(This journal is a continuation of the trip we made in May 2015 to take a Viking River Cruise called “Cities of Light: From Paris to Prague”. I am picking up here at the end of the cruise, which we followed with two additional days in Prague. This is the end of that three-week trip.)
Wednesday, May 13th
We said goodbye to Cindy and Greg last night after dinner. They were on their way back to LA today – and scheduled to make the entire trip in one calendar day! That amazed me, since to get to Puerto Rico we had to overnight in Paris.
We were packed and in the lobby waiting by 9:00 am. We met our driver, Petr about 9:15 am and left the hotel quietly. I mention our quietness, because of the huge hullabaloo surrounding the Vietnamese president’s exodus just minutes before, pomp and circumstance in full gear!
We had about an hour’s drive to our first destination for the day: Hiking in the Cesky Raj, the Czech Paradise, in an area called Prachovske Skaly. Having no idea how hard or easy this hike might be, I optimistically told our guide we would take the two hour trail and see him back at the parking lot about 12:30 pm. Off I went, only to confront reality about 15 minutes along the way, when the wide track with a gentle upward slope turned into a single file foot path up steep steps and through narrow gorges. Fortunately, there were handrails!
The scenery is gorgeous! In this area, there are rock formations that are billions of years old, and in Paleolithic times were even thought to provide shelter for human beings. Very dramatic, the sandstone columns are stories high and monolithic. Up and down I climbed, stopping frequently to catch my breath. The views from up high would take your breath away, and the views from down low would make you question the significance of humans altogether.
The day was bright and sunny, birds seem to fill the trees around me, but the path never seemed to end! The forest reminded me a lot of Wisconsin as there are many of the same trees, pines and beeches, birches and maples and oaks. The understory is dotted with ferns, blueberries and strawberries and I even spotted anemones. Some of the ground was actually sandy, but mostly a heavy covering of pine needles and dry, shredded leaves. It was really lovely.
Once back to the tourist “hut,” our mecca, we got a quick snack and then took off for stop number two, the Trosky Castle. Once there, we got out of the car in the parking lot. Right from the beginning there were intimations that this would be eerily like the hike in the rock formations, not something I was ready to repeat just yet. (My legs were wobbly from the strain of the steep stairs.) But the castle tower loomed overhead, beckoning, calling to my sense of adventure and I picked up steam again and entered the castle grounds and began my explorations.
This is an interesting castle. We have seen it from far away and will continue to see it during the rest of the day. It is very distinctive – its two towers are built atop volcanic outcrops. The rest of the castle stretched between the two towers and was surrounded by a triple wall. It was nearly impregnable! A ruin, now, the views of it and from it are worth every muscle-burning step to climb to the top.
The two towers have slightly different shapes, and hence different names. One is still pretty much in ruins, and you can climb to its base via an enclosed, circular staircase that was incredibly dark and off putting. Once out of the stairs, the views around were beautiful, as was the view looking back to the other tower, high in the air. I went back down the spiral staircase and across the ruins of the three walls. The higher tower has a wooden staircase so that you can climb to the top. Wow! The view was magnificent! Look at the picture, and say you agree!
Our next and third stop was in the town of Turnov, where we stopped to see the geology museum. Since Turnov is the garnet mining center of Czech Republic and these fascinating rock formations are in the neighborhood, a geology museum seemed the perfect way to round out our knowledge of the area. Despite that the museum was not specifically about the geology of this area, it was not a total loss, since it was not just about geology! It had interesting displays about gems and gemology, too, as well as the folklore and people of the region. It was very well done, for a small town museum, but we did have to wonder about some of the exhibits, the English explanations were pretty sketchy.
Next we made a brief stop at another castle – It had just closed 20 minutes earlier so we were spared having to visit it at any length. Though it is but 4:30 pm we found our way to another pretty place, used for weddings according to our driver, where we had dinner. Then went to our hotel.
