I have recently come back from a few days in the town of Český Krumlov – and it was an eye opener. I should explain that my last visit to this small south Bohemian jewel was around 15 years ago.
Then, there were around two hotels and around three boarding houses. The main impression was of dilapidation created by the peeling or already departed dirty yellow-orange plaster on most of the buildings.
Today’s town looks totally different. Only a few ruins, mostly away from the centre down by the river recall how things were. What is more, every other building has been turned into a boarding house. The intervening years had witnessed a total makeover rather than a facelift. In addition, it was at the start of Easter with the tourist season just about to commence. The buses were already beginning to disgorge the tourist hordes and it became pretty clear that the narrow streets of Český Krumlov would soon become a Charles Bridge surge throughout the summer.
The tourist income has clearly paid for the town’s much needed restoration. But had the town lost its heart as a price? It is all too easy for one tourist, myself, to try and stand aside and complain about the pollution caused by others.
But one local multilingual owner of a second hand bookshop clearly believed the town had made a pact with the tourist devil and not always come out on top. No locals lived in the centre any more; they were all on the outskirts, he explained. The town had become a factory for making money. Stupid compromises with mass tourism were easy to find, intelligent ones were a lot more difficult, he added.
There was also the added problem for him that the tourists themselves seemed to be changing: less Europeans and more Asians. And apart from the occasional exceedingly polite Japanese print buyer, most of the Asians were not big buyers of the old Czech, German, French and English books which mostly lined his shelves.
At an antique store not far away, the prices were so inflated that they made Prague look cheap. The attendant did not even bother to reply to any greetings, she had sized me up as too poor to more than look at her wares.
But don’t get me wrong, most of the people we met in Český Krumlov were charming and helpful, foreigners speaking Czech were clearly a bit of a rarity. I duck any broad generalisations about the pros and cons of tourism. What I will say in Český Krumlov’s favour is that it has at least attempted to deal with some of the more invasive aspects of tourism. There is for example a ban on the garish advertising that so often pollutes Prague. Cars and coaches are also for the most part excluded from the town centre.
I will certainly sometime go back to Český Krumlov, probably in the tourist down season. But I hope at least that some of the old ruins might still be there as a reminder of what was.
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