Pints, Puppets and People in the Czech Republic
I’m not at all a connoisseur of beer. I know a Pilsner Lager is a good beer; Bud Light is not. I know beers from the Czech Republic are among the best in the world. But it wasn’t until I was marinating in a beer barrel in Ostrava, Czech Republic that I really got to experience a good beer that up close and personal. A beer massage is one of the de rigueur options offered at the Chateau Zamek-Zábřeh Hotel and Brewery in Ostrava, about a three-hour train ride from Prague. And why not? After all, it washes harmful substances from the body, relieves stress, rejuvenates skin and hair, moisturizes the body and boosts immunity. And you thought it was just to cool off with on a hot summer day!
Okay, so personally, I think the claims are a tad grandiose. Sounds too much like a break-through miracle cure. But then I found out I could also drink the beer while bathing in it and I reconsidered.
The setting is magical -- down a candle-lit staircase into a brick-covered cellar as though entering a romantic pub -- and you sort of are. But we’re talking real cellar here as opposed to a beer cellar. The massage room is part of the original 13th-century chateau. Pavel the masseuse explains all the health benefits of the beer bath. The 20-minute lava stone massage itself is just a bonus -- no actual connection to beer or its body-altering ramifications.
The recommended therapy? Put pitchers of light and dark beer replete with a concoction of Brewer’s yeast and selected varieties of hops, malt, and peat extract into a bath barrel. Hardly seems enough for the body to get high on. As I submerged myself in the large wooden cask filled with foam bath and happily filled the beer tankard tub-side full of beer from a tap attached to the tub, I realized it was the first time the suds in my bath competed with that of the head on my beer mug. Usually, the two are separated by hours. Given the choice, I would rather imbibe the beer -- especially Czech beer -- than bathe in it. But I stayed in the barrel long enough to revel in the taste of the beer if not its less tangible detox benefits. But eventually, I had to relent and leave the beer behind in pursuit of less heady adventures.
The Open Air Museum, about an hour outside the city, resurrects multiple aspects of a typical mountain village from the mid-1700s -- the town, the farm, the granaries -- attracting more locals than tourists, and very few from the U.S. My favorite area was the little wooden town which includes the site’s oldest house, circa 1660, which still operates as a pub and a local post office selling stamps of the village. The wooden home housed a family of 8 in one room, occasionally shared with a cow because the cowshed was inside the house in the winter. The site’s focus is on folk arts and farming, and traditional customs such as dances, music, and crafts are on display from May to September. I felt like a little wooden doll myself as I walked through my little wooden town as though I knew all the people there, including the mayor who lived nearby. It was my own personal fairytale and because it was cold and overcast, there were no other tourists to interfere with my fantasy.
A visit to the Silesian Castle, a 13th-century structure that was rebuilt in the 16th century and then again in 2011, only perpetuated my connection with fantasy. A series of gnomes, devils, dybbuks and other fanciful creatures guard the different entrances, a more entertaining approach to a castle than the more usual imposing knights in armor. Even the Chapel contained 58 hand-carved figures with comical faces and cartoonish animals -- it exuded positive energy if not exactly a spiritual connection. Not sure exactly how many Pixar-related elephants ever actually made it to Bethlehem.
Although many parts of the castle have been rebuilt, some parts still hearken back to the 13th century. Still, I question the presence of so many wooden sculptured caricatures in those medieval times. Or the Museum of Mysteries and Witches, for that matter. Here we have a gloomy underground cave-like chamber filled with large dioramas of fearsome puppet-like figures resembling devils, demons, goblins, and witches the size of children in various scary scenarios.
Lucifer was there surrounded by bats and skeletons, forming a sort of welcoming committee to hell. And it wasn’t even Halloween! A variety of mysteries were inscribed on the walls but since the stories were in Czech, the descriptions of the mysteries remained mysteries themselves. But here’s where my head really began to shake, more from incomprehension than fear. Sharing all these fiendish atmospherics was a fairly impressive aquarium. Just inexplicably taking up space on one wall. Nothing frightening about it. Once again, I’m reminded this is not your grandmother’s medieval castle experience!
And similar incongruity followed us to the next attraction -- the Mini-Uni Exposition. First thing I saw upon entering was a wall adorned with license plates from every state in the U.S. Why in a Czech exhibition of iconic European architectural structures? Apparently because every year there is a display of classic U.S. cars. Otherwise, no connection. Okay, I’m getting used to Czech anomalies.
But what is mesmerizing lies just a few feet beyond -- over 30 miniatures of famous European buildings from the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Leaning Tower of Pisa to Dutch windmills, the Brandenburg Gate and the Acropolis, all built to a scale of 1:25. At 5’ tall, I usually feel dwarfed by such sightseeing wonders; now I reveled in towering over them! There’s a sense of intimacy not usually associated with viewing such grand architectural achievements!
A word about Ostrava itself before we move on. The city of 300,000 is a real city, not a tourist town. People live here; few visit despite buildings ranging from the 13th to the 20th centuries interspersed with plenty of park areas and open spaces. Ostrava is an industrial city by nature -- a former major coal producing town that still reeks of industrialization as opposed to historical or cultural attractions. Dominating the city center is a former iron plant that was established in 1828 and closed 170 years later. This humongous series of huge pipes and intersecting steel structures and geometric shapes, spanning 15 hectares over multiple city blocks, has been re-invented as a Museum of History and Cultural Center and is awaiting designation as a UNESCO site.
Now I recognize that this iron works complex is the centerpiece of this manufacturing town, but my suggestion? Don’t go there unless you find two-hours of mind-numbing statistics belaboring a litany of iron ore minutia covering measurements, processes, and production to be stimulating. My eyes, on the other hand, were glazing over. I was delighted to finally find myself in the Science and Technology Museum, a tad more recent development of 2014, where every interactive exhibit, and there are rooms and rooms of them, is an exciting visual and tactile experience celebrating civilizations, nature, electricity, people, and animals. The adults were as delighted as the kids, exuding sheer joy as they meandered from one activity to the next. Rumor has it takes five hours to do justice to the museum but I could have spent days and never been bored.
Okay, so Ostrava is not as historical or romantic as Prague, and it doesn’t boast luminous squares full of elaborate castles, ornate monasteries, and sumptuous chateaux, with history streaming out over the streets to capture you in the 12th-19th centuries at every turn. But it’s a tourist’s delight in its appealing off-beat attractions and lack of crowds visiting them. It’s a real town where real people live. And its gnomes and beer bath alone are enough to justify a visit. For more information, visit www.ostrava.cz/en/turista.