Czech Republic

In the 14 years since the Velvet Revolution toppled the old communist regime, Prague has become one of Europe's top travel destinations. But there is so much to see and do in that glorious, golden city, that the vast majority of visitors never get a chance to explore other parts of the Czech Republic.

On the one hand, this is a pity, for the country boasts an extraordinary wealth of historic sites and natural beauty, all within a few hours drive of the capital.

On the other hand, it's a boon, for it means that a trip to more out-of-the-way attractions can still seem like an adventure - without the crowds.

I experienced this this summer, when I spent several days motoring in one of my favorite parts of the Czech Republic, the uplands region known as the Vysocina in the east-central part of the country.

It was my first trip back for several years, and my aim was to revisit a cluster of gemlike little towns in the region that are rich in Jewish history and heritage.

I spent hours driving from one to the next through the achingly beautiful landscape of wooded hills and rolling farmland. The area is rich with quaint villages, beautifully restored churches, and even a brooding castle or two. Though it was the height of the holiday season, the country roads - many of them lined by heavily laden fruit trees - were nearly empty, and I scarcely saw another car with a foreign license plate.

I first drove through this area in 1990. It was less than a year after the Velvet Revolution, and the country was just beginning to emerge from decades of neglect and oppression.

I particularly remember my sense of dismay as I wandered through Boskovice, a town of 11,000 north of Brno. The graceful oval of the town's main marketplace was lined by dingy shops and depressing, greasy-spoon buffets selling sausages and watery coffee; the grim greyness of it all matched the sour expressions of the few people who were out and about.

Boskovice has one of the most extensive old Jewish ghetto areas in Central Europe, an area of narrow lanes, low houses and little squares located just off the main market below the church. Jews lived here as early as the 14th century and by the mid-19th century had made up more than a third of the population. One street still retrains the arched gate that once closed the district off from the rest of the town.

Back in 1990, the buildings in the Jewish quarter were crumbling, and the abandoned, 17th century synagogue was little more than an empty shell.

What a difference a decade and a half makes.

Today, though still well off the tourist track, Boskovice is bustling and postcard-picturesque, burgeoning with cafes, restaurants and shops, all newly done up and painted in pastel colors. The helpful tourist office, located at one end of the main marketplace, is a goldmine of maps, brochures and information on local restaurants and accommodation, and also has an Internet point.

The Jewish quarter, too, has undergone extensive gentrification. Many of the crooked little houses have been renovated and painted soothing mint and ochre, and some of them have been converted into boutiques, upmarket cafes (such as the Makkabi and the Herman Ungar Tea Room) and even a fast-food falafel restaurant.

Most importantly, the synagogue has been fully restored, bringing to light gorgeous interior frescoes. The synagogue was reopened in 2001 as a Jewish museum. Just outside of town, there is a large Jewish cemetery that dates back to the 17th century.

Many of the other towns in the area are also notable for their Jewish sites, many of which, as in Boskovice, have been restored and reopened in the past few years.

The former Jewish quarter in Trebic, a quiet town of 40,000 near the Austrian border, is even larger than that of Boskovice. Known as Zamosti ("across the bridge"), it lies across the Jihlava River from the town center and includes two historic synagogues and more than 100 other buildings crammed along the narrow cobbled streets.

The whole area was empty and decrepit when I first visited, but the district was recently placed on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, and restoration work is progressing.

Most notably, the so-called Rear Synagogue, whose core structure dates back about 300 years, was reopened several years ago. The building was little more than a ruined shell when I first saw it. Now it serves as a cultural center that also houses a Holocaust memorial to the 300 local Jews who were killed in the Shoah. And, as in Boskovice, numerous wall texts, elaborate wall and ceiling paintings and baroque stucco decorations were revealed during the lengthy restoration process.

Velke Mezerici, a main exit on the Prague-Brno highway, make another easy stop.

