Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic - for me home, for you an unforgettable experience
21.07.2011 29 °C
What do you do when you are born in one of the most beautiful places in the World? You might appreciate its natural beauty and architectural and historical heritage. You might embrace the picturesque surroundings and savour life in an area that others travel from afar to set their eyes on. I left.
Český Krumlov is a magnificent example of a medieval town ribboned with the river Vltava, overlooked by an imposing 13th-century castle. Often considered the most visit-worthy place in Bohemia together with Prague, the historical town is not part of the UNESCO world heritage for nothing. Yet, I spent most of my teenage years painfully aware of the limited opportunities this area has to offer and busied myself devising plans of grand departure. Not to mention that when you grow up with something truly unique right under your nose, often you fail to appreciate it enough. This was certainly true in my case and only after living abroad for a couple of years and coming back for holidays, did I see this special place with the eyes of a traveller and gave it the recognition it deserved.
Once upon a time, Český Krumlov was a hidden gem and the best guarded secret of us Bohemians. But with the fall of the iron curtain and the boom of tourism, its quaint cobbled streets, charming medieval architecture and fragrant castle gardens got quickly swamped with those ‘in the know‘. The town’s wow-generating potential became magnet for tourists and travellers seeking something ‘off the beaten track‘, which consequently made Český Krumlov the exact opposite. Despite all this, it remains the place not to be missed.
Having found myself once again sitting in my parent’s house and trying to convince my mother that I am neither hungry, nor cold, I decided to write about this place I grew up in. Even though that is not strictly true. The place I grew up in is a tiny village a short distance from the town itself which would make for a very short read indeed. In fact it is so small, our houses are numbered in the same order in which they are built, making it every postman’s nightmare. And it will get worse looking at the speed the local offspring is building houses in their parents gardens. Including my brother that is. Hmmm.
But let me tell you about Český Krumlov, starting with the name itself. Not unusual for a town with a long history, its name has been through a number of transformations before settling on its present form. Having said that, all its past names seem to have been inspired by the S-shaped river Vltava winding through the core of the town. This also applies to its present name ‘Krumlov‘. It is though to have come from Latin ‘castrum Crumnau’ or ancient German ’Crumbenowe’, meaning something like a ‘rugged meadow’. And it doesn‘t take a linguist to work out the meaning of Český. Yup, it is Czech.
For those of you who are contemplating paying Český Krumlov a visit, here are some hints and tips that should help you to make the most of your stay.
When to go
Colder months in Český Krumlov are dedicated to hibernation, making it an ideal get-away for romantic walks and cosy mulled-wine breaks in one of its inviting restaurants and cafe’s. Although the colder it is, the fewer people are in the streets, which is also the reason why most attractions are closed. This includes the fantastic castle tours and the Rotating Theater set in the Castle gardens. So if you are up to some action and want to get more out of your visit, try to time your stay for one of the warmer months. In the summer, although the number of people in the streets balloons, the chilled atmosphere and plenty of great ‘do and see’ things on offer offset the crowds.
Things to do and see
This year the town has launched a Český Krumlov Card, which is rather rare for towns as small as this and only emphasizes the interest Český Krumlov generates. Price is 200 CZK per adult, so around 8 EUR, and comes even cheaper for groups and families. You can visit the Castle Museum and Castle Tower, the Regional Museum, the Seidel Photographic Studio Museum, and the Egon Schiele Art Centrum for 50% of its price. And best of all, it is valid for full 30 days and transferable! Guess what I’ll be doing when I’m there next. Unfortunately my weekend break was not quite long enough to escape unnoticed by my parents, who took it upon themselves to show me just how much I am missing when living abroad. Home sweet home.
