There are few travel misadventures more ill-advised than returning to a place you once fell in love with. It’s a one-way ticket to destroyed dreams; an express train to crushing disappointment; a joyride to replacing wows with mehs.
For me, that place is Cesky Krumlov — an impossibly beautiful Czech town where the beer is free, the sun shines continually, there’s no one else around to get in the way and you can drink Champagne as you float down the river on a raft.
That’s how I remember it, anyway. That I can’t remember which year I went or how many nights I spent there should indicate precisely how reliable that memory is. Going back carried the real threat of shattering those sepia-drenched visions of sitting on a cobbled terrace by an intricately painted Renaissance building, drowning myself in the finest beer ever brewed.
As the castle tower appears on the horizon, it becomes gruesomely clear that the first thing I’d blocked out in my dream vision was the grey sky. And the drizzle. This is a particularly obstinate piece of denial, given that a quick flit through my old photos clearly indicates the presence of distinctly Mancunian-looking conditions.
Cobbled streets are less romantic when they’re wet; slippery rather than enchanting.
And there’s also a gauntlet of umbrellas, wielded by those people who have the black-hearted audacity to be slightly shorter than me. Having to protect my eyeballs from spokes is an experience my mollycoddling memory had shielded me from. Similarly, the herds of people carrying those umbrellas are a new addition. Before, it was just me, and lots of helpful bar, shop and hotel owners whose sole purpose in life was to cater to my whims.
When I realise I’ve stepped into a gigantic tourist trap, I start coming up with reasons why everyone else shouldn’t be allowed to be here. Yet my own presence is both beneficial and imperative. All of the other people are ruining a special place, while I’m gliding through like a beautiful cooling breeze, leaving only joy in my zero-impact wake. There’s a definite hierarchy to acceptability, with me at the top, and everyone else in progressive tiers of objectionableness below. Those tiers are largely based on how noticeably people get in my way, although there’s a special place below stag parties and passengers on shore excursions from massive cruise ships for dreadlocked backpackers who travel round the world with their guitar.
The size of tour groups should be limited to precisely the number of people who happen to be in the group that I’m in. Anyone else’s guide shouldn’t be allowed to speak at a volume louder than three decibels. Anyone queuing for the same thing I’m queuing for should be barred from entering until they can provide a full, properly-sourced thesis on why they’d quite like to see it.
The second worst sort of tourist — the sort that should never be allowed out of the house — is, of course, the obstructive photo taker. And there are lots of these in Cesky Krumlov, repeatedly blocking bridges as they try to take a photo of their loved one posing on the other side. Everyone has to wait as they selfishly get the pose, positioning and focus right, then take multiple shots as if they have unlimited right of way.
Naturally, the only people more appalling are those who get in the way of my photos when I’m trying to take a perfect shot on the same bridge.
But as I’m grizzling about the ruination of the special little place I once stumbled upon through brave adventure (and not, for example, reading about it in the guide book like everyone else), something magical happens. The sun comes out. And not just any sun — that mellow early evening sun that bathes a place in woozy, soft-focus cuddlewarmth.
I retreat to a terrace bar at the foot of the castle hill, watching rafters and kayakers navigate the loop in the river surrounding the inner town. A beer arrives. It costs about £1.50, and it’s one of the worst Czech beers I’ve ever tasted. But I know that in years to come it’ll be recalled as the nectar of the gods, served up free of charge. The perfect moment that made me fall in love with Cesky Krumlov has arrived again, blotting out any alternate realities of rain and Russian tour groups. And, until next time, there’s no need to have that selective memory challenged.
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)