A Pleasant Surprise from an Unexpected Source Some of you may have noticed a new image in the sidebar alongside the links to various expat interviews I’ve given. The new image represents this blog being… More
A Smart Tractor, You Say?
Since 1946, Zetor tractors have represented the Czech lands on the global agricultural market. Over the years, the company’s tractors have been exported to over 130 countries and were produced under license in nine countries from 1964 into the 1990s.
Starting as a division of the manufacturing giant, Zbrojovka Brno, Zetor eventually became a company in its own right in 1976. Right from the start, Zetor tractors were revolutionary in their design and quickly became recognised worldwide for that.
Zetor was the first tractor manufacturer to take driver comfort and safety into account, theirs were the world’s first tractors to incorporate a roll cage and engine noise dampening features into the design of the driver’s cabin as well as ergonomic and practical arrangement of vehicle controls and instrument guages in easily visible places.
They also pioneered the concept of parts unification in tractor design. This meant that a series of tractor models could be designed with a high amount of components common between them, thus simplifying both construction and maintenance processes.
Through radical restructuring and a shift from state to private ownership in the early 1990s, Zetor was bought out of bankruptcy in the early 2000s to still be with us today and have bright plans for the future.
That said, let’s spend some time with this legendary Czech product:
Child of Zbrojovka
The genesis of Zetor is to be found in Zbrojovka Brno, a manufacturing company that can trace it’s own lineage to the 1800s and the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s artillery workshops.
Zbrojovka Brno came into existence as a state owned firearms factory in 1918 as the newly established First Republic of Czechoslovakia rose as an independent nation in the wake of the First World War. The factory quickly established itself as a manufacturing giant, producing a wide range products for both military and civilian markets
During the First Republic period, Czechoslovakia’s agriculture sector was served by tractors of both domestic and imported origin. Praga, Škoda, Svoboda and Wikov were the major domestic tractor producers while imported tractors were primarily of American origin with products from US Fordson, International Harvester and John Deere being predominant.
In the same period, Zbrojovka Brno added cars to their growing list of products. As history would show, involving themselves in car design and manufacture would give them valuable experience to draw upon when they started tractor manufacture after the Second World War.
World War Two changed manufacturing prioritites and agricultural equipment became a decidedly low priority for nations involved in the conflict. After the war was finished, around 2,000 tractors were imported to Czechoslovakia through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) while factories in the country got back on their feet after German occupation.
While the pre-war domestic tractor producers planned to resume the tractor business in the post-war period, Škoda was the only one who managed to do so. It was in this vacuum that Zbrojovka Brno entered the tractor business.
The company established the tractor arm of their business in 1945 and staffed it with many former members of their inter-war automobile operations. The newly formed division was placed under the leadership of František Musil, an automobile and aircraft engine designer who had joined the company in 1935.
The catalyst for Zbrojovka Brno entering the tractor business was a June, 1945 state requisition for domestic companies to design an economical, lightweight tractor suitable for mass production within a time limit of only six months. By November of that year, musil and his team had succeeded in producing their prototype tractor. Škoda was the only other manufacturer to come forth with a prototype in response to the requisition. After a brief competition of prototypes, the Zbrojovka design was declared the winner. The victorious prototype would form the basis of the company’s first tractor, the model 25.
Spring of 1946 saw the company’s tractor division officially named Zetor and trademark protection extended to it. In the same period, the first model 25 tractors began to roll of the assembly lines. The model 25 would see a production run of 16 years with a total of 158,570 of the type being made and 97,000 of those going to export customers. Such figures place the model 25 amongst the most produced European tractor types.
Before the 1940s were out, Zetor had begun to distinguish themselves as one of the first tractor makers in the world to take operator comfort and safety into consideration. Succesive versions of the model 25 featured a padded driver seat with spring support and a small back rest incorporated into the design. The model 25 also moved away from the traditional cartridge starting system to an electrical starter for the engine. Thought was also given to the visibility and layout of the instruments and guages on the dashboard.
Another Zetor development of the 1940s was the model 30 of 1948. The model 30 was significant in tractor development by being one of the world’s first tractors to feature a fuel injected diesel engine, a feature which reduced fuel consumption considerably.
The company saw the 1940s out by celebrating the construction of their 10,000th tractor in February of 1949.
On an Open Field
Entering the 1950s, Zetor had very little to compete with at home except their own success. Indeed, they were having some problems satisfying both domestic and export markets for their products at the begining of the decade.
Škoda had remained, to a small degree, in the tractor business until the Communist government that had taken over the country in 1948 dictated that Zetor would be the country’s only tractor producer. Škoda had faded from the tractor business by the mid 1950s and Zetor had the home market to themselves from then on.
1952 saw Zetor moved from the main Zbrojovka Brno factory to a factory site in the Líšeň suburb on the east side of Brno. Here, they would not need to compete for factory floorspace with other Zbrojovka products and could conduct their own research and development on site. The Líšeň location continues to serve as Zetor headquarters today.
