By CARLETON COLE
SPECIAL TO THE NATION
No river should know its own destiny. The Danube and Vlatva course for a stretch along roughly parallel paths through the enchanting forestland of their common source. That region sprawls throughout the hilly borderlands of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Yet these rivers never meet.
While the majestic Danube flows through or alongside 10 countries before emptying into the Black Sea, across from the shore of the Middle East, the much shorter Vlatva flows through the Czech Republic alone.
Careening with an intensity just shy of leaving behind oxbow lakes, this river – named for “wild water” – creates two particularly beautifully arched, rounded bends, inspiring the homage “crooked meadow”, a perception reflected in the name of the picturesque town along them – Cesky Krumlov.
Two dramatic twists in the Vlatva (“Wild Water”) River give shape to Cesky Krumlov.
Exquisitely framed by part of Central Europe’s largest contiguous area of wilderness, where the Bohemian and Bavarian forests intermingle and fly along mountain ridges that soon encounter the Carpathians, this charmingly medieval town is best beheld from Rozmberk Castle.
The second-largest fortress in the land after Prague Castle is topped with a crenelated neo-gothic tower visible from all around. Peering down on this gem sparkling to life along cobblestone lanes surrounded by gently rolling countryside, the fairytale nature of Cesky Krumlov is unavoidable.
The red and black roofs of storied old buildings across town fade into greenness on the distant horizon, which is punctuated only by the ethereal steeple of St Vitus Cathedral, named for a national hero and the town’s patron saint.
According to legend, the aristocratic antecedents destined to indelibly mark Cesky Krumlov hastily took one of them after the Visigoth invasion of the Eternal City in 546 AD. After a few centuries, some of their descendents in time crossed the Danube, disrupted the rule of local rulers, and in the mid-13th century began erecting Rozmberk Castle.
Holding the town allowed the Rozmberks to rule nearby lands until modern times.
Refined curiosities of the royal past reveal themselves on a walk through the Castle Museum, through medieval, gothic and baroque and Renaissance detailing, and highlighted in the Hall of the Lords of the Rose, where embroidery, glassware and other fineries reflect the Rozenberks’ Catholic mores.
Making occasional appearances is the family coat of arms, which, besides a rose, features the severed head of a Turk, one of his eyes being eaten by a crow.
The most disturbing threat these days isn’t the possibility of a Turkish invasion, the bane of southeastern Europe for several centuries. Rather it comes from the tourists taking up Unesco’s “call to cameras”.
Cesky Krumlov is touted as “an outstanding example of a small central European medieval town whose architectural heritage has remained intact thanks to its peaceful evolution over more than five centuries”.
Off-season and off-hours, however, easily affords moments of solitude away from the hordes.
Although plagues devastated the town on and off in the mediaeval period, the lack of the effects of warfare sets the town apart.
Between the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the 44 years when the Iron Curtain separated Czechoslovakia from natural trade routes into Germany and Austria, the lucky town avoided the worst of war and revolution, allowing its charms to slowly marinate in the Vlatva’s embrace.
Cesky Krumlov’s ability to dodge the dung heap of history has come with the same profoundly good fortune that delivered representatives of the pope to the surprising conclusion of the Second Defenestration of Prague.
The human waste into which the papal emissaries were flung from a window of Prague Castle – by the Protestants with whom they’d come to negotiate – may have saved their lives. But the affront led to eight million deaths and unimaginable suffering throughout Europe in the Thirty Years War.
The small town’s historic streets are ideal for wandering, especially during offpeak hours.
Cesky Krumlov’s peaceful persona is eloquent proof that grace happens, at least sometimes.
The town is most charming in its primary public space, Svornosti Square, the peripheral of which is ringed by folksy venues ideal for hearty conversations, dining and drinking.
Above a water fountain at the centre of the square, a Marian column stands silent sentinel to the tragic consequences of the plagues that haunted Europe and indicate the often short and brutish nature of life on earth.
Good-natured conversation flows here with the beer the town has produced for centuries. Riverside, in similar settings, quaffers ogle canoeists returning the favour as they cruise by on the gurgling water that’s never far from anywhere in town.
Lazy, blissed-out moments predominate in this Goldilocks-sized, iconic town, replete with narrow lanes, roguish locals, nearby nature and a skyline dramatically defined by a castle tower and a church steeple.
The Vlatva seems to have fulfilled its destiny just by having been graceful enough to inspire the setting for so magical a place as Cesky Krumlov.
The “wild” river is etymologically linked as well to “aqua” and to the “water of life” that is “vodka”. While it still goes on to dutifully flowing beneath the Charles Bridge in Prague, it has nothing more to prove. Shortly after experiencing the Czech capital it reveals its true nature as a tributary for the mightier Elbe, the destiny of which lies in Germany and union with the North Sea.
Nine kilometres out of Cesky Krumlov, the intersection of humanity’s grandest intentions and nature’s often more eloquent plan combine profoundly at Divci Kamen, perched high above the Vlatva in forestland otherwise untouched.
“Girls’ Rock” Castle is named for the legend of a young Rozenberk who rounded a corner quickly here while hunting deer, and instead found a young lass to whom he lost his heart.
Although erected around the same time as Rozmberk Castle, it is in a state of disrepair, with no adjacent settlements to show what might have been.
Yet in its ruined state, exposed to the heavens, Divci Kamen takes on a sacred air of vulnerability, of a tributary contribution, reaching a confluence with greater currents known only to the heart.