SOUTHERN Bohemia, part of the Czech Republic, lies along Austria's northern border.
It is an area that time has passed by, still retaining walled towns, monasteries, castles, towers and medieval town centres.
They were important towns centuries ago, at the crossroads of trade routes, and today they stand out as full of character and charm, having preserved their unique graffiti decorated facades, bright red roofs and cobbled squares (that are anything but "square").
These are real discovery destinations.
You can fly to Vienna, pick up a car and drive (2 hours) or via Prague (3 hours), or go by train and bus from Prague. The countryside varies, from vast prairie-style, mono-culture fields of maize or grain, to the "Czech Canada" area of lakes, rivers and pine forests.
Each dip in the landscape reveals a river, bridge and picturesque town or village with its own castle. Vineyards make superb wines, including one for a very special customer, as I will explain later.
My trip was organised, and we crossed the border by train to Breclav, which has one of the worst stations I have ever encountered, an example of a Communist-era concrete block building of the severest style imaginable.
From here we went to Lednice, home to an amazing, huge chateau, a UNESCO world heritage site since 1996. It took many years to build and the project altered the whole countryside. Vast parks surround it, with lakes and islands, rivers were diverted, and broad vistas opened up.
A chapel, in one wing, is big enough to be a tourist attraction in its own right. A tour of the chateau reveals amazing woodwork, including an unbelievable spiral staircase, intricately carved, made from a single tree. There is a lot to see in Lednice; good places to lunch and stay – for my hotel, which has its own wine cellar and organic wine, go to www.myhotel.cz.
We drove to Mikulov, a town where you could easily spend a week or two. There are historical areas, such as the Jewish quarter, very important before the last war, cycling, horseback, fishing, swimming sports, hiking and many other activities.
A chateau sits on a hill overlooking the town, and a wonderful hotel can be viewed at www.zamecekmikulov.cz. Run by the energetic family Sevcikova, it is modern, clean, bright and welcoming. It has an extensive wine cellar, and the wine tastings leave you certainly light headed.
Mr Sevcikova told me he supplied wine to the Pope, who visited the region last year. A competition was held to select a wine to present to his Holiness, and the hotel’s sparkling wine won. Pope Benedict XVI liked it so much he placed an order and is now a regular customer. Quite a recommendation!
From here we continued to Slavonice, a charming, small town, clustered round a triangular "square". The hotel Dum U Ruze www.dumuruze.cz is at one end of the attractive cobbled rendezvous, which has a central statue/monument to Our Lady.
Across the top of the "square" is the old monastery, and through its arches an ancient church. Leaning heavily to one side is a massive stone tower, open daily during the summer. A spiralling stone staircase takes you to the wooden bell chamber, and continuing up and up you eventually reach the balcony, and the office where you pay. What a location! The man on duty issued us with our "tickets" – miniature fridge magnets of the tower.
From there, you can see just how small the town is. The towers with arched gateways are still the ways into Slavonice. Important houses lining the main street are covered in graffiti-style decoration, and many have false frontages. A two-storey house has a third-storey front wall built on, sometimes with painted false windows. Bright-red roof tiles are now obligatory, to maintain the character of the town.
We stayed a night and continued on to Landsteijn, which has an almost roofless castle dating back to at least 1222. It used to be a major power base, securing the border with the Austrians. A good way to clear the head of local wine is to climb up to the top of the castle tower which offers a view of the "Czech Canada" region.
Pine forests spread out as far as you can see, and lakes and rivers dot the landscape. A good English language booklet is available, see ISBN 978-88-87216-04-0.
After all this exploration, it was good to find our hotel, the Concertino (www.concertino.cz) at Jindrichuv Hradec, one of those Czech names difficult for us; the Germans called it Neuhaus, which is easier.
Jindrichuv Hradec has another wonderful castle, the Black Tower (gave this one a miss because of the 149 stairs to climb), which houses wonderful paintings and historical objects, and the Rondell, a circular building popular for weddings and concerts.
The decoration is over the top but it is described as the peak of the Renaissance renovation of the castle, which was completed in 1596. Dinner was superb at the hotel/restaurant Pod-Vezi (www.pod-vezi.eu).
As well as a large range of Czech wines, they also have an equally large range of the superb beers that the Czechs are famous for. Then it was back to the hotel Concerto, situated in a corner of the square, with a plaque on a façade to one of the many great Czech composers, Michna. On entering, the hotel opens up to seemingly many times the size of the exterior, like Dr Who’s Tardis.
The railway station has an interesting feature, a narrow gauge line from outside the main terminal. We joined one of the many summer steam specials, enjoying the two-hour ride in an open coach before pulling in to Nova Bystrice, where we left for our final destination, Cesky Krumlov, a town Walt Disney pretty and unbelievable.
It is situated on a loop of the river, sitting there on an almost island of land, with a massive castle dominating the other side of the river; another UNESCO site and a tourist magnet. It was the weekend before Czech national day, and it was jam packed with tourists being entertained to folk dancing and music in many locations. There is a lot to see here, look at www.ckrumlov.cz/info.
From here, it was a short drive over the border to Austria to make our way home.
The people everywhere were very friendly, a lot of English is spoken, and it is easy to get around. The roads are good and not too busy, the scenery wonderful, food excellent, wines and beers superb, and costs reasonable.
The currency is the Czech crown, although Euros seemed to be accepted in many places. At a honey stall in the main car park at Lednice I bought a small jar and didn’t have Czech crowns so he accepted Euros.
He worked out the change in crowns, wasn’t happy that he had given me enough, and gave me a cup full of his home-made honey wine to drink. Altogether an area well worth discovering.