Moravian Babička Vodka Available at Harvey Nichols

The babičkas of 16th century Moravia were wise old women who were revered by their communities for having mystical healing powers and practising the art of witchcraft.  It was the babičkas who freely used the essence thujone which is extracted from wormwood, an aromatic plant of the Old World, in their potions and charms for its reputation of enhancing well-being, sensuality, creativity and love, not to mention its mildly hallucinatory effects.  This history has laid the foundations for the new Babička vodka, the first ever wormwood vodka.  A green thujone-ometer is on every Babicka bottle to mark the amount of this wormwood extract that has been infused with the highest quality vodka, giving Babička its unique taste.  Plus, the vodka is packaged in a contemporary interpreation of the medicine bottles of old – so it really embraces its cultural heritage.

Babička

Babička is available from Harvey Nichols priced at £35.

For more information visit www.babickavodka.com

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Plan Some Last Minute Romance in the Czech Republic

Chateau McelyWondering where to spend Valentine’s Day with your loved one?  If you have time to take a trip then why not visit the Czech Republic?  If you love history or like to indulge in luxury,  you could spend St. Valentine’s Day in one of the Czech and Moravian chateaux.  Enjoy a fairytale romance at Loučeň chateau located about 50 kilometres from Prague offering exquisite suites for couples in love; or soak up the historical atmosphere cuddled by a fireplace with your loved one and being served breakfast directly to your apartment in one of the suites the baroque chateau of Jemniště, not far from Prague.

Alternatively, you can both be pampered at the hunting chateau of Mcely, situated in Central Bohemia near the town of Mladá Boleslav.  Here they will serve a special Valentine’s Day menu.  The chef working at the chateau of Mcely cooks according to old recipes of the first owners of the house, the family of Thurn-Taxis, and the restaurant ranks among the top ten restaurants in the Czech Republic.  The chateau’s other indulgent specialties also feature a pearl massage.

While lovers of old cinematography will definitely feel at home at the hotel Chateau Kotěra in the town of Ratiboř near Kolín.  The hotel was built and decorated in the second decade of the 20th century by the founder of Czech modern architecture, Jan Kotěra, and offers a Valentine’s Day package for couples in love. It includes a three-course dinner with a quality wine, a bottle of sparkling wine and a flower for the lady.

Sounds good to me!  I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed to be whisked away imminently!

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Enjoy a Magical Christmas in the Czech Republic

Czech RepublicIf you want to get yourself in the mood for Christmas then why not head to the Czech Republic to enjoy a little festive cheer? Festivities begin on the 28th November when Christmas trees are lit up on town squares, cities are covered in Christmas decoration and the craft markets open.  There is no more magical Christmas tree in the world than that at Prague Castle. While if you want to get your Christmas shopping done, there is an abundance of unusual gifts available at the traditional craft markets.  There are displays of old Czech crafts such as woodcarving of sculptures and wooden kitchen utensils, making of straw Christmas ornaments and straw dolls, pottery, beeswax candles, original jewellery, and glass Christmas-tree decorations. A little bell made on the spot by a blacksmith in their stall could be an original Czech souvenir. Should you become hungry while shopping taste some traditional delicacies. Those with a sweet tooth will certainly enjoy the ‘trdelník’ (sweet pastry made from rolled dough usually topped with sugar and walnut mix) or roasted chestnuts. Visitors prefering something more savoury can try some meat dishes such as various kinds of sausages accompanied with Czech bread. And finally to keep yourself warm purchase a hot drink – a cup of mead, mulled wine or punch are typical for this time of year. For those who want to celebrate the religious nature of the holiday season there are thousands of nativity scenes displayed around the Czech Republic in the Advent time. Even live nativity scenes with real donkey and sheep can be seen on squares. The Czech Republic also has several museums that specifically focus on nativity scenes. Probably the most famous “Mecca” of nativity scenes is Třebechovice pod Orebem.  The collections of this museum include over 300 nativity scenes created from various materials, the most prized of which is Probošt’s mechanical nativity scene. It is created from more than 2,000 mechanical parts.  The Museum of Paper Crèches in Zábrdí u Husince in Southern Bohemia is undoubtedly worth seeing. There are around 800 paper crèches created all around the world. The biggest crèche measures almost 4 metres, while the smallest can fit in a matchbox. The museum is open all year round and admission is free. Christmas in the Czech Republic also means listening to Christmas and Advent melodies. This year people will sing carols together on Pilsen’s main square on the 15th December. As with every year it will be the largest mass carolling in the Czech Republic. Czech Christmas is inherently connected with the Czech Christmas Mass by Jakub Jan Ryba, Czech composer from the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. The Estates Theatre in Prague will present this work, also known as Hail, Master! on the 19th December. Then on 25th December you will have the opportunity to listen to the Czech Christmas Mass played by the Prague Chamber Orchestra in the Church of St. Simon and St. Jude on Dušní Street in Prague. The Prague State Opera will also be performing classical Czech Christmas pieces for its audiences. The Kühn Children’s Choir will sing songs from the works of Bohuslav Martinů, Vítězslav Novák, Zdeněk Lukáš, Petr Eben and Václav Trojan. For that final bit of cultural magic, take some time to visit the Czech castles and chateaux, such as Křivoklát, which are open to public during Christmas time. From the 1st December, visitors will also be able visit the Museum of Nativity Scenes. You can enjoy the festive atmosphere at Loket Castle as well on the 10th and 11th December when the traditional craft markets will take place at the castle courtyard.Then on the 18th December let yourself be enchanted by Baroque atmosphere of Wallenstein-style Christmas at the Mnichovo Hradiště chateau. Alternatively, special Christmas tours are prepared from 26th to 31th December at the chateau in Horšovský Týn. Christmas tours are also held on the first three Advent weekends at the Hořovice Chateau. You will be welcomed by guides in costumes who will relate to you the history of Christmas, its traditions, and Advent. Need to get into the Christmas spirit?  Get yourself to the Czech Republic!  You’ll be willingly partaking in festive cheer in no time!

