19 July 2019

Ceske Budejovice and other places

If four nights in Cesky Krumlov seems like an odd choice, three in Ceske Budejovice probably seems even odder. It's not a common tourist destination. We choose it partly for that reason, just to get a feel for a quite large regional town, but also because it is in the middle of Czech Republic at the junction of several rail lines, and we plan to use our rail passes to make day trips elsewhere. Our exploration of Ceske Budejovice gives us a feel for a town that starts early and shuts down early, except on Friday when the bars around the square are crowded. We find one very good restaurant, and have a couple of fast food meals because nothing else seems to open late. We are late to eat after both of our trips out of town, first because of a major rail incident (there will be a separate post about train travel), and the second because we get on the wrong bus at the station, go way out of the town centre and have to come back again.

Ceske Budejovice is south of Prague and north of Linz, so we choose towns to visit that are to the east or west: Jindrichuv Hradec about an hour's journey to the north-east and Pilsen about 2 hours to the north west.

Czech Republic is justly famous for castles and beer, and we are on the trail of both. Jindrichuv Hradec boasts #3 on the castle list (by size) and Pilsen gave its name to Pilsener beer. Ceske Budejovice itself is the home of Budweiser.

The Czech castles are, or were, the home of the local Prince. Sometimes the same family ruled the area and owned the castle for 4 or 5 centuries, with others it changed hands as one branch of a family died out. Every now and then someone would decide that the original gothic castle was getting old and out-of-date, but rather than renovate, or even demolish and rebuild, they extended, built on. Sometimes the Renaissance section is built on top of the mediaeval building (as in the castle in Budapest, and part of Prague Castle). If there was room they just added more wings and courtyards. If a brand new bit was built, it would be connected to the old by a gallery on a bridge or colonnade, so you could get from one section to another without having to go downstairs or get your feet wet. After you've added the Renaissance wings and then redecorated in the Baroque style, your castle has everything from a gothic tower to Versailles style mirror halls and formal gardens, all jumbled together and interconnected. That is why the top 3 castles are so big in area. In Jindrichuv Hradec we tour the Renaissance wing, take a peek into a Baroque Rondel built for concerts, and heroically climb dozens of steep flights of stairs in the gothic tower for the view. This is splendid, the better for having no safety railings - nothing but a very thick parapet wall between the viewer and certain death. Peter has an anxiety attack when a mother puts a child on the wall for a photo, but it is a very wide wall and she is hanging on to him.

All old towns have two things in common. They are located on a river, sometimes a confluence of rivers, and they have a main square. Ceske Budejovice has the largest main square in Czech Republic, and it is big, almost too big. It seems a bit impersonal. Squares all have something in the middle. In the UK it would be a simple market cross, in Italy an elegant fountain.  Czech towns have large and complex sculptures, often with haloed saints atop, with or without added fountains. Pilsen has a square nearly as big as Ceske Budejovice, but it seems smaller because it has a sizeable gothic church in the middle. Sculptures are in the corners, including a plague column. (If you pray to your favourite Saint to keep the plague away but it comes anyway, so long as not too many people die, you still put up a column to thank him it wasn't any worse.)

Around the squares are houses with colonnades at ground level, providing protected arcades for pedestrians walking around the square, and places for cafes to put tables. The houses are adjoining and much the same height and style, but not exactly: windows don't line up, heights vary slightly, colours alternate between white, grey, pastel yellow and pink. Ornamentation is picked out in white. Net effect is charming, slightly informal compared to (say) Paris.

We usually manage to take a riverside or canalside walk, some are narrow pathways with cyclists whizzing past, others are flanked by allotments growing vegetables, or by sportsgrounds. In Ceske Budejovice we pass three very large stadiums, soccer, basketball, and one complex we didn't identify except that it included an ice hockey rink. Four of the famous personages listed in the tourist info about Ceske Budejovice are ice hockey players.
In Ceske Budejovice, even the public artwork is sporty (the figures are sculptures)
Of the three cities I liked Pilsen the best. It is a large manufacturing town (home of Skoda), so it has more of a sense of purpose, less quaintness. It is also laid out in a square - streets run out from the main square as a continuation of the sides, making it much easier to navigate. The old town walls, also more or less square, have been turned into small gardens and green spaces. As we circumnavigate, our favourite spot is a pair of seats in memory of Vaclav Havel. On the little table is his famous statement: "Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred".  Would that it had, or will.

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