During our drive south from Prague to Hotel Nautilus in Tábor, our thoughts are full of uninformed ideas about what a southern Bohemian boutique hotel might be like. Our only experience of Central Europe so far is a weekend in the chocolate-box Czech capital; add preconceptions about provincial post-Eastern Bloc bleakness, a bit of Milan Kundera, a shred of Kafka, and some facts and figures garnered from the oeuvre of the Brothers Grimm, and we're expecting a turretty castle with creaking doors and a shabby-chic dungeon. If we're lucky.
To our surprise, an hour and half from Prague, though the landscape is fairytale-approved, cultural darkness is far from falling. Tábor is not so much in the middle of nowhere as in the middle of everywhere. It's a historic hill town whose 14th-century goings-on were so politically significant that they still matter today; and we're about to find out what modern life means among its winding old-town streets. We pass through the new town to reach Žižka Square, a vast paved expanse bordered by a huge church and well-preserved old houses, many with amazing-looking gables and sgraffito detail.
We enter Hotel Nautilus to find a completely different decorative world; its interior feels like a postmodern Roman villa, with neoclassical details, peachy terracotta colours, and a water feature in the rear atrium. There is a dungeon of sorts, it turns out, but this is definitely no Bluebeard's Castle. The restaurant, Goldie, is suitably elegant, decorated in Paris-chic style, with a long bar bedecked in glittering metallic mosaic tiles, and a raised dining area containing contemporary furnishings and modern art. This boutique hotel is full of artworks, from a framed Bill Brandt poster to work by Czech artist Olbram Zoubek in the Gallery function room, and metal pieces here and there. There is a spiral motif running throughout (Nautilus is the name of a marine creature known as the 'living fossil'); the British owners have a background in geology, and are great collectors.
The bedrooms vary, depending on which floor they're on. The cosy rooms at the top have little quirks to amuse, such as a tiny mock theatre stage above one bed. We've gone for one of the grander, more grown-up first-floor boudoirs. They are roomier (right down to the deluxe bathrooms) and they offer huge windows overlooking that historic square. We eye a bottle of bubbly on ice, a big cable TV and a Jacuzzi all at our disposal, and realise this hotel is no slouch in the 'spoil me' department. Having never been to a town quite like this though, we decide our treats will have to wait, while we explore.
After a cup of tea at a window banquette in Goldie (which, we conclude regretfully, is unlikely to have been named in tribute to the great Blue Peter dog, or even the Wolverhampton-born drum 'n' bass DJ), we leave Nautilus, cross the square, and find the door at the back of the Deanery Church that gives access to the belltower. Again, we're not sure what to expect, but, given the age-worn steps, echoing stairwell, and vast (but silent) bell we have to clamber past, we're surprised to find a bright and perky little gift shop, complete with attendant.
The merchandise isn't noticeably bright or perky, but collectors of postcards, keyrings and stamps are well catered for, and there are plastic toys, souvenirs and even that pair of secateurs I forgot to pack. When we head back down, we go waaay down – we're just in time for a tour of Tábor's tunnels, which begins at the Hussite Museum. The subterranean network dates from the Middle Ages, and has served multiple purposes, some of them quite amusing, it seems. The commentary is in Czech so we have to do that thing when everyone else is laughing and you look psychotic if you don't at least smile along. Atmosphere-wise, the experience is on a par with West Wycombe Caves, if not as spooky as Wookey Hole, and Mrs Smith is relieved when we emerge into the evening light.
We've been high, we've been deep; the final act of our sightseeing circuit round Žižka Square is a down-to-earth cocktail at Havana Kafe Bar, a bric-a-brac-filled, wood-panelled pub. We drink to the unexpected. 'Tunnels!' 'Fossils!' Mrs Smith puts a punning end to my thoughts of another apero at this very cool bar before dinner. 'We don't want things to spiral out of control?' I can see it's going to be a long night of fossil jokes.
Before we sit down, we are led by staff to see 'a surprise'. (A spa, hopes Mrs Smith, almost audibly.) It is the entrance to Hotel Nautilus' own tunnel, made into a feature behind a glass panel in the basement bar. We've been in hotels with swanky wine cellars, but this is pretty unique. Presumably, we weren't far from here earlier on, though I wouldn't like to find my way back round to the Hussite Museum without a torch and a paid guide. Let alone after a few rum cocktails from Havana.
The menu at Goldie is expectation-confoundingly unstodgy, with olive-oil marinades, citrus dressings and home-made bread. (We do see red cabbage with apple on offer, however; and goulash, though that seems to have been modernised and de-carbed somewhat, since the description stipulates small potato pancakes.) We eat fish and duck, complex but not fussy. We note the snail delicacies on the menu – royal escargot Helix Aspera Maxim (Gros-Gris) – in another nod to all things shelled or spiral. It'll be up the hotel's smart twirling staircase to bed for us before too long; we'll probably dream about castles with creaking doors. We've found plenty of mediaeval mystery and fairytale history in Tábor's past; the present-day reality at the only boutique-style hotel for miles is comfortable and contemporary.