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Ostrava
Ostrava, Czech Republic:
A City Where Puppets, Pints and Real People Peacefully Co-Exist

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block except where otherwise noted

'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.

author in beer bath, Ostrava

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.

Wallachian Open Air Museum

carved gnome figure at the Silesian Castle, Ostrava

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.

witch puppet at the Silesian Castle

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!

miniatures of buildings at the Mini-Uni Exposition

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.

former iron plant, now the Museum of History and Cultural Center
Courtesy photo

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 it takes five hours to do justice to the museum but I could have spent days and never been bored.

interactive exhibit at the Science and Technology Museum

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.

Related Articles:
Prague's Old Town Square; Prague Must-See Locales; The Czech Republic: A Slide Show; Postcards From Prague; Prague Castle

(Posted 1-4-2016)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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