In 2007 Gayle, our fearless travel consultant, did a seven day Intrepid Tour from Warsaw in Poland to Vienna in Austria. This trip included a two day stop off in Cesky Krumlov and it was a place she remembered fondly many years later when we had the opportunity to spend a day there in November 2018. It is located down towards the southern border of the Czech Republic. The name ‘Krumlov’ means “crooked meadow” and refers to the town’s geographical location in a meander of the Vltava River. It is Cesky Krumlov as ‘Cesky’ means ‘Bohemian’, to distinguish it from the Moravian town of Moravsky Krumlov. Gayle’s two-day Intrepid visit included a bike ride down the hill above the town and a canoe ride through the town on the Vltava River.
Cesky Krumlov in 2007
After a long history of being owned by various noble families throughout the Middle ages, the town survived reasonably intact as it was generally out of the paths of armies moving between the major capitals of Central Europe. It fell into decay and disrepair during the Communist years but since 1989 after the Velvet Revolution it has been restored to its former self and is now a major tourist and holiday destination. It has three of the key demands of travelers outside the main cities; a castle, a meandering river and gorgeous medieval housing.
The one drawback of visiting Cesky Krumov from Prague is the 2 hour 7 minute drive. However, once you arrive, the opening walk from the bus station tells you that you are in for a treat as you approach the outer wall of the town and the back of the castle.
Once you are through the entry in the wall and the inner town and river unfolds before you, Cesky Krumlov is a chocolate box of treasures ready for your slow appreciation.
Our first destination for our tour was the castle that towered above us. This series of buildings on the escarpment dominate the skyline of the town. The settlement along the river was built to provide services for the Vitkovci family who apparently built the castle in 1240. This family ran out of descendants in 1301 and the not so famous King Wencelas II ceded the castle and the town to the Rosenberg family who lived in Cesky Krumlov for 300 years. In 1602, the town and castle were sold to a very interesting character, Rudolf II, who just happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor at the time. This is not the place to discuss this eccentric ruler except to say that whilst he didn’t marry, he gave the Cesky Krumlov castle to his son Don Julius of Austria who was born out of wedlock. This Julius was a problem child who, when he grew into adulthood, was particularly unhealthy in both his personal hygiene and his eccentric life style. Our guide for the day had prepared us for our castle visit by telling us stories of Julius’s tendencies to throw people that offended him out the castle window. According to our guide, he threw both his mother and one of his mistresses to their death from one of the windows above the Vltava River. His mistress, Markéta Pichlerová, was the daughter of the local barber Zikmund Pichler and clearly deeply regretted her relationship with Julius. She had been severely beaten before her defenestration but unluckily for her she landed in a ‘rubbish heap’. She survived and her parents had to send her back to the castle after her father was gaoled for his refusal to return her to Julius’s care. She didn’t survive and Rudolph II wisely decided to jail his wayward son until he died in 1609.
This practice called ‘defenestration’ has a larger role than would be expected in later Bohemian History (see Postscript).
Our tour of the castle was the usual confusing jumble of rooms full of curiosities that have been left behind by generations of noble collectors. There were ancient weapons, fabulously baroque table settings and a bejeweled saint in a glass case. It is a sad commentary on religious belief of the middle ages that an individual who has lived the good and saintly life would be condemned to be exposed in a glass case for centuries, his/her skeletal body bedecked with gold and jewels and encased in highly embroidered clothes that they couldn’t have afforded in their earthly life. Like the bear in the pit at the entrance to the castle, the soul of this displayed saint must be reconsidering his saintly life on earth wondering what he/she had done to deserve this fate. It makes cremation, for those saints walking among us, seem like a great post-death option. Of course the view from the castle-tower over Cesky Krumlov is magnificent.
Cesky Krumlov has been a designated UNESCO World heritage site since listed in 1992. The folk at UNESCO waxed lyrical in their report about the town; here is an extract to give you a flavor of what impressed them.
The Historic Centre of Český Krumlov is a property of high authenticity. Its present form and appearance closely reflect the type of a town linked to the noble residence since the Middle Ages. The historic centre has preserved its original layout, as well as the characteristic castle-city relationship very clearly, thanks to its undisturbed development over several centuries. It remains untouched by the devastating effects of 19th-century industrialization, neglect during the communist era and thoughtless developments of the past decades. (UNESCO Website)
The walk around the medieval streets of Cesky Krumlov was a great way to spend an afternoon. It was one of those towns that each bend in the street revealed a new and curious sight to stop, gaze, point and discuss. If you got tired of the narrow alleys, you could walk out and follow the river around the edge of the town or walk up the hill to the lovely St Vitus Church on the hill. They have the usual town square that is worth a slow stroll and the compulsory Marien Column at the edge of the square is discussed in a separate blog.
I would rarely give the writers from Lonely Planet the last word on a tourist destination but I thought the following was a great summary of why a day spent in Cesky Krumlov is a day well spent!
Český Krumlov, in Bohemia’s deep south, is one of the most picturesque towns in Europe. It’s a little like Prague in miniature – a Unesco World Heritage Site with a stunning castle above the Vltava River, an old town square, Renaissance and baroque architecture, and hordes of tourists milling through the streets – but all on a smaller scale; you can walk from one side of town to the other in 20 minutes. There are plenty of lively bars and riverside picnic spots – in summer it’s a popular hang-out for backpackers. It can be a magical place in winter, though, when the crowds are gone and the castle is blanketed in snow. ( Lonely Planet)
TRAVELLING THROUGH CENTRAL EUROPE
There are a couple of unusual events in the history of Central Europe generally called the Defenestration of Prague. There were in fact two defenestrations! The first was in 1419 when Hussites were parading in anger through Prague streets when one of their number was hit by a rock thrown from a window of the New Town Hall. The Hussite rioters stormed the building and threw the Burgomaster (Mayor) and some of his councilors out the window. Another King Wencelaus, the fourth, reacted appropriately by dying on the spot when he heard the news of this event.
The second event was the conclusion of a meeting between four Catholic Royal Officials and Hussite leaders in the Prague Chancellery building in 1618, called to discuss a dispute about the rights of protestants to build churches in Bohemia. Clearly there was no agreement and a tense and difficult meeting ended with the Hussite nobility deciding to throw three Catholics out the window. Like Julius’s mistress Maria nine years earlier, they survived the 21 metre fall; the Catholics said it was because angels had slowed the fall, the Protestants claimed it was because they had landed in a dung heap.
Woodcut by Matthaus Merien (1593-1650)
This incident is generally recognized as triggering the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), claimed to be one of the most destructive wars in human history with eight million fatalities from military engagements and the associated violence that triggered famine and allowed the Plague to take hold in many communities. I don’t know if it is appropriate to look for a moral in the ‘Defenestration of Prague’ story but it might go something like…Take Prisoners! Don’t throw people who annoy you out of upper story windows, it tends to cause offense that there is no going back from!