By Jim Ferri
I first saw Český Krumlov as I was driving along a winding country road in the southern Czech Republic.
When I came around a bend and caught sight of castle turrets rising above trees and ochre rooftops, all of the guidebook raves I had read swirled into mind. I just stared; the town appeared so fairytale-like it almost looked like a movie set.
Český Krumlov, in southern Bohemia about a 2½ hour drive from Prague, is a medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site of winding lanes, cobbled streets and Renaissance buildings. Above it all stands a fairytale castle, a beautiful chateau pasted on a rocky hill in the middle of town. Below the castle the Vitava River makes a dramatic horseshoe slice right through the middle of town. Hollywood couldn’t have designed it any better.
When my wife and I arrived we were surprised that we could drive our rental through the pedestrian-only streets to our hotel. I had booked us into the Hotel Dvořák, which turned out to be comfortable and in a great location in Vnitřní Měst, the inner town with the old town square, next to the small bridge that crossed into Latrán, the old town which houses the castle.
We were given a permit for the dash, at a cost of about $18, and told to park in the rear. We only had a day to spend in Český Krumlov so we dropped our luggage in our room and set off immediately to wander about.
We crossed the little bridge and just wandered aimlessly about the cobbled streets and alleyways of the old town, poking our heads into little shops and antique stores along the way. Just about everywhere we walked we could see the tower of the castle above us, decorated with different designs from its base to its top. It was unlike any I’d ever seen before.
It’s a beautiful little town, a “pocket-sized Prague,” wrote one guidebook author, filled with cafes and restaurants, shops and galleries. Perhaps it was the decorations on the castle that set the tone for the town, for we soon discovered in Český Krumlov also has pieces of outdoor art scattered all about town. It was a wonderful place to wander about for an afternoon.
After an hour or two we stopped in a small restaurant, Pizzerie Latrán, for lunch. Although it labeled itself a “pizzeria”, it did have a fairly good menu ranging from pizza and pasta to a variety of meat dishes. We ordered some pasta, two different dishes, each remarkably good and fresh, which along with two Czech beers cost us about $21.
We had chosen to visit in the off-season, since we had been forewarned about the claustrophobic tour-bus crowds that invade Český Krumlov in the warmer months. This meant, unfortunately, that the castle would be closed to visitors but we were still able to walk up along the road of the lower and upper castles which provided a stunning view of the town below the ramparts.
The seasonal closing of the castle and other sites was offset by us and a few other tourists having the town to ourselves, and being able to enjoy its medieval and Renaissance charm at a leisurely pace. It also meant that we weren’t tied to a schedule and didn’t have to worry about restaurant reservations and the like.
After roaming about the old town and the inner town for several hours, we went back to our hotel to relax and asked at the desk for a recommendation of a good restaurant that served authentic Czech cuisine. The owner immediately suggested that we visit Satlavské, which was right off the town square only a few minutes walk away.
At first we couldn’t find it, so we stopped in another hotel and asked for directions. “Oh, it’s right here, I’ll show you,” the man at the desk said, and he took us outside and pointed about 30 yards down the street.
Even though it was one of the more popular restaurants in town, requiring reservations in advance during the busy tour-bus summer season, the place was so nondescript on the outside we never would have found it without help. Inside we found a long cave-like room lined with bare wooden tables and, about hallway down the right wall, a fire pit with a grill over it. Illuminated mostly by candles, it was a barbecue cellar right out of medieval times.
We sat at a long table next to the fire (which later turned out to be not such a good idea due to the heat) since we wanted to see how and what they cooked. There were plenty of beef, pork, chicken and turkey items on the menu with a fair number of vegetables as well, every one done in old Czech style.
We ordered the mixed grill for one person (turkey, pork, beef, baked potato and potato pancake, about $10 for one person, $20 for three) along with two salads. The portion, however, turned out to be so large that even though we had only ordered for one, we couldn’t finish the meal. Our entire dinner with drinks and a somewhat disappointing apple strudel (they should have left it well enough alone, and not put chocolate syrup and whipped cream on top of the ice cream) wound up being only $23 and was much better than the meal we had at a larger, and more popular, restaurant in Prague the night before.
Satlavské was an enjoyable experience but we found that the real treat awaited us after we left the restaurant. On the five-minute walk back to our hotel we found ourselves back in medieval times as we walked along the silent cobblestone streets with the towers of the illuminated castle soaring upward In front of us.
It was one of those rare time-warp experiences you have in life, which made me think “thank God for UNESCO protection.”
If you go:
1109 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10028
Tel: (212) 288 0830
381 01 Český Krumlov
Tel: 420 380 711 020
Tel: 420 380 713 344
381 01 Český Krumlov
Tel: +420 380 712 651