Little more than a decade ago Cesky Krumlov was anything but a European vacation spot. In fact, back then locals sometimes referred to this historic town south of Prague as Cesky Crumble-off. It was grey and drab and its precious medieval buildings were in a serious state of erosion.

However, with the 1989 fall of 40 years of Soviet Communist rule, everything changed for this Czech Republic town (then part of the former Czechoslovakia) in the southern Bohemia region of the country.

Since then, a period of recovery involving renewed enthusiasm and unbridled resources have earned Cesky Krumlov a reputation as one of the most picturesque centres in this middle-European country bordered by Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, I had two days last year to explore this engaging town dubbed “the pearl of Southern Bohemia” and I certainly wasn’t alone. Gone are the grey years when tourists were a rare commodity. Lured by its plentiful cache of ancient architecture lining a twisted maze of narrow cobblestone streets, the town is inundated–particularly during summer–with more than a million visitors a year from Europe and beyond who come bearing cameras to photograph its Old Town charms.

“Around every corner there’s a new feast for the eyes, “said Keith Parsonage, a Canadian tourist on vacation there last spring. Parsonage, the Director General of Industry Canada’s Communications Branch, said he was advised by colleagues that a trip to the Czech Republic should absolutely include a visit to Cesky Krumlov. “They were right, he said. “It’s a superb place; I’ve walked my feet off and there are still things to see.”

Endowed with more than 300 well-preserved buildings that now house taverns, museums, inns, restaurants and oodles of shops selling famous Czech glass, crystal, porcelain and amber jewellery, the town that dates back to the 12th century has advanced from a crumbling state to become the second most visited destination in the Czech Republic after Prague.

Today, primarily because of the visiting hordes, most of the 15,000 permanent residents live beyond the Old Town hub which is divided in two by the bends and turns of the Vltava River, the same waterway that flows through the nation’s capital.

Easily the town’s most prominent feature is its castle, a mighty complex of buildings erected on a steep rock promontory overlooking the river. Dominating a skyline of spires and red tile roofs, it’s the second largest castle in the country and daily guided tours highlight its history, architectural development and furnish interesting nuggets of information about the lords and ladies who once inhabited it.

In addition to grand salons and regal bedrooms containing a wealth of opulent period furnishings, the castle has at least two exceptional features: one of the world’s finest 15th century Baroque theatres and its Masquerade Ballroom where walls are entirely painted with whimsical characters representing figures from 18th century French and Italian comedy.

I was particularly curious about the excessive number of large, bear rugs on the floors of almost every castle room. A tour guide explained that bear-keeping there began in the 16th century and the destiny of the bruins never wavered. They ultimately became palace rugs. Consequently, it’s entirely likely the four bears that currently inhabit the castle’s dry moat can eventually expect the same fate. For the present, however, they bask in the limelight of shutterbug tourists eager to capture them on film.

While almost every visitor tours the castle, the town also has a host of museums ranging from fine art repositories to the bizarre, like the Museum of Torture that features a hundred pain-inflicting instruments plus simulations of witch-burning and decapitation. During my week-long tour through the Czech Republic, I deemed there must be a national fascination with persecution considering the number of museums I saw that were dedicated to the administering of pain.

More palatable was a tour of the Eggenberg Brewery, a facility that has been churning out ale and lager for the past 400 years. It’s hardly surprising Cesky Krumlov has an in-town brewery since Czechs are said to be, by far, the largest beer drinking population on the planet consuming more than 160 litres per capita annually compared to the Canadian consumption of about 68 litres.

In fact, the town has a prolonged history of beer drinking dating back to the 17th century when every eighth house out of 330 is said to have been a pub. The density is not the same today but there’s certainly no shortage of ale houses that are as integral to the local culture as pubs are to Ireland and Britain.

Overall, it’s easy to fall in love with the pearl of Southern Bohemia, just as Canadian globe hopper Alelia Parenteau did. Early last year, after tripping around the world to Vietnam, India, Laos, Thailand, Hawaii and Australia, the next stop for the young Montreal woman was the Czech Republic. After exploring the golden city of Prague she and her boyfriend, Jean Luc Frai, took what they thought would be a short side-trip from Prague to Cesky Krumlov. “We were planning to spend only one day and one night there but we fell in love with the place” she said. In fact, they were so smitten they stayed and took jobs managing a local hostel. “This is by far the best place in the world I’ve ever been to.” she said.

For more information on travel to Cesky Krumlov see or call 416-363-9928.

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