Český Krumlov – a Fairytale Town
Situated along the mountains of South Bohemia, embraced within the curve of the Vltava River, is the enchanting town of Český Krumlov. Its mix of grandeur and small-town charm draws in visitors from all over the world.
TIP: OLD TOWN AND THE LÁTRAN
To help orient yourself, you can remember the Old Town of Český Krumlov as being the section of the city where the main municipal attractions, like the Market Square and the Regional Museum are located. The side of the city directly under the castle is called the Látran.
The Old Town of Český Krumlov
We enter the city in a taxi, crossing the Lazebnický Bridge into the Old Town. Immediately, we are transported back to the city’s golden age in the 15th century. It was during this era the city’s magnificent castle was given its present day character. Once a medieval town, today, Český Krumlov is a beautiful Renaissance city.
Our taxi driver expertly manoeuvres his way up Radniční Street, a narrow cobblestoned lane lined with colourful buildings. Along the way we pass the Fairytale House and the Museum of Commerce, which catch our attention with their evocative storefronts. Our hotel, Ú Malého Vitka, is located in the three gothic buildings beside the Museum.
We step out of the taxi, and I feel a cold drizzle on my face. It was winter in Český Krumlov, and showers are not uncommon. We hurry to enter the warm interior of the hotel.
Like all buildings in Český Krumlov’s Old Town, Ú Malého Vitka has an interesting history dating back centuries. After checking us in, our receptionist leads us through a labyrinth of wooden stairs and brick corridors, to our room. Along the way, we pass the dining hall, with its high ceilings, spacious interior, and solid wooden benches harking back to a bygone era. Already, I was immersed into the living history of the city.
The Christmas Market in Český Krumlov
During the Christmas week, there is nothing like a cup of mulled wine in the market square to feel properly welcomed to Český Krumlov. The market square, one of the oldests in Europe, opens up in the centre of the medieval Old Town. This presence of the square is thanks to the foresight of the ruling family of the time, the Rosenbergs, who intentionally created this communal space for the inhabitants of the city. In doing so, they prevented the unplanned urban sprawl so common in medieval towns.
History of the Market Square
In the past, Náměstí Svornosti was not only a marketplace, but also a place for the execution of justice. For many centuries, a gallows stood in a prominent location on the square. Here, murderers were executed. Thankfully, this antiquated instrument of justice is no longer there. Instead, a market selling traditional hot meals and the ever present chimney cake can be found during the festive months of the year.
Standing in the middle of the square, I marvel at the quaint beauty of the restored houses that surround me. Once these belonged to the most respected members of society. The building which houses the Tourist Information Centre and the Museum of Torture once was the Town Hall, where matters of parliament were conducted.
The Marian Column and Fountain
In the 17th Century, a plague swept through the city of Český Krumlov, killing many people. When the spectre of death had passed, the Schwarzenberg princess, Marie Ernestina, erected this impressive column to give thanks. In the 19th century, the fountain in the middle of the square was moved to its present position where it encircles the column
Beside this opulent monument, tourists queue for food and amble around, unaware of its grandeur. Perhaps in a city where every detail is of historical importance, it becomes difficult to pay attention when the smell of frying sausages and spice wine bekons.
View of the Castle Tower and Streets
A little ways up Horní Ulice is a little garden that is part of the Český Krumlov Regional Museum. It is called the Seminární Zahrada, or the Seminary Garden, as the Regional Museum was once a seminary for Jesuits. On any day, regardless the weather be fair or foul, you will see a small crowd gather in front of the low stone wall facing the river. This was one of my favourite lookout points in the city.
Looking down, over the wall, I could see the quaint medieval street of Parkán, lined with charming, simple houses winding around the Vltava. Just beyond the river, the little red roofs of the Látran neighbourhood mushroomed at the base of the castle tower. The scene is right out of a storybook.
Sticking my head out as far as I could, I made out the silhoutte of a cute medieval building with a wooden balcony right at the very end. Perhaps more charming buildings like it lay just beyond the bend of the street. The view from the garden was a tantalising teaser to the rest of the town.
Historical Buildings of The Český Krumlov Old Town
As I spent more time walking between the tightly packed facades of Český Krumlov, I began to notice surprising and unique details preserved on many of them. Quite often, especially in the case of the buildings in the Latrán, I would spot new paint work around an image dating back to the Renaissance period.
These paintings mimic the artwork in courtyards III and IV of the castle, and have an illustrative quality about them, like something you might see in a children’s storybook. Also sometimes, instead of people and animals, they would mimic brickwork. Like the paintings in the castle, they utilise the sgraffito technique. To create the painting, the artist would make a layer of paint and then cover it with another. Scratching through the topmost layer would reaveal the paint underneath. Like this, the decorations on the facades were created.
