Castles, Mountains & Some Grilled Cheese
Our Trip To Český Krumlov
Less than 48 hours after grounding in Prague, I as well as the 27 other students that are enrolled at NC State’s Prague Institute boarded a bright yellow tour bus with our sights set on Český Krumlov, a fairytale-esque town two hours south of Prague.
Our bus contrasted greatly as our route carved through the snow covered fields of Bohemia and intermittently passed through smaller, urban areas. Before arriving in Český Krumlov, our group made stops at Karlštejn Castle and in the beer-bustling city of Plzeň.
Karlštejn Castle is your basic, run-of-the-mill castle. It’s beige, surrounded by cobblestone, has iron-wrought decorations, towers fit for Rapunzel and if you want to get up close and personal, you have to climb up a hill (which in reality feels more like a large mountain when you’re still jet-lagged). But, in spite of the normalcy and noodle limbs, Karlštejn is beautiful.
The castle, which was founded in 1348, was home to Czech King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. Charles seems to be well loved by the people of the Czech Republic, including our tour guide, Martin, who often referred to the ruler as though his very spirit still thrived within the walls of Karlštejn.
The castle was used as a place for safekeeping of royal treasures, including Charles’ collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Roman Empire. Of course, none of these shiny things were on display as there are surely great liability risks when it comes to tourist hotspots, however there was an alligator skull from the time period which Martin explained was once believed to be the head of a dragon.
After making our way back down the mountain and doing donuts in the ice covered parking lot in our 18-wheeler bus, we stopped in the city of Plzeň for lunch and a few pints of authentically Czech pivo (beer).
Plzeň is home to the Pilsner Urquell Brewery, the birthplace of the pilsner beer and the inspiration for more than two-thirds of beer produced today. Our gaelic tour guide paraded us through a maze of rooms, each which warmly smelled of hops and featured multiple luminescent copper vats that housed lots of brewing beer. The factory is home to four primary production lines, each of which packages roughly 60,000 cans or bottles of beer per hour.
While this production rate seems a bit like over-kill, our guide explained that the Czech Republic is second behind Ireland in alcohol consumption, as each person consumes close to 20 liters of pure alcohol a year. With the alcohol content in Czech beer averaging around 13 percent, a quarter of a million bottles of beer an hour doesn’t seem all that ridiculous.
At the end of the tour, each of us were given a glass of beer fresh out of a barrel stored in a chilly underground tunnel. The beer itself was very cloudy, as it had not yet been pasteurized and it foamed wildly (a welcomed sign of freshness in the Czech Republic).
Later that night, our busload finally made it to Český Krumlov. Enticed by a romantically lit castle and growling stomachs, a few of us bared three degree weather and dark cobblestone passageways to explore the meandering cityscape. Since the season is not quiet ripe enough for tourists a lot was closed, but my group was lucky enough to find an authentically Czech restaurant open and ready to cure our hunger.
Meat is very popular in the Czech Republic, and as a vegetarian finding more than side dishes that carter to my pickiness is a task, so I was happy to see this restaurant had a “Vegetable Salad with Grilled Cheese” on the menu.
After a bit of pointing and drastic mispronunciation, my salad and sandwich combination was ordered. I was so ready. The Czech Republic is known for their amazing brown breads that feature subtle hints of rosemary, and I knew it would pair beautifully with melted cheese.
However, when our waiter rounded the corner and placed my meal down, what sat in front of me was far from I had constructed in my mind. All that I was given was a plate of arugula with a slice of tomato drizzled in balsamic vinegar and two strips of cheese which I quickly realized had been grilled.
Literal grilled cheese, bread not included.
It was still pretty good. Can’t really go wrong with cheese.
The next morning we walked amongst the snowy treetops, and it was the epitome of breathtaking. The winding Lipno Treetop Walkway took us 130 feet up and gave us incredible views of the Šumava Mountains and Austrian Alps. It had snowed pretty heavily that morning so our surroundings were crisply white. The views were so amazing you almost forgot that the temperature was far below freezing.
We all spent the rest of the weekend in Český Krumlov’s Old Town. According to legend, the name Krumlov is derived from the German phrase “Krumme Aue,” which when translated means “crooked meadow.” The name pays tribute to the natural topography of the town, specifically the tightly crooked meander of the Vltava river, which also runs through Prague. The history of the town goes all the way back to 70,000 B.C., but the town’s main attraction, the Český Krumlov Castle, was founded in 1240.
From afar, the castle’s tower seems as though it was constructed from colorful bricks and ornamentation, but in reality the entire thing is just painted. We were able to climb up the tower, and after lots and lots of tight squeezes and questionable stairs, we were greeted with views that were just as amazing as the ones from only hours earlier.
To end the day, we indulged in the greatest of Czech delicacies: trdelniks. Pretty similar to a churro, these turtle-neck looking pastries are made using large poles. Dough is wrapped around the poles, sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and set over a flame to cook. The dough itself isn’t actually all that sweet, but the outside has a really lovely, caramelized richness and aromas of burnt sugar.
In all, this excursion, while tiring and quite the hamstring workout, was a grand introduction to Czech culture. Our classes start tomorrow, and I am very much looking forward to completely settling into my new home.