There are times when living in the Czech Republic feels like stepping back in time. I’m not referring to the 80’s music I hear every time I enter a restaurant, or the retro style that dictates much of the clothing or furniture. No, this is the sense that time moves differently here. For this is a land of castles that stand majestically against the sky, bearing witness to a time long past. It is a land of green rolling hills, endless cloudscapes that cast a soft light upon the red-tile roofs, and deep forests, which still hold their secrets. There are quiet pubs, with low, arching ceilings that have seen a thousand nights of laughter and firelight. There are winding streets, that curve among tall, decorated buildings ornamented with scrolls and carved statues. There are peaceful villages, nestled in steep valleys, where branches of the Vltava run lazily past ancient churches. There is beauty here, and quiet, and peace.
Last weekend my husband and I spent several days exploring the town of Cesky Krumlov, a small town near the southern border of the Czech Republic. Centuries ago, a castle was built on the natural fortress of a steep rocky cliff rising above the Vltava, and the town grew up around it. Now cottages and pensions line the curving waterways, as the Vltava winds in several hairpin curves through the town. Small, twisting alleys connect the main square, several large parks, and a series of picturesque bridges, and one can sit at any number of restaurants along the river and watch the adventurous rafters negotiate the series of weirs placed along the river. Rising above this patchwork of alleys and roofs is the steep-roofed tower of the St. Vitus church, and higher still rises the distinctively painted tower of the older part of the castle, flanked by the original castle building. Nearby, above the sheer drop of the cliffs topped by the castle walls, runs a high bridge extending from one lofty part of the castle to another, supported by tall arches reminiscent of a Roman aqueduct. Pass through the next building, and you will find yourself along a wide path heading uphill, leading through a set of majestic gates. Once past these, in a small nook along the castle wall, lies a small cafe, where one can order coffee, rest beneath the overhanging vines, or take in the beautiful view of the town spread out below.
After exploring the town, and tasting the famed Eggenberg beer produced in the local brewery, Andrew and I rented bikes and spent the day cycling through rolling hills, cozy villages, and Unesco-protected forests. There are several villages around Cesky Krumlov, each separated by only a few kilometers, and one can follow the Vltava down to a medieval monastery known as Zlata Koruna, or the Golden Crown. This monastery was an important hub during medieval times, and is still quite impressive. A painted chapel, in a circle pattern similar to a chapter house, has high, pointed arches, and one can still see the faded painting and incomplete stonework that once adorned each window. Lush fields run around the monastery down to an offshoot of the river, and one can wander through a gateway into the central open area of the monastery, lined with long, dormitory buildings distinguished by rows of cheerful, open shutters outside each of the many windows. Heading back through the village surrounding the monastery, we stopped for lunch near the river, and sat watching the rafters cruise slowly down the water.
On Saturday, we woke to the peaceful sound of pouring rain, which stopped by mid-morning to change to a sunny yet muggy midday. After considering and watching the cloudy skies, we called a local rafting company, which picked us up and drove us several miles up the Vltava. After some brief instructions about negotiating the weirs along the river, we headed downstream, floating lazily along with the slow current. Nearby rafts called ‘Ahoy’ to us as they came alongside, and ducks swam alongside, shamelessly begging for bread. Gradually small cottages began to appear along the riverbanks, mini-houses complete with steeply sloping roofs and miniscule gardens. Rolling fields gradually gave way to steeper cliffs, with rocky strata that curved and twisted back upon itself. Some houses had been simply built into the cliffside, supported by terracing walls. Narrow, winding walkways led down from their high decks to small flat areas below where stone fireplaces were flanked by trestle tables, ready for summer gatherings after a day of fishing the river. We floated slowly through the town, marveling at the medieval architecture, and waving to the crowds lining every bridge. Afterwards, we set in our favorite pub on the river, watching the last of the rafters pass by with the fading of the light. Gradually, the clouds darkened, and soon a rainstorm swept across the river, the gusts of wind traced in the pattern of raindrops on the water. The pelting raindrops created bubbles on the surface, which formed into groups centered above each current in the river, a rich pattern of curls and scrolls. I savored the smooth, velvety taste of my beer, and was content.