Not all the decorations were created in this manner, of course. Many of them were simply painted on. Many are portraits of saints reenacting a moment in their lifetime, or the coat of arms of the ruling families of the city.
Hotel Ú Malého Vítka
In entering our hotel, Ú Malého Vitka, we steped back into another time. A time before the digitazation of the world, when life was simpler and slower. The hotel, made up of three Gothic townhouses, is furnished with sweet smelling wood, and decorated with animal and human characters from a famous Czech fairytale.
The rooms are all decorated with simple, handmade furniture – I could imagine the people who used to live here using furniture just like the ones we saw. The history of the houses goes back to the 1500s, when the oldest record of a buyer was found. He was a butcher. The houses passed through many hands throughout their lifetime. It was mostly people who had a skilled craft or trade that owned the properties – besides the butcher, there were two tailors, a court chef, a teacher and quite a number of gingerbread bakers. I didn’t think it was possible to be so specialised in the Middle Ages, but there you go!
The room that stands out the most is the dining hall. This impressive rectangular room with its high ceilings and solid wooden tables and benches really made me think of a medieval beer hall. I thought it was a bit of a pity it was only used for breakfast. I would have like to have a jug or two of ale in it!
If you really want to experience life in Český Krumlov during its heyday, I would highly recommend Ú Malého Vitka. The traditional ambience is a great experience and the staff are very friendly and knowledgeble about the history of the city.
The Museum of Commerce
The Museum of Commerce is a window into a world only recently gone. Beautifully decorated metal plates, wind up musical boxes and other retro items fill the shop front. The items glint under the bright lights of the display window, inviting us in.
Walking inside, I felt like I’d stepped into a Disney movie in the 1940s. I don’t recall any actual items from Disney inside it, but there was just something. Maybe it was the music that was being played, or maybe it was the bright colours of the items on display… I also noticed that things from that era tended to have more figural representation on them. There was always a woman, man or animal used to advertise the use of a certain product.
In the first room, there stands a diorama of a scene from a grocery store. In it, the sales woman is tending to a shopper and her child. Beside her on the counter is a large and beautiful decorated cash register like I’ve never seen before. Behind her are boxes of produce.
In the next hall, there is an exhibit of beautiful metal containers that were once used in shops for dispensing items like coffee beans, grains, nuts and other dried household goods. Both these exhibits really struck a chord with me. In today’s society of waste, almost all our food comes packaged in plastic. These colourful cannisters were a reminder of how people lived more elegantly and less wastefully in the past.
We spent more time than most would in this museum, I think. But I absolutely fell in love with all the items. Things, back then, were passed on from generation to generation, and as such, people took the effort to decorate them. To make their value more than just their utility.
I also loved all the marketing posters. This is the other defining feature of the era, I think. When advertisements were illustrated and not photographed. The posters in the museum are very imaginative and beautiful, and I left wishing I had the space in my luggage to transport a few delicate posters.
The Castle of Český Krumlov
Rising over the red roofs and colourful houses of the Látran, dominating the quaint townhouses built around it, is the Castle of Český Krumlov. On first impression, this castle projects a strong Renaissance character. However, it is not from any one era. Instead, it is a mix of medieval, Gothic and Renaissance styles, acquired throughout the 700 years of its existence.
Standing on the wooden bridge by the former mill, the river rushing below me, I crane my head to look up at the castle walls. Built into the cliffs that bank the nothern bend, its buildings rise high, high up into the sky. Along the rock face, vegetation creeps and climbs, the crowns of some trees higher than half the walls. Many of these trees are old, like the castle that lies behind them.
Standing loftily above the surrounding buildings is the castle tower. With its pale yellow base, pink arches and copper green arcade, it seems right out of a Disney movie. As a finishing touch, three golden ornaments adorn its Renaissance spires. As the sunlight hits them, they gleam and sparkle magically. The tower, and the Little Castle under it, are the oldest buildings of the castle complex. By dating the wood inside the Little Castle, scientist have determined that it was built at the end of the 13th century.
Photo Caption: When it was built, the Little Castle and its tower were of simple Gothic design. Today it is elegantly Renaissance, its upper floors decorated with arches and paintings.
The Castle Steps
From the Old Town, I cross the Barber’s Bridge into the Latrán. Turning right, I see that the road splits into two. The left fork leads up some narrow steps that wind around a quaint restaurant. The delicious smells of lunchtime cooking waft out from gaps in the windows.
