A “Lockdown Break” to Southern Bohemia – August 2020
The year of 2020 will long be remembered for the disruption and dismay caused to all our lives by the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see now that a lot of things were done wrongly, but in all fairness, particularly in the beginning, who knew how serious it actually was ?
Lucie and I certainly had no idea what was coming and, following our odyssey around Australia, in late 2019, on a Heritage Softail 103, we had decided to buy one for ourselves. In early March, we arranged purchase of a Heritage Softail 114, only to find that, even before we collected it (from a closed shop …) the Czech Republic had entered a fairly strict lockdown.
The general confusion led to an endless array of conflicting messages and instructions from all governments, not just the Czech one. It was very hard to know, on any given day, exactly what was permitted and what was not. The fluctuating international travel restrictions, which did allow us to make a very brief foray into Northern Germany in early August, were tightened again almost immediately after our return (we are sure that those two events were not linked). The prevailing uncertainty meant that we were unable to plan anything significant on the travel front at all and, for most of the time, our nice new Harley sat either unused or got minimal exercise being ridden around Prague.
The Czech Republic drifted in an out of various styles of lockdown, some national and some regional. Oddly, because of the largely obedient nature of the general population, the first so called “wave”, whilst far from trivial, was handled far better here than in a lot of places. Masks were adopted early and comprehensively. Lucie and I joined in a HOG Praha effort to manufacture masks for the elderly people which, in total, created and distributed many hundreds – and the virus never really gained a serious grip.
Perhaps this led to some complacency or perhaps, to be cynical, because an election was coming, a lot of life continued almost as normal. It was even announced that, direct air and land travel, to favourite holiday destinations like Croatia, would still be allowed. Hand in hand with the permitting of this external holiday travel, a lot of the internal restrictions were lifted too. We were able to attend “Krásné ztráty” (beautiful losses) a relaxed open-air music festival for grown ups (where “social distancing” was very much observed) and the “Prague Harley Days” festival was rescheduled to the first weekend in September. We even managed a couple of evenings in the bar with our Prague friends and, in the Czech countryside, hotels and pensions were also allowed to reopen. This, naturally, led to a proverbial “second wave” that was principally spread by infected holiday returnees and that was, by many factors, far worse than the original outbreak. This is still going on at the time of writing (April 2021) and to say the immortal words “confusion reigns supreme” sums it up quite well.
But, in August 2020 though, that was still in the future and we thought that, maybe, there was a chance to do something local.
Wednesday, August 26th, 2020 – Prague to Český Krumlov
Distance travelled – 188 kilometres
In the very south of Bohemia lays the small and almost achingly beautiful town of Český Krumlov. Built principally inside a loop of the Vltava River (which eventually flows through Prague) it is dominated by a picturesque and well preserved, 13th-century castle. The castle has Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings which include an original 17th-century baroque theatre. The castle is second only to Prague Castle in area and its gardens, of over eleven hectares, are also a delight. The whole town has an almost ”Fairy Tale“ aspect and was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in the early 1990s. If you are in the Czech Republic, certainly as a tourist, it is a “must see” !
If you live here, unless you are both crazy and rich, it is not a place you really want to go to !!
In what we now refer to as “normal times”, the tiny centre is so unremittingly crowded from dawn until midnight, seven days a week, that seeing it properly is almost impossible. Getting accommodation or booking a restaurant is always difficult and this enduring popularity has allowed the prices in hotels, bars and restaurants to reach almost astral levels. Czech people do not like to feel ripped-off and, for this reason, rarely go there. You are more likely to meet someone in Tokyo who has visited Český Krumlov than you are in the nearby town of Tabor.
But, the almost total lack of visitors was hitting the town hard. We saw it on the news, so it must have been true ! We had never been there together and a quick search of the internet, by Lucie, revealed some almost “normal” hotel prices. We seized our chance and booked one night in a hotel in the centre !
