Czech This Out!
About three hours south of Prague, down near the Austrian border, lies the castle city of Český Krumlov (pronounced ‘Chess-key Kroom-lohv’ which we will henceforth refer to as CK). This tiny gem is one of the Czech Republic’s finest medieval sites. Its Old Town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, a maze of twisting alleys built around the extensive Český Krumlov castle. It’s easy to spend a full day (it’s so small that’s all you’ll really need) sauntering through narrow, crooked, cobblestone streets while soaking up the atmosphere of this impeccably preserved jewel of Central Europe. The peace and quiet is only broken by the soft rush of the Vltava River, popular with rafting enthusiasts, flowing through the town.
Based on my readings, it seemed as though this would be a nice weekend jaunt, so I hied myself down to the office of Hungary’s national train service, the MAV, and booked my trip. I’d leave Budapest at 7:00 AM, have a two-hour layover in Linz, Austria, entrain for another two-hour-plus journey and then transfer to a local bus service at České Budějovice (I’ll let you try and pronounce this one; from now on, I’ll just call it CB), and arrive in Český Krumlov around 5 o’clock the same afternoon of Thursday, April 23. Piece of strudel.
And it all went as planned. Well, sort of. My first of two nice relaxing train rides got me to Linz, Austria, where I had a two-hour layover. It was lunchtime, and was I ever excited to find a Leberkase stand in the railway station. I loved that stuff when I lived in Germany, and this time one of the offerings was made with chili. Scrumptious.
My next train got me to CB, where my official MAV printed itinerary said I was to change to a bus. What it didn’t say was that I first had to catch a small (two tiny cars) commuter train to the nearby town of Borsov, then hop a bus to CK. Luckily, I found a railroad employee who got me on the right paths after only one mad dash through the train platforms, dragging my bag behind me and screaming, “Wait! Wait!”
It was a cool and cloudy early spring afternoon as I exited the town’s train/bus station. I wasn’t in the mood for a two-kilometer walk just then, plus there was a light rain, so I caught the only taxi in sight to the Hotel Konvice, just off the Old Town’s main square. I was checked in (or should that be ‘Czeched in?’) by the receptionist, Lada, an incredibly helpful and welcoming, not to mention incredibly beautiful, young Czech woman. She took me around the corner to my room in the annex, and was it ever an unexpected surprise. It was HUGE! More like an apartment than a hotel room. It was a large open space, a sitting area with sofas at one end and a large bed at the other, and just empty space in between. There was even a kitchen. I could have held a Sock Hop there for my high school senior class. As I stood and stared at this amazing space, for one of the few times in my travels I wished I had a female companion with me; it was that kind of place.
Anyway, light rain notwithstanding, I popped my umbrella and was off on my standard orientation stroll. It was 5:30 PM and the first thing I wanted after all those train rides was one of those world-famous Czech beers. I spied a nearby bar across the town square and made a beeline for it, only to discover that the bars in CK open at 6 PM. What, was I back in Dubai? Damn! It’s the Czech Republic! World-class consumers of amazing beer. Smoking still allowed in bars and restaurants. And I couldn’t get a damn beer until six o’clock?! Well, Scheisse!
So, OK, rant over and I walked the wet streets and wandered down to the river and peeked in the windows of shops that closed at 5 PM; what did the locals do for that dead hour between closing their shop and beginning the evening’s drinking? Apparently just walk the streets like I did. Anyway, finally, five minutes til six and the Strojovna Music Pub opened its doors early. I rushed in, the only customer in the place, grabbed a barstool, got a menu and found a list of six great local Czech beers on tap. I ordered a Krusjovice and the barely-legal-aged bartender told me, “We don’t have any beers on tap.”
I was pleased to see, however, that this bar had a policy of hiring the handicapped; obviously, the young bartender was born without a personality. Unsmiling, unwelcoming, unapologetic, pretty much one of the Undead, he then informed me they had only one type of bottled beer and he didn’t know if they would have draft beer the following evening. If I hadn’t been so thirsty, I’d have shot him and left. As it was, a Pilsener Urquelle washed away some of my tears.
Not wishing to leave any more of my Czech money there than I had to, I left after the one beer and continued my sojourn around town. CK’s main Old Town occupies the inside loop of a horseshoe bend in the Vltava River and is crammed with cobblestone streets and quaint old buildings. The castle overlooking the town was built in the 13th Century and many of the buildings are still from medieval times. It’s a pristine little town and just made for strolling hand-in-hand with a companion of the moment. Of course, all I wanted was to find a nice quiet bar and have some good Czech beer.
