The Czech Republic’s Very Own Portal into Medieval Europe
The early summer evening’s mist created from the day’s light rain and heat slithered through the troughs of the low-lying hills like a grey/white serpent, its wispy skin clinging to trees whose tops were devoured by the serpent’s broad body. The translucent monster slowly made its way across the valley floor enveloped in eerie shadows cast by tall evergreens, all of this coming together to make traversing this landscape feel a bit medieval where creatures of lore allude man and legends are forged: the mist and dark forests played with the imagination, creating dark princes and their sorcerers battling armor-clad warriors riding great steeds whose hooves beat the earth like the distant thunder of an ominous storm brewing behind the veil of a lightning cracked horizon. The road upon which we traveled through this almost mystical realm came to a sharp bend and upon passing it’s wide curve cutting through the forest and mist draped fields what came into view added to our tickling feeling of traveling across a world lost long ago to time. Suddenly arising before us was a medieval city whose mighty walls protected it from the unknown onslaught of ancient foes; spires, towers and a formidable castle slowly came into sight beyond the high rim of these walls as they combated the misty serpent’s grip, breaking free and defiantly showing themselves as a single bell rang out the victory, its echo carrying far into the valley. This was the magical Bohemian welcome from ages past as the gates beckoned us to enter a time when history of the last millennia was at its most volatile, and this gracious host with the ability to bend time backwards is called the town of Cesky Krumlov...
... A bit of exaggeration and flamboyant imagination is not often a bad thing, especially justifiable when describing the Czech Republic’s seemingly ending rural land of lush green and yellow rolling hills and forests broken up by fallowed fields beside those recently plowed for the new season’s crops in the South Bohemian region of this diverse country; particularly when used to describe the second crowning wonder of the Czech Republic right beside the first being Prague: the ancient walled medieval city of Cesky Krumlov declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1992 due to its unrivalled beauty (well, perhaps rivaled by Prague) and pristinely preserved Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture carefully cultivated as the land’s fertile fields for over seven hundred years. Cesky Krumlov, situated on a tortuous bend of the meandering Vltava River, is not only an open-air museum with its stunning architecture, but also is a Europe-renowned magnet for a variety of cultural endeavors spanning the musical spectrum, and sporting activities concentrated on the mild tempered, yet engaging currents and rapids of the Vltava. This is what greets most visitors on a summer day instead of knights and their mounts, and medieval monsters, but armies of tourists who wish to see what history not only looks like, but also feels and smells like. Of course, weaved within these sojourners armed with the latest video and photographic technology used to preserve this present-day window into history for future posterity are a loose grouping of water sportsman rafting, tubing, kayaking and canoeing the Vltava and using Cesky Krumlov as a port to replenish urgent supplies of beer and TP, while grabbing a bite to eat and a badly needed celebratory cocktail at one of the riverside cafés and bars as yet another phase of their slow trek down the Vltava comes to an end.
Indeed, Cesky Krumlov can get flooded by tourism, especially in the summer months when the already significant crowds throughout much of the year multiply with water sports enthusiasts mooring their little river crafts on the banks of the Vltava. But, who can blame them as they long to immerse themselves in the multitude of layers, which all culminated in this, a stunningly well-preserved picturesque town renowned mainly for several exquisite and unrivalled old world architectural styles. These many layers recall the good and the bad, which befell Cesky Krumlov through its over 750-year history that took root in the 13th century when it was but a small, insignificant settlement on the Vltava River. The current medieval loveliness that modern society is so fortunate to behold spawns from the prolific layers of Cesky Krumlov’s past starting in the early 14th century with the advent of the reign of the town’s new ruling dynasty called the Lords of Rozmberk. Under their enlightening rule, Cesky Krumlov experienced an economic boom that ushered in construction on a large scale of new churches, monasteries and other magnificent structures of political, business and personal uses, and new laws were set forth allowing the constitution of new markets, handicrafts and trade with other cities near and far. Needless to say the social and cultural aspects of the city also underwent a small Renaissance with the significant expansions spurred on by the period under the sovereignty of the Rozmberk dynasty. To bolster these early successes, Europe’s then profitable salt trade found its way to Cesky Krumlov in the early 18th century where it was transformed into an all-important salt store along the trade route stretching between Austrian countries and Bohemia. Darker layers can be uncovered, too, when exploring Cesky Krumlov’s history, as is the case in the 17th and 18th centuries when the town fell into stagnation after being invaded on several occasions during the Thirty Years’ War fought between 1618 and 1648, and even further periods of declination in the subsequent centuries. However, the town wouldn’t die and with the help of its resourceful citizens began a strong comeback in 1870 with Cesky Krumlov becoming the newly established administrative, economic and cultural center of a newly formed Bohemian district.