1955 saw the debut of the Super 35, a model that brought with it an improved suspension system and a heating system in the driver’s cabin for increased operator comfort.
In 1960, the Super 35 was extensively modernised and renamed the Super 50.
A Revolution on the Farm
Zetor introduced a true watershed event to tractor production in the late 1950s with the introduction of their parts unification concept.
Under the parts unification concept, entire ranges of tractors could be created using a system of common parts. This concept captured the manufacturing world’s attention as it meant significant savings in materials, money and time with regards to production and maintenance. It also meant that tractor dealers did not have to give valuable shelf space to components unique to a single model of tractor.
From 1958 into the late 1990s, Zetor created three distinct ranges of tractors under the parts unification system: UR1, UR2 and UR3. Each range featured baseline models and specialised versions.
UR1: The First Unified Range
The UR1 range proved to be a solid start for Zetor’s new system.
While Zetor had designed a completely new transmission for their new range, they had retained the fuel injected diesel engines and associated starting systems. The engines made Zetor tractors very popular on the export market as they could be started and operated reliably in a very wide range of climatic conditions around the world.
Zetor used the UR1 range to introduce their Zetormatic weight transfer system. This system shifted part of the weight of the field implement being pulled to the tractor’s rear axle so it could be used for more traction in the soil.
Inside the UR1 family, there were a number of specialised variants including a half-track version for working in forested areas, a fully tracked version for work on the steep slopes of vineyards as well as a narrower model for working between trees in fruit orchards.
Through the bulk of the 1960s, the UR1 range was very well recieved at home and abroad. However, with a power range covering from 25 to 60 horsepower, it was not powerful or robust enough for the larger farm operations of Central Europe.
While the UR2 range debuted in 1968, the UR1 family has been revisited and modernised several times over the years.
UR2: Redefining the Tractor
The UR2 range, collectively nicknamed “Zetor Crystal”, consisted of around 8 versions and was produced between 1968 and 1989.
The Crystal not only answered the call for the increase in power and structural strength that the UR1 range could not provide, it was also heralded by tractor manufacturers worldwide as a true technological leap forward in tractor design from almost every aspect.
The Crystal added to Zetor’s established reputation for operator safety by being the world’s first tractor designed with a safety cage integral to the cabin in order to protect the driver in case of a rollover.
The new cabin was mounted on special noise reducing blocks. This, in conjunction with changes to engine mounting systems, made the Crystal the world’s first tractor with a noise level below 85 decibels inside the cabin.
Outside of the inovations to the cabin, the Crystal had a number of features as standard equipment that other manufacturers at the time were offering as options if they were offering them at all.
The Crystal was available with four and six cylinder engines. During the UR2 production run, turbocharged variations of the Crystal were developed. With turbocharging, the four cylinder engine could generate 100 horsepower and the six cylinder could generate 160.
UR3: Keeping it Going
Zetor introduced the third incarnation of their unified range of tractors in 1991.
The primary reasons for the introduction of the UR3 series were to replace the Crystal and to fill a gap that existed in the medium power tractor market in the early 1990s.
The UR3 family was made up of eight models ranging from 70 to to 105 horsepower.
With as widely popular as Zetor tractors had become by the mid 1960s, it made sense for the company to grant licenses for production and maintenance of their products overseas.
From 1964 into the 1990s, Zetor tractors were assembled from factory provided components or fully produced under license in Brazil, Burma, Ghana, Greece, India, Iraq, Japan, Mexico and Poland.
Between 1993 and 1996, Zetor entered a contract with John Deere in America to produce a number of tractors under the American company’s name and badging for markets in Latin and South America. The tractors were Zetor designs though finished in the well known John Deere green and yellow paint and assembled in John Deere’s manufacturing facilities in Mexico. These tractors were marketed by John Deere as the 2000 series.
Under the terms of the sort lived contract with John Deere, Zetor was barred from being active in Latin and South American markets. However, in 1997, Zetor moved on those markets through a deal with Brazilian vehicle manufacturer, Agrale. Zetor continues to provide Agrale with components to produce their tractors for the Brazilian market today.
The 1990s and the New Millenium
As it was with many Czech companies, the early post Socialist period was a tumultuous time in which many legendary firms either adapted well to or died in bankruptcy.
Zetor spent the 1990s going through a number of changes after being privatised in 1993.
In the 1990s, the company relaunched both the UR1 and UR3 ranges in much modernised forms.
The turn of the millenium was a particularly rocky period for the company that saw it change ownership a few times, enter a revitalisation program and go through a bankruptcy before being purchased in 2002 by its current owners.
Under the current ownership, Zetor has flourished and regained its strength as a company. Today, the company manufactures several models of tractor under the Forterra, Major and Proxima names. In 2015, Zetor brought the name “Crystal” back to the tractor world in the form of a fully modern design.
