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Rick Steves: Czech Republic town, castle take visitors back in time

Visiting the cobbled charms of Cesky Krumlov in
BY RICK STEVES Published: May 13, 2012
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Lassoed by its river and dominated by its castle, Cesky Krumlov feels lost in a time warp. Nearly four hours south of Prague, this fairy-tale town of 15,000 is buried in the hills of the southern Czech Republic, an area much appreciated for its pastoral countryside. With its delightfully cobbled Old Town, rare Baroque theater and colorful castle, Cesky Krumlov is an absolute treat.

The town has long attracted visitors. Tucked into a hairpin bend in the Vltava River, it was a safe, choice spot for Celtic, then German, then Slavic tribes to settle. In the 16th century — the town's Golden Age — Cesky Krumlov hosted artists, scientists and alchemists from all over Europe.

These days, visitors set their sights on the mighty castle of the Rozmberk family, who ran the city from this perch for three centuries, until about 1600. The interior of the castle, which you can only visit on a one-hour escorted tour, gives a glimpse of the ultimate in Bohemian noble living through the ages.

The castle has several other sights. The strikingly colorful round tower, featuring a 162-step climb to the top, was built to guard the medieval river crossing. Bear pits hold a family of European brown bears, as they have since the Rozmberks added these animals to their coat of arms in the 16th century. A 2,300-foot-long garden boasts a mix of French and English styles.

The castle's highlight is the Baroque Theater, where guests of the noble family would go for evening entertainment. A guided tour takes visitors under the stage to see the wood-and-rope contraptions that enabled scenes to be scooted in and out within seconds while fireworks and smoke hid the action from the audience.

Baroque theater was all about melodrama, created with lighting, perspective and sound effects. Machines were used to simulate a horrifying wind, driving rainstorm and menacing thunder. But the use of candles and pyrotechnics for special effects took their toll.

Europe once had several hundred Baroque theaters, but most burned down. Cesky Krumlov's theater is one of only two that survives in good shape and is open to tourists (the other one is in Stockholm).

Across the river from the castle is the made-for-strolling Old Town. Gothic buildings curve with the winding streets. Many precious Gothic and Renaissance frescoes were whitewashed in Baroque times, when the colorful trimmings of earlier periods were way out of style. Today, these frescoes are being rediscovered and restored.

At the heart of the Old Town is the main square, lined with a mix of Renaissance and Baroque homes of burghers (all built on 12th-century Gothic foundations). Lekarna, with a fine red Baroque facade on the lower corner of the square, is still a pharmacy, as it has been since 1620.

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