There’s a mist floating through the pines and an eerie quiet in the canopy as we ascend towards the summit of Klet’ Mountain, the highest peak in this jaw-dropping corner of South Bohemia. The somewhat rickety old cable car taking us up with its fading blue paint harks back to an earlier time in Czech history; the impressive stone tower at the top even earlier. Adventurous sorts have been scaling this mountain for fun since at least the early nineteenth century when local nobility – the Schwarzenberg family – built the structure at its summit. Today walkers are already enjoying a beer on the terrace, but, aware you need to earn such things first, we walk over the brow of the hill to meet a man about getting down again.
Marek from Expedition Travel greets us with a broad smile and then hands over a set of crash helmets. We’re heading down the quick way: all-terrain scooter. And, after a run-through the basics, we’re off careering along a specially marked scooter-trail, zooming through the trees. Marek had dropped in that someone got up to 60km per hour on one of these not long ago and it’s easy to see how. The roads are as steep as the woodland scenery is spectacular and the resulting 20-minute ride sharpens the morning senses like a triple espresso. With childlike grins on our faces, we cruise around the final corner to disembark at the edge of Český Krumlov and head towards the stunning Renaissance tower rising in the distance.
Klet’ to Český Krumlov, 10km or 3km from the scooter drop off.
Entering Český Krumlov you pass over a bridge, a symbolic crossing that signals entry into what feels like an otherworldly realm. From its narrow, cobbled streets to its breathtaking castle running along a ridge of rock overlooking the Vltava river, this is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the world. It is UNESCO-listed and a must-see not just for travellers coming to South Bohemia, but anyone visiting the Czech Republic. Even rumbling across its drawbridge in a car doesn’t lessen the effect; there is a powerful sense of travelling back in time but – be warned – it’s best to leave your vehicle in one of the out of town parking areas. Cars are barely tolerated in the old town itself; something we discover after a run-in with a red-faced policeman.
Marionette Museum and puppet theatre.
Once on foot, our first stop is up an old stairwell to the attic of one of the historic buildings clustered below the looming castle. Opening a door reveals something unexpected and spectacular, a large wood-beamed room packed to the eaves with marionettes. Marionettes – or wooden, handmade puppets for the uninitiated – are an important part of Czech culture. In fact, parents still use them to teach language to their children and small puppet theatres are often found in Czech homes even today.
In previous times travelling troupes told stories in theatres across the country. This museum – and its sister museum in Prague – now preserve some of the finest examples dating back to the early 1800s. There’s quite a cast of characters here too, from circus strong men to pirates, witches, devils and skeletons. In amongst this explosion of craft and colour, marionette expert Marcela Burdová demonstrates the making of one of the smaller puppets. Her expert hands make short work of the process and the resulting innkeeper, a popular figure here in South Bohemia – the ‘land of beer’ – is equal parts charming and terrifying…which feels about right.
Český Krumlov Castle.
After lunch, we’re back out on the cobbled streets where the sun is blazing. Swifts dart and scream about the blue. We can hear the river rumbling its way around the town. Hands on knees, we push up a narrow avenue to the castle, working our way through a series of staggering painted courtyards to be greeted by Bryce Belcher, local historian, castle guide and an amiable US ex-pat who has lived and worked in the town for over two decades.
There’s been a castle here since the thirteenth-century but much of how it looks today can be traced back to the Renaissance and the influence of two staggeringly wealthy families: the Eggenbergs and the Schwarzenbergs. Bryce leads us through a succession of the jaw-dropping interiors they created – from a gilded chapel replete with a Roman missionary relic over the altar – to grand dining rooms, bedrooms, balconies and a fascinating painted masquerade ballroom. The furnishings are clearly expensive and lavish but tasteful. And as Bryce points out: “The castle isn’t like a museum, it’s perfectly preserved and furnished exactly as it was then. It’s one of the rare castles in Europe where you can actually see how people lived when it was occupied.”
Entering one room we come across a carriage, completely finished in gold leaf and covered with intricate carvings. It’s a truly remarkable thing, which somewhat unbelievably – Bryce informs us – was used just once to deliver presents to the Pope.
Also reputed to have been used only once is the castle’s star attraction – one of the finest Baroque theatres in the world. Following the passageway reserved for the nobility we emerge into its royal box to see a fine painted stage lit by subtle candle-like lighting. It’s amazing to think it was built just for an Eggenberg wedding, then left. Having been carefully restored by the castle’s director, today it hosts regular concerts, Baroque gatherings and festivals, bringing in visitors from across the globe.
