Enchanted by Cesky Krumlov

Sylvi Saxon – A Group Organiser’s Tale as told to Delle Shepherd

Sylvi Saxon

Sylvi Saxon

Take me away from group travel and I’m like a fish out of water. Don’t believe me? Then here’s a question…how does a group travel organiser with twenty years experience and over fifty countries on her CV find herself boarding a night flight to Prague with no mobile phones (yes, I always carry two because if one doesn’t work, the other will), unknown contacts at my destination and a mere £20 cash in my pocket? I blame travelling alone!

Back in May, my good friend and tour operator colleague, Jayne Kerr, telephoned me with an offer I never refuse – a site inspection. Following an overnight stay in Prague, I would travel to Cesky Krumlov, located in the south-west of the Czech Republic. A stunning fusion of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, this picturesque town was built around the spectacular Cesky Krumlov Castle circa 1253 and is looped by the steel blue waters of the Vltava river. In addition to this magnificent setting, a rich array of arts and culture is on offer including museums, galleries, children’s events and film festivals, plus the opulent theatre located within the castle complex. I leapt at the chance of discovering another hidden gem to share with my fellow travellers. So why the drama at the airport? Well, I should tell you now that my visit to Cesky Krumlov was sandwiched right in the middle of two consecutive trips to Italy (Tuscany then back again to Lake Garda), a London musical weekend followed up by a familiarization trip to Switzerland and, finally, another four day trip to Prague. I know, I know, hard life, isn’t it? But the point I am making is that I was so busy and, more pertinently, with just myself to look after and no group to round up and organize, I guess the finer details of travel – just that once – got overlooked.

My adventure began with a train journey from Bournemouth to Luton carrying just the bare essentials in a small rucksack. For some reason, I did not have great vibes. Perhaps it was the uncharacteristically dark and cloudy day (having said that, it was England in late June) or the inner voice that nags and niggles but never quite manages to make itself heard until after the event. I shrugged and settled back on my seat – along with being a group travel organiser, I work full time on a busy reception desk so I put the lack of my usual zest down to juggling too many balls for a little too long. It was when I was boarding the airport bus to Luton that the lightbulb finally went on. In the midst of my other travels, I still hadn’t contacted the office to find out the details of my contacts in Prague, the name of my hotel…all those little details you sort out before you set off, not after. I dug automatically for one of my trusty mobiles to make a long overdue call to the office when along came a wave of prickly heat. The week previously, I’d managed to leave my handbag containing both phones in the back of a taxi in Windsor and they still hadn’t been returned to me. The nagging voice grew louder. Relax, Sylvi, I told myself, remembering that once upon a time people had survived perfectly well without mobiles and there were still pay phones at the airport…weren’t there?

At the check-in desk I received more bad news. My plane was on a one-hour delay and by the time we got to Prague we would be the last to land of the night. Don’t get me wrong, I love Prague, it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. There is a delightful touch of Dracula in the atmosphere that always fires my imagination but it’s like a ghost train: the eeriness is exhilarating when amongst friends…you just wouldn’t want to be there alone at midnight. Well, onwards and upwards, my driver would hopefully still be there when I arrived! My next job was to obtain some foreign currency. I wandered over to the Bureau de Change and took out my wallet to extract my credit card. Guess what? The nagging voice had long since died of exhaustion, so I took over where it left off and berated myself in the manner of my old headmaster.
“Wrong credit card? Well, where’s the right credit card?”
“Left it at home, sir.”
“At home? Not doing much good at home, is it?”
I already knew the notes section of my wallet held a solitary £20 note and the coins section held precisely nothing. So I was somewhat on the horns of a dilemma; no mobiles, effectively no cash – was somebody up there trying to tell me something? I was looking round for somewhere I could sit and work through my options when a bright green sign blazed in my vision.
Of course, I could get myself back home and the way things were going, I was beginning to wonder if it was the best option. The lack of ‘worldly goods’ was having an unsettling effect. On the other hand, Jayne and I have worked together a long time and every previous site inspection has run like clockwork. She ‘had my back’ as the saying goes; my driver was organised, my hotel was booked. I may not have had the arrangements down in black and white but that didn’t mean they no longer existed. There was still the shortage of money, however. I had been planning to lose a couple of pounds, but could I really eat that sparingly? Hmmm. I thought again about the castle complex at Chesky Krumlov and the promise of all it contained; the mansion gardens and multi-tiered fountains, experiencing first hand the fairtytale charm of narrow cobbled streets and, following a successful site inspection, returning with a group to explore these beautiful attractions at our leisure …My heart ruled my head. I caught the flight.

