The Bouncing Czechs
Due to a slight change in our plans since we bought our visa's we have been left with an extra week to kill before we head off to the former Soviet Union. We have decided to spend this time having a bit of a summer holiday in the Czech Republic. The main reasons for this choice are the (in order of importance), the excellent cheap beer, the opportunity to get used to pronouncing those slavic slurring sounds which will become vital in the Ukraine and Russia, the fantastic assortment of mediaeval and baroque towns and villages (just our sort of thing), the very pretty countryside, the cheapness of travel and food, the vegetarian friendly menus and the excellent cheap beer!!
We decided to make life harder for ourselves by avoiding Prague and making our way across country - this way we will come into contact with more Czech speakers and we will develop our language skills more quickly. Having said that most people immediately assume that we are Germans and are then highly delighted to find out that we aren't and then speak to us in English. Our proposed route traces a sort of an S shape (but on it's side) across the country. Starting with Southern Bohemia we moved across to Český Krumlov, then north between Prague and Brno, and finally through the mountains of Northern Moravia, exiting around Ostrava in probably 5 or 6 days time.
Our first stop was just over the German border in the small Chodove town of Domažlice (Doh - mazh - lits - ser to us Czech speakers!). Immediately over the border everything changed - gone was the almost sterile cleanliness and perfection of Germany and in it's place a sort of 'Iron Curtain' feel. Not that the CR is a closed country - it's now a full member of the EU and we can go wherever we want (we could even open an English Restaurant if we wanted to). We immediately ran into the last vestiges of Cold War service in the local Tourist Info centre where the lady in charge obviously thought that people wanting information in a foreign language were far too insignificant to bother with and just threw a photo-copied map at us with a couple of pensions marked on it. We chose the nearest one and from then on we have been made very welcome by everybody we have met.
We spent two nights in Domažlice in order to get our bearings, practice our awful Czech on the unsuspecting waitresses of the town and generally wind down after Western Europe. In the two days we did virtually everything there was to do, we climbed the watch tower to see if there were any German armies approaching (only tourists these days) and generally mooched about.
The railway system in the Czech Republic is quite unique in Europe. Built by the the Hapsburgs at the beginning of the 20th Century it has remained pretty much intact ever since. The country was more or less unscathed by World War 2 and although the communists dismantled the social structure of the country (or what was left of it after the Germans had finished with it) they left the fabric and infrastructure intact. The result is a railway similar to what would have existed in England if most of it hadn't been closed down in the 60's. Miles of little branch lines connecting unlikely villages with trains that were probably new in 1950 make it ideal for us on our convoluted route. Of course it's massively over manned and is losing money like no tomorrow but is still the country's largest employer. There is an eclectic mixture of old and new carriages from the aforementioned 'buses on wheels', through ancient soviet double decker's to old style corridor coaches and modern 'UK' style coaches. One excellent thing is that all the station staff come out and stand to attention when a train goes past - something that should be introduced in the UK in our opinion - particularly at New Mills signal box!!!!
Our next stop was Klatovy, 90 min's rattle away on a small branch line through meadows full of wild flowers and with the occasional wild deer. Here there were more watch towers to climb and little streets to explore but most impressive was U bílého jrdnorožce (The White Unicorn). This was a pharmacy shop which had retained it's fixtures and fittings from 1650 and was apparently still in use until 1964. It's now a museum and a UNESCO monument complete with blood letting machinery, leech jars and pickled tapeworms - great stuff.
Next we made our way via a series of branch lines (and the occasional express) via České Budéjovice (home of the real Budweiser beer) to Český Krumlov, a fantastic small city set into a bend on the Vltava river. This town is a real gem and looks to be untouched since the 1700's (well apart from the souvenir shops and the hundreds of hotels). On the other side of the river is a large baroque castle covered in sgraffitios perched on a formidable rock - one of Europe's most impressive buildings. We sat down by the river drinking beer and watching the swallows feeding - unforgettable.
Unfortunately we were not the first people to discover Český Krumlov and we couldn't find anywhere to stay at a reasonable price for more than two nights. This meant that we had to pack three days into two so early on Friday morning we set out to climb Mount Klet. We were quite tired by the time we had walked for 4 km through the foothills of the Blanský les and reached the bottom of the single seater chair lift which would take us up the last 550mtrs. This was an old Soviet construction which creaked and groaned a bit but looked sound enough. The best bit was getting into the car - the operator would hold the car back while while you sat down and then let it go which had the effect of catapulting you forwards at great speed while trying to hold onto your bags and to wrestle with the safety bar which had to be lifted up and locked into place. It was even scarier coming down where you get catapulted over a 200m drop. The views from the top were fantastic and made the trip well worthwhile. On the way back we discovered a charming little country pub where we almost took root!!!
That brings things more or less up to date - we are currently in a town called Havlíčkův Brod in a very expensive hotel after a series of transport disasters meant that we were far too late to get one of the cheap rooms. Still at least there is free internet access - hence the reason for this long post.