From the restaurant, the steps turn farther to the right. I keep walking up Zámecké Schody street, my curiosity drawing me towards each bend. At the very end, the steps pass below a double arch. Underneath the smaller arch is a wood relief bearing the five petaled rose of the Rosenberg family, who ruled Český Krumlov for over 3 centuries.
Here, at the very last landing, I turned back to look at the winding path I had taken. To my surprise, there was a whimsical painting of a bear looking cheerfully out of a window, illustrated onto the side of the very last house on the street.
The Bear Moat
Around the walls of the Castle’s outer couryard and its entrance bridge is a tall metal fence. I peer between its bars and look down. At the same moment, a little brown head pops up over a fallen trunk. One of the castle bears was awake! A few moment later, he was joined by his sibling, who also seemed recently woken from slumber.
On the other side of the bridge, I noticed various bits of festive food lying around. Apparently, every Christmas, locals can come and offer pastry and honeyed sweets to the bears. The amounts offered are not small – about 120 kilograms (although I’m not sure if this is per bear or for both). A guidebook told me that the bears were put on a diet beforehand to accomodate from this yearly feast.
Bear keeping in the Český Krumlov Castle stretches back to the Rosenbergs in the 16th century. Some people criticise this tradition, but I’m quite alright with it. The current enclosure is designed to modern zoo specifications and gives the bears plenty of space and refuge. The old bear couple also gave birth to two cubs, which signal that the bears feel safe and happy enough to reproduce.
The Castle Courtyards
The Český Krulmov Castle has many courtyards. The ones that stand out the most are Courtyards II, III and IV. Courtyard I serves as the grand entrance to the castle grounds. As you enter, you’ll notice the entrance to the Lower Castle and the tower. Straight ahead, past the fountain in the middle, is the entrance to the Upper Castle.
The next two courtyards serve to divide up the Upper Castle. I suppose they were created to let more light into the buildings. These courtyards are notable for the sgrafitto artwork on them. Paintings of stonework cover all the walls of the courtyard. I suppose it was cheaper and more convenient to paint the masonry rather than make walls out of perfectly cut stone blocks. Or maybe it was simply more fashionable at the time.
The paintings here are mostly faded, so it’s difficult to make out who the human figures are supposed to represent. I later found on that they were Roman gods and goddesses.
Castle Cellars and the Miroslav Páral Exhibition
Walking onwards takes me through a dark stone corridor. A passage opens up to the right, with steps leading down. At first, I thought the stairs would take me to the castle dungeons. On closer look at the poster advertising the space inside, I realise that it is actually the castle cellars. No food is stored there now – instead, a permanent exhibition of a famous Czech surrelist is on display.
The work inside is absolutely magnificient. If you like Salvador Dali, I think you might appreciate the works of Miroslav Páral. Unlike Dali however, there is nothing light-hearted about Páral’s works. Although there is humour, it is all dark. Very dark. I thought the Castle Cellars were a fitting place for his works.
The Cloak Bridge
Eventually, the dark corridor that runs under the Upper Castle opens up onto the Cloak Bridge. Its white walls reflect the cold winter sun onto every surface and the lightness that engulfs you is magical.
A beautiful scene unfolds to your right. The city of Český Krumlov, framed under the arches of the bridge, is like a tilt shift photo of a toy town. The scene is picture perfect. From here, you can see how the Vltava winds around the city. A few thousand years, and the lobes of land that hold the heart of the city will become islands.
The view from here is high up, but not too high up. When you look into the distance you’ll see houses almost merging with the landscape. But when you look at the river bank right across, you could almost make out the main details on the window frames.
St. Vitus Church in Český Krumlov
Looking past the Marian column, the tall, thin Neo-Gothic spire of the St. Vitus church rises over the buildings cornering the square. Although it was a cold, rainy day, we did not want to miss a moment, and made our way up the slippery cobblestones of Horní Ulice. Three doors down, the street opened up, leading to the entrance of the church.
From the bottom of the stairs, the church towered over us. Although not very long or wide, St. Vitus stands twice as high as the surrounding buildings. Its height is accentuated by the fact that the narrow streets around can only provide a close up view right at its base.
We happily walked into the warmth and serinity of the church’s interior. Inside, it is lit by the soft winter light, filtering through the glass of its tall, thin windows. Slender stone columns rise up towards the ceiling, forming an elegant net vault.
Dark pews fill the central nave, providing a solemn contrast agasint the church’s pure white walls. Walking among the pews, I spot the occassional choir book. I cannot help but pick one up and flip through its thin, delicate pages. Although the songs are in a foriegn language, I know they are familiar ones, many of them sung throughout the Catholic world.