Zetor marked their 70th anniversary in 2016. Part of marking that milestone was to develop a new look for future Zetor products. To this end, they partnered with world famous Italian car design firm Pininfarina.
Pininfarina created a new design concept which was unveiled to the world as a full scale mock up in 2015 at the Agritechnica exhibition in Hannover, Germany.
Zetor plans to apply Pininfarina design concepts to all their future models and updates to existing models.
With classic Italian car firms such as Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and Maserati on their client list, Pininfarina is certain to bring a whole new level of excitement to the world of agriculture through their partnership with Zetor.
If you like tractors and happen to be passing through Brno, Zetor Gallery really should be on your itinerary.
This small museum was established by Zetor at their Brno headquarters in 2013 and is a fantastic opportunity to get up close to a number of historical and contemporary Zetor models. The museum has a permanent collection of its own plus a rotating selection of historical Zetor tractors loaned by private collectors.
Zetor gallery is quite interactive and visitors are encouraged to examine many of the tractors at close quarters and even sit in them.
The following links will give you more information about much of what’s been covered in this blog entry:
Here, you’ll find a historical timeline of Zetor:
This page gives a good overview of the organisation of Zetor’s unified ranges:
These links are to the Zetor Gallery website and my own existing article about the museum respectively:
These links will give you information about the partnership between Zetor and Pininfarina:
Remnants upon Remnants
Built upon a pair of basalt crags that are the remains of ancient volcanoes, a pair of towers dating to the late 1300s mark the remains of Trosky castle.
A veteran of the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years’ War, Trosky was a vitually unassailable stronghold in its days as an active fortress. Today, the ruins of the castle still pose a challenge for anyone wishing to visit who does not have a car or are part of a coach tour.
Trosky’s sihouette is the de facto trademark of the Český ráj tourist region and can be found on a multitude of postcards and other souvenir items from the area. It is one of the most easily recognised landmarks of the region.
The Two Towers
Trosky’s defining features are the two towers which can be seen from a great distance. The towers are nicknamed Baba (old woman) and Panna (maiden).
Historically, the castle had a quite sophistcated system of fortification walls and gates for its own defense. The walls were up to 2 metres thick and could reach up to 15 metres high in places. In addition to the fortifications, there was said to be a system of escape tunnels under the castle that led to extensive caves in the surrounding sandstone geology.
During the Hussite Wars (1419-1434), Trosky served as a base for pro Catholic activities. While Hussite forces tried to lay siege to the castle, they were ultimately not able to conquer it.
From 1438 to 1444, the castle served as a base for a gang of robbers to terrorize the citizens of the region from. Due to the castle’s fortifications, it took local army regiments three years to completely drive the criminals from the castle.
The castle passed through many owners and steadily declined in importance between the Hussite Wars and the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618. During a battle in 1648, the castle was set fire to and left a ruin.
The last major noble family to own Trosky were the Valdštejns. The castle came into their possession during the Thirty Years’ War and remained theirs until they sold it on in the early 1820s to the von Aehrenthal family.
Ruins and Restorations
Austrian diplomat, Count Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal (1854 – 1912), had inherited the ruins of Trosky and was the first person to take an interest in restoring them to some extent.
Under Aehrenthal’s ownership, the ruins received some stylistic modifications that were influenced by the Romanticism movement which was popular in the early to mid 19th century. He had also planned to have a staircase leading to the top of the Panna tower constructed. Building of the stairs was started, but the count’s unexpected death signalled the cessation of further work on that project.
Following Aehrenthal’s death, interest was taken by the Czech Tourist Club in maintaining the ruins at a small level.
Major restoration work has taken place since 1925, when Trosky came under state ownership. Today it is administered by the State Heritage Institute in Pardubice.
Paying a Visit
Trosky is open to visitors from April to October, but the exact hours and days of operation are variable upon the month.
While it is possible to take guided tours, you can also do a self-guided tour if you prefer.
Beyond taking in the details and atmosphere of the ruins, the main reason to visit Trosky is most certainly the fantastic views it can give you of the surrounding countryside.
It can’t be stressed enough that visiting Trosky if you don’t have a car or are part of a coach tour will require you to put in a good deal of physical effort. Several cycling and walking paths will take you to the castle, but it’s good to do your research first and choose one that best suits your ability. I suggest contacting the Český ráj tourism office and asking them for information about the relative levels of difficulty of the various trails that lead to Trosky.
We put in much more effort than we expected to when we visited Trosky, but the views were a most worthwhile reward for those efforts.
As popular as it is, there is decent information about Trosky available online. The following links will give you extra information and a place to start your own plans for visiting this attraction:
This link will take you to the official website of the castle:
This is the entry for Trosky at the Český ráj tourism website:
This link will take you to a condensed, but detailed history of the castle:
If you’re an expat living in the Czech lands, or in the process of preparing to be one, the summer of 2017 has brought some rather big changes to the legislation regarding foreigners living here.
