Ceský Krumlov
The Mecca of Alchemy

karlstejn castle, czech republicThe jewel of southern Bohemia, Ceský Krumlov resembles a miniature medieval theme park, replete with winding cobbled streets, gargoyles galore, even bears and torture instruments. But Ceský Krumlov is real, and now that the hangman's tools are safely stored away in a museum, it's also quite fun. Ceský Krumlov was accorded UNESCO world heritage site status in 1992 and has been getting a lot of attention ever since. During the summer it can be easy to forget what country you're in, as hordes of tourists descend upon the area to view the town's centerpiece and principal raison d´etre, the second largest castle in the Czech Republic. But Ceský Krumlov is indeed home to some 14,600 Czechs, renowned nationwide for their supposedly pitiful driving. Since an atmosphere of medieval splendor does not easily translate to the rules of the road, they can be forgiven for this. Locals are surprisingly friendly and still seem proud to show off their town's attractions.

The Castle

Most of the structures in the old town date from Krumlov´s origins in the 13th and 14th centuries, but subsequent expansion has created an architectural palimpsest of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles. The core of the old town is tucked within a horseshoe bend of the Vltava, across from the castle - which overshadows the town from the other side.

The castle complex itself dates back to before 1253. In 1302 its founders, the Vitkovec family, passed in on to the Rosenberg family, who extended the complex over the next 300 years as the town of Krumlov (the adjective "ceský" was not added until the 15th century) grew up around it.

When the Rosenbergs encountered financial difficulties, they sold the complex to Rudolf II, whose tenure was unremarkable except for the legacy of his illegitimate son, Don Julius, who apparently caused the town's maidens to believe in fairies (expect to see a lot of fairy motifs on your visit). Successive private ownership continued until the mid 20th century, when the state took control.

You need a guide to get into the castle itself. One day tickets cost 60 CZK if you don't mind your guide speaking Czech; otherwise the price is 150 CZK, but the tours are informative and well worth it. Sights to see within the castle complex include the Masquerade Ballroom, where the walls are richly painted with trompe l'oeil figures from a masquerade ball; and the Chateau Theatre, which features costumes, scenery, and lighting fixtures dating back to the 18th century. When you weary of sensory overload, take a wander in the castle gardens or check out the three pet bears in the pits outside the first castle courtyard, another legacy of the Rosenberg years. Don't miss the chance to climb the extraordinary Round Tower for a panoramic view of the town and surrounding area.

The Town
Krumlov's Old Town Square affords easy access to the castle and the town's myriad shops, restaurants and hotels. Note the column in the middle of the square, a kind of anti-memorial erected in thanks by people who were spared from the Plague, or Black Death. Uphill on Horní ulice stands the Gothic 14th century Church of St. Vitus, home to baroque paintings and furniture and resting place of Vilem z Rozmberka, the city's founding father. Visitors can also view the Statue of the Piety (c.1350), and a brief climb up the church tower will reward you with a superb view of both town and castle.

At the top of Horní ulice sits the Regional Museum. Formerly a Jesuit seminary, the museum houses folk art and furniture as well as a huge birds-eye ceramic model of the town, which can help to orient the visitor. Admission is 50 CZK, from 10-6 daily during July and August.

Hidden inside the castle gardens is an open-air theatre with revolving auditorium. If you have time to see a performance here, do - even if you don't like the play on offer. The revolving stage surrounded by the beautiful gardens provides for a unique summer evening experience. For advance tickets and information call 380-711-183 or go to www.jihoceskedivadlo.cz . Tickets are also on sale at the theater one hour before each performance.

The Egon Schiele Centrum is the town's must-see art gallery, named after Ceský Krumlov's most famous artist-in-residence. The Austrian-born Schiele was actually run out of town when the locals tired of his eccentric behavior - and use of young women as nude models (so the story goes). This summer don't miss the large exhibitions dedicated to the musical composer and conductor Arnold Schönberg, the architect Le Corbusier, and the sculptor Jasan Zoubek. The permanent exhibition documents the life and work of Schiele. The address is Široká 70, and the gallery opens daily from 10am to 6pm. Admission is a rather steep 180 CZK.

You don't have to walk around town; you can also float in a canoe, a popular and scenic Krumlov activity. Take the stairs from the Mestské Divadlo (City Theater) on Horní ulice to the riverfront, where you can rent a boat from Malecek Boat Rentals. The cost is 300 CZK for half an hour, 400 CZK in July and August.

Dobrou chut'!
Ceský Krumlov is home to a plethora of fine restaurants and probably features the best cuisine in south Bohemia. The town is crawling with good choices, but here are a few selections:

Named after the love-child of Emperor Rudolph II, Don Julius serves typical Czech food in generous helpings and features a good beer list. Try the Eggenberg dark beer. However the principal appeal is its unusual - and distinctly un-medieval - décor: a car bulging from the wall, headlights on (the better to read your menu), and a toy train whistling and rumbling overhead.

Pivni Katakomby features good food, excellent beef, and more unusual - but in this case decidedly medieval - surroundings. The impossibly narrow stairs spiral endlessly down but you forget all about your vertigo when you finally arrive in the cave that has been hiding under the square (Concordia) for hundreds of years. Perfect for a date. There are 2 separate entrances, one from the square.

Cikanská Jizba is a popular gypsy restaurant. It's very small (7 tables), homey and friendly, often with live gypsy music in the evenings. Try the Gypsy pasta with meat and the house specialty, fruit dumplings (if you haven't had enough by now).

The drinks-only Zapas bar serves sumptuous cocktails and the best selection of whiskey in town in a space that evokes memories of long Mexican nights. Locals sip on freshly prepared Mojitos with dewy fresh mint leaves trucked in daily from a local farm. Who would have expected? Even "Prazané" (Praguers) who come here say this is the best Mojito they have ever had, claims the bartender.

Ceský Krumlov was known as the "Mecca of Alchemists" during the heyday of alchemy in the 16th century, when magicians, con men and other seekers of fame and power trooped to the House of Rosenberg to refine their crafts. That spirit of magical fabulism lingers on today in the winding cobbled streets, the deep catacombs and the splendid castle that looms over the city like a crouching mythological beast. A visitor might tire of the inevitable commercialization, but the town makes for an engaging 1 or 2 day side trip from Prague.

There is a predictably wide array of hotels to choose from, but it's still wise to book ahead during the peak summer months. If you need advance help with these or other arrangements, you can contact the local tourist service at 380-712-210. There is also an information service on the main square at Namestí Svornosti 2.

Hotel Dvorák is a full service hotel with restaurant and bar, conference rooms, even a sauna. A single room here costs 2,800 CZK, and a double 3,500 CZK.

The mid range Hotel Straninger is actually a fancy pension in a comfortable old baroque house with satellite TV, minibars and the usual amenities. Double rooms can be had for 1,950 CZK.

The Traveler's Hostel is a great bargain with comfortable rooms starting at 300 CZK per night, and offers Internet access, wood floors, even a dog named Oscar.

Getting There
Train: approx. 4 hours from Hlavni nádrazí, 250 CZK round-trip

More Info
Don Julius In the Hotel Zlatý Andel, main square Namestí Svornosti 10. Tel: 380-712-310
Pivni Katakomby Namestí Svornosti, tel: 337-772-500
Cikanská Jizba Dlouhá 31, tel: 380-717-585 Zapas Latrán 15, tel.: 380- 712559
Hotel Dvorák Radnicní 101, tel: 380-711-020
Hotel Straninger Široká 49, tel. 380-712-573
Traveler's Hostel Soukenicka 43, tel: 380-711-345