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Olomouc, Second City of the Czech Republic

Czech Republic

We escape the tourist crowds in Prague to visit Olomouc. A local guide shows us the Town Hall, sky-high Plague Monument, and old-time astronomical clock. We sample the town’s notoriously stinky cheese, which is aged underneath aged meat, and served with mints.

Complete Video Script

As Europe unites into one vast free-trade zone, it's employing its own kind of internal Marshall Plan, investing hundreds of billions of dollars into its own infrastructure. Here in the Czech Republic, they've got a new express train zipping you in less than two hours from Prague to here: Olomouc.

Its circa-1950s train station is a fascinating blend of old and new: Bright and happy workers put down their hammers and sickles long enough to greet you — a reminder of the country's recent communist past. Just a short tram ride from the station gets us to the old town center.

Olomouc, the historic capital of this region, is the Czech Republic's fifth-largest city, with 100,000 people and home to a leading university. With its wealth of cafés, clubs, and student life, Olomouc gives you vibrant local culture — without the tourist crowds and high prices of Prague.

I'm joined by my Czech friend and co-author of my Czech Republic guidebook, Honza Vihan.

Rick: So, Moravia, is that a political unit or an ethnic region?
Honza: Moravia is a region in the eastern part of the Czech Republic.
Rick: And how would you describe the Moravian people?
Honza: Well, to generalize, the Moravians are more emotional and friendlier than the people in the western part of the country.

The fortune and misfortune of Olomouc comes from its strategic location at the intersection of central Europe's main east­–west and north–south trade routes. The city's historic core is simply workaday Moravia. Trams clatter through the streets — as they have for a century. The town's economy is lively even without much tourism.

Standing in front of the Town Hall surrounded by the vast square and its fine noble and bourgeois residences, you can imagine the importance of Olomouc in centuries past. The people here are proud — as if their fine city was still ruling Moravia..which it hasn't done since about 1640.

Locals brag that their city is the home to the country's second most important bishop, and its second most important university. Perennially number two Olomouc actually built its bell tower to be six feet taller than Prague's. But, when it comes to plague monuments, Olomouc is unrivaled. This baby is the tallest and most grandiose anywhere.

Throughout central Europe squares like this are decorated with similar structures, erected by locals to give thanks for surviving the plague. The tip of the column features the Holy Trinity: God the Father making a blessing, Christ sitting on a globe, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit. Tumbling below the Trinity, the archangel Michael — with his ever-ready sword and shield — reminds us that the Church is in a constant struggle with evil.

It all sits upon a tiny chapel where, on the day the column was inaugurated in 1754, the mighty Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa — who traveled all the way from Vienna — knelt to pray… devout, yet envious. Proud little Olomouc, way out here in Moravia, had a plague column grander than Vienna's.

A series of allegorical fountains decorate the old town. Most were inspired by classical mythology. This one, featuring Julius Caesar, is dedicated to the legendary founder of the town.

The modern turtle fountain is a popular meeting place for young mothers, and a fine place to watch toddlers enjoy the art.

This astronomical clock was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. Today's version was rebuilt in 1953 by the Communists — with their kitschy flair for propaganda. In good Social Realist style, you have earnest chemists and heroic mothers rather than holy saints and Virgin Marys. In this region so rich in agriculture, these symbols of the 12 months each feature a seasonal farm activity. High noon is marked by a proletarian parade, when a mechanical conga line of milkmaids, clerks, blacksmiths, teachers, and first defenders are celebrated as the champions of everyday society.

As with any full-service astronomical clock, there's a wheel with 365 saints, so you'll always know whose special day it is. And this clock comes with a Moscow-inspired bonus — red bands splice in the special days of communist heroes: Lenin died on the 21st day of the year; Stalin's saint was Tomas — day 355.

We can't leave Olomouc without experiencing one of the city's greatest attractions: its notoriously stinky cheese.

Rick: So we know about the great Czech beer. But what's with this famous cheese from Moravia?
Honza: The Olomouc tvarůžky? Well it's the stinkiest cheese in the whole country.
Rick: Really!
Honza: If there is one thing you associate with Olomouc, it's this cheese. My mom comes from this region. When I was a kid, when she would start eating this at home, me and my dad we would just clear out of the kitchen. So the thing that makes this cheese is the way it ages. It ages under the aged meat so the meat itself has to be aged to age this cheese. Then you have to age in order to learn to like this cheese.
Rick: And what are you putting on it?
Honza: That's young onion — young, strong onion.
Rick: Why is that important?
Honza: It's good for you as a man.
Rick: [Laugh]
Honza: It stinks but it's good.
Rick: And what is this?
Honza: This? These are really strong mints so you can go and kiss your wife when you go home.