During this day, we cycled through the hilly area of the Czech Republic known as “The Middle Mountains.” This was our best day yet of weather, and the ride offered views and perspectives aplenty. Here are one or two final looks at Litomerice as we began our tour.
Our route map for the day, following the blue band of the river northward. Litomerice is at the bottom and our destination, Decin is at the top. Decin is known as the Northern Gate to the Czech Republic; and also as the town with the lowest altitude in the country.
Among the small burghs we pass through was Pistany, one of the oldest communities in NW Bohemia, marking its name since the 1057. The name derives from its geology: sand used to be mined here, resulting in the large Zernoseky Lake. There once was a humble farmer named Bikut who would dutifully cart his tithes to Benedict the Provost of the Litomerice Chapter in 1218. He would load his cart on St. George’s Day (at the time, April 23) and on St. Gallus Day (October 16) and follow the road, still in use today, to the Cathedral overlooking what was yet to become the town of Litomerice. The paper I found near the setting of the next couple of photos said: “It may have been here that, eight centuries ago, farmer Bikut would rest along his journey, letting is draught animals graze. This is the reason this belfry was erected in 2017: for weary pilgrims to have a place to rest for a while and regain strength whether traveling by foot or bicycle. If, while resting, they remember the ancient farmer Bikut, thanks to whom we actually know the early history of Pistany, the humble structure will have fulfilled its purpose.”
The scenery along this stretch is truly spectacular. My camera was unable to capture its full beauty.
Our major stop of the day was to Strekov Castle. Built on the top of a cliff, it has been a ruin for many centuries. But it has had slight renovations, including our lunch stop in the structure, Kovarna, a spot carved out of the volcanic rock under the castle. We had a fun wander through the structure before lunch, where we learned the following: Strekov is one of the best-preserved ruins in the Czech Republic. It was built before the year 1319, by the command of the Czech king John of Bohemia, to protect and control the River Elbe. The castle was built by Pesik from Veitmile, the Prague burgher, at his own cost. Since then, the castle has had several owners. After 1563 it was bought by Vaclav Lobkowicz, and remains in the family’s holdings to this day.
It was a serious chug to get to the top and enjoy the views, but the work was well-rewarded.
We left Strekov and rode a while, passing an impressive suspension bridge along the way.
Decin Castle is where Chopin debuted his Waltz in A-flat major, and we had a lovely rest and walk-around, after another short climb. Our tour was accompanied by a peacock, a beautiful beech tree, and another cat sunning itself.
After settling into our Hotel (Ceska Koruna—not the building we saw from the castle), we were on our own for the evening. A gaggle of us watched the sunset develop while having beers on the Decin town square before heading off to dinner. With a couple of “the boys” Jack and I went across the bridge to a burger joint Hansa had recommended to us. Alas it was closed, but we had an excellent pizza on an outdoor patio raised high above the river. Very nice end to a splendid day.
Ride time: 3 hours
Stopped time: 6 hours (I forgot to turn the cyclometer off whie we had our beers)
After check-in at the Hotel Peregrin (about 5 or 6 of our group are staying at pensions nearby) we were all set free for an orienting wander around town to kick off our stay at Cesky Krumlov.
Jack and I found a hotel restaurant (the Hotel Dvořák) that served Pilsner Urquell and we joined a couple of tour friends for a beer and a snack before heading back to the hotels to prep for our guided tour.
We re-assembled near 5PM for a guided tour led by Sharka, a local CK person who gave a great lesson about the history, economy, and geography of the area. We were with her for about 2 hours and learned many tidbits, many of which I probably won’t remember. But you can reference the post I made on Sept. 2, 2017 about the city, based on research I’d done prior to our departure: https://chichlee.wordpress.com/2017/09/02/upcoming-international-trip/
Some of the highlights were that in CK, there are probably only about 14,000 residents, but only about 500 of those live in the tourist section. There is some dispute regarding whether CK’s palace castle is larger than Prague’s, but the statistic remains that CK has the second largest in the Czech Republic. It is owned now by the state government and is being meticulously restored, with great effort and care being made to get it back to its original condition, based on when the actual structure was built. This is true of private investment in the town structures also, the entire Old Town and castle/palace area being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sharka has lived her whole life here, including when the soviets had control of it, when she called it “A Locked City.” When she was young, she lived with her grandparents, and had no idea that her grandfather could speak German and that she had German relatives, since revealing those secrets when she was a child was taboo. She remembers the Velvet Revolution (a non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia, occurring from November 17 to December 29, 1989) and for the first time in her young life, Czechs were allowed to travel, get more than the two state-sanctioned TV stations, and more than the state-controlled radio broadcasts. Recently, she has traveled to the United States and other places around Europe like any other person in her 30s living in Europe. She has two children, both of which are in the totally free public school system, and both of which particpate in an after-school program at the restored/renovated Music School in the Old Town area, where Sharka pays only 150US$ a year for them to have 2 hours of daily after school instruction in the musical instrument (including voice) of their choice. Her son is the 5th best pianist in his age group in the country.
