From miniature Prague to £1 cafes, it’s a wonder so few venture south into Bohemia
It is the adults who are the most stunned. Maybe because we know there’s something slightly silly about waiting in line to try out children’s play equipment.
Screams echo through the giant, shiny metal tube as I stare 25m above the mossy ground. Then, faster than expected, it’s our turn. I wave to my kids first, before rushing into my own burlap sack, letting go of the rail (and my apprehensions) and beginning a nose-down descent down the longest toboggan in the Czech Republic.
This tumbling slide is the alternative route down from the Lipno Treetop Walkway: a 675m barrier-free wooden boardwalk through century-old pines in South Bohemia, punctuated by a 40m observation tower.
The views from the top are expansive and have even my most restless child glued to the spot. The wind swallows all noise. We peer over the treetops to face the hushed beauty of the mountainous Šumava National Park and the calm waters of Lake Lipno – the largest reservoir in the Czech Republic, which runs along the Austrian border.
Although having once lived in prague, this is the first time I’ve explored the deep south of the country. No longer deceive me.
I am not the only one to remain captive to the charms of Prague. In 2019, accommodation figures suggest around 433,000 visitors from the UK stayed in the Czech capital. In contrast, less than a fifth of that number booked a room outside of Prague. This fall, the Czech capital has seen visitor numbers return to 97% of 2019 levels.
As Katarina Hobbs, director of CzechTourism UK and Ireland, explains: “When we say the Czech Republic, it is definitely associated with Prague. However, Hobbs points out that visitors are missing a trick. “There is so much more to discover,” she says.
Of course, apart from its extravagant beauty, Prague’s popularity has always been partly due to its relatively affordable price compared to other European destinations. And although the Czech capital is not immune to rising inflation, it ranks sixth among the most affordable destinations in Post Office Travel Money 2022 City Cost Barometer. This is perhaps reflected in the resilience of the number of summer visitors, which increased by 77% compared to the previous year.
Value increases with distance
Good value for money becomes evident as we begin our adventure, gliding from central to southern Bohemia, about an hour’s drive from Prague. These two modern Czech administrative districts were once part of a powerful medieval kingdom, once the center of the Holy Roman Empire. It’s a woven landscape of farmland, 15th-century castles, Baroque-domed churches and towns with color-coded communist-era housing blocks.
We start in Písek, a town that owes its existence to a 13th century gold rush, when the riverbank was found to be strewn with precious metal. It was during these prosperous years that the Gothic stone bridge was built. Now the oldest in the Czech Republic (beating Prague’s famous Charles Bridge by at least half a century), from May until late autumn it’s flanked by large-scale sculptures made from the sand once sought.
The handsome center is dominated by a cream-yellow Renaissance town hall and a proliferation of cafes and bars serve decent coffee for around £1.
The 13th-century castle is now a much-loved civic museum, and the converted malthouse is a magical children’s museum.
From late November, Písek’s main square hosts evening Christmas carols, steaming spiced wine and a weekend craft market. On Christmas Eve, a horse-drawn carriage, carrying a trumpet player and an owl, criss-crosses the city.
Further south, the medieval town of Ceský Krumlov is South Bohemia’s largest city in terms of visitor numbers. With its romantic castle complex overlooking terracotta roofs and Gothic spiers, it is often portrayed as Prague in miniature.
However, arriving late in the afternoon, we find that the exodus of day trippers has left a feeling of relaxation. We soon discover a center for modern art, a new community hub hosting exhibitions and concerts, a children’s museum and a choice of innovative cafes, restaurants and bars. At Bistro Topinka, lunch of a modern twist on traditional Czech open sandwiches cost us less than £10.
Continuing south towards the Austrian border, we arrive at the seaside resort of Lipno nad Vltavou – a site of treetop adventures – having already eaten our fair share of větrnik (a Czech rift on a profiterole, filled with caramel and vanilla cream). Yet our holiday indulgence brings us to Cukrárna Povidlon, an innovative patisserie whose sweet treats are something to behold.
We are staying at Landal Marina Lipno, a holiday park popular with Czech, German and Austrian families, who come in the summer for the wealth of outdoor activities. In winter, the area is popular with skiers – when the treetop walkway and bobsled run remain open and the frozen lake becomes a vast ice rink.
Even in the height of summer, a well-equipped two-bedroom lakeside apartment costs just over £100 a night – and the cost drops in the winter months. Not that some of the restaurants around the resort aren’t more expensive.
However, one evening we drive 10 minutes to the pretty market town of Frymburk. The four of us feast on well-stocked burgers and fries on the terrace for under £20.
On our trip home to spend the weekend in Prague (we couldn’t completely avoid it), my six-year-old daughter always talks about her vacation highlight: getting the brief responsibility of steering a boat. For me, though, it’s that leap of faith – carefree whirling down the treetop slide.
It sums up our feelings about South Bohemia. Venturing beyond the splendor of Prague brings rich rewards to the curious traveller.
Prague is the gateway to South Bohemia, served by airlines from the UK.
Car hire is available for around £250 per week. Alternatively, there is usually one direct bus per day between Prague and Lipno nad Vltavou, which takes around 5 hours. There are regular buses from Prague to Písek and Český Krumlov.
Landal Marina Lipno has four-person apartments from £168 for three nights.