CESKY KRUMLOV, Czech Republic -- The first time we saw the Renaissance tower across the river Vltava that runs through this town, we promptly found a table at an outdoor cafe. We didn't care about eating; we just wanted to gaze at the scene before us.
It is an extraordinary sight. The fanciful round watchtower is part of the castle of Cesky Krumlov, rising above the long mass of buildings that dominate the low hill over the Vltava. Its colors are striking: The middle section is a pale red and the light yellow lower surface is painted to suggest that the base of the tower, built in 1580, is made of large stone blocks.
An arcaded gallery surrounds the 238-foot tower below its five spires.
Some recent chroniclers of Krumlov note than in a period before 1760, the tower fell into disuse, and that after that time ''it was occupied only by a watchman who wound up the clock, rang the bells, and later announced the hour from the gallery by means of a trumpet."
The first thing my wife, Mary, and I set out to do the next morning was climb the 162 stairs to the top.
Cesky Krumlov is the second most-visited place in the Czech Republic after Prague. It is roughly 100 miles from Prague and Vienna. Linz, Austria, the nearest large city, is 50 miles south. The castle is the second largest in the Republic, only slightly smaller than Prague Castle. In 1992, UNESCO added Cesky Krumlov (pronounced CHESS-ky KROOM-loff) to its list of World Heritage sites.
The Vltava, which makes its way down to Prague from Krumlov, forms a circle around the inner town below the castle. The nearly mile-long castle complex has 400 rooms in 40 buildings. A steep path leads up through five courtyards from the Red Gate to a secluded pond at the end of large formal park.
The original Gothic castle, the Hradek, was built by the Lords of Krumlov around 1250 and occupies the site where the watchtower now stands. The powerful Rozmberks (1302-1601) transformed the castle into a substantial residence. It was improved by the Eggenbergs (1622-1719) and perfected by the Schwarzenbergs (1719-1947), who largely abandoned the castle in the late 19th century. After that time, the castle and the town around it changed almost not at all. Today, a major preservation effort is underway, although not its first.
The castle served as a headquarters for the owners' vast properties. Around 1430, Oldrich II of Rozmberk owned 25 estates, 26 towns, and almost 500 villages, mostly in southern Bohemia. The Rozmberks often held high positions in Prague and even fought to control the whole of Bohemia. The Eggenbergs and Schwarzenbergs were close to the Hapsburgs, whose dynasty controlled central Europe from about the 13th to 20th century.
The Nazis seized the castle in 1939, and after World War II, the German-speaking population -- especially numerous in this region -- were deported by the Czechs in retaliation for the wartime occupation.
We spent the greater part of our first day exploring the ''Baroque and Rococo" rooms and relaxing in the castle park. An affable guide from Scotland spoke German (English-led tours are less common here) as he led us and a small group of German tourists through various rooms, including a Renaissance chamber, whose painted walls are covered with scenes from the Old Testament; the Eggenberg Hall, a portrait gallery that houses a golden wood-carved coach built in 1638, used once in a diplomatic mission that informed Pope Urban VIII of the election of a new Holy Roman Emperor; a baroque dining room, clothed in tapestries from the large Schwarzenberg collection; a picture gallery with works by German, Dutch, Flemish, and Italian masters; and the Saint George Chapel, built in 1753 with an upper heated balcony for the aristocracy, and lower unheated pews for everyone else.
The 1748 rococo Masquerade Hall, our favorite room, has bright walls painted yellow and white. They are dense with mural paintings of musicians playing instruments in a balcony, smiling actors from commedia dell'arte, Turks and Chinese, a monkey dressed as a harlequin, and aristocrats dressed for a carnival. The artist, Josef Lederer of Swabia, drinks coffee in a self-portrait. Saber-wielding soldiers in white coats and tall hats guard the door.
In vast cellars of the castle (called the Wenceslaus Cellars because legend has it that in 1394 the Rozmberks jailed the Bohemian king there), an exhibition of modern ceramics included huge dentures and armless, wolflike female creatures with grotesque heads and long snouts.
Visitors to the castle should inquire at the ticket office about the very limited-access visits to the Baroque theater. The theater, built by Josef Adam of Schwarzenberg in 1766, has an ingenious mechanism that allows the 13 stage scenes -- including a forest, a harbor, a drawing room, an army camp, a park, a prison cell, a festival hall, and a church -- to be changed in seconds.
Back in the town itself, the cobbled streets reminded us of two of our favorite European places: Lucca in Tuscany and Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Bavaria. The buildings are protected, to be sure, but they also have found new uses as better-than-average antiques shops, hotels, cafes, and small pensions. Many of the facades are covered with sgraffito, a decorative method of etching plaster to form patterns and pictures. Others are covered with frescoes and trompe l'oeil painting that does, indeed, ''deceive the eye."
The Egon Schiele Art Centrum is in a former brewery by the river. During our visit, it hosted temporary exhibits of the drawings and graphics of Marc Chagall, composer Arnold Schoenberg, and Le Corbusier. The Centrum also has an exhibition on the life and work of Egon Schiele. Schiele (1890-1918), an Austria-born Expressionist who was run out of town in 1911 after hiring young women to pose nude for his paintings. Little could the townspeople imagine that in June 2004, at a
Our only regret is that we came to this town off season. We missed the varied events on the cultural calendar: theatrical and film productions, a three-day medieval Celebration of the Rose in June, an international music festival in July and August, and piano, organ, jazz, and early-music concerts.
All the more reason to return.