Not much of the old Jewish quarter is still visible, but two fascinating former synagogues stand almost right next to each other on Novobranska street, just off the elongated market square.

One, a massive masonry structure with a peaked roof and decorative portal, dates probably to the 16th century and is thus one of the oldest synagogue structures in the country. It now is used as art gallery and also houses a small Jewish museum. A few meters away stands a neo-Gothic synagogue in red brick with green trim, that was built in 1867. It is used today as a department store.< br />
The town of Polna, just off the main Prague-Brno highway near Jihlava, has a well preserved Jewish quarter and a hulking synagogue dating back to the 17th century.

The town is infamous in Czech and Jewish history as the scene of the so-called Hilsner affair, a blood libel in 1899 that sparked a wave of anti-Semitic violence and is sometimes compared to the Dreyfus case in France.

Leopold Hilsner, A 22-year-old Jewish shoemaker, was arrested for the murder of a local young woman. He was accused of carrying out the crime with the complicity of the Polna Jewish community in order to drain the girl's blood and use it to make Passover matzos.

Hilsner was convicted of killing the girl and sentenced to death, but Tomas G. Masaryk, who went on to help found Czechoslovakia, stepped in, speaking out strongly and eloquently against the superstition and backwardness that underlay the accusation of ritual murder.

Hilsner's sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment, and he was eventually amnestied in 1916.

After standing abandoned for decades, the synagogue now serves as a Jewish museum that focuses on the Hilsner case and employs its exhibits to combat intolerance, superstition and anti-Semitism. 

Polna has an extremely beautiful Jewish cemetery in a low-lying area just outside town, whose oldest tombstones date from the 17th century.

My favorite of all the little towns in the region is a lovely settlement called Lomnice, nestled in the soft, wooded hills southwest of Boskovice.

Lomnice is little more than a big village whose main square is dominated by a picturesque, twin-towered church. It retains the soothingly sleepy aspect of a place out of time - and it's also one of the few towns in the Czech Republic that has largely been spared any ugly industry or communist-era concrete "modernization."

The former Jewish quarter occupies a quiet square, shaded by leafy horse chestnut and linden trees. Most of its buildings are still rather rundown, but the 18th century synagogue, with its elegant, white baroque façade, has been restored as a gallery and culture center. The simple restaurant near the synagogue - the Fortika - doesn't look like much from the outside, but I had a delicious grilled trout there, and, from the rear, it affords a striking view of the town.

The Jewish cemetery is a two-minute walk away, down a narrow street leading out of the square, diagonally across from the synagogue. Dating back to the 17th century, it straddles a hill, from which there are beautiful views of the town. Many of the tombstones bear intricate carving showing the influence of local folk motifs. 

One thing that hasn't changed much since the Velvet Revolution is the confusing nature of Czech maps and road signs. When driving on secondary roads, make sure you take the largest scale map you can find. Even so, be prepared to get lost, more than once! Road signs often point only to the next village - and this might not be on the map.

If you drive on the Prague-Brno highway, remember to buy a toll sticker at a gas station and place it on your windshield.

Each year, there are more and more small, moderately priced hotels, pensions and restaurants in Czech towns and along its byways.

For the equivalent of $6, for example, I had a wonderful meal of grilled trout, potatoes and a giant salad the restaurant Rozhledna on the main square of the town of Bystrice nad Pernstajnem.

The top hotel in Boskovice is the Hotel Moravia, located in an old, converted mill (tel: +420-516-454441). Double rooms with all facilities start at the equivalent of $60.

In Polna, a restaurant and pension named after Leopold Hilsner recently opened near the synagogue. I was sort of put off by the name and décor (which features, among other things, menorahs and a life-sized wood carving of Hilsner) but the restaurant and rooms are pleasant. The restaurant advertises Jewish specialities, including cholent and carp. A double room costs the equivalent of $55. Palackeho 226, tel/fax: +420-667222505.
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Ruth Ellen Gruber
author of:
Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
University of California Press