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 cesky krumlov

4 brezen (mar)
Disappointed to find my anticipated week off had disappeared, I arranged to take a day trip to Cesky Krumlov, an ancient town near the southern border of the Czech Republic, dominated by a castle. The castle was closed this time of year, I was told, but there are also fewer tourists so it’s a pleasant time to enjoy the town itself. In a van big enough for fifteen or sixteen people, there were only two of us, myself and a French woman who was in Prague for just two months to audit a French bank.

Once out of the city, the green countryside covered gentle hills with forests, a patchwork of farmland and clusters of villages. Bare fields were ready for planting potatoes or wheat in the spring. Fruit orchards produced apples and cherries; red currant bushes were abundant. Small deer called reeboks grazed, not much larger than dogs in size. The hills were home to sheep, horses and occasional cattle. Pigs could be seen in village yards. Here a soccer game was in progress in one larger town. There a stone bridge from the 14th century crossed the river, as old as the Charles Bridge. We were steadily climbing to our destination. At 800 meters (about 5,000 ft.), it was colder and the mountains of Austria could be seen in the distance.

Cesky Krumlov is a Renaissance city. All of the buildings were built in the 1600 and 1700s. We entered high on a hill by the castle gardens. Walking down steep cobbled paths, small arched windows in a thick wall framed a panorama of red tile roofs packed in tightly inside a loop in the river. A white church tower was the only tall building. The castle walls were flat but busy with painted decoration that made it look like it was made with huge bricks. The five petal rose insignia of the early Rosenberg family was carved on most windows and doorways, marking their powerful presence. Wall paintings adorned the tall buildings, some were optical illusions like the castle bricks. Most of the streets were narrow curving alleys opening to a broad square in the center. Cars were neatly tucked away so as not to be visible. Every road was an enchanting place to wander.

In the brick cellar of a restaurant, we ate lunch: a potato soup made with local mushrooms, thick homemade pasta with chicken, and a tall glass of Eggenberg beer, the local brew. Our tour guide regaled us with stories. His wife is from a village in southern Moravia, where every house has its own wine cellar. For evening parties, they go visiting from house to house and are welcomed at each door with a glass of that family's own wine. The family then joins the group and they continue to the next house. It’s considered rude to refuse a drink, so they are all drunk and stumbling by the night’s end.

He talked about the improved living and working conditions in the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. He thought the split of Czechoslovakia was a “stupid decision”, since the Slovaks had no natural resources or industry and were having a difficult time economically while the Czech Republic was thriving. Czechs adored the charming American ambassador Shirley Temple Black. The modest Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic’s first president, was a well loved figure – an intellectual and playwright. He was one of them, and could be just another person sitting next to you in a bar or restaurant.

My tour partner and I crossed the looping river into the residential town and found a lookout with a crumbling shrine, happy to have found a hidden place and a new vantage point. I told her I was glad the tour van wasn’t filled with American tourists. She laughed and said she found French tourists unbearable.

We hiked back up the hill over a different bridge and continued past the castle passing a statue of St. Jan, our tour guide’s patron saint, forever holding a finger up to his lips. The priest refused to tell the queen’s secrets made in confession when the king demanded to know. Our guide pointed out the site of a famous defenstration, a term used for pushing someone out a window to their death. Several powerful political figures met their end this way. The Czechs seem oddly proud of having invented the word. In this instance, a man pushed his wife out the window and then fell himself into a pit and was eaten by a bear kept by the castle. I hope to return again sometime to see the castle itself.


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