Olomouc

This is the 5th destination on our Western Slavic Countries itinerary as described in that Travel Planning post.

We set off from Wroclaw To Olomouc along a scenic route I found via Google maps. After a stretch on the A4 toll road, we were on tree-lined, twisting and turning two lane roads as we drove through the hillsides, with farmland peering through the trees. And as time went by, we saw the landscape become hillier and trending toward mountainous. But all along the way we had two lane roads where we couldn’t drive more than 50 miles an hour or so. And at many points we had the road completely to ourselves, with not a soul in front, nor behind. There was some occasional congestion, as it was a main artery for traffic along the north-south corridor between Poland and the Czech Republic. It was a wonderful drive, interesting, appealing to the eye, and relaxing.

Głuchołazy Stopover

It was the last chance to spend our Zloty before leaving Poland for the Czech Republic. We chose Głuchołazy as it was larger than most of the towns we passed through, somewhat midway to Olomouc, and were hopeful to find a cafe for a quick bite to eat. As we pulled into town, we found the main square, parked the car, and walked around for a bit. We eventually stumbled onto a little café for an early lunch. We had a cappuccino, a cup of tea, and a couple of sandwiches, all for $7 US. Poland was inexpensive, and we would learn soon enough that the Czech Republic was even less expensive.

Arrival

The first thing we did as we entered the Czech Republic was to find a gas station to buy a vignette for the vehicle – essentially a road tax sticker – which allowed us to legally drive on Czech roads. This was not an especially easy thing to do as the lovely young lady at the gas station spoke zero words of English, and I only know two words in Czech, neither of them would’ve helped in that particular situation. However, with the help of Google translate, I was able to figure it out, and off we went.

Arrival in Olomouc was easy. It was an uncongested smaller city with a population of 100,000. Navigating to the center of town and parking close to the apartment was delightfully straightforward after a long, but enjoyable day on the road.

Our hostess showed us the apartment, and it turned out to be lovelier than it was depicted on Booking.com. The apartment in Kraków was grand and luxurious but this one was better. It had better lighting, with nice views from its large windows. It had a balcony overlooking a quiet courtyard. Centrally located, immaculately clean, and it felt comfortable.

The apartment had high ceilings and crystal chandeliers in all the rooms, including the bathroom. The bedroom had French doors. All of the doors in the apartment had etched glass and ornate hardware. The floors were a herringbone parquet throughout. There was a lovely level of detail throughout the apartment. This was the kind of place I would choose as base of operation were I to move to Europe.

Settling In

The town was so pleasantly uncrowded, and to say it was lightly touristed is an understatement. I think we were among the very few non-locals in town. Walking around, even in the town’s main squares, was easy and very relaxing. The town was laid back, and unhurried – a contrast to the larger cities of Krakow and Wroclaw that we had visited earlier in the week.

I hesitate to use the term “mini-Prague”, but it is appropriate. Prague was beautiful when I last visited in 2012, but it was definitely discovered and densely touristed. Strolling along the Charles Bridge in Prague’s old town – simply stretching out each arm to its full length would have touched three tourists with each hand. Not so in Olomouc, with similar architecture and design as Prague, but with no crowds, and aside from myself and my wife, apparently very few tourists as well.

Discovery Trek

And so we arrived in Olomouc, the historical capital of ancient Moravia, a kingdom that existed for hundreds of years before joining with Bohemia to form what is now the modern day Czech Republic. Moravia forms the Eastern third of the Czech Republic, with Olomouc at its center. Olomouc is also the ancient seat of the Bishops of Moravia, with references to the bishopric in literature dating to the 10th century. Olomouc is steeped in the cultural and religious history of the people of Moravia, which easily discovered with a stroll through town.

Some of the highlights of Olomouc have to be the number of beautiful and historic churches in town, with the most prominent being St. Wenceslas Cathedral, founded in the early 12th century. But there are a half dozen others, including Saint Maurice, Saint Michael, John Sarkander Chapel, and The Orthodox Church – scattered throughout the town.

The old part of town had construction and restoration projects in progress during our stay, including roadwork on the characteristic cobblestone roads found throughout town. Even the construction projects were interesting because they exposed the history of the city through the process.

IMG_2853

Olomoucké Tvarůžky

I love food, and I travel in particular to try new, local fare. And so, I was on the hunt for the famous stinky cheese that is sourced in this destination. Olomoucké tvarůžky is the stinky, ripened soft cheese that bears the city’s name. I’ve read about, I’ve seen travelogs describing it, and I wanted to try it. But finding it proved to be elusive, even with advice from from our lovely hostess. As it turns out, we were too early in the season – the cheese needs to age for several months, and only attains it stinky goodness towards the end of the year.

