Historic castle setting for students learning Czech language

By Annies Joy

Overlooking the spectacular Elbe River sits the magnificent Poděbrady Castle, owned by Charles University’s Institute for Language and Preparatory Studies, and home for students studying the one-year Czech language course which enables them to go on to complete degrees in a range of subjects.

About an hour outside of central Prague, Poděbrady is an easily accessible little spa town full of quirkiness and character, which Czechs flock to as well as tourists seeking a break in one of the many spas dotted around. The town is known for its natural mineral spring which was first discovered in the second courtyard of the Chateau in 1905.

The castle’s history dates back to before 1223 when records say it was inhabited by Hroznata of the Sezemice Family as the first Lord of Poděbrady, becoming a royal castle later that century and with a descendant serving King Wenceslas IV as Supreme Chamberlain of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Its owners became inextricably linked to the 15th century Hussite struggles and later, during World War II, the Chateau was seized until 1945 to be used by the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) and the Wehrmacht. In 1983 the Chateau was taken over by Charles University for the Institute of Language and Preparatory Studies, and it now houses teaching facilities as well as accommodation for home and foreign students.

The institute runs many courses available to students coming to study in Prague – in economics, engineering, humanities and medicine. These courses are available to students in both Czech and English at different academic levels, plus there is an intense one-year course to learn the Czech language in order to prepare the students to do their degree in Prague. These courses include studying the complexity of the Czech language and culture. There are also summer schools available for keen learners.

There are various different accommodation types dotted around the Chateau where the students can live in, both year-long and short-term. These are twin rooms with common areas of social amenities on each floor and with prices of about CZK500 (about £18) per month.

Despite the number of elderly visitors to the town and incoming and outgoing tourists, there are still many leisure activities for students to engage in.

With its plentitude of town centre public spaces with luscious green grass, colourful flowers, many water fountains and natural mineral water springs, Poděbrady offers a great place in the summer for the students to relax in, reading a book or taking a nice stroll along the banks of the River Elbe, which eventually flows through Germany and into the North Sea near Hamburg.

There are also lots of cute cafés and restaurants offering anything from a warm cup of coffee and cake to traditional Czech food and quality beer served up from enormous copper beer brewing barrels. There is a gentle buzz about the town from morning till evening and

as you walk around you can see the town coming alive in the evenings for young people and adults alike.

A couple of minutes’ walk from the castle walls is the town with several department stores and stationery shops for the students to shop around in. If they do not find what they are looking for, then the town has good transportation links to and from Prague to go for a day out shopping. The town has a direct one-hour train service that offers a single ticket costing as little as CZK88 (approx £3) and the high frequency of the train means there is a train coming and going every hour. This is also very good for students going for a night out in the centre of Prague students as they will be able to find a last train back even in the early hours of the morning.

Nevertheless, Podebrady itself offers its own entertainment and activities for the students to engage themselves in.

Within the castle grounds there is a quirky film café/mini-cinema with a range of hot and cold drinks as well as movie tickets and popcorn. Movies are aired during weekdays from 7pm and weekends from 5pm, including shows for children. Despite being owned by the city, it screens movies for students and locals alike. Often foreign students studying at the Chateau come along with their tutors to watch films relevant to their course, with Czech subtitles. Furthermore, the café is a place that is liked by tourists and is an ideal place for students to hang out and relax in after their studies.

Within the Castle grounds is a museum exhibition brimming with the rich history of the Chateau and Poděbrady. It is a fascinating and informative walk through the history of the castle with many objects and manuscripts from centuries ago. Students can even go into a cellar where they will find three remarkably preserved prehistoric dugout longboats on display, with coins scattered on them like a wishing well. It is certainly a place for students to explore in order to get a better understanding of Poděbrady’s history.

As if this were not plenty already for the students, there is nothing better than taking a boat ride down the beautiful and picturesque Elbe River. The student price for a round-trip of the river is just CZK150 (about £5) with a round of four drinks, a mix of alcoholic and non-alcoholic, coming to just CZK110. This means that on a good summer’s day, the students can sit back, enjoy the beautiful greenery and the gentle waters while unwinding with a nice drink in their hand.

