Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Český Krumlov

We arrived in Český Krumlov on a mellow fall afternoon, the sky blue and cloudless, the sun warming but not scalding. Perhaps because I had not seen pictures of this remarkable town and had little idea what to expect, on first sight it stunned me.

Located on a nearly perfectly round peninsula in the River Vltava, the same river that runs through Prague, Český Krumlov is late medieval-early Renaissance village in the Southern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. On the recommendation of a neighbour, we had stopped there on our way to a week’s visit to Prague.

Overlooking the town from the top of a low outcropping is a large castle, the second largest in the country after Prague Castle. In one of its many courtyard stands a tall tower. This is painted with elaborate designs and motifs in russet, peach, pink and jade and topped by an arcaded galley and a domed copper roof gone green with age. It was this tower standing stark against the pale fall sky that I found so startling.

It fills the skyline and rises above a tall arcaded walkway that is almost as startling. Looking at the arcade from below, you stare through a series of high arches in a white wall that, on the day of our visit, framed the intensely blue sky. People standing on the loggia looking down seemed tiny in the distance. It reminded me of a painting by Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, though not so brooding.

Virtually encircled by the river, the town is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Few cars are allowed in the city’s narrow cobbled streets and platzes; visitors park in one of three municipal car parks. (Lot 1 is the most convenient.) As we made our way from the car park through the town to our pension, our suitcases bumped behind us over the timber planks of the bridge crossing the river and then over wide, uneven cobbles, through narrow streets heaving with people.

After leaving the bags in our room, we climbed a steep narrow street and entered the broad main platz. It’s surrounded by Baroque buildings, each with its decorative façade of curves and pediments. People sat in benches in the sun watching the fountain. Others sipped coffees or beers in front of the cafes ringing the square. From an incline beyond, the steeple of St Vitus church rose above the square. The tower and large Renaissance-style castle dominated the view from the opposite side.

As a destination, Český Krumlov seems like a playground, an historic site qua theme park, filled with tourists of all types: Groups following tour guides, parents pushing strollers, families with children trailing, others with dogs on leads, middle-aged Americans in matching wind breakers and white athletic shoes, young couples holding hands, stopping to kiss each other deeply every few steps. Voices and accents revealed nationalities from all over Europe, America, Australia, Japan and China.

Narrow streets are lined with small museums, gift shops displaying carved wooden toys, amber, both honey-coloured and green, scarves and gloves, and typical souvenirs of the type found the world over. But it’s not only kitsch that’s available.

For a short time, Český Krumlov was the home of expressionist artist Egon Schiele, and a museum in his honour offers exhibitions of contemporary art and helps foster a lively cultural scene. There are galleries, too, selling original work, colourful art-glass, prints and reproductions. There’s even an English-language bookstore. (Imagine me as a kid with nose-pressed against the glass of a candy store.)

The river flows rapidly for most of its circuit around the town, but near the old mill, its waters collect in a wide placid pool before rushing over a weir. Next to the weir lies a submerged ramp, its incline sharp enough to produce shrieks from the paddlers of  canoes, inflatable rafts and kayaks as they plunge over it and splash into the brown waters below. Sometime the crafts capsize, and their passengers scramble for paddles before re-boarding and continuing downstream.

Despite their playful shouts, and despite the profusion of shops and tourists, there is a serene air about Český Krumlov, as if one has stepped away from reality to enter another world, one as nearly cut off from the quotidian world as the town is islanded by the river.

On this gold-drenched day, it was peaceful wandering its river-side lanes. The trees on the steep hillside into which the town is tucked were just beginning to burnish; gentle light flashed and sparkled on the river’s surface. As evening set in and the sky paled, then darkened, we could see from the castle overhead pin-prick flashes as people tried to capture the experience digitally. It would be a hopeless effort, we agreed; the sense of the place was ineffable.

The next morning, we followed winding streets to the castle, then stood staring over a stone parapet into its moat where, about 50 metres below, a tame bear lumbered around a shallow pool. We climbed the steps to the top of the tower and looked out at the town below us and the hills that surround it.

We toured the castle and were guided through rooms filled with period furniture and lavish decorations. Many of its walls are covered with elaborate, fanciful frescos or coats of arms. Even the plain exterior walls are covered with trompe-l'œil paintings, giving the castle the appearance of a Renaissance palace decorated with bas relief sculpture.

From there, we passed through the arcaded walkway and climbed the hill to the castle’s large formal garden. In the sunny warm morning, we wandered among its clipped hedges and disciplined flower beds, stopping at a monumental fountain poised on a series of steps looking toward the castle in the distance.

At last, though, we followed the scent of wood smoke to a small building tucked away in a corner. Through the door we entered a dark passage that led to a low-ceilinged room. Here we found a chef barbecuing steaks, chops and sausages over a large wood-fired grill. We had not planned to stop for lunch, but the sweet scent of burning logs was enticing, and we settled at a plank table where we could watch the cook work. Moving ceaselessly, he placed thick cuts of pork and beef on the grill, meticulously repositioning them as necessary, adding logs to the fire as it burned low.

The beer was good, the food wonderful and we relaxed in the cabin-like retreat, warmed by the fire, for a time far from crowds and remote from the exotic grandeur of the castle, its courtyard, tower and gardens, lying just beyond the threshold. Then we walked out into the soft September light, heading toward our car and Prague.

No comments:

Post a Comment