A Travellerspoint blog

Deep mist and a Slovak welcome

There was at least one dichotomy of the Eastern European approach to human interaction. First of all, the cold expressions one would encounter on a daily basis could range from a simple wide-eyed stare, to a shop cashier dumping your change and receipt down on the counter whilst facing the other way, leaving your waiting hand begrudgingly empty. The flip side of this frostiness is the welcoming hospitality experienced in hostels, homes and random open conversations with total strangers. It's as if they save it up all week waiting for the right time to bestow all their goodwill in one day. I was about to receive the latter on my train ride from Olomouc to Poprad in Slovakia.

"Je tu volno?" I asked, on entering the 6 person cabin. Eastern Europeans appreciate a dash of good manners and it is considered good manners to ask if a seat is available before sitting down. This was a 4 hour journey, I was getting comfy. Fortunately the trains in this part of the world are kept well and nicely heated. The cabin layout gave a more intimate journey experience with your fellow passengers when compared with the open carriages back home. Having said that, once you've said hello and asked for a seat, you could sit through an entire 8 hour journey without another word. But when it came to hoisting your bag onto your shoulder and leaving, almost everyone without exception, in my experience, said goodbye- "na shledanou" in Czech or "dovidena" in Slovak. Clinging to such manners helped me warm to the Czechs, it's a shame we've lost that back home.

A stream of traditional Czech villages slowly swept past the window. Built on the gentle slopes of Southern Moravia, I noticed each home had a pile of firewood lined up on one exterior wall, often at head height and 2 or 3 logs deep. Through the other window the setting sun caused the wispy clouds to glow from behind and hang like smoldering marshmallows above a distant line of pine trees outlining the hilltops in silhouette. The outline of each forest-lined ridge heading off into the distance was more faded than the one before. The occasional plume of white smoke from the traditional chimneys set the scene as a visual canvas that will be forever ingrained on my mind.

Paying for the train ticket took me down to my last 35 crowns, this was money-management defined. My first encounter with a Slovak on home turf came as a young lady slid open the cabin door and asked me something in her native tongue. I gestured there was a seat available. Actually there were 5 seats available, this was politeness gone mad, but I liked it.

Whether it's the huge backpack, the reading of the guidebook or something in my eyes, the girl was in no doubt that I was a foreigner. Just as I was reading the statement "the youth of Slovakia are warm and open" she piped-up and asked me where I was from. I was used to this. Fellow travellers always have at least 4 set questions they can ask of any other backpacker. "Where are you from?" "Where have you come from?" "Where are you going?" And "how long are you travelling for?" It was so much nicer to be asked by a local. We quickly rattled through the Q&A's and started talking about the huge bandage on her finger. That's it. The ice was broken. Ask something unconventional and the slippery surface of shallow conversation becomes thinner until it breaks and you arrive at the next level of colloquialism.

The embarrassed exhalation of reminiscence suggested she had a funny story to tell. The bottom line was it involved drink and she fell down. She was a snowboard instructor in winter and studied the rest of the time. It was second nature for people in these parts to know how to stay upright on snow. She asked to take a look at my guidebook. Another breathy giggle and a quick glance over to me, "have you seen this?" she asked. She quoted "the Slovak youth are warm and open". This seemed to amuse her. One nation summarising the dominant characteristic of another nation's people was always strange one. I had been in this situation before. Pavlina and Tom in Teplice were enthralled at reading the things my book quoted about the Czech nation. I think it's the kind of delineation which puts a mirror up to the reader and forces either a modest concurrence or complete denial. It was interesting to learn some local perspectives, but I realised one thing, when it came to a local's opinion about themself the truth was always in the eye of the judge. These were just contextual opinions at the end of the day. She was, however, conforming to the opinion in question so far.

Her friend came to join us in the cabin, laid down, wrapped herself up in her jacket and scarf and fell asleep. "She has a hangover" said the girl. "She had too much to drink and now she has a migraine. We're going to the hospital to get her an injection and then going to another party". I was beginning to build-up an impression already and we'd only been over the border for maybe 10 minutes. Slovak kids were confident and unfazed.

I eagerly waited for the long announcement which blared from the cabin speakers. I was listening for one word- 'Poprad'. My destination, Poprad, was the central hub for all things involving the Tatra mountains. It was not pretty. But then, it was dark and I was at a bus station. Nevertheless, I decided not to stay here but instead to take a local bus to Levoca where I might track down a hostel I had read about there. It was getting late, but I was starting to get used to wandering down dark lanes with my compass as a guide. Anyway, If in doubt, follow someone else. I found the bus station across a muddy field using this method. The thing you're looking for can be just around the corner, but if you don't know it's there you're relying on blind luck more than anything else to find it.

Every bus in this region seemed to place religious importance on having as many trinkets as possible hanging from every perceivable surface near the front window. Mini boxing gloves, teddy bears, Catholic crosses, trolls, you name it and you might actually find it. Getting off the bus in Levoca I had absolutely no clue where I was. This was a residential area with no signposts. Just flats and houses. So again, I consulted the compass, which by this point had developed an annoying bubble which affected the direction of the arrow. So I promptly followed a young lady up the hill. Call it luck, or good judgment but I emerged on the main road near the city walls. I was now on the map. Levoca's medieval walls stood resolute and well-preserved. It was the King of Hungary in the 1200's that brought in the Saxons to the Eastern Kingdom areas to keep the Tatars at bay. Bloody good job, these walls still stood in impressive fashion.

It's always difficult when walking behind a woman in the street, especially in the dark, not to make her feel like you're a psycho who's going to boot her into the back of a van. I made my steps drag, I sniffed, I lightly coughed, I was as disinterested in her as I could possibly make myself appear. The spooky street lights and lack of anybody else on the path consistently worked against my efforts to let her know I was a nice man. I just wanted to see where she went so I could hopefully get to the centre. After about 20 minutes I realised I could have just asked, but then that would have been too easy.

I was getting close to the hostel, the fog filled the air as if the clouds had fallen out of the sky down to street level. The traditional lanterns cast an eerie orange orb of luminescence every twenty yards. The trees had lost their leaves and their skeletal form silhouetted against the fiery haziness. Walking beneath old buildings and sizeable churches I could barely make out their lines through the mist. A hanging wooden sign emerged in the distance. 'Oaza Hostel'. I had arrived, cold, hot, stuffy, sweaty and freezing all at the same time and in different body parts.

I rang the bell. I silently prayed it would be open. A shadow moved on the other side of the patterned glass. "Yes!" I said to myself. The door swung open. "Hello" was all I could think to say and then I stuttered. The young girl, no older than 15 asked me "are you looking for accommodation?" Again, a simple "yes" was all I could respond with. The problem was I was partly embarrassed for not having practiced any Slovak and in my eagerness to get out of the cold air I spoke instinctively in English without asking first. This second encounter with a young Slovak was even more impressive than the first. The girl took her time to explain everything in understandable grammar, much like a teenager in a foreign language exam. I wondered where the adults were, but she was doing so well and I was humbled and grateful for the warm hospitality. It was a lovely place.

She led me through the modern, spacious but cosy house the family lived in, down the garden path and into the large annexe at the back where the self-contained accommodation was. I had a room with 2 beds and more pine-covered walls. There wasn't a single other guest anywhere to be seen. It was unbelievably quiet, clean, and homely. The girl came back with my two euros change and grasping a small plate, "we made err cake, so...here, you can have", she smiled genuinely and passed it to me. My eyebrows raised with an indebted look of thanks. I was absolutely famished. I felt like a part of the family within 3 minutes of walking through the door. I definitely landed on my feet with this place, it was a great find.

In the morning I was well on my way to meeting the entire family, two daughters, one son and a very smiley Mother of all three. "I'd like to go and see Spisske Podhradie Hrad" I said. Spissky Hrad was a Castle and one of the largest in Eastern Europe. From the road, if I could see it through the fog, I'm sure I would have been in awe at its sheer size. The castle was another of UNESCO's World Heritage listed buildings. The oldest mention of the castle dates back to 1209. It sits majestically 200m above the surrounding town of Spissky Podhradie and an overall 634m above sea level. The amazing thing about this site is that 40,000 years ago there were already people living on this big mound of rock before castles ever existed. The castle managed to resist the Tatar incursions quite successfully. The Tatars were a Turkic ethnic group originally coming from the North-Eastern Gobi. They were part of Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire in the 13th century and moved Westwards by his grandson Batu Khan. They now have a presence in Central and far Eastern Europe, most heavily populated in Russia and numbering over 5 million there alone in the present day. My hosts selflessly began to research the opening times of the castle and the bus timetable, inviting me into their house while they grouped together to pool all available information. As it turned out today was the last day Spissky Hrad would be open to the public.

30 minutes later I found myself getting off the bus at the small castle town. The fog had not lifted from the night before. It hid any geographical clue as to the whereabouts of the looming stone structure. I knew it was there, I knew it was ginormous but I had to rely on local directions, which amounted to pointing fingers and gestured turns to tell me so. A small group of Roma children played in the road on rusty tricycles. 'Roma' was the term for the Central and Eastern European gypsy population. They faced discrimination from other ethnic groups as their level of social integration was very low and consequently 75% of Roma people live in poverty in ghetto areas, adding to the problem of petty crime such as pickpocketing. I walked through the street and turned up into an ascending hill entrance. The afternoon sun was dipping quite swiftly, I was going to have to get a move on if I wanted to step foot inside.

