On our first morning, we travelled from our hotel to the beautiful Kladruby national stud farm which has become a Unesco world heritage site. Established in the mid-16th Century, it is home to one of Europe’s oldest breeds of horse. The Kladruber is also one of the rarest breeds, with fewer than 500 brood mares.
The horse was bred to draw carriages, and has a number of distinctive features, such as an arched neck, a long back and a curved head. Kladrubers were used by a succession of Habsburg emperors on ceremonial occasions, and an elegant tree-lined road still leads directly from the stud farm to what was once the imperial court in Vienna.
Royal connections continue to this day, and Kladruber horses are regularly used in state ceremonies by the kings and queens of Sweden and Denmark.
Interestingly, a Kladruber was also gifted to Prince William and Kate Middleton on their marriage. However, the horse died soon afterwards, and the royal couple never got to meet him. Apart from the handsome horses, there is much to see at Kladruby – including an equine museum and an 18th century chateau.
We travelled back to Pardubice for lunch, where (still on a horsey theme, perhaps) we were able to sample a glass or two of Mustang, an excellent local beer. Pardubici is a modern industrial centre, but it contains many outstanding historic buildings, and later that afternoon, we visit Pardubice Castle.
Originally built in the 13th century, it acquired additional architectural features during the Renaissance period. The castle is surrounded by parkland, as well as by its ancient fortifications, and it felt as if we were in the depths of the Bohemian countryside. In reality, we were within easy reach of Pardubici’s bustling city centre.
Our visit coincided with the annual festival, and Perstyn Square was at the heart of the celebrations.
We entered this cobblestoned square through the 15th Century Green Gate, a huge defensive tower that offers panoramic views of Pardubice – if, like us, you are prepared to scale more than 200 steps. Perstyn Square is cradled on all sides by houses that combine features of baroque and empire styles, and is full of lively cafes, bars and restaurants.
The following day we attended the centrepiece of the Pardubice festival. The Grand Steeplechase is known as the Velka in the Czech Republic. The race has been described as the Czech equivalent of Aintree’s Grand National. However, the Pardubici course makes Aintree seem tame in comparison.
About one third of the current steeplechase course covers ploughed fields, and this rough terrain is very demanding of the horses. The race is over four miles long – more than twice the distance of Aintree. There are also many twists and turns, and it is not uncommon for riders to take the wrong direction. Each of the 31 fences has its own name and special features but the most feared of these is the Great Taxis Ditch. Twenty-eight horses have died trying to jump the Taxis – though the depth of the ditch has recently been reduced in response to a campaign by animal rights activists.
This race holds a particular significance in modern Czech history. In 1937, the Nazi regime sent a crack equestrian team led by two senior SS officers to compete in the event. They were confident that their victory would demonstrate the innate superiority of the German race.
However, their plans were scuppered by a middle-aged Czech woman, who came out of retirement to win the steeplechase on a little golden mare called Norma. It was a remarkable personal achievement and was viewed by her compatriots as a heroic act of national defiance. Sadly, it did not prevent the German occupation of the Czech Sudetenland taking place the following year.
This year’s race took place on a glorious late-summer evening.
The course was lined with food and livery stalls and packed with thousands of spectators. There were eight races on the card that day – with the Grand Steeplechase as the last one – and horses from Ireland ran in most of them.
Unfortunately, none of the Irish horses that I backed in the early races were placed. Despite that, I still decided to bet on an Irish runner in the Velka.
My choice was inspired more by sentiment than form since the Irish horse had no previous experience of cross-country races, and this was the jockey’s first ride in the Grand Steeplechase. He managed to cross the finishing line – which was an achievement in itself – but was far behind the winner. Although several horses fell, there were, thankfully, no serious injuries either to them or their riders.
The next morning, we travelled to the nearby town of Chrudim, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the Czech Republic. We visited the Alfons Mucha Museum – a small exhibition devoted to original work by the prolific Czech artist. Mucha is best known for his iconic Art Nouveau theatrical posters, many of which featured the legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Mucha later dismissed these beautiful decorative designs as insignificant. However, his stylised posters hold a special resonance for me, since copies of them hung on the walls of my flat when I was a student.
After a quick lunch, it was time for me to catch a train back to Prague. That city remains as wonderful as ever, but it has, perhaps, become somewhat over-crowded with tourists – including many who have come on stag weekends. That may explain why I recommend that visitors to the Czech Republic should consider spreading their wings, and sample the many delights that can be found in East Bohemia.
For more information about East Bohemia please visit: www.east-bohemia.info or www.czechtourism.com
Accommodation at Hotel 100 from aprroximately €75 per night for a double room www.hotel100.cz
You can get to Pardubice from Prague by train in an hour for around €4.50. For tickets please visit: www.cd.cz
Both Ryanair and Aer Lingus fly into Prague which is a short 2 hour 30 minute flight. More info on aerlingus.ie and ryanair.ie