There are a lot of good daytrips from Olomouc: a couple of castles, the zoo, caves, and long hikes. I couldn’t not take one while I was there, so I chose the Helfštýn Castle ruins. The train stopped at Lipník nad Becvou, a very old, medieval town one tenth the size of Olomouc. You know a place is good when the first thing you see is a train station tunnel covered in painted scenes of fairy tales. There were fighting knights, princesses, celestial demons, and a puss in boots standing in the gate of a castle holding a flagon of beer.
It was a quiet and cloudy day with a bit of drizzle. I only saw a few people around. There was no man selling ice cream cones on the way into town as there had been in Karlstejn; I entered town without preamble and walked for fifteen minutes past colorful little houses and a single gas station until I reached a small, quiet town center. It was a scaled down version of Olomouc’s main square, which was a scaled down version of Prague’s main square. I felt like I was in a nesting doll of settlements. The statues here were smaller, the rows of equally quaint buildings closer together, only here they formed an L rather than an actual square. Under repainted white archways stood a vinarna (winery), whose windows blocked out light with heavy wooden doors fitted with iron.
I stopped in the information center for a map and advice from the really helpful English-speaking attendant, then commenced out of Lipník, past its medieval walls, to a trailhead beginning a few kilometers’ walk of apple orchard and woodland. It was one of my favorite walks, broken only by a couple of women on bikes making what looked like their regular route. Once it opened up to fields left and right, I saw the village of Tyn nad Becvou far ahead, sitting under the shadow of a huge hill where the castle was propped on its edge. Just as the last nesting doll doesn’t open, there was no town square, but a church, a few restaurants, and a few shops were shared by the compact cluster of streets.
I walked through the village, up the hill, and I finally came to the cast iron “Helfštýn” sign leading to the tower-dotted walls and main gate. Helfštýn was never attacked and so remains one of the largest castle complexes in Europe, with all its walls intact. It’s in a well-maintained but officially declared state of ruin, so it’s free to explore, while blacksmiths work in the front courtyard and a restaurant runs in the main courtyard through the next gate. There are no mandatory tours and the only thing to pay for is a climb up a tower near the entrance; but it’s a pittance of 10 CZK, and you’ll go up a spiral staircase to plots of grass overlooking the many towers around the complex, a section of the walls, and down the hill to Lipník nad Becvou.
The grounds are dotted with ironworks, statues propped against the stone walls, or fitted into windows, or serving as gateways themselves. I haven’t seen a better example of art so well married to its surroundings. It wasn’t like so much of the street art I saw in Berlin, which cuts and jars; it harmonized the elements already there, making a medieval castle look somehow more medieval. Their collection is one of the best in the world of its kind, and Helfštýn is home to the Hefaiston, an annual blacksmiths festival attended by hundreds of blacksmiths from all over the world.
The best pieces were in the very back courtyard, by the old apartment complex, the most ruinous of the ruins, that is two crumbling stories of what were once dozens of rooms. The half dozen archways line up perfectly, letting you see from one end to the other.
I wanted to get lunch at the castle’s restaurant, but by the time I finished exploring every inch of it the restaurant was closed, so I walked back down to Tyn nad Becvou, which I was told had a great microbrewery. It turned out the restaurant I went to wasn’t the one Ian meant, but the second 3000 Calorie meal of my trip was still very good. The two men running the show must have thought their lone customer crazy with a plate of some sort of potatoes, two pints of beer, and, out of curiosity, a dessert called “hot raspberries.” Doesn’t sound too bad, I thought, until it turned out to be a hot raspberry jam sundae.
Five pounds heavier now, I more rolled than walked back, taking a trail right along the Becva, a peaceful and shallow river hidden inside its forest that made me think of Robin Hood: Men In Tights. I’d dawdled for so long at the castle that it was now twilight and in the forest twice as dark as outside it. Sometimes I thought I might get killed, but when I put those thoughts to rest, walking alone through a forest in the dark brought on some of the most peaceful moments I know. I think you have to greatly enjoy your own company to be able to enjoy such things.
Far more worrying was sitting at the train station as night and cold fell, thinking, as I always did on little stops like this, what if the train never comes? Or what if I get on the wrong one? Since there are only two directions you can be reasonably sure you’ll get on the right one. It’s the part where you’re the only one at the stop and everything around you is closed and you wonder if the paper schedule you have isn’t out of date that gets you. True relief only comes when other people arrive to let you know there’s still hope for a train, though in this area there are no guarantees. At last a train pulled up and at once all the worry and discomfort turned out to be silly. In the comfort of the lighted compartment I rode back to Olomouc and what was familiar, which under the same obscuring night sky sparked no fear.