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Brief History - Getting There and In - Food and Drink -
Various Useful Facts

Brief History

The modern day Czech Republic consists of the Republics of Bohemia and Moravia. The country has a long history of being run by other people, as part of the Holy Roman and Hapsburg Empires. It briefly gained independence as part of Czechoslovakia after the First World War, but was invaded by Nazi Germany at the start of the Second. Although nominally independent again after World War 2, as a member of the Warsaw Pact it was basically run from Moscow, who were considerate enough to send in the tanks to crush a couple of popular movements for change/democracy. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union saw true independence and democracy restored again, although shortly afterwards Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Getting There and In

The Czech Republic is easily accessible from the UK by air. Three airlines fly at least once a day from London to Prague; British Airways, Czech Airlines, and EasyJet.

EasyJet is probably the cheapest, they fly from Stansted and Gatwick, and if you book far enough in advance the cost of a return flight starts from around 80. Czech and British Airways are more expensive but if you book a couple of months in advance you can get returns for less than 100 (at least you can through expedia.co.uk).With Czech Airlines you have the choice of flying to Heathrow, Gatwick, or Stansted. Czech Airlines also fly regularly to Prague from Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. And back again, obviously.

A cheaper alternative is BMIBaby, BMI's no-frills subsiduary, who fly to Prague from East Midlands, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, and Durham Tees Valley. British European fly between Southampton and Prague.

If you fancy something different, from March 2005 RyanAir will have a daily service between London Stansted and Brno.

Transfer flights via various European airports are also available, but are unlikely to be significantly cheaper than direct flights, and as the flight time to Prague is only an hour and a half or so, if you take a transfer flight it will almost double the travel time. You can there by road and rail too; the coach journey takes over 24 hours though, and isn't really that much cheaper than flying to make it worthwhile.

As of 1st May 2004 the Czech Republic is a member of the European Union (EU) which means that there are no restrictions on passport holders of other EU countries staying, living, and working in the Czech Republic. At the airport or border they'll just examine your passport and wave you through without stamping it, and probably without speaking to you.

Passport holders of other countries will still get their passports stamped, and may be asked to provide evidence of a return ticket or that they have sufficient funds for their stay. This is unlikely though. It's always a good idea to contact the Czech Embassy in your home country to check (sorry!) that you don't need to obtain a visa prior to your arrival. As of May 2004 Americans, Canadians, Aussies and Kiwis didn't, but this can change.

Food and Drink

Traditional Czech food is your typical Eastern European stuff. The national dish is pork, served with cabbage and dumplings. There are also adventurous variations on this, such as, err..... pork stuffed with cabbage. Game and other roast meats are also quite common, as is fish, particularly carp (although it's hard to find the traditionally cooked Prague Carp in restaurants now due to the pollution of the Vlatava). You'll still find plenty of traditional Czech restaurants throughout the country, but the restaurant scene in Prague is very cosmopolitan. Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Italian restaurants are plentiful, there are lots of good pizza places, and plenty off more off-beat places (see the "Where To Get Drunk" section of the Prague page for further details). Food is extremely reasonable; even in Prague a meal in a normal Czech place away from the tourist hang-outs can come to less than 2.

One of the most distressing elements of the fall of the Berlin wall was the proliferation of American fast food that followed it. Nowadays McDonalds and KFC are everywhere. Thankfully, in Prague at least, if you want fast-food you're admirably served by the kiosks of Wenceslas Square, which are open all night and serve beer too.

