Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Our own fairy tale kingdom

Looking for a little medievalness in your life? Try Cesky Krumlov, our new favorite place. (Or at least, easily in the top 5). more good pics

Cesky Krumlov is the second most visited town in the Czech Republic, but somehow even with crowds of tourists it felt like a magical place. The Vltava River (the same one that flows through Prague), makes a double S through the town, creating two separate peninsulas, and there is only one main street through the old center of town (though many wonderful small side streets to explore.

Because of the geographic features, this has been a choice spot to live forever. There were Celtic tribes here around 100 BC, then German tribes arrived later, then Slavic tribes showed up in the 800s. The 16th century was the town's golden age, when it housed an important Jesuit college. The town came under the rule of the Hapsburgs in 1602. Hitler claimed the region in 1938 and annexed it. The Americans liberated the town in 1945, but it ended up falling under the east (soviet) rule. From 1945 to 1989 the town was infamously polluted from the upstream paper mill, but communism did create a kind of cocoon that allowed the town to perservere so that once it escaped and was able to clean off the grime, it's now a fairy tale town.

We stayed at the Travellers Hostel (click the pictures link on this page). We were in a tiny double way up at the very top under the roof. Though Becca had a few anxious moments trying to figure out how we would ever get out in the case of a fire and we had to bend over to fit under the eaves in getting to bed, it otherwise was a wonderful and comfortable hideaway where we were able to sleep well.

We had originally planned to spend only 1.5 days here, but as soon as we arrived and started to walk around we knew that we needed to stay longer. We had just finished the Krakow, Budapest, Vienna trifecta and were heading to Prague and were tired of cities. This seemed like a perfect place to relax and refresh. We spent most of our time doing nothing in particular, which was wonderful. We would just wander around the curvy narrow streets, or sit by a garden and read, or spend hours leaning over the railing on the bridge watching the all the people float down the river.

It turns out that the Vltava River in this region of the Czech Republic is the most popular place river to float/boat down and given the way the river winds around the town, C. Krumlov was a perfect place to spend an hour floating. Right by one of the bridges there was a weir and a chute next to it. Ironically, the conservative folks would just take their canoes, kayaks or rafts over the falls of the weir (which we assumed would be the more dangerous way) Actually, the MOST conservative folks portaged around. 95% of folks however, went through the chute. This was some fast water that ended in a pretty big rolling back wave, a little white water, and then flattened out. As we walked past their the first time on Saturday, we were amused to see someone take their canoe down the chute, hit the wave/whitewater and promptly capsize. Our amusement turned to amazement...and then hilarity....when the next 10 boats did the same thing. It turns out that only about 1 out of 15 two person crafts could make it through without sinking/capsizing, or otherwise coming to harm (the one-person kayaks and canoes and the 4-6 person rubber rafts usually fared batter). The fact that the river was only about 2-3 feet deep there meant that folks just stood up (once they got done being swept over the rocks) and then had to figure out how to lift up and drain their full water craft. (And a bunch of folks would go through over and over and over again, trying to find a way to succeed and getting REALLY wet)

It was like a car just couldn't look away. We ended up standing there for almost 90 minutes, laughing and cheering (for those few who made it through). Our favorites included the dozen or so boats that would make it through the initial rough water, raise their arms in the air in triumph, and then promptly flip over; and the folks who would make it through, but had taken on so much water that their canoes/kayaks eventually would submerge. The best example of that was a young man with a Huck Finn hat who just sat up straight and kept paddling as his canoe sunk lower and lower under the water. Eventually all his things were floating out and away and his canoe was totally submerged but he just kept floating downstream.

All told, we probably spent at least 4 hours over the weekend watching from various vantage points. Brian really wanted us to rent a boat too, and in general I was in favor of canoeing/kayaking and even wasn't totally against getting wet, but I kept noticing the couple of people who actually did get banged up on the rocks or hit by other canoes coming downstream and I didn't like the idea of being the entertainment for others. I still might have done it anyway (we were thinking of getting the rubber two person rafts which looked like they had at least a chance of making it through the chutes), but in the end our schedule didn't work out for it.

Other than the wonderful aimless relaxing, our only two official sightseeing activities were visiting the Baroque theater and attending a low-level professional Czech football (soccer) match, which Brian covers in excrutiating (but hilarious) detail in the next post.

The theater was very cool though. We had decided not to tour the Castle itself, as after Vienna we were a little castled out. But we did stand in line the day before to get tickets for the limited admittance to the Baroque theater tour. Europe once had several hundred Baroque theaters. Unfortunately, since they use candles for lighting and fireworks for special effects, most of them burned down. There are only two well preserved theaters of this type and from this period left in the world: this one and one in the royal palace in Stockholm. We eagerly entered the dark building to see what it offered. And what it offered was amazing. The theater still has all of its original sets, decorations and hundreds of costumes (though those are being preserved and can't be seen). Once our eyes adjusted to the dim light we were blown away by the illusion of depth and detail that the sets created. The entire set (side flats/backdrops etc.) could be changed in 10 seconds, and were usually not seen by the audience as fireworks would go off at the end of a scene, their eyes would be momentarily stunned/blinded, and when the smoke cleared the set would be completely different: magic. The guide also demonstrated a couple of the several-hundred year old special effect machines that had survived. These machines made very realistic sounds of wind, rain, and thunder, and hidden backstage (and above the stage) and combined with lighting effects could create an incredibly realistic storm. Afterwards we were taken below the stage to see the pulleys and contraptions that allowed all the set shifting to work. It was very cool (especially to a former theater geek like me) and it just blew our minds to imagine how advanced all of this must have been in its time.

The last thing to mention was our favorite restaurant, the Tavern U dwau Maryi (tavern of two Marys). As the page mentions this restaurant focuses on medieval cooking and uses a lot of ingredients like barley and millet that you don't see around a whole lot anymore along with lots of herbs and spices like majoram, rosemary, etc. Its fascinating menu actually has a couple of pages of small type talking about the diets of the medieval Bohemian (the folks living in this region) peasants and making an argument that it was varied and healthy and lamenting that some of these ingredients have made their way out of daily dishes. The food was so good we went two nights in a row to try more dishes. It turns out we really like millet. Who knew?

I've gone on long enough here....suffice it to say that despite the many other tourists we found it an oasis of peace for a couple of days, which we dearly needed.

On to Prague (with a sports detour from Brian)


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