IMG_2847

Food Scene

Hanacka hospoda

Pork knee, goulash, grilled veggies, fresh veggies, and Olomouc cheese spread to start. Apparently there was a bit of translation issue, and the cheese turned out to be a pork fat spread, which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. After further advice from my landlady via sms, we ordered what we thought was the right cheese. But alas we failed to get the right pungent stuff. It took an hour to cook the pork knuckle, so we have a second round of appetizers which, was a really bad idea. I didn’t know the difference between a pork knuckle, and a pork knee – but when it arrived, it was as big as my head. Very crispy skin, fatty, but with lots of meat. It was an enormous amount of food. It was every bit as good as it looks, if you like pork. The vegetables helped. There were lots of spicy vinegary peppers, raw horseradish, mustard, and raw vegetables. The meal could have easily served 4 people, and was very inexpensive at under $40 including a generous tip.

Cafe New One

This enormous cafe has incredible 90 Mbps up/down free wifi. And the food with drinks were very reasonable. Egg with ham scramble, croissant, cappuccino, and black tea.

Restaraucja Maravska

Platter with smoked meats, sausage and Olomoucké tvar?žky cheese (the famous stinky variety, I hoped), trout filet over risotto, perch fillet in garlic butter, grilled veggies – on the table starter: baked phyllo strips, lightly salted with dill seed. The platter came with an apple horseradish sauce which went well in particular with the sausage, and the ham. The apple mellowed the strong horseradish flavor. The tvaruzki was surprisingly mild, I was bracing myself. The goose pate was rich and smooth, and the pine nuts added an interesting texture. The serving of trout was generous, the risotto had a sweet paprika and zesty tomato influence. The perch was very mild, as were the patties of garlic butter. The food was very good, they have 2 items on the table on arrival which will go on your bill if you touch them.

Svatovaclavsky Pivovar

St. Wenceslaus Specialty

Typical Pivovar we’ve seen in Slovakia which brew their own beer and serve hearty fare at reasonable prices.

Beef flank steak, pork tenderloin, chicken breast, smoked boneless pork knee, chicken wings, green salad. It was every bit as good as it looks in the photo, with the smoked pork knee, and wings as the tastiest. The wings were fall off the bone tender, baked with zesty paprika flavor – not spicy. And there just was enough of the smoked pork knee, it was that good. The rest was good, but paled by comparison to the wings and pork knee. More lumberjack food.

Epilogue

Olomouc was by far the most immersive travel experience on our Western Slavic Country circuit. Among the contributing factors were the relatively smaller population, the long history of the city in the millennium of Moravian culture, and of course the lovely local folks. Adding to the allure is the affordability factor – I had a conversation with our lovely hostess trying to understand the cost of living in Olomouc. The beautiful apartment we had as our residence in the city would rent for 600 euros on a monthly basis. I would be tempted, but not based on affordability alone, although it’s always a factor. Olomouc would be a lovely base of operations to explore Europe for an extended period of time.

 Related Travel Planning

Related Destinations

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Travel Planning Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

 

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Motivation

This is about trip planning, but more than anything, it’s about an exercise of imagination, the expression of curiosity, and the definition of a theme. Imagine  approaching an elegant buffet with a great variety of food and drink, ranging from haute cuisine to more basic, but tempting dishes from far flung parts of the world. You’re hungry. How do you decide what to eat with so much variety? The problem comes down to choice, with an endless array at our fingertips.

Such is the challenge in trip planning. The explorable world is before us like an elegant, well organized buffet. We merely need to decide what’s next on our plate. It sounds easy, and it would be if we had hard constraints. Using the buffet analogy, if we were shellfish lovers for example, we could immediately eliminate a large portion of the menu and concentrate on what we like most. And so it is with trip planning. We need to know what we like, or at least what interests us next, either due to curiosity or the ongoing execution of a theme.

And that’s what I like to do – work on a broad theme, in this case it’s Europe. This particular theme has been unfolding for over a decade, with sometimes focused exploration of one country, and other times far flung meandering across a region. This trip leans towards the meandering, but with a connecting thread that binds the destinations together – mostly.

Slovakia, southern Poland, and the Czech Republic, a collection of Western Slavic speaking Central European countries, geographically contiguous, and explorable by automobile over a couple of weeks. All three share the same branch of the European language tree, and have culture and history binding them together as well. The food is hearty and the drink is strong, with the latter useful for warding off the chills of the long winter nights.