Walking up a vague trail on a hill with no end in sight was a strange feeling. I looked behind me, there was nothing but thick fog. I was in the middle of my own visible space, nothing else inhabited that space but a patch of grass, some bushes and a whole load if silence. After roughly 15 minutes of determined rambling a yellowy glowing object appeared up ahead of me. I stopped and stared, then took a few more steps and stared some more. The castle reflected the low afternoon sun's rays like a ghostly apparition. Breathing deeply and with the occasional "woa" I sauntered on. At the top of the hill the entrance sign read 'This gate is closed, please use the East entrance'. "Flippin 'eck!" Knowing how big this castle was, I was convinced it would take me the rest of the day to get around to it. I followed the East arrow on my compass along the castle wall on a precarious grass trail and surprisingly within 10 minutes reached the east entrance. Closed. "Ahoj?" I said in a loud voice through the castle gates. I knew that from November onwards the castle was only open via appointment or invitation and the Skoda in the courtyard gave hope that someone might let me in for a wander. No such luck. I guess they were busy reloading the canons or something.

I told myself that admiring the structure was much better from the outside anyway. The view of the surrounding hills was glorious. The tree-topped slopes were interlaced with a silky blanket of thick white fog which moved and transformed with surprising alacrity. It gracefully slid up the hills, occasionally engulfing the entire landscape, a trillion microscopic droplets of precipitation glistened in the setting sun which shone like an underpowered 20 watt bulb in the thick atmosphere. I stood there in reverence on a rocky outcrop gazing at the distant Tatras which revealed their faded peaks. There was nothing but me and the landscape. The silence was overwhelming, an emotional experience.

The light levels were falling and I had hoped that the castle would be lit in grandiose yellows and golds in the night sky. I waited and waited until the darker stages of twilight. Looking over my shoulder at the murky pathway that awaited my reluctant descent. Nothing happened, the hills silent, and the air becoming blacker and more foreboding my the second. The moon provided the only source of light, generously reflecting the sun's rays from over the horizon. I had to leave. I took the first few steps downwards into the mist. It was a scene right out of 'American Werewolf in London'. The further I walked, the more the castle began to disappear into the night behind me, leaving me surrounded again in the chilling moonlit fog. I hoped the trail would not disappear beneath my feet and at this point I remembered that bears were present in most mountainous areas of Slovakia. A secretive life made it difficult for experts to determine their exact number, maybe 700-900, but they were absolutely a part of this ecosystem. I just didn't want to be a part of their diet. So far the only bears I had seen were captive in Cesky Krumlov castle moat.

The faint hint of street lighting came into sight and the familiar streets developed beneath my feet. At the bus stop were a group of Slovaks waiting patiently for the next bus, my thoughts of possibly having to hitch home disappeared. I noticed the bus drivers were all starting to look the same. Thick jumper, moustached upper lip and deeply unfulfilled expression.

The next morning I left Levoca to stay in the Tatra mountains at a hostel I just couldn't resist- The Ginger Monkey. I had no idea there was a hostel named after my Father. Maybe it was something to do with the cold weather. My Dad was super-human, he would regularly walk out into a British winter wearing a short sleeved shirt made of the thinnest cotton you could buy. It must be the copious body hair that kept him warm. God forbid the sun should come out. He wasn't accustomed to that at all. I was aware that the Tatra mountains were out there somewhere, but so far the days had been so misty that I hadn't seen a thing. I stood at Poprad bus station, turned around and bam! There they were. Within the space of one or two minutes the entire block of alpine fog lifted and revealed the shining Tatras in full panoramic glory. My perspective shifted, I now knew I was in the mountains and didn't have to take anyone's word for it. The Tatras were only 25km wide and so the long formation of snow-capped peaks look distinctly like they were dropped here from another planet. The rest of this region was hilly but paled in comparison to the mountains themselves. Gerlachovsky stit sat proudly at 2654m in the Carpathian range. It really was the most beautiful sight.

Random people came up to me, presumably asking about the regularity of the buses, I couldn't understand a word. "Nerozumiem" became a useful phrase. It meant I didn't understand. Even if I spoke Slovak the bus schedule was filled with so many symbols which denoted important additional information about the each service, none of which were explained in a key at the bottom, that I wouldn't be able to tell them anyway. That might spoil the game. I'm sure they took pleasure in allowing us to guess what the hell it all meant.

It was at that moment I realised. That this was it, the symbolic mini facet that symbolised this whole journey so far. A series of letters, expressions, greetings, gestures and idiosyncrasies that left you wondering the meaning, the reason, what did it all mean? This was the point, and I was going to find out.

Posted by kookie888 00:16 Archived in Slovakia Comments (0)

Into Moravia

I had, up until this point, been reserving a bed at each hostel I was intent on staying at but I was getting the impression I was being a little too cautious. So I decided to throw that caution to the wind and just turn up at the German-speaking woman's pension in hope she had a room free. My first impressions of Telc were not that complimentary. Generally, it was nice enough, but I got a vibe...well, no, actually I got no vibe at all. It was that dead. This was a town with barely any tourists, not a bad thing in itself, but I just didn't get the authenticity of its innocence. The pastel reflections on the water were however duly noted with the click of my camera's shutter, and on I walked. This is actually a World Heritage-listed town and it is surrounded on the East and West side by man made lakes, which acted as a kind of additional fortress from its 13th century enemies, whomever they might have been. The area was an important crossroads between Moravia, Bohemia and Austria, now it was just another mildly pretty town covered in mist and fond hearsay.

Pension u Dolezalu looked remarkably like your normal house, except for the signs I would never have guessed they catered for tourists. I mentally prepared my best German introduction and rang the bell. No answer. I rang again. Hmmm...was this woman going all-out not to speak to me? I had visions of her and her husband hiding behind the sofa "Das ist zee Englishman von zee telefon ja".

I wasn't going to stumble at this hurdle, so I simply knocked next door at an identical house, which was also a pension and stayed there. Right. That's that then, I thought. There's something disconcerting about arriving at your accommodation as the only person in the entire establishment. It tends to let you know you're going to have to work at the situation to make it into something notable. But this was Telc. 6,000 inhabitants and dwindling resources to keep you entertained as the year stretches out towards Winter.

I walked a while in the old square, the perimeter of the square was dotted with old and interesting shops, with the odd new one thrown in for good measure. I placed my hand on the cold brass of the heavy handle which led into a small gallery. As I stepped over the threshold a small cowbell rang above my head with an agricultural ding-a-ling. If my intention was to steal the entire collection then I was already foiled. So I looked around instead. An old man, looking distinctly professor-like with mad sidewards grey hair, a matching beard and with old-fashioned cords and tan slippers strolled through from his possible laboratory and into the small room hosting the paintings and sculptures. "Dobry den" I said, in that voice you use when you walk into a noise-sensitive area, such as a library. I was the only one there, I don't know who I was trying not to offend. With the mad professor slowly pacing up and down like an assiduous guard on duty I worked my way around the room. In the far right corner was a small tunnel leading from the main floor way and going into the wall towards the back of the property. It was dark and low, you would have had to get on hands and knees to get all the way to the end. But this tunnel was filled with marvelous old railway locomotives. Each one about as small as a modern motorbike, say. The rustic old ironwork slathered with thick paint of bright contrasting colours and a glorious old typeface announcing its proud maker in gold lettering. 'Original Lorenz' and 'L Benz & Spol'. It's hard to imagine placing these machines next to a modern train without gawking at their diminutive size, but then these were rather special and perhaps deserved a place outside of this dark passageway. It was at that point that I thought maybe he was planning an escape from the town via a secret chute. I could see it now, aviation goggles on and leather-strapped boots on his feet. The old professor sat astride the chugging engine, wailing "You'll never catch me now fools! Mwa-haa-haa!". I immediately realised I was being way too strange for my own good and just continued perusing the artwork, hiding my self-induced smirk of an over-imaginative mind.

One painting halted my step. A beautiful old street scene painted with a Mediterranean style iridescence. The oil paint didn't stop at the corners, it continued over the frame and covered the entire piece. It may have been overshadowed by the solid wood sculpted violin complete with shapely breasts, but a nice try anyway. I left the gallery feeling the light sensation of guilt that you might associate with walking through the check outs at the supermarket when you haven't actually bought anything, but I wasn't about to carry violin boobs on my backpack for the next 8 months.

Later that evening I ventured out into a cosy basement pizzeria. I sat at a two person table and told myself I would have to get used to this feeling of eating solo. My eyes wandered upwards of the salmon-coloured walls and high ceiling to the most unusual sight above my head. Of all the things that you might expect to be hovering above your head in a restaurant, a wood-carved cartoon Jesus is not one of them. With the Slovak double cross on his back he just gently swayed there. The double cross is a symbol found on the neighbouring Slovak flag and represents the Christian religion and the hills on the flag depict the three symbolic mountains Tatra, Matra and Fatra. But back to the hanging Jesus, this was most odd. Had I had a few more beers I may have done a double-take in disbelief. Jesus was holding two hanging lampshades though, which I thought was nice of him.

