HRADEC KRALOVE, CZECH REPUBLIC – Sometimes you have to get off the well-worn tourist path to find unexpected treasures. And Hradec Kralove proves that detours can be rewarding.
This lovely but relatively unknown eastern Bohemian town, located about 90 minutes from Prague, is a treasure chest of history dating back to 1225, and truly reflects the development of the Czech nation through the ages.
Upon arrival, we are impressed by the city’s new, futuristic bus station that looks like its landed from another planet; its collection of lovely parks; its lollipop sports stadium (so called because the stadium lighting is made in the shape of giant lollipops); the slow moving Elbe River, whose sundrenched embankment is crowded with strolling families; a long ago abandoned Jewish synagogue that has been painstakingly brought back to its former glory; and the city’s new “cheese” university building (its façade is painted yellow and features a multitude of big round windows, thus making it look like a giant hunk of Swiss cheese).
However, it’s not until we reach the city’s old town, which sits perched high above the new city, where most of the 100,000 inhabitants of Hradec Kralove live, that we truly come to like and appreciate this, one of the oldest cities in the country.
The Old Town square wouldn’t look out of place in Prague or Vienna. And the collection of handsome Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings – some painted pretty pastel colours - that surround the near empty square when we arrive, remind us of Hradec Kralove’s former importance – two queens once lived here.
The ornate statue that sits in the centre of the square, erected to honour of the Virgin Mary; the majestic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and the white tower standing beside it topped with the golden papal crown, tell us that this was a seat of power during the Hapsburg (they of the Holy Roman Empire) reign.
It was here that Austrian empress Maria Theresa (the only female ruler of the Holy Roman Empire which controlled central Europe in the 16thand 17thcenturies) engaged Prussian king Frederich II in a major battle and lost, thus changing the city’s fortunes forever. The Swedes controlled the fortified town during the Thirty-Year War and a number of other major historic battles took place as well. During the communist regime of the 20th century, many of the distinguished buildings were left to decay – many can now only be viewed from the outside because their interiors are too fragile for visitors.
Above: Hradec Kralove is a regal city with lovely gardens and a downtown core that reflects its place in royal history.
Above the City Hall’s entrance hangs the crest of the old Czechoslovakia, which was brought into existence by a royal decree made here.
After the communists relinquished power in the late 20th century, the Czech Republic and neighbouring Slovakia went their own separate ways and Czechoslovakia was no more.
Today, Hradec Kralove is a peaceful hamlet where residents sun themselves in cafes surrounding the Old Town square; or enjoy a pint of “cut” beer – it’s the delicious result of combining dark and light beer – in one of the lovely cafes where cozy accommodation costs about $100 a night.The city’s university is renowned for medicine and the foreign students that come here for their education make the Old Town feel so much younger.
The Bohemian museum that stands beside the Elbe and whose entrance is decorated with two former rulers, offers up a great insight of life here through the ages.
The majesty of Hradec Kralove is often missed by visitors to the Czech Republic – pity!
For information on Hradec Kralove or other tourist destinations in the Czech Republic, go to czechtourism.coma