So, next on my Trip Advisor list was the Cikanska Jizba, or Gypsy Bar. It’s actually a restaurant, but they did have some nice tap beer. I wondered briefly what the wheelbarrow parked outside the front entrance was for, until I saw the bartender and his monster stomach nearly dragging on the ground. He turned out to be a genial type, much friendlier than the kid at Strojovna, so I decided to have dinner there also. Along with my Eggenberger beer I had a nice filet of beef in crème sauce with dumplings. Not a calorie in a carload. The only thing that kept me from enjoying my beer and meal fully was something I thought was nonexistent in Europe: smokers! In Czech Republic it is apparently still legal to smoke in public places. Power to the People!
The light rain was off and on, so after dinner I strolled over to the castle district and found the Zapa Bar, another Trip Advisor recommendation. I went in and approached the bar area when a waiter appeared suddenly and loomed over me and asked if he could help me. I told him I just wanted a drink at the bar, and he politely (and snarkily, I’m sure) informed me there was a private party at the bar that night.
Now I’m sure of it: it IS me after all!
If I order something that’s what they’ll be out of; if the cash register tape has to be changed, it will happen as I step up to be checked out; if I just want a simple drink at the bar, there will be a private party in my way. Incredible.
I gave up. I went back to my at-least-wonderful hotel room and pulled the duvet up over my head and went to sleep, hoping tomorrow would be a better day.
And lo and behold, in the cosmic scheme of things, it was! The early-morning sun peeked brightly into the tiny window above my bed and called me to the beautiful day that was to come. The rain had stopped and this day (and the next also) were perfect for exploring, walking, climbing, sipping, eating, drinking, photo-ing and all the other –ings I can think of.
I abluted and partook of the simple but adequate Continental breakfast at my hotel and then set out to see what I could see of CK. A morning trek to the castle district sounded about right, and it was just that. It was sunny but still a touch cool, but would warm up quickly to shorts weather. I strolled around the castle area, checked out the castle itself and wandered the side and back streets to see what I could see.
It was all so…….quaint. Picturesque even, maybe besting Verona in its photogenicity (new word I just made up). I found the pubs and restaurants I’d need later that day (after 6 PM!) and generally soaked up the sunshine and the ambience of CK. People smiled at me and I smiled back. It must be said that CK absolutely oozes, squeezes, bleeds, radiates, exudes charm. I finally had to look for a side street with some graffiti and badly-maintained buildings just to take a break from all that overpowering old-world charm.
I stopped in at Ye Olde Gingerbread House for some mid-morning sweets and had a nice chat with Katerina behind the counter, a lovely young Czech woman who was helping out a friend of hers who owned the shop. The sweetness extended to all levels.
Back across the Old Wooden Bridge and into the center of town I rambled, walking up and down each of the tiny streets, making sure I didn’t miss anything. Since it was early in the season, there weren’t too many tourists around yet, but many of those who were there were Asians. I guess Central Europe is all the rage in Asia these days and the package deals must be very good.
The city is clean and neat, no graffiti in the main tourist areas. It has been beautifully preserved architecturally and has a nice relaxed feel, perfect for ambling and window-shopping and sampling all sorts of treats. I spotted a Chinese restaurant on one side of the main square and, since our places in Budapest leave a bit to be desired for this type of cuisine, thought I’d try it out. Well, it was fantastic! Real Szechuan dishes, spicy enough to wake you up, but not so deadly as to kill your taste buds. Hot (i.e., spicy) Peking soup, Kung-Pao Chicken, rice and jasmine tea, and a great view onto the square; not a bad lunch.
The afternoon was filled with more rambling and wandering. CK really is a tiny little place and you can walk every single street (slowly) in the central area in probably three hours, looking in every store and reading every menu. But that’s what small towns like this are for, taking time out from busier pursuits and just breathing in the atmosphere of contentment. I noted places I’d revisit in detail the next day, like the Wax Museum, the Mirror Maze, the Gorila Rock Pub, the Egon Schiele Art Center, several palacinky shops (like the Hungarian palacsintazo), something called the Moldavite Museum, and others. Another nice afternoon, helped along by one of those chocolate palacsinta (in French: crepes).
Then it was Friday evening, Pub Night! I had my list from Trip Advisor and I knew, I knew, I’d find the perfect place tonight to while away the hours tasting different types of great Czech beers and munching on bar treats and listening to some live music. That’s what we did in Prague, and because CK is such a Czech Republic tourist mecca, I just knew that’s what we’d do here. My fantasies die a hard death.
I decided to begin my search in the castle district and work my way back to the center of town. First up was the Zapa Pub, hoping there was no private party tonight. Nope, no party, but also no beer on tap, only the ubiquitous Pilsener Urquelle and a strange Russian dark beer in bottles. Sigh. The evening was not off to a lively start. Trip Advisor Pub Number 2, Apotheke, just down the street, was almost as bad, having only the 0.4 litre Budweiser/Budvar on tap. It’s OK, not the same Bud Americans expect, but still not world-class.