If you want to take part in something traditional, then you should not miss the ‘Celebrations of the Rose‘ (Slavnosti pětilisté růže) in the second half of June. Running each year since 1500’s, this three days festival will take you back to the times of the last Rosenberg’s. Absolute highlights are the famous historical procession through the old town full of nobility, jesters, artisans and other medieval creatures, jousting tournament near the Castle Gardens and many musical and theatrical performances. Traditional medieval stalls are spread throughout the town. Here you can treat yourself to warm bread straight from the oven, fresh honey, pint of beer or a handmade souvenir. All this is topped up by a spectacular Sunday fireworks display right above the castle, accompanied by a classical music soundtrack, giving it a Walt Disney-style ending. If you are more like me and prefer to get involved instead of just watching, hire a medieval costume from the local theatre or bring your own and join in the parade. You might be thinking it all sounds too good to be true. You are right. The catch is, of course, that everyone else wants to get a peace of this spectacle, making it impossible to book accommodation / table / or anything else last minute. So plan well ahead and you are guaranteed to have fantastic time.
Pitched on the rocks overlooking the old town, it is impossible to miss the extensive Castle Grounds with its well-kept gardens, series of courtyards and beautifully painted castle tower. And nor would you want to. Being one of the most important historic landmarks in the country and central Europe, you can spend a full day here and still won’t see everything. If you are back-packing, you can leave your bag in the Left-luggage office whilst exploring the complex.
Soon after entering the castle grounds through the main gate, a gentle stroll uphill in the first courtyard will be rewarded with what used to be one of many fortification mechanisms of the Castle. The famous bear moat. All time favourite of little visitors as well as adults, dating back to the 16th century, this protective moat has hosted a number of bear celebrities over the centuries and still does. The skins of some of these can be seen during the castle tours, often with a captivating story added by the tour guides.
The best way to see the town from bird-perspective is by walking the 162 stairs up the Castle Tower. The views are spectacular and definitely worth the climb. Apart from the entry to the Tower, the second courtyard, being the biggest of the five, also hosts the Mint, Dairy and other important buildings so take your time to snoop around.
My favourite courtyards are the third and fourth. The painted walls are to die for and it is also the starting point for a number guided tours that will take you through the interiors of the castle. There are number of tours to choose from and they all have something so if you have the time, I suggest you treat yourself and do the works.
Another good viewpoint is from the Cloak Bridge (Plástovy Most), where you can see the Vltava river winding below the castle and the old town on the other bank. Made infamous by occasional suicide jump, this bridge takes you to the Castle Gardens and the absolutely spectacular Baroque Theatre, unprecedented in the world. The interior with its original machinery, decorations, stage and even costumes and props have been restored to its former glory, allowing a unique insight into this kind of establishment in times long past. Before I take you to the Castle gardens, you might also want to pop into the recently opened Castle Museum. This is the one museum I have not been to yet, but its advertising promises a wealth of information on the Castle and life during the Rosenberg, Eggenberg and Schwarzenberg times. Not to mention you can use the Český Krumlov Card here.
If the weather is nice, you should definitely pay a visit to the Castle Gardens. To get there you need to walk quite a bit uphill, but don’t let it put you off. The gardens have a long rectangular shape and offer plenty of opportunities to relax and enjoy the intricately sculpted shrubs, colourful flower-beds and water fountain, as well as slightly wilder-looking section with a fish pond and tall lime trees, formerly used as a horse-riding ground. It is in this leafy part of the garden, where you can find another of Český Krumlov’s treasures – The Revolving Theatre (Otáčivé hlediště)
Not a spectacle in itself, it is the experience this provides when you see a performance that will leave you full of impressions and memories to be remembered for years to come. Set by the Bellarie summer house and surrounded by ancient trees, its rotating auditorium is right in the middle of the action so you will feel part of the scene. Opened between June and September, the theater hosts a variety of performances from plays to operas and ballets, which makes it ideal for those of you who don’t speak Czech. Most of you, I guess. Bare in mind that performances start after dark and after an hour sitting down it can get a bit chilly so bring a blanket. Or a rain jacket if you are less lucky. Like with everything popular though, don’t leave booking your tickets too late or you might be disappointed. The programme and online booking can be found on this site.