The layers of Cesky Krumlov’s 20th century existence saw it survive two great wars with its resplendent ancient architecture remaining mostly intact. Although, the end of the Second World War was quite dicey for this Bohemian gem caught up in the turmoil of the transition of power from the now defunct Nazi regime to the rigid rule of communism that saw to it Cesky Krumlov’s German inhabitants, who coexisted with their Czech town folk for centuries, all expelled from the city. Behind the despondent shadow of the Iron Curtain for over 40 years, Cesky Krumlov fell into disrepair as the final chapter, the last layer, of this once powerful and imposing town seemed to have met a dismal end. But, alas, that vile curtain came crumbling down in 1989 and the Czech Republic was reborn as an important country part of the free world. With this so-called Velvet Revolution blossoming throughout the land, the grime of Communism was painstakingly scrubbed off of Cesky Krumlov’s medieval past that was meticulously restored to it exquisite splendor unveiling to a newfound tourist trade a remarkable portal to a time long ago most often only read about in historical writings, but here in Cesky Krumlov, the uppermost layer of its long, and still spirited existence revealed to its guests the enjoyment and wonderment of living, breathing history.
The fun of getting to know Cesky Krumlov up and personal is walking around its two main districts: Latran, the historical area located around the castle, and the historical district on the slope between two bends of the Vltava; the majority of the architecture in this district dates from the 14th through the 17th centuries and comprises the core of the Old Town. The best way to experience both districts is on foot strolling through their crooked maze of medieval cobblestone alleys, many passing along side the Vltava River whose gentle current streams past, its dark surface reflecting the Old Town’s neighborhoods of age-old edifices of church and state with their steep angled red-tiled roofs covering antiquated facades upon which are attached old, yet still sturdy oak balconies hanging precariously from the buildings’ sides. Passing workers patching up bits and pieces of Cesky Krumlov’s history that came undone due to the ravages of time and in need of repair isn’t uncommon since the city’s restoration efforts are exemplary as they strive to keep their city pristine and, most important, old fashioned. The Old Town section of Latran is not only full of Gothic and Renaissance houses lining its winding cobblestone thoroughfares, but also galleries, shops, pubs and restaurants. It’s from this district a broad shadow is cast across the Old Town of both sides of the river emanating from the pride and joy of Cesky Krumlov, if not the entire Czech Republic: one of Europe’s largest castles that watches over the citizens of Cesky Krumlov now as it did for centuries from its lofty hilltop perch flaunting its bizarre bell tower so colorful its almost garish.
With more than 40 buildings, five broad courtyards and several large and lush parks, Cesky Krumlov’s castle is indeed a goliath that took more than six centuries to completely finish. It was founded in 1250 and the emblem of a five petal rose assigned to it, as if to prophesize the coming prosperity of both the castle and the town as they both flourished architecturally and culturally during the aforementioned reign of the Rozmberk dynasty starting in 1302; the five petal rose is their family emblem. Due to substantial financial contributions from the wealthy Bohemian inhabitants of the castle over the centuries, as well as other people of note throughout the country, the castle was amazingly preserved in its original state for all these years affording people of today to take a fascinating look into the lives of the Bohemian rich and famous of yesterday. Approaches to this massive fortification, which is unusually large for a town of Cesky Krumlov’s size, brings visitors to its soaring red iron gates looming over the old buildings adjacent to it, dwarfed by the castle’s walls rising to the azure sky. Also, upon the approach visitors cross the bear moat where the famous, and lazy, Krumlov bears casually saunter about. Walking through the castle complex and its impressive gardens is free, or guided tours are featured for a nominal fee introducing visitors to the royal family apartments and the Renaissance Hall, and the striking Chapel of St. George. Many chambers contain ornate paintings, elaborate tapestries and original period furniture from the various inhabitants through the centuries. On the tour as well visitors pass beneath the charming Cloaked Bridge that’s covered by a walkway and leads from the castle to another of its highlights: the old Baroque Theater, completed in 1766. Still possessing its original stage machinery, scenery and props, this is one of only a few court theaters still in existence. Because of its age, the theater is only used three times a year, with two of the events open to the public, when Baroque operas are performed in simulated candlelight. An ascent past the theater leads to the grand and luxuriant castle gardens consisting of a restored elaborate fountain, hedgerow maze, a revolving theater, a medieval-style restaurant and a peaceful wooded area complete with a duck pond where its not uncommon to see people picnicking. There are those visitors who forego the tour out of time restraints, and instead pay the small fee to climb the castle’s soaring tower that can be seen from quite a distance from all around Cesky Krumlov and beyond. 162 steps later climbers are rewarded with a sweeping and awe-inspiring view of the town, river, and rolling, wooded countryside.
