Who would believe the world's best beer is also among its least expensive? We find this and other delights in Southern Bohemia.

It was something of a pilgrimage. The goal was to visit the brewery at Ceske Budejovice, in southern Bohemia, where the marvelous Budvar (Budweiser) is made. Our little side trip turned out to be a three-brewery, two-day drive through the Bavarian Forest and the southwestern corner of the Czech Republic. We made stopovers in two Czech towns, one of which seems destined to someday rival such quaint tourist meccas as Germany's Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Gruyères in Switzerland.

We were interested in all this, but beer was the chief motivator.

A German Brewery

The journey began with dinner at Weihenstephan, the Bavarian State Brewery, in Freising near the Munich Airport. It was founded by Benedictine monks (those guys did enjoy an occasional beverage, didn't they?) in 1040 and claims to be the world's oldest brewery.

Located on the grounds of the Munich Technical University, it also operates a school for brewers.

We arrived about 9 p.m. and chose the lighter, cooler Bräustüberl located to the left of the entrance and down a couple of steps. It had tile floors, vaulted ceilings and plain, blond wood furniture. Our foursome sat at a large table in an arcaded alcove and were served by an accommodating, pleasant woman in her mid-50s who spoke little English.

One almost assumes good beer and food at a German brewery/restaurant. Regrettably, however, both the beer and the meal at Weihenstephan were a disappointment. We tried Helles, Pils and Weissen; all fell short of our expectations. It all seemed light and fizzy, too much like what comes out of a Miller Genuine Draft or a Coors tap at home.

Other than a crisp mixed salad of julienned carrots, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, cabbage, and dressing with just the right tang, the food was worse. Zwiebelrostbraten (steak topped with fried onions) was tough and without a spark of taste, Schweinlendchen (pork tenderloin) was chewy and dry and the Schweinhaxen (pork shank) was only fair. Even a shared plate of Pommes Frites seemed soggy and lifeless.

Beer prices ranged from 3.8 DM ($2.25) for a half-liter of Original (Helles) to 4.3 DM ($2.56) for the Pilsner.

The meal for four, including the beer, was about $75.

Crossing the Border

Next morning we dropped our friends at the Munich Airport and set out, sans hotel reservations, for Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic, initially via the A92 Autobahn to Deggendorf. There we turned southeast on the A3 toward Passau. For those who enjoy fast driving, the stretch of Autobahn between Freising and Wallersdorf is relative new. The road is smooth and wide, and traffic, at least on a Wednesday morning in early April, was light. We made quick work of the approximately 140 kilometers (88 miles). Exit at the Autobahn sign to the Czech Republic north of Passau.

Since this sojourn was somewhat spur of the moment, we stopped at a large Autobahn rest stop and picked up a Falk map entitled Czech/Slovak Republic. Though the scale is 1:750,000, far less detailed than the 1:200,000 scale we like for backroads travel, it got us where we were going.

The drive through the Bavarian Forest, via Freyung, to the border was a pleasant one. On this day, at least, there was little traffic.

To cross at Phillipsreut was a line of perhaps 20 cars, but the process took less than 10 minutes. We displayed the handwritten document supplied by Avis which gave us permission to drive the car in the Czech Republic. The guard, a young woman, glanced at it, gave a short - I thought somewhat derisive laugh - and waved us on.

Once through, we stopped at the Czech side to exchange a few Deutsche Mark for korunas and were approached by a German man who asked what we knew about the "label" which is required for cars driving Czech motorways. Approaching the border we, too, had noticed a sign that seemed to indicate we might need a pass similar to Switzerland's "vignette." However, since we saw no place to buy one, we drove on. The pass is a dalinicni znamka and sells for about $20 at post offices, gas stations and, supposedly, at border crossings. It is only required on Autobahn-type highways.

The changes after the border were immediate. The road narrowed and became less well maintained. Flanking it were a succession of dusty, depressing little makeshift flea markets with rickety booths selling cheap clothing, plastic souvenirs and gaudy Christmas decorations. Each one seemed to feature brightly painted, life-size replicas of the seven dwarfs. Every couple of kilometers, posted on each side the road and interspersed among the merchandise stands, were young prostitutes (we assume) gotten up in short, tight skirts, high heels and heavy makeup. Always nearby were small billboards advertising "Amore Clubs" that promised a lively time.

Most villages contained many dilapidated and often deserted buildings.

The countryside, however, was pretty and peaceful and the road, which was as good as most California country lanes, wound easily through the forested hills and ploughed fields. About 30 minutes from the border, the hookers, the nightclub signs and the flea markets disappeared.

We left Red Road #12 at Vimperk, turning right toward Ceske Budejovice. Just beyond Husinec, there is a very sharp left and then an immediate right. At that point the road narrows and is not so well paved; but only for a short stretch. All roads were well signed.