I had chosen the hotel, Hotel Stekl, from a description in my National Geographic guide to the region, and actually went out of my way to reserve it. Weeks ago before the trip, agreeing to a room on the third floor (European third) with no elevator seemed a no brainer – of course, I was good with that!
After our 3 hour hike and climbing up to the Trosky castle towers, three stories with suitcases felt like being abandoned by God. I made it up with the suitcases by taking them one at a time. The required that I more trips, but I got a little rest in between, and breaking it down into little goals made it more manageable, hence doable. Suffice it to say, I did not go downstairs again until the following morning!
That evening, we sat out on our balcony drinking champagne from the Viking ship, and enjoying the beautiful evening. In the far distance we could make out the towers of the Trosky Castle. Closer at hand, promised views of the rock formations were obscured by new green growth on the trees. The sky was interesting, and darkness finally fell long after we were asleep.
Thursday, May 14th
Thursday morning, we woke up early, dressed and went to walk around. (First light, according to my sunrise app is about 3:53 am. Without fail I was always awake by 5:00 am). Right next door is the Hruba Skala Castle which houses an EA Zamecky hotel. This was where we should have stayed! The description in the guidebook actually fit this castle better than it did the place we stayed…an error maybe?
We can see skali (the distinctive rock formations) all around us, mostly hidden by trees. This little group of buildings up here seem to be a jumping off point for hikers, as we found trails headed off, up and down through the forest. The two hotels and a church building share a public parking place. The other guests at our hotel are all German, and clearly staying here for the hiking. I would highly recommend that! Depending on the shape you are in, I would think a hiking vacation in this area ought to be on every outdoors-person’s bucket list.
After breakfast we had a super long drive to Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, the Wallachian museum. Our driver left us in the town square, and we were on our own to get directions to the “museum.” We finally found someone who understood our English and pointed us down a road – the entrance was half a kilometer away.
Again, we got there late and so had to forgo part of the tour. Unfortunately, it was also raining. We walked through the exhibit called “The Wallachian Village” one of three possible sections to see. Each section had a different fee, location and extent: This was the biggest and the one that we hoped would show us the most, since we could only do one. We did walk the entire village, with rain on and off.
The Wallachians, a nomadic people, were basically sheep herders and woodsmen. Their origins are not known, but they had a distinct culture, unlike any others, though perhaps related to the Romanian Vlachs. They were almost completely exterminated by the Hapsburgs in the 17th century, but to this day they retain their customs and traditions. The buildings here have been collected and moved to this site to recreate a sense of the way this people lived. Interestingly when the Wallachians settled into villages, it was usually on the side of a hill, and the wealthier or more important you were, the higher up the hill you lived!
I am sure this would have been a different experience had we arrived earlier (less stress) and if it had been a sunny day. Besides just looking into the buildings, there are live demonstrations going on. With a cold rainy day, most of the demonstrators were huddled near their indoor fireplaces and stoves to stay warm. Not a person spoke English and, our Czech limited to saying hello, we were greeted and ignored. Except at the mill. The “miller,” through a lot of pointing and gesturing, actually did show us how the wheel got turned (wind power) and how the grained passed through the system. Having seen a similar mechanism with water power at the Beckman Mill in Beloit, WI, we were able to grasp the concept.
We made our way back to the square, the weather having improved and our moods likewise. Next was a drive to to Olomouc.
Along the way, we picked up the son, Andrew, of the woman who owns the agency (Prague & You) from where we hired our driver and finalized our itinerary. He accompanied us to Olomouc (pronounced oh-low-MOOTS) and helped us drop off our stuff in our hotel (Hotel Arigone). (Yikes! Another walk-up, but thankfully we’re on just the first floor!) We enjoyed our evening with him, as he gave us a personalized walking tour of the city.
It was a very pleasant evening and we enjoyed his insights into the city and also being able to ask him a lot of questions about his country. He had been a university student here, now is a professional and has settled here for the long run.