The pizza was fantastic and authentic. The highlight of this meal though was the Orechore Poteseni, a walnut ice cream sundae covered in sumptuous sauce. The Czechs know how to make a really good cake too, on a miserable day a nice big slab of layered sponge cake topped with raspberries in jelly could virtually take a person out of a coma, just for a taste.

I sat in the silent kitchen of the pension with a cup of tea and couldn't help feeling I should have moved on Eastwards towards Brno. The pine wood covered walls gave the place a modern alpine lodge feel. I was beginning to realise that pensions have a far lonelier feel than hostels, which usually have a few interesting characters to talk to. I pondered on that as the the tick-tock of the ubiquitous plastic kitchen clock and hum of the pine covered fridge became louder with every second. This was by far the earliest night's sleep I had in a long long time.

It was a fair walk to the bus station along the local road the next morning. I was intent of getting out of here as soon as I possibly could. Unfortunately the bus didn't come and I had to traipse all the way back to tourist information in town to find out when it would. It was 3 hours away, I would have to bumble about with my backpack passing the time in one way or another. I was definitely feeling different after having Tomoko's company for the last 3 days in Krumlov, but determined to get used to it again.

From Telc to Brno the bus took a typical road which led through rolling green fields with alpine forests on either side. Forest land still made up one third of the Czech Republic. Over the 40 years of communist rule the trees suffered from intensive management and industrial development. Today the low-lying sun cast a pinkish tinge onto the long trunks as darkness fell. Closer to Brno, my destination, the Northern skyline was overwhelmingly dominated by hundreds of towering concrete blocks of flats. I got the impression one block might just host the entire town of Telc.

Now, I'd like to say that I trusted my guidebook to a degree and thought I might continue to turn up without much up-to-date research on the towns I visited, at least in terms of accommodation. Well, I was about to learn a lesson. Arriving in the dark is never a particularly good idea anyway, arriving in the dark without a room or any idea where the bus station is in relation to the town was even worse. The amazing thing about Brno, the Czech republic's second-largest city was that it had only 1 hostel. Which was not in my book. The one that did feature in my book was simply not there anymore. After taking the 20 minute walk into town, and discovering that the one and only affordable place to stay was now a shop selling office supplies you can't help but feel a little cheated. And this was a big town. Shoppers were out in the dark, much like a London evening close to Christmas. I was obviously the odd one out. Out of breath, massive bags hanging off me like a laden coat stand. I could have been part of a 'Where's Wally' scene and I knew only too well that any 5 year old would spot me in a few seconds from bird's-eye view.

I had a fleeting sense of hope that the Internet would save me. If I could just make my way to a computer then Bill Gates would offer his personal assistance to a man in need. I mean, after all, this man gave billions to charity didn't he? This was not the authentic experience I had dreamed about, but this was a city and not a small Romanian village somewhere , where I might get invited in to sleep on a floor next to a herd of goats. That part was to come, maybe.

I walked into an O2 phone shop and waited patiently as the woman behind the desk stood staring at some papers and entered in some meaningless bullshit into her computer. 3-4 minutes must have gone by and the woman's head stayed firmly pointed at her screen. I couldn't hold my tongue any longer. "Prominte, mluvite anglicky?" I asked, in hope that she would declare she had an English degree and knew the city very very well. "Yes, a little" she said in a sarcastic tone. I took an immediate disliking to her smug face. After she told me she didn't know where I could get access to the Internet and as her head robotically snapped downwards again I sneaked off into the corner of the shop and hounded the laptop on display for purchase. "Damn it" I muttered, this thing was not allowing any access to the outside world. I didn't want to buy a cell phone package, I wanted a warm bed and a place to wash my socks in the sink. I walked out bedraggled and stern-browed.

I navigated my way to the nearest @ sign on my map, "damn it!" the former Internet cafe was now a dry cleaners. So I trekked uphill for 15 minutes to the next @ on the map, "shit!" this place is now a restaurant. I was running out of options fast. I knew I couldn't rough it on the streets, maybe I could do that somewhere in the country where I could find shelter and catch small rodents for supper, but in a city?...Well that's just low.

My luck was about to change. I would like to explain to you the feeling of finding a shop full of computer screens when you least expect it, but when you most need it. All those times that I cursed technology and swore never to place finger to keypad again were now a distant memory. I was ready to mount my designated computer and lick it with gratitude. By this point I had been wandering around for nigh on 2 hours with no hope of a place to sleep. Fleda hostel was uptown and a short taxi ride away. How a city of this size can host only 1 hostel is beyond me. There are travelling cheapskates passing through this city all the time, Fleda hostel must be making a killing. I was sure that my first taxi ride on the continent would result in financial accusations and lots of involuntary spitting, but thankfully he had the meter running. On what tariff- I don't know.

Fleda hostel had a funky atmosphere, the man behind the bar had a fine head of hair, a rough beard and a welcome smile. You see, I was sporting a rather gamely face full of fuzz myself at this point, we were surely on the same wavelength. His relaxed demeanor put me right at home. "Want a drink?" he said "beer, ANY beer" I retorted. I dropped my things from my back with a mighty 'clunk' on the floor and enjoyed that beer like there was no tomorrow. Starobrno, a new discovery and a fine brew.

The problem with the Czech Republic is that the beer is so nice and the tortilla kebabs so tasty that you could easily gain a few pounds in a matter of days. Even the restaurant food is packed with meat, potatoes, cheese, cabbage, meat, potatoes and meat, and then more cheese. But it's all so darn good and it's the small details that make Czech cuisine special amongst its Eastern European counterparts.

In my dorm room was a similar guitar-toting traveller, but Mark was in his 40's and teaching English in Brno. He had a quirky way about him, I praised the heavens for people like Mark. Interesting characters made interesting journeys. It was just a little sad I didn't get much time to sit down and chat to find out what made him tick, he was sound asleep by the time I got back from the bar downstairs and he left early the next day for a job. He did tell me however that there was a second hostel in Brno. Where it was or what it was like remained a mystery.

In the kitchen the next morning sat Elizabeth, a young Australian from Sydney travelling alone through Eastern Europe. Elizabeth had a mellifluous Australian accent and bright youthful eyes and as she sat there talking about her experiences travelling with her friend for the last 4 1/2 months I admired her gentle ambiance, slowly stirring her hot chocolate with an over sized spoon, but I was all packed up and ready to move on to Olomouc. She looked at me and simply said with the most genuine of tones "It was nice to meet you" and off I went. This was a stop-over with the briefest of meets.

My first opportunity to ride the tram came in Olomouc. The trams of Eastern Europe had been whizzing past in virtually every place I had been so far but I didn't have the need to step aboard until this point. Olomouc was a fairly laid-back town. Full of culture, great food and architecture to admire. It was a blend of all the places I had been so far with a good mix of atmosphere and vibrancy. I felt the people in Olomouc were pretty pleased to be living, or at least, to be going about their business here. I disembarked the tram to walk a few hundred yards to Poet's Corner hostel. It was an apartment building with a hostel on the 4th floor. I was introduced to the current residents by Greg, the Aussie owner. Greg was a fountain of information and his aloof manner hid a wealth of great recommendations and inside knowledge. From the green photocopied map he presented me with and subsequently drew on with a blue felt-tip pen I felt like I had toured the city without leaving my seat.

The people who founded Poet's Corner hostel already had the name in mind before the location. They were hoping for the first residential suburb where the streets are named after poets and where the rent was cheaper than the centre, but after this property became available in mid-town Olomouc they just couldn't come up with a better name. During the communist years the upper apartment was divided in two and the people who lived at the rear regularly held readings of underground and banned poetry, sometimes with the attendance of the authors themselves. After WWI the building became a printing works and publisher's office specializing in Czech literature and university publications. It was shut down in 1938 by the Nazis and then nationalised by the communists in the late 1940's. The name seemed, once again, appropriate. The place had a homely feel. Old Grandma chairs, a patterned rug and patchwork curtains lavished this place with character. Greg and his wife knew how to keep Poet's Corner personal, it was a real home away from home.

Sat in the biggest of the Grandma chairs was Chris, quite possibly the friendliest Scotsman you'll ever meet. We were a similar age, but there's no doubt who was the most travelled. Chris had been on some lengthy trips to some amazing places, he had already been in this hostel for 5 weeks. His own words were "I just got a good feel for the place". He was originally from just outside Glasgow but had lived in Edinburgh for a while. Travelling seemed to be in his system like an instinctive voice calling him to far away lands. He spoke of an ambitious trip to Russia to experience a winter there, as if it wasn't cold enough here. The thought alone sent a chill through my innards and reminded me that I really must buy a jacket since I had rather foolishly started this trip without one. At least my beard was keeping my face warm.

Jan, a resident Slovak sat in another equally weathered but opulent armchair reading his book and then occasionally interjecting with his own brand of politeness. Jan was moving back to Olomouc after a spell away back in his native Slovakia. He struck me as a thoroughly nice fellow and he was eager to hand out more local advice on what was good around town. In chair number three was a bearded Canadian from Niagara Falls called Jeff. Jeff had his head stuck in his laptop, not literally, that would be near impossible, I would have thought. I could only gather he'd been travelling a while and forgot to pack a razor.

