In half a year of living in Vienna in 2008, we were able to take small European vacations in every direction – Ljubljana, Venice, Salzburg, Krakow, Bratislava, Budapest. But we never went to the Czech Republic. It was right next door and it had Prague! Ashley had been there in the early 90s so she always lobbied to go someplace that was new to her. Finally, four years later, she was ready for a revisit, partly because of my lobbying and partly to meet a colleague with common teaching interests. Ashley’s colleague was not actually in Prague. He was in České Budějovice, South Bohemia, part way between Vienna and Prague. A quick Internet search revealed a big and beautiful old town square. And the town’s name in German is Budweis, as in Budweiser beer. I needed little convincing to schedule a stop there on the way to Prague.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that I did very little to prepare for our visit to Budějovice. I made an apartment reservation using google-maps and I learned from a friend that I should also visit Český Krumlov castle. Other than that, I did no research. I guess I was exploring the “no expectations” method of traveling. Maybe I was also subconsciously hoping that Ashley’s education contact would show us around.
It turns out that my instincts were pretty good and Tomáš, Ashley’s colleague, was a skilled tour guide. We strolled through some of the 750-year-old town center including the main square and adjacent quaint streets, past churches and Budweiser shingles. We climbed over 200 steep stairs to the top of the Black Tower, which houses very large bells with individual names and provides a great view of the square. We also found the Erratic Boulder near the main square fountain. Legend says that if you step over the boulder after 10pm, it can cause you to lose your bearings and not make it home until morning. (Sounds like a poor excuse for celebrating college students or cheating husbands.) Tomáš pointed out the climbing stone frog on an exterior wall of a church. If the frog ever reaches the roof, it is predicted to trigger the end of the world. Then he drove us not just to one castle, but two!
Český Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is way more than a castle. The old town dates to the 13th century and sits photogenically on the banks of the meandering Vitava River. We wandered the tight streets that were filled with tourists from all over the world. On the way up the stairs to the castle, we discovered trdelník, a sweet pastry cooked on a giant rotating stake. We lingered at the castle’s bear moat, where bears were once kept to deter intruders and are still kept to attract tourists. Tomáš says that drunks fall into the moats every once in awhile.
On the way back to Budějovice, we still had some daylight left so Tomáš brought us to Castle Hluboká. Like Český Krumlov, Castle Hluboká, was once owned by the Schwartzenburg family. The family crest, as seen on the front door handles, is a little unsettling (a crow poking out the eye of a Turk) but the rest of the building is pretty close to the iconic vision of a castle. Logan thought it looked like the white witch’s castle from Narnia. Though the castle itself was closed when we arrived, the garden was a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset.
All in all, my “no expectation” travel experiment turned out pretty favorably. It was partly because of our “traveling hopefully” philosophy, but it was mostly because we had a local guide who steered us through the best of South Bohemia in a day. And it was a very nice day indeed!