Number 3 pub was Dobra Cajovna, which was supposed to have over 200 brands of beer. Turned out it had 90 types of tea. It’s now a teahouse. My hands were starting to shake and the veins in my neck were standing out.
Number 4, back in the town center, was old standby Sturojovna, again to see if maybe they had tap beer tonight. YES! They did. But it was only Krusovice, a good but hardly famous Czech beer. At least the pub had three lovely young female bartendresses, which helped alleviate my loss somewhat. Again, I was the only customer at the bar. Guess CK doesn’t attract a particularly vibrant weekend pub crowd.
Then it was time to check out the Katakomby establishment in the main square, which turned out to be a restaurant. Despite the tap having three different beers shown, there was actually only two beers on tap; yep, Pilsener Urquelle and a dark Kozel. I opted for the latter, which was flat and without bubbles. Dinner then consisted of a light appetizer plate and I was on the road again.
My choices were rapidly diminishing. Despite warnings from the Tourist Information woman, I decided to try the Gorila Rock Pub after all, taking my chances that it couldn’t be as bad as I was told. Wrong again, Kemo Sabe. It was a hard rock pub, filled with chain-smoking skinheads. But you know what? It did have the best selection of draft beers! Go figure. I had an amber Bernard which was very nice and helped salvage my expectations at the final stop of my night.
Saturday, Day Number 2 in CK, and another bright sunny fantastic day it was. Today would be attraction day, when I visited the local museums and other tourist draws that keep CK on top of the day trip excursions from Prague. First up was the Magical Mirror Maze. I got a deal – such a deal! – on a joint ticket for the Maze and the Wax Museum, so what the heck, why not. The Maze was like one of those old funhouses with tall mirrors everywhere so you’d bump into them as you tried to find your way through the labyrinth. It only lasted about five minutes so really wasn’t worth the time or effort, but for a small town it was apparently quite the thing to do.
The Wax Museum was better, containing lots of wax figures of old Czech merchants, workers, fishermen, priests, dukes, etc., plus wax figures of famous people like Mozart, Edward Berneys, Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson. Lots more, most of whom I’d never heard of, but, hey, it killed 20 minutes.
After all that work I needed a break, so found a table on the terrace of the nearby Monna Lisa café (yes, it is spelled like that) and had a cup of fantastic orange and cinnamon hot chocolate. Thick, rich, creamy, my spoon actually stood up in the center of the chocolate. I haven’t had such a great cup since St. Petersburg, Russia, and was pleased to sit and enjoy the morning sunshine and chocolate.
Next on my list of interesting places to visit in CK was the Eggenberg Brewery. I crossed the river again and found the side street marked on my map and walked down between high walls on each side of the street. Finally there was a gate with the name of the brewery above it, but the gate was locked and there was no noise coming out of beer being brewed, so I surmised I wouldn’t be taking the brewery tour that morning. I realize it’s early in tourist season, but with all the Asians in town I thought surely this site would be open. Once again, I thought wrong. As an extra added disappointment, the nearby monastery gardens were also closed due to construction. Sigh.
A brief respite on the bridge overlooking the castle moat, wherein dwelt several large brown bears for the Asians to gawk at. I stopped by to see Katerina again at the gingerbread shop and even picked up a few sweet goodies to help me on my way. Lunch was a pleasant affair at Lazebna restaurant on the riverside, soaking up the sun and a couple of Dudak beers, one of the best I had found in town. Temp must have been in the mid-70s (around 24 degrees Celsius) and I lolled back and enjoyed every moment.
I strolled down to the Gypsy Bar to see if they had music tonight and they did! It was two locals, one strumming a guitar (I think he only knew two chords) and repeating what sounded like boring lyrics over and over again (he was bad, but he was loud) and a partner pounding out the beat on some sort of small box. Interesting. But the beer was good and the crowd was very international. The large-stomached manager recognized me and smiled and kept bringing me beers, so I was happy to sit and enjoy the atmosphere. It got even better when Sean Connery came in wearing military fatigues.
And that was pretty much my weekend in CK. Sunday morning was the reverse of my arrival. I caught a rail bus at the train station to Borsov, then the little commuter train to CB, then on to Linz and back to Budapest, arriving around 7 PM. A little bit of anxiety about connections due to having to unexpectedly take the bus again (not shown on my MAV itinerary), but it all ended well. CK is a great weekend break, a romantic getaway for couples and a generally quiet, quaint place to relax and recharge. Definitely recommended.