The new laws affect seven areas of immigration policy. To see if the changes affect you, this article will give you a general overview of the changes and give you links where you can ask more specific questions:
Jičín, in the East Bohemia region of the country, is a small city and one of a small group of towns considered symbolic gates to the popular Český ráj region and its picturesque rock formations.
However, Jičín is more than just an entry point to the region. The city and the immediate surrounding area have their own deep history tied to old nobility. One man in particular, Duke Albrecht of Valdštejn (1583-1634), was instrumental in not only shaping the contemporary face of the city but also significant tracts of the Czech nation’s history.
Valdštejn was one of the most influential noblemen in his time and had grand visions for landscaping Jičín and adjoining localities into a large, continuous garden. While his vision was left incomplete following his assassination, much of what was accomplished remains intact to be explored by visitors.
If you decide to make Jičín your entry point to Český ráj, do make sure to set aside at least a day for for the city itself.
Valdštejn’s influence over Jičín and vicinity began shortly after the Battle of White Mountain, in 1620. White Mountain was an early and pivotal battle of the Thirty Years’ War and Valdštejn was an infantry commander on the victorious side of it. He received the title of Duke for his part in the battle and chose Jičín as his seat. He began the remodelling of the city in 1624.
Much of the landscaping work happend along a straight line running from Veliš, south west of the city, to Valdice, just on the city’s north east outskirts. The line bisects Valdštejn square, in the heart of Jičín, and touches seven important former Valdštejn holdings along its length.
At the south west terminus of the line is the ruin of Veliš castle. The castle dates to at least the early 1300s. While it successfully withstood seige by Swedish forces during the Thirty Years’ War, it was destroyed by imperial order in 1658.
Further along the line takes you to Jičín’s main square where you’ll see the Valdice gate tower, Valdštejn palace and the Church of Saint Jacob. Valdice gate is the last remaining tower from the city’s old fortification walls and a climb up to the top will reward you with a good view over the city and surrounding areas.
Valdštejn palace is the predominant structure on the square. The building existed before Valdštejn took possession of the city and he chose it as his palace; its current appearance is largely his doing. Today, the building is home to the Regional Museum and Gallery.
The Church of Saint Jacob was ordered built as a cathedral by Valdštejn in anticipation of establishing a diocese in Jičín. However, a diocese never was established and work on the building was halted after Valdštejn’s death. It was eventually completed as a church and consecrated in 1701.
Further along the line takes you to the 1.7 kilometre long Linden tree alley which leads fro the centre of the city to the Valdštejn loggia, summer house and associated park. The Linden tree alley was established in the early 1630s and is said to predate the gardens at the Versailles, in France, by around 60 years.
Finally, at the north east terminus of the line, is the former Carthusian monastery in Valdice. Valdštejn had it built with the intent that it would serve as a final resting place for himself and his closest family. Valdštejn’s plan, however, did not come to pass. His remains moved several times before coming to their final resting place in Mnichovo Hradiště, 32 kilometres to the west of Jičín. The monastery itself was closed in 1782 and eventually converted to a prison in 1857. It still serves as a prison today.
From an architectural standpoint, the buildings Valdštejn ordered show high degrees of early Baroque as well as Italian Mannerist and Classicism stylings. This is largely thanks to Valdštejn contracting the work out to prominent Italian architects of the day.
Meet Rumcajs and Family
On a much more contemporary timescale than Valdštejn, is Rumcajs and his family. They are central characters to a series of animated television tales set in the fictional Řáholec forest, near Jičín, and you won’t avoid seeing them when you visit the city.
As the story goes, Rumcajs was working an honest life as a cobbler in Jičín when he was put out of business by the mayor.
The mayor was quite proud of his large feet and went to Rumcajs to have shoes made. When he asked if Rumcajs had ever seen feet so big, the mayor took it as a deep insult when the cobbler said he had seen bigger feet on someone in the nearby city of Hradec Králové. In response, the mayor promptly shut down the cobbler’s business “For insulting the mayoral feet” and banished Rumcajs and his family from the city.
To support his family, Rumcajs became a highwayman in Řáholec forest.
In the context of Czech popular culture, the Rumcajs stories were originally televised from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, with a total of 39 episodes being made. The stories remain popular and can be seen with some regularity on Czech television today.
A Feel for the Place
In the main, Jičín is not a particularly touristy place beyond the Valdštejn related attractions. However, with the wonders of Český ráj on its doorstep, it doesn’t need to be touristy.
It’s the sort of place that serves well as a base for your travels further into the region. It’s well conected by rail and bus to a number of tourist attractions in Český ráj and will give you a quieter place to come back to and unwind after a day at busier places.
However, the city is clearly proud of its past and if you go there at the right time you’ll see costumed actors taking on the roles of Albrecht of Valdštejn or Rumcajs.
Jičín clearly exists for its own residents before anything else, so there isn’t really a nightlife and most places in the centre seem to close around 19:30 and 20:00 on weeknights.
