Český Krumlov

This is the 6th destination on our Western Slavic Countries itinerary as described in that Travel Planning post.

We departed Olomouc by car, selecting the longest route available on google maps because I wanted to experience the most scenic drive possible. It was a cloudless, sunny Thursday morning as we departed central Olomouc. We started the drive on a highway for the first hour or so. And then we went on two lane country roads.

The first half was through wide open, large farmland with no trees in sight. It looked like corporate farms because they were so expansive. But about halfway through the trip we were on lonely two lane country roads. Sometimes so tight that it didn’t seem like two cars could have passed by. The terrain got hillier, and eventually the roads were tree-lined with beautiful vistas. The scenery with no vehicles either in front or behind us made for a wonderful driving experience.

 

Arrival

Cesky Krumlov is a picture-postcard pretty little town, and it’s definitely a tourist destination. With only a two and half hour bus trip from Prague, Cesky Krumlov is heavily visited by day tripping tourists.

Driving the BMW into town presented a problem or two. The roads were very  narrow and finding parking – even to move the luggage into the apartment, was problematic. Once again I was convinced that having a larger vehicle in Europe, especially in villages like this, was not a good idea. The roads were tight and narrow, with parking at a premium, and people driving aggressively. So I had to be on my guard in this tiny little town.

 

Settling in

The apartment was very centrally located on Ulica Latran, the main street through the little town. I could tell just from arrival that there was going to be some street noise at night because we were on the main drag through town. But this was expected, and  the central location outweighed the inconvenience of a little noise. The apartment was in fabulous shape, as advertised. It was a cute little place suitable for two people, and possibly a third adult, or a couple of children.

 

Discovery Trek

Cesky Krumlov radiates out from its large castle, with some of the castle complex dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle is visible from most parts of town, guarding over it, and keeping it safe. The town is situated on 2 oxbows on the Vltava River, and is easily walkable end to end, criss-crossing the main streets on each oxbow in 1 hour – it’s that small.

However, just walking around Cesky Krumlov, at a very leisurely pace, taking it all in, I could see why so many tourists descend upon it for day trips. The little town was like a set from a Disney movie. It didn’t seem possible for one little place to have been so filled with charm.

 

The Vltava River flows through Cesky Krumlov, bringing a flotilla of holiday makers – most pass through, but some stop at the many restaurants along the water to grab lunch and get dry. The scene of water-borne merry-makers added to the carnival-like atmosphere brought on by the tour bus day trippers.

 

And as I spent more time in Cesky Krumlov, I realized that the density of tourism made it feel like I was actually at a Disney park. All signage was in multiple languages, as were all menus at restaurants. Tourists arrived at points of interest in herds – about a bus-sized herd most of the time. I was reminded of the last time I visited Disney World in Florida. We continued exploration of the little town on our second day, meandering our way through Cesky Krumlov with the strategy of avoiding the tour group throngs.

 

 

Food Scene

Restaurace Bolero

This was a lovely restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking the river, and we watched the recreational “floaters” drift by.

Grilled sausage and a salad. It doesn’t get any simpler or tastier. They do have an extensive menu, but we were interested in what passes for lighter fare. Service was fast and efficient. Very nice first stop in Cesky Krumlov!

 

Restaurace Konvice

This restaurant was difficult to find because Google Maps had it mislocated, and had to ask twice for directions. The terrace has only six tables with views of the castle tower and the church over the red rooftops in the foreground, only 3 with really good views. Worth arriving early to get a nice terrace view table.

Roasted brown trout, parslied potatoes, mixed salad, carrot cake for dessert. Because it was roasted, the trout could have had crispier skin. It was however tender and juicy. A leisurely setting with a great view, good service, and value. The prices were reasonable for Cesky Krumlov.

 

Restaurace Babylon

This place is situated right along the river with a view of one of the main churches, and you can hear the bells ringing right from the waterfront tables where we were sitting. Lovely scenery on the water, watching all of the holidaymakers raft down the river, with ducks and fish right below us.  My wife loves to feed the fish and ducks, so there’s always a little scenery to be enjoyed. The menu is simple and it was a good value in hyper touristy CK.

Zander (Asian game fish imported to parts of Central Europe) with potatoes and greens, salad and grilled veggies. Tried a local pilsner style beer, Eggenberg (33 czk!), very good. The cuisine was basic, but well prepared, good service, excellent value, and the views couldn’t be beat.

 

We liked this place so much that we decided to come back a second time for dinner. We wanted to have grilled pork knuckle for our last dinner in the Czech Republic. It speaks volumes about the quality of the service and the food. Dinner was hearty and very good. I can’t believe this place isn’t rated higher on Tripadviser.

