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Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

The view from atop Gros Morne is spectacular.

The talk of salt cod and moose started before we’d even made landfall on The Rock. On the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland, a wizened fellow regaled us with stories of jigging for fish with his cousin and bagging a bull moose with his wife. It was late September.

He was pleased as punch that the freezer was stocked with sufficient cod and moose meat to see the family through a harsh Newfoundland winter. As

Florence and I drove off the ferry the man motioned us with a gnarly finger. I rolled down the window.

“Safe travels me-son. And don’t drive at night on The Rock,” he warned, “sometimes the moose are so thick you have to get out of the car and push them off the road.”

We were on Newfoundland’s southwest tip. The island is bigger than I had expected. The first road sign we saw proclaimed, ‘St John’s 890km’. But before heading to the distant capital on the Avalon Peninsula we wanted to explore the west of Newfoundland, Gros Morne National Park and L’Anse Aux Meadows, where Leif Erickson established North America’s first European settlement 1000 years ago—500 years before Columbus set foot on Hispaniola in the sunny Caribbean.

The drive north from Port Aux Basques was slow going. Along the highway, workers were installing the new transmission line from Muskrat Falls in neighbouring Labrador on the mainland. This project is an expensive undertaking—and considered by some Newfoundlanders just another dam boondoggle. Many Islanders also still bristle at the mention of Churchill Falls, a hydroelectric legacy from the era of Joey Smallwood, Canada’s last Father of Confederation.

Fall colours were near peak as we drove past lovely Corner Brook and leafy Marble Mountain. We enjoyed a late-season round of golf at Humber Valley Resort, ranked Canada’s 6th best public golf course. The rolling fairways were flanked by yellow, gold and red-hued deciduous trees and stoic evergreens. There were no moose on course, but a solitary black fox did greedily eye my ball on the green at the signature par 4 10th.  A little further down the TransCanada we made a sharp left at Deer Lake onto Hwy 430, bound for Gros Morne and the rugged west coast.

 

Life is hard on The Rock.

Gros Morne National Park is remarkably diverse. The pebbled shoreline of Rocky Harbour gives way to a series of finger lakes, forming magnificent inland fjords. South, across Bonne Bay, lie the Tablelands where Earth’s mantle has squeezed to the surface and only the odd pitcher plant and a few other hardy species can survive the acidic, infertile ancient soil. And lording over all is Gros Morne, Newfoundland’s second highest mountain, which we intended to climb.

The night before our ascent we stopped at Park Headquarters to pick up a trail map.

“Be careful me-loves,” warned the ranger, “specially if you see a tick fag.”

“We most certainly will,” I assured her, glancing over my shoulder. In the morning, low dense clouds roiled out over the sea but the sky above Gros Morne was crystal clear. No tick fag up there.

The hard part about summiting Gros Morne Mountain isn’t the summit itself. The top is flat as a pancake, a broad sparse plain where caribou graze on lichen—and rock ptarmigan nest. The difficult portion of the ascent is ‘the Gully’ a breathless hour of bouldering through frost-shattered rock that precedes the Arctic tundra of the plateau. ‘Big Lone Mountain’ tops out at 806m (2600 ft) and since the hike starts pretty much at sea level, the elevation gain is just that. As we exited the Gully, our calm fall day rapidly deteriorated into wintery conditions atop the windswept barren.

A rock ptarmigan strolls the summit.

We snapped a quick pic at the signpost marking the high point before scurrying toward the descent on the far side of the mesa. There we met two young women who had stopped for a terrifying selfie on the precipice overlooking Ten Mile Pond. I could barely stand upright as we screamed at each other over the wind. The Parks Canada brochure warns trekkers to be prepared for an arduous climb and that “hikers have fallen from the ledge… and died.” Watching the gals pose near the cliff in this gale, I wondered, “Fallen? More likely blown.”

That night, at the Ocean View Hotel in Rocky Harbour, we enjoyed our first Newfoundland kitchen party, where we were screeched in and kissed the cod, courtesy of local celebrity Dave Shears. I joined our host on stage for a couple of songs.

“Stick around and strum a few after the others have left,” he offered, “and we’ll have a cuffer ‘bout dis and dat.”

So, long after the cod had been smooched, the screech ‘inned’ and the bar doors barred, we were still singing, quaffing—and trading yarns with our convivial hosts.

