The first time I visited Prague, I was in raptures. It’s that kind of place; that combination of beauty and charm that’s completely irresistible.
Take a stroll down St Wenceslas Square towards the Old Town or across the dark, Gothic spans of 15th century Charles Bridge and you too will soon be captivated. This is a very easy place to fall for!
I was staying at The Icon, (www.iconhotel.eu) a simple, efficient sort of boutiquey hotel close to the centre of things yet far enough away to lay your head down in peace. It’s run by really nice people! I like Czechs! They’re confident, direct and easy to talk to, with a cheeky sense of humour! Now that the free market economy is clearly here to stay, there are ritzy fashion shops, flash software companies and swanky BMW’s intermingling with the Baroque splendour of Prague's Old Town.
CZECH OUT FOOD
It was time for dinner and raining… heavily! What’s a group of golfers to do but stride out into the rough and play it as it lies. The dark, cobbled streets glistened with yellow lights from the shops and street lamps. Trams trundled by clanging their bells, steamy yet cosy. I love the first few minutes in a different country; the images, the character of the people, the architecture! It all seems so much more intense and enchanting. Once you get by the High Street shops of Nové Město (New Town), Prague’s baroque Old Town on a cool, rainy evening is like stepping back into a 1950s Hollywood romance.
Restaurants in this quarter tend towards the traditional schnitzel and goulash. I’m not keen on stews with bread-based dumplings or left-over potato patties that seem to be the Czeck’s go-to dish - or at least what they offer to the tourists. Vegetables, it would seem, are only served on special occasions here! Fortunately, there is variety! We stopped at the Dutch Pub, a well-appointed steak & burger joint with a Dutch twist who concoct a splendid array of dishes including some excellent fish.
Even on a wet night, downtown Prague is popular. You’ll see groups from Sweden, Denmark, Holland and the UK, stag or hen parties in good spirits migrating from pub to pub. One of the main reasons is cost! Hotels are similar in price to the UK and the rest of Europe but you save considerably on food and drink. A glass of Pilsner for instance costs around €1.50 and a decent dinner could set you back around €15 to €20 per head with wine! We tended to stick to the beer! But more on that later…
Golf Around the City
Apart from the D+D Real Czech Masters held each year at the Albatross Golf Resort just outside Prague, you don’t hear that much about the golf courses in the Czech Republic. Let me assure you there are plenty and very acceptable they are too!
Last year, I played the Albatross, Black Bridge and Karlštejn Golf Clubs all of which were highly recommendable, surprisingly challenging and I’d go back in an instant to any of them.
This visit, I was keen to explore the area between Prague and the German border known as West Bohemia. But before heading for those hills, there were still a couple of other Prague city courses I’d heard about and needed to ‘Czech’ out.
Prague City Golf
In spite of its rather ‘uninspired’ name, Prague City Golf is my newfound favourite. 15 minutes southeast of the city, it offers a surprising palate of links conditions. I’m a bit of a stickler when courses refer to themselves as ‘links’ or even try to emulate a seaside track especially when they’re landlocked in the middle of Continental Europe!
But here, Alex Cejka, the German golf professional with Czech roots and British architect Jeremy Ford, have cooked up something almost as good as a sandy-based seaside links. And being completely unprotected from the wind, Prague City packs in plenty of provocation. Springle in 130 bunkers, many of which are of the ‘pot’ variety and you soon get the picture. This is a feisty test equally to any on mainland Europe.
Water is predominant on the back 9, large lakes such as at holes 13 and 14 where it's tempting to cut the corners but be aware of those devastatingly deep pot bunkers. The 12th I'd say is the hardest green to hold, small with bunkers on the right and rough on the left. Like the beer and most everything else, green fees are reasonable here also; only €55 through the week. www.praguecitygolf.cz
A little bit further down the motorway is the brand new Panorama Golf Resort, 27 holes of widely diverse terrain (Forest, Meadows and River) making for a great variety of shots and elevations along with dramatic views. Especially striking is the contemporary clubhouse where you can stay-over if you book one of their ultra-chic 10 double rooms or 4 suites. www.panoramagolf.cz
Soaring high above all others in my opinion is the Albatross Golf Resort. I didn’t play its lake-ridden loops this time as I was heading further west but I did pop in to remind myself just how good it was. This is undoubtedly the premier track in the entire country. Host to D+D Real Czech Masters since 2014, Albatross is as fine an inland track as you’ll find - with service and amenities to match. And you can play it for little more than €70, a steal for a course of this calibre.
