This was an intentionally short day, so that the hikers among us could stretch their legs and see scenery to leave the viewer breathless, after our arrival in Schmilka.
Schmilka has been a part of Bad Shandau since 1973, although it was first recorded as a community in 1582. The Ilmen Spring rises nearby and is the most powerful water source in Saxon Switzerland. The stream resulting from this spring drives the Schmilka Mill, built in 1665, and restored in 2007 as a functional mill with lodging (this is where Jack and I and a few others of our group stayed). At this mill, they make beer (good water), bread, and other delicacies that are all locally-sourced and organic. Schmilka offers very limited wifi service (only at the tourist information center) and even a hand-drawn map. The Mill where we stayed is the blue highlight to the middle-right of the drawing.
Along the river ride, the sides of the mountains rose up on both sides of us, high into the sky, leaving us dwarfed. It was truly spectacular, and our route took us out of the Czech Republic 3 times as we crossed its border with Germany (once was on a ferry ride in the middle of the river).
Our last stop for the tour on Czech soil was a very popular village called Hrensko, a border town situated at the heart of the “Czech-Saxon Switzerland,” also a National Park. We stopped along here to exchange some currency and Vlasta bought a couple of bottles of Czech beer, as the price skyrocketed once we had crossed into Germany.
The group ate lunch at the mill, then settled into our rooms. Jack and I elected NOT to go on the organized hikes, though many of our group did so. I stayed in our room to edit photos (no wifi necessary) and Jack took a ride to get a few more miles in, up to Bad Schandau, around that spa town, and back.
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)
We left Melnik and headed to Litomerice today. I’m sorry we did not have more time in Melnik—definitely a town to put on the “do-again-later” list.
As a settlement above the confluence of the two rivers, Elbe (Labe in Czech) and the Vltava (Voltava or Vitava in English), Melnik has been a town for over 750 years. Tours of the castle are available, and beneath the grand structure are wine cellars where wine tastings can be enjoyed. The town square is pretty and surrounded by lovely buildings, many reflecting the gradual changes in taste through the centuries of architectural styles.
The tradition of wine-making in Melnik is long. Historians associate it with the birth of Christianity in Bohemia, when St. Ludmila had vineyards planted, which then supplied wine for church services. Her son, St. Wenceslaus (the patron saint of wine makers) is said to have trained here, and grape harvests were scheduled for his name day each year. Visitors from all over the Czech Republic come to Melnik each year for the new wine (called “burcak”) of the year.
Alas, we had to leave, so off we cycled.
Riding along the river, there are many markers of historic flood levels. We passed one along our way today, and waaaay up at the top is the indicator, almost invisible, of the flood of 2002. Huge.
As we move north along with the flow of the river, and away from the confluence of the two rivers (Labe & Vltava), the Elbe/Labe gets deeper and more significant to shipping traffic for all of Europe. The ride this day was quite level and easy (including our precipitous descent from the height of the Melnik castle) and we had better weather than the gray, drippy day of yesterday.
Early, we got to a town called Roudnice nad Labem and saw a pretty church and a castle, stopping for info from Milan.
Soon thereafter, we reached the massive Terezin Fortress, originally built at the turn of the 18th century. During WWII, it was turned into a “way station” for political prisoners and Jewish people before they were transferred to the “death camps” farther east. For the Nazis, Terezin was their “poster child” for how well they treated and housed the populations they were “dealing with” and they actually invited the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups to see the “happy Jews” in their care. They also made a very creepy film in which Jewish actors played the parts of the community members who regularly listened to beautiful concerts, grew their own food by working in their own gardens, enjoyed social time after the work day was over, etc. Two or Three months after the film was completed, 7/8 of those actors were dead—sent to Auschwitz or one of the more infamous death camps.
What the world was not allowed to see, however, were the terrible living conditions endured by the prisoners held at Terezin. Before the war, about 7,000 people lived in the town, including the members of the garrison/fortress. In September 1942, when the number of prisoners reached its peak, there were over 58,000 men, women and children crammed into the same space. The average lodging area for one prisoner had fallen to about 1.5 square meters (not quite 2 square yards).