Western Brook Pond is a glacier-carved, masterpiece of nature. A cruise on this fresh-water fjord is mandatory for any visit to Gros Morne. But check the forecast. Chances are that you’ll walk 40 minutes from the parking area to the pier only to find the boat ride has been cancelled due to foul weather.

But even if the outing is kiboshed, the 2km hike through tuckamore forest, with long stretches of boardwalk over peaty bogs and around fragile wetlands, is worth the amble. Luckily we had a good day for it. The boat meandered slowly to the far end of the long, narrow lake, squeezing between sheer, 750m high cliffs. Everywhere waterfalls cascaded to the surface from the dizzying heights. Since Newfoundland is a land of perpetual impromptu music, the boat’s crew couldn’t refrain from scratching their musical itch during the two-hour tour.

When not attending to his maritime duties, the first mate played the spoons. Passengers clapped accompaniment while Celtic jigs blared over the ship’s loudspeakers.

Sheer cliffs define the fresh-water fjord.

The next evening the live entertainment continued at the Gros Morne Music Festival in Cow Head with fiddling, percussion and a sad, a capella ballad recounting the hard life of early Newfoundlanders. After midnight, walking back to our campground, the wind began to freshen. At 3am we were shaken awake by a strong sou’ wester – and slept only in fits and starts for the rest of the night.

Our plan was to hit the road early for the 350km drive to l’Anse aux Meadows on the extreme tip of the Northern Peninsula. But by morning the gusts were blowing in at 100kph – a sad portent for motor home travel. We decided to hunker down and wait out the tempest. But one by one our resolute fellow campers pulled up stakes. Soon we were the sole remainders. Suffering from FOMO, I threw caution to the gale-force wind, pulled out onto the narrow, winding highway and, as they oddly say in Newfoundland, steered north ‘down the coast.’

Next time: L’Anse aux Meadows and more tales from The Rock.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Kimberley, BC!

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My European Favourites – Tallinn, Estonia

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Tallinn is one of those cities that you never hear people talk about visiting, but once you do, it becomes an instant favourite. Whenever we do an itinerary for a hockey, ringette or sightseeing group to Sweden and Finland, I always encourage the group to add a side trip to Estonia’s capital. It is only a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki to Tallinn, so it’s perfect for a day trip.

Tallinn has just under half a million inhabitants and is the largest city of Estonia. It is located directly south of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland and on the eastern edge of the Baltic Sea. Once known by its German name, Raval, Tallinn has one of the best preserved old towns in Europe. Unlike many towns in Europe, Tallinn’s historic old town was never destroyed by war and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I like to think of it as a smaller Prague. The city started building protective walls in the 13th century, and over time, it enlarged to a defence system of over two kilometers with gates and towers. Much of these structures survive today including twenty of the pointy red roofed towers. In some areas, it is possible to walk along the walls.

Near the old town you will find traditional neighborhoods with colorful wooden houses, green spaces and the redeveloped bustling port area. Estonians are blessed with public beaches to enjoy in the summer months and nearby forests to explore on nature walks. Within view of the old town, there is a modern city, complete with skyscrapers and all the modern amenities you would expect. How modern is Tallinn? It has free public WIFI, and as a high-tech city, it has become a leader in the sector of cyber security. You may have used the services of a well-known Estonian startup company named Skype.

About Estonia

There is evidence that the area was settled as far back as 5,000 years ago, but the city became an important trading hub in the 14th to 16th centuries when it was a member of the Hanseatic League, which controlled trade in the Baltic and North Seas. Even at that time, the city only had about 8,000 inhabitants.

Over the years, Estonia has been ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, Sweden and Russia. The country gained short lived independence from Russia after WWI only to be reclaimed as part of the Soviet Union after WWII. Like most of the countries that became part of the USSR, they suffered through a fifty year period of communist policies and stagnation. In 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Estonia regained its independence. Since then it has flourished into a western style city while maintaining its rich cultural and architectural history. It is a member of the European Union and NATO.

Tallinn’s distinctive mix of a modern and historic skyline as we arrive on the ferry from Helsinki.

Ferry to Tallinn

Tallinn is a two-hour ferry ride south from Helsinki, and it’s possible to go early in the morning across the Gulf of Finland and return late on the evening ferry. The Tallink ferry has sitting areas on different decks plus shopping and dining options onboard. If possible, I would recommend an overnight stay near the old town and return to Helsinki the following evening.

