Cesky Krumlov, a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride through country roads south of Prague in the Czech Republic, has often been described as a “fairytale” town, and it fits the description well.
As our Insight Vacations tour director, Neira Milkovic, explained en route, the town was cut off from trade routes by Europe’s destructive 30 Years War in the 17th century and “went to sleep” for about 300 years after that.
It’s now awakened as a tourist magnet, for good reason. If you want to see what European towns looked like hundreds of years ago, Cesky Krumlov — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is a great place to do it.
It comes complete with a hilltop castle, winding cobblestone streets, a scenic river cutting an S shape through town, a central square, and — in a nod to modernity — plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes, and of course electricity and running water.
Back in its glory days before the 30 Years War, Cesky Krumlov was privately owned by various Bohemian dukes, then passed to the Austrian emperor, who in turn passed it on to Austrian nobles, who kept their own private armies.
There are some 300 historic house in Cesky Krumlov, in styles ranging from Renaissance to Baroque and Rococo and brandishing all the requisite turrets and spires, but the town’s centerpiece remains the 13th century castle, which some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe used as a country estate and hunting lodge. Our Insight Vacations journalists’ group was treated to a private tour, led by an extremely knowledgeable guide.
The castle entrance contains a startling sight: a moat complete with brown bears. Once inside, we could hit only the highlights of its 300 rooms — it’s the country’s second largest castle after Prague’s — which are notable for their original furnishings, artworks and other treasures (more than 30,000 items are kept in storage). One of the more stunning items is a gilded golden carriage that was used only once, for a trip from Rome to the Vatican. The tour ended with a look at one of Europe’s few remaining wooden Baroque theaters, dating from 1775; Mozart once played there. It’s undergoing a long, expensive renovation and is open to the public only a few days a year.
Unlike most tour companies, which dash in and out of Cesky Krumlov in a few midday hours, Insight Vacations’ tours spend the night there, so we had two treats: staying in an atmospheric hotel and being able to experience the town after the day-trippers had left, when all was quiet and the illuminated castle stood sentry over a mostly slumbering populace.
My friend and bus buddy from Malaysia, Jade Chan, has been kind enough to share photos of her Hotel Ruze medieval-themed bed and bathroom since my room contained somewhat more modern fixtures and furnishings (and, admittedly, were too messed up with my gear to photograph anyway).
After dinner, led by our tour director Neira, a number of us went for a late-night stroll through town and over to the river to explore Cesky Krumlov in the still of the night, a magical experience. One shop owner happened to have his door open while doing some work inside, and was surprised and delighted when a member of our group asked to see his jewelry selection.
A necklace was purchased, and all was well in this very special fairytale town.