This was just a selection of some of the key to do and see things in the Castle complex, although if you are feeling very energetic and have plenty of time, there is more in the castle and outside. With the old town in UNESCO since 1992, you will be surrounded by sightseeings wherever you go, so browse through the cobbled streets, pop into the St. Vitus church, get an ice cream at the Náměstí Svornosti with its water fountain and Plague Column used for the infamous witch-burnings in the past, and admire the castle from Lazebnický Most, a wooden bridge across Vltava. There are plenty of small museums and galeries scattered throughout the town so take your time to find what is right for you or just take advantage of the many pubs and cafe’s with outdoors seetings. Regional Museum offers quite a selection of artefacts and gives a good insight into the history of the whole area. Plus to get there through the town, you have to walk past one of the best view points, from where you can admire the entire castle complex perched on the rocks. You can also visit the Museum Fotoatelier Seidl, taking you back to the beginnings of photography and learning about an extraordinary man who lived through some turbulent times. Frantisek Seidl dedicated his life to capturing the landscape of Šumava national park and his house and atelier have been restored including original furniture and photographic materials from his era. Plus it is another sight covered by the Český Krumlov Card .
For those of you who like beer or are just interested in the secret of its making, make sure you visit the Eggenberg brewery. With over 156 liters of beer per person per year, we Czechs are proud winners of the highest beer consumption per capita, making us not only a force to be reckoned with but also undeniable capacities in the arts of beer making. All tickets include at least a liter of beer gratis, and if you want to combine this with lunch or dinner, get a ticket that allows you to sample some of the brewery‘s tasty dishes. If you are alone or a couple, just turn up by the main brewery gate from 11am. Groups need to book in advance. And if you manage to time your visit as well as I did this year, the brewery gardens host a Blues, Rock and Soul festival (Open Air Český Krumlov) at the beginning of July. This is (supposed to be) an annual event that only just started this year so bring a blanket and picknic and be enterntained.
If music is what you are after, the months of July and August host the International Music Festival Český Krumlov, with plenty of indoor and outdoor concerts of different music genres. You will need a ticket to get in but don’t forget that the town itself is rather small so outdoor concerts can easily be enjoyed from nearby beer gardens.
It is not only the town itself but also the surrounding area that render a visit. One of the best ways to see the surrounding area is canoing or rafting down the Vltava river through the Czech country side and of course, Český Krumlov itself. You can time this from half a day to a week, depending on how much time and money you want to spend. The usual starting point is in Vyšší Brod and it is not difficult to get to Český Krumlov in half a day. The longest route is from Vyšší Brod to České Budějovice which needs an overnight stay in one of the camps on the way. If you are not in a hurry, spreading it across few days will not only allow you to sample the nightlife in the camps and mingle with others but also to explore the towns and villages along the river. There are number of weirs in the way but all are manageable so even if you are a complete beginner but not scared of potentially getting wet, you can try your luck. Best is watching a couple of boats getting through and trying to copy the route they take. The chances are they are seasoned canoers and know the easiest way down. If you are not feeling particularly confident, just pick up your boat and carry it across. Whilst there are companies that can arrange the whole trip including transport to and from pick-up points, canoe / raft rental and even the rental of a plastic can to keep your things dry, the budget option is to arrange the boat rental separately and get a bus or a train to the pick-up point. Or even try hitchhiking. If you want to stay in camps over night, check if you need booking a spot beforehand as it can get quite busy during the summer.
Where to drink and eat
My favourite place to eat is Šatlava in the street Šatlavská ulice. Medieval style tavern with traditional old-Czech dishes prepared on open fire and served by staff in traditional period costumes. The food is delicious and atmosphere is great. The tavern is made-up of a number of rooms, giving the impression of a cellar system and adding to the cosiness of the place. Often, there is live music ala medieval style, making the whole experience even more special. If you want to come in a big group, book in advance. Booking a table is generally recommended even for singles or couples, but outside the season you can try your luck without a reservation.
Another good restaurant is Maštal, hundred meters from Šatlava, in the corner of Náměstí Svornosti. Both, Šatlava and Maštal are right in the heart of Český Krumlov so very convenient places to take a break from exploring the town. Another restaurant worth visiting is in the Eggenberg Brewery, where you can get a brewery tour ticket already including a meal. You will find the entire town is dotted with more or less traditional Czech restaurants, the occasional Italian eatery and loads of pubs that also serve food like Na Louži in Kájovská Ulice (the cheapest options for lunch). The usual rules apply – the further from the centre the cheaper it is. Many youth hostels have their own restaurant and bar, which is a good option for some good but cheap food and drink with other travellers.