From Sweden, you can arrive on the overnight ferry that leaves Stockholm in the early evening and arrives in Tallinn in the morning. Your individual ticket includes a cabin that can sleep up to four people with two single beds and two pull down upper berths. Onboard, you can enjoy shopping, entertainment, bars and restaurants. Another option from Stockholm is to take the ferry to Riga and spend a couple of days in Latvia’s capital. The drive from Riga to Tallin is about four hours, and I usually like to stop along the way in the seaside resort city of Parnu to have lunch and walk in the city centre.

A Tale of Two Towns

Tallinn’s historic center is separated into two areas, Toompea, and Vanalinn. At one time, they were two feuding medieval towns. The upper town, Toompea, includes the aptly named Toompea Castle. The lower town, Vanalinn, has narrow alleyways, the town square, shops and restaurants. Vanalinn, was the Hanseatic League trading center filled with merchants from Germany, Denmark and Sweden. The two areas are connected by two passages called the short leg (Lühike Jalg) and the long leg (Pikk jalg).

Toompea, Tallinn’s Upper Town

As expected, the Toompea Castle sits high above the lower town on an ancient stronghold site that dates back to a wooden fortress in the 9th century. The castle, a symbol of political power through the ages, has been expanded and remodeled over the years by Estonia’s rulers to meet their needs.

Once a castle of ancient Estonians starting in the 11th century, it was later used by the Danish during most of the 13th century. It wasn’t until the 14th and 15th centuries, while in the hands of the Holy Roman Empire’s Teutonic Order, that it was built to resemble what we see today. The religious order changed the castle interior to include a chapel, chapel house, convent and dormitories for the knights. They added defence towers named Pikk Hermann (Tall Hermann), Landskrone (Crown of the land), Pilsticker (Arrow Sharpener) and Stür den Kerl (Ward Off Enemy) to protect each of its four corners. During the 16th century when Estonia became a part of Sweden, they changed the castle from a crusader’s fortress to a symbol of political power, with an administrative and ceremonial purpose.

Tall Hermann, entrance to the Governors Garden and the Toompea Castle’s pink palace.

When the Russians took over in the 18th century, the Czar had the castle turned into a palace by adding a Baroque and Neoclassical wing to the eastern part of the castle and a public park on the south east. When Estonia declared its first independence from Russia after WWI, the former convent of the Teutonic Order was transferred into an assembly hall for the Parliament of Estonia, named the Riigikogu. After being disbanded during the Soviet era from 1940 to 1991, the assembly, the Riigikogu, was reinstated in 1992 as the Estonian Parliament with 101 members.

I like to start my tour of Tallinn in the upper town just outside of the Toompea Castle, so I can get a good look at the impressive Tall Herman and original castle wall from the Governors Garden. During the castle’s evolution, the Stür den Kerl castle tower has been demolished while the others have been integrated into building projects. The 48 meter high Tall Hermann still stands and has become an important symbol of Tallinn and the nation. The Estonian flag is raised atop the tower every day at sunrise as the national anthem plays and it is lowered at sunset.

Around the corner from the park is the Lossi Plats (Castle Square) where we can see the pink palace which was added to the front of Toompea Castle during the renovations by Russian Czars. Topped by the Estonian flag, the one-time medieval fortress is now clearly the modern centre of government for Estonia. On the opposite side of the square is a richly decorated Russian orthodox cathedral.

The Castle Square, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and an Russian Orthodox mosaic.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

The striking Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was built in 1900 in Russian Revival style when Estonia was part of the Russian Empire. It is Tallinn’s largest orthodox cupola cathedral and is dedicated to Saint Alexander Nevsky, a Russian military hero, who in 1242, won a famous “Battle of the Ice” against the Teutonic Knights on Lake Peipus. The lake on Estonia’s eastern border is shared with Russia with the modern day border between the countries being about half way across.

During the USSR period, the church came into decline due to communist non-religious policies. Since 1991, the church has been meticulously restored even though it is a constant reminder of Russia’s influence, power and oppression over Estonia through the ages. There were actually plans to demolish the structure in 1924, but it was spared due to a lack of funds to raze such a large building. Today, the church is one of Tallinn’s most visited attractions and is unique due to its contrasting architectural style.

