The Czech Republic

Hidden away during years behind the Iron Curtain, the grand castles, the soaring churches, the interesting old towns and the scenic beauty of the Czech Republic were largely unknown to western tourists. The photos in the slide show on the right offer some highlights of the Czech Republic. For more detail on a particular area, visit one of the other pages: Prague, Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora, Plzeň and Tábor.

After Czechoslovakia emerged from Soviet domination in 1989, the country – and particularly the half that later became the Czech Republic – made up for lost time. It is safe to say that the Czech Republic has been "discovered". Indeed, it now ranks as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.

For such a small country, the Czech Republic has an unusually rich history. Prior to the 10th century, the area was dominated at various times by German and Slav tribes, Mongols, Franks and Magyars from Hungary. In the 10th century, a dynasty of the Cechove, or Ceši, tribe (from which Czechs derive their name) unified neighboring tribes and established centralized rule in Bohemia – the western part of what is now the Czech Republic. Bohemia later came under the protection of the Holy Roman Empire.

Bohemia gained great political and cultural prominence under King Charles IV, who reigned from 1347 to 1378, and was also crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor. Prague in particular became a great center of learning and culture and it was during Charles's reign that many of the best-known historic buildings in Prague were built, including the famous Charles Bridge.

During the 15th century, a religious reform movement based on the teachings of Bohemian Jan Hus gained strength, notwithstanding that Hus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415. Many Czech nobles converted to Hus-inspired Protestantism. During this same period, however, the Catholic Hapsburgs succeeded to the throne of Bohemia and conflicts arose between them and the Czech nobles. In 1620, the Bohemian army of the Czech nobles was defeated at the Battle of the White Mountain and many leaders were killed or forced into exile. Those that remained were required to convert to Catholicism and give up their native language and culture in favor of the Hapsburg's German.

The Hapsburgs and later Austria-Hungary continued to rule Bohemia and Moravia (the eastern part of the present Czech Republic) until their defeat in World War I. After the war, the country of Czechoslovakia was created, with Prague as its capital. Peace, however, did not long prevail in the new country. In 1938, at the urging of ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, Hitler's troops marched into region and took control of the area. The area was formally ceded to Germany under the infamous Munich Pact (Britain's attempt to appease Hitler's territorial demands). World War II soon followed and Czechoslovakia was dismembered.

After the war, independence was restored to Czechoslovakia only to be lost again once the country fell under the domination of the Soviet Union. In 1968, an effort at political and cultural liberalization, known as "Prague Spring," was suppressed when Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Prague. The country remained under the Soviet heel for another two decades.

In November 1989, following the "Velvet Revolution" – massive but non-violent, student-led demonstrations in Prague – the country's Communist government fell and free elections were held soon after. Independence also brought to the surface simmering economic and cultural differences between the Czechs and the Slovaks. In January 1993, Czechoslovakia was peacefully separated into the independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Czech Republic quickly shook off the worst effects of the Communist days and modernized its industries and economy. In 2004, it was admitted to the European Union (along with nine other nations). Economically, it is one of the strongest of the new members.

Although Prague quickly became a very popular tourist destination, other areas of the Czech Republic deserve attention too. The small town of Český Krumlov in the southern Bohemia region was a particularly unexpected surprise and should certainly be on any visitor's itinerary.