Czech beer is one of the wonders of the civilised world, and a religion unto itself in the Czech Republic. Nearly all are Pilsner-style lagers (the world Pilsner coming from the Czech town of Plzen), although some breweries do a dark beer as well. Bottles Czech beer has been widely available in the UK for the last 10 years or so, but nothing compares to the draught versions you get in the pubs of Prague. Just try a pint of Pilsner Urquel, Budweiser Budvar (which has no connection whatsoever with the watery American piss of the same name; a Yank brewer simply stole the name of a Czech village, Budweis, and used it for his inferior piss), Staropramen, Gambrinus, Kozel, and you'll never be able to face a Fosters or Stella again. I could go on for hours and drink the stuff for even longer. Czech beer is brewed in accordance with similar laws to the German purity laws, which means that it isn't pumped full of chemicals and you can drink as much as you want without getting a serious hangover. And the price of such liquid perfection? Well, it depends where you drink, but if you go in a normal, non-touisty Czech bar a pint could be yours for as little as 40 to 50p. Even in the fancy bars on Wenceslas Square the most you should get charged is 1, which is a rip-off for Prague. Is it any wonder that the Czechs have the highest per capita beer consumption in the world? In Brno most bars we went in charged around 18 to 20 crowns (35 to 40p) a pint.

Imported beer is available but considering the standard of Czech beer this would not be the equivalent of going to Paris and eating at McDonalds, it would be the equivalent of going to Paris and eating the worm-riddled faeces of a tubercular tramp that had been lying on the pavement outside McDonalds for a week in summer. Incredibly, just off Wenceslas Square is an "American Sports Bar" where you can buy American-style Budweiser for 3 or 4 times the price of its Czech equivalent.

With all that excellent beer there's no reason for you to drink anything else, but a couple of notable alternatives are available. Firstly there's absinthe, the suicidally strong green spirit which is still illegal in many European countries on the grounds that it contains wormwood, and if you drink enough of the stuff it tends to drive you insane (van Gough cut off his ear after a bender on it). Well, it's distilled in Prague and it's readily available, popular and cheap here. A shot in a bar should cost less that 1 (it's about 5 a shot in the few London pubs that sell it) and you can buy a half litre of the stuff in shops for less than 5. It's an absolutely mental drink. It smells very sweet, and the taste isn't that alcoholic, although the strength of the alcohol takes your breath away. It's traditional to drink it by first dipping a spoon full of sugar in, then setting fire to the sugar, then pouring the result into the glass, which then tends to set fire to the rest of the drink. Wait until the glass cools down before trying to drink it.

The other alternative is Czech wine, which is quite drinkable, and extremely cheap. White wines from the Moravia region (near Brno) are the best known internationally and probably the best quality, but Czech reds are good quality too; I've never been disappointed with a bottle of frankovka, although my favourite Czech red grape variety is probably modry portugal. You can afford to experiment; even in a decent restaurant you'll be charged around 5-7 a bottle. Surprisingly, the Czechs even produce decent sparkling wine; I can recommend anything produced by the Bohemia Sekt company, which will set you back all of around 2 for a 750ml bottle in most shops and supermarkets, nice to bring a few bottles back with you (although you'd have to be really cheap to bring a bottle back as a present for your girlfriend, wouldn't you Dave?!?).

Various Useful Facts

The official language is Czech, closely related to the other Slavic languages. It is based on the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. The Lonely Planet eastern European phrasebook has a section on Czech, but the Rough Guide European phrasebook is bigger and better. German is the most widely spoken second language, but in most hotels, restaurants and bars in the major towns and cities you should be able to get by in English. Even learning and using only one or two words of Czech will get you a friendlier reception (and better service) from the locals. Vital words are pivo for beer and prosim for please.

The currency is the Czech Crown, which is reasonably stable. It's freely convertable, and unlike a few years ago you can now get hold of them easily in the UK (certainly most of the bureaux de change at Heathrow buy and sell them). Bureaux de change are widespread throughout the Czech Republic, but for better rates of exchange change your cash at the airport or in banks rather than the little kiosks in tourist areas. As the Crown is freely convertible there's absolutely no point in trying to change money on the "black market". Cash machines are common, and nearly all will give you cash on your credit cards. Most will also take Cirrus and Delta too. Most shops, restaurants and hotels in Prague will accept credit cards, some will accept payments on the Maestro card. Some tourist oriented shops and restaurants will also accept Euros, but not at a rate of exchange that would make it worthwhile unless you've got a bundle of Euros you want to get rid of.

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