The dormitories, apartment buildings/houses, newly-built barracks, and many “emergency” spaces (unfurnished attics, for example) were used to place the number of people who were imprisoned there. By 1942, 6,000+ people lived in attics.
Of course, this close accommodation resulted in disease, hygiene problems, and epidemics. The cramped circumstances in the “dormitories,” the total absence of privacy, and the unending struggle with parasites were a never-ending part of daily routine in the Terezin Ghetto.
Among the displays we visited to remind us of the Nazi horrors, was an art gallery. While the Nazis allowed Terezin creativity that carried their official “stamp of approval” there was also a sub-culture of art produced (including writings, theatre, music, and other “underground” depictions) to show the real life of the camp. Because of the threat of imminent deportation and certain death if caught, not to mention the scarcity of materials, most of the written forms were short — poetry, diary/epistolary works, skits, etc. We saw drawings of endless queues for food, the overcrowded living areas, suffering and death of prisoners, and masses of coffins piling up daily in the morgue.
The underground artists tried to smuggle some of their works out of the camp when the “sanctioned” Red Cross visits happened, hoping to draw international attention to the reality of the Nazi genocide. On July 17, 1944, Bedrich Fritta, Otto Ungar, Leo Haas, Ferdinand Bloch, architect Norbert Troller, and collector Leo Strass of Nachod, all arrested for spreading the “propaganda of horror,” were deported with their families to a Gestapo prison in the Small Fortress. Most did not survive the suffering that followed. The works they had managed to hide in various places in the Ghetto was found only after Liberation.
After Terezin, we headed along the river ride and saw many lovely sights along the way, but it was a fast day and the photos are rather sparse along the way. There was one notable rest stop thanks to Hansa.
Carrying on from there, it was not long before we got to our destination, Litomerice, a lovely town first documented in 993. The famous Czech poet, Macha lived here. Most of us stayed at the compact but nice Hotel Apollon, with a lovely courtyard in which we could have sat outside if it had been warmer.
For dinner, we hit a Czech brewery whose name I cannot actually figure out. I think it’s Biskupsky Pivovar u sv. Stepana. Anyway, we had a nice tour of the brewing process at this very new production facility (only about a year old) and also a lovely meal.
It was about a 2.5 hour drive by bus to Prague, and when we arrived, we had a mass lunch at the crepe restaurant across the street from our hotel, Bishop’s House, both owned and operated by the same family (as was our dinner spot for our first night, a restaurant called Pod Vezi, where they really put on the dog with a four-course meal and lots of local wine exclusively made for Pod Vezi).
But I digress. The crepes were fine, although not extraordinary, and we exited there to head straight to a pre-arranged tour of the city with a guide whose name I never quite “got.” We got started about 2 and stood around our lovely hotel for waaay too long, so she could tell us a bit of background and history of the city. It was at this early stage that I knew I was going to have a problem with our guide, because she told us with great conviction that Prague has no crime because the Czech Republic doesn’t allow Muslims into the country. She then explained that they do have some small crimes committed by other “problem” populations including Hungarians, Roma, and Poles.
Shortly thereafter, she led us off into Prague, over the Charles Bridge from Bishop’s House (which is right at the end of the bridge on the “Little Town” side of the river Vlatava, or Moldau (if you’re a Smetena fan), or in the anglicized pronounciation, Voltava, or sometimes Vitava.
I could not believe how many bodies were traipsing across Charles Bridge, which is pedestrian only. When Jack and I were here last, a mere 14 years ago, the bridge was quite habitable. Now, it is thronged with trinket-sellers, caricature-drawers, folks taking wedding pictures, and billions and billions of tourists and tour groups like ours.
Getting off the bridge was no better, but we threw in the added chaos of traffic. Jack and I kept trying to figure out where the trolley had left us off (near Charles Bridge, we knew, but exactly where, we never quite pinned down) those 14 long years ago when we had not the first clue what we were doing. On top of which, that time was very soon after the great flood of 2002, and Prague was still quite devastated by that catastrophe.
When she stopped again, near the University, and someone asked about government-sponsored higher education, she said that she and her husband (I now believe that she meant that her own generation) were the last people who had had to pay for their college/university educations, because shortly after they graduated, the Czech government came into its own after the Communist era, and made higher education virtually free to its citizens. But then she said, “Even Slovaks are allowed to get their educations subsidized by the government.”
