Telč: A fairy tale town

I fell in love with Telč at first sight. I was looking at day trips from Prague and one of the images opened up to reveal pastel-shaded wooden houses with painted fronts and an empty cobbled square.

Further research revealed this town square, called Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce, was an UNESCO heritage site. (We all know how much I love heritage spaces. Read Hoi An: The Town that time forgot.)

I knew I had to get there. 

I got off the bus at the town square in this Southern Moravian town, and dragged myself (and my suitcase) over cobbled grey paths before reaching the square. It was bitterly cold and I had two heavy bags with me. And then I round a corner and stop short.

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The town square

The town square

In person, Telč is even prettier than its pictures. The square, often called one of the prettiest in the country, lies at the centre of the town and on all sides, are beautiful wooden buildings – in yellows, pinks, greens and blues. Each of the houses has its own history and distinct style. I spent my first few hours there, just craning my neck upwards trying to understand the artwork. 

Aside: History lesson –  The history of Telč dates back to the 1300s. In the 1500’s, Zachariaš of Hradec rebuilt the town square after a massive fire damaged it. The houses thus had vaulted arcades added to their fronts, creating a covered walkway. Italian architects arrived and the Gothic castle, chateau and town underwent a magnificent Renaissance makeover. The houses are residential spaces or homestays, shops or restaurants and administrative centres; No 2 is a former Jesuit hostel, No 10 is the town hall and No 3 is a study centre. 

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No 61 – In 1532, this house was bought by Michael, a baker and the chairman of the town council. In 1555, he rebuilt it and it now boasts of the sgraffito decorations of the leaders of Old Testament.

The centre of the square had two fountains and a Marian column. The Marian (or Plague) column, dates back to 1717 and has the saints: Jan Nepomucký, Jakub, František Xaverius, Roch, Sebastián and the Guardian Angel; St. Rosalia (in a small alcove), and finally, Maria Magdalena. Atop a column of clouds on the globe stands the Virgin Mary. There’s a small water pump too, at the side. 

It is around the square that tourists and townsfolk congregate, drinking cheap alcohol (hello white wine that costs 20 Kč – Rs 12 approx). Since we landed there late afternoon, K and I had a leisurely lunch and then walked about, stopping to admire street musicians filling the silence with the sweet melodies of the saxophone and trumpet.   

Beyond the square

Away from the square, the town is quite small. It was originally created as a moated fortress so is surrounded by a ring of interconnected lakes. A walk to the north, takes us past a small gate and into a spacious park surrounded by duck ponds. There, we spot horses in a nearby field, duck chasing each other, owners taking their dogs out for walks and spectacular views of the town.  

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A view from the other side…that twin towers belong to the Holy Name of Jesus Church

The northern end of the square is the chateau; Zachariáš of Hradec who transformed a Gothic castle into a Renaissance residence. It is beautifully preserved and there are daily tours  -two, in Czech but with English booklets – of about an hour each. One tour takes us through the different halls: the Golden Hall, which has carvings and paintings on the ceiling; the Knights’ Hall has armory and weapons, and the African Hall has wall-mounted trophy busts. The tour also gives a glimpse into the rooms of the chateau, filled with waffle ceilings, a naked statue of Adam and Eve and oil paintings of the castle’s inhabitants. The Chapel of St George, which has a detailed depiction of St George fighting a dragon, holds the remains of Zachariáš. 

The town’s shops/ restaurants shut by 6 pm, so we amble about, stopping to eat pastries at tiny bakeries, exploring a supermarket before finally settle in at a local bar, Herna (Non Stop Bar). There, we drink Czech beer (14 Kč)  and try to make sense of local music videos. A closer look inside the bar reveals a room full of slot machines!

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Bars with unique entertainment!

Telč is undoubtedly a pretty and romantic town and a well preserved historic square. Itis possible to explore it in a day, since the town shuts down early and there’s no nighttime entertainment.  

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Where to stay/ The homestay

Unknown to me, the homestay I booked was actually part of the heritage site, which meant I was actually living in a piece of history – Pension Stedler was  newly reconstructed Renaissance 16th century building. The house, number 8, was a beautiful shade of pastel green and opened into a dark cool space. It was in the middle of the main square in front of baroque pestilence column an fountains. The bus/ train station is a ten-minute walk away.

I booked a twin room with private bathroom, common living room with a little kitchenette for 800 CZK without breakfast (870 CZK with breakfast). 

Getting there

There are direct buses from Prague (Florenc bus terminal) to Telč and back; takes about two hours. A cheaper option, which I took was taking a Student Agency bus from Prague to Jihlava (150Kč) and a local bus from there on; took about 2.5 hours and cost much lesser (about 50 Kč).


TL:DR

  • Telc is a heritage town about two hours away from Prague. 
  • It is a perfectly preserved example of a historic town square, and a UNESCO heritage site.
  • It boasts a beautiful town square, surrounding duck ponds and parks, churches, a watch tower and a well-restored chateau.
  • The place is relaxed and quiet and everything shuts by 6 pm; very few places stay open for dinner. 
  • It is good for a day visit, or a night stay if you want to live in a house that dates back to the 16th century.

 

 

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Hoi An: The town that time forgot

Early morning, Hoi An resembles a vintage postcard of a sleepy, riverside town. One where boats gently bob on the river, cyclists speed past on cobbled pathways, a light breeze sets lanterns aflutter and non la (conical leaf hat) clad locals go about their daily work.

I am on the banks of the Thu Bon River, revelling in the quiet when it is broken by a loud, mechanical voice. It welcomes people to the Ancient Town (and advises them to buy tickets before entering, the proceeds of which go into its maintenance). It stops as abruptly as it started. 

