Their eyes seem to follow you wherever you go.
No they’re not spies left over from the Communist era. They’re decorative faces painted on the upper floors of houses in Cesky Krumlov that– like most everything in this remarkable town in the Czech Republic– have endured for hundreds of years.
Guests of Ama Waterways’ luxurious new river cruise ship AmaCerto got the rare treat on a day-long shore excursion from a stop on the Danube to visit this town so intact from its antiquity that the entire town has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site.
We’ve followed the Moldau River–or in Czech, the Vlatava River–for two hours by bus to reach the castle and town that began to develop around it in the thirteenth century.
Cesky Krumlov literally means Bohemian Krumlov (to differentiate it from another Czech town named Krumlov in Moravia to the southeast). But once you’ve visited it, there’s no mistaking it for anywhere else.
You’ve seen the Baroque candle-lit interior of the castle’s grand theater in scenes from the movie Amadeus and the town’s streets from scenes in several recent films, including The Illusionist. The rows of homes and inns built snugly together along streets that radiate out from a central square was dictated by the geography of the town’s location on a horseshoe-shaped curve in the Vlatava.
Cesky Krumlov had already developed into a thriving market place when Bohemian king Emperor Rudolf II bought it in 1602 and rich homes of burgers and traders were built as it became the seat of power of Austrian financiers, the House of Eggenberg.
That made is a financial center and a place of elegant taste. Not only does art seem to be everywhere, it’s impossible to escape the temptation of the local Eggenbeerg beer. The town also became a religious center with monasteries of several orders built around the fifteenth century St. Vitus church dedicated to St. Vitus—who became the patron saint of dancers and entertainers.
The town remained influential well into the nineteenth century as it remained the home of the influential Schwarzenberg family. But history wasn’t kind to the town that was too far from Prague to have powerful political defenders and too lacking in local wealth to keep up elaborate homes as wars and then Communism swept through this part of Europe.
Our guide insists that as recently as the 1970s, it was possible to buy a home in Cesky Krumlov for the equivalent of only a few hundred dollars. Of course, that came with the responsibility of maintaining a building that may have seen pigeons rather than people living in the upper floors. Now, the town has gained a cachet and new owners are meticulously restoring the buildings to their original condition.
Fortunately many of the interiors with their carved beamed ceilings were intact enough to be completely restored and ornate doorways and windows are now functional again. Removing layers of stucco have revealed the painted exteriors and artwork on walls.
This has once again become a town of shops, many of them selling hand crafts and antiques. Many stores specialize in carved wood and puppets. There are also innumerable stores selling new and old signs and drinking paraphernalia from a dizzying number of Czech breweries.
And there are plenty of local art galleries that seem to prominently display cheeky art of nudes and slightly surreal scenes. That might be in part due to the fact that one of the area’s heroes is the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, known for his intense and sensuous studies of the human form, whose mother was from Cesky Krumlov.
The castle on the hill was originally Gothic in style, but it’s had many additions and renovations over the centuries as fashions changed. The dominating round tower was later decorated in high Baroque, with acres of colorful murals of knights, nobles and cherubs that are being restored. Getting up close became an exercise in stair climbing and I could see why the castle was considered so easy to defend with its views down over the river and the town.
It was a long day of walking over cobble-stoned streets and it was a welcome break to stop for a local brew before making the trip back to the AmaCerto that was docked at Linz, Austria.
Sitting in a low-ceilinged pub near the Pivovar Eggenberg Brewery we could only toast in awe the day we’d had in another era and hope that the newly awakened and beautiful Cesky Krumlov thrives in the modern age.