I eagerly added Cesky Krumlov as a side trip after doing some research and discovering just how close it was to Munich and Salzburg. I have heard about this small town through the grapevine with visitors raving about its cobblestone streets, medieval heritage and winding river.
I was not disappointed. It’s a small, quiet town – especially at night – but during the day it was bustling with tourists. I was also surprised to see how many were Asian, to be honest, as I didn’t realize that Cesky Krumlov was on the “tour group trail”. I later found out that it’s the second most visited town in the Czech Republic, after Prague.
I took the train to Salzburg and then took a shuttle to Cesky Krumlov. It’s not the easiest town to get to if you’re not coming from Prague – a couple of Americans staying in my hostel were also in Munich but their trip to Cesky Krumlov took almost twice as long as mine. They had a Eurail pass, so that was one motivation to take the train, but for me the pricing was similar and the timing preferable to take the shuttle from Salzburg. We were on the highway until around Linz, Austria, when the roads became narrower and the progress slowed down. I thought it was neat when we passed the now unused border crossing – Czech Republic has joined the Schengen Agreement which means there is no requirement for border controls.
The castle and its Baroque Theatre were of interest to me – construction commenced on the castle in the 1300’s by the Rosenberg family, whose family crest included a rose. Once I learned about the history of the town, and of the Rosenberg family, I started to see small roses on many of the buildings throughout the historical centre… it’s amazing what a bit of context teaches you when you visit a place. Also – the castle has had bears living in the moat for the past 400 years.
I had budgeted for the castle, but I was still surprised at how expensive it was. The Baroque Theatre tour cost a cool CZK 300 – which, to put in context, is about €11. The castle tour, which I took later, was CZK 250 or about €9. I ended up being the only person on the tour of the Baroque Theatre and the guide told me that it had just opened for the season and that I was actually her only English speaker so far. She had to struggle a couple of times to find the right words, but it was a fascinating tour.
The first theatre was built in the 1600s but when the Eggenberg family took over the castle they “modernized” many parts of it, including the castle, and changed things into the Baroque fashion. The theatre was only lightly used during its time and then it sat, basically forgotten, until the mid 1960s when the government decided it should be restored and preserved. They found over 600 costumes in the storage areas, used in productions in the mid 1700s. As I was the only person on the tour, I got to play with all of the sound effect machines – these are reproductions of the originals and rather ingeniously create the sound of thunder, wind and rain. I had a particularly strong talent with respect to making it rain.
The original set pieces are in storage as well – the set you see in this photo was painstakingly reproduced – and underneath the stage they have many of the original pulleys and systems in place for quick set changes. There are trap doors and elevators (for lack of a better word – they let the actor slowly rise up or disappear into the stage), which the guide described as dangerous because many of the mechanisms are original, but they are still in use during performances. There are only 20 or so adults allowed on the stage at any one time – we didn’t go on it – and the entrances to the stage are tucked away. I can’t imagine trying to organize 20 performers in the small, cramped space they worked in.
The theatre was kept really cold and is always dimly lit. They replaced the candles on the walls with lights that look like candles, including their output and colour, and the footlights at the bottom of the stage have been replaced to look like the originals but with electricity… but orchestra members still have to use candlelight in order to read their music. We also discussed the financial aspect of the entire endeavour and the guide told me that they struggle with finances and that’s why the ticket prices are so high. They would like to be able to put on more performances (they currently do only two or three a year), but they need to balance their desire for more income with the need to protect the theatre itself. As it is, tours are only limited to 20 people, a maximum of five times per day. Their primary source of restoration funds are the state, private donors and ticket income, but, as the guide pointed out “Czech is a poor country” and therefore they can’t necessarily rely on the government. Every time they raise enough money, they restore something else – a set piece, some costumes, etc. – in order to protect the cultural heritage of the theatre.
I definitely felt better about spending the money on the tickets after I heard that.
The castle tour was an hour long and the guide was running a bit late from an earlier group but she promised our time wouldn’t be cut short. She ushered us through the primary buildings, pointing out how many of the features were original. Wooden floors dating back hundreds of years, giant stoves and even furniture. Murals painted on the walls, fabric wallpaper… much of it apparently hung there close to 300 years ago.
I was surprised to see how little electricity there was in the building and I didn’t notice any fire suppression systems (extinguishers, alarms, etc.) within sight. Some of the rooms had plugs close to the floor for cheap floor lamps, but none of the chandeliers had been rewired. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside the castle, much to the chagrin of a rather irritated American family, therefore I have nothing to share with you.
After the tour I wandered up the hill, into the gardens. Apparently the gardens were listed on a heritage watchlist due to their poor state until American Express made a sizeable donation to their preservation and upkeep. It was the views of the town from the walk up the hill that were the most impressive, to be honest – the gardens themselves were attractive but it was too early in the season for things to be in full bloom.
I spent the rest of the day wandering the town, strolling down the alleys, watching the people pass by and taking a lot of photos. I don’t actually think that you can take a bad picture in Cesky Krumlov – the town is so painfully picturesque and beautiful that there is something to see around every corner.
You can’t really tell from this photo, but the cobblestones throughout the town all slant towards the drainage systems. It was excellent civil engineering, however the smoothly worn and slanted cobblestones make walking a treacherous experience during the rain.
The streets in the old town are a “pedestrian zone” which means that pedestrians, of course, get the right away. Traffic is heavily discouraged from using the main streets during the day – and for good reason as the streets are full of snap-happy pedestrians, focusing on the architecture and not on the crazy driver coming up behind them. I would like to see some of Old Quebec adopt this approach!
There are bars and restaurants all along the river, most advertising their “teresa” which means terrace. For a while I just thought every restaurant was named after someone named Teresa…
This bridge connects the castle to the Baroque Theatre and the outbuildings. My guide told me that there is a passageway at the top of the bridge which connects through the attics of all of the buildings, allowing someone to move between the full length of the castle, if they so desire. It seems to me like a defensive weak point, but maybe I just watch too many movies.
One of the “things to do” in Cesky Krumlov is to raft down the river. The hostel where I was staying has a “rafting pub crawl” which they offer during the summer, but it was too early in the season. I was also told, by a source I will not name, that there were cheaper ways to do the rafting trips if one is interested. We passed a big smelly paper plant which was located along the river bank before reaching Cesky Krumlov and I can’t help but wonder whether it was the same river – and I suspect it was – and whether or not anything is or has been dumped into the water which could make falling in the river a less than ideal proposition.
I wasn’t ambitious enough to rent a raft for myself (or a canoe) and the American girls staying in the hostel with me weren’t really motivated either, so we decided against it.
The streets were quiet when we were there, especially in the evenings, but the guy who ran our hostel told us that we came just before the rush. On my last night in Cesky Krumlov there were three people in the hostel, including myself. The next night? There were 72 beds spoken for, at last count, in a 75 bed hostel. I had a perfectly pleasant and relaxing visit to the town and I honestly can’t imagine it once the rush hits. I have a feeling the streets will be a lot fuller and the nightlife considerably more vibrant in the days ahead!