So that’s the City of Prague and I must say, the combination of this eclectic centre with its surrounding, superb golf courses easily matches up to any European golf destination I can think of. But what of the other parts of Czech Republic?
The region of West Bohemia is tucked into the folds of the wooded Sudeten Hills close to Germany’s eastern border. From Prague, it’s a straight 2-hour drive but en-route there is one more golf course and attraction that no way we going to pass by.
The Best Beer in the World
Greensgate Golf Club and the Urquell Brewery are located in the town of Plzen and yes, this is where the word ‘pilsner’ comes from. It says it all really! Even the Germans, (who are fanatical in a very, quiet, taciturn German way about beer’s purity) admit that the fresh, Czech pilsner is probably the finest foamy brew in the world.
Here you can take a tour of the Pilsner Urquell brewery, descending to the cellars where they’ve brewed Urquell since 1842. The cool temperature and ‘Glasgow-in-December’ dampness nurtures the beer to perfection and you can help yourself to unfiltered, unpasteurized pilsner straight from a massive oak barrel. “Beer-lovers-bliss!”
I tried my best to ‘accidentally’ get lost in among the dank passages but the tour guide shepherded us along the corridors like a knowing collie dog!
Did you know, you can pour pilsner in different ways? Czech connoisseurs (Czechs, by the way, consume more beer than any other nation on the planet) are so attuned to their national drink, they request a certain pouring style. The classic is called ‘Hladinka’, a smooth, creamy rendition leaving about an inch of head. Meanwhile ‘Na dvakrat’, the most popular, leaves less body with a good measure of foam. Some Czechs ask for the ‘Mliko’ which is, to all intents pure foam, said to release the most aromatic sweetness from the beer. I’d feel cheated if I didn’t see a good measure of the light golden nectar in my glass so was happy with the standard ‘Na dvakrat’. Cheers! (Na zdraví in Czech).
The Great ‘Bud’ Debate
Before we leave the fascinating topic of beer, there are two other famous Czech beers that we should mention. They are Staropramen, which I do frequently find on tap in Scottish pubs and Budweiser Budvar. The most widely exported is Budweiser Budvar and it’s important, nay critical to distinguish between Czech Budvar and the American “Bud“ since they have next to nothing in common!
Budweiser was the original name of beer brewed in the Czech city of Ceske Budejovice. Germans, just across the border referred to the town as ‘Budweis’ and someone from Budweis is called a Budweiser - like Hamburg and Hamburgers… (yes, the first hamburgers did actually come from Hamburg although the bunned version was adapted by German immigrants in New York).
Similarly, a couple of Americans from St. Louis, Missouri, Adolphus Busch and his friend Carl Conrad following a trip to the Bohemia region in 1876 decided to develop a "Bohemian-style" lager and name it ‘Budweiser’ clearly without much thought. Anheuser–Busch has been involved in a trademark dispute ever since! I believe they should capitulate, get taken over by the Czech company and deliver America some real beer.
When we arrived in Plzen - it was still raining! That’s how we came to spend the morning underground in the Urquell Brewery emerging but happy. By lunchtime, the skies cleared giving us the afternoon to enjoy the nearby Greensgate course.
Greensgate has been around for 14 years and already seen many changes. It hosted the Ladies European tour for 4 years which took it to a certain standard and now, with new owners at the helm, it’s been upgraded again with much work done to several of the greens.
