České Budějovice: the peaceful metropolis of Southern Bohemia

Samson Fountain in České Budějovice

České Budějovice is the largest and most populous city in Southern Bohemia. It lent its name to one of the most popular beer brands in the world: Budweiser. However, visitors will find that it offers much more than good beer.

The grandiose Samson Fountain is one of the best-known symbols of České Budějovice. Located in the center of the rectangular main square it is the work of one of the greatest baroque sculptors Josef Dietrich. The statue of Samson taming a lion on a huge pedestal was carved in a quarry outside of the city. When they moved the whole structure here back in the 18th century, they needed 62 horses and had to widen one of the city gates.

Journalist and local patriot Marek Kerles | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

Since I know that there is more to this city than the sights on the main square I meet up with someone, who has long called it home : Marek Kerles is 56 years old, born here in Budějovice and considers himself a true local patriot. As a journalist, he worked for several national dailies and now for internet news server Info.cz:

“Budějovice is a very quiet metropolis. We do get our share of tourists many of them from Asia, but they usually just stay overnight on their way to Český Krumlov from Prague or from Linz in Austria. So České Budějovice is something like a bedroom city rather than a tourist destination where foreigners want to spend their day. So, even though we have great beer and the famous ‘Masné krámy’ or Meet Market restaurant, we live in a beautiful but quiet city.”

Famous Beer-Hall - Masné krámy - former Meet Market | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

We continue our talk over a glass of the great local beer: the Budvar or Budweiser trademark has been the subject of more than one legal battle between the local brewery and the American giant Anheuser-Busch InBev. As I record these words, the American product can be sold in continental Europe only as Bud, the Czech beer can only be sold in Northern America under the name Czechvar. But here in the city from whose name the trademark was derived, Budweiser tastes better than anywhere else in the world. Marek Kerles explains how České Budějovice preserved its architectural charm:

“I think this city was not greatly marred by socialist architecture. Especially here in the cente,r not much was built under communism. There were two new large housing estates built from prefabricated parts. They are on the other side of the Vltava River and today, about a third of the city’s inhabitants live there.

Black Tower - one of the symbols of České Budějovice | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

“This city did not have to absorb any migration waves. Perhaps the only exception were people who came when the Temelín nuclear power plant was built in the 1980s some forty kilometers from the city. České Budějovice never had any heavy industry like for example Ostrava in Northern Moravia, where the population more than tripled after the Second World War. Nothing of that sort happened here in Southern Bohemia and that is reflected in the mentality of the people.”

With over 90,000 inhabitants, České Budějovice is the most populous city in this part of the country and the seat of the regional government. But historically, there were other competing towns and cities that could claim to be the real center of the social, and cultural life of this region. What is special about České Budějovice other than its size? I ask another local patriot, writer, and publisher Jan Cempírek:

“The city definitely has the right to be called the capital of Southern Bohemia, it is special. It was founded as a kind of medieval project, the result of rivalry between the most powerful local aristocratic family called Vítkovci and the King of Bohemia who was then Otokar II of the Přemyslid dynasty. In the thirteenth century, there was a kind of feudal ping-pong going on in this region. The Vítkovci started building monasteries and founding towns in order to broaden and strengthen their regional power base. The King could not ignore the challenge and founded České Budějovice.”

Main Square in České Budějovice - view from Black Tower | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

“With royal support the town quickly grew. As a sign of gratitude, its inhabitants always supported the crown, even during the Hussite wars in the 15th century, when much of Southern Bohemia was in protestant revolt against the central power and official Catholic Church, České Budějovice remained more on the side of the king and his supporters.”

I bid farewell to Jan Cempírek, author and publisher. Since Marek Kerles, and I are middle-aged men, perhaps a little nostalgic about the place where we either grew up or often visited as young students, I want to get a different perspective, perhaps that of a much younger woman, who moved to the city only quite recently:

Anna Šlechtová from Prague found a new home in České Budějovice | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

“My name is Anna Šlechtová. I studied to be a biologist and an educator. I have been living here for five years which is quite a short time for the locals. I came here from Prague and coincidentally moved to a part of České Budějovice called “the Prague Suburb”. My husband is also from Prague, and he inherited the house where his mother was born. We were lucky to get the opportunity to renovate and modernize the rather dilapidated house and to move in.”

Nowadays, Anna does not miss the capital Prague where she grew up. Southern Bohemia has become her new home.

Main square in České Budějovice - Old City-Hall in the background | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

There is a carillon hidden in the beautiful Baroque, old city-hall of České Budějovice. It plays Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on the hour. Perhaps it is significant that people can hear the official European Anthem in the main square because there is a chance that Anna’s new hometown will soon gain European-wide attention:

“I haven’t lived here for too long, as I mentioned, yet I can already see progress in the city’s cultural life. This city is one of the candidates for the European Capital of Culture for 2028 and I hope it will succeed. I think we locals deserve it.”

Whether the city of České Budějovice becomes the European Capital of Culture or not, one thing is certain. It is a great place to both live and visit.