The Cobbled Charms of Cesky Krumlov
by Rick Steves
Lassoed by its river and dominated by its castle, Cesky Krumlov feels lost in a time warp. Nearly four hours south of Prague, this fairy-tale town of 15,000 is buried in the hills of the southern Czech Republic, an area much appreciated for its pastoral countryside. With its delightfully cobbled Old Town, rare Baroque theater, and colorful castle, Cesky Krumlov is an absolute treat.
The town has long attracted visitors. Tucked into a hairpin bend in the Vltava River, it was a safe, choice spot for Celtic, then German, then Slavic tribes to settle. In the 16th century -- the town's Golden Age -- Cesky Krumlov hosted artists, scientists, and alchemists from all over Europe.
These days, visitors set their sights on the mighty castle of the Rozmberk family, who ran the city from this perch for three centuries, until about 1600. The interior of the castle, which you can only visit on a one-hour escorted tour, gives a glimpse of the ultimate in Bohemian noble living through the ages.
The castle has several other sights. The strikingly colorful round tower, featuring a 162-step climb to the top, was built to guard the medieval river crossing. Bear pits hold a family of European brown bears, as they have since the Rozmberks added these animals to their coat of arms in the 16th century. A 2,300-foot-long garden boasts a mix of French and English styles.
The castle's highlight is the
Baroque theater was all about melodrama, created with lighting, perspective, and sound effects. Machines were used to simulate a horrifying wind, driving rainstorm, and menacing thunder. But the use of candles and pyrotechnics for special effects took their toll. Europe once had several hundred Baroque theaters, but most burned down. Cesky Krumlov's theater is one of only two that survives in good shape and is open to tourists (the other one is in Stockholm).
Across the river from the castle is the made-for-strolling Old Town. Gothic buildings curve with the winding streets. Many precious Gothic and Renaissance frescoes were whitewashed in Baroque times, when the colorful trimmings of earlier periods were way out of style. Today, these frescoes are being rediscovered and restored.
At the heart of the Old Town is the main square, lined with a mix of Renaissance and Baroque homes of burghers (all built on 12th-century Gothic foundations). Lekarna, with a fine red Baroque facade on the lower corner of the square, is still a pharmacy, as it has been since 1620.
The Vltava River beckons to those with an adventurous spirit. One of my favorite activities here is to rent a canoe and go for a three-hour float down the dreamy river, through Bohemian forests and villages, past cafes and pubs happy to welcome paddlers for a break. The destination? A 13th-century abbey. From here, the rafting company shuttles you back to town or provides you with a bicycle to pedal back along a bike path. Those with less time can still hit the water by taking a half-hour float around the city's peninsula.
While Cesky Krumlov can be done as a day trip from Prague, evenings here are wonderfully atmospheric. One of the liveliest places in town is the Gypsy Pub. Unlike other cities in Eastern Europe, where Romas (Gypsies) tend to live in segregated ghettos, Cesky Krumlov boasts a proud community of about 1,000. The easiest way for a traveler to experience the traditional Roma culture is through its lively music -- always crowd pleasing and fiery.
Several big summertime festivals bring the city to life. At the Celebration of the Rose in June, locals celebrate their medieval roots (and drink oceans of beer) as blacksmiths mint ancient coins, jugglers swallow fire, mead flows generously, and pigs are roasted on open fires. The summer also brings a top-notch international jazz and alternative music festival to town, performed in pubs, cafes, and the castle gardens.
Once you see Cesky Krumlov, it's not hard to understand why this is the Czech Republic's second-biggest tourist magnet. With its simple beauty and wonderfully medieval feel, Cesky Krumlov is the quaint, small-town Europe that many people dream of experiencing.
The Castle View Apartments boast a medieval loft feel, with kitchenettes and heated bathroom floors (splurge, www.castleview.cz). Pension Olsakovsky, with a delightful breakfast area on a terrace next to the river, treats visitors as family guests (moderate, www.olsakovsky.cz).
Na Louzi is a Czech bistro serving inexpensive, tasty local cuisine and hometown Eggenberg beer on tap (Kajovska 66). With its medieval garage-like atmosphere and giant poster of Karl Marx, Restaurace u Dobraka ("Good Man") is the locals' favorite place for grilled steak and fish (Siroka 74).
Cesky Krumlov is built for meandering. No site in town is more than a five-minute stroll from the main square. From Prague, it's easiest to get here by bus (3-1/2-hour trip).
Czech Republic's Cesky Krumlov Vacation Travel Video Guide
A town that reaches to the skies above a bend on the River Vltava, Český Krumlov is a pearl of Renaissance architecture and a place where the sumptuousness of the local castle, maze-like alleyways, richly decorated coats of arms of burghers houses, and wonderful floral gardens are harmoniously interwoven; at the same time, it boasts medieval pubs, ale-houses, galleries and graphite mines. Thanks to its unique preserved medieval core, Český Krumlov is included on the UNESCO list.
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