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Bohemian Rhapsody

Imagine: It’s dusk on a cold January day. You’re alone with a loved one in a small town square in Central Europe. You’re surrounded by houses that date back to the middle ages. Their peaked rooves rise and fall around you. Greens, ochres and rosy reds have darkened to shades of grey. The windows and porticoes are dark. Heavy snowflakes are tumbling from an obscure sky. Snow blankets the ground, and the only footprints are your own, along with traces of your girlfriend’s impromptu waltz. The silence feels charmed, so you try not to sabotage it by speaking. It’s difficult to accept that the lovely wood and stone forms around you are tangibly there. They contradict what you had resigned yourself to – that scenes like this were from a bygone era. The only thing missing is for one of the heavy doors to open a crack, and a ghost in a medieval cloak to shuffle away down a narrow passage.

L. and I were the lucky ones that night, alone in Cesky Krumlov’s old town square. But we could not ignore the cold forever. Our frozen fingers and toes had had enough loitering for one night. So our boots crunched towards one of the lanes that led off the square. Our sadness was tempered by the knowledge that minutes later we’d be sitting in a classic Bohemian pub, warmed by a fire, our gloves and toques on the bench between us, nursing a glass of the Czech Republic’s finest beer.

That moment, when we felt Cesky Krumlov was ours, likely could not have happened in the summer, nor for that matter any time between April and September. Bohemia’s gem, a few hours south of Prague, is deservedly popular. Warm-weather visitors come for their dose of fairy-tale charm, but it comes with hordes other tourists swarming over the cobblestones. With many of its houses tucked into a tight, horseshoe bend in the Vltava river, the exquisite town – designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – fills up rather quickly. So instead of muttering about everybody else stealing your holiday idea, buy a decent parka and come in the winter. Avoiding the crowds is the best reason, but by no means the only one.

For one thing, braving the cold means paying a fraction of the Spring/Summer prices, and the best Pensions and restaurants won’t laugh when you inquire about availability. Indeed, you’ll have your pick of the loveliest rooms in town. In our case, I called ahead to the sweet-voiced owner of the Pension Ingrid, recommended to us by a friend. I struck out with Czech, German was worse, but Ingrid bravely held our conversation together in English. We danced a painful dance around names, dates and prices. I thanked her excessively and hung up, convinced I had no reservation.
We took the train, and from our home base in Prague the ticket to Cesky Krumlov was about the price of a café mocha. This is commonplace. Anywhere in the Czech Republic is an easy and inexpensive place to get to by road or rail. I challenge anyone to find a better country for weekend getaways. Moreover, the journey is always lovely. At each way-station, usually a castle-topped town tumbling down to a river, you think to yourself: “Well, I can’t imagine a lovelier town, so I might as well get off here.” In Ceske Budejovice (where Budweiser really comes from), we changed onto a local osobni train. The word must mean ‘old mule’ in Czech, since the two simple cars laboured at a walking pace over the snow-covered hills. This last leg of our trip, which covered less than a centimeter of map, took as long as the rest of the journey combined. Ah, well. We sat back and admired snow-covered hills and tidy farm cottages. By the time we arrived, it was dark.

Amazingly, Ingrid, husband and a hatchback were waiting for us at the station. They drove us through the dark streets to their pretty, sturdy Pension. Our room turned out to be a suite, with a never-ending king-sized bed. We were a couple of dusty travelers in a sea of whiteness. The cushions on the wicker chairs in the den, the curtains, the carpet, the bedspread, the layers of towels in the bathroom – everything was spotlessly white. Had I misunderstood the price? Perhaps she had misspoken over the phone? No, Ingrid kindly assured us: this was the off-season rate. 

Our host backed out, begging us to ask her for anything at all. Exultant, I pulled out a bottle of Moravian red wine to toast our happy arrival. Damn, we’d forgotten a corkscrew. No matter, I’ll just use this dinner knife to push the cork into the bottle. Standing in the middle of the snow-white room, I put all my weight into the cork. Predictably, it plunged in quicker than I expected. Red wine exploded onto every surface. L. screamed. I staggered back and sat on the bed, surveying the damage. It looked like a blood-spattered crime scene. I pictured Ingrid’s angelic smile evaporating. Her large husband would toss us back out into the cold with every curse known in Czech. In an instant I’d ruined our weekend.

We pathetically plucked a few tissues and dabbed at the disaster. And like a dream, off came every drop of red! The curtains, the carpet — anything absorbent in the room had been coated by some kind of miracle stain guard. Not a trace of my idiocy remained. Our good luck seemed to have a momentum all its own. It was going to be a good weekend.
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The next morning started with a serious platter of food that Ingrid had left at the door. Another reason to do your Czech traveling in the winter. Czech food is solid winter fare. Meat, potatoes and beer are the sacred trinity of Czech cuisine, and vegetables, well, they have no place in their faith. On hot summer days, then, when all you want (and cannot find) is a fresh salad, a heavy steak can ruin you. On cold winter days, though, it’s just the fuel you need. So L. and I loaded up on an overlapping fan of deli meats and cheese slices, a basket of rolls to eat them with, and then yoghurt, danishes, and a litre of fresh coffee. The only thing missing was a pint of beer, which no Czech would have criticized us for drinking at nine o’clock in the morning.