In a well-mannered barrage of affable suggestions Chris and Jan suggested we go to the mini brewery, where they had a seemingly nonsensical system of rating their beers by strength using numbers like 11, 12, 13 etc. I was assured it had something to do with the alcohol content, but not in any sane, straight forward way. Great. One 12 was enough to get a feel of the place and swiftly move on to a more interesting venue. We made our way across town and rang the bell of a certain bar, which was tucked away in an alley off a main road. This place shall remain nameless for reasons imminently apparent. There was a long pause. Enough time to notice the security camera in the corner and the possible leering glances from the person at the other end of the closed circuit. The door opened and we walked in, "oh....that's why" I said. The unmistakable aroma of marijuana wafted out onto the street as the door slowly closed behind us, leaving the faintest hint for passers-by at what might be going on inside. The first person I saw, and I'm not kidding you, was a dread locked white guy in Rastafarian colours. Mystery solved. The bar staff had a look of caution, guilt and paranoia. I considered slipping my hand into my pocket as if looking for an undercover police ID, but discernment kicked in. In fact, smoking weed seemed to be pretty common in The Czech Republic despite its illegal status.

Through a network of passageways and dimly lit stairs we made our way to the table which sat inside an alcove in the corner. To the side was a short set of steps, surely designed for a pixie, which led up to another alcove seating area above our heads. You really had to watch your head at every turn. I immediately liked the place. It had character and I felt like a hobbit. Even the table itself was a work of art, the solid wood top held in place, not by legs as one might expect, but by spirally wrought iron bars extending up to the low ceiling. Random paintings embellished the dingy walls and structural deviations sprung up from impossible places. Whoever designed this place was a genius. Or just a bit stoned, probably from the passive smoke. I noticed to my pleasant surprise that Jeff, who incidentally was deaf in one ear and so had an unusual twang to his Canadian accent, had a wicked sense of humour. You wouldn't see it coming at first, he had a slightly frantic and animated manner about the way he spoke, but then with a couple of well placed and dry-humoured quips you immediately forgave him for his crazy eyes. By this point of the day Jeff had lopped-off the beard. I barely recognised the man when he emerged from his room at the hostel earlier that day. I nearly introduced myself twice. All in all I couldn't imagine being in a more interesting bar with a nicer set of chaps. A good start to a new town, and a welcome relief from the humming fridge in Telc.

One of my suspicions about Czech people was confirmed the next morning. They absolutely love to rake up leaves. Wandering the botanical gardens a herd of eager school children brushed past me, rakes in hand and with a hop in their step. Whether it be a park, a garden or a small common there would be at least one person scraping at the ground as if the leaves were the equivalent of toxic litter. Gotta get those leaves!

The town, in usual fashion was covered in a thin blanket of fog. I strolled up to the Olomouc museum upon Greg's recommendation. It became clear quite early on that photography inside the museum was allowed, but that flash was outlawed. Quite why, I have never figured out. As I made my way around the beautiful religious interiors and through the sculpture displays I noticed that each old lady guarding the artifacts gave a polite but extremely worried look in my direction. That man with a big camera and tripod must be up to something. One lady said something, obviously incomprehensible to me in a firm Czech tone, all I could reply with was "nemluvím Český" - I don't understand Czech. This was my defense to all things alien. She scuttered into the other room and reappeared apologetically with a well rehearsed English sentence permitting me to photograph without flash. The trouble was, that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing and I went through the same process in every room with every decrepit battle-ax. The main theme of the museum was the advent of Christianity on this area. It was really an Archdiocesan museum filled with historical donations from established men of God in the local vicinity. A fine collection of gold, sculpture, and paintings. As well as a superb decorative carriage, apparently originating from Vienna in 1746 for the Olomouc Bishop Cardinal Ferdinand Julius Troyer von Troyerstein. With a name like that, a golden fairytale carriage must be the only way to travel, pulled along my unicorns presumably.

I had been informed that some good local food could be found at decent prices in Hanacka Hospoda restaurant. After sitting for a while with a furrowed brow I admitted to myself that I didn't understand a word on the menu, so I just pointed to a reasonably priced jumble of words on the page denoted by an image of a pig at the bottom. Pork was especially delicious in the Czech Republic; knee, knuckle, whatever they could hack off and cook. These people knew meat. Wine was a well established product to come out of this part of the Czech Republic known as Moravia and at 50p a glass, I was trying some. The wine was very favourable, the mushrooms covering my meal were not. I always manage to surprise myself at my uncanny ability to pick out a dish that almost always comes carpeted in the disgusting slimy fungus. I was creating an impressive pile on the side of my plate when I realised half-way through that I was eating chicken. I could have sent it back, but didn't want to appear stupid for only realising this fact after about 20 mouth fulls of the stuff, it was very tasty though. This was an example the Great British sense of decorum I thought. Overall the establishment was ok. Having Sean Paul on the radio throughout the entire meal declaring that he wanted to 'get jiggy' didn't exactly add to the authentic ambiance of the place. I finished up and left.

That evening Chris and I went out for some food at a student eatery in town. A table for two men that barely know each other is always going to be a little awkward, at least at first. Chris was super-polite and had obviously been brought up well by his parents, one of whom was his step-Father. He had a refreshing attitude which lacked any resentment or insecurity about his family's past. Always asking how my meal was and offering a percentage swap so I could try some of his and then generously giving me a bigger portion of his own so as not to seem stingy. Chris was a top bloke, I can see how he would have had a good circle of friends back home who stuck with him through his life. It seemed justice was absent at this restaurant though as the rude waiter took it upon himself to take a tip out of Chris' change without asking. You'll get your tip when you give a toss about your customers I thought, and with a blank expression of discontent we left.

Feeling ready for a few drinks, we dropped by a local bar and sat talking about philosophy, religion, and life in general over a few beers. We noticed 3 of the new folks from the hostel were sitting at another table and gratefully accepted their invitation for more beers and a chat. They were two Australians and one South African. I had never heard a weaker accent from a Saffer in my life. Meegan had adopted a British/Australian lilt that abandoned her roots back in Africa. She was an extremely pleasant character with a smile that could spread through a whole room in seconds. The kind of girl you know your Mum would love to meet. Pete was unashamedly geeky, but humourous and likable to the Nth degree. His expectant jokes and his 'child at Christmas' gleeful stare reminded me of a character called Brett from a fantastic New Zealand comedy show called 'Flight of the Concords', which was aired on HBO in the U.S. It turned out he received that comparison a fair bit and could do a good impersonation. I was over the moon. Reuter was sitting in the corner and keeping the conversation flowing with snippets of well remembered general knowledge on just about anything you could imagine. My mind cast back to seeing Reuter in the hostel, on the phone, he had a distinct Aussie accent but then as the person picked up on the other end he stood up and rattled off a long line of conversational Czech, much to my surprise.

It turned out that Reuter's roots were firmly embedded in this region of Moravia, and Olomouc in particular. His parents were Czech citizens in the communist era. His Father, as smart as they come. Top of the class in everything, every time. His Father dreamed of a career in astrophysics simply because it was the best he could be. However, he was told he had to aim lower, not because he was incapable, but just because he was a religious man. Religion was downtrodden in communist nations and if you had a faith, you sacrificed not only yours, but also your family member's future career. Reuter's Father became a Doctor and during medical school met Reuter's Mother who was also studying medicine. Reuter was born and through a hard-working and prosperous career his Father began to feel the obligatory pressure from a number of peers to join the party and denounce his faith so he could provide better opportunities for his Son's life in the years to come. On a short trip to Austria with little Reuter in tow and only a small bag packed, the three of them promptly disappeared for a significant amount of time without even saying goodbye to their Moravian family, so as not to rouse suspicion. In a safe house in Vienna they lived for many months and worked demeaning jobs, just to get by, until they could find a permanent home away from the communist vacuum. After emigrating to Australia Reuter's Father was told his top grade qualifications meant nothing and had to reapply himself for the next few years to gain his Medicine degree for a second time, in another language. The man was the epitome of a dedicated Father and it pleased me immensely that Reuter embraced that with pride and was here to explore his family's heritage. Also sitting at the table was one of Reuter's cousins who lived here in Moravia, he was taking an adventurous step into his lost past and filling in the gaps as he went and I admired him for that.

After moving on to a club later than night and stumbling home past 4am I felt a sense of achievement that I had been out properly for the first time on the trip, tomorrow I was leaving the Czech Republic and heading South through the continent. As I boarded the train from Olomouc to Poprad I felt it had shown itself to be a country worthy of any one's time, and I knew that beneath the layers I had already reached there were even more enriching experiences to be had in the wonderful Česká republika. Mental note: must come back in the Summer. Na zdraví!

Posted by kookie888 09:22 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (1)

Trains, buses and Japanese tourists

large_DSC_6885.jpgI peered through the train window to check the sign, which read- 'Cesky Budejovice'. I had arrived, it was 10pm, dark and unnerving. On the street I consulted my map and made my way towards the Hostel. As I approached I could see it was a high-rise affair devoid of any of the artistic Bohemian trimmings I had been used to. The lift was ancient and tiny, but marvellously efficient. It was a cosy fit with my backpack and me taking up just about every square inch available. There was no protective door and consequently the floors were gliding past about 2 inches from my nose as I cocked my head back in mild discomfort. With a positive 'clunk' the door to the room unlocked, the room was large, with 3 wardrobes, 3 coat hooks, 3 desk spaces and 3 beds with 3 bedside cabinets. I was beginning to feel like goldilocks and hoped I would not be disturbed tonight by a drunken Daddy bear stumbling through the door after a night on the Budweiser.

