In his delightful book Danubia, the British writer Simon Winder describes this unbelievably beautiful little town thus:
“I would hate to appear to be working for the Czech tourist board, but the pleasures of Český Krumlov really are almost too great. It is still not really part of anyone’s consciousness even though it has been easy to visit since 1989. The whole area of southern Bohemia was thinly settled and mainly German-speaking – Egon Schiele’s mother came from the town and he lived there for a time, creating some of his most wonderful pictures.
Like many Bohemian castles, Český Krumlov was expropriated for use by the Nazis and then fell into disrepair. The ravages of the 1945 expulsion of German-speakers added to the feeling of it dropping off the map. In the Cold War the town was the front line, with a deserted zone to the south between itself and Austria. Part of me would be happy to live here – although this is a doubtful and promiscuous favour I feel like extending to at least two dozen other former Habsburg towns.”
I can only say to Winder’s comments, ”YES!” Český Krumlov is beyond picturesque, a nearly perfectly preserved medieval town that, despite being discovered by the tour busses, is not overly kitschy, and still feels like a real, authentic, lived-in place, albeit full of medieval and Renaissance buildings and shops for touristy things. After reading so many accounts of the place, and having it recommended by my Czech experts, we decided that, given this unseasonably warm late-autumn weather, we would rent a car and go visit. Oddly enough, there is no train service to Český Krumlov from Vienna, only tour busses. I wanted to drive through the countryside in any case, and the town is only three hours from Vienna, so driving was the best possibility. We almost cancelled because I was under the weather, but I’m glad we decided to go. The whole trip, with one night in a nice pension in the Latran and the car rental for two days, cost us less than $200.
Because it is already getting dark here by about 4:30, the sun was just disappearing as we entered the old town. This was the view from our attic room in the Pension Faber. Romantic, eh? The hotel, run by a very young couple who looked like they could have come from Iowa, was completely deserted. Once the nice young man checked us in, he left the building, so we were the only people in the entire place! Because we had rented the cheapest room (for $45!), we were up on the second floor in an attic room that had 400-year-old beams and a slanted roof so we kept hitting our heads on the ceiling when we stood up from bed. Like every hotel in Europe, the blankets were feather beds, which were in the weather we are having now, decidedly too warm, so we ended up taking the sheets off the featherbeds, and using them as our covers!
Now on to the wonderful houses and streets of Český Krumlov. This house above, with its amazingly painted facade, was directly across the street from our pension, and the first one we saw when we went out onto the street. A Gothic house, it was rebuilt in the mid-16th century.When occupied by a rope maker in 1580 who wanted to impress the town’s rulers the Rosenbergs, the facade was painted with the Rosenberg coat-of-arms at the top and the ”Rosenberg Rider” in the middle. Covered in the 18th century with a Baroque facade, these frescoes were only uncovered during restoration in 1981.
The town is filled with such early gems, many of them covered in frescoes or old sgraffito designs from the 16th century. This gray building, which I originally thought must be a modern interpretation, is described in the tour guide as one of the rare remaining sgraffiti figural paintings, done by visiting Italian artists in the late 16th century.
The most amazing, and in some ways overwhelming, aspect of the town is the Castle structure, looming well above the place on a cliff high over the river. We first saw it at night, beautifully illuminated for full effect.
As Simon Winder remarks about this amazing structure, it appears to grow organically out of the rock of the cliff, and then, as we saw more clearly in the daytime, was painted with brilliant pinks and greens to appear less forbidding. (And read Winder, p. 114, for an hilarious account of the bear moat–which still exists!)
In the morning, George got up and wandered before I was awake, and came back overwhelmed with discoveries. So we retraced his steps, going down every little alleyway, until we came to the first riverbank of the Vlatava; the town is constructed on the islands in the horseshoe curve of this river. And there they were: Egon Schiele’s houses! This section of town on the other side of the river is called Parkán, still inhabited, and still showing laundry hanging on the balconies. The river is also quite luscious, and you can walk along it at several points throughout the town.
We then walked across the bridge of this curve of the Vlatava, to the town’s main square, again visiting all the little streets and alleys, finding artistś studios, and restaurants in old buildings, including this one, called ”U dwau Maryi,” or The Two Maries, which is located in a wonderfully restored 17th-century house, and is dedicated to traditional Bohemian cooking. The menu even included a history of Czech cookery, presented in 4 languages! It was warm enough that we could sit out on the patio, which is right on the river. Magical!
This was, however, the only place where we encountered busloads of tourists–in this case, Japanese women, who were most interested in using the tiny old bathroom to brush their teeth! I’m so glad we were able to visit in the off-season, when so few people were on the narrow cobblestoned streets. At night, it was wonderful to walk and have the streets entirely to ourselves. I expected at times to hear a town crier walk by to tell us the town gates were closing.
Finally, we strolled over to the next section between the rivers, to the main square, where musicians were performing as a wine festival began:
Wonderful old instruments and great musicians.
We also managed to go to the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, which I expected to be a tourist trap, but which turned out to be a serious little museum, with exhibitions devoted to Czech and local artists of Schiele’s period. One of the displays was of the photographs of Josef and Frantisek Seidel, who had a photo studio in Český Krumlov for some 40 years. We then walked over to Seidel’s original studio, now a museum of his work. This street in turn led us up to the newly restored synagogue, one of the only Jewish buildings to survive the Nazi occupation. The plaque on the side of the building reads, in Czech: ”Here is where our fellow believers who were martyred under the Nazi occupation, called out to God.” I have just read that although it has a cafe and authentic interiors, it is now run by the Egon Schiele Art Center, and will be used to have exhibits about Jewish life in Central Europe. This means, of course, that there is not a minyan in Český Krumlov.
At this stage, while taking a photo of jack o’ lanterns in the window of a preschool, as evidence of the spread of American culture even in the Czech countryside, I fell backwards on a cobblestone and smashed myself and the camera to the ground. We have, surprisingly, both survived relatively unscathed, but we decided then that we might give up the glories of this cozily majestic town and its cobblestones and head back to Vienna. We drove on small country roads through little Czech villages until we came to the Austrian border, where we joined a larger highway, and got back to Vienna just in time to hit a major Stau–a traffic jam–into the city.
Despite this nasty cold that I am now fighting as I write this up, I am still in a haze of enchantment about Český Krumlov, the Czech people, and the fairy-tale-like forests and countryside. I’m with Simon Winder: I can really imagine living here quite happily.