We landed after midnight in Prague. The airport was in almost total darkness, outside and in. I had the peculiar sensation of arriving at a party long after even the hostess had gone to bed. Nevertheless, my driver was still there. Although he spoke no English, my tentative ‘Saxon – Sylvi Saxon?’ elicited an enthusiastic smile of recognition and I was soon in the car, tired eyes focusing on the distant lights of Prague. Events continued on an upward turn when the receptionist at my hotel informed me I had an executive suite. My ears pricked up. It must be the English in me but all I wanted was a cup of tea and some sandwiches; as the recently proclaimed occupier of an executive suite, I should surely be able to acquire them. It turned out that these were unavailable, however, there was plenty of water and a good selection of nuts and fresh fruit provided in the room, so I feasted in bed and watched some television before tucking up and resting, ready for the journey to Cesky Krumlov the following day.

I waited in the hotel lobby later the next morning and, although we had never met, I knew my tour guide instantly; they have that certain look about them, an upright deportment and efficient manner. A young lady, scarf flowing behind her, fresh faced and with clear eyes like drops of polished blue glass, swept in. This was Helena Jemelkova, travel agent and, with her sound knowledge of Cesky Krumlov, my guide for the inspection. After introductions, we jumped in Helena’s car and set off. Let’s just say she’s a confident driver – and I need to visit my hairdresser to have a few greys blended away. We arrived at The Ruze hotel in Cesky Krumlov at around 4pm, having stopped off along the way at the Svejk restaurant in Hluboka town for a delicious lunch of stuffed potato pancake with smoked pork. After freshening up in our rooms, we took a walk around the town which, in 1992, was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status to preserve and protect its wealth of fine architecture. Within those first few steps, the magic of the place took a hold that to this day still has me utterly bewitched. There is a wonderfully ‘undiscovered’ atmosphere, a feeling of stepping above the clouds to a kingdom where the water is cool and pure and the air is clean, where church spires and castle turrets point serenely at a sky as blue as forget-me-nots, and where winding streets nestle with houses glowing jewel-bright from flower baskets on curling iron balconies, trickling as far as the eye can see in troughs and planters along the riverside. This is Cesky Krumlov, and here, the magic is real…

There was no handsome prince to kiss me and wake me up, unfortunately. Instead, Helena announced that she was hungry and asked if I was ready to go for dinner. Fortunately, the food and drink is very reasonably priced in Cesky Krumlov and even in my financially embarrassed state, Helena and I were able to enjoy lamb with red cabbage and pan fried potatoes in a riverside restaurant. A word here – for those who don’t eat meat, fear not. Veggie options are available and the town features its own entirely vegetarian restaurant. After our meal, we continued to soak up the enchanted atmosphere and, even when the night air began to turn a little cooler, we opted to stay put with neither of us wanting to lose the moment. When eventually we decided to move on for drinks, we had taken only a few paces before the irresistible sounds of live music combined with non-stop raucous laughter drew us to what became our next venue of the evening – Pub na Louzi. Within the oak paneled walls of this cosily lamplit bar at the fabulous Na Louzi hotel, there was a PARTY going on. The ringleaders of this merrymaking, we quickly discovered, was a team of Microsoft executives on a team building weekend. They had come fully equipped for a night’s entertainment which included performing traditional Czech folk songs and from the night we had, I can vouch for them – their team is very well built indeed. To give you some idea, we had the accounts and sales directors on the violin and guitar respectively, accompanied enthusiastically by an accordion player, with someone shaking maracas and everybody else singing at the tops of their voices, Helena and I included. I didn’t know the words, but who cares, I joined in anyway! All too soon the bar staff had to close up for the night (after unraveling what looked like an entire till roll printed with the drinks bill) but they ushered us down to what they called the ‘cave’ in the basement of the bar where we could carry on partying. Cave? I was convinced I had misheard. I hadn’t. So, we duly trooped off to find the cave, a few people turned up with crates of locally brewed ‘Eddenberg’ beer and the party began all over again… Within ten minutes the rank smell and damp floor was a thing of the past as we continued to drink and be joyful until well into the small hours. As the old song goes – oh, what a night!