A morning walk should be full of discovery and newness, but it was, well, mildly disappointing. Expecting to see a cascade of culture at every turn, I was starting to wonder if I had gotten off at the right stop. There was a sense of industry in the air. A slow moving river licked over some languishing weeds under a badly graffitied bridge. The women were noticeably less attractive. The streets only alive with the sound of passing cars.
The narrow streets began to promise something more interesting and as I navigated these city arteries looking for nam Premysla Otakara II, which is the told town square I could feel it was close. Gravitating towards it like water through a bottle neck, the streets opened up into the square. It was one of the largest squares in Europe, but somehow didn't feel like it.

Walking onto the square the sun began to pierce the clouds, the pavement lit up, people started to walk with purpose and the bells of the old Town Hall let out a chime. It was classical in style, with a big dong (pardon the expression) at the end of every phrase. The Town Hall sat on the West side of the square and painted a pastel blue shade with typical Baroque styling. On top were 4 statues representing the 4 cardinal virtues of Justice, Wisdom, Courage and Prudence. The purpose of the square in this modern day was to attract shoppers to its multitude of clothes shops and designer boutiques which laced the outer edges. Every pub advertised Budvar beer, and every foreigner felt obliged to try it.

When I returned in the evening, the square and it's Baroque-heavy circumference was now, in typical Czech style, a night time set of stunning Bohemian lines, colours and form. The Samson fountain set in the middle became the social hub for a few folk wise enough to visit during the hours of darkness. I noted that every time I passed this area there was always at least one clamped car complete with traffic official and embarrassed driver filling out paperwork. With crowns in hand, the drivers were instructed to pay on the spot for their heinous crimes and with any luck, the local authorities might light this place year-round with parking ticket fines alone. I was also beginning to notice that there were a lot of bearded old drunk men, cans in hand, loitering on street corners. If it wasn't for the fact that they could barely put one foot successfully in front of the other, I might be worried. The teenagers with large plastic bottles of luminous alcoholic concoctions posed a bigger threat.

I ventured out of my room later that night for some food, my stomach was calling out for something fatty and fulfilling. I reached a point not 5 minutes from the hostel when I heard what sounded like a gunshot. I turned around and saw one lady in the distance stop and face a side-street. I doubted myself for a moment, then she took out her mobile phone and seemed to dial a number. I could see her looking my way, but I was still unsure of what was happening. The other few people in the high street were walking about in a regular manner. The lady continued on her way and began to walk towards me from a distance, I carried on. Now, unsure of myself I found myself looking over my shoulder and judging indeterminately as strangers strolled past, wondering if they were in on something. This was just the type of paranoia I was intent on avoiding, so I gave myself a quiet talking to and went on to enjoy a lovely Turkish kebab in the high street. A kind of fat-based reward for being brave. Well, they didn't sell lollipops.

I returned to the hostel to find 4 young German backpackers trying to check-in with the lady behind the glass partition. It always makes me smile watching 2 different nationalities trying to communicate using English as an intermediate. It's such a difficult language, and you can see the desperation in their eyes as they offer broken sentences in hope of a comprehensible response. I walked towards the lift and realised the young travellers had backpacks and might need it more than me, so I took the stairs, which conveniently gave me plenty of privacy to laugh my way to my room as I decided that there really was nothing funnier than 4 Germans trying to squeeze into a lift.

Later that evening I decided to make a phone call to a pension in Telc, which was to be one of my next destinations. A pension was a private living quarters, often with bathroom, multiple beds and kitchen facilities, a step up from a hostel dorm and the only choice in many smaller towns. The lady on the other end of the line spoke in Czech and I interjected with my preferred choice of languages. I became clear however, that we were going to have trouble understanding one another as she offered Deutsche as an alternative. I quickly harked back to the days of GCSE German with Ms Belsey and attempted a sentence. "Ich habe eine.....reservation" I couldn't remember the word for reservation. You see, I already had a reservation and wanted to say sorry for not turning up and could I book a reservation for 2 days time. I knew this would be beyond me, not having any need to speak German for the last 13 years made me more than a little rusty, at best. Nevertheless I continued when the silence became too much to bare, silence on the phone is always a worrier. "ich möchte eine.....reservation......für Sonntag", after another reattempt at the same statement, this time with my best German lilt the lady confirmed my request with one of her own, but of course now I was out of my depth and couldn't respond with anything else. She asserted her point and after a long set of 'beep beeps' the phone went dead. The old crone had hung up on me. "How dare she?" I said to myself staring blankly at the handset, and with a sense of indignation I retired for the evening with intent to head in the opposite direction towards Cesky Krumlov instead.
The digital clock ticked over at Cesky Budejovice bus station and as I sat there people-watching I couldn't help thinking that folk in these parts walked, sat and stood without the faintest hint of a smile. I thought about Thailand, the so called 'land of a thousand smiles' and the difference was immense. The women in particular seem particularly troubled and defensive. Streaks of communist oppression gone by remain in the hearts and minds of the Czech Republic's people. I thought about something Pavlina told me in Teplice, that it was such a beautiful town with spirit and stunning old baroque architecture, but then communism swept though like a dark shadow and the buildings were replaced with concrete blocks of flats for fear that the bohemian style was 'too German' in appearance. Creativity suffered, the state told you what you could read, what you could watch on TV and how you should live; hard working and faithful to communist ideals. On the whole, it seemed positive that the Czech Republic was on the rise and derobing from the heavy garments of Soviet dogmas. I boarded the bus, it was only a short ride to Cesky Krumlov and all the way I made plans and notes, deciding when and where to move onto tomorrow.
Arriving in Cesky Krumlov, I was slightly bemused at the isolation of this bus stop and where I should head to find the centre. So I donned my rucksack and consulted the map and trusty compass. I bought this compass on a former trip to Bangkok and I was sure that one day it would get me out of a real dilemma. So with my life on my back I crossed the road, looked at the large town map displayed for tourists and started walking West. The sun was low and shining bright, straight through the golden brown-tinted trees, the leaves drifted down as the wind blew gently past the branches. A small cafe with tables outside selling Budweiser Budvar beer caught my eye. There was something in the air, the peaceful breeze of content, a blissful feeling of something special around the corner. As I turned the corner the majestic sight of old city walls rose up like a lofty cliff face from the grass verge, elongated stone arches allowed passage underneath. More cobbled pathways led through the entrance to the city. It had all the hallmarks of a true medieval city, small in size but big on atmosphere. The cobbled streets were clearly made for walking, not driving. I walked over one of the many city bridges which crossed the Vltava river, the same river that slices Prague in two. I was in total shock and awe at how amazing this small town was and how well preserved it appeared. I was on my way to Hostel Postel, a silly name, but a bed nonetheless. Little did I know that I had marked the hostel on my map on an adjacent road to the correct one. I spent the next 45 minutes lugging my belongings up and down hills, city steps, narrow side streets and what was once the fascination a few minutes prior became the source of frustration and a string of breathless curses. Outside a guesthouse a lady, looking distinctly gypsy-like offered some aid to what must have been the vision of a near-broken man, "do you need some help?", and with the sweat pouring from my brow a simple "yes" was all I could muster with the exhalation of relief evidence of my current lung status. She was clear and concise with her instruction, exactly what I needed. Realising my error I apologised to Cesky Krumlov and proceeded to the correct road. Hostel Postel was small, private, quiet, homely and warm. Fantastic. The solid wood furniture, tiled floors and little courtyard reassured me that I must have picked the best hostel in town. It didn't take long before I scrapped the plan to leave tomorrow and stay an extra day in this extraordinary location. I sat in the kitchen gratefully sipping my free coffee and with the tick-tock of the mock Grand Central Station clock, I quietly contemplated the next couple of days here.