 

Itinerary

In short, the selection is as follows, to be navigated in a grand counterclockwise circuit by automobile over 14 days:

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – 3 nights

 

Kosice, Slovakia – 2 nights

 

Krakow, Poland – 3 nights

 

Wroclaw, Poland – 2 nights

 

Olomouc, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

I wanted to visit Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia because they are its main cities. I wanted to visit Krakow because it’s simply a must see in Poland, more so than any other city based on its history, culture, and architecture – and Wroclaw not only due to geographic proximity to Krakow, but because in addition, it’s worthy of a visit.  I wanted to finish the circuit with the exploration of smaller towns in the Czech Republic, since I’d already been to Prague on a previous trip.  Olomouc stood out a great opportunity for exploration with its history dating back to the 11th century, and as a lesser known, off the tourist path type of destination. I selected Cesky Krumlov as the final destination for very similar historic reasons, although it is as firmly part of the beaten down tourist path as possible.

I elected to start the itinerary in Bratislava and work my way east to Kosice, covering most of Slovakia over a 5 day period.  Then head north to Krakow, Poland for a 3 day exploration of the ancient seat of Polish Kings – which saw no damage to speak of in the major wars of the 20th century, and should be in pristine architectural shape. Continuing the counterclockwise circuit, I next selected Wroclaw for 2 nights as a compliment to Krakow in Poland. Also steeped in history, but did not escape the specter of war unscathed. And the circuit is completed in the Czech Republic with stops in Olomouc, and Cesky Krumlov, each for 2 nights, covering both the former kingdoms of Moravia, and Bohemia.  I thought the two cities would represent the Czech Republic well, although Cesky Krumlov is densely touristed, I had hoped I was early enough in the season to avoid the main surge.  I reserved a 1 night stay in Vienna to await the early return flight to Heathrow, connecting back to Atlanta.  Without this tactical accommodation, I would have had to drive from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna in the very early hours of a Sunday morning, like departing at 2:30 AM, to arrive at the Vienna airport at 6:00 AM. I shudder at the thought.

 

Logistics

There are no direct commercial flights from the US to Bratislava. It’s easy to check this with Google Flights using the Explore feature while filtering on direct flights only. Given that I had to make a layover, I selected London Heathrow because of the broad selection of connecting flights, which gave me a reasonable connection time, as well as good prices due to competition among carriers. I chose a direct flight to Vienna from Heathrow to complete the outbound air transportation part of the trip. The Vienna airport is serviced by many more carriers than Bratislava’s airport, which drives up competition and reduces prices. And the Vienna airport is an easy 45 minute Uber ride to central Bratislava.

With so many cities to connect to, I definitely wanted to drive over taking trains and public transportation. It’s the connection time that elongates travel using public transportation. And nothing beats the convenience of going on your own schedule to wherever you need to on any given day. Can’t do that with public transportation. Driving is more expensive to be sure, but I’m optimizing for time, not budget.  And there will be plenty of driving, to be sure.  I estimate about 2,000 kilometers of driving with 3 to 4 ½ hours between the destinations planned, which is a golden opportunity for discovering the countryside, and stopping in little out of the way places in between.

With so many interesting, steeped in history, smaller cities to explore, I definitely wanted apartments over hotels on this trip. And I was focusing on apartments that were centrally located, within the confines of the  pedestrian-only parts of the old town. This allows for convenient exploration with no transit time to get to the historic and interesting parts of town. And there’s nothing more immersive than stepping out of your own door and being in the heart of the historic part of town.

 

Resources

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.  It’s interesting that I booked no properties with Homeaway on this trip, especially considering that I explore for apartments there first.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone with all of the languages I need on this trip already downloaded. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (a huge improbability in Europe).

In Your Pocket guides were useful for getting a background, and some history of Krakow and Wroclaw in particular, but also good for an overview of Olomouc. The quality is very good, and I hope they do more cities.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a BMW 520d. An excellent automobile for the exhilarating driving possible on European roads.

Uber is what I planned to use to get to central Bratislava from the Vienna airport, as well as return to Vienna from Bratislava after dropping off the rental car to spend the night before the return flight to Heathrow.  It also comes in handy for getting around from point A to B once I’ve had enough walking for one day (which sometimes, but rarely, happens).

 

Epilogue

Reflections on this trip.  The itinerary in general was very good, but I am disappointed as to how densely touristed Cesky Krumlov was even in early June, the time we were at this particular destination. CK was interesting, and I liked the destination, but found it impossible to blend in, and have an immersive experience. There is no such thing – it was like trying to be immersive at Disney World.  In retrospect, I would have chosen Telc as the second city in the Czech Republic, and bypass CK, because it doesn’t fit my criteria for Immersive Travel. Otherwise, I would consider this trip epic, with many fond memories of the destinations visited.

 

 

Related Destinations