It does offer a respectable selection of accomodation and amenities for visitors of a variety of travel styles. Several hotels, bed and breakfasts and holiday rentals are available and the city has two good sized supermarkets near the centre for the self catering type travellers to stock up on supplies.
Visiting and Learning More
As it is a gateway to a major tourist region, Jičín is not a particularly difficult place to access by road or rail.
A visit to the city’s webpage will give you a fuller picture of what the city offers the visitor in not only sightseeing, but also other holiday themes:
With Sychrov being included on our recent holiday to the Český ráj region, I’ve taken the opportunity to give my existing entry on the chateau an extensive update in both text content and photos.
Please take a look. I hope you enjoy the updates as much as enjoyed making them:
A Holiday on the Rocks
During the third week of July, 2017, we travelled through the picturesque Český ráj district in the northern reaches of the country.
It’s the Czech Republic’s oldest protected natural area, having been declared so in 1955. In more recent times, it has been listed on the European Network of Geoparks (2005) and the UNESCO list of Geoparks (2015).
Český ráj, or Bohemian Paradise in English, is an area of roughly 740 square kilometers. The bulk of the region sits in North Bohemia with smaller areas spilling over the borders into Central bohemia and Eastern Bohemia. The region is characterised by a number of stone formations, caves, gorges as well as extinct volcanoes.
The area is not only one of the most popular outdoor tourist destinations in the Czech lands, it is also an area of tremendous international importance in a number of Earth sciences for what it shows us about the formation of land dating as far back as the Mesozoic Era (252 – 66 million years ago).
As this blog entry is intended to give you some idea for what you can accomplish in a week in Český ráj and I will be writing extended entries on some of what I’ll touch on here, you can view this entry as more of a chronological travelogue of how we approched it.
At that, let’s go:
Jičín – The Gate to Paradise
A small city along the south east edge of Český ráj, Jičín is one of four or five towns at various points along the area’s periphery that are seen as imaginary gates into the geopark.
The city was our base for the week and it does make a good jumping off point to visit some key attractions in the area if you don’t have a car at your disposal as it has several good train and bus lines running from it.
We travelled by rail between Brno and Jičín, switching trains in Pardubice and Hradec Králové on both directions.
Jičín has significant historic ties to old nobility and has kept a good deal of the old, primarily Baroque, architecture and landscaping intact for visitors to take in.
Beyond the arcaded walkways of the town square, you can walk or cycle along an alley of linden trees that leads to more formerly noble properties including a loggia and associated park. The linden tree alley is a little over a kilometer long and is lined with around 900 trees arranged in four rows. The alley and the park it leads you to are said to be older than the famous gardens of Versailles in France by about 60 years.
We found Jičín to be a pleasant place to stay, though most shops and restaurants seem to close between 19:30 and 20:00 on weeknights and many don’t open at all on Sunday.
If you’re the self-catering type, the city has two decent sized supermarkets within walking distance of the centre.
Jičín also has a number of pharmacies and sports shops where you can stock up on sun screen, insect repelent, hand disinfectants and other such needs before you embark on your journey into Bohemian Paradise.
Day 2 – Prachovské Skály
Taking a short bus ride from Jičín, we started our holiday in earnest at Prachovské skály, the Prachov rocks.
One can trek through the area using two main routes:
The short route (yellow markers) is approximately 1.5 kilometers in length and contains two viewing points. It’s good for getting a basic feel for the region and not too demanding physically.
The long route (green) is approximately 3.5 kilometers long and much more demanding than the yellow route. However, the green route will let you see much more of the rocks through eight viewing points.
As the routes intersect at some points, you can mix them a bit. That was the approach we took. Our route took us through gorges and some narrow passes as we made our way to the various viewing points.
For myself, I found the combination of sandstone formations in the midst of lush forest to be an intriguing contrast. We have similar formations in the area of Canada where I’m from, though they are of the arid Badlands type geography with most vegetation being sparse and of the low growing scrub variety.
I would advise anyone going into the Prachov rocks to wear strong trekking shoes with good grips at the very least as far as footwear goes. The terrain is quite uneven for the most part and you’ll want supportive shoes. I saw some people walking in sandals and other light footwear and I don’t know how they were managing.
Also, as it’s a forested area, wear a hat and have insect repellent with you. Be sure your repellent contains ingredients against ticks as tick borne encephalitis is a real concern through most of Central Europe.
Day 3 – Hrad Trosky
There is perhaps no image more associated with Český ráj than the twin towers of the ruins of Hrad Trosky. The castle is a highly visible landmark from many places in the region and its profile is used in many logos and other graphics associated with tourism in the area.
Dating to the late 14th century, Trosky Castle is a veteran of both the Hussite wars and the Thirty Years War. It was left a ruin after being set fire to in 1648 during the latter conflict.
Trosky is not the easiest place to access if you don’t have a car. However, the views of the surrounding area from the towers are ample reward for efforts made to get there.
Several tourist trails will get you to Trosky, but you should do your research into how long and demanding they may be. I recommend getting in contact with the Český ráj tourism office and asking specifically which trails are more and less demanding.