The winding streets are flanked by Renaissance and Baroque buildings. With uneven old brickwork underfoot you have to watch out when perusing the crooked angles of the surrounding houses and businesses. With my camera mounted on its tripod and slung over my shoulder I strolled into a small garden, which gave a good viewing point over the river and houses below. I stared for a moment at the city plan when a man standing beside me turned and asked "is that one of those digi-cal cameras, you know one of those new fangled digi-cal things? It's impressive isn't it....digi-cal?" His Liverpudlian accent and toothy smile threw me for a moment, I replied "yes, DIGITAL is good, much more convenient" putting vernacular stress on the correct pronunciation. He seemed unperturbed and continued "yes, our Nephew Paul has one of those new digi-cal cameras, they're quite good" as if teaching me something I didn't already know. "Are you a photographer?" I paused a moment..."Yes, a photographer and writer". "Oh who do you write for?" he enquired. Immediately regretting my decision to talk myself up I turned on the swagger for fear of being found out. "Oh, you know, I'm independent at the moment". "Go on, what's your name then?" he said, I told him my first name "Adam what?" he insisted. "Adam Lucas" I replied, knowing that he was mentally recording my every word for later examination. "I'll look out for you". At this point he began randomly telling me about a tour he had been on earlier that day, something to do with a place maybe 20 km North of here here where there was a stone monument built by the Russians or Americans where they met during WWII and that this was a place that they met every year to commemorate the joining of forces. As I write this I may be completely wrong about the details, but the important message is that neither did I ask to hear about or want to hear about this highlight to his day. Don't get me wrong, I like the random meets you experience as a traveller, but this was just weird. The low point came when he called over his wandering wife to ask her what date it was that the Russians and Americans meet at the statue in question. Woe betide you if you get to a point in a one-way conversation that the person begins to question them self in the manner of "oh, no but was it May 1st, or was it in June? No it was definitely in May. No it was June! I'm sure it was in May.....darling...when was it that the Russians and Americans meet at the statue" "What?" she replied portraying a lifetime of endless and pointless questions from her tired eyes. "You know that statue we went to today, when was it that......" and so on an so forth. Losing the will to live might be an over-exaggeration, but I was getting close. Then he called over his Czech friend and repeated the question, my blank expression didn't convey its intended message and even at the point at which his friend offered to "draw me a map" to a place that I had not even asked about, he didn't click that I was beginning to think about throwing myself off the garden wall to escape the verbal assault of random recommendations. The juncture came when my opportunity to express my malcontent at the way this conversation was going arrived, my eyes wandered at his feet and the awkward silence turned to a nod and "Well ok then, see you". I was free.

As I approached the garden wall which looked over the city a young Japanese lady was asking a European tourist to kindly take her photo for her. She took photo number one and the Japanese girl offered a charade like indication to take another in portrait for her. "Thank you", "you're welcome". I got the feeling that she was not too happy with the result and I looked over at the Japanese lady thinking she might ask me to take her photo. I was after all carrying a rather large tripod-mounted camera. Various exchanges of wondering glances went back and forth in an aloof fashion, but neither of us offered or asked anything. It was clear she was travelling alone. She had that inquisitive look in her eyes and smooth, interested walk that only a lonesome traveller has when navigating through a new city.
A couple of hours later I walked back to the hostel and greeted the group of backpackers gracing the kitchen, I noticed the Japanese girl was in the middle of the bunch. Surprised to see a familiar face amongst some new ones I waved and said "hi" in a suggestive manner to indicate I had seen her previously. She didn't seem to be enjoying the young Aussies' conversation and after a couple of minutes came over to talk to me in the kitchen. "Do you have big, nice cam-era?" "Yes, I saw you in the garden today" I replied. Her name was Tomoko, and it was clear she had a totally adorable nature, the way only a young Japanese woman attempting English could have. We talked awhile and realised that she wanted to ask me to take her picture and that I wanted to offer, but neither of us did. The group in the kitchen were going out to dinner, but we managed to avoid the invitation and go out for food and beer by ourselves. At the restaurant the waiter asked if she wanted a large or small beer, "big beer" she replied with impressive vigour. The next five beers at the Havana club went by like a breeze with plenty of laughs and friendly chit-chat. We made our plans to do breakfast early the next morning.
Waking up late, it was clear that 'breakfast' would turn to 'brunch'. So we ventured out for something to eat. A small stall was selling authentic Czech sausage and a kind of fried potato cake, so we took our food down to the riverside below Krumlov castle and ate in the afternoon sun. The river rushed past and the conversation flowed freely. Walking up to the castle and through the castle gardens, we talked about everything from Japanese culture to the Beatles to our respective trips. We sat amongst the autumn trees and I wondered if the leaves continued to fall at this rate, how long they would take to become bare. They drifted in the light breeze and the squirrels went about their business collecting whatever it was they were collecting. Craving some more of the Czech Republic's authentic street food we lined up for a cinnamon-baked treat that wafted gorgeous aromas from two streets away. Trdelnik was a pastry which was coiled around a hot spindle, grilled and then dipped in cinnamon and sugar. We took our warm trdelnik along with some hot wine with lemon and sugar we had picked up from another stall and sat at the same riverside spot for the late afternoon sky to turn towards the hours of dusk. A nice day was becoming quite perfect.
Returning to the hostel, it was totally empty and the entire place was devoid of any other inhabitants. We spent the next 10 hours doing not very much and being totally glad about it. The sense of peace and quiet was almost overwhelming. Two days later we were sat at Cesky Krumlov station waiting for the bus to Ceske Budejovice. At Ceske Budejovice we exchanged details and went on our respective paths. Tomoko towards Prague and the end of her trip, me towards Telc and still skimming the surface of mine. I knew I would miss her smiley charm and cute phrases. I sat on the bus and felt the space of one-person travel surround me once again, this was the way I had planned it, this was the way it was to be.

Posted by kookie888 14:38 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Moving on

The first proper conversation of this trip came in the hostel. John was an American from Louisianna, Tennessee and Ohio. It seemed important to him to include all three in his own introductions. He struck me as a cool, go with the flow type of guy; a contributor to all things awesome. And while we both cooked our respective meals in a kitchen not lacking in facilities, but not overflowing with them either, we began to talk about the trash on Czech TV. The only thing was, it was American trash, but I maintained my non-partisan stance and just went along with the judgement in a less than committed series of half-hearted affirmations. 'I just wanna chill tonight man, but there's nothin' decent on. I wish there was, like, a movie channel or somethin',' he said. John had a Southern twang to his accent, which I took in good humour, unbeknown to him. He was an intensely likable character and had a lazy way about his demeanor. He was all about the good times and doing what he loved, drinking and instructing kayaking and diving in Barcelona; hopefully not at the same time. He sat down to eat his fried mince in a roll. 'I may have over-thought this,' I said, as I sat at the table with my tuna mayo jacket potato and a side of miniature bread slices with an unknown brand of cheese and chopped, stuffed olives on top. John and I chatted a while, shared some details of our trips and went our separate ways. It was a start.

The next day, having spent most of the afternoon in the hostel, it was time to get out and sample some local food. A bar/restaurant down the road called U Novaka seemed perfectly safe, clean and welcoming. 'Do you do food?' I asked in my most coherent of English sentences. A nod, a mutter and a pointing finger- success. As I sat, I noticed the quiet music was completely drowned out by the voices of all eight quietly-speaking patrons, which rebounded astoundingly well off the yellow arched ceiling into a kind of amalgamated echo. Sitting at the only table, which was faced by a picture of two entwined love hearts and cobwebbed wooden trim, I asked myself if this was a sign. Travelling alone has its advantages, but being alone in life was not something I was privy to. A young, but slightly portly waiter with blonde curtains came up and took my order. 'I'll have the goulash and Budvar.'
'We only have Pilsen.'
'OK, that's fine,' I replied. The Czechs virtually invented lager and the two major players in this claim stem from Plzen (Pilsner Urquall) and Cesky Budejovice (Budvar, or Budweiser in German). World-class beers with a high head, and at thirty Czech crowns, cheap too. Paying a little over one British pound for half a litre of fine brew was a relief after handing out the crowns the way I had been for the past few days.

Realising I had no scraps of paper for my notes I began scribbling on a beer mat, and folded another in half to cure the wonky table. 2 minutes past and the steaming bowl of beef goulash with vegetables slowly stewed in beer made its way to my table. Yikes, that looks tasty, I though as my eyes gleamed simultaneously. Every mouthful was confirmed to be good by an involuntary nod on my behalf, by the end I was sad it was gone.
I pondered briefly on the smoke in the air and echoed conversations when it occurred to me that I had barely seen one unattractive woman here in Prague. It was truly a city of wonders in all directions.

"Would you like 1 more beer?" The waiter asked. "Zaplatim prosim" I said, trusting in my ability to replicate most accents semi-respectfully, with absolute clarification the waiter totted up the bill and I paid up and left feeling mightily pleased.

Sitting on a cold bench at Praha Nadrazi Holesovice station I watched the sky turn from uniform white, to grey to black, God had his hand on the dimmer switch. The street lights shone like a torch in a black hole as if powered by an ageing mouse pedalling a penny farthing. I was here to board a bus to a town called Teplice. There were sand rocks in this region, and I was ready to see something other than city decor. I decided against getting out the guitar and immediately labelling myself as a social misfit, and as people gathered I concurred with my own sensibility. The bus pulled up and I presented my e-ticket which I bought online to the miserable looking driver. His eyebrows raised at the ends as if to say "everyone else gave me cash and you give me this? Think you're fancy do you?" His shoulders shrugged and I was in. It became obvious within 2 steps that my reserved seat number meant nothing here. In fact I was lucky to get a seat at all.

I was on my way to meet 2 strangers in Teplice, you see, I was going to surf their couch. Couchsurfing is an online community of travellers and generally nice, hospitable human beings who value the experience of meeting new people and learning from their culture, and so give their couch/spare bed/shared bed(!) as a kind of stepping stone to all folk passing through in search of the same. It was a 'if I let you stay for free at mine, can you let me stay for free at yours one day?' type of arrangement. No one would hold you to it, but it was all done within the spirit of free travel and gaining unique life experience.

