HistoryAndBeer Tour 2014: Žatec and Colditz

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A leaky, grey drizzle trailed us on leg 2 of our tour, north to the beer hops capital of Žatec and then the POW castle-prison, Colditz, in Germany. The Rough Guide to the Czech and Slovak Republics was a gloomy source of information yet again, noting North Bohemia's "smog levels", "opencast mines", and "brown-coal-burning power stations". We just wanted to shoot through the area quickly.

However, we were quite smitten by the countryside, with its blaze-yellow rapeseed fields and red-roofed villages snuggled into an endlessly undulating landscape of emerald green. We uncovered two reasons for this: A) The Czech Republic has engaged an environmental cleanup of the area, and B) we hadn't entered the worst of the polluted and traumatized coal-mining region, nicknamed the "Black Triangle". 

So the damper on the drive wasn't the weather or coal mines; it was the peculiar Czech radio stations that alternated between 2 Chainz, Phil Collins and techno-house music. 

Parting a sea of rapeseed

BW researched Žatec for its hop-growing prowess; it produces the famed Saaz hops that flavor Pilsner Urquell, Stella Artois, Red Hook, and a number of other beers. We saw acres of tall hops trellises (they're a climbing plant), took a few photos and stopped for a rainy lunch in the quiet town square, where we also tried the local pils.

Zatec's plague column; cities across Europe have these columns to commemorate those killed by the Black Death in the 17th century

A church flanked by statues

BW in front of a hops trellis; they climb as tall as the poles

The Zatec brewery

Our lunch: 2 beers, frankfurter soup, chicken stuffed with broccoli, potato pancakes and spaghetti with cheese... for just under $10

Our major history stop was further north at Colditz, which has a Renaissance castle that served as a high-security POW camp during WWII for Allied officers who had repeatedly escaped from other camps. A museum in the castle detailed the different ways the crafty prisoners tried to break out, from tunneling behind a toilet to building a camera by hand to make false IDs and more...

The imposing Colditz Castle

Dozens of pictures showed escapees and their schemes; a man was hired to photograph them so they could be shared with guards at other camps. On the left, a prisoner devised a costume to look like the facility's electrician. He almost made it out. On the right, a French officer spent month sewing a woman's get-up out of bedsheets; he was outside of the castle when he dropped his watch and the guards caught him because of it.

BW is underneath a model of a hang-glider that prisoners built from bedslats and bedsheets in an unknown attic space at the top of the castle. It didn't get used because 50 escapees were executed by the Gestapo and it was considered too risky. American troops found it when they liberated the castle and only one photo exists of it.

A "dummy" officer that a Dutch prisoner had his friends hold up at roll call so his "head" was counted while he attempted escape

A handmade sewing machine

The 90 m2 courtyard where prisoners exercised

A prisoner's room
An interactive map of each of the escapes from the prison can be seen HERE.


  1. It was interesting to see Colditz as I've heard much about it: we stayed with a family in Scotland and the husband's father was imprisoned in the POW camp there. He painted a really somber but beautiful canvas of the view from the prison that he managed to take with him and is hanging in the family's home (wow, right?) Also: I love how low the lunch bills can be in certain restaurants here :)

  2. WOW - That's really interesting, Cynthia; thanks for sharing! One of the rooms was dedicated to artwork... maybe his was in there? We heard about Colditz from a colleague of mine. It's a bit off the beaten path but so, so intriguing.
    Ditto on the lunch bills!!

  3. Further to both comments above, once you get outside of Prague into smaller Czech towns & villages, lunch bills, together with the price of good beer, can be absurdly cheap :-)


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