A further structure that lures in tourists is the Gothic Church of St. Vitus that stands out due to its thin spire competing for height with the castle tower, but just not quite making the grade. This pretty spire is neo-Gothic and replaced the original Baroque dome in the 19th century. Highlights of the church include an altar from the mid 19th century Baroque in design and depicting St. Vitus and the Virgin Mary, and adorned with lavish coats of arms from past ruling dynasties. The side chapels of this charming church were added in the 19th century, and the Gothic organ is of particular interest as it dates to the 16th century. Aside from religious services, the church also plays host to a New Year and summer concerts.
One would think themselves in a much larger city than Cesky Krumlov when taking into consideration the amount of museums found in this town per square mile, some more interesting than others. On rainy, or particularly frigid days that tamper a lengthy outdoors tour of the town, these museums are a welcome addition to the Cesky Krumlov experience. Overall, some of these museums warrant a visit rain or shine due to the wealth of information they bestow upon their guests about the life and times of the town and its citizens through the ages. Such a museum is called the Regional Museum of National History. Three floors comprise this educational and entertaining institution featuring eclectic collections of regional relics, maps, antique furniture, old paintings and archeological artifacts spanning the over seven centuries of the town’s existence. Further attractions include a collection of chain mail, wooden representations of tortured saints and an impressive room-size ceramic scale model of the Cesky Krumlov, as well as a reconstruction of an old apothecary; folk costumes and 19th century farming equipment are also on display. Its of interest to note the building that houses this museum since its of substantial historic value as well being the first Baroque building in Cesky Krumlov and a short-lived Jesuit Seminary from 1650 to 1652; it’s role as a museum of national history began in 1946. As with the castle’s gaudy, yet splendid tower, from the museum’s lofty position in the town visitors are offered a stunning view of the surroundings.
Honoring the long history of Czech’s puppetry, puppet-making, and marionettes that are a part of Czech tradition since the middle of the 18th century, Cesky Krumlov’s Marionette museum highlights these well made and iconic wooden figures; needless to say this is a favorite stop for tourists, especially those with children in tow. Formerly the Church of St. Jobst, this old building with attention-grabbing interior designs presents enthralling displays dedicated to the puppet and marionette, especially those from the 19th century along with their stages. Of particular interest are the museum’s regular marionette performances of classic operas. Other items on display include curtains and complete marionette theaters. Modern collections of puppets and marionettes are also featured and provide thought-provoking insight into the evolution of this type of entertainment.
Located in a restored Renaissance house is the town's very own wax museum showcasing wax figures representing day-to-day lives in medieval Europe. The all-too-real displays include a blacksmith’s shop, an old tavern, an alchemist’s shop, and a riveting representation of one of the courts of a medieval Bohemian emperor. Wax figures of famous people from the 20th century also found their way into the museum, including the figure of the famous singer from the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger.
The Museum of Torture is located in the medieval cellars of the Town Hall and is all about portraying mankind’s cruelty to one another by featuring 100 grisly exhibits set up in a dimly lit — and some say a bit tacky — decorated environment to add even further emphasis to the gloom and despair of the instruments of torture. The highlight of the museum is the audio-visual spectacle of a gruesome execution by sword and the agonizing burning of a witch.
The building above the cellars containing the dark exhibits of torture is the Town Hall, another popular landmark in Cesky Krumlov made up of the original Gothic structure from the 14th century that was coupled with the neighboring structure in the late 16th century in order to make one large building. Once home to a wealthy family of note from time’s past, the Town Hall today houses the Municipal government and police, a news agency and of course the Museum of Torture. Many of the tourist sites of the Cesky Krumlov are located in or around the square where the Town Hall is found, such as the Church of St. Vitus mentioned earlier in this article, and the Marian Plague Column and fountains built in 1715 where its long-standing tradition of playing host to weddings is still held today, usually taking place on Fridays. The square’s burgher houses are a delightfully colorful assemblage of Baroque buildings with a few Renaissance thrown in for good measure, and the oldest house of them all originally being Gothic and then later redone in Empire style; this granddaddy structure sits next to the Old Inn, a perfect spot to stop for some R&R from touring with a cool Czech beer and a tasty snack of local origins.
Speaking of food, Cesky Krumlov rarely serves bad fare and is well known for is national culinary accomplishments, and some international ones as well. Although with any major tourist city comes restaurants catering to sightseers offering low quality food and drink for exorbitant prices; these locales usually have their menu items poorly printed on a flimsy sandwich board boasting the best prices in town in as many languages one can think of. Staying away from these dives is a good idea and instead potential diners will get more bang for their buck (or Czech Koruna as their currency is called) for far better food by taking a stroll down many of the medieval back alleys away from the tourist hubs that inevitably reveal charming little cafés and restaurants where the locals dine, which is always a good sign, and the prices are reasonable for delicious food and beverages. Goulash is a tasty staple on many of the local menus, and this hearty, dark red and meaty dish is often served in a thick bread bowl. Wandering through the Old Town in search of a fulfilling dining experience, visitors often come into contact with the sweet aroma of cinnamon and sugar wafting over their heads and emanating from small bakeries selling that which smells so good: Trdelnik. This sweet treat resembling a bread bracelet is inexpensive and flavorsome, and is a must to try at least once during a visit to Cesky Krumlov.
