meh, not so much. Maybe it was because we were hungry. The day was a little too warm to dive into hearty and heavy Bohemian fare, and the menu boards, with the exception of one, were causing fits to my GoogleTranslate app. Italian food to the rescue! Our Roast Beef Bruschetta tasted as amazing as it looked. As did the Pizza Salamino...just ask our Spoiled Hound.

Driving Pelhrimov to Plzeň was as interesting as Rural Anywhere can be; older Czech folks conversing across fence lines, bored teenagers hanging out, chickens running about. Plzeň, though, was an unexpected delight. Plzeň was liberated by the US, so most of the city remained intact and is easily walkable.

The University of West Bohemia opened in 1991, drawing students to the city; also adding to the lively vibe was a three-stage music festival that attracted all kinds of people. Our fabulous Hotel Rous was just off the town square, and that lively vibe filtered in through the open windows (no AC! It's Europe!) well into the night, a musical segue to the early morning trash trucks rumbling across the cobblestones.

The weather still a little warm for hearty Bohemian cuisine, our tummies were tempted by El Cid, a Spanish restaurant near the hotel. Cold pilsners and a tapas trio of jamon, chorizo and calamares (and excellent people watching) to start...and Arroz con Pescado to finish. Na zdraví! to our first day!

Day Two. The Making of a Legend.

The pinnacle of our pivo pilgrimage, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery Tour. The Czech people really do have it going on with their beer, and they deserve every right to be as proud of their brewing heritage as they are. The enthusiasm (and knowledge) of our tour guide and the grandiosity of the multimedia exhibits, including the sensual experience of raw materials, could have converted even the most ardent of teetotalers. Think tent revival, with beer at the end of the rapture.

Passing through the Pivovar Plzeň gates, one senses immediately the warm, yeasty aroma of fermentation in the atmosphere. At first it is off-putting, but by the end of our visit everyone seemed to be enjoying the slight buzz. (Everyone, that is, except the crazy American family who dragged their very young and very bored children through the 100 minute tour, yelling at them constantly to "pay attention." Yikes.)

I won't bore you with the details, but both of us technically-minded people really appreciated the engineering behind the beer production. The facilities in both the old and new production plants were impressive, as were the output numbers of the golden brew. We were taken from the sauna-like fermentation rooms to the deep and cold cellars, to the hushed "Hall of Fame" gallery containing the Magna Carta of Pilsner Urquell and other important parchment. At the end of our experience we quenched our thirst with samples of unfiltered and non-pasteurized Pilsner Urquelle straight from the barrels.

Another day, another Na zdraví!

Day Three. Our destination for the next two nights was Ceske Budejovice, in the truly Grand Zvon Hotel on the town square. I think we were upgraded to the very large standard room on the top floor, but I didn’t complain about the double sinks and separate sitting area. The hotel also had a car elevator to bring our car (and us) up to the first level, where the valet took our bags and escorted us to the lobby for check-in. Fancy, fancy. Even DDog strolled with an air.

The heat that had been strangling Central Europe finally broke on our drive from Plzen, delivering cool temperatures and light rain—and setting the stage for the Czech food we had been anticipating. After a walkabout the town with the hound, we freshened up and sat for dinner at the Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant.

Cue the epicurean ecstasy. An entire menu devoted to locally available foods, complete with photos of the farms and diagrams of the animals that might appear on my plate. I agonized over the first course for a good twenty minutes while DH withered away in hunger. The winner was duck pate wrapped in fried pork belly, served with salted butter and apple chutney. DH selected South Bohemian goulash for his main course, while I ventured past my trout comfort zone with the fried Bohemian carp and housemade potato salad. There are no words.

An amazing point of note the following morning. We slept in! Our eyes did not open until 06:29, quite miraculous for we morning birds. A crisp and pleasant walkabout with DDog to start the day, then it was to the breakfast room to avail ourselves of the bountiful buffet of yogurts, fruits, breads, meats, cheeses, and vegetables. Europe is awesome.

Cesky Krumlov was our plan for the day. We had visited in 2001 as a day trip from Prague, but on that visit the weather was chilly and we only really had time to tour the castle. Plus, I was 7 months’ pregnant and mostly interested in eating and in the locations of the WC. A re-take seemed essential.

Thank goodness we are morning people. The parking lot adjacent to the castle was not full, we were not jostled on the narrow, cobblestoned lanes by tourists, and shopkeepers and gallery owners had time to talk to us, making our sightseeing, and purchases of art and pottery that much more memorable.

Part of the enjoyment of being in a heavily-visited place is the pleasure of relaxing over a long lunch, watching tour group after tour group snap photo after photo, barely remembering what they are touring. That is exactly what we did, on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Vltava. This time the epicurean ecstasy was cued for DH: a roast pork knee with pickled vegetables, mustard and horseradish served on a wooden carving board (with a basket of bread for balance. Hahahaha.) Over lunch we also watched groups of rafters, some more successfully than others, navigate the river. One particular family not only catty-wampused, but ran aground in the middle of the river on a rock bed. Mom, carrying the baby in a day pack, was clearly not as amused as those of us high and dry on the riverbanks.

