Cesky Krumlov: A Day in a Fairy Tale

When there’s so much to do in Prague, it may seem like taking a day trip to a small, out-of-the-way town is a waste of time—especially if you’re like most travelers and have limited time to spend in Czechia.  In my travels, though, I’ve almost always found the small towns to be the best times, and the most authentic times.  They haven’t been Americanized and they don’t cater to tourists as much.

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Being a popular day trip from Prague already, Cesky Krumlov is a little bit of both; it’s not going to attract the volume Prague does, but enough people make the effort that there are plenty of tourist shops and subpar restaurants.  If you stay the night, however, you’ll be rewarded: the day trippers don’t get in until after breakfast, and they leave right after dinner, so the town empties out and quiets down outside of these peak hours.

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It was during these off-peak hours, at the end of the day, sitting in the main square with a beer as dusk settled in, waiting for our later dinner reservation, that the magic of Cesky Krumlov started to engulf us.  Sitting on a bench, watching the small Easter market become less and less busy, a man sat down on a bench across from us and started to play the hang (pronounced hahng), a metal hand pan from Switzerland and looks like a lap-sized UFO.  Both tapping and running your fingers around it (as you would a glass of water) give off a mystical, otherworldy sound.  This was our soundtrack (including an interesting rendition of Blue Monday) as we relaxed in the cool Cesky Krumlov evening.

Wandering

We had arrived that morning, after taking the earliest bus possible from Prague.  We walked a short distance from the bus stop to Hotel Villa Beatika, where we were able to get breakfast.  We’d told them we’d be leaving super early the next day in order to drive to the Prague airport, so we wouldn’t be able to take advantage of breakfast the next morning, so they let us have it when we checked in, which was very generous of them.

After fueling up, we dropped off our bags (it was way too early to check in) and walked down into the sleepy little town—still sleepy, as most of the day-trippers hadn’t made it in yet.  Walking down through the town, and especially once you make it up to the castle that overlooks everything, the view of Cesky Krumlov is damn near magical.  I’m not sure anywhere else I’ve been has so totally encapsulated the fairy tale vibe (cliché though it may be) as this little town, even on a cold, overcast April morning.

We walked around the castle a bit, foregoing a guided tour (the timing of the English tours didn’t really mesh with how we wanted to spend our day).  We spent most of our time wandering the garden—as it was a tad cold out and none of the flowers had really bloomed yet, it was a nice and quiet area above the city, tucked away from everything.  Not many on the tour came to the garden—and those who did didn’t stay long when they saw it hadn’t yet bloomed—but we walked almost every foot of it.

Food & Drink

When we weren’t just wandering the streets of the city and marveling at the views from every corner we turned, we were eating (of course).  After the hotel breakfast, we had two meals, and one was planned and reserved in advance.  And once we found out there was a large brewery in town, our lunch was easily decided.  Set on the outskirts of the town, Eggenberg Brewery dates back to 1336.  The dining room was huge—they clearly get the brunt of tourist meals here—and the food and beer was pretty standard Czech.  Refreshing pilsner, food leaden with dumplings, barely a vegetable in sight—nothing different than what we’d been seeing all over Eastern Europe.

Dinner, though, was something else.  Lew Bryson, beer and whiskey writer extraordinaire, had recommended we check out Krčma v Šatlavské, a small cave-like restaurant specializing in grilled meats. Later, when I was scanning my trusty 125 Places to Have a Beer list (though it is 10 years old now), I happened to see Krčma listed on there—perfect.  When we arrived, we quickly realized having a reservation was key, as the place’s reputation seemed well-known.

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We sat catty-corner to a massive open fire in the middle of the restaurant, where a clearly heat-resistant cook worked various cuts of meat all over the impressive flame.  Being our last meal in Czechia, we made it an impressive one.  We started with a bread bowl of soup—the bread quickly absorbed all of the soup, turning the dish into a mass of deliciously soggy garlic cheese bread. LeeAnne ordered some sausage, and I went with a pork knuckle to devour on my own as we drank a few beers (and then some mead—why not?).

Go Visit

After gorging ourselves on grilled meats and beer, we slowly walked back up the hill to our hotel, which now seemed even worse than it had before.  We took to our Jimi Hendrix room—all the rooms at Villa Beatika are based on classic rock legends (and are quite spacious)—and fell asleep quickly, which was fortuitous, as we had a private car to drive us to the Prague airport departing around 3 am.  As it turns out, the amount of sleep I got in the hotel didn’t really matter, as I slept almost the entire car ride.

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Overall, we had a great day in Cesky Krumlov and, like most short stops, I wish it could have been longer.  The pace of life is a tad slower, everyone is a bit more relaxed, and there is enough to keep you busy even if you do prefer the city life.  The idyllic views of the town and the surrounding hills certainly don’t hurt, either.  If you’re going to be in Prague, make your way to Cesky Krumlov, and make a reservation at Krčma v Šatlavské.