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Top 10 East European Christmas Markets

Christmas Markets are a true highlight of the advent period and are sure to get everyone into the festive spirit.  Head to one of the many markets in Eastern Europe to enjoy some real festive fare including local wine, beers, sausages and artisan crafts.  Here’s our top ten…

Vienna Christmas Market
Vienna Christmas Market

Vienna, Austria

During Advent Vienna is a city of nostalgia and romance with many concerts, nativity displays and traditional Christmas markets taking place throughout the city.  The most renowned markets include the Viennese Christmas Markets on Freyung, at Spittelberg, at Am Hof and in front of the church of St. Charles Borromeo (Karlskirche).

Prague, Czech Republic
Christmas is a special time of year in Prague and the Christmas markets (Vanocni trh) are a key ingredient in the Czech festive magic. The Prague Christmas markets bring visitors and locals together to share the holiday spirit in a true ‘winter wonderland’ setting.  The main markets can be found at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square with smaller ones at Namesti Republiky and Havelske Trziste.  Open 9am to 7pm daily.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

The Festive Fair, held in the Town Centre (Breg and Cankarjevo nabrežje embankments, Prešernov trg square) is well known for its vibrancy and cheerful atmosphere. Festively decorated green stalls, designed specially for the fair, sell a fine choice of products suitable for giving as gifts including food and drink, clothes and fashion accessories.  Open from 10am to 10 pm daily.

Nuremberg, Germany

Each festive season Nuremberg’s Old Town is decorated in its Christmas regalia and the tempting aromas of mulled wine, sweet roasted almonds, sausages and gingerbread create a truly unforgettable atmosphere. The Christkindlesmarkt is situated in the heart of the city which is steeped in more than 400 years of tradition providing an international showcase for all Franconian and German Christmas Markets.  While younger visitors can enjoy the Kinderweihnacht (Children’s Christmas Market) where historic steam-powered merry-go-rounds and other activities are waiting for them.  Open from 9.30am to 8pm Monday to Thursdays, 9.30am to 10pm Fridays and Saturdays, 10.30am to 8pm on Sunday.

Cologne, Germany

Cologne holds an impressive seven Christmas Markets. The four largest Christmas markets are located at Cologne Cathedral, on the Alter Markt (Home of the Heinzel Christmas Market), on the Neumarkt and on the Rudolfplatz (Fairytale Christmas Market). Every year these four markets attract almost 2 million visitors. Open every day from 11am to 9pm.

Berlin, Germany

With well over 50 Christmas Markets and advent bazaars every year, Berlin features prominently on Germany’s calendar of Yuletide events. A popular market is situated next to Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church amidst the bustle of shoppers on the high street between the Kurfüstendamm and Tauenzien. The Berlin Christmas Market shown on the map on the left is WeihnachtsZauber situated on the Gendarmenmarkt. This is probably one of the most popular markets in Berlin and is well sited in terms of nearby hotel accommodation.  Open 9am to 9pm daily.

Budapest, Hungary

One of the most popular Christmas fairs in Europe awaits the lovers of winter programmes this year again in the heart of Budapest, in Vörösmarty Square.  There are more than 100 wooden pavilions, which sell unique high quality folklore and applied arts products. Christmas decorations, small presents, candles, gloves, woollen hats, wrought iron and woven products are also sold here, as well as other special articles that cannot be found anywhere else. You can experience the real wonders of winter while enjoying traditional products that have been evaluated by a jury, and satisfying your appetite at typical Hungarian buffets, which offer mulled wine, kürtoskalács (sweet Hungarian pastry), roast chestnuts and other market snacks.  Open 10am to 8pm daily.

