Wedged between Germany and Austria, the Czech Republic is one of the most comfortable and easy-to-explore countries of the former Warsaw Pact. And if you venture into towns and villages away from Prague, you'll find undiscovered historic districts, authentic cuisine and a simple joy of life.
Trebon, a well-preserved town south of Prague, is centered around an inviting Renaissance square. Its claim to fame is its nearby biosphere of artificial lakes that date back to the 14th century. Over the years, people have transformed what was a flooding marshland into a clever combination of lakes, oak-lined dikes, wild meadows, Baroque villages, peat bogs and pine woods. Rather than unprofitable wet fields, the nobles wanted ponds that swarmed with fish -- and today Trebon remains the fish-raising capital of the Czech Republic.
When you come here, you have to eat fish. So I ordered all the appetizers on the menu of a local eatery tapas-style (a good trick when trying to eat your way through another culture): "soused" (must mean "pickled") herring, fried loach, "stuffed carp sailor fashion," cod liver, pike caviar and something my Czech friend and guide, Honza, translated as "fried carp sperm."
As we ate, I noticed that the writing on my beer glass said, "Bohemia Regent anno 1379." It occurred to me that I was consuming exactly what people have been eating and drinking here for more than 600 years: fish from the reservoir just outside the gate and the local brew.
Trebon is also renowned for its spa, where people come from near and far to soak in peaty water. Soaking in the black, smelly peat sludge is thought to cure aching joints and spines. Envisioning the elegance of Germany's Baden-Baden, I had to give it a whirl. Besides, I thought it would make good TV.
My attendant didn't really understand why I had an entourage (local guide/translator, producer and cameraman). She just treated me like some deaf-mute she was assigned to bathe and massage. She pointed to my room and mimed to take off everything. But I kept my military-green swimsuit on (afraid of a prankish combination of high-definition footage, my producer's sense of humor and YouTube).
Camera work is slow. She was anxious. The peat muck only flows at the top of the hour. I climbed into my stainless-steel tub, she pulled a plug and I quickly disappeared under a rising sea of dark-brown peat broth (like a gurgling sawdust soup).
Then, my tub was full and all was silent. My 10 toes looked cute poking out of the hot brown muck. She kept acting like I would overdose if I stayed in too long. But we filmed our bit (one of the stupidest-looking sequences we've ever done).
After that humiliation, I was happy to escape to the big, busy town of Trebic. It's another Czech gem with a wonderful main square. Just over the river is its historic Jewish district. While Prague's Jewish Quarter is packed with tourists, in Trebic you'll have an entire Jewish town to yourself.
Trebic's Jewish settlement was always relatively small, and only 10 Trebic Jews survived the Holocaust. What's left, though lonely and neglected, is amazingly authentic. The houses have been essentially frozen in time. Among the 100 or so preserved buildings are two synagogues, a town hall, a rabbi's house, a poorhouse, a school and a hospital.
In the 1970s, the ghetto was slated for destruction; the communists wanted to replace it with an ugly high-rise housing complex. But because the land proved unable to support a huge building project, the neighborhood survived. Today, it's protected by the government as the largest preserved Jewish quarter in Europe.
One of the most moving sights is its cemetery. This evocative memorial park is covered with spreading ivy, bushes of wild strawberries and a commotion of 4,000 gravestones (the oldest dating back to 1631). If you visit, note how the tombstones follow the assimilation of the Jews, from simple markers to fancy 19th-century headstones that look exactly like those of the rich burghers in Christian cemeteries.
Parts of Europe are getting crowded, tense, seedy, polluted, industrialized, hamburgerized and far from the everything-in-its-place, fairy-tale land so many travelers are seeking. But traveling along Czech byways, you'll enjoy traditional towns and villages, great prices, a friendly and gentle countryside dotted by nettles and wild poppies -- and almost no Western tourists.
SLEEPING: In Trebon, Hotel Galerie has 12 renovated rooms and can usually set up a spa appointment even at the last minute (moderate, http://www.hotel-trebon.cz). Hotel Bily Konicek, on the main square, is a Renaissance inn founded in 1544 (moderate, http://bilykonicekhotel.cz).
EATING: In Trebon, Supina and Supinka ("Scale and Little Scale") is considered one of the best fish restaurants in the country (Novohradska Brana, tel. 384-721-149). Schwarzenberska Pivnice is a large, colorful brewery/pub serving every variety of local Regent beer (Trocnovske Namesti 124, mobile 602-971-116).
ATTRACTIONS: Trebon's Peat Spa (Bertiny Lazne) bath is combined with a full-body massage; book several months ahead (basic treatment about $30 to $45, tel. 384-754-457, http://www.berta.cz).
GETTING THERE: An express bus between the big cities of Ceske Budejovice and Brno stops in Trebon and Trebic daily; see http://www.idos.cz.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Trebon, http://www.trebon-mesto.cz; Trebic, http://www.mkstrebic.cz.
(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)