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Medieval Masterpiece : The Czech Republic's Sleeping Beauty

August 08, 1993|HELENA ZUKOWSKI | Zukowski is a free-lance writer who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia

CESKY KRUMLOV, Czech Republic — In the relentless homogenization of Europe, it's getting harder and harder to find a place where "differentness" hits you in the face.

The first time I stumbled into this Eastern European town, it looked for all the world like a place that had settled down to sleep somewhere around the Renaissance and then forgot to wake up. No modern buildings, no neon, no Golden Arches, no traffic lights, not even a Coke machine.

From the cobblestone streets, five centuries of ocher and pastel houses rose in a kind of shabby gentility, wearing their patched plaster as proudly as Scarlett O'Hara wore a dress made of drapes. It was the kind of time warp-ish town you wanted to take and wrap in Saran so thick that the relentless spread of Pizza Huts could never penetrate.

I found Cesky Krumlov that Sunday afternoon, three summers ago, purely by chance. My son, Callon, his Czech girlfriend, Marketa, and I were visiting her father, Ruda Pravda, a high school teacher and writer who lives in Ceske Budejovice, the largest town in what is still called Southern Bohemia. (The Czech Republic, the western portion of recently split Czechoslovakia, is composed of three historical regions: Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. The fourth region, Slovakia, is the new nation of Slovakia.) Marketa had defected from Czechoslovakia eight years before our visit, but with the fall of Communism there, father and daughter were reunited. On this particular Sunday , Ruda was determined that we should see Cesky Krumlov (pronounced CHESS-ky KROOM-loff), where time, he said, had stopped. He was right.

The Vltava River wrapped itself around the old town in a complete hairpin bend, creating the kind of easily defended peninsula that would have brought joy to the heart of a medieval knight. On the northern bank, a wall of rock rose vertically from the river, and crouched on the top, like a cat having a good morning stretch, was the castle of the ancient Rozmberks.

Callon stood in the middle of the cobbled street, for once speechless, his romantic heart doing a tarantella. "This is it," he muttered.

"You're going to paint it?"

"I'm going to live in it."

Callon is an artist of the very modern sort. He does "installations" and assemblages and occasionally cryptic paintings that are light years removed from what the folks are buying back home. Cesky Krumlov may have been short on telephones and Colgate toothpaste, but it seemed to call to young artists the way the South Pacific's Hiva Oa called to Gauguin.

Callon never left, and after my third visit last June, I regret to report that the world has found CK, as it is affectionately abbreviated by many expatriates. Well, if not the world, at least quite a few German and Italian tourists and the first, tiny wave of Americans. But so far, even though it's standing-room-only in Prague as soon as the snow melts, very few packaged tours make it to Southern Bohemia. It is still, in the favorite words of travel writers, one of "Europe's best-kept secrets."

Guidebook writers who have stumbled across it are ecstatic. Their superlatives arch like rainbows into the ether. Says Berkeley Guides' "On the Loose in Eastern Europe, 1993": "Unlike most towns, Cesky Krumlov surpasses its postcards. From its majestic, haunting castle to its narrow twisting streets, it offers a glimpse of the Europe of most travelers' dreams." Adds "Fodor's Eastern Europe '93": "Cesky Krumlov is an eye-opener. None of the surrounding . . . villages, with their open squares and mixtures of old and modern buildings, will prepare you for the beauty of the old town."

If Cesky Krumlov were just a small village, this remarkable state of preservation might seem less surprising. But here is a town that was smack-dab in the middle of Middle Ages trade routes and was once the ruling seat of the most powerful families in Bohemia. Over the years, artists, musicians and expatriates were drawn into its spell. Even today, it's kind of a small-scale, latter-day Slavic Paris. So why the sleeping spell? In the 1950s, when so much architectural damage was done in the name of modernization in the Soviet Bloc, Cesky Krumlov was labeled a backwater of the first order. Oh, there was a paper mill up the river at Vyssy Brod, but that was the extent of the area's industrial potential. The town council didn't have a koruna to its name with which to rip down old buildings and put up new ones.

There was also the matter of the Austrian border a dangerous 14 miles away. No one was permitted to move into the town with the exception of large numbers of Gypsies. Cesky Krumlov slumbered, its old houses growing more shabby and worn--a little like Miss Havisham's wedding dinner in "Great Expectations."

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