Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Another Czech Fairy Tale Town

My Australian flatmate had a buddy come in to town from Down Under and was struggling to find something entertaining to do. Not that traipsing around Prague for a few days and drinking beer isn't entertaining, he just figured it would be nice for his mate to see something other than Prague. I suggested going where pretty much every Czech person has told me to go, a little town in the southwestern part of the country called Český Krumlov. It's about 25 kilometers from the Austrian border.
It is a fairly simple thing to get to Český Krumlov from Prague, just buy a train ticket. I'm sure there is a bus that goes there, but I didn't even entertain the option, for a few reasons. The first one is that I'm tall and the idea of spending three hours with my knees compressed into the seat in front of me is not very appealing. The other reason is that if you buy more than one ticket you get a group rate. The group rate clocks in at 300kc per person, that's about 15 U.S. dollars or 11 Euros -- round trip. If you go to the station and buy a train ticket for one person you're looking at 520kc or something close for the same round-trip passage. You will have to change to a regional commuter train in Český Budějovice and carry on to Český Krumlov. 
The train ride from Prague to Český Budějovice is pretty much the same old same old. Granted the Czech countryside is quite pretty in a north east Texas kind of way, but we left pretty early and the sun was coming up and burning a hole in my eyes so I didn't do much gazing out the window. Besides when you are traveling with more than one Australian you don't have to look far for entrainment. 

So we hopped on our train at 07:13 and took a seat in a comfortable cabin. The train rolled out of the station at 07:15. When the conductor can to check our tickets she politely informed us that we were in first class. This was amusing because on a Czech Railways train "first class" looks a lot like "second class" on a Deutche Bahn train. We made a few jokes as we schlepped our sleepy selves toward steerage and were glad we didn't see any dancing Irish people or Leonardo DiCaprio. We settled on a compartment with a young Czech couple and their new-born son and some guy who had hopped on the wrong train. While we merely neglected to look at the two-foot tall number painted on the side of the car that tells you what class it is, this guy had managed to somehow get on a train basically going a completely wrong direction. The conductor made him get off at the next station.

Really the trip was pretty quiet. You would think being stuck in a train compartment with two Aussies would be pretty loud, but they were well behaved and used their nearly-inside voices as they told each other how stupid the other one was. Really, the newborn was quieter, but he was pretty tired. The only time he made any noise was when he woke up for breakfast. Mom politely apologized to us for opening the breast buffet for junior and the kid didn't make a peep for the rest of the trip. We were actually more surprised by mom excusing herself for feeding her child than we were by the act itself, which was no bother at all. I'm guessing she thought we were all American, and there was a time once when some Americans were offended by such things. We're a much more enlightened species now, but it's only been a few years and word travels slow.
We arrived in Český Budějovice with about 15 minutes to make our connection, so we grabbed a few sodas and figured out which platform we were supposed to be on. As it turns out, when you buy your Czech Railways ticket online the ticket tells you that every train leaves from platform 2. It's not very helpful, but if you know how to read a departure board you'll be fine.
We took our seats on the commuter train and I immediately looked to my left and saw what I can only describe as a Korean War reenactment enthusiast, or an Amerifile. This guy was wearing Korean War era dungarees sporting a Second Infantry Division patch and had a vintage backpack as well. The only things that gave him away were the Nike sneakers and American Glory t-shirt. Oh yeah and the Czech he was speaking, anyone could be having a beer at 10:00 in the morning.
The train cut through a beautiful forest. It really was like something out of a film. Tall trees with narrow, barren trunks and lush foliage at the top. The floor of the forest was verdant with abundant ground cover. The light danced through the canopy and broke through in spots giving the whole place a mystical feel. After a while though the forest gave way to some hilly plains and we started passing small villages that the commuter train services. Places like Zlatá Koruna and other tiny places that I'm sure have names, but really just look like a village consisting of a few houses and a beer garden. We stopped once to let some mountain bikers off and I'm pretty sure the rail station doubled as the crossing. 
After our roughly three hour and 40 minute voyage the train stopped at Český Krumlov and we got off, duh. As we were trying to figure out how to get to the town center we walked past a pub in full swing. I suppose if I lived in the rural Czech Republic and didn't have anything else to do on a Saturday morning I'd go have a beer too. Coffee is for sissies. 
Fortunately in most towns and villages that tourists like to visit there are signs pointing you to the center. We followed those. The town center is in a valley where the Vlatava River makes a loop and you have to walk down a hill to get there. Fortunately there is a vista point at the top of the hill and you are greeted with a spectacular view of the place. Although it is just a taste of what you get once you are finally in the center of town.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This is the view that greets you before you walk down the hill and to the town center. It's pretty much impossible not to get to the town center.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Just walk across the bridge on the right there and keep going straight.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This is the back of the gate to town. It's what you see when you're heading back to the train. Fortunately there is a great bar just on the other side of the bridge, where the last photo was taken, where you can get 25kc beers to go for that long walk back up the hill. Make sure you ask nicely though, because even if you do it in Czech the old guy who runs the place still might not know what you mean.

