But the town also welcomes canoeists
seeking idle pleasure on the Vltava River, a gentle, meandering waterway
that can nonetheless kill you. And the locals will be happy to take your
picture as you die.
| The medieval town of Ceský Krumlov welcomes
canoeists seeking idle pleasure on the Vltava River. (Magellan
But that is being unduly
harsh on a town that opens its heart to visitors seeking the cultural,
natural and historical riches of a bohemian hideaway.
The Heart of
Martina Navrátilová, Ivan
Lendl, Milos Forman and Franz Kafka are native children of the Czech
Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia). Its capital, Prague, has become
something of what Paris was in the 1920s, a magnet for American artists
trying to find themselves.
| One of the Vltava’s less dangerous weirs
dotting a fairy tale-like river scene. (Erik
But few folks know
about the riches just south of Prague, in a region where great food and
lodging — not to mention adventure — can be had for rock-bottom
Recently about two dozen of us —
buddies from as far back as grade school, with spouses and girlfriends in
tow — were reunited in Prague for the wedding of a friend, and after the
ceremony we rumbled out of Prague towards the heart of Southern Bohemia.
Our destination was Ceský Krumlov, one of the most captivating towns in
Our group was large enough
that it turned out to be affordable for us to rent a bus, which allowed
everyone aboard to kick back and enjoy the ride along the E55, the former
Franz Joseph Railway — the main thoroughfare between Prague and
Upon arriving at Ceský Krumlov (a
UNESCO World Heritage site), we could see the massive Ceský Castle looming
over the picturesque town. Its central tower looked like a lighthouse on
hallucinogens, with cylindrical sides painted in a bizarre array of colors
and patterns, as if violated — favorably, I should think — by a band of
roving Renaissance graffiti artists.
castle has been owned by only three families since the Middle Ages: The
Schwarzenbergs, wealthy regulars at the court of Vienna and whose
patronage helped to defeat Napoleon; then the Eggenbergs, who built the
first theater in the 1680s, but then died out after three generations and
passed on the property to the quirky and horticulturally-challenged
Rozmberks (who are rumored to have tried to grow gold by planting coins in
The castle is nice, but the real
action can be found in the town’s center, which squats on a spit of land
literally encircled by the Vltava River. From here one can walk around,
rent bikes or stage rafting and canoe trips down river, which is what our
host has arranged for us.
Doorways and Giant Tankards
Evening is an ideal time to
experience the slow but stimulating rhythm of the town. After dumping off
our bags at the hotel, we strolled through the streets, keeping an eye out
for an intimate tavern. There were many of them — every turn seemed to
offer a new hidden-away place where you had to duck to enter musty rooms,
where beer is brought in glasses large enough to bathe in. We chose
Cikanska Jizba (Dlouha 31; tel: (337) 717 585), and had a full meal of
hearty weinerschnitzel, tangy goulash, and more than we needed to drink.
All this for around $12 a person.
For many of
our party, that first evening after dinner was spent cavalierly quaffing a
drink made with Red Bull and vodka. Red Bull is a flavorful “pep” drink
packing the wallop of about 25 coffees and containing numerous
polysyllabic ingredients that I’m guessing are otherwise found in rocket
fuel. (It was rumored that one of the drink’s ingredients, taurine, was
extracted from bulls’ testicles. “Not true,” claimed a Red Bull company
The morning after, we “Red
Bullers” appeared along the river’s edge to go canoeing, with bugged-out
red eyes that made us look like mutants from a grade-B ’70s sci-fi flick.
After a brief overview of safety precautions,
we boarded our canoes (two to a boat), and pushed off from shore into the
slowly flowing current of the Vltava. The Vltalva River (or Moldau, as it
is known in German) is so impressive a waterway that the composer Bedrich
Smetana wrote a symphonic poem in its honor.
The river flows north across Bohemia, passing through the heart of the
Czech Republic before emptying into the Elbe. Given such lofty
credentials, the river was far smaller and calmer than I expected. We
paddled slowly along the shore like modern-day Hiawathas, and watched the
southern quarter of the city pass before us. The Ceský Castle rose
overhead, its massive, 600-year-old bulk hewn snugly into the cliffside.
“The weir!” one of my friends cried.
From Above and Below
Up ahead and on the left was a narrow
concrete chute into which the river was funnelled. The structure, called a
weir, was built for flood control. We’d been warned before leaving the
hotel that one of the highlights of the canoe trip along the river is
“running” the three weirs that are spread along the 12-mile stretch of
The first weir was fairly easy to pass
— you just had to know how to steer the canoe from behind using the paddle
as a rudder. We gathered speed as we slipped down through the channel, and
were greeted at the bottom by a wave that swept over the front, soaking my
“That was easy,” she exclaimed over her
shoulder. “I can’t wait for the next one!”
The next one turned out to be a whopper.
was only a quarter of a mile ahead, but judging by the crowd of eager
photographers snapping pictures from the Cloak Bridge overhead, there was
obviously some carnage happening in the water below. We watched, becoming
slightly intimidated, as the first canoe of our party descended the weir —
it was as if it literally had been sucked down some awful tube and
disappeared. This was followed by the oohs and aahs of the
Finally we could see the capsized
boat downriver, the members of the cast-off crew floating alongside.
Now it was our turn.
This weir was far steeper and longer than the first,
and the wave that greeted us at the bottom was the size of a
The walls rushed by quickly on each
side, and I caught a glimpse of some of the faces watching us descend. One
guy was standing there scribbling in a small notebook. — was he a Czech
Sebastian Junger seeking disastrous inspiration for his next
When the front of our canoe hit the
wave, my wife was lifted airborne abruptly, while the rear of the boat
(where I was sitting) plunged downward. I watched the middle of the craft
actually compact and bend.
The supports that
ran down the sides of the boat — two parallel aluminum poles about as big
around as making an O with your fingers — snapped in the middle, and the
boat half-collapsed on itself.
I thought we’d
both go under, but then just like that, we were squeezed out of the weir
and found ourselves riding on calm (albeit still white and bubbly) water.
The boat was completely filled with water and starting to sink, but we’d
made it. My wife looked back at me and pumped her arm a la Tiger Woods, as
if she’d just sunk a 25-footer for birdie. There were cheers from the
This was almost more excitement than we
could bear, and thankfully, although there was another 10 miles ahead,
we’d never encounter another weir quite so treacherous. In fact, during
the next few hours we’d pass through small, fairy tale-like villages as if
aboard some Epcot water ride, with nary a water hazard in
At the end of the ride, we were soaked
and surprisingly tired, since we’d hardly expected to find such
white-water exploits in the Czech Republic. The beauty of this adventure,
though, is that instead of retiring to a cramped tent pitched somewhere on
the mountainside, we spent the evening back in lovely Ceský, where we
kicked back in a dark tavern and ordered a round of those magnificent
Czech beers — for drinking, not bathing, of course.