I’ve never seen a place of such persistent prettiness as Ceský Krumlov.
The town of 14,000 people (and up to 5000 tourists daily) in Southern Bohemia is a cram of cobbled alleys, pastel facades, orange-tiled roofs, walls painted with trompe-l’oeil masks/portraits/niches. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site, with 300 protected buildings in the Centrum alone. You almost need a permit to move a pot plant.
Nestled (you have to use that verb, if only for the chocolate-box associations) beside a curve of Smetana’s Vltava River, Ceský Krumlov – the name means “crooked meadow” – works assiduously to keep itself visitor-sweet. You can’t take a car into the Centrum without permission, aka payment. Tourist coaches? Hose your mouth out.
The said Centrum is a square of pink or yellow frontages around a Plague Column of saints and virgins who were supposed to protect the town from bubonic ravages. They failed.
Every morning at 6.00am, head-scarved women with brooms and dustpans sweep downtown Ceský Krumlov. I saw two of them hurrying to pick up a discarded tissue. The Seven Hearts Casino (“Poker Every Nite Till 3am”) was washed down by 6.50.
Hotels are very comfortable and very folk-furniture, with carved chests, spine-warping stools and paintings of kerchiefed peasant maids. Sometimes they’re very noisy as well. Quaint old clocks strike throughout the night. A quaint old recorded trumpeter blares. Quaint young revellers bawl down the alleys.
There’s a restaurant every 15 paces, with two gift shops in between. Eat Onion Soup with Dumplings; Goulash with Dumplings; Raspberry Tart (Dumplings Optional). Buy Bohemian glass, XXOS beer mugs, T-shirts made in Bangladesh.
You have two options with Ceský Krumlov. Either you bare your teeth at its inexorable cuteness, or you sedate your inner cynic and enjoy it.
Choose the latter and you can start with the museums. They include the Folk Puppet M (watch a performance of Smetana arranged for … strings); the terrifically tacky Torture M (get photographed on the rack); the Archaeological M (closed till 2012); the Wax M (such legendary Czech figures as Harry Potter and Michael Jackson); the excellent Porcelain M; the Egon Schiele M and Gallery – the edgy expressionist painter was welcomed with open arms till burghers learnt about his off-canvas technique with female models; then he was expelled with pointing fingers.
Don’t miss the Castle. You can’t – its gaudy, galleried 18th-century tower is on every second postcard. You enter it over a moat where brown bears mope in their own excrement; the SPCA isn’t big in Middle Europe.
The Rosenbergs ran Bohemia for decades, and their five-petalled rose is everywhere in the Castle. So are coats of arms that changed with their winning military moments; after one successful away match, they added a severed Turk’s Head being pecked by ravens.
Inside, the Castle is rococo bed chamber after baroque dining room. There’s a gilded coach built to carry the Rosenbergs 8km through Rome, then never taken out of the garage again. A ballroom where painted crowds of masked revellers peer at you from around corners, or into faux mirrors at their own reflections.
An astonishing restored 18th-century theatre, with pulleys, trapdoors and flying machinery that could change a forest to a prison in 12 seconds.
There are unadvertised bonuses in and around Ceský Krumlov. You can raft the Vltava if you really must do such things. You can bike beside it, past trees where swallows swoop and red squirrels ribbon up trunks. You can walk up out of town, along considerately colour-coded tracks into woods of lime, oak, spruce and scarlet rowan.
There are a few hazards as well. Using up your camera capacity in a day is one. Being stabbed or soaked by the umbrellas of Japanese tour parties is another. Dumpling Overload, plus the cultural dislocation of coming across saffron-robed Buddhist monks checking out the stand of Bohemian Beer Fest T-shirts should also be mentioned. But surrender yourself to a place so sweet it makes your amalgam ache, and you’ll have a grand time. Just don’t be seen dropping a tissue.