Stepping off the bus I saw Pavlina and Tom waiting, looking like 2 parents greeting their child after a long stay at boarding school. I was certain to find this whole experience strange at first but I was excited. "Hello Adam, nice to meet you", Tom smiled and shook my hand, Pavlina the same. "Ok, can we go?" said Tom "Yes" I replied with an air of upbeat enthusiasm, determined not to stare down my host with the mistaken look of a British axe-murderer. Which of course, is always a possibility.

The three of us arrived at the local pub for some of Plzen's famous nectar, Pilsen beer. One sip and I was praising the Gods for allowing the Czechs to create such a masterpiece. If only Alfonso Mucha knew his country would be famed for the inauguration of lager to the world, he might have put down the paintbrush and joined the business venture. After an evening of eating good food and drinking better beer we headed back to their home. I was to sleep in a shared room on a sofa bed, it seemed vintage in a way. Maybe it was the removable sheet of plywood to stop me falling through the springs or the holes in the sheets, but I was unfailingly grateful for the hospitality. Tom and Pavlina were a warm couple and being in their lovely home a humbling experience. I spent the night trying not to snore and with their dog Nollie curled up at my feet.


In the morning Tom and I walked around Teplice and then drove to the sand rocks at Tisa. At one point in the history of our great Earth the sea had been through here and carved an interesting set of rocks into a great tourist attraction. Mother nature, our friendly provider. The air was crisp and fresh, Tom's golden retriever Nollie, so named after a skateboarding trick, was bouncing about with youthful intent. At the top, the view of this region was predictable, very pretty but hazy. We were blessed with sunshine, but the atmosphere retained a wintery density that your eyes struggled to penetrate through to the horizon. Breathing deeply, I reminded myself that I was going to have to become an awful lot fitter if I was going to tackle the forthcoming High Tatras in Slovakia and Carpathian mountains in Romania. We descended and drove to get some Vietnamese cuisine to take back to Pavlina who was, unfortunately, feeling under the weather. I considered the possibility I may have brought an English form of deadly mutated swine flu into the couple's house, then I remembered that it was all government hype and besides, I felt fine.

At the train station, I booked my ticket for Ceske Budejovice, in the South-West and said goodbye to Tom. At all times when carrying my belongings I was maintaining my self-reliance in spotting pickpockets, and I was sure I had seen several up until this point, but this was just conjecture so far. I hoped it wouldn't turn into anything more. Czech trains are segregated into booths with 6 seats in each. On the Prague to Ceske Budejovice leg of the journey I had myself a little sing song, alone in a darkened booth. I realised that when it came to sharing that fact, I might be pitied. But as the wind blew through the open window and the passing lights drifted past like fireflies I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else, doing anything else. These were the moments I would remember.

Posted by kookie888 15:27 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

The Beginning

The airplane wheels screech on the runway tarmac. Finally, after years of waiting, I had landed in Prague. I swiftly made my way to claim my baggage and approached the security gate. Well, having never been to the Czech Republic before I was unsure of the protocol at security. Thankfully the signs on the wall by the security window gave some rough guidelines. Here we go, the obligatory no smoking symbol, OK. Next to that, a no food symbol, OK. And then something curious, a no handguns sign. There it was, displayed just as routinely as the others. No handguns. Thank God I left my Beretta at home, or I'd be in for a jolly good ticking-off, and who knows what that would involve.

I had decided to start this trip off frugally by ignoring my hostel's airport pick-up service and going straight for the counter to buy a ticket for the bus and metro, which would take me to within 3 minutes of said establishment. A prompt transaction ensued, followed by a swift entry onto the bus, which conveniently pulled up within seconds of my rucksack being slung off my ill-prepared back. This was going too well. So, with a satisfying 'click-click' I cheerily verified my ticket in the machine on-board, which is, by the way, mandatory, lest you receive a tasty fine for your laziness. Oh, and a half ticket for the backpack. And there was me beginning to feel suddenly alone in a strange city. I was buying a ticket for my bag for Pete's sake. I wondered momentarily if I might begin building up a friendship with my pack in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Tom Hanks on that Island with his beloved football Wilson.
Not 30 seconds had gone by had I sharply- but evidently not sharply enough- realised that the instructions to my hostel, along with my travel insurance documents and names and addresses of everyone I intended on staying in contact with were now forgetfully perched on the counter at the bus ticket office without their owner. Shit.

I began to make the inevitable twitches of despair, half getting up from my seat. Should I? Shouldn't I? Bursting through the closed doors at this point was certain to cause injury, and in any case, was I prepared to show myself to be the bumbling British traveller I so hoped I wasn't to a bus full of strangers? The more I though about it, the more I decided that there was nothing important in that pack of paperwork. This, of course, was nonsense. I was screwed.
But wait! I remembered briefly reading through the instructions to Chilli's Hostel. Was it plausible that I might actually have retained that information so I could at least get to my bed and cry myself to sleep in private? Although I'd booked a dorm room with, at best, 3 other people. But wait! My travel insurance contract was stored on my email as well. Even better, no need for a paper copy. Lastly, there were the names, phone numbers and addresses of my friends and a few travel notes in that pack too, but with any luck this might be a viable way out of sending any postcards.
Right, so it's not that bad after all. I could stop my bum twitching and try to enjoy the fact that I had arrived in this new city and would soon be having a good time. Except, amongst the lost paperwork was my savings account phone number and customer code. That, coupled with my name and address adorning the travel insurance document and I could be in for a painful loss. And...clench.

Bus, metro and walk. I was sure I could manage this. It's always hard to judge whether a dark alley is just a dark alley or a big mistake. As it turns out it, walking from the metro station, it was just a dark alley. Little did I know that with a bang I would be in for my first truly authentic Czech experience on the first night, watching one Skoda back into another. I couldn't have wished for a more amusing and ironic gesture. Thank you Prague for that one. Having got off at the right stops, walked in the right direction and turned into the right roads Chilli's Hostel stood before me like a glowing little backpacker grotto, a welcome sight after a silly start. I checked-in and sat there in the common area feeling like the new child in class, trying to appear cool and experienced. Eventually, feeling myself failing at that, I decided it was best to get an early night and start afresh on a new day.

A thin mattress is a death sentence. This was my second lesson in as many days. This bunk bed flexed and creaked in usual hostel fashion, and on the morning of day two it would take the guile and steady manoeuvrability of a chameleon not to wake my fellow dorm-troopers. I had set myself the chance of an early start, to take in as much as I could manage in a day. So, off I went into the deep end of sightseeing.

The first major point that I came across was Charles Bridge. Built in 1357, it was dotted with a spattering of 18th century statues, and seemed like a charming place to start. I arrived before the hordes and had the bridge to myself. Well, sort of. A dozen or so construction workers were diligently constructing away on what I assume were repair works, which covered one whole flank of the bridge behind a make-shift hoarding. There's something about orange hazard fencing and cones that puts work to spoiling a perfectly good view of an attractive structure, but like the man with two faces, it looked all right from one side.

I decided that if my usually casual walk was to turn into a brisk march, it would only be to serve the purpose of warming myself up due to the bloody freezing temperatures here in Prague in November. I was determined to bring my pace down to holiday speed, and having only left England the day before, it was a comforting instruction. The bridge, despite the workman in the tipper truck following me 5 metres behind (come on, we're in Europe now) all the way, was a delight. The theatrical statues of Dvorak and Jesus (still not entirely sure which one is God in this notably atheistic country) were quite impressive. Still, I didn't want to stand motionless for too long, I may be a warm-blooded mammal, but I didn't feel like it. A few photos, and on to the west of the River for an exploration of Prague Castle.
Wow, this is one huge Castle ground. Apparently, being the world's biggest castle complex was not enough for the folks that built it, they had to fill it with a plethora of awe-inspiring Baroque cathedrals, basilicas, stately government buildings and trading streets which beg to be explored into every nook and dark corner. Approaching St. Georges Basilica, I noticed a friendly looking red-haired gentleman standing by a table for tickets to a concert which began in a few hours. Pachelbel's Canon, Mozart's Divertimento in D and Vivaldi's Four Seasons would be performed by the Prague Royal Orchestra. Now, not being a regular listener to classical, I surprised myself by a positive inner-jolt at the thought of watching such great works in such a beautiful and historic building. I had, in the past, always enjoyed the odd classical concert that my Father had taken me to, so there was no reason to assume this would be any different. I just had to fill a few hours and return in time for the start of the performance.

Walking towards Starometske nam (Old Town Square) back across Charles Bridge, I noticed how much busier it had become. The bridge had become a business. At one stand the wandering tourists were being played to by an earnest-looking lady with a ceramic flute. I remember thinking first of all that this was basically just a small piece of pottery with some holes in it, and secondly, how can such an authentic and quite legitimate range of notes be coming from that thing? I walked on. If there's one thing the backpacker quickly learns it's not to show too much interest at market stalls, in case you end up selling all your valuables to raise just enough funds to buy that overpriced bamboo elephant you never wanted. Along the spine of this stone Bridge more stalls vied for equal attention from the gathering multi-lingual tourist crowd. Paintings, panoramic photography, operatic singers, a guitar-playing clown puppet, it was all here.
On the other side of the Bridge the old Town Square appeared and immediately took me in. This was a special space. A large pedestrianised, stall-filled, and consequently crowd-filled area, surrounded on all sides by stunning, colourful Baroque architecture. I could wander here for a bit then go back to my Hostel to put on some warmer clothes for my return to Prague Castle for the concert.