The church exterior has five onion domes, each topped with a gilded Orthodox cross.  The church has eleven bells that were cast in St. Petersburg, including one massive 16 ton bell.

Like other traditional Orthodox churches, there are no pews as worshippers were required to stand during services. The ornate interior has three alters, stained glass windows and three gilded wooden iconostases (wall of icons and religious paintings) which separate the nave from the alters. Entrance to the cathedral is free. The intricate detail and colors of the mosaics and icons are amazing and well worth seeing.

St. Mary’s Church, the top of the baroque tower spire with the year 1772.

Leaving the Castle Square, we venture further into the upper town, and about 100 meters in, we reach the Kiriku Plats (Church Square) and a white medieval church with a baroque bell tower. The Toomkrik built by the Danes in the 13th century, also known as the Dome Chrurch or St. Mary’s Cathedral, is Estonia’s oldest church. Originally a Roman Catholic cathedral, it became Lutheran in the mid 16th century and is the seat of Tallinn’s Archbishop of the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Although the church endured severe damage in the great fire of 1684, it was the only building on Toompea left standing. It was restored to its previous state shortly after the fire and a new baroque spire was added in the 18th century.

From the Church Square, we can see the light green colored Estonian Knighthood House. This is the 4th Knighthood house that was built for noble Knights to meet and enjoy festivities. The Knighthood was formed in 1584 by the Baltic German nobles, but it was disbanded in 1920. Currently, the building is used by the Estonian Academy of Arts. On the right of the building we take the Kohtu street until we reach the end and turn right onto a small open area between two buildings.

Kohtuotsa views: Towards the harbour and of the old town with skyscrapers in the distance.

A Panoramic View and Sweet Almonds

As we enter the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, which is a courtyard between two buildings, the smell of candied almonds overwhelms the senses. A wooden kiosk with a couple of girls dressed in traditional costume are making batches of sweet almonds in a copper pot. They have a sample for you to try, and when you do, the sale is complete. They have two options, Magus Mandel (Candied) or Soolane Mandel (Salty). I have the candied ones every time.

There is a stone wall at the end of the platform with amazing panoramic views of Tallinn. Looking to the left, you can see the white tower of St. Olaf’s Church amongst medieval towers with the harbour and the sea in the distance. Directly ahead are the roof tops and spires of the lower town with the skycrapers of the city in the distance. It’s quite a contrast of architecture from medieval structures to modern steel and glass.

Another nearby viewing platform is the Patkuli, which is reached by climbing 157 steps from the old town up to Toompea. This platform offers a great view of the harbour area.

Leaving the Kohtuotsa, we go back towards the Nevsky Cathedral and take the Long Leg Street down into the lower town. We walk along the fortification walls until we reach the Long Leg Tower and enter the lower town.

Walking down the Long Leg passage to the Long Leg Tower and into the lower town.

Vanalinn – Tallinn’s Lower Town

Emerging from the Long Leg Tower, we continue on Pikk street until we reach the Grand Guild Square (Suurgildi Plats). The square is named after the medieval gold colored Great Guild Hall that is now the Estonian History Museum. The Great Guild was a medieval association of merchants, artisans, and craftsmen in Tallinn from the 14th century until 1920.  On the square, we also find the Lutheran Holy Spirit Church (Pühavaimu kirik). The white washed medieval church has stained glass gothic windows, an octagonal bell tower and an interesting 17th century carved clock on the façade. If you enter the church, you will see elaborate wood working, especially on the alter.

The Maiasmokk Café, the Holy Spirit Church, the church clock and the pharmacy sign.

Established in 1864, the Maiasmokk Café on the square, is the oldest in Tallinn. The café interior hasn’t changed for over a century. It is famous for its marzipan, which is said to have been originated in Tallinn. Marzipan is made from almond meal and either sugar or honey. The café’s Marzipan Room details the city’s history of making marzipan including traditional marzipan figures made from special molds.

If we take a small passage along the church, we will reach the Town Hall Square (Raekoja Plats). As we enter the square, two doors down on our left is the Town Hall Pharmacy (Revali Raeapteek). This pharmacy dates back to 1422, and it may be the world’s oldest pharmacy in continuous use.The pharmacy has a museum where you can see some of the old time medicines and potions. You can test various herbal tea blends picked from local fields in the basement of the Town Hall Pharmacy (or Raeapteek) or explore the exposition of the 17th to the 20th-century medicine in the back room. You can purchase some of the products from the middle ages including teas, spices, chocolate, marzipan and claret, a potent libation made from wine and spices that dates back to 1467.