As we were only planning to spend one night away, our luggage was minimal and, with only about two hundred kilometres to go, we opted to have our lunch at home and drive south in the afternoon. The weather was most obliging and it was both warm and sunny as we left Prague. It would have been possible to do the first part of the journey on two main routes, that converged just north of our destination. We opted to take Route 4 which, for almost all of the trip, would follow the west bank of the Vltava river. I have long since lost count of the number of times I have driven that road. As part of my work I often take tourists to Český Krumlov, although, as I have previously stated, it is not a place I, personally, want to be when there ARE tourists. Apart from residents, the town is not open to traffic and I always drop my passengers at the edge of town and collect them there later on. It is also, initially, the best way to go to go when journeying to the river cruise destinations of Passau, Wilshofen and Erlau. For this reason, it was very pleasurable to ride it “for fun”. In late Summer, it was very pleasing. Once away from Prague and south of the mining town of Příbram, the road is well surfaced in most places and wends its way through some quite lovely countryside.
Like everywhere, there are places where the road is being “improved”, but that is on the presumption that making it wider and smoothing out the occasional bend constitutes “improvement”. Some stretches, thanks to money from the European Union, are now full blown, four-lane motorway and fully worthy of the “E49” designation that appears on the signs. At least, on those parts, the drivers that, with nowhere safe to overtake, still insist upon doing that, no matter how homicidal that might be, or else feel obliged to anchor themselves about half a metre behind my rear mudguard, can speed off into the wide blue yonder. The Czech Republic has some lovely roads and beautiful countryside, but if you ever come here, please remember that local driving standards are appallingly low and conduct yourselves accordingly.
Thanks to the vagaries of the ancient road system, at the turning towards Strakonice and the Šumava National Park, the Route 4 becomes the Route 20, but somehow retains its E49 designation. This leads ahead and to the south and, before long passes to the west of the town of Písek. This was more or less the halfway point of the day’s ride so we stopped for a coffee and to refill the tank.
The Charles’ Bridge, which crosses the Vltava river in Prague and dates from 1357, is another UNESCO World Heritage site and is rightly famous. However, not many people know that there is also a stone bridge, over the Otava river in Písek, that predates its more famous cousin. Although the precise date of its construction is not known, it was certainly in the latter half of the 13th century which means it is at least fifty years older. It is certainly the oldest Gothic bridge in the whole of Europe. Although it is only a few moments from Route 20, we had both seen it, so we contented ourselves with our coffees and then moved on.
At one point we bypassed the town of Protivín where we noticed signs for a Crocodile Zoo. There were also billboards which claimed the zoo contained twenty-three varieties of that scary reptile – or, as was pointed out through the helmet intercom, twenty-three opportunities for me to die horribly and in pain ! I wish I could say that I am not as clumsy and accident-prone as Lucie believes, but I do not want my nose to get any longer ! We passed hurriedly by.
Apart from the occasional four wheeled maniac, the rest of the trip was very pleasant. The countryside was green and usually quite flat, so we had plenty of long views to distant, darker green, forests. On our left, it was possible to see the steam clouds from the nuclear power station in Temelín and, on our right, the mountains of Šumava rising slowly to the west. I often remark that travelling on a motorcycle adds an added dimension to any trip because you also get to experience the scent of what you are passing. The barley had been recently harvested and the unique aroma this leaves, simply filled the air.
On largely clear roads, we soon came to the large town of České Budějovice. This town is the home of the ORIGINAL Budweiser beer. Although the present brewery building dates from only 1895, beer has been brewed in the town since the early 13th century. That history was sufficient for the locals to roundly defeat the mighty U.S. Corporation, Anheuser Busch in a trademark dispute over the name. The brewery is State owned, every one of us, in theory, owns a bit and we are quite protective of it. The local product is actually marketed here as “Budvar” and, in all fairness, if I was to take my trusty mechanic, Kuba, a bottle of American “Budweiser”, he would probably use it to degrease my engine ! I have already mentioned the aromas that you experience on two-wheels and, on a still day, the scent of the brewing was clearly detectable even though we passed at least a kilometre from its source. A blind person could easily have made his way straight there.
