It was one of those wet, dreary days in the Czech Republic when we hopped on to the packed bus heading for Cesky Krumlov. Hoping the weather would brighten up a little as we waved goodbye to the enormous bus station in Prague, I started to wonder what this town, often described as a fairy tale town, was actually like.
Sometimes the countryside in between towns in this region can be plain, flat and somewhat dull but fortunately the splendid Gothic and Baroque architecture make up for this.
Once we had arrived in Cesky Krumlov the drizzle was still with us but it didn't deter us from walking around this wonderful town.
The Vlatva river forms two wide arcs around the town. One of the semi circles encloses the Old Town, and in the second loop stands the castle. It comes as no surprise that this beautiful historical centre was added to UNESCO's World heritage List in 1992.
The rather ramshackle buildings and the monastery in the Latiran quarter were once desperately in need of attention. When the Germans - who had lived here since the town was founded by the Viteks - were evicted in the post war period, many buildings fell into disrepair, but much has been preserved and work is still being carried out.
The river is actually a very pretty sight; spanned by wooden bridges, meandering through quiet pastures. It is peaceful to walk alongside the river and listen to the sound of wildlife as you pass by.
I found that Krumlov's Gothic and Baroque features are best appreciated on a late summer afternoon. I spotted many hidden features. The shapes, the colours, the narrow alleyways, the crooked arcades -a wonderful experience when walking through the streets.
Walking around I noticed lots of visitors and many from nearby Austria. It was like going on a journey back into the Middle Ages.
The castle is probably the main attraction - it is the second biggest in the country after Hradcany in Prague. The 13th century, pastel pink tower, can be seen from practically everywhere in the town. About 300 years after the tower was built, the fortress was converted into a Renaissaince castle and then in the 18th century, the Schwarzenbergs built the unique castle bridge. Three arcades, forty metres high and 30 metres long were built one on top of another.
There is a very special artistic atmosphere in Krumlov. In the years when private initiatives were frowned upon elsewhere in Czechoslovakia, galleries were opening here and the town played host to avant garde artistic festivals. The Hall of Masques in the upper castle is the best place to witness this independent spirit. Visitors can be guests at a commedia dell' arte, a masque; the walls are covered with painted theatre boxes, grimacing faces appear. Harlequins, women in all their finery and pot-belllied noblemen join in the fun.
During June, July and August; months when I have visited, the town's social calendar seems to be a busy one. In the middle of June I witnessed the townsfolk dressing up in historical costume for a colourful carnival which recalled the years of the Rozmberk family. At the same time, the owner of the Eggenberg brewery, a descendant of another important local family, organised a beer festival. The South Bohemian drama festival attracts foreign theatre groups and other international events include some fantastic art exhibitions in the Egon Schiele Cultural Centre and the August Music Festival.
The Castle garden is the usual venue for public performances as it not only possesses an open-air theatre with a revolving stage, but also provides an unsurpassable backdrop: the town and castle.
Another attraction to look out for as you aproach the castle walls is the bear pit which is inside the castle moat between the first and second courtyard. These are very special brown bears and have been kept here since the early 18th century.
One year I spent Christmas in the Czech Republic and I went to the Bear festival on Christmas Eve. This was originally organised as a festival for children who were impatient and couldn't wait to open their presents. In the early hours of Christmas Eve morning a head bear keeper and his colleagues take a large selection of sweets, biscuits, fruit, cake and gingerbreads to be placed on the enormous spruce trees that surround the moat. All these goodies are tied together on one long strand so that when the bears tug on one of the sweets the others will follow and dissolve into their mouths. Children with parents can visit the moat and instead of paying an entrance fee they take handfuls of fruit, honey, cakes, and confectionery. These presents are laid out underneath the decorated spruces for the bears to eat.
It is a spectacular occassion with all family members taking part. Not only do the brown bears recieive large amounts of sweet food, visitors have a party too. Children are given reciprocal presents of sweets, paints, pens, toys, chocolate and adults are treated to fruit punch. When everyone had finished eating we then had to depart from the special enclosures so the bears could be led in to enjoy their feast. Standing on top of the bridge I was able to see the bears being led to the moat to devour every morsel under the decorated christmas trees. A fine sight to behold for children and grown-ups.
So when in the Czech Republic leave Prague behind and take a trip into South Bohemia to Cesky Krumlov - a town filled with vibrant life, medieval streets, colours, majestic buildings and brown bears. A most impressive town.