Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017
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A Bohemian air


The Czech Republic's southwestern towns
could be fresh out of the Renaissance

I must confess that I once imagined Bohemia to be the fictitious setting of comic operettas, memorable largely for gypsy dancers, flamboyant uniforms and fairy tale castles. But Bohemia is a real and enchanting place and makes a great two- or three-day trip from Prague.

At the heart of South Bohemia is the Vtlava River, which runs between Prague and the Austrian border. An historic trade artery, the river sometimes turns nasty as it did in August 2002. The worst flooding in 175 years devastated the centres of historic towns such as Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice. Many old buildings were damaged but concerted efforts have brought most of them back to their previous state.

Floods are not the only form of disaster to strike South Bohemia in modern history. Although the gently rolling countryside escaped the worst ravages of World War II, 40 years of Communist rule brought economic stagnation and the near-fatal neglect of the area's rich architectural heritage. However, those decades also had the effect of leaving most historic town centres frozen in time.

Today, while some of the towns are a bit frayed at the edges, a dozen years of restored private land ownership has worked wonders. In 1994 in Cesky Krumlov, for example, the town council sold three-quarters of all buildings dating from the Middle Ages to the 17th century. The drastic measure, following the designation of the town by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was seen as the only way to stem an alarming rate of deterioration. And the move seems to have paid off. A revitalized Cesky Krumlov is once again the jewel in South Bohemia's crown with a setting unmatched by any town in Central Europe.

Spire on the river
Almost encircled by a tight loop in the Vltava River, the town of Cesky Krumlov is dominated by the second largest castle in the Czech Republic. Built around four courtyards, the castle is crowned by a brightly painted tower fanciful enough for any fairy tale — all it seems to need is a beautiful princess waiting to be freed.

My first visit to Cesky Krumlov was an all-too-short day trip a few summers ago. But I returned the following December. This time the quiet narrow streets were softened by snow while lights gleamed from tiny shops a-glitter with Christmas decorations, wonderful wooden toys and puppets. The view from the castle over red-tiled roofs took on an entirely new character. Smoke rose from chimneys sprinkled with snow as leafless trees opened up vistas usually hidden in mid summer.

The charm of Cesky Krumlov is to simply wander its medieval streets at random. Boutiques and craft shops offer handicrafts and Bohemian glass. Across the street from the lovely Hotel Ruze, a converted 16th-century Jesuit monastery decorated in Renaissance style, the Okresni Muzeum contains artifacts and exhibits on the area's 1000-year history, including a room-sized ceramic model of the town in the 1800s.

Even though Cesky Krumlov's street layout is confusing, it's impossible to get lost for long. Sooner or later you'll end up in the central square with its town hall and 18th-century plague column in the centre. These elaborate monuments, common in central Europe, were built to give thanks for deliverance from the last scourge to afflict the area — and perhaps buy some protection from the next one. On another side of the square a group of three historic houses has recently been converted into the Old Inn Hotel.

King of Beers
Further north along the Vltava is the larger town of Ceske Budejovice with its magnificent square and Baroque town hall. There's no better place to enjoy dinner than the outdoor terrace of the grand old Zvon Hotel. As you watch children play around the Sampson Fountain in the centre of the square, you might want to complement your schnitzel or goulash and dumplings with a mug of the local brew. This is the home of the original Budweiser beer. The Budvar brewing company draws on 700 years of tradition and produces one of the world's best beers, which is nothing like its watery American namesake. If you're lucky, you may be able to join a group tour of the brewery on the northern edge of the town.

Outside of Ceske Budejovice is the spectacular Hluboka Castle. The original 13th-century castle was entirely rebuilt in the 19th century, modelled on England's Windsor Castle and furnished in English Renaissance style.

Also north of Ceske Budejovice is the tiny village of Plastovice. Easy to miss and now half deserted, it contains some fine 19th-century farmhouses with richly decorated gables. A Czech friend explained that in the 1950s the village was collectivized and joined with others into a single administration. Following confiscation, divisions between small plots were ploughed under to make bigger farms. Many families never came back to the village after the fall of the Communist regime, hence the number of deserted houses.

If you have time for a side trip, Tabor is another delightful town for a morning or afternoon walk. The information office on the main square has a map pointing out the most interesting sights, most of which are nearby. Beneath the square is a maze of tunnels that can be toured with a guide. Dating from the 15th century, they have been used for everything from storing beer kegs to imprisoning women who had dared quarrel with men! The 14th-century castle forming a corner of the town wall provides a great view of the surroundings.

Or head to the town of Trebon which is surrounded by ponds for raising carps — essential to the traditional Christmas dinner of breaded carp and potato salad. While war and fires destroyed much of the town's Renaissance architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries, almost everything within the town walls has been carefully rebuilt to its original state. Even under the Communist regime, buildings continued to be maintained because Trebon was a designated spa town.

And then there's Telc. Arguably the most beautiful town in the Czech Republic, Telc (pronounced "Teltch") is actually just over the border of Bohemia in Moravia. Tucked away in the quiet countryside and surrounded by fish ponds, the town has scarcely changed since being rebuilt after a fire in 1530.

Telc's Hradec Square is stunning under a summer sky but my most enduring memory of it is in the fading daylight of a grey December day. Snow lay in the surrounding fields as we drove into the almost deserted square. Mist cast ghostly haloes around the few streetlights and a couple bundled against the cold walked towards the church as the tolling bell called people to evening service. It was a scene that could have been played out 200 years ago.

The perfection of Telc's main square comes from the continuous arcade running around its north and south sides. The gabled buildings above the arcade have a delightful variety of forms that offset the perfect symmetry of the arcade. Some buildings have stepped gables, others have murals while one or two show off intricate sgraffito patterns: a technique in which a surface layer of plaster is incised to reveal a different colour beneath it. Like Cesky Krumlov, Telc is not to be missed.

Driving back to Prague in winter, we were struck by the familiarity of the South Bohemia countryside. Snow-covered fields and woodland reminded us of Southern Ontario and Quebec. But those delightful old towns are like nothing you'll see at home. As for the Budvar beer, it's almost worth the trip all on its own.

 

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