In what we should claim as the tailend of a two-year pandemic, the lingering spirits of the medieval past are given free rein over this World Heritage Site in South Bohemia
Images by the author
I met him along the dark, narrow cobblestone alley outside U Dawau Maryí, the Tavern of the Two Marys, as I stepped out for an after-dinner smoke, having just consumed what the restaurant attendant described as a “typical meal for the poor of the Dark Ages.” It consisted amply of potato—potato soup, potato salad, potato dumplings—although potato did not make it to Europe from the Andes in South America until 1536.
In the 15th-century house built between two town walls, replete with a Baroque façade and Renaissance wall coatings, I was also served with a platter of smoked meat, Czech ham, chicken, and, more appropriately, millet or maybe buckwheat, along with a pale lager to wash it all down.
It was two degrees below zero with a slight flurry of snow, so I stood in the doorway as I lit a cigarette. Through the plume of the smoke I exhaled into the spring-yet-wintry early April air, I saw him coming up, torch in hand, the hem of his Hellsing coat flying behind him, as were the curls of his platinum blond wig from under his Tudor hat.
“I cry your mercy, but these wild carriages are by God’s bones a nuisance,” he sighed, looking back at a Fiat that had just roared by behind him, and, with a slight nod of his head, said to me, “Hail fellow, well met!”
Český Krumlov is a town time forgot. Almost an exact replica of the Czech capital Prague, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of very few places in Europe to have emerged intact from the late Middle Ages. Český Krumlov is Prague’s jealous sister, built by Bohemian lords, who were said to be more powerful than the rulers of Prague, yet relegated to what was originally a patch of forests that harbored bandits.
Even then, before these powerful nobles came to rule, Český Krumlov was an important trade route in Bohemia. It was as important for the den of thieves and thugs who settled in its thick forests, from which they would rob, assault, and often kill the traders and travelers.
Drink in the breathtaking views from Seminární zahrada. Make three wishes at the 14th-century Church of Saint Vitus. Cruise the Vlatava on a canoe, kayak, or raft.
It took a few generations of aristocratic families, such as the Rosenbergs (1302-1602) and the Eggenbergs (1622-1719), to turn the town into a miniature Prague, a picturesque old town, part Gothic, part Renaissance, part Baroque, with a mighty hilltop castle towering over the meandering Vlatava River. In terms of size, this is the second most imposing of the Czech Republic’s castles, next only to the one in Prague.
Český Krumlov comes straight out of a fairy tale, but lighting the dark alley with a flaming torch, this man in a cape and medieval curls is, as legends go, risen from the dead or, more precisely, never dead. This town is a tale of immortality.
The ghost hails from the long period of social change, during which the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance. He refers to himself as a servant and to his time as “300 years ago,” the early 1700s, or two centuries after the Renaissance ended as a consequence of the Fall of Rome in 1527.
In those times, exactly 300 years ago, in 1722, Český Krumlov had been in the hands of a new German-Bohemian dynasty, the Schwarzenbergs, for three years since the Eggenbergs died out in 1719. In those years, under a second-generation Schwarzenberg, clever businessman and passionate lover of art Joseph I. Adam, both the castle and the town underwent reconstructions inspired by the changing styles of imperial Vienna.
Alas, by the late 1700s, and well into the 1800s, as the economy stagnated and, with it, the art scene, the Schwarzenbergs moved out of Český Krumlov, leaving the castle uninhabited and in disrepair until its ownership was transferred to the Czech provincial properties in 1947 and, just three years later, in 1950, to the Czechoslovak State.
So now, we’re here in what I claim to be the tailend of a two-year pandemic that, like the departure of the Schwarzenbergs in the late 19th century, gave the lingering spirits of the medieval past free rein over the town, over every twisting alley, every bridge, and every courtyard, as well as over the Svornosti Square, which is highlighted by a six-angled stone fountain surrounding a column erected between 1714 and 1716 in memory, rather aptly, of the plague that struck the town in the 1680s. On top of the Black Death Column is a Marian sculpture and beneath her are the sculptures of eight saints, Wenceslas, Vitus, John the Evangelist, Judas Thaddeus, Francis Xavier, Sebastian, Gaetano, and Rochus, all protectors against the plague, all masterpieces by Sorbian sculptor Matěj Václav Jäckel.
No wonder it feels safe in Český Krumlov. There are all these saints to keep away the modern-day iteration of the plague. Now—with the Czech Republic as open to travelers as it was pre-pandemic, having lifted most Covid-related protocols—is the best way to see many of its treasures.
At the Český Krumlov Castle alone, one won’t want for things to do, such as a peek into the lives of the Bohemian lords in some of the 350 bedrooms of the 40 buildings on castle grounds, a visit to the world’s best-preserved Baroque theater, the 176-step climb to the castle tower, or a picnic at the 10-hectare Baroque Castle Gardens.
But there’s more to see and do in Český Krumlov. Drink in the breathtaking views of the town, free of charge, from the public park Seminární zahrada. Make three wishes at the 14th-century Roman Catholic Church of Saint Vitus. Bask in both classical and contemporary art at the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. Cruise the Vlatava on a canoe, kayak, or raft. Explore the Minorite Monastery, built in 1350 on the orders of Peter I of Rosenberg and his wife Kateřina. There are many restaurants, including the Tavern of the Two Marys and the restaurant Švejk, named after the titular character in the dark comedy The Good Soldier Švejk by satirist Jaroslav Hašek. Enjoy your grilled meats, your rabbit pâté, and of course your Czech beer.
And, like I did, after dinner, you can have a torchlit tour of the labyrinthine laneways with a wandering soul. Just make sure the ghost to take you isn’t Perchta, the White Lady von Rosenberg, who lived at the Český Krumlov Castle in the 1400s. Legend has it that against her will she was married off by her father Ulrich II to the cruel, abusive Moravian lord Johann von Lichtenstein. To this day, she is said to haunt the Rosenberg castles.
If you do meet the White Lady von Rosenberg, pray hard to find her wearing white gloves, which means she brings you good tidings. Should you find her wearing black gloves instead, pray for your soul. A disaster awaits and, succumbing to it, you will then join the many tales of Český Krumlov, and you too may be legend.
Have a good trip.