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Prague: Coming of age in the heart of Europe

Mark NessmithBy Mark Nessmith,
Special Contributor
Prague Castle
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The notion that Prague was once considered an "Eastern European" capital is getting harder to fathom each year. (Courtesy photo)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The gaggle of British reporters traveling through Prague in the mid-'90s on their way to cover the inaugural Czech Open found this country so exotic and rustic, they all but donned Indiana Jones fedoras and bullwhips.

The well fed, crimson-nosed golf writers covering that first ever PGA Tour foray behind the Iron Curtain kept saying "Czech-o-slo-vakia," though it had been nearly two years since the Czechs and Slovaks divvied up into two countries. And a few of them suspiciously sniffed their food before eating it.

The country was a bit rough-hewn back then; especially by the standards of golf flacks used to a posh life following the tour from St. Andrews to Valderrama and back.

Czech soldiers were pressed into service helping the grounds crew during the 1994 Czech Open and, coming to and from the course, you'd still see old Czechoslovak Skodas and East German Trabants puttering down the road. The thick smoke those cars belched out was only slightly different in color from the brown coal still heating many buildings.

Many restaurants and hotels, meanwhile, offered a standard of "service" you'd expect to find in Cuba, Moscow of Beijing.

Velvet re-birth

In the subsequent years since that tournament, the Czech Republic and Prague in particular have enjoyed a renaissance fueled by a market-driven economy and a fortuitous location in the heart of Europe.

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 is a distant memory and the years of freedom and capitalism have helped restore the luster. The notion that Prague was once considered an "Eastern European" capital is getting harder to fathom each year, and it has become less surprising for visitors to look at a map and realize that Prague is actually west of Vienna.

What's more, even as Prague continues to polish itself, with new hotels and restaurants sprouting up and ancient buildings being renovated all the time, it has remained significantly more affordable to visit than other European capitals.

One of the worst-kept secrets among savvy travelers is that, even with admission to the European Union, the Czech Republic remains a splendid place to enjoy a European vacation and do minimal damage to your bank account.

Another poorly kept secret is the quality of the local brews -- Czech beer is among the best in the world!

By early in the 10th century, Prague had become a thriving center of commerce and, during the Middle Ages, it enjoyed a golden age. The city later served as the seat of the Hapsburg dynasty. The 18th century saw the building of many Baroque palaces and cathedrals and the 19th century was a period of intense national pride. The National Museum at the top of Wenceslas Square, and the National Theater and Rudolfinum concert hall on the banks of the Vltava River all date back to this period.

Prague golf: Links to history

While Prague's charms are no secret, few foreign tourists know that, less than an hour away by rental car, lie a number of fine golf courses.

Some might be surprised to read golf and Czech in the same sentence, but they shouldn't be. The Czechoslovak Golf Association was founded in 1931 and the country now boasts 90-plus golf facilities. More than 15,000 Czechs have taken to the game in a serious way -- an increase of about 13,000 since the time of the 1994 Czech Open.

Visitors to Prague should save a little time on their itineraries in order to hit a quality golf course or two nearby. Golf Resort Konopiste and Golf Club Podebrady may be markedly different from each other, but these tracks offer a solid, affordable golf experience in a uniquely Central European setting.

Golf Resort Konopiste lies just beyond the charming town of Benesov, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Prague. The club's moniker is a tip of the cap to nearby Konopiste Castle, once home to Archduke Franz Ferdinand d'Este, who headed the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1914 when he was assassinated in Sarajevo, touching off World War I.

Golf Resort Konopiste is among the newer courses in the region, having opened in summer of 2002. The resort boasts two 18-hole courses -- the Radecky and the D'Este -- and a public nine-hole course. The courses surround a renovated country manor that houses the golf shop, restaurant, hotel rooms and conference facilities.

The 18-hole courses offer a fun -- and fair -- test of your game, not to mention an opportunity to burn off all the Czech beer you've been drinking, as everyone walks. There are a mix of long, open par 4 and 5 holes, and just for fun, a number of dandy tests such as the par-5 fourth hole on the Radecky Course, which is like driving down a tunnel, with tall trees lining both sides and a creek on the left.

Fairways are hilly and rolling and some areas are bordered by thick, lush forest.

Thirty miles (50 kilometers) east of Prague lies the picturesque spa town of Podebrady. The course there, Golf Club Podebrady, was established in 1961, making it among the oldest facilities in the country. Today's par-72, 18-hole layout was completed in 2000.

The cavernous main clubhouse dates back to 1922 when it served as a radio communications center. Ironically, after the communist takeover in 1948, they used the equipment here to jam broadcasts from the West. All radio gear is long gone and now the clubhouse houses a golf shop and eight-tee indoor driving range, in addition to a restaurant, bar and hotel rooms.

The entire facility covers some 247 acres and you'll not pass one residence during your round. The 6,566-yard course is quite flat, making is an easier walk than Golf Resort Konopiste. It's important, though, to bring more golf balls. The Labe river runs nearby and streams and ponds come into play on 11 different holes.

The front nine is a pleasant mix of challenges and rewards. Rounding the turn, you might think you're in for more of the same. But once you reach no. 12, hold onto your spikes and hope for the best. There's a challenging barrage of doglegs and water carries.

Coming up the wide-open approach to the 18th green, however, you have an unobstructed view of the clubhouse and can take comfort knowing that a cold draft beer awaits.

Heading back to Prague, you'll have plenty of time for a great dinner, a stroll across the Charles Bridge, a symphony performance, or maybe all three.

Prague off course

Prague Castle: You may want to spend an entire day taking in St. Vitus' Cathedral and the various basilicas, galleries and palaces that make up the castle complex.

The Jewish Quarter: Josefov, or the Jewish Quarter, features a number of synagogues dating back to the 1200s, and a cemetery that, for more than three centuries, was the only burial ground available to Prague's Jews. There are more than 12,000 gravestones crammed into a tiny yard and some 100,000 are thought to have been laid to rest here, the most recent in 1787.

Old Town Square: The square, actually more of a circle, featuring Gothic and Romanesque architecture, has been host to many important Prague events, such as the execution of 27 Protestant leaders in 1621 and Klement Gottwald's proclamation of the communist state in 1948.

Charles Bridge: Prague's most famous landmark was constructed in 1357 and connects the quaint Mala Strana neighborhood near Prague Castle with New Town.

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Golf Resort KonopisteGolf Club Podebrady

From March of 2005 until January of 2017, Mark Nessmith directed the TravelGolf Network's team from the company's European office in the Czech capital of Prague. Prior to taking the reins as editor, he was a communications program manager with The PGA of America in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He also has served as managing editor for The Prague Post, the leading English-language newspaper of the Czech Republic. Follow Mark on Twitter at @marknessmith.

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