THE Czech Republic might be considered passé. It has been half a dozen years since young Americans flocked to Prague for its cheap, dreamy bohemian life. Prague remains the capital of the real Bohemia -- Bohemia and Moravia being the two provinces that make up the Czech Republic. But Prague was discovered by the tour buses and became clichéd, and the young dreamers moved on to Bratislava or Minsk. It has been two years since the balanced-budget, pro-business policies of Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus -- one of the "two Václavs" who ran the country, the other being President Havel -- last allowed Czech investors and economists to look down on the Bulgarians and the Poles. Inflation and corruption drove Klaus from office, and the Czech economy is struggling like others in the region.
Yet during two weeks last summer my wife, Deb, our teenaged son, and I had more exotic, non-passé experiences in Bohemia than we have had since trekking through Asia a decade ago. The key, we came to think, was getting out of Prague and accepting the sort of uncomfortable adventure that a land not quite ready for tour buses provides.
We had advantages on our journey -- one of them anticipated and the other coming as a surprise. The advantage we foresaw was a family connection. Deb's grandparents all came from Bohemia to Chicago early in the century. For a country of ten million people, the Czechs have an amazingly distinct facial look. Think of the supermodel Paulina Porzikova as an arguably representative woman, and the tennis star Ivan Lendl as an unfortunately representative man. On the street Deb kept bumping into people she mistook for Uncle Josef or Aunt Albina. In a country cemetery we saw stone after stone bearing her family's original name, Zderadicka, which in context looked as if it needed another consonant or two. In the village of Mlyny we met a woman in her eighties who remembered hearing, as a child, about the village boys who had just left for America, one of them my wife's granddad.
At least that's what we think the woman said. That we could communicate at all was because of the other, unexpected advantage: Deb had once studied German, which the old woman's neighbor also knew. In Prague, as in many other big cities, if you don't know the local language, knowing English will probably get you through. This principle does not apply in the Czech countryside. Unless you have studied Russian or another Slavic tongue, Czech is simply not a language you can figure out. (The menu offers hovezí or ryby. Sound good? That's beef or fish.) From the episodes of German domination through the centuries and the decades under Soviet control, German and Russian have come to be the second and third languages of Bohemia. If you don't know one of them, or Czech, try to travel with someone who does.
WHY bother? For us, the answer would be because the trip, besides being fun, reminded us of the virtues of avoiding warfare, and the virtues of enjoying beer.
Once, on a trip to Warsaw, I heard a Polish man almost brag about the city's razed, warehousey look. Okay, so we don't have the beautiful old buildings, he said. But that's because we have stood up to fight for our rights, against the hated Russians and Germans, so many times. He went on to belabor the contrast with the neighboring Czechs: each perfectly preserved historic square in Prague, each turret on a castle in the Bohemian countryside, only underscored how often the Czechs had capitulated to conquerors rather than going down in flames, Polish-style, to an obviously superior force. By this Pole's logic, Czechs should be ashamed that Bohemia has been free of large-scale combat for about 500 years -- and that the main military figure in their heritage is the fictional Good Soldier Svejk, who pretends to obey while subtly defying authority. But by the modern visitor's logic, the Czech strategy has been an enormous success. It has left Bohemia with one historical architectural wonder after another, in a profusion that would make them world-famous if they were more easily visited.
For instance: After arriving in Prague, we rented a Skoda, the (perfectly fine) national car, and headed south. An hour out of town we saw a small sign saying KONOPISTE. We swung off the road for family-curiosity reasons -- Deb remembered that her great-grandfather had worked as a gardener at a place with such a name -- and found, at the end of a long path, an enormous castle on a 500-acre estate. (Grandpa Zderadicka apparently did not work alone in the garden.) We spent the next few hours exploring what had been the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's country estate in the years before his assassination. An entire gallery was filled with hundreds of paintings and statues of Saint George and assorted dragons, another with hundreds of swords and pieces of armor. Nearly every other inch of the castle was adorned with antlers, horns, tail feathers, mounted heads, and other relics of wildlife that the archduke had shot for his sporting relaxation -- 9,000 trophies in all. In a small glass-fronted case was the bullet that had killed Franz Ferdinand's wife, the princess Sophie, in Sarajevo. We were relieved not to see her stuffed head nearby on the wall.
By the end of the day our Skoda had taken us farther south, to the medieval city of Trebon. Each morning, as we had breakfast on the terrace of the hotel Bíly Konícek ("Little White Horse" -- see how easy Czech is?), and each evening, as we drank our beer, we looked out on a perfectly proportioned cobblestoned piazza, lined with pastel-colored shops, that would be celebrated on travel posters if it were in the south of France. Between the morning and the evening sessions we went for rides on rented bicycles through the woods. This part of Bohemia has, for some reason, specialized since antiquity in carp farming as a main industry. The ponds are still in action -- when you see kapr on the menu, be forewarned -- and they give the area a man-made but convincing Land of a Thousand Lakes feeling.
In this area the government has established a network of "greenways," or nature trails, that skirt the ponds and wend through woods and have informative signs, in Czech and English, every mile or so. Like the products of most other service industries in formerly Communist countries, the trails are half charming and half absurd. The first few miles of the twenty-five-mile track we followed were paved with big, uneven cement squares, making for a jarring ride. But other portions were smooth and sylvan. At the end of the day, having stopped for several feet of sausage and many hearty hellos to Czech and German travelers, we were glad to have made the journey.
We later stayed in a similar piazza-perfect medieval town, Litomerice, to the northwest of Prague. Its buildings are distinguished by elaborate sgraffito, an etched design heavily used in Bohemian architecture. The town would no doubt seem cheerier were it not the settlement nearest the Nazi concentration camp of Terezín. This was originally a Hapsburg fortress, named after the Empress Maria Theresa, and during the Second World War it was not an outright slaughterhouse so much as a jail and holding area for Jews and other prisoners. It was here that a notorious propaganda film, Hitler Gives the Jews a Town, was shot, in 1941. Clips from the film are shown -- along with equally creepy films made during the Communist era -- in Terezín's imposing "Small Fortress."