Well, there’s the brewery…That was the typical response when I asked about Plzen. I got the impression that, except for the brewery, there wasn’t a lot of reason to visit the city. And if you weren’t really interested in the beer brewing process, you should keep traveling. A recent two-day visit definitely proved me wrong. There’s a variety of things to do, good restaurants and the beer tour was quite informative as well.
A decree by King Wenceslas II founded Plzen as a town in 1295. It quickly grew in size and importance thanks to its location on a lucrative trade route with Germany and the nearby river. Architecture styles span the centuries – a fire led to an Italian contingent rebuilding a lot of the city in the 16th century and even Rudolf II reconstructed two houses for himself. The 19th century proved profitable for Plzen: the brewery was founded in 1842 and Skoda Works in 1859. In 1989, the historical center of the city was declared a protected historical city reserve.
Two interesting Plzen facts to amaze your family and friends: the third biggest synagogue in the world is located here and the highest tower in the Czech Republic is on the Cathedral of St. Bartholomew. First time visitors should pop into the Information Center (nám. Republicky 41, www.pilsen.eu.) There’s a very helpful staff and at the very least, pick up a map.
Stay on nám. Republicky; there’s a number of interesting sights to see. In the center, residents erected a plague column in 1681. It reflects the first Baroque designs in the town. The Cathedral of St. Bartholomew, founded in the late 13th century is also here, a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. Climb the 102.6 meter tower, where you’ll see many examples of modern-day graffiti. The steps get steep, but the view is worth the climb. It has been struck several times in the past by lightening, so save it for a sunny day.
There are many examples of Italian renaissance architecture in town, and one of the most notable is City Hall (nám. Republicky 1.) There’s an interesting relief model of the city center located in the back of the entry hall. Well-known Czech architect Rudolf Stech is from Plzen and his work can be seen around the city, including the House of the Red Heart at nám. Republicky 36 and the Cingroš House at Smetanovy sady 31. At one point he invited well-known painter and sketcher Mikoláš Aleš to town. The two formed a cooperation that would continue to decorate Plzen to this day. Buildings that showcase some of Aleš’ excellent sgraffito include nám. Republicky 27, Sedláckova 31 and Nerudová 6. Architecture admirers would do well to pick up the “Pilsen’s history on a map” brochure at the tourist bureau. It offers a do-it-yourself walking tour of Plzen’s most noteworthy buildings.
Of course, you have to visit the brewery. Plzenský Prazdroj (U Prazdroje 7, www.prazdroj.cz) runs an excellent, 90 minute tour. English tours are run daily at 12:45, 14:15 and 16:15; in German at 14:30 and in Czech at 12:30, 14:00 and 16:00. If you have a group, you can make a reservation on their website. I’m not much into tours of this type, but Plzenský Prazdroj’s is extremely informative and well-run. Our tour guide, Václav Kulle, was an encyclopedia – there wasn’t a question he couldn’t answer and expand on – complete with dates and obscure references. Like after Prohibition ended in the US Plzenský Prazdroj sent over some brewing barrels. How nice was that? You’ll see the packing plant (it takes 20 minutes in their special machine to clean recycled bottles, and they use about 50% new and 50% recycled bottles;) and have a Laverne and Shirley moment as the bottles whip past you on the conveyor belt. You’ll get to ride in the largest lift in the Czech Republic in the brew house where you’ll be educated on barley, hops (the spice of beer) and malt. As a bonus you can look through a microscope and see fungi fermenting. You’ll also see the original cooper vats used to mix and heat the ingredients, and the current operating area which has newer, bigger vats, all technologically state-of-the-art. Final stop is into the cellars, where the long awaited tasting of the unpasteurized, unfiltered beer occurs. The complex comes complete with a souvenir shop, Na Splice restaurant and Na Parkane Beer Pub. If you’ve fallen in love with the process of beer brewing, visit the Brewery Museum (Veleslavínova 6, www.prazdroj.cz.) Here you’ll see a Gothic malt house, kiln, drying shed, replica 19th century pub and laboratory.
Plzen is a great weekend family escape. The Zoo (Pod Vinicemi 9, www.zooplzen.cz) is an outdoor paradise, offering streams, small lakes and big enclosures full of fun animals like lions, tigers, bears and monkeys. Special regions include the Australian Area with kangaroos, a Tropical Pavilion with crocodiles and the Oriental area with camels. The Zoo contains two other attractions; a DinoPark (www.dinopark.eu) and Botanical Garden. Prehistoric fans will get up close and personal to replica Tyrannosaurus Rexes, Pachycephalosauruses and iguanodons. The Botanical Garden is lovely, especially the Japanese Garden with stones imported from Japan. Back in the city center is the Zoo’s Akva-Tera (Palackého trída 5) which houses amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates.
History and World War II buffs should pay a visit to the Patton Memorial Pilsen (Pobrežní 10.) This memorial to the US Army commemorates the arrival of soldiers to Plzen in May 1945. Displays and exhibits include actual film and photo footage, documentation of the advancement of the army into Czechoslovakia as well as everyday items, gear and equipment from the war days. The Memorial hosts annual events including the Festival of Liberty on May 6; the End of World War II on September 2 and Veteran’s Day on November 11.
Plzen’s events calendar is busy year-round. They host traditional craft markets on nám. Republicky throughout the year – remaining dates in 2008 include June 26-27; August 28-29; October 16-17; November 13-14 and December 8-23. The city’s Historical Weekend is June 13-15 which is combined with the 12th Annual International Folklore Festival. Festival Na ulici (August 19-28) brings jazz, folk, country and theater performances onto the street and September 19-25 the town celebrates Science and Technology Days. November 6-8 will be Jazz without Borders, an international jazz festival.