The countryside you'll see on a drive down to Cesky Krumlov makes the trip worth the gas money. Roll over the hillsides along the E-55 highway - some are bright green with grass, others are golden canola fields that stretch for miles. The views make the three hour trip pass quickly, and give you high expectations when you pull into the old South Bohemian town. Expectations that the town exceeds.
When I arrived in Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site, I was first struck by its unique shape. Its name is derived from an old German word meaning crooked meadow. One can easily see why - the town engulfs a valley where the Vltava River makes two sharp bends and forms an S, with Cesky Krumlov's medieval centre jutting out into the water. The water winds through the city and makes the Old Town, when seen from above, look like a teardrop, or perhaps the tonsil of the Vltava. There in the main square, I met my guide.
"My name is Stanislav Jungvert and I am a tour guide in Cesky Krumlov. I would like to show you some highlights of Cesky Krumlov. On the other hand, I would say the whole town is a highlight."
The Old Town sits between two hillsides. Atop one sits Krumlov Castle, while St. Vitus Church adorns a hilltop across the river.
These two landmarks define Cesky Krumlov's skyline. They also represent the two main responsibilities of the townspeople: One to God, the other to their king. It isn't a coincidence that most people resided in the lowlands between these two powerful symbols.
Stanislav and I walked uphill to the impressive St. Vitus Church - so impressive that I mistook it for a cathedral. Stanislav quickly corrected me and explained some of the church's history.
"It's only a church. It's not a cathedral because we didn't have a bishop in the history of Cesky Krumlov. To compare this to other cathedrals, you can't find here the radial chapels that are an important aspect of cathedrals. You can see at the upper part of the church all three naves, and in all of them the vaulting is at the same level. It was built here in the 15th Century and we can perceive so called tracer or articulated vaulting in the main nave, which is inspiration from Prague, from the very famous Parler's Workshop who used to work for the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague."
The Rosenberg nobility, who took possession of all Cesky Krumlov in the early 1300s, established the church in the decades after the takeover. That first church was too humble for Peter von Rosenberg and he spurred on construction. Development finished after the Hussite Wars and the church was consecrated in 1439. St. Vitus still holds religious services every Sunday even today.
We left the church and walked downhill through streets that wind like the Vltava. As we lost altitude and approached the water, we passed colourful houses, shops and cafes. Many of the bright yellows, pinks and blues are new - parts of the city had fallen into disrepair under Communism, and the buildings have undergone a transformation in the past two decades as Cesky Krumlov re-established itself as one of the Czech Republic's most popular tourist havens. Finally we reached the river and Stanislav stops beside a turning water wheel.
"Citizens of Cesky Krumlov call this place "Venice" or "Venezia." It used to be a mill, that's why you can see this wheel, and on the other side you can perceive a highly aesthetic view. You can see the beautiful tower of the castle and the so-called 'Small Castle' and its Renaissance design - a 16th century design that is charming and colourful."
Stanislav was right. Atop the hill on the other side of the river, Krumlov castle and chateau was too fascinating to leave unexplored. We walked through the equally winding streets of Latran, where many servants lived, and headed uphill toward the castle and its six-story tower. Painted yellow, white and pink with concentric layers shrinking in circumference, the cylindrical tower is a like a huge colourful wedding that dwarfs the city and its 14,000 residents.
After we pass Latran's bars and cafes, we round a bend and approach a tall pink-maroon gate bearing the huge iron crest of the Schwarzenberg family, the last royal family to occupy the castle. The castle gateway stands directly across from a black and white building topped with a row of paintings. Some looked quite grim.
"You know in the 16th Century in Europe lots of families met the same fate. You can see it here on this symbolic painted legend. There are ten pictures, which are the ten parts of a life of a man or of a family.
In the first picture you can see a young boy. Then you follow the story to the fifth picture where you see a very strong man - with power, glory, health and wealth. Follow it still to the last painting where you can see a very old man that everything is finished and everything has gone.
The same was the situation for the Rosenberg family in the 17th Century. They had died out and the castle and town of Cesky Krumlov was sold by the last Rosenberg to the emperor of Prague who was Rudolf II of Habsburg. In 1622 the whole castle and chateau was presented by the Habsburgs to the Eggenberg family from Austria. Then in the 18th Century the Eggenbergs died out and the castle and the town were passed to the Schwarzenbergs, who were related to the Eggenbergs."
Krumlov's is one of the biggest castle complexes in the Czech Republic, second only to that in Prague. The tall fortress walls seem to grow directly out of the hillside where they sit. We pass the oldest part of the complex, called the "Little Castle," a gothic building with a Renaissance façade near the tall castle tower. The original Gothic construction dates back to 1250.
In the first courtyard we saw a 16th century fountain and then a more ornate stone fountain in the second courtyard. Up through a wide corridor we headed into what Stanislav calls the heart of the castle.
"We are now in the heart of the castle. It is the third courtyard and the next one, the fourth courtyard. Together they are called the upper castle and they are the most monumental part of the castle. The noblemen lived here. It was built from the 14th to the 16th Century. This part is older than the part in the next courtyard. The oldest wing is East in direction."
Krumlov Castle is also home to a magnificently preserved Baroque stage and a wide, lush garden. We first enter the French garden and its meticulously kept rows of hedges and flowers. Past that lies the untamed English garden, where plants and trees are free to grow as they please around a Revolving Auditorium - an outdoor stage that pivots to give audiences different backgrounds during summertime plays. And there are many more sights outside those castle walls. In front of the massive Cascade Fountain and its white sculptures of the water deities, Stanislav says that visitors should allow themselves enough time to truly explore the city when they visit Cesky Krumlov.
"You know, I would recommend that first of all you take your time. This means that if you'd like to touch the spirit of the town you should spend more than three hours here. It means one, two or three days. I think its an important part of world heritage and I think it is necessary that people try to perceive things here a little bit deeper than we usually do nowadays."
Indeed. Even after my ninety minute tour with Stanislav, I felt like I'd only glanced into what Cesky Krumlov has to offer.