More than 100 people have died from the extreme cold experienced throughout Central and Eastern Europe this week. The news reminded me of my apprehension last winter after booking a weekend visit to the Czech Republic. I really wanted to see Prague covered in snow, but as the calendar inched closer and closer to my departure date, I started to have second thoughts. Would I spend the entire weekend ducking from café to café, trying to keep warm? I tracked the daily highs in Prague. They were averaging –10 °C ― a bit chilly for my thin Vancouver blood!
And then, the day before I was to fly from Paris to Prague, France was hit with a massive snowstorm. Flights at Charles de Gaulle airport were cancelled left, right, and centre. I began to doubt I would make it out of Paris. While travelling around Europe in winter does have its benefits, there are some serious drawbacks, too, particularly when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
However, my flight did leave the next afternoon … eventually … and after two delightful days in Prague, I took a bus through the Czech countryside to Český Krumlov (ches-key krum-lof).
Why Český Krumlov, you ask? I first heard of the town from some classmates the summer I spent in Prague. They had gone for the weekend and raved about how pretty it was. Several years later when my sisters were planning a train-pass trek around Europe and told me they intended to stop in Prague, I suggested they visit Český Krumlov as well. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful,” I told them. It ended up being one of their favourite stops on the entire trip. I repeated the recommendation to some friends a few years after that. They too told me the day they spent in Český Krumlov was the best of their European vacation.
I was beginning to realize I had missed out by not visiting the place myself.
But here I was. Finally.
I was the last person off the bus. After grabbing my bag, I stopped the bus attendant before she jumped back on the bus. “Which way to the Old Town?” I asked. “Over the bridge,” she said, pointing, and then she disappeared and the bus pulled away.
I walked over the bridge and headed into town. I knew Český Krumlov wasn’t a big place, but it was a little disconcerting not to see any tourists, not even a local. But this is one of the advantages of travelling in Europe in the middle of winter: you get the place all to yourself.
I reached the castle, where I popped into the tourist information centre to get a map. I asked the girl at the counter to point out exactly where I was, and where I needed to go, and then I continued on my way. I soon reached the Old Town Square and then, after only one or two wrong turns, Penzion U Náměstí, where I had a reservation for my two nights. U Náměstí means “at the town square.”
On my arrival at the pension, I discovered another advantage of travelling in winter: fabulous accommodations are available for fabulous prices. My attic room (a double, but I paid the single rate) was the largest room I’ve ever stayed in, by far. It was furnished with a queen-sized bed, an armchair, a loveseat, two coffee tables, and a small TV with satellite. The toilet and bathroom were off the little hallway leading into my room; at the end of this hallway was the door to my room. It felt like a suite. I was offered my choice of hot or cold breakfast served in my room at whatever time I chose. And (bonus!), there was a skylight over my bed so I could listen to the snow fall.
I spent the afternoon wandering around and orientating myself. Český Krumlov is a small town in southern Bohemia, one of the three historic provinces of the Czech Republic. Located about 180 kilometres south of Prague and 40 kilometres north of the border with Austria, it was founded in the early thirteenth century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Prague, the town is built around the castle that towers above it. Český (Czech) distinguishes the town from Moravský Krumlov.
For lunch, I bought myself a trdelník ― a sweet pastry baked over hot coals and sprinkled with sugar and nuts ― from a shop selling the treats through a window. There was a small Christmas market in the Old Town Square with stalls selling ornaments and crafts made by local artisans. Much glühwein was consumed ― I had to keep warm, after all!
The next morning, I wandered up to the castle and spent several hours exploring it. The interior is closed for the winter (another drawback of travelling in the off-season), but much of the mile-long castle grounds, including five courtyards, are open to the public year-round. The tower of the Little Castle offered great views over the Old Town, as did the seven-level Cloak Bridge.
I spent the afternoon at the Egon Schiele Art Centre. Schiele was a student of Gustav Klimt’s. His mother was from Český Krumlov, and he himself lived there for a time. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his work, but I learned something new (which for me is the whole point of travelling) and I appreciated having a warm place to spend the afternoon.
In the evening, I enjoyed an Advent concert of local schoolchildren in the Old Town Square. It was great fun watching the children trying to sing while wrapped up snuggly in their winter coats, scarves, and hats, and many proud parents were gathered before the stage. I only lasted about a half hour though before I started to get very cold.
As I settled my bill with the pension owner the next morning, I commented on the cold weather, and she said, “But I think Canada is much colder, yes?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her I live in a city with a much more temperate climate than Central Europe. I thanked her for the great accommodation, then wandered off to the bus station to wait for the bus that would take me back to Prague, From there, I caught my flight (delayed again!) back to Paris.
If you’re willing to put up with the travel delays that are inevitable in cold winter climates, and don’t mind wandering about a strange town in inclement weather, then I highly recommend travelling to Europe in the winter. There were few other tourists in Český Krumlov that weekend ― a large tour group of Asians seemed to be the only other guests ― and lower demand for accommodation means great deals. Granted, I really lucked out with the weather. It was cold enough for snow flurries, but warm enough (about –3 °C, I think) to walk for hours. The fresh snowfall made for some memorable photos, but I shudder to think how cold I might have been had the temperatures dipped to the levels they have been this week in that part of the world.