It was at that point that I stopped listening, because I thought I would certainly have to confront some of her — shall we say, “biases” — if I didn’t just walk away. I did not confront because I was rather certain we’d have a serious issue with the language barrier; and also I did not want to hijack Allen and Mary’s schedule (nor did I know at that point what the general political views of our group were, although I came to discover later that the majority, and possibly all, are like-minded; and they, also, had issues with our guide).
Anyway, it was a very long but comprehensive tour, and we saw parts of the city that Jack and I had missed before, and also that we marked for more thorough study later during our 2.5 day stay here (including the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery and memorials to the Holocaust).
One of the interesting plaques I read, near the University (and which our guide never mentioned) was about climate science. It said, “You stand before the place where regular climatological measurements, are taken from the height of the first floor [we would say “second floor” in the US]. These were started in the Klementinum as early as the middle of the eighteenth century by Jesuit scholar, Joseph Stepling, the founder of the observatory here. An uninterrupted series of measurements taken every day date back to January 1, 1775, and ranks among the oldest in Europe.”
One more thing about our guide: Very late in the tour, someone asked about a poster we read near the theater presenting a “Black Light” show. She said that Black Light Theater was invented by Czechs, and that it involved a dark theater with a stage on which actors dressed all in black presented a show. Because that statement was patently untrue, I came to discount even more of what we managed to hear and understand from her that day. We got a much more accurate description of the theater’s magic from our excellent hotel staff, including our primary “go-to” guy, Marek. Yes, it’s a dark theater, and yes, the actors wear black, but on those clothes are painted fluorescent designs and when the black lights hit them, they glow. Thus, the audience sees colorful designs capering around in the dark, dancing and interacting in ways that allow the black light paint to “trick” the senses.
In any event, the tour took longer than expected, and while some went off to recoup at Bishop’s House, a small gaggle of us enthusiastic beer appreciators retraced some of our walk back to a brewery, to sample their wares. Staromestsky, or Old Town Brewery served a nice flavorful lager-style beer, and we indulged long enough to capture sunset over the Charles Bridge before racing to the truly stupendous dinner at Pod Vezi by 7PM. During that dinner we toasted friends old and new, and raised glasses to loved ones and missed ones who, for various reasons, were unable to be with us on this trip. Here’s to y’all, Woody, Gaye, and Larry.
Our final meal in CK was at a very cool and old building that was an old mill (Restaurant MLYN) and we learned after our delicious meal that the building generates all its own electrical power via the water flowing briskly beneath. Excellent food, and interesting decorations all over, including lots of bicycles, bellows, and basses hanging from the ceiling.
Miscellaneous shots of windows, walls, floors, and doors (or things on/in/from/attached thereto) from our various wanderings around CK.
The castle is lit up at night and is truly magical.
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.
Just a quick post about yesterday. It’s a 4+ hour drive from Munich to Cesky Krumlov, so the group and gear in 3 Sprinter vans got to the halfway point, Passau, Germany, for a little break. We stretched our legs, took a bathroom break, visited the cathedral, and ate Strudel from Anton Hoft, a bakery that’s been operating since 1890.
I must say, this visit to St. Stephens was the first time I’ve ever been thrown out of a church. St. Stephens has an organ that is the largest Catholic Church organ in the world and Europe’s biggest (17,974 pipes and 233 stops). We got there just in time to hear the organist hit a few keys, when our translator explained that the docents told him the organist doesn’t like to rehearse with people wandering around in the church, so we had to leave. The truth of the matter is that, if we’d bought tickets to hear the rehearsal, we could stay, but otherwise we were kicked out.
Anyway, it was a lovely town and church, excellent strudel served by wonderful staff with much patience. I only got a pic of the organ, one of a painted dome, and one altar while we were inside the church. I also took a couple of pix from the courtyard to which we were banished, and a few from the town before we re-boarded the vans to continue to C.K. So here are a few pix, plus one of an enormous man-made lake (25KM?) we passed along the way from Passau to Cesky Krumlov, which is the one at the top of this post, taken from the van by Jack.