We walked through the streets of the Old Town with Sharka pointing out many items and views and buildings and history of interest to us. We ended at the Castle as the crowd numbers and light were going down, and saw the bear in the castle’s “moat.” Roughly, the history of the bear is that one of the royal owners of the town/castle (Schwartzenbergs I think) who received possession of Cesky Krumlov and the Palace/Castle through a connection cemented by marriage in 1661 to the Eggenberg (the family to carry on the surviving local brewery, still serving delicious beer today). But the Schwartzenbergs didn’t take possession of the duchy and castle until the male Eggenberg line died out, in 1717.
So back to the bear: The Schwartzenbergs believed themselves to be related to the Orsini (?) family of Italy (but this has been found to be untrue) so they allied themselves with that family by including a bear in their Germanic coat of arms, and in response the Orsini family sent them live bears through the years. The male of the last pair living died last year, leaving the female, who looks lonely and who is quite elderly, in her habitat near the castle. Her name is Maria Theresa, and she (along with many individuals of her clan) have lived long, pampered lives in their Czech Republic home. Sharka said that she is and shall be the last of her line.
Speaking of the Schwartzenbergs, they have a rather interesting coat of arms, which includes an acknowledgement of their involvements with the wars against the Ottoman Empire with the ravens pecking the eyes of a severed Turkish head. They held Cesky Krumlov and the castle until 1918, when two World Wars interfered with “ownership” and “stewardship” of the area, culminating in the Schwartzenbergs ceding the holdings to the state in 1947 (which, after WWII was soviet Russia). In 1989, along with the falling of the Berlin Wall and the break of up of the Soviet Union, the Czech people regained control of their lands and properties and have been working to build a tourism industry ever since.
The slow process of restoration for preservation has entirely been undertaken during the last 28-ish years. It is truly amazing what they have accomplished in that span. It was quite lucky, however, that during the wars, CK was not considered much of a target — while the Nazis occupied CK, it was not bombed and no war installations were placed there, so the damage from the wars was more that of neglect rather than destruction. The neglect continued, of course, through the Soviet period, so the undertaking has been nevertheless daunting.
Sharka told us that back in the 1990s you could buy a house in CK for about $1000 American, and the costs of renovation were nominal. Now they’re going for millions.
Layers of top-plaster and other materials covered original frescoes and sgraffito ornamentation on the insides and outsides of the buildings, and historians are tenaciously bringing those back to their original wherever possible.
At the castle is the sole remaining Baroque theater in the world, and it survives (where many others were burned due to candle lighting and effects including fireworks) nearly intact: they are researching and restoring 700 pieces of costuming, many original musical scores, and hundreds of set panels, not to mention the theater itself, including the stage, orchestra, and noble seating areas. The original drape/curtain sequestering the royalty from the commoners is still extant.
Most remarkable, however, is that the machine works for moving the set pieces in and out, up and down (even through the floor) survive — some of the pieces and gears and rollers, historians are still unsure of their uses or purpose. We had an amazing tour of the theater, but were enjoined from taking any photos, so I cannot show you the amazing things we saw there.
The theater is used a few times annually only, and most significantly at a conference of restorers and historians who gather to actually see a production completely done in the Baroque style followed by feasts and masquerades, etc., and when the production is complete, they can ask questions and suppose solutions and study the materials unique in the world and continue to try to figure out how they work and what is required to restore them to their proper service.
This is truly a unique place deserving of the World Heritage designation. The downside being that it is also truly overrun with visitors to the extent that it is difficult to get by all the selfie sticks and crowds of photo-takers mobbing the viewsheds, narrow alleyways, and shops/cafe/restaurants. While I must admit I’m thrilled to be here, I’m awful glad I’m not staying even one day longer. I hope for Sharka’s children’s sakes the complete embrace of tourism to the apparent exclusion of everything else, is worth it down the line.
Sharka escorted us to our dinner location, an authentic Bavarian restaurant where we basically had the place to ourselves. Excellent food, and we tried the Eggenberg beer, although they were out of the dark lager version.