Having not lived in Czech for over ten years, I have to admin my knowledge of good places to go out is nowhere near as good as it used to be. But I will do my best to give you a couple of suggestions. The Music and Cocktail Bar, also located just off the Náměstí Svornosti, is great for cocktails and a bit of dance, albeit rather pricey. They have a couple of hundred cocktails on offer, friendly staff and interesting crowd. If you fancy something bit less flashy but still with character, you can try Cikánská Jizba where the locals mix with travellers, creating a relaxed atmosphere. You can also eat here for reasonable price.
For you who are into hard rock and metal music and want to experience something truly local, venture to a pub called U Hada (Snake Bar). This is a virtually unknown spot by tourists, set by the river Vltava in Rybářská Ulice and accessed by an old cellar door leading to an underground room, completed with a snake in terrarium. The beer is cheap, there is plenty of it and you are most likely to be the only traveller there. It comes with a warning though – not for lightweight drinkers. Another rock-themed place, although nowhere near as hard core as U Hada, is the Gorilla Bar. The music is good and loud with students, locals and travellers enjoying this slightly rough-looking pub in a seamless harmony. Unlike in the other bars, there is a table tennis, table football and a pool table making it a great place to chill with friends or locals over a game of something.
Where to stay
Ha, this is a tricky one. Being local, I have never paid for an overnight stay in Český Krumlov so will try to give you some tips based on the feedback I got from others. The first thing to realise is that Český Krumlov is a small town so even if you get a room outside the old town, you can generally walk everywhere. There is perhaps not surprisingly high number of very affordable hostels to choose from, majority being in or on the border of the old town. Hostel 99 seems to be getting the thumbs up from most that stayed there. It is clean, cheap and has its own bar / restaurant, which seems to be always very busy and fun. When the weather is right, the hostel terrace is full and BBQs are a common sight here. It takes around 3 minutes to walk to the Castle and 7 minutes to the Namesti Svornosti so as far as I can tell, it ticks all the right boxes. You even get free beers on Tuesdays.
Another great choice is Hostel Postel. Once again very cheap and clean, set in the old town and short walk to all the major sights. The lady that runs it is very friendly and helpful, often getting out of her way to give tips on how to make the most of your visit. Internet, linen and luggage storage are available making it a convenient stop-over.
Other popular choices are Hostel Krumlov House and Hostel Skippy, where Skippy is located directly by the river Vltava, which makes it with its large patio a great place to relax after a day on the town. They even have a fully stocked guest kitchen, where you can take full advantage of the hosts hospitality and prepare your own meal before hitting the town for a couple of beers.
If you prefer something between hotel and hostel, try one of the many Pensions in the town. The quality and price vary but there is plenty to choose from so do your research before you book. For those of you who don’t know, pension is an equivalent of English Bed and Breakfast, often family-run with the owners personally taking care of their guests. A small tip – try to avoid accommodation alongside street called Budejovicka, direction Domoradice. Although walk-able to the old town, not the nicest area to stay in and there are equally priced places in better locations around Krumlov.
If you are planning a luxury break, the two high-end hotels are Hotel Dvorak and Hotel Ruze. Both have excellent views of the castle, with Hotel Dvorak being directly below the castle by the Vltava river whereas Hotel Ruze benefits from a couple of hundred meters distance to take in the whole castle complex. The most popular is Hotel Ruze, sporting fantastic medieval rooms and common areas decorated with historical artefacts, armouries and swords. The price is rather steep though and given the abundance of quality accommodation in the town…. Tip: see if you can get a tour of the hotel as it is definitely worth seeing and book yourself into one of the cheaper alternatives.
So this was my very non-biased introduction to Český Krumlov. I am sure you can tell I am a big fan of this place and hope you have found this blog post useful. Let us know if you have been to Český Krumlov and what you thought about it or if you are planning to go there and what your plans are.