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Canoeing in Southern Bohemia

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Running the Weirs
Ceský Krumlov
Canoeing in the Bohemian Hamlet of Ceský Krumlov

Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque period houses line the narrow streets of Ceský Krumlov, a city protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But there is more to this Czech town than medieval charm. (Erik Olsen/ABCNEWS.com)

By Erik Olsen
C E S K Ý   K R U M L O V, Czech Republic, Sept. 26 — Do not be fooled by the reputation of the Czech hamlet of Ceský Krumlov.
Yes, it is a quaint throwback to medieval times, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets and gingerbread facades. And yes, the castle looming overhead reminds one of a fairy tale, albeit one redone in funky colors.
czech The medieval town of Ceský Krumlov welcomes canoeists seeking idle pleasure on the Vltava River. (Magellan Geographix/ ABCNEWS.com)
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.
     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 Southern Bohemia
Ceský Krumlov One of the Vltava’s less dangerous weirs dotting a fairy tale-like river scene. (Erik Olsen/ABCNEWS.com)
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.
     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 prices.
     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 Eastern Europe.
     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 Vienna.
     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.
     The 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 garden).
     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.

Small 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 spokesperson.)
     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.

Waves 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 river.
     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 wife.
     “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.
     It 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 crowd above.
     Finally we could see the capsized boat downriver, the members of the cast-off crew floating alongside.
     Now it was our turn.

A Sinking Feeling
This weir was far steeper and longer than the first, and the wave that greeted us at the bottom was the size of a minivan.
     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 thriller?
     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 shore.
     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 sight.
     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.

Ceský Krumlov Details
Located in Southern Bohemia, approximately 100 miles from Prague. Take a train from Prague station (about 3˝ hours) or a bus.
     Visit the Castle (English tour $3.25, kids $1.60), tour the Eggenberg Brewery ($4.40 with tasting), and check out the Egon Schiele Art Center.
     Although the weirs can be tough, the river is actually very tame. Kayak rentals start at $7.50 per day from Vltava Travel Agency (Kájovská 62; tel: (337) 711-978). You can take to the surrounding hills on horseback, or visit neighboring small villages on bikes.

Lodging and Dining
Doubles start at roughly $20 a night from March through May, and $5–$10 higher from June through September. But there are cheaper rooms to rent at hostels for $5.90 per person.
     Pension Mysí Díra; doubles run about $30; tel/fax: (337) 712-853.
     The Vltava Travel Agency runs a five-room pension; doubles start at $23 ($35 in high season); breakfast is extra.
     Other establishments include Pension Konvice, where a large double room-with-a-view costs about $40; tel: (337) 711-611; fax: (337) 711-327; Dvorak Hotel; tel: (337) 711 020; fax: (337) 711-024, by the bridge below the castle; and Ruze Hotel; tel: (337) 711 141; fax: (337) 713 146.

Ceský Krumlov Details

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Ceský Krumlov Tourist Service

Ceský Krumlov Castle Information

Ceský Krumlov Online

Pension Mysí Díra

Vltava Travel Agency

Canoeing in the Czech Republic

Egon Schiele Art Center

Red Bull

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