Prague, the Czech Republic's beautiful capital, has become one of Europe's favorite destinations since 1989, when democracy returned after forty-four years of communism. This 250-mile drive starts on the River Danube in picturesque Passau, Germany, then climbs wooded hills before reaching what used to be one of the world's most unwelcoming frontiers between Philippsreut and Strazny. Today, ladies of easy virtue share the roadside with stalls selling plastic gnomes.
We visit three Czech towns whose UNESCO World Heritage Site status ranks them with the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. In Cesky Krumlov, the castle's painted tower looks like a psychedelic rocket, and bears patrol the rocky moat. A landscape dappled with lakes and forests undulates northeastward to Telc. There, the narrow medieval gateway leads to a huge cobblestoned square framed by an exquisite assortment of buildings in a riot of shapes and colors.
One must dodge potholes while driving to Kutn Hora. In the Middle Ages, silver mining made it one of Europe's wealthiest towns. The great Gothic cathedral is approached along an avenue where statues of saints contrast with skulls and crossed bones. Inside, medieval frescoes depict coins being made of silver while angels hover.
Street names that seem to have been formed by playing Scrabble in the dark are among the challenges in Prague. Hotel Pariz has secure parking and is within easy walking distance of the Staromestske square, whose splendor helps explain why central Prague is another World Heritage Site. Towers soar above baroque buildings that are all swags and swages, cherubs, copper domes, and ornate metalwork.
Shops sell beautiful marionettes, a Czech speciality, and concerts cater to all musical tastes. Enjoy both at the Prague Opera Marionette Theatre. Mozart loved Prague, where his Marriage of Figaro was first hailed as a masterpiece, but the king's wife is said to have shouted, "German hogwash!" on hearing his last opera.
Wilder Mann, Passau (011-49- 851-3-5071; www.wilder-mann. com). The characterful old town's oldest hotel.
Ruze, Cesky Krumlov (011- 420-380-772- 100; www. hotelruze.cz). Memorable views.
Celerin, Telc (011- 420-567-243- 477; www. hotelcelerin.cz). Great location; excellent value.
Hotel Pariz, Prague (011-420-222-195-195; www.hotel-pariz.cz). Art nouveau ambience.
Do visit Passau's fabulously ornate baroque cathedral, where the world's largest organ has 17,774 pipes.
Do contact Evzen Majoros at www.old-timers.cz, and arrange to explore Prague in one of his vintage cars.
Don't try to speak Czech before drinking some of the country's excellent beer.
Eat & drink
Restaurant Passauer Wolf, Passau (011-49- 851-9-31-5110). Views of the brown-not blue-Danube.
Black Eagle, Telc (011-420-567-243-222). Soup, trout, schnitzel in the beautiful old town's heart.
Fleku Pub, Prague (011-420-224-934-01920; www. ufleku.cz). Bar, restaurant, and historic brewery.
Czech Tourist Office, 1109-11 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10028 (212-288-0830, www.czechtourism.com).
A Rough Guide book covers the Czech and Slovak republics (www. roughguides.com).
The Prague Post is in English (www.praguepost.com).
What we drove
Muscular, high-tech turbo-diesels are popular in Europe for their very low fuel consumption. We used a top-of-the-range Audi A3 with the refined 2.0-liter TDI engine (140 hp, 236 lb-ft) and a six-speed gearbox. The long-legged hatchback cruised at a virtually silent 100 mph on the autobahn. Wood, leather, and chrome made the Audi seem like a compact limo.