We leave Bryce there with the promise we’ll attend a slightly less salubrious concert later that evening. Bryce and some local friends are playing guitar in a bar outside of town and we agree to join him.
Still reeling from the grandeur and sublime views, we leave the castle, stopping in at a blacksmith’s forge just beyond the gate. The setting is almost too well-realised, like a Hollywood set with perfectly positioned tools and a red hot furnace blazing inside, but Jakub Vanhara the resident smith, surprises us with the information that there actually has been a forge here for centuries. That’s Krumlov all over: it almost looks too good to be true, but it isn’t. Pretty much everything you see is the real deal.
The anvil certainly is – it’s 400 years old with a natural, aged patina most design magazines would kill for. Using it, Jakub whips up a couple of castle coins, keepsakes that have real charm, before asking with a glint in his eye if we want to see some ‘real smithy work’. Within a surprisingly short period of time and in a whirlwind of bellows, smoke, fire and hammers, he’s created a horseshoe from scratch. Taking it as a token of good luck for the road trip, we head out for an early dinner.
The night ends with us making good on our promise and joining Bryce in an impromptu session on the guitar alongside a spectacular banjo player and a rowdy cast of other musicians. The music is good, the night warm and the beer flowing, but sensibly we call time before midnight, remembering that we’ve got a boat to catch in the morning.
Český Krumlov to Třeboň, 45km.
South Bohemia is well known for its freshwater fishing; indeed, there have been man-made ponds in this area for centuries, and the region still contributes over half the national supply of fish. The heartland of this industry is Třeboň and, as you approach the quaint little town along beautiful roads, you realise you’re slowly being surrounded by water.
In the fishery Rybářství at one of the area’s main ponds and hatcheries, we catch up with Jan Huder, president of the Czech Fisheries and a keen angler. He explains that the ponds have been here since the sixteenth-century and are well stocked with carp, pike-perch and other delicacies for the table. Their shop is packed too, with a constant stream of customers buying bags full of freshly caught fish straight out of tanks in the back.
He tips us off about a slightly more amateur-friendly spot about 10km outside town where we convince a local fisherman to take us out for a couple of hours. In that time we manage to hook a respectable 10lb carp and a couple of lively pikeperch while drifting in truly glorious scenery. There’s even time for a snooze on the still water. Sadly our stomachs have to wait. Dinner is booked further north and – with time pressing – we release the fish back into their enviable home.
Třeboň to Tábor, 54km.
On first glance Tábor appears a stunningly pretty, but quiet kind of place. Beautiful red-roofed buildings cascade down from a handsome market square. Little streets and cafés are thronged with travellers in the late afternoon sun. Scratch its genteel surface though and you reveal a history of resistance, a fiery hotbed of political unrest and a true example of Czech revolutionary zeal.
In the early fifteenth-century this town was home to the Hussites, a sect of Bohemian religious reformers and agitators of the Catholic church. Lead by Jan Žižka, a fierce general, the Hussites fought five waves of religious crusades from the west, before finally reaching a peace agreement in 1439 after decades of bloody fighting. By all accounts Žižka was an imposing character and a formidable fighter, even with the disadvantage of only having one eye. He can be found commemorated on statues throughout the town, astride a horse, with his eye patch, holding a huge spiked club. The largest of these is in the town’s impressive Hussite museum, the only in the world, which sits above a network of tunnels hand-dug into the bedrock as a defensive strategy by the towns’ founders.
As evening draws in we climb the wooden ladder stairs of its tower – the last remnant of its castle – to be rewarded with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside and old town. For centuries Tábor has been both a defensive stronghold and a gateway to this region. Looking northeast towards Prague or back towards Český Krumlov, České Budějovice and the humpbacked green forests and mountains, it’s not hard to understand why.
Back in Žižka Square, we check in at Hotel Nautilus. An imposing property dating back to 1871, it is owned by a British couple and smartly furnished inside calling to mind the sort of boutique chic you’d expect to find in a bustling metropolitan city. Even more unexpected is the restaurant – Goldie – which is reason alone for staying the night here.
Award-winning head chef, Martin Svátek, presides over a kitchen that draws inspiration from his own traditional Czech family recipes as well as cutting-edge, modern European cooking techniques. The result is hugely impressive and as good as you’ll find anywhere in the country; the presentation faultless.