The Old Town Square’s colorful buildings, the Town Hall and a Town Hall dragon water spout.

The lively Town Hall Square, one of the best preserved medieval town squares in the world, was a market place in the Middle ages. Many of the colorful buildings on the square were once medieval merchants’ homes, offices and warehouses from the Hanseatic Golden Age. During the summer months, the restaurants around the square set up their umbrellaed patios where you can enjoy lunch and a cool beverage as you watch locals and tourists mill about. Restaurants like “III Draakon” and ‘Olde Hansa” offer a unique medieval experience with menu items made with elk, bear and boar meat.

The square is the centre of the Old Town Days medieval festival, concerts, fairs and the centuries old Christmas market. It is said that in 1441, the Brotherhood of the Blackbeards, a professional association of merchants, ship owners and foreigners, erected the very first Christmas tree here on the square. Today, in addition to the tree, the Christmas market fills the square with kiosks selling everything from gingerbread to knitted mittens and handicrafts. Other kiosks sell snacks, oysters and mulled wine to keep you warm. Kids can drop off letters at the Santa Claus cabin and ride the carousels in a magical setting. On a stage, hundreds of performers take turns entertaining the crowds during the markets month long stay from the 27th of November to the 27th of December.

Sweet Almond vendor and Old Town buildings. The Christmas market stage and a kiosk.

The town hall, built in 1404, sits prominently on the square and is the oldest in the Baltic and Scandinavian regions. It is no longer in the seat of the municipal government but is used for special events and ceremonies, and is the home of the Tallinn City Musuem. The town hall tower can be climbed in the summer months to get another great view of Tallinn. Since 1530, a weather vane of Vana Toomas, or Old Thomas, has been keeping lookout atop the spire. Old Thomas, who is holding a sword and an arrow, is said to be a protector of Tallinn.

The square is spectacular, but it can be touristy. I like to wander through the cobblestone streets and alleyways surrounding the centre to find restaurants and cafes where the locals frequent. Walking these side streets is like taking a time machine back to the medieval ages, but you will find interesting little museums, galleries and shops selling local products like amber.

St. Catherine’s Passage kiosks and alley. The Viru Gate tower and the white Viru Hotel.

St. Catherine’s Passage, the Viru Gate and the KGB

From the Old Town square if we go to the right of the old town and down the busy pedestrian Viru Street we will reach the St. Catherine’s passage on Müürivahe Street. The passage leads to the St. Catherine’s Monastery which was founded in 1246 by the Monks of the Dominican Order. The monastery is the oldest building in Tallinn. At the monastery, you can visit the chapel, gallery, or book a private tour. The medieval passage itself, formerly known as Monk’s alley, has the tall fortification wall on one side with little kiosks below selling handicrafts and 15th to 17th century residences on the other side, with some now being used as artists workshops.

Only steps away from the St. Catherine’s passage is the 14th century Viru Gate that was part of Tallinn’s wall defences. When the entrances to the Old Town were widened in the late 1800’s, many of the gates were destroyed. The Viru Gate’s corner towers survived and are a great divide from the medieval town on one side and the modern city on the other.

During the 50 year Soviet occupation of Estonia, the KGB had its headquarters in the old town at Pagari 1. In its basement, suspected enemies of the state were imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. If convicted of crimes, they were either shot or sent to labour camps in Siberia. The tall white Viru Hotel that can be seen clearly in the distance from the Viru Gate has a KGB Museum. Like any hotel where foreigners stayed, the hotel had to have spying facilities for the KGB. The museum tells the story of their activities and the Soviet mindset.

St. Olaf’s Church, the Fat Margaret Tower, and the Kadriorg Palace.

St. Olaf’s Church 

On the northern edge of the old town is Tallinn’s biggest medieval building, the iconic St Olaf’s Church. Named after the sainted Norwegian king Olav II Haraldsson, the church was the tallest building in the world from between 1549 and 1625 due to its 124 meter tower. The church had three great fires in 1625, 1820 and in 1931 caused by lightning striking its tall spire. In fact, lightning has struck the church at least 10 times. During the Soviet occupation, the spire was used as a radio tower and KGB surveillance point. Today, if you climb 232 steps on a winding staircase you will have a great view of the city and the harbour area. I’m not sure I would go on an overcast day tough.