 

Restaurant Griechenbeisl

We had dinner here when staying in Vienna overnight to catch the return flight the following day. This restaurant claims to have been in operation since 1447. Our experience here was very good. The service was excellent, in spite of the fact that they were very busy. Service went with on with Germanic efficiency. We ordered herb encrusted fillet of char, risotto with pak choi, and grilled, skewered prawns with coconut-ginger orange sauce pasta.

 

Zum Basilisken

We had a late lunch here when staying in Vienna overnight to catch the flight out the following day. This restaurant received horrific reviews on Tripadvisor, especially from people that didn’t know they’d be charged for items offered on the table upon arrival which weren’t ordered.

Clear beef soup with liver dumplings, Viennese scallop with roast potatoes, and apple strudel for dessert. The soup was served so hot that it was not immediately edible, but it was delicious with patience. The Wienerschnitzel was was served piping, and it  was fresh and delicious. My only complaint about this restaurant was that the beer was a bit flat.

 

Vienna Overnight

We stayed a single night in Vienna to accommodate the first leg of our return flight, which was scheduled early. We stayed in the center of town within easy walking distance to restaurants, and a short Uber ride to the airport. The two restaurants we tried while in Vienna were very good, and highly recommended, although ordering a beer didn’t work well for me at one of them – details in the Food Scene section.

We did a mini discovery trek in Vienna, about a six mile walk along the river, then returned back towards our apartment with dinner along the way. It was more exercise than anything else, as the scenery was rather big-city ordinary where we were staying.

 

Epilogue

Cesky Krumlov was by far the least immersive traveling experience of the Western Slavic Countries Itinerary. The Tour Bus Day-Trippers from Prague, and Vienna descended on this little town in herds and hordes, making it feel more like a trip to a large amusement park, rather than a picture-perfect village surrounding a grand castle – with history that dates back to the 13th century. It was very interesting, particularly around the Vltava River – but about as immersive as an outing to Disneyland with thousands of adolescents.

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Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Travel Planning Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

 

Travel Planning – Slovakia, Poland, Czech Republic

Motivation

This is about trip planning, but more than anything, it’s about an exercise of imagination, the expression of curiosity, and the definition of a theme. Imagine  approaching an elegant buffet with a great variety of food and drink, ranging from haute cuisine to more basic, but tempting dishes from far flung parts of the world. You’re hungry. How do you decide what to eat with so much variety? The problem comes down to choice, with an endless array at our fingertips.

Such is the challenge in trip planning. The explorable world is before us like an elegant, well organized buffet. We merely need to decide what’s next on our plate. It sounds easy, and it would be if we had hard constraints. Using the buffet analogy, if we were shellfish lovers for example, we could immediately eliminate a large portion of the menu and concentrate on what we like most. And so it is with trip planning. We need to know what we like, or at least what interests us next, either due to curiosity or the ongoing execution of a theme.

And that’s what I like to do – work on a broad theme, in this case it’s Europe. This particular theme has been unfolding for over a decade, with sometimes focused exploration of one country, and other times far flung meandering across a region. This trip leans towards the meandering, but with a connecting thread that binds the destinations together – mostly.

Slovakia, southern Poland, and the Czech Republic, a collection of Western Slavic speaking Central European countries, geographically contiguous, and explorable by automobile over a couple of weeks. All three share the same branch of the European language tree, and have culture and history binding them together as well. The food is hearty and the drink is strong, with the latter useful for warding off the chills of the long winter nights.

 

Itinerary

In short, the selection is as follows, to be navigated in a grand counterclockwise circuit by automobile over 14 days:

 

Bratislava, Slovakia – 3 nights

 

Kosice, Slovakia – 2 nights

 

Krakow, Poland – 3 nights

 

Wroclaw, Poland – 2 nights

 

Olomouc, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic – 2 nights

 

I wanted to visit Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia because they are its main cities. I wanted to visit Krakow because it’s simply a must see in Poland, more so than any other city based on its history, culture, and architecture – and Wroclaw not only due to geographic proximity to Krakow, but because in addition, it’s worthy of a visit.  I wanted to finish the circuit with the exploration of smaller towns in the Czech Republic, since I’d already been to Prague on a previous trip.  Olomouc stood out a great opportunity for exploration with its history dating back to the 11th century, and as a lesser known, off the tourist path type of destination. I selected Cesky Krumlov as the final destination for very similar historic reasons, although it is as firmly part of the beaten down tourist path as possible.

