In 2001 Blonde went on a bicycle trip from Prague to Vienna with Butterfield and Robinson and, on that trip, “discovered” Český Krumlov. She even sent Brunette an email telling her how charming Český Krumlov was and that Brunette needed to see it too. However, Blonde was typing on a Czech keyboard and Brunette didn’t know if she’d received a grocery list or a death threat from her sister. The confusion was subsequently cleared up.
This year when we learned that our Emerald Waterways river cruise offered Český Krumlov as a side-trip we eagerly booked it. True, it was going to be a long bus ride and we would miss exploring Passau but this was the chance to get Brunette there so we took it. (Blonde had been to Passau in December so just lied to Brunette and said she’d hate it anyway. If you’re as old as Brunette and still haven’t figured out that your “kid” sister is a liar, that’s your problem.)
Český Krumlov’s history
Český Krumlov, in the Czech Republic, is a UNESCO World Heritage town from the Middle Ages that has remained intact throughout its long history (unlike us). The original settlement was located on an ancient trade and communications route on the Vltava River. The earliest records are from 1253 and mention a castle there belonging to a member of the ruling Vitkovici family of (then) south Bohemia.
Like any castle that’s been around for more than 8 centuries there have been fires, new rulers and other reasons for additional construction so it now displays multiple styles of architecture. (Think Cher.)
When the original Vitkovici family died out the Rosenbergs came into power and introduced their Rosenberg rose coat of arms which included a picture of a red bear to denote strength. Perhaps to keep models for the castle coat-of-arms painter the Rosenbergs began a peculiar tradition of keeping and breeding live bears in the castle moat. Unfortunately, this tradition continues even though the Rosenbergs do not.
The Rosenbergs got themselves into a bit of a financial pickle (think Greece) and had to sell the town, castle and all, to Emperor Rudolph II who must have asked that the bears be thrown in as part of the deal. (The real estate mantra then must have been “location. location, bears”.)
Fast forward and several other people ruled Český Krumlov and, as would be expected, the Nazi’s controlled it for a while. Eventually the U.S. Army liberated Český Krumlov only to have Czechoslovakia take it over. It was then under Communist Rule until after the fall of the Berlin wall.
Now all of that is bygones and it’s one of the most visited tourist attractions in the Czech Republic.
Blonde was sad to see the hordes of tourists, many waving selfie-sticks, crowding the peaceful town she had enjoyed 14 years earlier. On the Butterfield and Robinson trip we spent at least one night at a hotel in the center of town. If you can do that it would be better than just going as a day trip. Even now there must be time in the morning and evening, before and after the day trippers, when you could enjoy Český Krumlov in a more peaceful mode.
The center of the historic town is a labyrinth of charming narrow streets and some very small former houses (now mostly shops or restaurants). Our guide said the houses were connected to the fortification lines of the city. Blonde thought he said the “fornication” lines which made it much more intriguing until she realized her error.
Back in the day the houses were occupied by servants and craftsmen as well as a variety of domestic animals (such as hogs and other things people ate, not Shih Tzus in Burberry rain jackets).
Painting techniques used in Český Krumlov
A large part of Český Krumlov’s visual appeal is the various decorative techniques used on the buildings.
On the building above there’s a Renaissance sgraffito showing (well, most of ) a trumpeter believed to have been a member of the Rosenberg’s music orchestra.
We’re major fans of sgraffito which is made by applying multiple layers of thick paint and then scratching out a design.
The New Burgrave’s House is painted with a specific Renaissance technique called chiaroscuro. Lots of people with nothing better to do apparently argue about the exact definition of chiaroscuro. It seems to boil down to a way of contrasting light and shade in a painting to create the illusion of three-dimensional forms. It’s only detectable in the presence of light so if you walked past this building in the dark you wouldn’t see the pattern (or much of anything else, but we hope you get the point).
The castle itself has a lot of chiaroscuro painting as do many buildings, gates and other structures in Český Krumlov.
Important parts of Český Krumlov from a UNESCO perspective
The square shape of this area dates back to the 13th century and its Gothic and Baroque styles. Over the years buildings were connected, walls were changed and paintings were added as the use of the square evolved.
Oddly, Svornosti Square becomes “The Square of Love” for the entire month of May every year. There must be a reason for it but we don’t recall – perhaps there used to be a Hallmark Card store there. All sorts of cultural events are held in the square and one was being set up the day we were there but we escaped in time.
The smaller tower, gray with white trim, in the foreground belongs to the former St Jost Church. Although there have been partial reconstructions over the years some of the original Gothic Church from the 14th century has been preserved. Back then it was a chapel and part of the Rosenberg’s hospital.
In the 16th century the main church was reconstructed in Renaissance style. Various snit-fits over whether only Catholics or only Protestants could use the church took place over the years and everyone brought in their own decorator.
The Cloak Bridge connects the fourth and fifth Castle courtyards and also supports sheltered corridors that lead to the Castle Gardens and the Baroque Theater. The Baroque Theater is only used during the annual Festival of Baroque Art (September 18-20, 2015) and on other rare occasions.
When Blonde visited Český Krumlov in 2001 Butterfield and Robinson somehow got us a private tour of the theater. The memory of that is one of the few memories Blonde has retained about anything. It was spectacular. We saw the sets depicting various scenes, how they were changed (hint: with winches, pulleys and ropes) and also got to see and hear the “special effects” sound machines from the 1600s. A man turned a barrel sort of thing that made a wind noise – guess you had to be there! (At least we now know that men have been making noises with wind for a very long time.)
There is only one other theater of this type in the world (maybe in Sweden) that is so well-preserved. The guide many years ago told us that these theaters didn’t have stage curtains. So, to distract the audience while the scenery was changed, fireworks were put off on the front of the stage. You may not be surprised to learn that most of the theaters burned down!
The rulers of Český Krumlov in the mid 16th century designed the gardens to be used for relaxation. Unfortunately, they now have swarms of people running around them with selfie-sticks rendering the experience far from relaxing. This is another place where it would be really nice to be able to go before or after the daily tourists are deposited and removed.
Maybe Thomas Wolfe was right that you can’t go home again. You also definitely can’t go back to Český Krumlov in 2001 again. It’s been the victim of its own popularity.
However, it’s still well worth a visit because it’s unique in its degree of preservation and has witnessed a lot of history. So go if you can.
Before going check the festival schedules so you can partake or avoid as you please and perhaps plan for a time that might not be as crowded as mid-June (duh).
At least now if you send someone an email from there you will most likely be using your own device and not a Czech keyboard which can result in very confused recipients. Using keyboards in the wrong language was so 2001!