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Shirley O'Bryan Smith  /  AP
A view of Cesky Krumlov along the Vltava River as seen through a window in the Cesky Krumlov Castle, Czech Republic. National Geographic calls it "one of the most beautiful historic destinations in the world."
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updated 4/22/2011 5:25:32 PM ET 2011-04-22T21:25:32

Centuries of history have earned this Czech town a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's a Bohemian beauty, tucked into a horseshoe bend on the Vltava River, with interesting architecture, an enormous castle and a nearby national park.

But here's something Cesky Krumlov has that you don't find in most historic cities: live bears in the dry moat surrounding the castle.

And visiting the town of Cesky Krumlov this year offers an extra benefit: It's the year of the Rosenbergs, who reigned over southern Bohemia for around 400 years. The family's last male heir died in 1611, and special exhibitions and events are planned all year to honor the family, including tours of Rosenberg sites, museum exhibits and extended festivals.

The castle is one of those Rosenberg sites. A huge two-story arched bridge connects parts of it with Baroque gardens, a terrace and a rococo cascade fountain.

Birthday parties for bears
But there is no water in the moat surrounding the place to keep away advancing enemy hordes. Instead, there are the bears. Legend has it that they were given to the Rosenberg family because of their relationship with the Italian Orsini family. Since "orsa" means she-bear in Italian, the Rosenbergs adopted the animals as shield-bearers on their coat of arms. Today the moat bears are a much-loved part of the community. The animals get their own birthday parties and a big Christmas Eve Bear festival where children bring presents and food for them.

Inside, the castle is well-preserved and restored with period furnishings, musical instruments, armor, artwork, and ornately painted and carved ceilings and walls.

From the castle I made my way down into the town's historic center. Cesky Krumlov was built in the late 13th century and most of the architecture in the older part of town dates from 14th through 17th centuries. A walk on the stone streets, through the archways and along side the shops, galleries, and restaurants takes you back to those centuries where Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles blend with the Medieval.

Amid the narrow stone streets, painted walls and frescos, you'll find red-roofed buildings and pedestrians shopping, working or checking out the sites. People are friendly, many speak English, and they seem eager to talk to visitors.

One of the most interesting places is a Baroque theater that dates back to the late 1600s. It has its original wall and ceiling murals, stage, props and ancient machinery used for complicated scene changes. This is still a working theater that's open to the public from May until the end of October. A Baroque opera plays there twice a year.

Outside the buildings are courtyards decorated with more murals and frescos, and faux stones painted with such good perspective and depth that you'd swear they were real.

Post-Communist rebirth
The historic area fell into disrepair during the communist era of Czechoslovakia, but restoration and preservation work in recent years have earned it acclaim. In addition to the citation from UNESCO, National Geographic calls it "one of the most beautiful historic destinations in the world."

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Here and there you'll find a touch of modern whimsy. I saw one small doorway in a courtyard blocked off with red and gray sculpted fingers topped by rope. It showed a great sense of humor and a blending of old and new that somehow made history seem more alive.

Despite the town's tourism industry, it is remarkably free of kitschy souvenirs. Instead you're likely to find a jewelry store selling Bohemian garnet, a fascinating and somewhat haunting marionette museum, art galleries, antique shops, a casino, coffee shops, pubs, and a large selection of restaurants featuring traditional pork dishes, sausages, honey cakes, potato dumplings and strudels.

But not everyone comes to the area just to soak up history. For some it's about the beautiful natural surroundings.

Sumava National Park, near the Czech borders with Germany and Austria is set amid forests, lakes, rivers and alpine meadows. In the winter it offers both downhill and cross country skiing, ice skating and ice sailing. When the weather is warmer there's boating, other water sports, hiking, biking and horseback riding.

At nearby manmade Lake Lipno you can boat over to other small towns or stop at the dam, which has a hydroelectric power plant.

If you like beer, there are several interesting breweries. Aside from making "brew," the Eggenberg brewery in Cesky Krumlov has also been used as a site for several films. And in nearby Cesky Budejovice, the original Budweiser brewery is located, though it's not affiliated with the U.S. beer company by the same name.

If you go ...

Cesky Krumlov: Helpful websites for travelers include http://www.ckrumlov.cz and http://www.krumlov.com. For information on the castle, visit http://www.castle.ckrumlov.cz. Park and lake information: http://www.sumava.com and http://www.lipnolakeresort.cz. Websites in Czech have English language tabs.

Getting there: Buses run regularly from Prague (110 miles) and from Vienna, Salzburg, Linz and Hallstatt in Austria. Train service via Czech Railways will deposit you north of the main square. From there you can take a taxi or walk about 15 to 20 minutes to the city. By air: Fly from Ruzyne-Prague Airport or the Linz-Horsching Airport in Austria, then take a bus or shuttle.

Currency: The Czech Republic is not in the euro zone. It still uses the Czech crown, or koruna. Although many places will take euros, the rate isn't always favorable. Any change you receive will be in crowns.

Accommodations: Lodging includes a variety of hotels, guest houses, pensions (smaller less expensive hotels), apartments, bed and breakfasts, even camps and camping sites. Locations range from the historic part of town to outside of town, near the water or in the countryside. They run from under $50 to more than $300 (under 35 euros to more than 200 euros, or in korunas, under 830 korunas to more than 5,000 korunas).

Food: Wide variety of restaurants offer local specialties such as pork dishes, potato dumplings, fried cheese, sausages, cabbage, goulash, schnitzel and delicious soups, breads and desserts, as well as pizza, chicken, steaks and vegetarian dishes. In addition there are coffee houses, pubs, pastry shops and street vendors. Prices are very reasonable.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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