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The bridge that separates the Ancient town from Cam Nam islet

It may seem like a lot, paying just to walk about the old town area but then, Hoi An exists largely because of tourism. It wasn’t always like this:

AsideHistory lesson – Hoi An was once a prosperous trading port in the fifteenth century called Faifo (meaning seaside town). In the eighteenth century, the nearby port of Da Nang became the new center of trade and Hoi An lost all its glory. It has thus remained untouched for over 200 years. In 1999, UNESCO declared the Ancient Town a World Heritage Site, bringing it intothe limelight.

Tourism is today town’s bread and better and everything within it functions to serve that purpose. Now the tourists don’t stop coming.

The Ancient Town

The most popular attraction in Hoi An is the Ancient Town, a two sq km area steeped in historical monuments. My entry tickets gives me access to any five attractions within the old town (of the 21 in total), leaving me to choose between museums, old family houses, meeting halls, temples and observing local traditions and culture. My favourite structure is the Japanese covered wooden bridge or the Chua Cau Bridge. It is located at the beginning of the old town and at any moment is abuzz with tourist chatter, couples taking selfies, and vendors hawking street food nearby. Legend has it that a mythical dragon, its head in India and spine running along the Vietnamese coast, caused earthquakes in Japan when it moved. The Japanese solved this by building the bridge on the dragon’s spine to kill it. There’s a small faded shrine inside the bridge where I am invited to offer incense to appease the beast. 

A stroll around the old town introduces me to what is popularly known as the Hoi An style – a mix of European, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and French architectural influences. There are century-old houses, some preserved and some crumbling, red and gold Chinese temples or assembly halls, wooden shophouses with French shuttered windows, wooden facades and balconies, European-style brick buildings, intricately carved beams and aged timber structures. The easiest way to get about is by walking or renting a cycle (most homestays or hotels offer them on rent); the Ancient Town is a pedestrian-only zone. 

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Bep Truong on Tran Phu street is a coffee shop, restaurant and bookstore (with free WiFi)

Almost all of the old wooden shophouses have been converted to businesses aimed at tourists – tailoring shops and boutiques, souvenir stores, restaurants and cafés, and art galleries. There are a few preserved family houses, with high compound walls, sometimes a chapel, and almost always with a garden abundant in bougainvillea and frangipani.

Tourist wares    

Being on the banks of a river means much of the town’s activities are centred in this area – the most expensive places boast a ‘river view’ and there are even tiny restaurants locating on bobbing boats.

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Take a boar ride down the length of the Thu Bon river, especially at dusk

Tailoring was once a traditional craft with a long history, tailors were in high demand when the town was an international port. The master craftsmen were known for being able to replicate any design. Today, every second shop is a tailor’s shop, looking to cash in on the influx of tourists interested in custom-made clothing and shoes. Remember, always bargain. 

The spurt in tourism in the last decade has seen various activities catered specifically to them, from musical bingo nights to backpacker areas and a night market. In 2011, the tiny islet of An Hoi, once home to a banana plantation was cleared out and space was made for quaint guesthouses, fancy hotels and riverside bars and restaurants. It is this space that hosts the a vibrant night market, where they sell cheap souvenirs, jewellery, trinkets, clothes, and the centre of attraction, handmade lanterns. 

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Lanterns for sale at the night market

There are lanterns everywhere in Hoi An, they bedeck its streets, its shops, and its homes. When lit, they become a signal of sorts, of the town bursting to life. That’s when bars and restaurants are crowded with tourists enjoying happy hour discounts, fresh seafood and good music.  The lanterns bathe the town in warm glow, playing off the light of floating candles – a tourist gimmick that traps me into sending off a paper boat onto the river for ‘good luck’.

As I sit by the riverside, drinking local Tiger beer (at Rs 12 a glass) and listening to a banjo player serenade a couple on a boat, I realise that I don’t need fake good luck charms to be happy. I already am. 



TL:DR

  • The entry ticket to Ancient Town is about 120,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) or about Rs 360 – this was three years back. It gives you access to five heritage spots in the old town 
  • The old town is pedestrian-only but you can rent cycles to move about
  • At night, the lighting of lanterns signifies the beginning of happy hours and festivities, that go on till early morning
  • Visit the night market at An Hoi islet to buy cheap souvenirs and lanterns 

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Khotachiwadi: heritage homes

A walk through the 200-year-old Khotachiwadi takes your past a tiny chapel, candy coloured Portuguese-style wooden bungalows with cracks in their walls but stars on their landings, stained glass windows, open shutter style windows and narrows alleyways opening out onto broad courtyards, elderly women peering suspiciously as you photograph their homes, and people struggling to maintain their identity surrounded by a concrete jungle. The lanes are narrow so children play in the courtyards of houses or their balconies in the slum-like buildings. The area is peaceful and gives no indication of the chaos that is only a few streets away. 

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Khotachiwadi is a gaothan (coastal settlement) hidden deep in the by lanes of the bustling Girgaum. History says that Khot was a Brahmin who sold his land to the East Indian community who settled here and named the place Khotachiwadi or the village of Khot.

 

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At the beginning of the lane leading into the village is a tiny chapel. To the left is designer James Ferreira’s house.

 

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The chapel is where the largely Catholic residents gather for prayers and on religious occasions.

 

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The bare walls that segregate the old (and new) buildings are peppered with graffiti, religious and otherwise.

 

 

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Step inside a home and you will be greeted with wooden staircases, spacious balconies or courtyards, mosaic tiles and a hodgepodge of wicker chairs, ceramic figurines and mirrors.