We start with a selection of local and house-cured meats, decorated with regional flowers, pickled vegetables and a savoury meringue. Main courses include a perfectly tender pork loin with new season asparagus and one of chef’s specialities – a braised duck leg with spiced red cabbage taken from his granny’s recipe book. The service is friendly and there’s a wine list well worth investigating too, although, looking around the room, most of the diners are drinking beer.
This being the Czech Republic, it’d be rude not to join them. So we do, out on the market square as darkness falls.
Tábor to Hluboká nad Vltavou 58km.
As we’ve learned, the influence of the Schwarzenberg family is inescapable throughout South Bohemia, but it still doesn’t prepare you for its grandest legacy – the enormous, Gothic-baronial masterpiece that is Hluboká Castle.
Approaching it from the highway, we see the castle towering stark and whalebone-white against the green trees. Closer up it’s an overwhelming thing, that almost requires sunglasses; a piece of English romantic architecture, modelled on Windsor Castle, built practically on a whim at the request of Elizabeth Schwarzenberg after she attended Queen Victoria’s coronation in Windsor in 1837.
Parking up and wandering around the castle itself, the lavish exterior is soon overshadowed by the sheer extravagance of the interiors. Room gives way to endless room, each seeming to be filled with yet more elaborate gold fixings, tapestries, carved floor-to-ceiling wooden panels, marble fireplaces, giant mirrors and chandeliers. Together it makes the family’s previous home at Český Krumlov Castle look like an exercise in minimalism.
This is game-hunting country too and the taxidermy-crammed hunting lodge style of its lower floors, along with an interior courtyard lined with plaster casts of deer heads and antlers, leave little to the imagination.
It’s dramatic, unquestionably beautiful and yet somehow overbearingly over-the-top. And after strong, restorative cups of coffee, we’re back on the road heading west towards a very different type of architecture.
Hluboká to Holašovice 19km.
The drive to Holašovice has to be one of the most picturesque in the Czech Republic. Through rolling hills, wheat fields and pastoral landscapes we arrive at lunchtime ravenous and head straight for one of the cafés on the large, tree-fringed village green.
Jihočeská hospoda serves classic Bohemian fare, done really well – steaming pork-filled dumplings, grilled local trout stuffed with wild herbs and rounds of brewery-fresh beer served on long tables outside. It’s the perfect spot to sit and admire this charming village, a perfectly preserved example of Czech ‘Rustic Baroque’ architecture.
Here the unique salt and pepperpot-shaped buildings, painted in bright pastel tones, have earned UNESCO status. Lunch finishes with koláče – pastries filled with a variety of sweet and delicious things, from local wild blueberries to cinnamon custard. Suitably refreshed it’s back on the road for the short drive to České Budějovice, and the home of the beer we’ve been drinking across the region.
Holašovice to České Budějovice 11km.
Budweiser Budvar Brewery, České Budějovice.
České Budějovice – or Budweis, as it is known in English – is rightly regarded as the home of Czech brewing culture. Beer has been brewed here by royal decree since the thirteenth-century, and on the same site by Budweiser Budvar since 1895.
But before heading to the brewery, we take in the ancient Gothic streets and the city’s remarkable town square. There’s a farmers market on in the shadow of the St Nicholas Cathedral where we sample local wildflower honeys and fruit cordials before stopping at the Pražírna Kávy coffee shop on a local tip-off. It’s a small place down a quaint little cobbled street, but if you’re looking for great coffee, it’s a must. Today they have five different single-estate coffees roasted on-site, displayed in large sacks by the counter. The coffee is so good we have two cups each of their Honduran roast, a pick-me-up that comes in handy as we head up to the brewery.
The tour of the historic brewery is fantastically choreographed, taking guests through all the stages of production from raw material through fermentation, bottling and of course, sampling. The passion for beer made the right way here is palpable, and you can taste it in the glass when you drink in the heavenly, fresh, unpasteurised lager in the cellars.
Thirsty for more we stop in at the brewery restaurant for a hearty traditional dinner of brewer’s goulash and a great charcuterie plate, pairing each with samples of the other beers in the range, including Budweiser Budvar’s fantastic dark lager, B:DARK.
Evening falls over the majestic town square as we take a seat at a café and watch the world go by, toasting the completion of the trip. On hearing about our epic journey through South Bohemia, a local at a neighbouring table tells us: “South Bohemia is a very special place. And it’s a damn beautiful place too.”
Thinking back over the last 72-hours, I couldn’t agree more.