Aside from foods, Cesky Krumlov is known for its good Czech beer, especially that which is produced from its very own brewery. Established in the mid 16th century and named after the noble family who owned it in the 17th century, Pivovar Eggenberg Brewery has produced quality beer ever since. Guided tours introduce visitors to how their beer is made followed by beer tasting of their dark and light lagers. The brewery was also used as a film location for the 2006 movies Hostel and The Illusionist.
In the years proceeding the fall of the Iron Curtain, Cesky Krumlov established itself as not only a widely popular tourist destination, but also an important Czech cultural center. This is no more apparent than experiencing one of the many festivals hosted by the city two of the most prominent being the Five-Petalled Rose Festival and the Cesky Krumlov International Music Festival.
If anyone had any doubts of Cesky Krumlov’s medieval origins, the Five-Petalled Rose Festival will once and for all put them to rest. Deriving its name from the Rozmberk Dynasty crest, which was mentioned earlier in this article as being located on the entrance of the castle, this festival brings the city’s medieval past to life more so than any old building or museum artifact could ever do. Held on the weekend of summer solstice in June, the festival transforms the Old Town into a medieval world complete with craftsman, musicians, artists, knights, fair maidens, emperors, kings and queens all dressed in period costumes, which the locals are also seen wearing for the fun of bringing back the city’s medieval roots; all of this takes place under the flickering lights of torches and the thick aroma of savory meats roasting over an open fire. Numerous activities take place at the castle, local parks and along the banks of the Vltava including historical dance performances, folk theater, jousting and medieval sword fighting. The conclusion of the festival is not so medieval, but nonetheless entertaining: an impressive pyrotechnic show of fireworks flowering the dark sky with booms and brilliant colors above the castle.
The Cesky Krumlov International Music Festival takes place indoors and out at various locations throughout the town during the months of July and August. It features international music greats coupled with a rich mix of musical genres including symphonies, philharmonics, blues and ballet performances. Tickets sell out quickly for this popular event, but the town is almost always enveloped by the music that can even be enjoyed from afar while seated at an outdoor café with a dark lager and a bread bowl of goulash. There are many other small, yet just as entertaining music festivals sprouting up every few months in recent years. One of these is the Open Air Krumlov held annually in late June at the Eggenberg Brewery Garden in the city that features the latest in Blues, Rock and Soul.
Cesky Krumlov is indeed a city of history and culture that warrants more than a day visit, especially in the summer months (there are tourists who do just that based out of Prague, which is a only a few hour train or car trip from Cesky Krumlov) where there is so much going on to the point even a weekend isn’t enough to experience it all. The benefits of a night stay is immediately appreciated following a fine dining experience and a little pub crawl — there are many bars in the Old Town — with a romantic walk along the ancient streets enveloped by the soft glow of the castle lights sparkling in the moonlight high above the town.
Any time of year is good to visit Cesky Krumlov, especially the summer months where a tour of its historical architecture is combined with the many festivals taking place. However, the summer months see the most crowds, sometimes overwhelming waves of them, who can make touring this otherwise enchanting town somewhat of a laborious chore for those not inclined to ambling about with large groups of people. However, the summer months have another advantage over the colder ones: water sports. With the Vltava being such a hotspot for water sports and Cesky Krumlov a popular port of call for many floating and/or paddling down this river, there is several shops that rent out rafts, tubes, kayaks and canoes in order that visitors can join these small flotillas of rubber, plastic and fiberglass crafts navigating the challenging, yet not treacherous bends of the Vltava; taking a few brief pointers on how to navigate the sharp bends around the town, though, is important.
Cesky Krumlov is without a doubt a hub of historical treasures and cultural flair. More over, it’s a portal transporting its guests to a time long ago that has, in many cases, been otherwise banished to the page of history books and folklore. Cesky Krumlov’s legacy is one of seemingly magical proportions bringing the sight, sounds, feel and smell of medieval Europe back from the dark depths of the past and into the grasp of modern man to learn from and thus appreciate this long-gone world of knights’ tales, and kings’ iron rule or enlightening inspiration that helped shape not only the Bohemian frontier, but also the entire continent into what it is today. For further information about what Cesky Krumlov has to offer, visit the English link of the Cesky Krumlov website.