After breakfasting on creamy yoghurt with berries and still warm fresh bread the next day, we took a walking tour with town guide Stanislav Jungwirth. The town is a car free zone so we were accompanied by a soothing backdrop of sound; the flowing Vltava river, birds singing and the chiming of the Church of St Vitus clock. As we strolled around the centre before making our way up to the castle for those promised spectacular views across the town, Stanislav filled me in on some of the attractions and eagerly awaited events occurring over the coming months. First up is the Five Petalled Rose Festival, a three day long extravaganza held in mid-June including live music and theatre, arts and crafts, jugglers, dancing, processions and much more. In July, the town is host to the International Music Festival, featuring an exciting blend of musical genres ranging from opera and jazz to modern musicals. Indoor leisure also caters for young and old alike, with cinema, art galleries, superb museums dedicated to – amongst others – waxworks, marionettes and architecture, and the charming Fairytale House, which boasts a collection of over 200 historical puppets. For those who enjoy a more active pastime, a popular choice is canoeing or – Stanislav’s personal favourite – kayaking along the Vltava river. Travel north and you will find the lush greenery of the Blansko forest, where visitors can nature-hike, bike, or even cross-country ski. Cesky Krumlov is lucky enough to experience all four proper seasons, with a fresh green spring and hot summer before a mild and rainy autumn turns to heavy snowfall in winter – I had instant visions of candy canes and holly berries – and imagine the snowball fights!

Well deserving of a mention in its own right is the piece de resistance, Cesky Krumlov Castle. This outstanding castle complex is one of the largest in Europe, originally built in the Gothic style and having undergone many enhancements over the centuries. Today, the complex includes around forty buildings, extensive landscaped gardens with sparkling fountains, a 180 foot tower and its own carefully preserved Baroque theatre – a sumptuous dream of cream and gold – which still retains original set changing machinery, costumes, scenery and props. The more recent addition of a revolving outdoor auditorium draws the crowds with dazzling performances of Beauty and the Beast, Robin Hood and other favourites.
Having successfully completed my site inspection, there was one more thing to do before Helena dropped me at Prague airport to catch my flight home. Helena’s parents had generously invited me to visit them on their farm in Dobrockov. The scenery en-route was stunning, a continuing theme of red roofed houses and rolling fields, all beneath a laundry-fresh blue sky dotted with crisp white clouds. On arrival at the farm, I received a warm greeting from Mr and Mrs Jemelka who spent time showing me round and introduced me to the horses and some very handsome chickens. In the farmhouse kitchen I was offered honey cake and, Mrs Jemelka proudly told me, she could give me English tea because they had bought some especially when they had previously had an English visitor – in 1986!
They were pulling my leg, of course.

I was back at the airport saying goodbye to Helena before I knew it. As before, my plane was delayed but it really didn’t matter; I was happy to sit quietly and re-live in my mind the wonderful experience of Cesky Krumlov. Just 48 hours earlier and, feeling the odds were stacked against me, I could have decided not to go ahead with my inspection. What I would have missed… words simply can’t do justice to this amazing place – experience the splendour for yourself with your group.
I do not speak Czech but there was one phrase I insisted Helena teach me before she left.

Uvidime se brzy.
See you soon.