We travelled from Jičín by train to the village of Ktová and took a trail from there to Trosky. It was a great deal more demanding physically than we had been led to believe on the internet. It included significant inclines and many stretches of the trail were overgrown with bush. Thankfully, there are a couple of restaurants by the castle so we could recharge ourselves before exploring the castle itself.
Motomuzeum at Borek
We decided while at Trosky that we would not return the same way we had arrived from and spent some time exploring our options over lunch.
We decided we would take a seemingly easier trail to the nearby town of Borek pod Troskami and take the train back to Jičín from there.
It was a stroke of good luck for us that a taxi was arriving at the restaurant just as we were leaving and we negotiated a ride to Borek and saved a ton of time and energy.
The extra time the taxi ride gave us allowed us to explore the small but very well presented Motomuzeum adjacent to the Borek train station.
The museum’s focus is on motorcycles and many vintage models are on display across three floors. Most of them are from Czech domestic producers like ČZ, Jawa and Praga though there are foreign types in the mix as well.
It was an unexpected, though not unwelcome, way to finish that day’s trip.
Day 4 – Sychrov Chateau
After two days of intensive trekking over rocks and other manner of uneven surfaces, it was time for a day on level ground!
Travelling by train to the western side of Český ráj, we found ourselves at the distinctive Sychrov Chateau.
We visited Sychrov previously in 2006. As it is a quite memorable place, we had no problems deciding to make a return visit. With pink facades, Neogothic styling and and English style garden; Sychrov projects a much different feel to the visitor than many other Czech chateaus do.
This different feel is no doubt to do with the Rohan family, a French aristocratic family exiled from France during the French Revolution, who bought the chateau in 1820 and owned it for 125 years. Because of the Rohans, Sychrov contains the largest collection of French portait art outside of France.
From Jičín, Sychrov can be access by rail with an exchange at Turnov. From the Sychrov train station, the chateau can be accessed on foot via a marked trail and signs.
Day 5 – Hrubá Skála
Hrubá Skála, within close proximity to Trosky Castle, is one of the more popular areas to visit in Český ráj. Marked by sandstone formations, tourist trails and sweeping vistas to take in from a variety of viewing points; it’s not difficult to see why it’s popular.
While geographically not far from Jičín, the winding roads in the area made the bus trip between the city and Hrubá Skála a bit nerve racking and take the better part of an hour. Upon arrival at the chateau hotel, the multitude of souvenir and refreshment stands in the parking lot attested to the touristy nature of at least this aspect of the region.
Before trekking through the rocks, we took lunch at the hotel restaurant. There has been castle and chateau type constructions on the site of the current chateau since the 1300s. As with many chateaus in the Czech lands, it was siezed by the state following the Second World War. Under the Communist regime, the chateau was used as a recreational home and the interiors irreparably altered. Presently, it is used as a luxury hotel.
Trosky castle, approximately 4 kilometers to the south east, is clearly visible and prominent from many viewing points in the area. Some viewing points will allow you to see the distinctive Ještěd peak, roughly 25 kilometers to the north west, near the city of Liberec.
As with the Prachov rocks, my advice for strong trekking shoes and tick inclusive insect repellent goes for Hrubá Skála as well.
Day 6 – Kost Castle
A relatively short bus trip from Jičín took us to Kost Castle, one of the most visited and best preserved castles in the Czech Republic.
Almost as soon as you arrive, Kost gives a different feel than many other Czech castles do; this is for three main reasons:
Firstly, the castle is located at the bottom of a valley rather than high on a rocky outcrop. As such, a visitor travels downward to visit rather than upward.
Secondly, Kost is not a state run castle; rather it is one of the relatively few Czech castles to have been taken back into the possession of historical owners. In the case of Kost, those owners are the Kinský family.
Thirdly, Kost is one of the very few true Medieval castles left in the Czech Republic. While most other castles were converted to chateau living or left to ruin, Kost has been maintained much as it was in the Medieval period. While it has seen repairs, it has seen little in the way of renovation of conversion. It is a particularly important historic monument as a result.
The day we visited was a bit unusual as there was a Medieval festival going on at the castle all day and we saw a lot of activity that we normally would not have seen.
Day 7 – Humprecht Chateau
Our final day in Český ráj saw us back on a bus. This time we were bound for the small town of Sobotka and Huprecht Chateau which sits about half a kilometer from the town.
The chateau was an easy walk along well marked trails from the town square, where the bus let us off.
Dating to the late 1600s, the chateau was ordered by Czech aristocrat and diplomat, Count Humprecht Jan Černín of Chudenice as a hunting lodge and summer residence. The unique eliptical design of the chateau was the work of Prague based architect Carlo Lurago and is generally considered to represent the Mannerist style which existed during the transition from Renaissance to Baroque architectural styles.