Big sausages! Admiring glances from passers-by at the stall selling huge sausage meat and gigantic wheels of cheese amused me, these stalls were going all-out to impress. Vintage open-top Rolls Royce cars were lining up on one side of the street and beautiful horses and carriages on the other. Prague was really beginning to shine. This place knew how to provide a good service. As luck would have it, as I approached the old Town Hall clock tower the clock stood suspended at 11:59am. The huge crowd seemed expectant. I was convinced that a spectacle was about to appear from some part of the astronomical clock, as I had heard it did something quirky on the hour, every hour. But this was noon, I had come at the right time. In truth, nothing different happens at noon compared to any other hour of the day. The little gold skeleton man tugs on a chord which rings the bell and a some holy-looking figures circle around through 2 openings above the clock face. A trumpet sounds and it's all over. The revering crown cheer, whistle, clap and disperse. I was too busy trying not to get pick-pocketed to fully enjoy the whole routine but I liked it nonetheless.

Sitting in the VIP section of St. Georges Basilica, front row, middle seat I was waiting for something special from the orchestra. As they tuned-up you couldn't help but feel very lucky to be in such a fine establishment, and as a backpacker, very lucky indeed. This was not bungee-jumping. Maybe I had just convinced myself I was a real traveler, I'm sure this type of thing is not allowed in the backpacker's handbook, it was way too sophisticated. Then it happened, in those first few gentle notes of Pachelbel's Canon it dawned on me that I had arrived. I had left my home in England and come to a stunning location and was being treated to a very special human achievement in this piece of music. Tingles, gulps and utter fixation all became completely involuntary. The music reverberated perfectly off the stone walls and high ceilings and for an hour and a half- the scene, my life and that moment was just perfect.

Walking out of the Basilica, the darkness had enveloped the sky and my daytime experience inside these castle walls transformed into a completely different animal. At night, the castle complex was utterly astounding. Anybody that comes here and doesn't see it at night has missed out on more than half of its charm. I spent the next two hours wandering, gasping and shaking my head as I took some of the most beguiling photography I had ever had the pleasure of witnessing through the viewfinder. Today, was a good day.

On my third day in Prague, I set myself an equally busy task of walking the city and seeing some unique features.
On the road which lay juxtapositioned to the River, the silvery tramlines glistened in the light rain. It occurred to me that driving across tramlines in the wet would require a certain amount of poise because of the slippery surface. Not a moment later, a frisky little Fiat came hurtling around the bend, and in a Starsky & Hutch-style manoeuvre, slid sideways, nearly side-swiping the oncoming traffic. The car came to a halt and then pulled away again as if nothing had happened. As the car passed, the female passenger looked extremely relieved and at the same time intensely determined to show a placated expression. Brilliant.

Walking across Charles Bridge was beginning to become a well-trodden routine. With a simple map, the City was easy to navigate by foot. What was more challenging however, was trying not to become a part of a Japanese family portrait. As soon as you begin to admire the sights, that's the point at which you step into a flash of light and a disgruntled man-with-camera gives you a confounding look as to why you didn't see him pointing the camera at his grinning relatives. This was becoming somewhat of a slalom.

Pacing behind me were two American ladies. There was one part of their conversation I couldn't help but enjoy so very much. 'You know, you have to give the Communists some credit; they spent a decent amount of money on building a lot of statues.' My eyes lit up and the corners of my mouth curled into a subdued state of pre-laughter. Did I just hear an American praising the communist's artistic policies on public spaces? I'm no expert on this issue, but it did amuse me no end.

The walk up to the Strahov Library was an uphill monster. Out of breath and thirsty, I stood for a moment in front of the library, taking in the atmosphere in the leafy courtyard. The area of Hradcany was quiet and winding, perfect for a stroll on a leisurely day, and the Library was a welcome assuagement from the chill in the air. Having bought my ticket, I began looking around the first room at various artifacts purporting to be something to do with the history of the literary word in Bohemia.
I was approached by a lady guide, who, in a mixture of Czech/English and rudimentary finger-pointing, told me the Library was closing in ten minutes; it wasn't even midday yet. I politely soldiered on, guide-lady in tow, just in case I didn't get her instruction. As I peered inquisitively at the displays, the curious old lady began to describe each artifact in amazing detail; the trouble was I didn't speak Czech. So I did what any apologetic foreigner would do and nodded, a lot. 'Hmm, da, da'. The facade was beginning to get a little tiresome, until I reached the end of the hallway and saw the most awe-inspiring side room; filled on all sides with old wooden bookshelves and some seriously old books. The room was not for entering; clearly shown by the wooden plank stretching across the threshold at chest-level. This wasn't really going to stop an intrusion, I thought. Looking into the fresco-painted hall was like staring through a window back in time, maybe five hundred years or so. It was entirely worth the hill climb alone. Some more informative, but ultimately useless, Czech commentary spewed from the dear old guide's wrinkled lips, and that was my lot. A succinct visit if ever I had one. Lovely. Time to go then. You know that feeling when you exit an establishment and the keys are already in the door, ready to lock out the last customer? Well, today, that was me, and I took great pleasure in that. With a swift 'Na shledanou,' I was out of there.

Walking back towards the downhill retreat, the library bells began to sound. I stood on some high ground and gazed at the panoramic view of the whole of Prague below me. Distant bells rang in an echoing response from the vista below. I took that time to stop and soak up the moment; it was what this trip to Europe was all about.

Descending the Uvoz road was much more enjoyable than the climb. In front of me were a couple. A man stood behind his marginally shorter wife and proceeded to, in my opinion, ingeniously use his wife as a kind of human tripod. With his camera perched on top of her head, he lined up the shot of the view below and snapped away. If only I'd thought of that. I'd have left my tripod at home and just approached random people in the street asking for a favour from time to time.

Feeling rather satisfied with life, I stepped into a café for a cappucino. I noticed after another attempt at greeting a waitress with 'Dobry den,' that no one was really getting it. Perhaps it was customary not to respond with a similar greeting, or maybe they were all foreigners too; at any rate, I wasn't too offended. On the walls of this café were an assortment of photographic images, each one for sale, and each one of a professional grade. Views of Prague, pictures of performing celebrities and a quite extensive portfolio of framed images of a man named Karel Gott. I was lost on this one. Flittering through my notes and sipping this rather distasteful coffee, I was notably optimistic that writing a book about the random idiosyncrasies of man and country would indeed be a good idea. So far, I was pleased with the content of this intriguing city, and besides, the many faces of Karel Gott seemed to appease my ideas from across the wall. So I had a good feeling it would all work out OK.

Walking around St. Nicholas' Church was a pleasant sight. It is one of the most indicative Baroque creations in the City, but more importantly, why did these parking meters look like profiles of Roman Soldier's heads? This was the kind of stuff I wondered about. Was it intentional? Was it a ploy to put the fear into the casual motorist so that they would perpetually feed the Roman's mouth with their pocket change? I fear I may never know.

The Old Jewish quarter around Josefov seemed like a good idea for an informative, if slightly depressing, holocaust reminder. Entering the Pinkas Synagogue, the first thing you notice are the names of the victims inscribed on almost every viewable wall surface in the building. A poignant illustration of the loss that this community suffered. In a few steps and a few moments of scanning the names, I saw one name which caught my eye- Adolf. Not even a Jewish man named Adolf managed to escape the wrath of the Gestapo. The names were so numerous that after pondering that though for a moment, I couldn't find that name again for looking. It became one big haze of lettering. A donation box sat meekly in the corner of the room, partially filled with the gratuities of passing tourists. As I looked up at the walls, the Bose speaker system spoke volumes; I don't think these people are short of a buck or two.

Each synagogue on the walking tour brought with it something only slightly different from the next. So to my delight, as I entered the last of the lot, the Spanish Synagogue, I was immediately thankful for spending out on the ticket. The interior, completed in 1893, was nothing short of breathtaking. Every square inch of wall and ceiling surface was decorated with stylised Islamic motifs. The arches, the domes and the stained-glass windows all shaped this wonderful place to epic proportions. It was not a particularly large floor space, but the high ceilings and walls were gracefully and patiently painted with burgundy, deep green and gold brushstrokes, and as you tried to take it all in, your eyes would shift from one corner to the next in disbelief of the level achievement and artistry. Going back out through the lobby, the greying and pensive-looking man inside the ticket booth called me over. I told him where I was from and he asked me if I had taken any pictures of the synagogue interior. Knowing that it was forbidden, I told him no, and he gave me a little secret. In broken English 'If go upstairs, the lady is guarding the silver, go to other side and make picture, no one will know,' wink. I thanked him and left, reluctantly keeping my camera in the bag.

Stopping at the bridge, South of Charles Bridge, was an ideal viewpoint to capture the skyline in the dimming night sky. The floodlights illuminated the cathedral in the castle grounds in the distance. The old street lights reflected and shimmered across the Vltava River, and with the feint scent of Weetabix in the air (I have no idea,) a perfect scene was set for an hour or so of patient photography to end another glorious day.

Posted by kookie888 14:15 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

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