Probably one of the highlights of our walk was seeing the “astronomical clock” in one of the two main squares of Olomouc, and hearing him disparage the Russian vision that created a clock with proletariat workers instead of saints (like the traditional one we saw in Prague). The Olomouc clock was a “don’t miss” attraction in Olomouc according to our guidebook.
We were fortunate that we also got to enjoy Andrew’s company at dinner. A wonderful memory!
A not so wonderful memory was having my camera, complete with heavy lens slip off the camera strap and fall to the cement! The lens, my zoom, was damaged and would no longer focus. After these pictures, I used a wide-angle for the remainder of the trip!
Friday. May 15th
On Friday morning, again we were up early and took advantage to walk around the city again. Our hotel is right in the thick of things, close to the historic center, so it was easy enough to go see the square and the clock again, all before breakfast.
Today, we had another drive, this one to Kroměříž to see the Archbishops’ Palace. Places were already beginning to run a bit together, and I was hard pressed to sort through my recent memory and remind myself of the incredible Bishop-Princes’ palace we saw in Würzberg, Germany just one week ago.
Like the earlier experience, one can only see this palace with a guided tour. The toured lasts 90 minutes, with no English narration. We did take the tour, reading an explanation in English from a folder, while our Czech guide did her thing. There was a lot of time that we were just standing there (sometimes I read through the material more than once to pass the time), but the rooms were definitely worth the effort.
Afterwards, we were off to Brno, where we walked around the historic center. Without a guidebook, this would have been another wasted stop, but the day was nice so it was not a huge stretch to find our way to the main square and take in the atmosphere. We did some random wandering, indecision causing us to change direction somewhat willy nilly, but then we hit on a capital idea: Beer in a pub! What began as an excuse the use the ladies’ room became a welcome opportunity to just sit and watch what was going on around us (basically people watching ice hockey).
My interest in visiting Brno centered on the Villa Tugendat, a house built by Mies van der Rohe. Unfortunately, you must book the tour in advance – far in advance it seems – we were not able to secure tickets. If we had had the time, I think a visit to the Spilberk Castle would be extremely interesting. It has a rather dark history – apparently its dungeons were put to use in rather sinister ways. If you plan a trip to this region (Southern Moravia) be sure to take the time to book the Villa Tugendat and plan around a visit to the Spilberk Castle.
From here we drove on to Lednice, totally oblivious to the wonderful surprise we would find there. Once we were checked into our hotel, (Garni Hotel) and had had a nap, we went out again with Petr for dinner. He got the recommendation for us for Restaurace U Tlustych, the restaurant of famous Czech TV chef. We would not have recognized his name, so it was fortunate that Petr could recognize the significance and get us there. We had a wonderful dinner, accompanied for me by local Moravian chardonnay.
Saturday, May 16th
Saturday we woke up in Lednice to a very beautiful day. By now, either we are used to the temperatures or the mornings are warmer, because we are routinely leaving the jackets in our suitcases. Petr picked us up after breakfast and took us to what Google maps said was the chateau of Lednice. We realized almost at once that where we were was not the actual castle, but the riding school of the castle, equally impressive. We used the maps on the property to find our way to the castle and grounds. Short on time, we did not visit the inside, just gardens. What a pleasant walk, on a beautiful day, a quiet Saturday morning. We were just that far ahead of the tour buses!
Then we drove to the “sister” castle at Valtice. I call it “sister” because it was owned and built by the same family. Someone commented that one was the winter palace and the other the summer, but actually Valtice is the older palace, more staid and conservative, and Lednice is the younger, far more fanciful. They are just 4 miles apart connected by their park lands, and supposedly you can walk from one to the other. I wanted to do it and had planned for this, but there wasn’t time, so we drove. Valtice appears a “sad sister” compared to Lednice, not nearly so impressive to look at and the gardens are not maintained. However, our guidebook says we should have visited both inside and out. Make that a note for another trip!
