London. New York. Prague. Sydney. Buenos Aires. Pah!, I say. The real sense of a country is, in the experience of the Solo Lady Traveller, never fully discovered in its capital city. Prague is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and easier to get around in than Paris. It is indeed a largely intact mediaeval city full of glorious castles, churches, squares, bridges, winding cobbled streets and cafes, and endless music, with a large river flowing through it. But to get a sense of what life is like for the Czech people, you need to move away from the tourist-dominated beauty of Prague head through the apple-tree lined roads of the countryside; go to Českÿ Krumlow! I drove down from Prague to Českÿ Krumlow one summer day through the beautiful Czech countryside, where the wild verges of the road look in places like parks, with thick banks of lilac or white flowers or silver foliage; in other places the road is edged for miles with apple trees; through fields smudged brilliantly orange with poppies. I drove, for work-related reasons, through Jilovištë and Strakonice, then from Horni Vlavitce east across the Lipno Lake, although it would probably be quicker and more direct to go through Tabor and Budweis. The road east of Horni Vlavitce winds through forests of oak, spruce, beech, hornbeam and alder along the northern edge of the Sumava Mountains, which are 330 million years old and possibly the oldest mountains in Central Europe. In these forests still live lynx, otter, red deer, roe deer, moose, pheasants, geese and eagles, spared the devastating hunting carried out elsewhere by a hungry populace during the Soviet era, by a large exclusion zone which left the park area uninhabited for 50 years. Through inside knowledge from someone I was working with, I found myself at the lovely Villa Jana, a pension on the hill beside the castle and overlooking the town. Jana herself was delightful, the room (one of only three) was sparkling and large with a separate sitting area where I could, and did, sit in the deep windowsill with a coffee and look straight onto the castle. I felt like never leaving the room. However on what was to become one of the most magical nights of my life, in the lovely clear evening I strolled a few minutes from Villa Jana up Dulni St, which dwindles into a path bordered on one side by an enormously high stone castle wall, and on the other by large trees overhanging the path, into the park of the castle. Amongst the beautiful lawns and rose gardens of the park sits the elegant summerhouse of Bellarie, and in front of that is a unique feature, a rotating amphitheatre where the audience moves, not the stage. I was there to see Rusalka performed as part of the annual International Music Festival. As the light faded and a hush filled the gardens, mist appeared swirling up into the trees from pools of dark blue where the water-nymphs were bathing. Rusalka, the nymph, sang Song to The Moon, one of the most beautiful arias ever written, crystal sound soaring into the cool night. Whether you like opera or not, I defy you to listen to this and not be moved. As the opera progressed the seating rotated from time to time, seemingly at random, to face paths where we saw guests dressed for a ball walking along the paths, chatting, or to a tall hunter's hide where a gamekeeper was shooting deer; a prince appeared and fell in love with Rusalka, later guests hurried along other paths. There was a continual sense of anticipation as different vignettes appeared and disappeared in the gardens as we swivelled and darkness was suddenly illumina ted. At one point we rotated more than a full circle, and as we stopped we were facing the Bellarie which was suddenly brilliantly illuminated, with the twin curving staircases filled for the ball with the guests we had seen earlier arriving in dribs and drabs. Of course I would not be so crass as to take photos during the performance, so my photos are taken in daylight, but the experience at night was utterly magical. Rusalka is dear to the hearts of Czechs, the most loved opera of Antonin Dvorák, the most loved of Czech composers. It was such an experience to see it performed in Czech by Czech singers in this uniquely Czech castle garden. After the performance ended, I walked back down the silent lane, without lights but dimly lit by moonlight dappling through the trees, to Villa Jana. I had to sit in my windowsill and watch the lights on the castle for a while, until the music and mystery of the evening settled in my mind a little. Českÿ Krumlow has a lot else to see and do, apart from a stunning annual music festival with internationally known artists. If you are hungry there are over 80 restaurants, many situated right on the river. I have generally found Czech food to be starchy, salty and unimaginative, but then I come from Australia where food tends to be very bright, fresh and light. So for me the restaurants were a necessary recharge point, a place to rest my feet and drink a coffee, rather than a place to eat dumplings and pork. Above all, looming over the town, is the castle complex, the largest castle in Czech Republic after Hrdčany castle in Prague. It is a plain-faced and rather forbidding series of granite buildings rearing over the town on a