In the early '90s, following the demise of communism, we began to hear from readers who had ventured the short drive from Germany or Austria into the Czech Republic to visit a walled town they sometimes compared to a pre-restoration Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Our own visits in 1996 and 2000 confirmed the reports. We found a medieval treasure just awakening from 50 years of neglect; a crumbling, immensely appealing city nearly encircled by the famed Moldau river, with a great castle looking down on ancient red-roofed buildings interlaced by a maze of twisting cobbled lanes.
But compared to the slick, Disneyland-style perfection of a Rothenburg, Cesky Krumlov was, and still is, a rough-around-the-edges country bumpkin.
Though much has now been restored, many buildings remain in a state of charming disrepair. The uneven cobbles are not so easy to tread and many tourist shops still have a somewhat endearing, lemonade-stand amateurishness.
And only in the past few years has the tourist infrastructure, mainly hotels and restaurants, approached western European standards. With that, it seemed time for a more complete review of Krumlov than our brief reports in earlier issues. In April we assigned our Vienna-based correspondent, Doug Linton, to give us the following update.
A friend had long sung the praises of this lovely renaissance town in South Bohemia. "And don't worry about reserving a room," he added. "Practically every house is a pension, so you won't have any problems finding a place to stay." I arrived at Krumlov on a balmy June day a few years ago to find my friend was right. Krumlov is located on a hilly, oxbow bend of the Vltava (Moldau) river. The flat inner part of the bow is tightly filled with decorative burgher and artisan townhouses dating from the 16th-century, while the high, rocky outer part is lined with a dominating complex of castles topped, like a fairy tale, with a colorful tower. It is easy to see why the city had been selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
My friend was also right that practically every house is a pension. The only problem was they were all booked. I scurried from burgher house to artisan dwelling, knocking at every door, but all were full. Banished from the city, we ended up spending the night in an empty, superficially lavish hotel in Hluboka. Despite the rejection, Krumlov was so beautiful that I vowed to come again.
That day came a few weeks ago and this time everything went smoothly. The weather was perfect and I had a place to stay. But the town has changed since my initial, brief visit.
First, accommodations have certainly improved. Previously, Krumlov had only two good hotels - the Ruze and the Dvorak - and a lot of poorly-furnished pensions housed in attractive historical buildings. Today, the owners of the Ruze have opened a third good hotel on the market square, called the Old Inn. But even better news is that the quality of the small pensions has improved, while the prices have stayed relatively low, making Krumlov an excellent bargain.
Second, a few factors have conspired to decrease the number of tourists visiting Krumlov. Miroslav Votrel, who with his father runs the Hotel Na Louzi, says most tourists come from neighboring Austria and Germany. Since much of the bus tour set has already seen the city, the number of visitors from those two countries has dropped. In addition, the Czech koruna has strengthened against the euro, making the city a little more expensive for European visitors. A greater factor, however, is the recent tension between the Czech Republic and its two neighbors over issues such as the soon to be opened Temelin nuclear reactor located north of Ceske Budejovice, and demands for an annulment of the Benes decree, the executive order that allowed for the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war.
What this all means for independent travelers, is that annoying bus crowds are smaller, the high season is shorter (making May and September less crowded and more enjoyable), and the small pensions are working harder to please and attract clientèle. Still, if you are planning to visit the city on a summer weekend, be sure to book a room in advance. Otherwise you might miss something memorable: such as a lovely evening's dinner on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the cool, tree-shaded Vltava river, while the sky turns pink, purple and dark blue as the sun sinks behind Krumlov castle perched high overhead.
Located in the former 16th-century Jesuit monastery, the Ruze is the city's most luxurious and expensive hotel. its 70-rooms play a bit heavily on the 16th-century theme, giving it the atmosphere of an upscale Renaissance festival. The staff dresses up as maids and peasants, suits of armor and tapestries fill the lobby and lounge, and neo-renaissance décor, such as turned-wood armchairs and benches covered in deep burgundy fabrics, grace the public rooms. While pleasing to the eye, these renaissance chairs and benches are not particularly comfortable. Rooms offer a continuation on this theme, especially the large suites, which have heavy beamed ceilings and dark wood floors. The standard rooms are less gloomy, with bright yellow and blue fabrics adding a touch of color. Both have fairly new baths with good fixtures and the suites even have wood-paneled toilets.