Looking across the dark Vltava and up at Cesky Krumlov’s castle sets the imagination running. Craggy cliffs climb from the banks of the river and seamlessly merge with the intimidating walls. As a result, the lowest windows seem to be cut right out of the rock, and conjure up dungeons and foul deeds. Deep in the hillside, those black slits filled my head full of dark cells, rats, and torture instruments of the kind of ingenious cruelty only a Medieval imagination could have devised.

Above, the castle sprawls across a hilltop, a succession of linked chateaux rather than a single building. Highest of all is a tower, climbing above the first courtyard and 54 metres above the river. In contrast to the black recesses far below, the tower looks like a candyland minaret. At its top, gold banners were creaking in the wind. From the pinnacle, a copper green turret descends to a garret enclosed by slender arches. Just below, four miniature towers imitate the turret above. Then on down to a wild blue layer of relief sculptures and golden clocks, then an arcade of slim fuschia arches. Holding this up is a section of long, narrow, salmon-pink framed windows, and on down to the yellow 13th century base. Remodeled several times, the tower is a party of contrasting layers, each one trumping the last. We were delighted.

We climbed a winding road up from the river and approached the Castle from the East. It was “guarded” by a bear moat. This amounted to a deep yard occupied by a couple of lethargic animals. We stared over the wall for a few minutes. Some tree trunks and boulders had been scattered around for diversion. The rest was frozen mud. One of the beasts lay without moving; the other forlornly paced back and forth. For anyone with an ounce of compassion this is a grim sight. Whatever exotic flavour the bears were meant to lend the castle was lost on us.

With mixed feelings we learned that the interiors were closed for the season. Looking at it positively, we were spared the concentrated blur of soon-to-be-forgotten names, dates, and styles that accompanies a castle tour. Sometimes you would rather be left alone to think about great buildings in your own terms. We were happy to do just that with the exteriors. No authority figures shooed us away, and our curiosity lured us across the moat and under a vaulted archway. Inside was a lovely tunnel, with faded ornaments painted on the sides and wooden boards to walk on. The tunnel curved up and released us in one of the castle’s courtyards. It was a tight rectangle. Towering walls hemmed us in on all sides. It was like a heavenly prison yard, with the smooth walls presenting the illusion of golden bricks and Grecian statues in niches. Latticed windows wheeled around us. We concentrated our ears on the silence, hoping to hear a trace of a serenade that a desperate suitor must have sung to his uncaring love. Hearing nothing, we continued into the darkness of another tunnel. 

We emerged in a fourth exterior courtyard. It lavished on us an even more fabulous array of facade paintings, windows and covered balconies. Being alone gave us a delicious sense of ownership. The walls whispered back the echo of our conversation. Nobody was impatiently waiting behind us to have their turn to look, and there were more details than one afternoon could allow us to appreciate. Reluctantly we continued, caught between a beautiful place and our curiosity about what was around the next corner.

Our path continued onto a covered bridge spanning a gorge. It offered a stunning view of the old town. Who could imagine so many houses so close together? It was simply a chaos of red roofs leaning against and climbing over each other. I’ve never seen houses as animated as the ones vying for space in Cesky Krumlov.

We crossed over and finally found ourselves outside the castle walls, amongst  snow-trimmed gardens. We had walked through nearly a kilometer of archways, courtyards, passages and bridges. Our brains were muddled with miscellaneous wonders. Yet once you’re in a walking mode, it’s hard to stop. A path led into the woods, and we followed it.

Cesky Krumlov borders on the vast forests of Šumava, which stretch well into Germany and represent a precious green space in Central Europe. This was the forest of Hansel and Gretel, wolves and witches. Trails thread through the hills for hundreds of miles. They are perfectly suited for strolling: once you find a rhythm you feel like you could walk forever. Sheltered from the wind by pine and birch trees, we weren’t bothered by the cold, and the snow wasn’t too deep to walk in. From time to time the trees opened up, and the landscape was an arcadian blend of forest, field, and far-away church spires. Smoke from cottages you wished you owned twisted above the forest. Layers of grey hills became paler and paler until they disappeared into the white weather. An occasional hiker with dog greeted us with a gruff “Dobre den” (Good day). Man and hound always looked weather-beaten and durable, like walking a hundred miles a day was their assigned fate, and they had gotten accustomed to it. Eventually we came to a crossroads marked by a shrine. Remains of offerings had frozen around a battered statue of Mary. It was enough to remind us how hungry we were. So we turned around and retraced our footprints back to town.