At the World’s Most Famous Brewery

clockIt may seem odd to some people that one of the most well-known breweries in the world on produces and serves one beer, and a dark one at that. But such is the case with Pivovar U Fleku, a brewery and restaurant in the middle of Prague that has been continuously running since 1499.  Ranked #3 on All About Beer’s 125 Places to Have a Beer Before You Die list (and the first brewery listed), U Fleku is a pilgrimage spot for any serious fan of beer.

When we decided we were going to Prague, U Fleku was the first thing that popped into my mind. We immediately made a reservation, which is recommended—I don’t know what other nights are like, but it was packed the night we were there; possibly because it was a springtime and a little too cool to sit outside at night.  Altogether, the place can seat almost 1,200 people.

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Top: Fleck’s Treat. Bottom: Half roasted duck.

After we were seated, it quickly became apparent how things were done—a slip of paper is put on your table, and servers come along with huge trays of beer glasses.  If you want one, you let them know and they mark it on your slip.  If not, they pass you up and deliver the beer elsewhere.  Since the dark lager (which only clocks in at 5% ABV) is the only beer, it’s a pretty efficient system.  The same works for other drinks—when we were there, they came around with two different shots, one of mead and one of Becherovka (a very herbaceous Czech liquer).  We only had one shot of the Becherovka, but had a few meads mixed in with our beer.

While most of the seating is family-style at long wooden tables, we were lucky enough to sit at our own table, which gave us plenty of room to spread out our food.  Unfortunately, while the beer was delicious, the food was just okay.  The idea of it was great, especially since U Fleku serves a lot of traditional food that is worth trying if you’ve never had experience with it, but the predominance of bready dumplings overshadows most other things.

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Wanting the widest variety of traditional food, I ordered the “Fleck’s Treat,” which is a quarter of a roast duck, roast pork, sausage, red and white cabbage, bread dumplings, and potato dumplings.  LeeAnne ordered the half roast duck meal, which was accompanied by bread dumplings, potato dumplings, and speck dumplings.  Definitely not light meals.  LeeAnne tried, though, as she always craves some kind of healthy touch to her meals.  She also ordered the mixed salad, which was tomatoes, cucumber, bell pepper, and about a pound of Balkan cheese on top.  Apparently in Eastern Europe, it counts as a salad if the animal ate a plant at some point in its life.

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Despite the standard food, the beer was top notch and the experience was second-to-none.  I started as a beer writer, and having heard about this place for so many years made finally getting there all the more special.  But even if you’re not necessarily a beer person, if you’re swinging through Prague, U Fleku is a must-go kind of spot.  The prices are a little higher than some other traditional places in the city, but the time you’ll have will make it worthwhile.

Easter Markets in Budapest & Prague

buda-eggFor whatever reason, when we did our Hungary – Slovakia – Prague trip over the week of Easter, it never occurred to me to be excited for the Easter markets.  I had marked the main one in Prague on a map for things to do, and I had the vague notion that the Catholic holidays were a big deal, but I guess when I was looking for places to drink beer and eat great local food, it had totally gone over my head to pay attention to these markets.

So it was with great glee when we happened to walk into an Easter market on our first night in Budapest.  My eyes were immediately drawn to one of the food vendors, and I couldn’t have been more excited—Eastern Europe is well known for its meat-heavy and vegetable-light food, which has never been a problem for me.  Add to that fact that I immediately saw a tray of stuffed cabbage, a food my family makes often and that I had been looking forward to trying in its natural habitat.

buda-food3The markets were pretty evenly split between food vendors and those with trinkets and souvenirs.  I didn’t worry about the latter, because I was there for the former.  We found huge buffets of local food, including full meals, snacks, desserts, and even people who had made their own beer for the occasion.  At the first market, I sat down with a beer and a huge piece of stuffed cabbage atop a potato latke, appropriately slathered with sour cream (which, if you’ve been to Hungary, you’ll know is the only way to eat anything).

The markets also offered local delicacies like langos (fried dough usually topped with sour cream and cheese, but those toppings can expand to include just about anything) and trdelnik, also known as chimney cakes.  The trdelnik quickly became our favorite snack, and involved dough being wrapped around a roller and rolled over hot coals until it was cooked, and then dipped in sugar, with the option to add nuts or Nutella.

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The markets were incredibly pleasant—none of them were packed, and between the cool spring weather and the people enjoying themselves, it was a great time to sit outside and enjoy some food or a drink.  Especially the one we got to in Prague’s old town—while it was a bit chilly, the sun was out and the sky was blue; it was an ideal day to hang out.

The food was a tad different at the markets we hit in Prague, with much more focus on what you would consider typical German food – sausages, potato salad, and huge hocks of ham.  The attractions and the market itself was pretty similar, though.  They even had their own trdelnik, though that may have been surpassed snackwise by a ring of potato put on a stick and fried.  It was like a long, homemade potato chip.

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With the two things that I need to enjoy myself—beer and food—the markets delivered.  They made for quality people-watching, and even better eating.  And while both cities may have been a tad more packed with tourists than they normally would be due to the holiday (we were told thousands of people travel to Prague around Easter), I would highly recommend visiting during this time of year, if only for the food.