Czech matesCzech mates

Words by Gordon Gillan

Photography Renegade Photography

We are being guided by local expert Milan through the decorated courtyards and exquisite rooms of the fairytale, red-roofed castle that takes centre stage in the settlement of Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.

Located on the banks of the Vltava River, a couple of hours’ drive through Bohemian farmland from the Czech capital Prague, it feels a world away. The town’s origins date back to the 13th century with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture all on display. Modern day, it’s a surreal setting given the location of the small town alongside a horseshoe bend of a river with a short walk across a bridge to the castle. The castle area is one of the largest in central Europe, a complex of forty buildings and palaces, situated around five castle courts and a park spanning an area of seven hectares.

Visiting on the first day of the summer tourist season (April 1), it’s a firsthand transformation from sleepy winter town to popular visitor stop with interior tours of the castle offered only from April to October. With a Baroque theatre housed within a bear moat and one of the longest corridors you can imagine, visitors travelling outside of these months are missing out on some incredible sights.

I am here with tour operator Insight Vacations on an escorted journey through Eastern Europe also taking in the larger and better known cities of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. Insight Vacations is one of the few operators who choose to overnight in Cesky Krumlov instead of including it as a day trip from Prague.

Cesky Krumlov is worth more than a few hours. The guided visit of the castle itself takes up much of that time and the town is home to a handful of local restaurants and bars, a typical town square and other visitor attractions including Pivovar Eggenberg brewery. After a wander around town and an ample lunch at one of the small restaurants, I choose to do an optional bike ride. A shuttle bus ride out of Cesky Krumlov, it is a chance to enjoy the local scenery rather than being a physical exertion with mostly a downhill 15km spin from the top of Klet Hill back into town to freshen up for the evening.

Home for the night is the 5-star Hotel Ruze, centrally located next to the town square and renovated with period furnishings and décor to fit the setting. Staying overnight means time to enjoy a medieval dinner of whole roast chickens, pork, sausages, smoked ham from the bone and an array of vegetables and local salads. Waiters are dressed in 16th century robes with the meat lovers feast served in a banquet hall decorated in Renaissance style.

After dinner, our tour group, made up of fellow travellers from America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and the UK, soak up the night-time atmosphere with an evening walk through the narrow cobbled streets and old squares led by our tour director, Neira Milkovic, before finding comfort in one of the local drinking holes serving Eggenberg beer.

Neira has been a tour director for 27 years so is a fountain of knowledge. Her expertise picked up from the road, a degree earned at the University of Zagreb, plus a Masters from Madrid University. These days she leads Insight’s tours in Central and Eastern Europe as well as the Balkans. Over a beer in Cesky Krumlov, she says what amazes most first time visitors to Eastern Europe is the variety of landscapes and history in such a small area. As well as soaking up the history, she encourages her guests to try local dishes in the countries they are visiting.

“It may be your only chance to do so, so why not give it a go? A favourite of mine is a Balkan classicčevapi – mini sausages made of fresh mixed minced meat, grilled and served in pita bread with chopped onion and ajvar sauce.”

And her favourite tour director story? “I love that my job involves being on the move, meeting people from all walks of life and sharing real life experiences. In 1994, I recall being on tour with an 84-year old survivor from Auschwitz whose family lived in Vienna and Prague before WWII. Unfortunately she was admitted to hospital and told her condition was serious. Three days later, she checked herself out of the hospital saying, I’ll be damned if I die without seeing Vienna and Prague once again! She finished the tour, made it back home and lived several years past that. I understood then why some people survived the horrors of the concentration camps and feel privileged to have met her.”

My nightcap, in a small, smoky Cesky Krumlov bar is a fitting end to an action-packed day showing us all a side of the Czech Republic most of us knew little of. Two days earlier our Czech journey had similar beginnings bonding over a drink at night, albeit in the vast city of Prague. The Strahov Monastic brewery was the venue for the welcome reception with each of us sampling the traditional liquer Becherovka along with a local pilsner and platter of cold meats, cheeses and breads before a short brewery tour.

We enjoyed learning about the secrets of Prague brewing techniques and then debated our preferences for the light or dark beer as we discussed out first experiences of a city new to many.

Those who wanted to kicked on for a few drinks nearby at the centrally located Hotel Palace Praha. I made my excuses with a morning run to fit in before the morning’s sightseeing ahead.

Local expert Jaroslav met us in the morning and took us on a city walking tour of the 1,000 year old Prague Castle and its courtyards before admiring the stained glass of St. Vitus Cathedral and the views over the Old Town. Along the way, we took in Charles Bridge, some filming locations from Mission Impossible and Prague’s very own padlock bridge, one of many which grace Europe’s cities.

We visited a small glass factory, where master glass blowers still employ techniques that have changed little over the centuries and four volunteers had a go at their own creation. Just before the hour, next stop was the Old Town Square for the mechanised antics of the Astronomical Clock.

Then the city was ours to explore – some chose to tour the 13th century Jewish Quarter. Personally, without knowing it, I had already heeded Neira’s advice. It was lunchtime and the local Goulash was calling…it didn’t disappoint.

FACTS:

Gordon Gillan travelled with Insight Vacations flying with Emirates.

Fall under the spell of Cesky Krumlov plus testify to the legacy of the Habsburgs in Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava on Insight Vacations’ 10-day The Bohemian Country Roads escorted tour. Priced from $3,265 per person (twin share) including sightseeing, Signature Experiences, 5-star centrally located hotels, transport with business class legroom, many meals and the services of an experienced tour director and local experts. Departure dates from April to October.

www.insightvacations.com or call 0800 656 111