The journey to the medieval town of Český Krumlov did not start off well. Our guide failed to show in Prague after a night spent chasing the green fairy leading to a revolt among the new additions to our tiny tour who were threatening to go rogue and take off to Vienna on their own.
In the midst of all the drama and hand wringing, all I knew was that I was going to make it to this magical little spot in the heart of the Czech Republic’s South Bohemia region. I had to see its delicate fairy tale castle that looked like it had leaped to life from the pages of a Brothers Grimm children’s book.
Luckily, an Aussie travelling with us decided to take matters into her own hands and we figured out how to make it to the UNESCO heritage site on our own.
Getting There: Through Fields of Gold
Český Krumlov is off the beaten path and still relatively unknown to North American tourists compared with other European castles and medieval centres. Getting here from Prague is easiest by bus but I highly recommend the four-hour, 200-kilometre train ride through the bucolic countryside.
The train, which costs 261 CZK or less than $13 US, is certainly not luxurious and requires changing to a second train at Česke Budejovice, which is less comfortable (wooden seats, no bathrooms), about three-fourths of the way there.
One note about catching trains in Prague, be sure you’re at the right train station. There are several and they are sprawling in size. My friend and I needed to be at the main Hlavní nádrazí station but wound up instead at a crumbling Communist-era station located at the opposite end of the massive railway lines in this part of the city because of miscommunication with our taxi driver.
We almost didn’t realize our mistake in time because no one at this particular station seemed to speak English, including the ticket lady who simply waved us away and refused to even try and help, and I don’t speak Czech. It was a mad dash down the street with our backpacks bouncing when we finally figured things out on our own.
Why I love the train is that it’s possible to stand the entire journey, if you want, with your head out the train window watching the odd ancient castle whizz by on a faraway hilltop or be dazzled by the brilliant yellow of rapeseed (canola) blanketing vast fields. This journey is one of my favourite in Europe.
Fairy Tale Castles and Historical Nightmares
Český Krumlov’s almost 800-year history is tangled in the roots of several wealthy families, most notably the Vítkovcis, Witigonens and Rosenbergs, who grew the small trading settlement, which dates back to at least 1240, into a bustling medieval centre along a sharp bend in the Vltava River. Old Town, which is recognized by UNESCO, contains 300 protected medieval buildings, as well as the stunning castle, which is the country’s second largest.
The beauty of the town hides a dark past, which most tourists are completely unaware of. Its beautiful medieval buildings saw action during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and its townspeople were ravaged by the plague in the early 1680s. Its borderlands location has also led to ensnarement in the territorial disputes of its neighbours. At various times it has been part of the Bohemian kingdom, the Habsburg Empire, Czechoslovakia, the Third Reich, the Warsaw Pact, and now the Czech Republic.
In 1938, the picturesque town was part of the German annexation of the Sudetenland by Adolf Hitler. He celebrated his triumph by giving a speech in the main square here.
After the Second World War ended and American forces liberated the town (with little damage to its historical buildings), the longtime German residents of Český Krumlov would pay a heavy price. Seventy-five per cent of the town’s inhabitants were forced to leave by the Czechoslovakian government, as Rick Steves points out in his Prague & The Czech Republic guide book, in retaliation for the Sudetenland annexation and Nazi atrocities in other parts of the country during the war, including the liquidation and razing of the village of Lidice.
The official website for Český Krumlov offers a rather sanitized description of its German residents leaving, merely stating they were “expelled.” It doesn’t mention the German property was “nationalized” even though the families had lived here for centuries in some cases.
To get an idea of how polarizing the war remains here more than 60 years later, check out the bust of Edvard Benes, Czechoslovakia’s second president, in the Ruze (Rose) Hotel. When the owner put the statue on display in 2004 it met with immediate outrage because of Benes’ role in the German deportation, according to The Prague Post.
The Iron Curtain closed on Czechoslovakia in 1948 after a successful Communist coup and 20 years later Soviet tanks invaded Český Krumlov and Prague as part of a crackdown on reforms sweeping the country. The country would remain under the thumb of Moscow until 1989’s Velvet Revolution, which also heralded renewed interest in preserving the beauty of this town.
Holding on to the makeshift rope bannister reminded me of how I had gotten “roped” into this situation. Our guide, mostly recovered from his tangle with absinthe in Prague, wanted to make up for the debacle of the day before and had insisted on paying for me to join him and two others in climbing Český Krumlov’s 13th-century bell tower.
