Despite what it says on the itinerary, the second stop on my Viking cruise of the Danube wasn’t about visiting Linz, Austria. It was about visiting Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic. And now, having seen them both, I wouldn’t do it any other way.
If you’ve never heard of Cesky Krumlov, think Heidelberg, or the old town of Vienna: a kind of living museum where you can walk through the past as if you’re in a sword-and-sorcery movie. But Cesky Krumlov is arguably better preserved than almost all of the historic towns, thanks mostly to its fall from prominence many years ago. That has made it a major tourist draw, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You can walk the narrow, cobblestoned streets of the old town without finding a steel-and-glass building anywhere (though I did see the odd plate-glass window). And along the way, you can admire traditional shops that still display the coats of arms of the burgers who lived there. But inevitably, your steps lead you to the main reason for visiting Cesky Krumlov: the castle.
I’ve seen a lot of castles on my travels: I took a castle tour on my trip to Denmark, and saw more than my share of them on my previous Viking cruise along the Rhine. But Cesky Krumlov Castle ranks among the best of them. It’s one of the best and biggest castles in Central Europe, and since it was never besieged – unlike many of those elsewhere in Europe – it’s almost completely intact, though it’s been remodeled several times by the three families that owned it though the centuries.
Our tour began in the castle gardens, which stretch out in two directions. On one side, a formal, English-style garden conceals a revolving theatre that is still used today – though it’s driven by a motor instead of a couple of dozen sweating soldiers. On the other side, a grand fountain with heroic statues led us into a European-style garden, already starting to sprout despite the unseasonably cold weather.
Next came a riding enclosure, with a lodge where the nobles would rest — and probably have a stirrup cup or two – before heading out for a gallop. That led to a lookout point that gave us beautiful view over the old town, moulded into a circle by a great loop in the Vltava River.
A romantic-looking, Roman-style bridge led on, through a series of courtyards whose walls were finished in a trompe-l’oeil style that mimicked the large stones of most castles, since the area wasn’t endowed with suitable stone. Medieval box-style balconies completed the impression that we’d walked into a Robin Hood movie.
We continued past stables, the castle bakery, brewery, gunmaker’s shop, and most of the other services a major castle comprises. Cesky Krumlov also has a real medieval theatre, complete with some of the original costumes; unfortunately, this was an exterior tour, so we didn’t get a peek into the theatre, or the castle’s other inner secrets, like the underground tunnels.
And since it was a cold day, we missed the bears that still live in the castle’s dry moat. When the weather is sunny, they cavort a bit for the tourists – though no bear-baiting is allowed. But walking away, we did get a good look at the old castle tower (seen above), one of the few parts of the complex left from the original 13th-century castle. A recent restoration surprised everyone when it turned out the tower was brightly painted in shades of red, yellow and blue.
Still, a truly thorough tour wouldn’t have left much time to see the town itself, which would have been a shame. I love to wander through the streets of ancient towns, and this one reeked of history, from the lovely bridge across the Vltava to the very classic-looking town square.
Driving back from visiting Cesky Krumlov, I admired the beautiful countryside surrounding it, lush green fields giving way here and there to patches of dark forest. In fact, the countryside probably doesn’t look that much different from when the nobles of Cesky Krumlov ruled the land.
And as for missing a real visit to Linz, which is now a very modern, industrial city, I had only one regret: I never got a slice of linzertorte.
I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 and Sony DSC-WX500 cameras.