Thursday, October 11, 2012

Czech List: Our pit stop in Český Krumlov

Alan and I love small European towns, so we couldn't let this trip go by without passing through at least one. On our way from Prague to Vienna, we decided to make a pit stop in a little nugget of a village called Český Krumlov that sits near the Austrian border. Here's a little glimpse at how we spent our time there. 

The fall foliage really added to Krumlov's already-beautiful landscape.
Tue., Oct.  9: To get to Krumlov, we took a bus run by Student Agency. The trip was a quick three hours and fairly painless. It gave us a chance to check out some of the rolling Czech countryside, which wouldn't be particularly impressive if not for the fall foliage. It's gorgeous, and neat to experience fall in another part of the world.

Those leaves followed us all the way to Český Krumlov, an adorable little town that's zig-zagged by the Vltava River. Its biggest draw is an enormous castle that sits on a hill overlooking the small terra-cotta-roofed village. We're staying in a cottage that's run by one of the many local hostels called Krumlov House. When the front-desk attendant (an art student from New Hampshire!) let us into the cabin, we were greeted by another one of our European firsts — a house kitten that I named Lehky Hlava (her real name's Erma, pronounced "Errrrrma"). It turns out she belongs to a lady who lives around the corner, but she made herself at home in our flat in no time. She's one of the cutest kittens I've ever seen; like a little ragdoll. She'll let you pick her up and flop her around every which way. It broke my heart to put her out when we were ready to go out touring.

We spent the rest of the afternoon taking a tour of the town, which started near our cabin, weaved through a chapel and the old-world town square and ended up at the gates of the castle, which is flanked by pits inhabited by two bears (a coat-of-arms symbol of the ruling family who lived in the palace back in the day).

It took us a while to find a place to have dinner. Most of the guide-book-recommended spots were closed - like much of the town. Krumlov reminds me of Peñíscola, a seaside village we stayed in last spring when doing a road trip through Spain. Like that town, Krumlov is run by tourists and, being here in October, it feels like we're right on the cusp of the end of the visiting season. Most everything was closed by 6 p.m. — even the grocery stores. We finally stumbled into a cavernous traditional Czech restaurant. The food was pretty good. We started with a bottle of Moravian red, a bowl of Czech soup and each had a baked carp dish with parsley mashed potatoes. On the way home we stopped at a restaurant called Konvice to have tea and a delicious piece of medovnik, a cinnamon-spiced honey cake that's popular in this region. It was scrumptious.

Lehky Hlava found a comfy spot on our bed.
Wed., Oct. 10: I woke up this morning to the pitter-patter of Lehky Hlava walking across my chest. Alan had let her in before he left for the grocery. I wanted to lay there and snuggle with her a little longer, but she was feeling playful, so I had to get up to keep her entertained.

Alan returned with a bag full of food to make for breakfast. We made an egg scramble with marinara, lots of garlic (because I feel a cold coming on) and leftover carp from my dinner last night. It was good — and the first time we've made anything other than cereal on one of our overseas trips. Another first!

The castle's definitely the biggest draw here, but we decided it looked a little cheesy and opted to take a hike instead. We grabbed a map from the hostel's front desk and trekked several miles out into the Krumlov countryside. The trail took us past farmlands and straight into a forest that's rife with gigantic, thin evergreens, a spattering of mossy ponds and all kinds of flowers and shrubs. It was breathtaking. And I mean that literally, some of those hills were crazy steep. I'll be feeling it in the morning.

For dinner, we went to Laibon, a vegetarian restaurant that was recommended to us while we were in Prague. The food here is Middle Eastern-inspired, with a variety of organic ("bio") and macrobiotic options. I had a flavorful chili with pinto beans, tomatoes and lots of spices, and Alan had a mushy-in-a-good-way red lentil dish with mixed vegetables. The food was good, but the chilly, cellar-like atmosphere was neater - we were surrounded by old-looking stone walls with votives (some lit, some not) situated in various cracks.

Final Impressions: Krumlov is about as picturesque as small towns come. It was hard to put down the camera. And wow-oh-wow, you should see it at night. When we turned our eyes to the heart of the city, we realized that Krumlov is a quirky little place. To us, the people seemed a little strange. I suspect that had something to do with the language barrier, which I describe in more detail below. One interesting observation we made is their apparent aversion to using heat. It was pretty chilly while we were there, and we froze our asses off in most every cafe, bar and restaurant we visited. I should have prepared myself when I read a sign in our cabin that said, "If you get cold put on a sweater."

Shivers aside, I think being in Krumlov in the fall accentuated the beauty, and probably halved the tourist crowds I imagine overtake the place during warmer months. To me, this is the place's biggest downfall. It comes across as a Bruges or — dare I say it - Pigeon Forge; a cutesy little town that forces some of its traditions for the sake of sucker tourists. It really is spectacularly beautiful, though, and our enchanting hike through the surrounding woods is a memory I'll cherish until I get too old and senile to remember things.

Language: We definitely had a few more language-barrier problems in Krumlov than we did in Prague. Our two-word Czech vocab didn't cut it here, creating a few clunky interactions with several store clerks and shopkeeps. Thank God for universal gestures and semi-forgiving people.

Food: Meal options were pretty similar here than they were in Prague. I mentioned all our favorite restaurants above, but I definitely recommend trying the medolvnik and having a fancy cocktail or two at Apotheke. The mead, a honey wine served hot or cold, is a local favorite, too, but I tried the hot version and didn't care for it. Reminded me of the hot toddies my mom used to give me when I had a cold (aka when she wanted me to shut the hell up and go to sleep).

Money: Same as Prague, of course. Being a smaller town, I expected things to be less expensive but that wasn't the case.

Next stop: We're gonna get our opera, cafe culture and Hapsburg history on in Vienna, Austria!

1 comment:

Bill Fogle said...

Touching, intimate, and informative. Your travel writing is first class, Josh.