What’s more, about 10 minutes away from the castle after a walk over the bridge is the gorgeous Lake Jezero. With its beautiful sand and clear water, the lake is a simple but effective retreat area for students. You could go for a swim in the lake and will be able to take full advantage of the facilities there for a small price such as using the slides, boats for hire, changing rooms and an outdoor shower area. There are also areas to play tennis, mini golf, take salsa lessons, and more.

Students could also take up a hobby of fishing on the riverbank, a popular pastime. There is a long stretch of path running on either side as well where the students can walk, cycle and even rollerblade along. It is an activity enjoyed by many young people of the town.

When coming to university your mind might be filled with the idea of nightclubs, alcohol and making friends through a typical night out. What Charles University offers the students studying in the Poděbrady Castle is something more than the average student life, something more than the usual tourist hustle of Prague city centre – and it’s a breathtakingly beautiful setting to study.

Don’t look further and move to Kolej Komenského to discover hidden gems of Prague

By Aleksandra Brzezicka

Among the 50,000 young people who study at Charles University every year are many foreign students who join programmes such as Erasmus, the various exchange schemes and intensive Czech language teaching courses. For many of these visitors, their adventure starts with moving into the university’s hall of residence, Kolej Komenského.

Kolej Komenskeho is ideally positioned in a leafy, peaceful, area on one of the hills, literally on the fringe of Prague’s stunningly beautiful Hradcany and Mala Strana districts, with easy access to the medieval heart of the city with its long list of must-see tourist attractions. Yet the Kolej area also has a wealth of its own ‘hidden secrets’ which students can visit in peace, well away from streams of tourists, plus other reasons to make this a base for their studies.

Named after the 17th century Czech philosopher and ‘father’ of modern education, Jan Amos Komenskeho, the hall has 210 rooms, the majority double rooms laid out with private bedrooms and shared kitchen/bathroom facilities, and is regarded as one of the best halls that the university has to offer. The room furnishings are quite basic, but fulfil their practical function rather than an aesthetical one, yet future occupants will find all they need for everyday usage, from furniture to the kitchen appliances which they can use to prepare their own meals. However, there is more than just accommodation to Kolej Komenského.

The gym in Kolej Komenskeho

Sports fans and fitness enthusiasts are welcome to use the hall’s own well-equipped gym for a small fee of 20CZK per hour. Additionally, they can use the garden free of charge, which has a playing field which is set to be renovated in the next academic year. Near the ground-floor reception area are vending machines offering snacks and coffee, to help tenants get through their sessions of studying, plus an easy-to-use scanner and photocopier. There are also no difficulties with receiving mail as there is a postbox assigned to every resident.

From the outside, the building itself looks similar to countless post-communist architectural constructions, yet it is easy to find and only a few minutes’ walk away from tram stops that make it extremely accessible to any part of Prague within a short space of time. Just take tram number 22 or 23 if you want to get to the city centre where most of the tourist hot spots are to be found. For those travelling to and from the airport, tram 25 is even closer and will do its job and make the journey easy and stress-free.

Also within walking distance are several shops and mini-markets, cafes serving fresh pastry and coffee and local restaurants specialising in traditional Czech cuisine. Besides that, you will find a cosmetics salon, a music shop and fast food outlets nearby.

Literally around the block, Charles University has created a facility that hugely eases the administrative path when non-European Union students first arrive in the Czech Republic. Instead of having to trek across the city to queue for hours in Government offices, international students can register their visas in the facility of the Ministry Of Immigration For Foreign Students. These offices, owned by Charles University and pioneered by its Vice-Chancellor in partnership with the city’s other universities and educational establishments is a welcoming facility, created especially for students to receive fast, quality service in a comfortable space without having to wait for long hours. It is well to remember, however, that not everyone in the office is a fluent English speaker so there may be a necessity to request a translator and make an advance appointment.

Just a short walk away is one of the true gems of Prague, Strahov Monastery, founded in 1143 and currently a home for 16 monks, a museum and a brewery.