Even if you are not a hotel guest, the Ruze's large, lovely terrace is worth visiting for the view. Tables in the restaurant are set with interesting wrought-iron tableware and hand-blown wineglasses. The hotel offers a full range of exercise facilities, meeting rooms and a pool. Perched on a rise at the end of town, the Ruze has a nice view over a quiet, tree-shaded section of the river, but any journey into town will end with a steep walk home.
Daily Rates: Singles from around $104, doubles from about $145
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 13/20
The Old Inn
Under the same management as the Ruze, the Old Inn shares the renaissance décor and outfits of it sibling, but has a more likeable atmosphere, possibly due to its central location on the main square and slightly smaller scale - only 50 rooms. The lobby looks about the same as its sister, although the staff tends to be friendlier than at the Ruze.
The standard rooms are more rustic with unvarnished wardrobes and headboards set on low pile carpets. Anyone who has ever wanted to spend the night in a room decorated with pink fabrics, pink Persian rugs, and gilded white Louis-the-something furniture can fulfill this dream by booking one of the suites.
Hallways are large and spacious, giving the unintended impression of a Holiday Inn.
The Old Inn has an attractive restaurant on the main square and a menu featuring well-priced Bohemian favorites.
Daily Rates: Single from about $64, doubles from about $91
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 14/20
Of the three headline hotels, this is the most likeable, mainly because of its boutique feel and picturesque riverside location under the castle.
The lobby has an early 90s luxury feel with red granite floors, upholstered chairs in burgundy leather, dark wood paneling, brass accents and gleaming halogen lights.
The staff is very friendly, though both the lobby and the small bar seem always empty, even when the hotel is full.
The comfortable accommodations settle down to light green and white, with thick carpets, floral drapes, crystal wall lamps and chandeliers, and attractive, slightly rustic wood furniture. Baths are gleaming white tile with good-sized tubs, towel warmers and hairdryers.
Standard doubles look to the city, deluxe rooms have views of the river, and suites occupy the corners.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $100, doubles from about $127, suites from $154
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
Hotel Na Louzi
Though it calls itself a hotel, Na Louzi is more like a homey, welcoming, family-run pension. This charming hostelry is located in a frescoed, baroque building a short walk from the Egon Schiele Museum.
As is common with many buildings in Krumlov, a restaurant occupies the downstairs, while the pension takes the floors above. What is uncommon is the good taste that has gone into the decor. All guestrooms are furnished with attractive early 20th-century antiques, so not only the building's façade, but every guestroom radiates an authentic feeling of "old Krumlov." Each has its own name and personality. Agnes is the most requested because of its Holz baroque furniture. Three new loft rooms have just opened bringing the total number of guestrooms to 11. They have beam ceilings, wooden floors, antique tiles, and old wood-and-wrought-iron doors collected from farmhouses around southern Bohemia. Katerina, a two-level maisonette, and Matej, one of the most spacious are preferable.
Overall, rooms are a bit small and none really has a view of the river or castle, but these negatives are firmly outweighed by the owners' warm welcome and the hotel's sense of authenticity.
Daily Rates: Doubles start at $54, triples and quad rooms start at $68
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
Pension Dum U Vaclava
Located near the castle, this pension benefits from the exacting eye of its owner, Dagmar Vondrovicov. The spacious rooms are attractively decorated with four-poster beds, wood beam ceilings, satin upholstered chairs, polished wood floors and tasteful color schemes, such as pearl blue and pale salmon. Even more surprising are the large, opulent baths with dual sinks and corner tubs.
For now, U Vclava only has three rooms, but four slightly smaller loft rooms will be added by the end of the summer.
Breakfast is served in an elegant barrel-vaulted dining room with a small fireplace and view to the neighbor's garden. Ms. Vondrovicov plans to add a terrace and begin serving lunch and dinner next year. Although Dum U Vclava does not allow children, it offers solid accommodations at great value.
Daily Rates: Doubles start at $105
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
A bit further out than the Hotel Ruze, these attractive lodgings are in a complex of little baroque houses perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Moldau.
A long hallway leads back to the cheerful reception and lounge/breakfast room. The receptionist is friendly and helpful, though more fluent in German than in English (not an uncommon trait in the city).
Recently renovated, the Barbakán sports a vibrant green and mustard color scheme and tasteful contemporary furnishings. Deluxe rooms are large with views over the river and large, modern baths, while standards are a bit smaller and have showers only. One quite attractive standard room has a sloping ceiling and a view of the river. Ask for the antique rooms, as these are the nicest.