The hotel includes 22 rooms and the Granary, a historical part offering a further 2 suites and 4-person, luxury apartment. The quality of the Granary rooms and apartment is exemplary so if you wanted to enjoy the pilsner along with this excellent golf course, it might be worth checking-in here for a night or two. The luxury apartment for 4 or 6 people comes in at only €160 per night. (www.greensgate.cz/en)
We teed up on this tight but aesthetically pleasing Par 72, 6,700-yard course that weaves between hills, forest and along by Lake Ejpovice. The course is not long from the visitor tees but it’s one of those complicated layouts that doglegs frequently forcing you to back-off on the drives -otherwise you’ll run into trouble. If you knew this course, it would be a lot of fun but for first-timers like us, it took its toll and was easy to roll into the rough stuff. That’s all part of getting to know a golf course and I’d love to give Greensgate another several goes. The Par 3, 11th is the most memorable, a tiny island green the size of a table-tennis bat or so it appears from the tee. The 12th is one of the sharpest doglegs of the course - great if you can produce a tight fade or shall we say ‘a controlled slice’.
Karlovy Vary is a sophisticated town at the heart of West Bohemia’s spa region with ultra-classy hotels, shops and restaurants. The warm, natural springs of Karlovy Vary have been used in healing since the 14th century and the town is one of the world’s top spa destinations. Tens of thousands of people, especially from Germany and Russia arrive each year to take the waters from the town’s 12 thermal springs.
It’s a great name, isn’t it - Karlovy Vary! It is also known as ‘Carlsbad’. Coincidentally, the Californian town of Carlsbad, home to Callaway, Cobra and Taylormade, is named after Karlovy Vary. Apparently Carlsbad, California was big on natural springs! Now it’s a fountain of golf equipment.
We popped into a couple of courses on our way to the hotel. Cihelny Golf Club just south of Karlovy Vary looks interesting though not on par with the courses we’d seen and played around Prague. The town of Karlovy Vary has its own golf course also, originally a 9-hole developed through the years into an 18-holer and this looks more prestigious and probably the one to play. This and Marianske Lazne Golf Club are in fact, the two oldest clubs in the country.
The town of Karlovy Vary is beautiful at night and worth a stroll to find the right restaurant. There are lots of swanky shops and very upmarket hotels. I’d like to spend a bit more time in Karlovy Vary checking out the spa culture and general ambience of the place as it’s most appealing. But we were here to golf!
There are 10 courses immediately accessible to Karlovy. Nearby is Franzensbad Golf Club also known as Františkovy Lázně. Everywhere here seems to have two versions of their name…what's that all about? Franzensbad is an elevated parkland course with a nice texture to the loam not unlike Scottish heathland courses. It rises and drops, not too steeply but it keeps the game interesting.
Nearby Marianske Lazne is the second most popular spa town in the region. It developed later than Karlovy but now is just as popular. The Mariánské Lázně Golf Club is an exceptional parkland course first established in the time of King Edward VII who officially opened it in 1905. It’s tree-lined then opens out onto wider fairways with the occasional little lake to watch out for. Both Marianbad and Franzensbad are solid tests, perhaps more in line with ‘resort’ courses of an older era while those near the city of Prague are of a more modern, demanding standard. It would definitely be worth bringing your golf clubs however if you were going to take the waters of either Karlovy Vary or Marianske Lazne and play a little golf, the perfect way to enjoy a few days in these health-enhancing mountains.
So, that was my trip to Bohemia. To be honest, I’d probably stick to Prague the next time as the city is so beautiful with so much to do in the evening and the surrounding golf so superb! The courses up in the Western Hills weren’t as well presented, more rustic and resort-type. But it’s nice to get to know them.
When to come
The month of April gets nice in Prague and the golfing season stretches well into October. Cooler continental weather comes a bit earlier in the mountains of West Bohemia and October is probably too late to enjoy. June to August can be a bit tourist hectic in Prague though this is the ideal time to explore the outlying areas.
Prague is super-easy to get to from Scotland and most other parts of the world. There are direct, low-cost flights from either Edinburgh or Glasgow (Easyjet, Jet2 and Ryanair at around £100 return plus the cost of your clubs and checked luggage). You can hire a car and self-drive in the Czech Republic but it’s easier and not that much more expensive to let a ground-handling company like Abante (www.abante-golf.co.uk) look after the transport. Then everyone can relax and enjoy the wonderful pilsners you’ll no doubt run into between and after rounds.