Part of the museum exhibition is The Cabinet of Curiosities, full of strange sea creatures, animals, waxed fruits, semi-precious stones and an archaeological collection, including artefacts from Egypt and Asia.

The historic library inside consists of two superb halls, one housing the  theological collection, the other philosophical tomes, the first dating back to the 17th century and the second to the last quarter of the 18th century. Both are decorated in beautiful frescoes, the younger one in the rococo spirit. Books, the oldest from the first century, are treasured and available to borrow only with special permission, with magnificently illustrated examples on display in glass cabinets.

Within the monastery complex are two Czech restaurants, each known for brewing their own beer, with one of them, Brewery Strahov, belonging to the monastery as one of the priests’ medieval products.

Anyone interested in literature should visit the Museum of Czech Literature, an archive full of books and letters connected with Czech history from the 18th century onwards. And when there, follow Strahovske Nadvori street to have a look inside a fascinating place, the Museum of Miniatures which prides itself on having one of the biggest collections in Europe of micro-miniature art. After the visit, find the sandy path near the monastery which will lead you to one of the best hidden observation points in Prague, offering a great view of Mala Strana (the Lesser Town), vineyards and the rest of the city.

Next to the public library, on the Pohořelec street, which international students are welcome to join for a minimal annual registration cost, is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, housed in the monumental Černín Palace, one of the largest baroque palaces of Prague, a definite must-see for architecture lovers. If it’s size alone does not impress, its gardens, open to the public at weekends, and many of the stories associated with it will. Nestling behind, off the beaten tourist track, on Loretánské Square is a little Catholic church called Panny Marie Andělské (translated as Our Lady of Angels).

Without even a tower, the church was built according to the Capuchin religious order’s regulations, which insist on as much simplicity as possible, focusing on the mission, not the looks. Famous for its annual large Bethlehem nativity scene dating from the beginning of the 18th century, visits are strongly recommend in December to feel the spirit of Christmas. In contrast, the monastery’s neighbouring Loretta building is defined by its Baroque splendour, built as a place of pilgrimage because it houses the Santa Casa, a copy of the ‘Holy House’ of Nazareth where the archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary she would become the mother of Jesus.

While probably every tourist hears about the Golden Lane, within Prague Castle, few are aware of a similar ‘film-set’ street maintained in its medieval Czech traditional style, Nový Svět. A lovely place for a walk, to admire Czech windows with white curtains and decorative flowers and visit a little, cosy cafe covered with flowers and an actual water pump.

Going down the hill, it is possible to miss one of the Prague’s delightful summer theatres – Letní scéna Divadla Ungelt. With a little grasp of the Czech language, going to a performance there is bound to be a memorable experience, perhaps its part in The Summer Shakespeare Festival in August every year.

One absolute must is to visit at least one of the National Gallery exhibitions, which are not only free for those aged 26 or under but house art of the highest quality. Šternberský palác is the building hosting the exhibition closest to the halls at Komenskeho, easily walkable or via tram 22. Open daily the collection consists of masterpieces by Old Masters such as  Rembrandt, Durer, Rubens and Goya. After admiring paintings, visitors can relax in the gallery’s cafe or sadly under-visited garden, filled with sculptures, and definitely worth seeing. For those who prefer modern art, there is a brilliant National Gallery exhibition of Jiří Kolář’s art in Kinsky Palace.

Of course, you must not forget one of Prague’s most popular attractions, Pražský hrad (Prague Castle). The whole castle complex, the largest ancient one in the world, dates back to the ninth century and visiting it can easily take all day.

The complex consists of several churches, the most prominent being the Gothic style St Vitus Catedral, halls, towers, the Presidental residence and the Golden Lane. Good times to avoid too many crowds are early and late in the day, and after hours of sightseeing, the Italian Renaissance Royal Gardens are a wonderful place to relax and take in the beauty around.

Kolej Komenského’s surroundings may seem a bit off-track from the centre of the city, but if you know where to look you will find an entirely different Prague, full of hidden magic and away from the most people’s sight.