Sibiu, Romania

Sibiu Christmas Market is one of the most popular events of the year in the city. Being the first traditional Christmas Market opened in Romania, it was first held in 2007, in the Little Square located in the downtown area, with a total number of 38 wooden cabins. In 2008 and 2009, Sibiu Christmas Market took place in the Large Square, one of the best places to be visited in the historical center of the city.  Open from 10am to 9pm daily.

Cologne in London, UK

Once again Londoners and visitors to the city can enjoy a taste of Cologne this Christmas at the London Southbank Christmas Market.  While wandering about, look for and find unusual Christmas presents such as amber and silver jewellery, hand-crafted toys, fragile glass ornaments for your Christmas tree, hand tatted laces, tin toys, candles in all shapes and sizes, hand-made ceramics and creative metal design.  Sip on a glass of glühwein or bottle of Kölsch”  and nibble on some gingerbread hearts, roasted almonds and candies or even a delicious crepe. Open 11am to 8pm Mondays to Thursdays, and Sundays, 10am to 10pm Fridays and Saturdays.

Tallinn, Estonia

Estonia’s medieval capital is inherently festive and though temperatures do dip quite drastically this time of year, the city’s celebratory atmosphere does well to dispel the cold.  Tallinn’s Christmas Market may be one of the most recently established but it is now among the most well-loved in Europe.  December’s darkness is dispelled with colourful lights, music and an abundance of activity.  Head to Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, Raekoja Plats, and visit more than 50 merchant stalls featuring products by local artisans.  These stalls surround a beautiful Christmas tree.  Open daily from 10am to 6pm.

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Why Not Have Your Wedding in the Czech Republic?

Of all the countries in the world that claim to be the most romantic the Czech Republic is one of the top places. The gas-lit cobbled streets of Prague are steeped in the past, while the walls of its elegantly-designed buildings echo with imagined voices from a romantic age and trumpeted fanfares from a castle balcony proclaim that age isn’t dead. Beyond the city, its outlying unassuming villages coexist in quiet deference to the Gothic castles dominating their landscapes – where kings, aristocrats and Teutonic knights once held domain. And so it goes on, far beyond the capital region to outlying provinces such as Moravia.

As if these surroundings are themselves not enough to cast an eternal love-spell, there’s more. Just imagine a couple, after a day soaking up scenery, returning to their honeymoon suite to find the bed strewn with rose petals, surrounded by flickering candles, champagne, chocolates and romantic music. Or discovering a balloon and bouquet left strategically on Prague’s grand Charles Bridge while walking back to the hotel. Perhaps even a fireworks display accompanied by a violin serenade. Either way, the fairytale needn´t end there. If there’s a wedding in the offing, this is the place to be.

Prague

The Czech Republic has carved out something of a niche for itself as a wedding venue, attracting an estimated 525 British couples in the past 10 years – quite an achievement for a destination once the haunt of Brits ‘stag’ breaks. The gap in the market since the pre-nuptial ‘rowdies’ moved on had been filled by a variety of romantic holidays, from short breaks in a palatial hotel, to pre-wedding inspection trips leading to the full works.

The most popular wedding venues include: Prague’s Old Town Square, for civil weddings in the Old Town Hall, and St Nicholas Church for religious ceremonies. The Old Town Hall is famous for its astronomical clock, and the Baroque St Nicholas Church is also a major venue for concerts. But for the full works in a fairytale castle setting, the most popular option is Konopiste Castle about 30 miles (30 minutes’ drive) south of Prague. The 13th-century fort – featured in the 2006 movie The Illusionist – has a beautiful castle chapel which can be used for the ceremony.

Find out more at Czech Tourism!

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Festival of Opening the Wine Cellars on Czech-Slovak Border

On the 13th and 14th of November wine enthusiasts are invited to meet wine-makers and their vintages, the lanes of tiny hillside wine-cellars, and the local cooking and music of Slovácko, on the Czech-Slovak border.

Wine Cellars

Slovácko is home to the Chřiby and the White Carpathians. The Morava river meanders through and nourishes a wide valley full of green meadows and enchanting Lužní forests between the mountains. There are delightful chateaux of Milotice , Buchlovice and Bojkovice and steardy fortifications of Buchlov and Malenovice Castles.  Alongside all this history there are numerous vineyards and picturesque paths to wine cellars in Petrov, Vlčnov and Mařatice, where you will find industrious vintners.