Some three hours after leaving the Munich Airport we were in Ceske Budejovice, the biggest city in Southern Bohemia.

Grand Hotel Zvon

In the city center is one of the largest town squares in Europe. At the southeast corner of it we found the newly refurbished Grand Hotel Zvon.

For 2950 Kc ($98), plus 250 Kc ($8.33) for breakfast for two, we were given the V Lanner Suite, which was simply a double room. It had the usual amenities, but was rather narrow and overlooked the main square, making it somewhat noisy at night.

The staff, however, was helpful and spoke enough English for our needs.

Parking the car was interesting. On the street behind the hotel we turned in to the hotel's garage. There, a man motioned us to drive onto a large lift which ascended to a small, secure rooftop parking area. He then helped us unload and carry our luggage to our room.

Despite the hotel's fancy looking Gourmet Symphony restaurant, which boasts a hand-carved wood ceiling, we opted to dine at the Budvar brewery. For snacks and beverages there was the Café Mozart, a Vienna-style, wood-paneled combination wine bar and coffee house.

Our favorite part of the hotel, however, was a ground floor bistro that opened to the town square. It has a pleasant, warm atmosphere with dark wood tables spaced well apart, good lighting and walls hung with framed clippings from old newspapers. The restaurant's centerpiece is a huge, highly-polished copper beer tank top that hangs umbrella fashion over the heart of the operation, draught-central, where the beer is pulled.

Here, after an afternoon walk, we settled in with the locals for half-liters of splendid Pilsner Urquell and a small plate of French fries. The total was less than $2. A 50ish man in a tuxedo supervised the uniformed young servers, most of whom seemed to speak at least some English.

There was much to choose from at breakfast, but the experience was marred for us by too many smokers and a thermostat turned too high. The items on the buffet did not seem as fresh as they might have.

Overall, however, our experience at the Zvon was a good one and we recommend it without hesitation.

Dinner at Budvar

We inquired at the front desk for the best way to get to Budvar. A taxi was recommended and the cost estimated at 120 Kc ($4). We took the first cab in line in front of the hotel and paid 130 Kc ($4.33). The driver spoke zero English and only a few words of German.

Budvar is in a quasi industrial area on a wide, but at night rather deserted, boulevard and we asked the driver if he could return after dinner. There was difficulty in communicating this so we finally wrote 2200 hrs on a scrap of paper and gave it to him - along with a decent tip.

The Pivince (beer restaurant) at Budvar is a long, somewhat narrow room with no more than 20 well separated, heavy, dark wood tables large enough to seat about eight persons. Indirect lighting emphasizes the low, white-washed, vaulted ceilings. The floor is slate with runners down the center.

The night of our visit, the room was perhaps 75% full, mostly with young locals, and decidedly lacking in the oompah craziness of a German beer hall.

The simple, traditional food was terrific and the beer divine. Half a liter of this nectar, here at its source, is 15 Kc (50 cents).

Rather small mixed salads of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, kraut and lettuce, all with very little or no dressing, sounded the evening's only sour note.

The main course, a speciality of the house for two persons, included Spätzle, hefty potato pancakes (Altbohemischer Kartofelpuffer) and two heavy-duty skewers of pork, onion, sausage and fatty bacon. In case there was not enough fat on the skewers, a small pitcher of "au fat" was offered.

The Spätzle had a slightly smoky taste, probably from being sautéed for a bit in bacon grease, and the potato pancakes were just right, with a crunchy outside. The skewered meats were tender, smoky and delicious.

For dessert we chose (menu available in German but not English) something called Liwanzer, small puffy pancakes with Heidelbeeren (blueberries) and whipped cream. Luscious.

The dinner cost 369 Kc ($12.20), including the three beers (two for me, one for her).

At 9:45, just as we walked out the front door, our cabbie pulled up to the curb.

A Medieval Treasure

Next morning's drive south to Cesky Krumlov, over good roads, was pleasant and took only 30 to 40 minutes. Outside the old town are visitor parking lots. We parked in lot #l and walked perhaps 200 meters through huge arches, across the Vltava and into the maze of old cobbled streets.

Supported by UNESCO funding, this exquisite medieval town is rapidly being restored. Even the houses in crumbling disrepair are immensely charming and one can only hope the refurbishment is sensitive to these great old buildings.

A great castle, the largest in the country outside of Prague, looks straight down from a bluff across the river. Be sure to see its gorgeous Baroque Theater. Guided tours are available.

The Austrian artist, Egon Schiele, left Vienna to live briefly in Krumlov where he specialized in painting cityscapes and nude women. Under the communist government, Schiele's pictures were kept under wraps. Now, however, the town proudly displays his work at the Schiele Centrum on Siroka. On our visit, the gallery was also showing some early drawings of Schiele's pal, Gustav Klimt. Suffice to say both men had a strong interest in the female form.