A further advantage to Cesky Krumlov in the winter is that the locals come out of hiding after the summer madness. In mid-January you’re much more likely to be drawn into conversation, or to be the recipient of those small acts of kindness that make your day while traveling. You might also have to smile and nod, as we did, while an old man lamented incomprehensibly in Czech about the disgraces of his yellow labrador, who looked like an angel and whacked us with his wagging tail.

You’ll also be made to feel at home in the pubs, whose coziness makes them especially irresistible during the winter months. On this early evening we found one ideally situated on the banks of the darkly flowing Vltava. The fire was crackling, and the owner was leaning against the bar deep in conversation with a friend. They couldn’t have been happier to see us, who were used to chillier big-city receptions in Prague. The barkeep brought round a couple of glasses of mulled wine (on the house), and cheerfully asked our impressions of his town and country. Famished, we ordered large helpings of goulash and pork schnitzel, potatoes and knedlíky (dumplings), and washed it all down with a couple of Velkopopovicky Kozels. The beer mats boasted that this was a three-time world champion beer, and it had my vote as well. To salute the champ it seemed only respectful to order another one. At a dangerous twenty cents a pint (also much cheaper in the winter), we saw no reason not to have a third. By the time we left, we were delighted to find that we had become immune to the cold. We even thought about swimming, if I remember correctly.

The next day, after another weightlifter’s breakfast, we explored the venerable old town. The streets were such a maze that it was impossible not to get lost. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat, though, since we didn’t mind where we ended up, it didn’t really matter how we got there. In Cesky Krumlov, wandering is the point. Museums, churches and palaces are not islands in the middle of a modern town. Here they blend in to a time web that includes everything else, as well. The gothic house that stops you in your tracks might turn out to be no more than a café or flower shop. Indeed, in how many places will your guidebook insist that you visit, not a church or a museum, but simply the house at 139 Horní Ulice, where nobody particular used to live, still looking as it did in the 16th century?

The town had a manic effect on both of us. L. and I felt genuine pain at not being able to go down every single side lane, and into every open courtyard. It would have been easy to stroll into a lovingly restored house, realizing too late that the premises remained a private residence. All of the inner town has been preserved. And in Central Europe, this in quite a feat. Through endless wars, the soulless touch of communist revisionists, and most recently, a terrible flood, Cesky Krumlov has always managed to survive with its fragile charm intact.

Many lovely spots jostle in my mind for mention. One was on the way down Latrán Street, in the shadow of the castle. It was a shop, and in the windows we saw layers of beautiful wooden toys, from animals to soldiers to classic trains and cars. Inside was like a wooden zoo, complete with birds and pterodactyls overhead. Not for the first time in Cesky Krumlov we felt like kids. A traditional Czech handicraft, these toys are straight out of Santa’s workshop. They’re not flashy, electronic, or from a syndicated cartoon. They’re perfectly simple and ingenious. We walked out with an embarrassing number of them, and if we’d known any babies at the time, the butterfly mobile would also have been on its way. The toymaker’s grandkids must be the envy of Bohemia.

We rambled down to Lazebnicky bridge, which connects two sides of the old town. A slender wooden cross and a solitary statue, both lined with snow, stood guard. The bridge felt immortal. The diagonal wooden boards seemed fantastically solid. It must have been a satisfying sound for a knight as he rode a horse over this bridge, the dull thud of a durable structure, and then the clatter up the cobblestones of Latrán Street to dismount in one of the castle’s courtyards.

We also visited a gallery honoring the town’s most famous modern resident. The brilliant but short-lived Austrian painter Egon Schiele spent several productive years here before the First World War. His stay was cut short when he was run out of town for indecency. He had invited teenage girls up to his studio to bare their souls (and naked bodies) for Art. Thankfully, time and tourism have reconciled the two sides, and now the spacious attic where he used to live contains many great works. We shuffled around the hardwood floors, ducking under heavy beams and looking at portraits of mangled bodies floating in flesh-coloured space. Everybody looked like death warmed over, slumped and miserable. Even his flowers and trees were bent and unhappy and barely clinging to life. We liked everything and bought a book. Schiele’s depictions of Cesky Krumlov’s houses were warm by comparison, and touched me the most. He articulated the personality I had felt looking down from the castle bridge. From every terracotta tile on the roof, to the skinlike personality of the walls and window panes, he captured the living character of the town’s oldest wood and stone residents.

Back out in the cold, snow had begun to fall, and we continued wandering. Cesky Krumlov was wonderfully picturesque from the castle’s bridge, but as Schiele recognized, each house bears the traces of a fascinating history when seen close up. So we took in the details. A big, arched wooden door had a second, tiny door cut out of the larger one. A fresco had long ago been painted directly onto the side of a house, within an ornate, painted frame, and had since faded to a rich ochre fog. A delightful wrought-iron icon marked a house’s current or former business. Should I admit we were even mesmerized by a wall – which to us was an inspired mosaic of crumbling plaster, speaking of hundreds of years of wear.

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