We had a colorful moment in Valtice! Again, dropped off in a central location in the town, we had to get our own directions to the chateau. It was close, but we had to make our way around a huge parade of girls, from tiny to teens, in majorette costumes marching to rock music from loudspeakers. It would have been fun to stop, pay the fee and watch for a while, because it really was so colorful and lively.
After our visit to this area of Moravia which is practically on the border with Austria, we had a three plus hour drive to Český Krumlov, also close to the Austria border, but with no direct route between the two within the Czech Republic.
We arrived in Český Krumlov about 2:00 pm without having eaten lunch. But by now, I am so sensitized to the fact of arriving too late to see something properly, that once we found our hotel and dropped off the suitcases, we rushed right back out and up to the castle to sign up for a visit.
A tour in English! Yahoo! And what a great tour it was. The guide didn’t look to be over 18, a gangly, kinda nerdy kid with the exuberance and gaiety that refreshes and invigorates. I doubt there was even one person on that tour who didn’t smile the whole way through! Here, too, being so much closer to Prague, we are now well inside the tour circuit of foreign visitors. English is not a problem – our tour group was full, though not everyone spoke English as a first language.
The castle is amazing. By now, we have begun to recognize the family names of the kings, queens, emperors, etc. who patrolled these regions in the past. We heard some stories that we had read about on other castle tours, and as elements begin to fall into place, I find that I can enjoy this trip much more.
The town of Český Krumlov is adorable. Yes, it is one of those touristy places, chock full of both tourists and shops for tourists. But when the tour buses return to Prague, the city has another charm acquired by the visitors who choose to spend the night: Evening walks along the river, dining alfresco, moody walks within the city’s dimly lit, narrow cobblestone streets. You must treat yourself to this! Resist the tours that just take you there for the day. You will certainly see the sites if you do that, but you won’t fall in love with the place. You won’t see the village as more than a tourist trap, and you won’t meet anyone else who is just happy to be there like you will be.
Always an added benefit when you stay overnight is that you get to see the town in the early morning!
So now a bit about our hotel (and there are lots to choose from in this town) and alchemy, remember I promised you I would return to this subject! If you’re like me – rational, educated, scientific – alchemy is probably something you don’t pay much attention to – as it is none of those things! But Rudolph II, one of the more colorful Holy Roman Emperors, was really into alchemy. And in Renaissance-era Prague, it was considered a science. Witness the “Golden Alley” I told you about in the section on the Prague Castle. Rudolf patronized the alchemist Edward Kelly, who came to his court from that of Elizabeth I. A bit of a charlatan and imposter, Kelly has his own place in Czech history, literature and film, thanks to Rudolf II. Our hotel is called the Edward Kelly (and the hyperlink is http://www.alchymy.cz/).
With a lovely view of the castle lit for the night, we slept in the Edward Kelly Hotel and woke Sunday morning to light rain in Český Krumlov.
Sunday, May 17th
Our penultimate stop on this trip, after a 40 minute drive, was Hluboká nad Vltavou, home to another magnificent castle. The castle grounds were already crowded when we arrived just before 10:00 am. There is an English tour available, but we could not wait until 11:30 am to take it because from here we are going to the airport. We had to take the next available tour, again in Czech and for us with a written explanation in English.
That did not dampen our enthusiasm for this castle. With all the castles we have seen on this trip, this one is the favorite. The interiors were dark wood, heavy fabric and stained glass, and the overall effect was extremely pleasing and harmonious. It is interesting that the castle was decorated like this by a woman, for dark wood and hunting motifs are not the first things that come to mind when I think of how a woman might decorate her home. Her genius with these elements, certainly appropriate for this particular castle (which is decorated on the outside with the heads of deer!), is what makes this particular castle so wonderful to explore.
And that’s it! After Hluboka we went directly to the airport and flew to Paris. Naturally, I have something to say about that so I’ll start a new page and finish the Czech journal with these observations.