I came away from our visit to Humprecht pleasantly surprised. What I could find on the internet said very little about it and it looked like quite a small place from all the exterior photographs I could find. However, it really is a case of big things coming in small packages.
The main hall boasts excellent acoustic qualities and is sometimes used to host small concerts. Our tour guide gave us a small demonstration of the acoustics using a flute and it was fantastic sound quality.
The living quarters of the chateau consist of 27 rooms of various purposes, all very well presented.
In spite of my initial misgivings, I’m happy to have seen this chateau.
Paying a Visit and Learning More
As I said towards the start of this piece, I will be writing longer entries on some of what I touched on here.
There really is so much to see and do in Český ráj that our single week in the area only really scratched the surface. Depending on time, interests and energy levels; one could easily spend twice that amount of time in the region and not get bored.
This link will take you to the Český ráj website. No doubt you will find the inspiration to design your own adventure in Bohemian Paradise:
Back to the Taps
I wrote an article about Czech beer on this blog a couple of years ago. Primarily, that article was an examination of the hype that surrounds Czech beer and if Czech beer lives up to it. The conclusion was that who makes the beer was often less important than who serves it. Basically, a great beer can be ruined by careless handling on the part of the pub or restaurant selling it.
After doing the requisite research to compile this new article, it is a conclusion that I still stand by today.
In this follow up article, I’ll be examining changes on the Czech beer landscape and the Czech relationship with beer that have taken place over the past few years. There have been quite a few changes to say the least.
Veteran brands than many nostalgic Czech beer drinkers lament as being mere shadows of their former selves due to foreign ownership and EU legislation are still with us, though their makers have had to come up with strategies to stay competitive.
Well established brands that are still Czech owned and often treated as preferable by Czech lager drinkers to the foreign owned veteran brands are still strong.
The microbrewery sector and their craft beers have made a huge impact in the last few years on the Czech beer scene and have had a profound effect on how Czechs drink beer these days.
I’ll take a look at each of these aspects in turn, plus a few other topics in this article:
Selling off the Big Names
Almost immediately after the fall of socialism, some of the big names in Czech brewing were sold off to foreign owners. The Prague based Staropramen brewery has been passed from one foreign owner to another since 2000 and has been owned by American based Molson Coors since 2012.
Other examples of well known Czech breweries that are in fact foreign owned include Krušovice and Starobrno; both of which are owned by Dutch giant, Heineken.
Gambrinus, Kozel, Plzeňský Prazdroj and Radegast all came under ownership of Asahi Breweries of Japan in the 2016-2017 period.
Happily, not all the big names in Czech beer were sold to owners abroad. Budějovický Budvar, creator of the original recipe Budweiser beer, remains Czech owned.
The upside of foreign ownership is a much heightened brand awareness at the international level and larger budgets for advertising to maximise brand visibility. That’s why these brands are typically the ones you see sponsoring large events in the Czech lands and abroad and it’s their logos you most often see emblazoned on disposable plastic cups at such events
The downside is a percieved decline in quality owing to greater levels of bureaucracy and governmental regulation that have often forced unwelcome alteration to time honoured and proven recipes.
An additional downside is that through a combination of foreign ownership and sheer size, you don’t get a lot of variety out of the big names beyond their set standard line of beers. Most don’t experiment much at all beyond some dark beers and wheat beers and that makes them boring after a while.
Still Proudly Czech
In this section, I’ll be looking at some very well established smaller and medium sized breweries that have managed to evade foreign ownership. The ones I mention here are an example of the ones which have nationwide, or nearly so, distribution.
These names are reflective of the fact that so many smaller Czech towns have their own breweries and those breweries have their own ways of doing things. It’s through these operators that you can experience how varied Czech beer really can be, even if you only stick to traditional lagers.
The family owned Bernard brewery as well as the Dalešice and Poutník breweries are from the Vysočina highlands region.
In the north-central regions, you’ll find the Polička brewery in the Pardubice region and the Primátor brewery in Náchod, near the border with Poland. A bit east of those, in the Olomouc region, you’ll find the Litovel brewery.
To the north-west, in the Liberec region, is the Svijany brewery. Svijany is a special case as Czech beer goes. Not only is it one of the oldest still functioning Czech breweries, it also has the distinction of having returned to Czech ownership in 2010 after a number of years of foreign ownership.
The plus of these breweries is that their traditional recipies have remained largely intact over the generations and will give you something much more authentic in the way of a traditional Czech lager experience.
Breweries in this category are in a position where they are big enough that they can challenge the big names in the lager game and yet small enough that they can, to some degree, also challenge the burgeoning microbrewery and craft beer movement with regards to ales and other specialty beers.
Beyond lagers, these small to medium operators usually carry wheat beers in their ranges and some of them have developed ales and seasonal special beers.
The Microbrew Invasion
In the last decade or so, the world has seen an ever increasing number of microbreweries with their craft beers establishing themselves and gaining strength against traditional beer producers. The Czech lands have not been immune to this movement.