It really was funny. I asked for three beers to go, in plastic cups. He then turned to a guy at the next table and asked him if he spoke English, the man replied in the negative but that didn't stop them from having a two-minute conversation about our to-go beers. The woman with the man at the table spoke some English and asked me if I wanted beer in plastic cups. I said yes, she then told the guy running the place what I had told him and everything was fine. The two-minute conversation was the funniest part. But I digress from this stream of conscience diatribe. 
We made our way to the center by walking basically a straight line down the main drag. While there are many narrow, windy streets it's pretty much impossible to get completely lost in this place because it is so small. We were a bit peckish and well parched from our long journey and knew we needed to find brunch soon.
The first place we came to was situated smack in the middle of main-drag tourist-trap central and one peek at the menu revealed that beers were 60kc each. Here's a tip for travelers, look at the beer prices first, they give you a great idea of what everything else will cost. Or maybe our priorities were a bit out of order. Six of one...
We soldiered on and came to a bridge over the Vlatava and saw Shangri-la on the far bank. It's called Krčma, which means "tavern" or "pub" and we knew it was the place. They had a fantastic-looking beer garden set up right on the bank of the river with a epic view of the castle and town as well as the folks canoeing and rafting the river.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

This is the view from the bridge. Pretty awesome.

After we crossed the bridge we saw the tavern was on the first street to the the left. We headed that way and had a brief moment of panic when we saw a sign for a vegan restaurant. While the tavern had some vegetarian cuisine the menu was primarily meat.
We settled in and got some beers and then ordered a colossal meal two servings of pheasant and one of rabbit served family style and for dessert ice cream with fruit and some sort of amazingly-good high-test egg liquor. All this for the equivalent of $15 each, beers included, with this view:

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Yeah, I know it's not too much different than the view from the bridge and my lens wasn't wide enough to get the river without cutting the buildings off at the top so this is what you get. The place was great. I will say though that this was my first time eating domestic pheasant and I prefer the wild ones. The domesticated birds just taste too mild, it was a preparation issue at all and was tasty, but not what I'm used to.

After brunch we just spent an hour or two just wandering around the town. We didn't stop in anywhere. We were just taking everything in a checking out all the cool, narrow, winding streets.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I found these awesome reflections on the wall of this abandoned building and decided they were photo worthy. Just before this we went past a channel around a weir for the boaters to go though and I snagged my tourism board photo.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, rafting, Church of St. Vitus.

This really does look like a lot of fun and I think I'll have to make a trip back just to do it. We saw signs advertising boat rentals for something like 200kc per hour. It is possible to start outside of town and float all the way to Zlatá Koruna. I'm told it is also possible to take week-long trips on the river in this part of the country and that they are great trips where you camp on the banks. The church in the back is the Church of St. Vitus.

I also took a photo of the church without boaters in it. I even thought of sticking my finger in the water, but it smelled of effluent outflow so I decided better. 

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, Church of St. Vitus

We crossed the river again after this and made our way to the castle. To get there we had to pass under this elegant viaduct-looking thing.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

I was constantly voicing my amazement with how the walls of the castle were built right around rock outcroppings and this bridge is an impressive, surely due to necessity, to link the parts of the castle.

Up the hill we hiked and then took a stroll through the castle. It is a beautiful sight, but there is one problem we all agreed on. I think the castle is made mostly of brick and has been plastered over. So, a decision was made to paint stone bricks on the plaster. It looks a bit hokey when you're close up to it. If you compare the fake stone at this castle to the fake wooden stones Mt. Vernon is made from there really is no comparison. From an artistic perspective it is impressive. 
The view from the back part of the castle gives a great idea of the size of the town and how the river goes around it.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

As we walked from one courtyard to the next we crossed the moat. It's your basic moat -- a giant trench. There is one thing about this moat that is a little different and it isn't the fact that there isn't any water in it.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, moat bears, bear

These badboys have been in this moat since about 1700. Not these specific bears, obviously. If you have bears in your moat, you're pretty cool in my book. Granted they weren't really for protection and now they are totally for show. The three of them seem quite content.

After we checked out the moat we threw down the 130kc to look at the inside of some of the castle and climb the Little Tower. The Little Tower is the round one on the left in the photos above. Really, get the combo ticket. It's 100kc just for the castle visit and 50kc to climb the tower so might as well do both for less.
The view from the tower is unreal and I took a few panoramic photos. It didn't stitch together all that well, but it is still nice.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Just ignore the unconnected cable on the right there. If you look to the left of the bridge to where the umbrellas are on the river bank you will see the tavern where we had lunch.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

The Church of St. Vitus really dominates the scenery. From the tower I spotted a classic Ford Mustang. We decided we'd wander around a bit more and try and find them.

There was a Mustang club car show of some sort at the Eggenberg brewery in town and I hate to say it really wasn't anything special. Most of the cars were modern. One person did have Old Glory flying from the antenna of his 2010 Mustang though. Really the VW parked by the stone wall outside the Mustang show was more interesting to me.

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic, VW Beetle, Volkswagen Beetle, Beetle, VW

It was getting late after we saw the Mustangs and so we decided to start and make our way back toward the train station. The last train out of town leaves at 19:00 and we didn't want to miss it, because it's the last train. Also, the two Aussies I was with wanted to check out a military surplus store they saw in town.

I took a look in the store and was not very impressed, but evidently there were a lot of items which are quite illegal in Oz so they were thrilled. They told me the legal items like clothing were a fraction of the price they would have been in Oz too. I got bored pretty quickly and wandered outside to watch people. Evidently this guy had the same people-watching plan I did.

I was not quite so bored as this guy.

Once the Aussies emerged from the military store we decided we had enough time to grab another beer and make the train. So we did. We made it back in to Prague around 22:40. We should have been in at 22:30 but there was a delay leaving Český Budějovice. Kudos to our engineer making up 25 minutes without derailing.
Český Krumlov is very pretty and deserves at least another trip. I will go back for sure. The place really does look like it is out of a fairy tale. Also, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whatever that means.

Related Articles