ridge carved out by the Vltava River on one side and the Polečnice on the other, and is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Monument. The castle was built around 1240AD and consists of 40 buildings enclosing 5 castle courts and terminating in the Church of St Vitus. The castle was really wonderful, and it helped that a charming guide gave us domestic information which was so much more fascinating than a recital of the number of paintings in each room. Some rooms were furnished as they would have been when, as we were told, ladies were stitched into their gowns and stayed so for days or weeks and slept sitting up so as not to disturb their hairdos; the furnishing and fabrics were more comfortable, less icily precise than those at say Versailles. An eccentric feature is the vast multi-storied gallery which was built and rebuilt from 1500 to 1770 to connect the castle to the 7 hectares of parkland and to the theatre. The theatre is the most exquisite little Baroque gem, built in 1762 and unique in that it has never been remodelled. The theatre still has all its original sets, stage machinery, props, and wardrobe with an enormous collection of costumes, and thousands of photos and music scores. It currently opens for only 3 nights each year, so book well ahead! There are of course also all the usual wonderful castle things - gatehouses and churches and stone galleries and great black Bohemian spires on the towers, and courtyards and beautiful arched doors and wooden floors that drum under your feet; dining halls and bedchambers and waterwells in courtyards and paintings of rulers long dead. Českÿ Krumlow itself is a lovely little town with its centre embraced, almost completely encircled, by meanders in the Vltava River, which rises in the pristine Sumava Mountains and flows north to Prague and on to the North Sea. The region has a long history but the town may have started about 1179 when Vitek Prčice settled in Southern Bohemia and passed Krumlow to his fourth son.The castle was built about 1240, and in the first years of the 1300s King Wenceslas II (not the "Good" one) gave the area to the Rosenbergs who made Krumlow their main residence. In the 15thC silver was discovered at Českÿ Krumlow, bringing prosperity to the town which is reflected in the architecture; most of the current town dates from the 14-17th Centuries, in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque style around a central square. The old mine workings still underly parts ofthe hill including under Villa Jana which is in Dulni, or Mining, Street. There are various museums and galleries, depending on your interests. For me, quite interesting was the Moldavite Museum. Moldavite is a green mineral formed by a meteorite smashing into the earth 14,700,000 years ago; over 99% of all moldavite comes from Bohemia. Or there is the Museum of Architecture and Craft which contains artefacts and pictures illustrating the history and transformation of the town, architectural details, and a video in English, as well as a coffee shop facing the stream and castle. If beer is more your thing, there is the Eggenberg Pivovary or brewery. I did not visit this, as I do not like beer, but it seems to be pretty popular. There are numerous shops and galleries, but the Egon Schiele gallery is worth a look. Schiele was a rather naughty man who worked with Gustav Klimt and lived for while in Českÿ Krumlow before being ejected by townspeople who objected to his paintings and his behaviour with the local maidens. Nevertheless, the gallery is rather lovely. The town is very close to the Sumava national park, the largest park in Czech Republic, which covers the most extensive indigenous forest in Central Europe. The park area was only sparsely populated from Celtic times, and then became an excluded zone for 50 years under Soviet rule due to its location on the borders of Austria and Germany. It was declared a park in 1991 after the fall of the USSR, so that history has spared it the centuries of depredations which have been suffered by almost all other European forests. Its 68,000 hectares cover beautiful wild forests, glacier lakes, peat bogs, and summer hay meadows with wildflowers, and it is populated by deer, otter, lynx, and a varied birdlife. It is even claimed that a wolf has been seen in a remote part of the park. It is a popular walking locations with mapped and marked trails where you can work off the dumplings and potatoes! A literary footnote: in A Winter's Tale, Shakespeare has Perdita abandoned on the Bohemian coast, but Bohemia and indeed Czech Republic are completely landlocked with no coast! NOTES: It is technically possible to get from Prague to Českÿ Krumlow by train, but I would say, do not try it. It requires changes, is slow, the trains are old, and the station is well out of town. It is easy to drive there, about 2 1/4 hours from Prague, 2 3/4 Hours from Vienna, or 3 1/2 hours from Munich. Or there are bus tours from Prague, which I have not tried but this looks as though it would be convenient. Villa Jana, Dulni 83, Českÿ Krumlow. firstname.lastname@example.org Breakfast included. Parking available. Moldavite museum, Panska 19, Českÿ Krumlow. Museum of Architecture and Craft, Dlouha 92. Egon Schiele gallery, at Široká 71.