The first time I visited Prague, I fell in love with the place. Now it was time to branch out and see what else the Czech Republic has to offer.
Prague is one of the world’s most culturally appealing cities! Take a stroll down St Wenceslas Square towards the Old Town or across the dark spans of Charles Bridge, built in 1402, and you too will be captivated. This is a very easy place to fall for!
I was staying near Wenceslas Square, The Icon, (www.iconhotel.eu) kind of boutiquey, centrally situated and run by really nice people. I like Czechs! They’re confident and direct and easy to engage with! Now that the free market economy is firmly re-established here, there are gleaming software company offices, ritzy fashion shops and swanky BMW’s surrounding the Baroque splendour of Prague's Old Town.
Czech out the Food
It was time for dinner and raining heavily, the dark, cobbled streets glistening with lights from the shops and street lamps. Trams trundled by looking cosy and steamy. I love the first few minutes in a different country, the images seeming more intense and enchanting. And on a rainy night, everything looks snug and welcoming especially in the baroque Old Town. Restaurants in this quarter tend towards the traditional; schnitzel and goulash. I’m not keen on stews and bread-based dumplings. Vegetables it seems are only served on special occasions here! Fortunately, there is plenty variety. We stopped in at the Dutch Pub, a well-appointed steak and burger joint with a Dutch theme who concoct a splendid spread including fresh fish dishes.
Even on a wet night, downtown Prague is popular. You’ll see groups from Sweden, Denmark, Holland and the UK, often stag or hen parties but all in good spirits. One of the reasons is cost! Hotels are similar in price to the UK but you save considerably on food and drink. A glass of Pilsner for instance costs around €1.50 and a decent dinner could come in around €15 to €20 per head - including wine!
Golf Around the City
You don’t hear that much about the golf courses in the Czech Republic but let me assure you, there are plenty and very acceptable they are too! Last year I checked out Albatross, Black Bridge and Karlštejn all of which were highly playable and I’d go back in an instant to any of them. This visit, I was to explore the area between Prague and the German border known as West Bohemia. But before heading for those hills, there were a couple of other Prague city courses I’d heard about and needed to tick off.
Prague City Golf
In spite of its rather insipid 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 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 a home in Prague, along with British architect Jeremy Ford, have conjured up something almost as good as a sandy-based seaside track. And being open to the wind, Prague City packs in plenty of challenge. Factor its 130 bunkers, many of which are of the ‘pot’ variety and you get the picture. This is a feisty little test.
Water appears 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. Green fees are reasonable here too; only €55 through the week. The complex also offers the largest putting green in the Czech Republic, the Himalayas, inspired of course by the legendary ladies putting course in St. Andrews. I’d make a point of arriving an hour or so early for a pre-round putting competition here. This version of the Himalayas looks awesome! www.praguecitygolf.cz
As does the brand new Panorama Golf Resort, a little bit further down the motorway. 27 holes of widely diverse terrain (Forest, Meadows and River) make for a great variety of shots and elevations along with dramatic views. Especially striking is the contemporary clubhouse, yours to enjoy for the day or you can stay-over if you book into one of their ultra-chic 10 double rooms or 4 suites. www.panoramagolf.cz.
The other Prague course that must be mentioned is Albatross. I didn’t play it this time but popped in just to remind myself how good it is and yes, this is probably the premier track in the entire country. Host to D+D Real Czech Masters, Albatross is as fine an inland track as you’ll find with service and amenities to match. A course like this must impress the European Tour officials and professionals as each year they keep coming back! And we can play it for little more than €70, a steal for a course of this calibre.
So that’s Prague and I must say, the combination of this eclectic city 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 orld
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, doesn’t it. 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 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 and unpasteurized pilsner straight from a massive oak barrel. Beer lovers bliss! I tried my best to ‘accidentally’ get lost but the tour guide shepherded us along the dank corridors like a knowing old collie dog!
Did you know, you can pour pilsner in different ways? Czech connoisseurs (Czechs 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 while ‘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 chilled, golden nectar in my glass.
The Great ‘Bud’ Debate
The other two famous Czech beers that we shouldn’t forget to mention are Staropramen which I do frequently see on tap in Scottish pubs and Budweiser Budvar which I occasionally see in Lidls and buy by the trolley load. 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 very little in common apart from the fact that they’re liquid and sold in cans or bottles! Oh, and of course the name!
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’ which is pretty much what it sounds like 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 probably by German immigrants in New York). Similarly, a couple of Americans from St. Louis, Missouri; Adolphus Busch and his friend Carl Conrad, after a trip to the region in 1876 decided to develop a "Bohemian-style" lager and the name Budweiser was applied, 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 Americans some decent beer.
When we arrived in Plzen it was raining - heavily! That’s how we came to spend the morning within the sanctuary of the Urquell Brewery. By lunchtime, the skies cleared giving us the afternoon to enjoy the 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 it’s been upgraded again with much work done to several of the greens along with the hotel facilities which include 22 rooms and the Granary (the historical part) offering 2 suites and a 4-person spacious, 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 off the visitor tees but it’s complicated. It doglegs frequently and this is the main part of its defence i.e. you have to screw back on the drives otherwise you’ll run into trouble. If you knew the course, it would be a lot of fun but for first timers like us, it was too easy to run out of fairway and find 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 hole, 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 - great if you can produce a tight fade or shall we say ‘a controlled slice’.
Back on the road again and 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, CA was big on natural springs too! Now it’s a fountain of golf equipment.
We popped into a couple of courses on our way to the hotel. Cihelny Golf Club is just south of Karlovy Vary and 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 the two oldest clubs in the country.
The town of Karlovy Vary is beautiful at night and worth a stroll through 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 is very 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 our Scottish heathland courses. It rises and drops, not too steeply but keeping the terrain 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 and of an older style 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.
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.