For more information visit Czech Tourism

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Pilsner Fest 2010 – A Feast of Pilsner, Gastronomy & Music

Pilsner FestOn the 27th and 28th of August the Pilsner Fest will take place in the premises of the Pilsner Urquell  brewery in the Czech Republic.  The festival promises to be a feast of beers, gastronomy and music.

Music lovers have been promised an incredible two-days featuring 25 bands offering the widest variety of musical genres and performing on two stages directly on the grounds of the Pilsner brewery including: J.A.R., Support Lesbiens, Mig 21 and Tři sestry (Three Sisters). The latter has even prepared an entirely new song for Pilsner Fest and will play it live for the very first time in Pilsen. A unique sort of musical carousel has also been prepared to introduce each band. As the band on stage winds down its performance, it will play something from the repertoire of the band following them up. Visitors will therefore be treated to an incredibly diverse combination of musical styles: Tři sestry playing something famous from Xindl X, Visací Zámek (Padlock) trying a bit of hip-hop ala Kapitán Láska (The Captain of Love), or Jirka Macháček gritting his teeth and launching into a song by Sunshine.

There will be plenty of unique beer specials to keep your tastebuds alert, while traditional snacks will be available to soak up any excess alcohol!  The best bit? Entry to the festival is FREE of charge.

To find out more visit www.pilsnerfest.cz

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Czech Cities Come to Life with Easter Markets

Znojmo City
Znojmo City

The Czech Republic is one of the most popular places visited by European and American Westerners alike.  If you are taking a trip this Easter check out some of the beautiful Easter Markets – they are simply not to be missed!  An Easter Market is held every year in the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square in Prague. Stalls with souvenirs and Easter products lure locals and visitors alike from 20 March to 11 April. In addition to shopping, an interesting cultural programme awaits. Spectators will enjoy folklore, folk music and dance in Old Town Square. There will also be a workshop for children, providing the youngest ones the possibility to braid switches into so-called “pomlázky” (birch rods) and to dye eggs.

Market places will of course sprout up in a variety of places in the Czech Republic. The South Moravian city of Znojmo, for instance, will celebrate the spring holidays from 29 March to 4 April. Easter markets filled with artisans, culture and attractions for children are being prepared. Children also can look forward to tours of Znojmo underground designed specially for them. www.znojmocity.cz

In Ceský Krumlov, Easter markets are held from 1 to 5 April and the attractive programme will be complemented this year by passion plays in the monastery garden. www.ckrumlov.info

People can also celebrate Easter at castles and chateaus. From 3 to 5 April, the event titled Princely Easter at Krivoklát will take place. You can expect to see an Easter market and concerts as well as masses and theatre performances. www.krivoklat.cz

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New Developments at Czech Spas

Jáchymov
Jáchymov

The Czech Republic is without question one of the world’s spa superpowers. Here you will find more than 30 spa locations, hundreds of curative springs and other valued healthful natural resources:

Aquatic pleasures in Jáchymov

In 1906, the Jáchymov spa in the foothills of the Krušné mountains became the first in the world to take advantage of the curative effects of radon water. Patients with ailments of the locomotory system are treated there. From the end of November, here you can also visit thestate-of-the-art Aquacentrum Agricola, located in the oldest (some 100 years old) spa building. You are thus able to enjoy all kinds of aquatic pleasures in an interior that is at once modern and preserved with a number of original historic elements. For more information, visit www.laznejachymov.cz.

A unique pool in Karlova Studánka

The Karlova Studánka spa, which lies in the heart of the Jeseníky mountains 800 metres above sea level, has also undergone innovation. Last year, the construction of a unique pool with warm sea water was completed here. In addition to bathing, visitors to the pool also will love the various massage jets. Moreover, the pool is illuminated with white and blue light, creating an exotic atmosphere. This environment is also conducive to pleasant meditation. You can find more information at www.k.studanka.cz

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Orient Express Ceases Operation

Danube Express

After 125 years the original Orient Express service will grind to a halt for good on 12 December when the famous name will disappear from European timetables.  During its heyday in the 1930s, the Orient Express ran between Paris and Istanbul with through coaches from Calais and Ostende for the benefit of UK travellers.  Now the Danube Express will take up this mantle with a variety of journeys offered in May, June and September to and from Istanbul.

Istanbul is set to top travel hot lists next year after being named European Capital of Culture for 2010 and this coincides with the Danube Express’ arrival in the city.  Reviving the Golden Age of rail and waiting to whisk passengers on a relaxed voyage of discovery is the Danube Express’ Istanbul Odyssey, an exotic overland adventure between London and Istanbul. Offering an altogether more civilised method of travel along this route than hitherto with deluxe en suite compartments, the Danube Express is ideal for those in search of a slice of nostalgia.

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