Like the Ruze, this pension's location means that every excursion will end with a steep (but manageable) walk home.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $36, doubles from about $65
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
Pension Ve Vezi
Located in a four-story Gothic tower, Pension Ve Vezi has to be the city's most picturesque pension. The inside is both attractively furnished and well-maintained. The only drawback is the tower's location on the edge of town near the Eggenberg Brewery, with a view of its parking lot. While the brewery is an attractive 19th-century brick building, the parking lot is...well, a parking lot.
Daily Rates: Double room from $54, room with four beds from $82
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
Pension Na Ostrove
The attraction of these simple accommodations is their location on a small island in the river under the tower - a picturesque sight indeed. As the building is narrow, your room may have windows on both sides so you can sleep with the stereophonic warbling of the small canal one side and the river on the other.
Na Ostrove's drawbacks, however, are evident. The lobby, which doubles as a restaurant, smells pervasively of cooking oil, an odor that occupies the hallways during the day. The rooms are large, but poorly furnished with clunky, threadbare communist-era furniture. Breakfast, served on a small terrace over the canal, consisted of muddy instant coffee, dry toast, and strange looking ham. The three staffers I met were pleasant, but spoke only the barest essentials of English or German. The only thing going for Na Ostrove is its location, but I would return on the strength of that alone.
Contact: Pension Na Ostrove, Na Ostrove 171, tel +420/337/711 326, web: http://www.charming-krumlov-hotels.com/hotel-na-ostrove-pension
Daily Rates: Singles from about $27, doubles from about $54
Rating: Quality 5/20, Value 12/20
Restaurant Na Louzi
This attractively simple restaurant - popular with Czechs and foreigners alike - serves admirable examples of Czech comfort food.
The setting is an ancient wood paneled room with brass coat hooks and a collection of old enamel signs advertising long-forgotten products.
Most dishes include roast meats (pork, duck and rabbit) served with two types of dumplings (potato and bread) and two types of sauerkraut (red and white) for around $6-7. The meat was tender without being greasy, the dumplings spongy but not rubbery, and the sauerkraut flavorful instead of bland. In other words: top quality Czech food. The potato pancakes were good, but avoid the oily garlic soup and the house specialties with names like Rosenberg Court ($6), as they seemed to be a mishmash of leftovers spruced up with grated cheese. The fried cheese with salad is a local favorite at $3. And, of course, the beer on tap was all Czech and all good.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 13/20
U Dwan Mary
The Two Marys gets its name from a pair of frescoes of the Virgin Mother on the street side of this old artisan house. I was attracted by a row of wooden tables and benches set out on a short, green lawn along the river - a wonderful spot to end the day. It was soon apparent I had stumbled upon a theme restaurant, but one so genuine in its enthusiasm and matter-of-fact in presentation, it seemed more than just a gimmick.
The theme is old Bohemian - really old. On the menu are essays on what Southern Bohemians have eaten (millet) since the first centuries of the last millennium. The dishes listed consist mainly of, well, millet. I am anything but a grain-eating vegetarian, but after several meat-heavy Czech meals, something different was called for. The menu essays were so interesting I not only chose a main course of baked millet casserole with mushrooms ($3.50), but ordered a dessert of millet gruel sweetened with raisins, honey and saffron.
The lively menu also revealed that the medieval elite ate pickled herring for breakfast and that buckwheat raises the "sexual function."
Though not very erotic, my casserole was light and flaky and came with tangy yogurt, sides of fresh sauerkraut and a salad. Other dishes include potato pancakes with cabbage ($2) and barley casserole ($3.35), which, like the millet, can be ordered with a dry chicken leg for $2.25 extra, though I don't recommend it. Besides the gruel, which was good but not for everyone ($3), desserts include quark dumplings with fruit and a bowl of wild berry compote with whipped cream (both for about $3.25).
Contact: U Dwan Mary, Parkn, tel +420/337/5228, open daily, 10am-11pm.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
This simple, riverside restaurant serves delicious carp, trout, eel, pike-perch and other fish cooked a variety of ways but all at a bargain price of around $3.40-$4.30, plus 90 cents more for a side dish of potatoes.
An ordinary-sized Russian woman at the next table liked the food so much she had servings of both fried eel and fried trout. Besides good food, the restaurant also has friendly service and a few pike heads mounted on the wall.
Contact: Rybárské Obcerstven, Na Ostrove 86, tel +420/337/712532, fax +420/337/712580.
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20