I accepted his offer because the fee is surprisingly low here — about 50 CZK or less than $2.50. In general, I refuse to do these viewing climbs at European tourist sites because they’re such a total rip off. And, I don’t really care for heights. Not really.
To get inside the castle, we needed to pass over the moat where the bears are kept. The two bears seemed happy in the enclosure, which dates back to the 1700s, as they frolicked in the water and rested on nearby rocks.
I can’t imagine they were ever used as a security measure at the castle. It’s more likely they were the result of that aristocratic pastime of collecting exotic and deadly animals for amusement.
The interior of the 13th-century tower, which is attached to the quaintly named “little castle,” is dark with 162 wooden steps winding up, up, up to the Renaissance belfry where an open area offers a 360-degree view of the old town below, which is so well preserved it’s hard to believe it was in a serious state of disrepair just 20 years ago.
With a bird’s eye view, it’s possible to see the town’s other competing tower — the church spire of St. Vitus, built under the orders of Peter von Rosenberg in the late 1300s, as well as the frothy waters of the Vltava River as it tumbles over a breakwater.
A number of tours are available at the castle but I felt like wandering through its five courtyards on my own. It wasn’t crowded when I visited in June but do keep in mind about a million people troop through here each year.
The trompe l’oeil painting on the walls of the tower is remarkable. It almost fools the eye at first glance.
First designed by Bartoloměj Beránek in 1590, the frescoes were restored in the 1990s. Lonely Planet describes them as rather psychedelic, others may see them as a bit garish given we’re not used to seeing old monuments and sculptures with their original paint jobs.
To me, the rounded tower at Český Krumlov looks like the carnival has come to town with their magnificent tents and collection of curiosities from the far corners of the Earth.
Beránek’s artistic achievements followed on the heels of Gabriel de Blonde who created wall paintings in several castle rooms, as well as in the third courtyard of the castle. His master work wraps around you as soon as you walk through the arched entryway into the courtyard.
The mellow yellow tones and splashes of muted red give the painted bricks and columns a 3D appearance in this warm space that feels incredibly intimate and protected even though it’s open to the elements. Mythological warriors and goddesses from ancient Greece and Rome are painstakingly painted onto the stone walls and seem to peer down benevolently on the crowds that pass by below.
It’s hard to believe these painters could have created such massive works in an outdoor climate on the dizzying heights of the walls of a castle and tower. It also couldn’t have been an easy job to restore them, especially hanging over the steep drop from the tower into the river.
That they remain today for us to gaze upon shows how beautiful they were — no matter the renovations over the centuries and the changes in style and taste, the families who controlled the castle left them alone.
Adding to the beauty of the sprawling castle complex is the Cloak Bridge, which looks like an extremely fancy New Brunswick covered wooden bridge built on top of a Roman aqueduct and painted in Wedgewood blue. The three-storey arch stretches over a moat on the western side of the Upper Castle and was built in the 1700s to connect the castle with the gardens and Baroque Theatre.
After your visit, walk back across the little bridge crossing the Vltava River and enjoy a delicious Czech beer at one of the many restaurants that hug the riverbank. My one experience eating at one of these establishments was not pleasant — the service was lousy, the food was salted beyond belief and the offerings were overpriced.
It is, however, a wonderful spot to while away an hour while watching the tourists madly paddling by in their kayaks and boats while gazing up at the rocky promontory the castle is built into.
For a quick snack, try a cinnamon trdelnik pastry for 40 CZK ($2 US) at one of the quaint little shops in the Old Town. It’s the perfect thing to walk around with while wandering into the wooden toy stores, puppet museums and art galleries.
I particularly liked the Replicas of Historical Glass shop at Castle Steps no. 11 where you can pick up beautiful medieval, Renaissance, and modern glassware, which Bohemia is renowned for.
I picked up a replica blue goblet covered in glass bubbles from AD 200 for about $13 US and and a pharmacist’s glass covered goblet. The storekeeper was lovely and packed the glass so well it survived another four weeks of backpacking in Europe and a flight home to Canada!
A day and a half in Český Krumlov is plenty of time to see the bulk of the sights, which is what I did, but I regret that I didn’t have time to sit in one of the tiny restaurants in the Old Town and listen to local musicians into the wee hours of the morning, or spend time wandering around the interior of the castle.∗
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