I elected to start the itinerary in Bratislava and work my way east to Kosice, covering most of Slovakia over a 5 day period.  Then head north to Krakow, Poland for a 3 day exploration of the ancient seat of Polish Kings – which saw no damage to speak of in the major wars of the 20th century, and should be in pristine architectural shape. Continuing the counterclockwise circuit, I next selected Wroclaw for 2 nights as a compliment to Krakow in Poland. Also steeped in history, but did not escape the specter of war unscathed. And the circuit is completed in the Czech Republic with stops in Olomouc, and Cesky Krumlov, each for 2 nights, covering both the former kingdoms of Moravia, and Bohemia.  I thought the two cities would represent the Czech Republic well, although Cesky Krumlov is densely touristed, I had hoped I was early enough in the season to avoid the main surge.  I reserved a 1 night stay in Vienna to await the early return flight to Heathrow, connecting back to Atlanta.  Without this tactical accommodation, I would have had to drive from Cesky Krumlov to Vienna in the very early hours of a Sunday morning, like departing at 2:30 AM, to arrive at the Vienna airport at 6:00 AM. I shudder at the thought.

 

Logistics

There are no direct commercial flights from the US to Bratislava. It’s easy to check this with Google Flights using the Explore feature while filtering on direct flights only. Given that I had to make a layover, I selected London Heathrow because of the broad selection of connecting flights, which gave me a reasonable connection time, as well as good prices due to competition among carriers. I chose a direct flight to Vienna from Heathrow to complete the outbound air transportation part of the trip. The Vienna airport is serviced by many more carriers than Bratislava’s airport, which drives up competition and reduces prices. And the Vienna airport is an easy 45 minute Uber ride to central Bratislava.

With so many cities to connect to, I definitely wanted to drive over taking trains and public transportation. It’s the connection time that elongates travel using public transportation. And nothing beats the convenience of going on your own schedule to wherever you need to on any given day. Can’t do that with public transportation. Driving is more expensive to be sure, but I’m optimizing for time, not budget.  And there will be plenty of driving, to be sure.  I estimate about 2,000 kilometers of driving with 3 to 4 ½ hours between the destinations planned, which is a golden opportunity for discovering the countryside, and stopping in little out of the way places in between.

With so many interesting, steeped in history, smaller cities to explore, I definitely wanted apartments over hotels on this trip. And I was focusing on apartments that were centrally located, within the confines of the  pedestrian-only parts of the old town. This allows for convenient exploration with no transit time to get to the historic and interesting parts of town. And there’s nothing more immersive than stepping out of your own door and being in the heart of the historic part of town.

 

Resources

Google Flights is my standard tool for research, and planning airfare. There are plenty of others, and I’ve tried most, but find that I really don’t need to save the very last nickel at the cost of spending more time chasing that nickel.

Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb were used to book all of the apartments for this trip. My preference is to avoid Airbnb because they’re not transparent with property locations, and do not promote the size of their properties in their standard description.  But I do use them if I can circumvent their deficiencies.  It’s interesting that I booked no properties with Homeaway on this trip, especially considering that I explore for apartments there first.

Google Maps is absolutely indispensable for planning purposes. I shudder to think what trip planning would be without it. I download the maps for the countries I travel, to avoid being out of cell range (highly unlikely in Europe), and to navigate should I exceed my daily data allowance.

Google Translate is installed on my phone with all of the languages I need on this trip already downloaded. This way I can translate on the spur of the moment even if I have no data left for the day, or if I’m out of cell range (a huge improbability in Europe).

In Your Pocket guides were useful for getting a background, and some history of Krakow and Wroclaw in particular, but also good for an overview of Olomouc. The quality is very good, and I hope they do more cities.

Sixt is my first choice for car rental in Europe. They are a competent company, typically delivering road worthy German cars. On this particular occasion, I reserved a BMW 520d. An excellent automobile for the exhilarating driving possible on European roads.

Uber is what I planned to use to get to central Bratislava from the Vienna airport, as well as return to Vienna from Bratislava after dropping off the rental car to spend the night before the return flight to Heathrow.  It also comes in handy for getting around from point A to B once I’ve had enough walking for one day (which sometimes, but rarely, happens).

 

Epilogue

Reflections on this trip.  The itinerary in general was very good, but I am disappointed as to how densely touristed Cesky Krumlov was even in early June, the time we were at this particular destination. CK was interesting, and I liked the destination, but found it impossible to blend in, and have an immersive experience. There is no such thing – it was like trying to be immersive at Disney World.  In retrospect, I would have chosen Telc as the second city in the Czech Republic, and bypass CK, because it doesn’t fit my criteria for Immersive Travel. Otherwise, I would consider this trip epic, with many fond memories of the destinations visited.

 

 

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