Near the church is the Fat Margaret tower which houses a part of the Maritime Museum. The main part of the museum is the Seaplane Harbour (Lennusadam) which is located a couple of kilometers away. It is one of Europe’s biggest maritime museums with a submarine, icebreaker, seaplane, an aquarium, simulators and other activities.

Other Things to do in Tallinn

If you go to the wall connecting the Nunna, Sauna and Kuldjala towers, you can walk the city walls, like the medieval guards that protected the town.

Near the old town, the Rotermann quarter has been transformed from old warehouses and factory buildings into a trendy and lively neighborhood with modern architecture.

Kumu Art Museum, with a modern architectural design, depicts various periods of Estonian art from the Academic Style to Modernism, from Soviet Pop Art to contemporary art.

Near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn’s Museum of Occupations tells the history of the country’s occupation by the Nazis during WWII and then the Soviets.

Patarei Prison is a huge complex in the Kalamaja district that can be visited in the summer months. Once an artillery battery in the 19th century, it became a prison from 1919 to 2002.

The 314 meter high Tallinn TV Tower has a glass-floored viewing platform on the 21st floor with a 360 degree view of the city. Thrill seekers can take a safety harnessed walk on the open deck.

Foodies may want to visit the Kalev Chocolate factory or the Baltic Station Market.

Just Outside of Tallinn

Just outside Tallinn is Kadriorg Park. Established by Peter the Great in 1718, it has the Kadriorg Palace as well as beautiful gardens and woods. The park includes a concert area, children’s park, a people’s park and a Japanese garden.

The 72 hectare Estonian Open-Air Museum has around 80 reconstructed buildings from the 18th to 20th centuries. The traditional structures were brought here from throughout Estonia.

Tallinn is not overly priced, or especially crowded with tourists. You can easily spend a few days in Tallinn, and it is well worth adding to any itinerary of Sweden or Finland. You will thank me for it.

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My European Favourites: Český Krumlov

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Český Krumlov is the most picturesque medieval town in the Czech Republic, and one of the best small town destinations in Central Europe. Český Krumlov is located in the South Bohemia Region of the Czech Republic about a two hour drive directly south from Prague and only thirty minutes from the nearby city of Ceske Budejovice. It is only about thirty kilometers from the Austrian border, and Linz is only an hour away. It is a natural stop from Prague to Salzburg, and we frequently stay in Ceske Budejovice, where many of our hockey groups play games or train at former NHL and Czech hockey star, Jaroslav Pouzar’s arena.

Český Krumlov’s old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is nestled in between a meandering river and is surrounded by lush green hills and a towering castle above. With narrow cobblestone streets and a mixture of baroque and renaissance architecture, this could be the backdrop to any fairytale.

After we enter the town, we will park our bus across the street from a little park, called the Deer Garden, that is dwarfed by the back side of the Český Krumlov Castle. To get up to the castle, there is a path at an incline just on the right of the park or there are stairs up to the castle located at the back right of the park.

Once you reach the top, on the right you will find the eleven hectare castle garden. The garden includes a cascade fountain, an outdoor amphitheatre with a revolving auditorium, the Bellaria summer palace and the castle’s winter riding hall, which is now used to host special events.

If we go left instead of going into the park, a few steps away is a small gated entrance to a terrace that you should not miss. The terrace offers a spectacular panorama of the river, the town below, the castle on the left and the surrounding area. Your camera will be busy here and, at times, you will have numerous people jockeying for position to get that perfect shot. Please note that the terrace is not always open in the evening.

Cesky Krumlov Castle from the photo terrace and from the Lavka pod Zamkem wooden bridge.