In České Budějovice, we joined Route 3, which was the other, (less attractive) road that we could have taken to get there from Prague. Only a few kilometres south of the town, we followed the signs for Český Krumlov and left Route 3 for the far smaller Route 39. Again, I have driven this road on countless occasions, but I had never seen it so quiet. It rises up and down over several small, but steep, hills and, probably for the first time ever I was able to experience these undulations at anything approaching a normal driving speed. Whoop-de-doo !
As we descended the final hill, the distinctive shape of the castle tower was clearly visible in the middle distance. Set in a green, wooded, bowl in the hills, it really is a pretty place.
It is also, in keeping with its UNESCO status, largely pedestrianised and, even if you live there, it is extremely difficult to obtain a permit to park in the centre. In theory, you are allowed to drive in, put your stuff in your hotel and then return to park on the outskirts – but we were not sure. We did it anyway and luckily we did not encounter any policemen. Despite the really diminutive size of the town, navigating the maze of winding, medieval streets was far from easy. Our SatNav got quite confused and twice invited us to make a daring descent of flights of steep steps ! In what I still think of as “normal times”, when the streets are crowded with tourists, the last couple of kilometres would have been difficult indeed. In the end we found our hotel.
We stayed at the Hotel Bilá Paní (Soukenická 42, Český Krumlov – www.bilapani.cz). This was a delightful, medieval building only a stone’s throw from the town’s central square. It was a place of ancient wood panelling with flights of creaky stairs leading randomly here and there. Bilá Paní, in Czech, means “White Lady” and Is used to describe a ghost. In truth, had we met one, we would not have been surprised. The rooms are designated principally by a colour and we had the “green” room. It was bright and comfortable with predominantly green furnishings so, although we did not see the others, we could probably have made an accurate guess at their colour schemes. Probably because of the ongoing tourist slump, the staff consisted of a young couple whose combined ages were probably less than that of my socks ! They were cheerful and efficient though and the male half led me on a post check-in trip to the hotel’s parking place which was at the edge of town and about ten minutes away on foot.
Safely installed, we set out to explore. As I have already said, I have been there a few times in the past, but, regardless of the season, it was always heaving with people. It was odd, but quite pleasing (as MY livelihood does not depend upon it) to see it so devoid of people. It was a good opportunity to get some nice photographs of the narrow, twisting streets without hordes of people filling every inch of them. What other tourists that there were seemed to be almost exclusively Czechs, probably, like us, seizing their chance.
We did a few “touristy” things, which included helping ourselves to a beer and a coffee down by the Vltava river, a loop of which turns the tourist centre into a little peninsular. The castle was directly opposite where we sat and we managed to catch a display of some medieval music, performed by local children, on the multiple terraces it has which jut out over the river. Our refreshments were, needless to say, still eye-wateringly expensive by the usual Czech standards.
One thing that we did notice during our perambulations was that many restaurants were completely closed, so we did not dither when it came to our evening meal. Because it was still quite warm, we wanted to dine outside, if possible and so we selected Restaurant Jakub (Kájovská 54, Český Krumlov) because it had outside tables in a small square. The food was good, but not spectacularly so and Czech based. In particular. my desert of livanečky (buttermilk pancakes with blueberries) really did hit a nice spot.
After dinner we wandered around the streets as the twilight edged into darkness and the lights came on. The lack of people made it easy to imagine what it must have been like a couple of centuries ago. We sat in a small garden as it became fully dark. Opposite us the distinctive white tower of the castle was gently illuminated against the sky and the narrow streets below us were quiet and peaceful. It really is a delightful place.
Go there, but remember your credit card !