Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Český Krumlov. Too touristy?

Český Krumlov is a gorgeous little town in South Bohemia where a huge château overlooks a sharp bend of the Vltava River. For a lot of travellers it will be the only Czech town they’ll visit outside Prague.

When I first visited it was on the strength of my guidebook that suggested if you only have two days in the country, skip Prague and go to Český Krumlov and České Budějovice. I liked the place so much I stayed two weeks and arranged to come back to help renovate the old stone building that would become Hostel Krumlov House . I stayed six months and left in the summer of 1996.The town has changed a bit since then; at the time there were two hostels of about ten beds each, now there are ten complete hostels, some of them with almost 100 beds each.

Now I know what you’re thinking- “This is going to be another *I was there before you and it was way cooler then* diatribe”. And I forgive you for thinking that, because that-one-upmanship among expats and travellers; (the longer you’ve been away, the more worthwhile you are) is a common phenomenon. But the truth is: the things I loved about Krumlov then are the same things I love about it now. The people, the river, the chateau shadowing your every move, the cosy little cafes and bars for cold days, the arty atmosphere of the place and the welcome extended to outsiders.

Sure it would be nice if you had all that to yourself and paid the prices you paid ten years ago. But watching the current evolution of the town is as fascinating as pondering the evolutions of its past...Like: How did this meadow stuck in the shepherd’s crook of the Vltava river look to the first German settlers in the 1200’s? How did it feel while crazy Don Julius lived in the castle and terrorized the locals? Last century alone the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved (1918) and a new international border sprang up, cutting Krumlov off from the old country, then there was the trauma of the Henlein years, the Munich betrayal and the forced expulsions of Krumlovans after the war. As if that weren’t enough to deal with the Iron Curtain suddenly descended close enough to hear its swish.

The communist years were tough for Český Krumlov and other places so near the Iron Curtain. The new regime preferred to focus its energies a safer distance from unfriendly borders and towns like Krumlov, Slavonice, Znojmo and Mikulov found themselves ignored, forgotten and in some cases even removed from maps. At the time it must have been tough to see the factories, jobs and money going to other places, but the wheel has turned and the lack of heavy industry or modern development makes these towns perfect for tourism.

Český Krumlov’s biggest tourist attraction is the chateau and I wanted to go in before it closed for the winter. I did Tour One through the bedrooms and boudoirs to the masquerade hall with one of the most uninspired guides I’ve heard anywhere. Unfortunately I missed the tour of the baroque theatre, which is one of only four surviving in the world. Never mind, it gives me an excuse to go back in the spring.

The people whose couch I usually sleep on have a new little daughter, so I stayed back in the hostel that I worked on ten years ago. It was pretty basic back then, but it’s almost a work of art now, which is one of the reasons it’s consistently among the highest-rated hostels in the country.

I also went to the Egon Schiele art centre and saw the Keith Haring exhibition, but I think it was finishing too. The rest of the time I spent visiting old haunts and discovering some new ones as I tagged along with my baby-strolling buddies. Deli 99 offers fresh-made sandwiches and other goodies, but my favourite new spot was Antré, which is a non-smoking café beneath the town theatre. Great coffee, good cakes, pleasant personnel and no smoke!

Unfortunately I didn’t get into the Gypsy Bar, which was closed for a private party on the night I wanted to see the house band (the owners’ son and his mates) play. Made it to The Two Marys though, which is an old favourite. It’s down by the river and serves a modern version of medieval Bohemian cuisine; lots of millet and buckwheat, chicken, rabbit and pheasant flavoured with tarragon. And daisies in the cabbage soup. Good stuff! A couple of doors along is the fine teahouse run by experienced and enthusiastic world traveller, fluent English speaking chatterbox and all-round good guy David.

So, as much as it has changed, there's still plenty to draw an old visitor back again and again, and first-timers are bound to be as enchanted by Český Krumlov as at any time in the past. If you can only go to one place outside Prague, it's still one of the best choices.


Bull3t said...

Wow, that is an extensive post! Haven't had time to read it yet, will add it as a bookmark though. I do like what you write about though, it is very interesting and it enlightens me about places in the Czech Republic and Europe. Good luck with your blog!

Captain Oddsocks said...

Thank You, Bull3t.

skaarse said...

Very nice post! I have been to Krumlov over 20 times, and I feel the same; Thing changes, a lot of tourists...but the magic is still there!