Český Krumlov Castle

The Český Krumlov Castle dates back to 1240 when it was built by the Witigonen (Vitkovci) dynasty. In 1302, the Rosenberg dynasty became owners of the castle, and you will see their family’s five petalled rose logo at various locations throughout the city. In 1622, the castle was transferred to the Austrian Eggenberg family who expanded the castle, including adding the unique baroque theatre that bears their name. Today, the local brewery in Český Krumlov is named after the Eggenbergs. The Schwarzenberg family took over the castle from 1719 until 1947 when it was transferred to the Czechoslovak state. The castle complex, with five courtyards, is listed as a Czech National Monument and is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

What would an old castle be without a good ghost story? In medieval times, the appearance of a White Lady during the day or night was an omen that someone in the family would soon die. At the Český Krumlov Castle, legend has it that the castle is haunted by their own White Lady, Perchta of Rosenberg. Her husband treated her poorly and on his death bed he asked her for forgiveness. She refused and her husband cursed her. Since her death, her ghost has haunted her former husband’s estates including the castle.

 

Cloak bridge, entrance into the 4th courtyard and frescoes on the courtyard walls.

When we leave the photo terrace, we cross the fifth castle courtyard surrounded by the baroque castle theatre and the renaissance house to the white and grey Cloak Bridge. The bridge, which offers more great views of the old town and river, has three stories above the arched walkway that connect the castle to the theatre.

Entering the area called the Upper Castle, we pass through two small courtyards, named the fourth and third castle courtyards. The courtyards’ facades were painted in the 16th and 17th centuries. The frescoes painted on flat walls use the “trompe–l’oeil” technique to create the optical illusion that the walls are three-dimensional brick with intricate stone decorations and inlayed statues. The “Upper Castle’s” renaissance interiors are palatial with an important collection of paintings, tapestries and furniture. The castle’s underground foundations, called the Wenceslas Cellars, are a labyrinth of pillars and arches. Exiting the third courtyard, we go down a steep and windy passage way, which may have been used for vehicles.

A sundial, the second courtyard fountain and tower. The first courtyard and the red gate.

Arriving at the second castle courtyard, we find the Burgrave’s house from 1578. The Burgrave, or “Count”, was the governor of the town, with judicial and military powers bestowed on him by the Holy Roman Emperor. From 1742-1948, the lower floor of the Burgrave’s house was used to house the Schwarzenberg grenadier guard.

The courtyard has a stone fountain from 1641 in the middle and the colorful castle tower in the corner. The tower and the adjoining “Hradek” building are the two oldest parts of the castle. If you climb the tower, you will get amazing views of the castle and the town.

The castle Bear Moat with bears enjoying bread, vegetables, apples and watermelon snacks.

To access the first courtyard, we cross a small bridge that has a Bear Moat below. There have been bears in the moat since 1707, and most times we can see them walking around or eating their vegetables and fruit. Unfortunately, we don’t always see them as they like the area under the bridge. This is the largest courtyard and was used as an agricultural area and animal enclosure. We leave the castle through the Red Gate and continue until we reach the Latrán street where we turn right. A few meters away on your left is the entrance to the Monastery. 

Monastery of the Minorites

After the castle, the monastery is the second largest historic complex in Český Krumlov. The medieval monastery was founded for the brothers and sisters of the order of St. Francis of Assisi in 1350. St. Francis gave the name “Friar Minor” or “Minorites” to the Franciscans. The order of St. Clare, “Poor Claires” or the “Clarissas,” is the name of the female branch of the Franciscans. The monastery church located in the center of the complex separates the convents of the Minorites (here from 1357-1950) and Clarissas (here from 1361-1782).

The Latrán street, a Trdelník vendor and the crucifix on Lazebnicky bridge.

 Latrán Street and Lazebnicky Most

The renaissance area just outside the castle and across the river from the old town center was once the home of castle servants. Today the cobble stone Latrán Street’s colorful houses are full of shops, cafes, restaurants and artist galleries. Just off the Latrán, you will find artist workshops featuring paintings, iron works, statues and furniture. Some of these artist workshops are decorated with interesting murals.

Undoubtably, you will be hit by the sweet aroma of the chimney cake or Trdelník. The Trdelník is a rolled dough which is wrapped around a thick spit, baked over hot coals and topped with sugar, walnuts and sometimes cinnamon. You can find variations of this treat throughout the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Connecting the Latrán street to the old town is the wooden Lazebnicky bridge with a large crucifix in the middle. Form the bridge, you have a magnificent view of the castle above, the Vltava river meandering its way around the town, and the riverfront houses and restaurant patios of the old town.

The Český Krumlov old town square with the Marian Plague column and city hall.

