A couple weeks before I left the U.S., I was watching a PBS program that wrapped up ten minutes before the hour, and in the interim between shows, I happened to catch a Rick Steves travel segment. It began with something along the lines of “My favorite place in the Czech Republic…” and I immediately perked up to see what place he could be talking about. It wasn’t Prague. It was a little hamlet of red-roofed buildings set on tiny cobblestone streets, nestled around a serpentine stretch of the Vltava River: Český Krumlov.
I was so excited that something about the Czech Republic happened to be on TV so soon before I’d be there myself, so I hopped on the Internet to see where Český Krumlov was and how likely it might be to swing a side trip. Alas, it’s in the southern end of the country, almost on the Austrian border, and probably a 5-hour drive from Prague. The chances of us getting that far out of town seemed unlikely, so I just enjoyed the coincidence and put it out of my head after that.
Fast forward to our first night in Prague, at the Hanging Coffee. Conor asked us if we had any plans to get outside of the city, and Jim mentioned Karlsbad as a possibility. “Oh man,” Conor replied, “if I were you, I’d go to Český Krumlov over Karlsbad. It’s one of my favorite cities in all of Europe.”
My eyes got wide and I grabbed Jim’s arm. There it was again! Clearly the universe was directing us to Český Krumlov, and so on Jim’s birthday we bought train tickets, and two days later, we boarded the train.
Five hours and several transfers later, we arrived.
We began the long walk into town from the train station, immediately struck by the quaint beauty of our surroundings.
The train station was almost directly on the opposite side of town to the place we would be staying, which meant that we got to walk through the town and familiarize ourselves with landmarks and possible places to visit once we got settled in.
Eventually we made it to the other side, to our home for the night.
The Dilettante’s Hangout & Artist Retreat is two private rooms in the house of Maty Dio, an “eccentric transgender performance artist” whose paintings cover all the walls of both rooms. Immediately upon entering, we were greeted by the commingling aromas of incense and tea. Maty wasn’t in at the moment but would be returning soon, we were assured, and so we picked our rooms– Jim and I opted for the Nirvana Boudoir and Sarah took the Buddha Suite– and got settled.
Once we got settled, Maty arrived. He spoke marvelous English with an accent that both Sarah and I agreed we could listen to for days, and went about explaining the places to go (Deli 99 for coffee) and the places to avoid (vegetarian restaurants), using a copy of a hand-drawn map that I’m assuming he made himself (there’s a stack of them in the foyer for guests). Once we had been given a sufficient run-down, Maty left us to ourselves and we descended into the little town. Behold the quaintness.
Using Maty’s map, we found our way to Šatlava (note: the angry “s” makes a “sh” sound), a medieval restaurant on the site of the old jailhouse where your meat is cooked on an open fire. We walked in and took a seat in the dark and cavernous space, near the fire so we could see the action.
After the marvelous meal, eaten to the soothing sounds of medieval flute music, we were tempted to stay for another beer (pivo) but decided we needed to see what else the town had to offer, so we paid the bill and went on our way.
The Gypsy Pub is another joint in town that comes highly recommended by practically everyone. I can definitely see where it would be a hot spot during the high tourist season, but on a Wednesday night in March, it was pretty quiet: besides the three of us, it was the owner, the owner’s friend, and the owner’s friend’s dog. The owner was kind and the beer was good; I hope I’m able to return sometime when it’s a little more active, because the word is that you can catch some good live Gypsy music if you go on the right night.
After the Gypsy, we went to a place that we’d passed on the way to the Dilettante’s Hangout, that I knew I wanted to stop at before I knew anything about it: The Gorila Rock Pub.
We went inside and sat down. This was more like it. Young kids populated the place, some with dogs. There was music and raucous laughter. The table next to us was a group of guys who spent their time rolling spliffs and smoking them at the table. [Side note: This is something I’ve noticed in the Czech Republic– marijuana is smoked pretty openly, and while it’s still technically illegal, proprietors turn a blind eye to its use. In return, people smoke it responsibly and subtly. I find this attitude fascinating, because where I come from, it is a no-tolerance Schedule I narcotic alongside the likes of heroin and MDMA, use or possession of which can land someone in jail for a long time. I marvel at how peaceful and self-regulatory the situation can be when neither side deigns to make a big deal about it.]
After a few beers and a few rounds of “Win, Lose, or Banana“, we decided to head back up the giant hill to the Hangout, talking the whole time about the Czech Republic and how it’s fared against our expectations so far (conclusion: it’s exceeded them all). Upon arriving, we parted ways into our respective rooms, and I fell asleep in a canopy bed for the very first time.
The next morning, I took a hot bath with some epsom salts I’d purchased the day before (cannabis-scented– for 79 crowns I couldn’t resist). With a steaming cup of coffee and my Michael Palin travel book, it was a scandalously lovely way to start the day.
We went that morning to Deli 99 for what Maty said was the best coffee in town, and it didn’t disappoint (Jim’s waffle, however, was another story). Afterwards, we only had a few hours to check out the town before our train departed back to Prague, so we decided to walk up to the castle.
Perhaps the coolest thing about the castle is that it has a bear moat. That’s right. A moat full of bears.
Unfortunately for us, there were no actual bears in the moat that day, but the fact that they exist, and that there are signs advising tourists not to feed them, was good enough for me.
We continued on into the castle compound, and I immediately recalled Rick Steves’ description of the castle tower’s “fanciful paint job”. As it turns out, much of the decorative architecture of the compound is painted on.
From atop the castle’s bridge, you can see the the whole town.
Once we’d had our fill of the castle, we agreed that it was probably time to head back to the train station for the long journey home. We made it up the hill with an hour to spare, and there are a few thoughtfully-placed pubs surrounding the train station, so we made our way into one and played a game of pool while we drank a beer and waited for the time to come. Eventually, sadly, it came. We paid the tab and ran to the station, found a roomette that was empty, and had a ukulele sing-along the whole way back to Prague.