Hotel on the Moldau

Due to a lack of good hotels, several readers have said they visited this charming town on daytrips from Freistadt, in Austria. Now, however, Krumlov has a gem, the Hotel Dvorak, on the river in the castle's very shadow.

Refurbished inside and out in the Palladian style of an Italian country villa, the Dvorak has 13 double rooms, seven apartments and aspirations to be among Europe's finest small hotels.

Its public rooms emphasize polished brass and rich wood paneling and guestrooms are slickly done in a sort of toned-down Laura Ashley style. Ample, brightly lit bathrooms are luxuriously done in large, floor to ceiling marble tile.

Room 202, a standard twin for which Gemütlichkeit paid 3500 Kc ($121) has a queen-size bed and a view of the castle. Number 201, a much larger double on a corner with separate sitting area, rents for 4300 Kc ($148).

The hotel has a small restaurant and a fitness room, neither of which we tried.

Beer & Food

Since we were on sort of a brewery mission, we tried the local pride, Pivovar Eggenberg. The beer was very good but not, we thought, quite up to Budvar or Pilsner Urquell. The room is impressive, a church-like interior with lofty, vaulted ceiling, street-style globe lights and separated seating areas on several levels.

Like most other beer halls we have seen in the Czech Republic, the beer is dispensed from a circular sort of control-central presided over by a middle-aged man in jacket, shirt and tie.

Unfortunately, the food took a long time to get to us and wasn't very good. Mushy, strange-tasting carp came with plain boiled potatoes. We left most of it. A thick soup with vegetables and potatoes was better. That, and the mixed salad, averted total disaster. There was an English menu.

The place to eat in Cesky Krumlov, however, is Rybarska basta, a cozy little fish restaurant behind the town square. Reminiscent of a rustic old English inn, there is a low, wood-beamed ceiling, a fireplace and rough wood benches.

Grilled pike-perch with french-fried potatoes was perhaps the best dish we've had in two brief trips to the Czech Republic. Most impressive was the freshness of the ingredients and the restraint with regard to oil and fat used in their preparation. Lunch for two, not including beverages, was approximately $17.

The Moldau

The road from Krumlov, south to the border, through Rozmbek (Rosenberg), is the prettiest of the entire drive. It meanders along the Vltava, a river immortalized by Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana, appropriately for this story, the son of a brewer.

Vltava (The Moldau) is the second in his cycle of six symphonic poems called Ma Vlast (My Fatherland). He finished it in l874, just after losing his hearing. The music follows the rivers journey from its source as a trickle in the Bohemian forests until it flows into Prague and later merges with the Elbe.

Twice in this short drive we were waved over by police. None spoke any English. We were concerned we might be fined for not displaying the necessary "label" or pass for driving the motorways. The first squadron of cops looked briefly at our passports and motioned us on but five minutes later a second group brushed away our passports and wanted to see car rental papers. We were allowed to proceed only after we showed them the handwritten, Avis-supplied, document the woman border guard scoffed at on our way into the country. We assume they were looking for stolen cars.

The border crossing was uneventful and we proceeded on to Freistadt, Austria.

Brewery Drive: The Data

Hotel Dvorak Radnicni 101, CZ-381 01 Ceske Krumlov, tel. 0337/711020, fax 0337/711024. Singles 2800 to 3400 ($96-$117), doubles 3500 to 4300 Kc ($121-$148). Suites 4000 to 6000 Kc ($138 to $207). Free parking in hotel lot.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20

Grand Hotel Zvon Nam. Premysla Otakara II. 28, CZ-370 01, Ceske Budejovice, tel 042/0 38/731 1384, fax 042/0 38/731 1385. Singles 1395 to 2680 Kc ($48-$92), doubles 2060 to 2430 Kc ($71-$84), suites 2950 to 3200 Kc ($102-$110). Parking in hotel garage 250 Kc ($8.62).
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 14/20

Budejovicky Budvar Karoliny Svetle 4, CZ-370 21 Ceske Budejovice, tel. 0387/7705111. Tours available.
Restaurant Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 19/20

Pivovar Eggenberg Latran 27, CZ-381 15 Cesky Krumlov, tel. 0337/3921, fax: 0337/3609
Restaurant Rating: Quality 6/20, Value 10/20

Rybarska basta, Kajovska 54, CZ-381 15 Cesky Krumlov, tel. 0337/67183
Restaurant Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 17/20

Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan Weihenstephan 1, D-85350, Freising, Germany, tel. 081 61/13004, fax 081 61/71-32 59. Tours available.
Restaurant Rating: Quality 7/20, Value 10/20

Egon Schiele Centrum CZ-381 01, Cesky Krumlov, Siroka 70-72. Open daily 1000 to 1800

Radio Praha has a good Internet Web page in English that includes the latest news from the Czech Republic, cultural listings and even a list of Czech breweries. (http://www.radio.cz/english.html)

May 1997