Guilty secrets in a fantasy town

Cesky Krumlov is a town so ethereal as to be almost unreal. Mercifully, it avoided the bludgeoning communist-era development that, in places, eclipses a wondrous Czech architectural inheritance. What remains is a monument of mitteleuropa architecture, encompassing a dizzying display of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque: deservedly the town has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cesky Krumlov, a three hours drive from Prague, offers a vision of how the Czech capital looked before the twin Hydras of communism and capitalism cloaked that city’s aged finery in a dowdy dress of ultra-functional apartment blocks and the, newly emerged, Babylonian array, of pizzerias, strip bars and kitsch Irish pubs, that blight parts of Prague’s historic centre.

Nestling in a horseshoe bend of the Vltav River, tranquil Cesky Krumlov provides the ideal getaway. Inevitably, you will climb the hill above the town to look down on the wine-red roofs, sharp spires, and delicate facades. It is easy, then, to see why the artist Egon Schiele abandoned Viennese cafe society for the picture-book charms of his mother’s native town. Cesky Krumlov contains a gallery dedicated to the controversial painter who transmitted an intensity that still burns intensely in his oeuvre. Tragically, this creative fire was extinguished prematurely when the Spanish influenza epidemic that ravaged Europe after the First World War struck him down. He was aged just twenty-nine.

Predictably, the stolid burghers were not enamored by the artist’s predilection for using underage girls as his models, and ran him, and his regular lover, out of town. Despite the troubled relationship, Schiele left a number of paintings that achieve the not inconsiderable feat of amplifying an appreciation of the town’s obvious charm. The gallery dedicated to him in the town also contains works by a number of modern artists from the Czech Republic and beyond, so an afternoon can easily be wiled away.

Looming above the town, is the remarkable Krumlov fortress, the largest castle in the Czech Republic outside Prague. The need for such an imposing structure in this seemingly peaceful landscape of rolling hills and eddying streams bears testament to the invading armies, Magyars, Turks and others, that battled for control of the fertile hinterland before Hapsburg hegemony allowed for the Renaissance and Baroque sprawl in the valley below.

Passing beneath the bridge before the castle, local lore has it that a failure to observe silence will bring bad luck, but this hardly seems to require effort as one is mesmerized by the splendid views below and above.

The castle is not merely functional, as it contains one of the few remaining unmodified Baroque theatres and, for the select few fortunate enough to attend, once a year a Baroque opera is performed in simulated candlelight.

Like many places where beauty resides, in its time the town witnessed great cruelty. Nowadays, the town, like the rest of the Czech Republic, outside cosmopolitan Prague, contains an overwhelming majority of ethnic Czechs. This, however, was not always the case. Prior to 1938 roughly 23% of the population there of what was then Czechoslovakia was ethnic German, mostly living in the Czech lands. A census of 1910 for the town of Krumau an der Moldau, as Cesky Krumlov was known to its German speaking inhabitants, showed a population of 7,367 Germans and 1,295 Czechs.

Nazi defeat left the Sudetendeutsche, as German Czech were known, without a patron: they would pay dearly for their support of the Nazis, as the overwhelming majority of this substantial population was forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, in a bout of cruelty, commonplace in its time, but shocking nonetheless. Estimated mortalities from the forced marches and internment camps range between 20,000 and 200,000.

Cesky Krumlov’s experience was but a minor episode in a continent-wide tale of misery, but it is worth recalling in order to salute the artistic achievements of its departed German builders.

Cesky Krumlov is decisively Czech today, and contains a number of eateries which specialise in hearty Czech fare. The ubiquitous national dish of the Czech Republic is goulash a beef stew flavoured with paprika and accompanied by dumplings to create an ideal winter’s meal. The emphasis is definitely on meat, with klobasa, a hot dog of varying quality, a firm local favourite for snack food.

Like anywhere in Czech Republic Cesky Krumlov offers fantastic beer, of such a quality that hangovers are mysteriously avoided. The famous Budvar brewery is located just thirty kilometres away in Cesky Budejovice, although most natives insist that the superior Czech brand of beer is the widely available Pilsner Urquell, from which we derive the description for a Pilsner-style of beer. Czech wines are also worthy of attention, particularly the ice wines.

The town and its environs offers a number of very well-appointed hotels that are keenly priced compared to their Western European equivalents. So if you are seeking some respite from Prague’s frenetic pace and wish to sample a setting unblemished by modernity take a trip to Cesky Krumlov.

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