The growing popularity of microbrewing in the Czech Republic is understandable from a couple of points of view:
Firstly, in spite of all the stories about all the different kinds of Czech beer there are, lager still reigns supreme and more than 90% of Czech beer falls into that category. Some microbrewries make lagers, but most try to focus on other beer types. For those desiring a change from lager, the microbreweries offer that alternative. APA and IPA beer types as well as traditional ales and stouts are quite popular subjects of Czech microbrewery output these days.
Secondly, and this is by my own observation, younger Czechs in their 20s and 30s seem to have a rather different attitude to drinking beer than the generation before them does. Many younger Czechs seem to be taking a quality-over-quantity approach to their beer intake and often seem to prefer slowly drinking one or two glasses of a stronger beer type on a night as opposed to more quickly downing five or six pints of standard lager.
One of the big plusses of Microbreweries is that they have been something of a wake up call for the long established players of the Czech beer industry. Some who had been complacently resting on their laurels quickly adjusted their product lines to compete or came up with different strategies.
The two edged sword of microbrewries is their penchant for experimentation and pushing boundaries. Sometimes the experimentation feels as if there was a sincere effort to create something great while at other times it just feels as if the brewmaster is showing off with no regard for the customer’s subsequent drinking experience. I’ve experienced craft beers with flavour combinations that were truly vile and alcohol levels high enough that you could barely call them beer anymore.
A disadvantage, if arguably so, is that in some quarters craft beers have bred a level of snobbishness in their drinkers that is normally connected with stereotypes of wine aficionados. This, to me anyway, is at odds with the image of beer as an unpretentious beverage.
Battle of the Beers
Of course, on such a competitive playing field, the players need strategies.
In recent years, the big players have been exporting the idea of the traditional Czech “tankovna” or tank pub across Europe and it’s been a hit for them.
While long established in the Czech Republic, the tank pub is new elsewhere. The principle of the tankovna is that rather than shipping beer to pubs in smaller kegs, the beer is shipped in a tanker vehicle and transfered to copper holding tanks in the pub that are connected directly to the beer taps. This ensures freshness as the beer in tanks is replaced regularly while beer in kegs could have been sitting around in a warehouse for months before delivery to pubs.
So far, Czech style tank pubs have made major inroads in Austria, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Sweden.
Closer to home, several big name breweries have opened “own-brand” pubs and restaurants to offer a slightly more upscale feel from the average pub. Staropramen was the pioneer in this, having established their Potrefená Husa chain of restaurants at the end of the 1990s.
As mentioned earlier, the main strategy of the small to medium sized breweries seems to be one of adding more specialized items to their product lines that will compete with some of the microbrewery output. APA and IPA type beers are very common from the microbreweries and I have noticed several of the small to medium sized breweries have at least added an IPA or two to their product lines in recent years.
Microbreweries operate largely on the strategy of simply being different in both their products and their marketing. However, many of them are savvy enough to have a lager or two in their catalogues for safety.
So, what happens when a person is bored of traditional lagers but the microbrewery products just aren’t doing anything for them? Pubs surely must have alternatives in place for such people.
Not so very long ago, commercially made ciders started showing up in Czech pubs and shops. Initially, they were imported from Ireland or the UK before Czech producers started making their own.
One of the more widely available Czech made ciders is Kingswood, made by Plzeňský Prazdroj. Initially it wasn’t particularly good, but they have been working on the recipe and it has improved since being introduced.
Another beer alternative you can find, particularly in the summer months, are radler type beers. These citrus juice infused beers came across the border from Austria and Germany. While they are still available, their popularity has diminished somewhat over the past couple of years. the introduuction of cider may have had something to do with that.
Cider is experiencing an upswing in popularity and it’s not really a surprize when you consider the long history Czechs have with producing their own alcohol at home. Cider is one of those beverages you can make at home and many Czechs have taken to doing just that.
Tourism based on beer is nothing new in the Czech Republic and it’s as strong as ever.
Breweries of all sizes and categories typically have restaurants on site where you can drink their beer at maximum freshness. A large number of these breweries also offer tours of their beer making facilities and may have displays of both contemporary and historic brewing equipment and processes on display.
Typically these tours are only for groups and most breweries will have a set minimum and maximum number of people for group size. You shouldn’t worry if you’re alone though, you may be able to get yourself a free spot on a tour if there is one.
While there are a multitude of companies who you can pay to take you in a group to a brewery for a tour, most breweries who offer tours have information about them directly on their websites. This can allow you to save some money by going directly to the brewery youself and bypassing the tour companies.
With as interesting as the past few years have been in Czech beer, certainly the next few will be equally so and I’ll likely be writing a follow up to this article in a year or two.
These two recent news articles talk about recent changes to how Czechs drink beer and the exportation of the tank pub concept around Europe:
This link will take you to my first article on Czech beer from a few years ago:
This link is to an article I wrote about visiting the Dalešice brewery. It will give you an idea of what a tour at a smaller brewery can be like: