In the Czech region of South Bohemia, Madeleine Barber steps into a fairy-tale world overflowing with fantastical castles, quaint town squares and ancient legends
Not through lack of trying, I can’t seem to get Taylor Swift’s catchy tune Today Was a Fairytale out of my head. I blame the terracotta-tiled rooftops, higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets and winding Vltava river for this pop music presence in my day. I’m standing atop Cesky Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic, casting my gaze over the eponymous town that looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a children’s storybook.
Cesky Krumlov is one of South Bohemia’s hidden treasures and it’s the last stop on my tour of the region. I’m travelling with a group of agents, and the consensus among its members is that the majority of their clients are booking city breaks in Prague and rarely venturing beyond.
The newly appointed director of CzechTourism, Jan Herget, agrees. “Prague is beautiful and still the number one, but we want people to appreciate the towns and the regions outside the city too,” he says.
The statistics revealed at CzechTourism’s Travel Trade Day in April show that 63% of arrivals to the country solely visit Prague. The tourist board is keen to attract lovers of culture to South Bohemia to help change this.
“We want people to visit who can tell the difference between baroque and Gothic architecture – they should come here to hear about our stories,” Herget adds.
The Land of Stories, as the Czech Republic is known, is well suited to its nickname. In Cesky Krumlov, I learn of the powerful Rozmberk family, members of which were the almost unchallenged rulers of South Bohemia over the course of three centuries. Vilem Rozmberk, who ruled in the 16th century, was a humanist, scholar and influential politician (he was even a candidate for the Polish throne) who wrote the spirit of Renaissance Italy into Cesky Krumlov’s narrative and let artists and creatives thrive.
The castle complex here has two highlights – the baroque castle theatre and a six-storey Renaissance tower that offers unrivalled views of the town, which is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Tabor is also a South Bohemian town with stories to tell. As I’m led through an eight-mile labyrinth of underground tunnels that was once used for food storage, my guide Anna regales me with a tale. According to legend, a greedy innkeeper once squirrelled away hundreds of barrels of beer in the tunnels and they leaked, causing beer to seep into the walls.
Today I can’t smell the stale beer, but I can feel the damp and an eight-degree chill, which is no surprise considering that I’m currently 11 metres below Tabor’s town square. This town’s chequered history will be highlighted in 2020, when it celebrates 600 years since its founding by supporters of the Czech Hussite reform movement.
One of South Bohemia’s most visited sites is Hluboka nad Vltavou castle, which on arrival I discover could easily be mistaken for a grand English manor house. Its white brickwork and battlements are paired with towers and turrets to make the building look as if it’s the set of a Jane Austen TV adaptation.
This British influence may be one reason for the castle’s allure, but inside the decor is far from linear. Its glass chandeliers have been shipped from Murano in Italy, its blue-and-white china crockery is of Dutch descent, the woodwork on the walls has been crafted by Czech locals and the ebony and ivory furniture has been brought over from Belgium. The artefacts inside Hluboka are so precious that guests are only permitted to explore in the company of a guide.
This means my solo adventure at the remote Zvikov castle couldn’t be more different from the tour of Hluboka, but each has a charm of its own. The Zvikov fortress, surrounded on all sides but one by a navy-blue and pine-fringed lake, has beautifully preserved frescos inside and a turreted tower akin to Rapunzel’s fictional prison.
Luckily, there’s not a hint of fairy-tale hostility in the air as I board a small boat to circle the castle and take a look at the regal ruins from every angle. En route back to the tower from the mooring, it’s easy to think of myself as a princess returning home after a hard day’s ruling. Maybe today is a fairy tale, after all.
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