The tourist-density started to reach alarming proportions by mid-afternoon. Time to leave! But where to go? I had collected some informational material from the Ceske Budejovice TI office, and the suggested outing to Hrad Hluboka nad Vltavou looked interesting. Described as a “fairy-tale residence woven from a beautiful woman’s dream,” we were compelled to visit the castle, a short drive north of Ceske Budejovice.

Goodness, me! I want to have dreams like those of the beautiful woman. A small SchlossZug took us to the top of the hill, where a frothy white, neo-Gothic castle surrounded by flowers and perched against a blue summer sky implored us to explore. The only sour note of the wandering was our SchlossZug operator, who moved the two of us and DDog to the front seat of the train, explaining, “Damn Russian tourists. You don’t want to be jammed in with them.” Indeed, guidebooks to the castle and the area were predominately Czech and Russian, but we could find no clues on The Google as to why this destination is popular with Russian tourists.

Back in Ceske Budejovice in the late afternoon, we deposited the Tired Hound in the hotel room and went out for an afternoon cocktail. A creepy May-December couple at an adjacent table (no disrespect intended, but “Stockholm Syndrome” came to mind with these two) and a spilled beer on my camera (that shudder in the Earth’s rotation last Saturday was due to my “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!,” but everything is fine.) ruined our private happy hour, so we retreated to the hotel to text and email our children and catch up on news.

The dinner finale of our mini-Czech bacchanal was again at the Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant. The menu was so varied that dining in the restaurant twice was perfectly acceptable. Once again I agonized over the starter, eventually choosing a Käseteller (cheese plate) that was so unexpectedly generous that we brought the leftovers to our room after dinner. DH beat me to the punch with his order of the lamb cutlets (‘tis a good thing that I love him), but I was quite okay ordering beef medallions with mushroom sauce over homemade tagliatelle. But there was a small downer. Creepy Couple. They were dining just a couple of tables away, and being uber-creepy.

Our final day dawned even later than the previous. By two minutes. Yay, us! DH took the hound out for his morning constitutional while I collected breakfast from the buffet and brought it back to our room. We lingered over cappuccinos and all the good stuff of a European breakfast (plus the cheese plate leftovers), packed our weekend bag, and reluctantly pointed the car toward home, via Trebon, Zvikov (!), Jindrichuv Hradec, and Telc.

If you find yourself along this route, Trebon warrants a long pause. The town square is pretty and walkable, and the local brewery offers a pleasant terrace for sampling their brew, Regent Dark, with intriguing chocolate and coffee aftertones, but a bit hefty for my tastes. The village is surrounded by carp ponds and thus geographically restricted, so it retains much of that compact, old-world character.

Our next stop was to be Zvikov, to see its Gothic castle “perched at the confluence of the Vlatava and Ostrava rivers.” Well…neither of us paid much mind to that last bit. Hrad Zvikov was many kilometers to our north; the Zvikov village we found was in the middle of Czech Nowhere. No doubt the Babicka who watched us drive down the narrow lane past her field (and back out) without seeing a castle pulled her iPhone from her housedress and logged onto Facebook to post about “another dumb tourist who can’t read a map.”

Laughing at our navigational mishap, we made it to Jindrichuv Hradec without busting a seam. Our sole purpose for stopping was to see the “Guiness Book of World Records Largest Mechanical Manger.” Do not judge us. Well! Entrance to the monastery housing the manger was 75 Koruna (no big deal), AND, photos were not permitted (no big deal) BUT there were no postcards of the manger to purchase (What the ?). Given that most of the manger can be viewed online, both DH and I thought that J. Hradec needs a new marketing person.

Our overgenerous European breakfast starting to wane, we motored into Telc, keeping our rumbling tummies in Czech. Telc is a UNESCO-Heritage city, so we lowered out expectations for the visit. ☺ (Though we appreciate the UNESCO designation, it just seems like every third city in Europe can put that on their business card. Pretty soon UNESCO might just wrap a ribbon around the planet and call it good.)

All that aside, Telc charmed us. Pictureque, colorful, lively, and everything in between. It didn’t hurt that a weekend festival was underway, adding to the merriment. Craftsmen, artisans, tchotchke vendors and the like were all out plying their wares under the pretty blue skies. An open smoker offering kolbasa lured us to their tables, so we sat for two plates of the savory sausage and another shared Shopska salad. And two pints of local brew. (DDog made do with table scraps, such is his life.) An ideal lunch. Afterwards we strolled the town square, shopping and snapping photos as we went. The return walk to the car was more of a challenge for DH, as he had a large and heavy piece of pottery in his arms, whereas I only had the lead of a very tired Hound. Good thing for husbands.

Late afternoon upon us, and with one of our party having to return to the office in the morning, we forced the V70 toward Vienna. Great beer, great food, great people, great weekend. Na zdraví!

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