Historic Old Town

Once you cross the bridge, if you go forward on the Radniční street for about a hundred meters you will arrive at the Town Square. Instead, we will turn right and take the curved Dlouhá Street with interesting cafes, restaurants and hotels. At the end of the Dlouhá street, we arrive at the Široká street. Turning right we will come to the old mill where we can see the waterwheel still turning and we get another great view of the castle. We continue in the other direction leisurely making our way down the wide and vibrant Široká street until we reach a junction where three streets meet. This is a very picturesque little square with colorful buildings decorated with frescoes.

Only a few meters away from this junction, we find ourselves in the Český Krumlov town square or Náměstí Svornosti. The square has served not only as a market in medieval times, but also as a place of execution. The large white building with renaissance arcades is the 16th century Český Krumlov Town Hall. The four coats-of-arms painted on the façade of the building are those of the Eggenbergs, the Schwarzenbergs, the town and of the Czech state of Bohemia. Like many towns in the Czech Republic, the square has a Marian Plague Column with a fountain at the center. The plague columns give thanks to the Virgin Mary for the end of the plague that killed many throughout Europe in the 17th century. The beautiful buildings adorned with stucco decorations and frescoes around the square once belonged to the town’s upper class and have been restored to their original splendor.

The St. Vitus church from the river, the old town’s Široká street and the three street junction.

Church of St. Vitus

From the town square you will see the 19th century spire and tall roof of the Roman Catholic church of St. Vitus. A short climb up Horní Ulice street you will reach the church entrance. The gothic church has a white interior with an impressive vaulted ceiling supported by stone columns. The tall but clear gothic windows allow light to flood the nave and they push your eyes upwards to the magnificent ceiling. Dating back to the 13th century when the site became a place of worship, the church has undergone a few additions and changes over the years. The church is the burial place of notable Bohemian families including generations of the aforementioned Rosenbergs and Schwartzenbergs.

Not far from the church is a little garden called the Seminární Zahrada, or the Seminary Garden. The garden is part of the Regional Museum, which used to be a seminary for the Jesuits. Like the terrace by the castle, this garden is one of the best spots in town to get that spectacular panoramic photo. The castle and tower are prominent in the background, seemingly rising above a sea of the red tiled roofs below.

Panoramic view from the Seminary Garden and buskers on the Latrán Street.

Rafting on the Vltava

As you leave the old town back to the parking area, you will cross the Lavka pod Zamkem wooden bridge which leads to the Deer Garden. The bridge offers a few more photo opportunities of the river, the castle and the Cloak Bridge. One of the most interesting things to see from the bridge is the wier on the Vltava River that has a spot on the right for rafters to slide down from the higher water level to the lower level. Rafting is very popular, and in summer months you will see raft after raft leisurely floating down the river. The Malecek Rafting company offers canoe and raft rentals with trips of various durations from a thirty-minute trip in the city center all the way to half-day and full-day trips further down the river. They also offer a fifty-minute historical cruise on a twelve-person wooden raft. In the middle ages and beyond raftsmen used the Vltava to transport goods and raw materials like wood and salt. Today, people can enjoy this experience in amazing surroundings.

Rafters and canoers going down the Vltava Rivers’ weir and leisurely past the castle.

Český Krumlov has many small museums worth visiting. My favourite is the Museum of Commerce (Muzeum Obchodu) located in the old town just as you cross the Lazebnicky bridge. The museum has recreated shop interiors, shop machinery and advertising from the early 1900s. Individual packaging of products, like we are used to today, was non-existent. They have a great display of metal dispensary containers where customers would get their coffee beans, sugar, flour or other goods. They also have old style metallic advertising signs for sale. Across from that museum, there is an antique shop with very unique items and next door is the Fairytale House & Puppet Museum.

Other museums you may want to visit in Český Krumlov include the Museum Fotoatelier Seidel, the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, the Moldavite Museum (Muzeum Vltavinu), the Regional Museum and the Torture Museum. There are many other little museums around town worth visiting. Nearby, hikers enjoy climbing the 1,084 meter high Mount Klet’ and guided tours of the Graphite Mine.

Český Krumlov is the second most popular tourist destination in the Czech Republic. I have been to this medieval town numerous times with my tour groups and I am always excited to include it in my itineraries.

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Images compliments of Paul Almeida and Azorcan Tours.

Click below to read Paul’s sobering story about Canada’s role in WWI.

 

My European Favourites – Canada in WWI Belgium

 

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