Like most churches, St Vitus is not the product of any one particular time. It has seen many architectural evolutions since its initial construction in the 1400s. The oldest part that still stands is the stone loft which currently supports the organ, itself dating from the 20th Century. Between those times the red roofted stone sanctuary was built and the main alter within it completed in 1683.
Egon Schiele Centrum
The Egon Schiele Centrum was definitely one of the highlights of our Prague and Český Krumlov trip. Once the former town brewery, it has now been refurbished into a modern art space. Schiele’s work, and contemporary art about the artist and his influence, is limited to the top floor. The rest of the floors host art by contemporary artists.
To get to the exhibition, I had to walk up a narrow flight of stairs that to the building’s attic. As I neared the top, I could hear jazz music playing. The music immediately set the time period, and I felt I was back in the early 1900s, when Schiele was still alive and making his revolutionary art.
The attic is dark, with low ceilings supported by magnificient wooden beams. The floor in the entrance hall, interestingly enough, is cobblestone and brick. Here, I discover the source of the music, a video, framed by a stone doorway that has since been walled over.
I love the erotic artwork of Egon Schiele, but was unaware he did anything else. In this museum, I became acquainted with his whimsical yet sophisticated paintings of Český Krumlov. One item that I particularly loved was his notebook. It was left open to a page with his sketches for the poster advertising the 49th Secession Exhibition in Vienna, in the year 1918.
The Centrum also has a lovely café on the ground floor. Even if you’re not interested in the works of Egon Schiele, you should still drop by. The Egon Café is the perfect place for a bit of tea and cake after exploring the town.
Český Krumlov has lots of restaurants, but this was the only café I remember coming across. It has comfortable chairs, a nice relaxed vibe, and really great cake.
Regional Museum in Český Krumlov
While walking around Český Krumlov, we spotted a poster with a beautiful ceramic model of the city. “Regionální Museum”, it read, on the poster. Immediately, we knew we had to pay the museum a visit to see this impressive piece of art.
The museum turned out to be so much more. On the very top floor, there was an exhibit about settlements in Český Krumlov in prehistoric times. I was very excited to learn than the area around Český Krumlov has been settled as early as 800 BC. Archeologist identify the cuture that settled in the region as the Hallstatt culture. This later evolved into the Celtic culture. In the museum, there were on display some bronze age pieces of jewellery with clearly Celtic decorations on them.
The ceramic model of the town was very impressive. It was large and detailed enough so you could see all the important characteristics of Český Krumlov’s historic buildings.
All the streets of the city were featured, even the little alleys that most visitors to the city might pass without ever knowing they were there. The coolest thing about the ceramic model for me were the depictions of the sgrafitto paintings on the buildings in the Látran. They were so well done and easily recognisable!
In the final floor was an exhibition featuring the artworks of Martin Šítal and his wife Marie Šítalová. The artists were a working class couple who found each other in their 50s (rare for the time as people married early in those days).
Their style, although naïve, is truly heart warming. Through their innocent paintstrokes, these two artists have given us a picture of the life of ordinary people living it the country in the middle of the 20th Century.
East of the castle is a monastery complex consisting of the Monastery of the Poor Claires, the monastery of God’s Body and the former Monastery of th Minorities. There were plenty of activities in the gardens for most of the year – especially during the advent period. Quite unfortunately for us we were a few days too late for the baking workshop hosted by the monastery!
If this sounds like a unique activity you could be interested in, do look it up. When we were there, the monastery bakery was open to visitors on the 21 and 22 of December. It could also be useful to note that visitors and locals are allowed to donate pastries to the bears living in the castle moat for the 24th of December.
FAQs for Český Krumlov
Český Krumlov is a five star location and a definite must see if you are already visiting Prague. Some visitors who are short on time even opt for Český Krumlov over Prague. It is a unique town with a beautiful castle and charming medieval townhouses.
Český Krumlov is in the Czech Republic, located in Southern Bohemia. It is right between Prague and Vienna.
There are buses that depart daily from Prague to Český Krumlov. Depending on the season, departures might be more, or less, frequent.
No, there is no train from Prague to Český Krumlov. To get to Český Krumlov, you have to take a bus.
To get to Vienna from Český Krumlov, the easiest way would be to hire a mini-van. The service we used, MiniBuzz, was very comfortable and we highly recommend it.
Český Krumlov is about a two and a half hour drive from Prague
There are lots of things to do in Český Krumlov. The city itself is very picturesque. To simply walk around it and soak in the atmosphere could take up an entire day. If you wish to visit the interior of the castle and the museums, you might need an additional day or two. One thing is for sure, it is impossible to get bored in Český Krumlov.