Posted on July 5, 2015
Like Rumpole of the Bailey, I am wedded to “She Who Must be Obeyed,” also known as “Ol’ What’s Her Name,” affectionate titling for my bride of THIRTY YEARS! this month. Trying unsuccessfully to keep up with my dotage, Cathy nonetheless managed to qualify for Medicare in May, ample motivation for a celebratory trip, adventurously worthy of age denial and anniversary exultation. Naturally, I obeyed her summons, and agreed that biking some 255 km (160 miles) across undulating bucolic southern Czech Republic topography fit the bill handsomely. “Yes, dear, whatever you say, dear,” sayeth Brer Rabbit, eyeing this central European briar patch. Perhaps I should mention that the Czechs exceed, by orders of magnitude, other countries’ per capita beer consumption? Pilsner is named after the Czech city of Plzen, after all. This is a country where pivo, as beer is called, is a daily part of the fabric of life.
In her inimitable way, Cathy’s research turned up a splendid outfitter in Loren of Pure Adventures www.pure-adventures.com specializing in self-guided bicycle and hiking trips. Loren, a European ex-pat, now living in Scottsdale, and his Czech in-country counterpart, Tomas, promptly fielded every request and lame question with equanimity, putting together a trip that challenged us without breaking us. Every detail was covered from navigation to accommodation, from surface transit to electrical plugs. Loren and Tomas must operate in a 48 hour per day universe, they were so capable of patiently responding to our every concern. Everywhere we had quality lodging, routinely the best place in each town, as often as not, on or just off the main square. We provided the propulsion, but Pure-Adventures took care of the logistics. Each day we sallied forth with bicycle panniers and handlebar bags carrying day gear, leaving our suitcases with hotel staff. By the time we arrived at that day’s destination, our bags had been transported ahead, awaiting us in our new lodging’s rooms.
I wish to step back and approach our adventure somewhat chronologically, mentally ambling as I go. We decided that as long as we were going to be in “the neighborhood,” why not begin by exploring Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, and finish with Prague? And then there’s the matter of a gateway to get there and return. Somehow or other we managed to find space available for pass riding on United from San Diego to Munich—then surfaced to Salzburg at the outset, and back from Prague at the end.
Salzburg, with a population of some 146,000, is a delight to the senses—the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music, an approachably-sized city, redolent of western culture, and bisected by the Salzach river. Our Hotel Elefant lodging was thoroughly modern within, notwithstanding being a 750 year-old baroque structure in the exclusively pedestrian cobblestone pathway Altstadt (Old City) just steps off the river’s left bank, and loomed over by the Festung (fortress).
As I say, Salzburg is suffused with culture, a fitting nurturance for Wolfgang Amadeus, with art and music everywhere. Here we began what turned out to be a recurring theme, walking to a marvelous early evening concert of piano and violin sonatas performed in the acoustically live Schlosskirche Mirabell (Mirabell palace church) followed up with dinner at a walk-side cafe. You’ll notice that we had front and center seats, this event drawing maybe thirty attendees—not a testament to the quality of the music, but rather the number of such events available nightly.
On another evening we took sustenance just across the street from Mozart’s birth house.
And what could be more fitting than strolling to the Augustine monastery’s brewery beer garden on a warm afternoon? Sit in the deep cool shade of the trees, consuming delicious beer drawn right into your mug from wooden barrels to quaff down grilled sausage and potatoes, while people watching and conversing in rusty Deutsche and English with the table of gentlemen next to us. A vignette—free WiFi is ubiquitous everywhere in Austria and the Czech Republic. One of the gents, just off the frame to the right, looked exactly like NFL coach and commentator John Madden. I pulled up Madden’s photo on my i-phone and showed it to him as conversation ice-breaker. Not that much ice breaking is needed after consuming a couple of half liter mugs of cold brau.
From Salzburg, we took the WestBahn train on to Vienna, no reservation needed. The train leaves just about hourly. Pick a seat, and pay by credit card when the conductor meanders by. Two hours later we de-trained, and grabbed a cab to our Hotel Mailberger Hof, just off the main Kartner Strasse pedestrian pathway, and two blocks from the famous Vienna Opera House.
Cathy and I found Vienna a bit excessive, as compared to the more embraceable scale of Salzburg. But there is much to love. This is the musical city of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and waltz king Johan Strauss.
It is a city of monumental cathedrals, castles and parks, the Danube flowing by on its way to Budapest. Residents and visitors are at once immersed in all this. An interesting aside, perhaps modest testimony to the egalitarian nature of Austria—Cathy and I cannot remember seeing a single police officer in either Salzburg or Vienna. Also, another quirky aside—what’s with languages changing another country’s place names? To Austrians, this city is Wien, not Vienna, and Prague is Praha up in the Czech Republic.
Across the street from the Opera House is the Hofburg Palace, and its lovely Albertina art museum, where one can take in works from the likes of Michelangelo Buonarotti, the creator of Florence’s statue of David, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and marble statue of the Pieta. Here’s a sketch by the master, a study for the statue, perhaps?
It had been quite warm while we were in Salzburg, and afternoon thunderstorms attenuated that as we arrived in Vienna. Our hotel was here, on Annagasse, another cobblestone pedestrian-only pathway. Gasse is the German diminutive for Strasse, or street—gasse, being too modest to call a true strasse street. The name Anna refers to the church Annakirche, the steeple of which is reflecting in the residual rain puddle. That’s an Italian cafe, upper left, where we had a late lunch on our first day in Wien. The next table over had two singers, conversing in English as their common language, starring as Leporello and Donna Elvira in that evening’s performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, tickets in hand for the sold out performance, which we had already acquired from a scalper dressed in 18th century attire. You just can’t make up this stuff.
Okay, it’s not every Del Martian beach bum who can claim to have climbed the gilded stairway of the world famous Staatsoper Wiener, and then watched a Mozart opera from a box seat, before wandering outside after intermission to capture the action with culture-embracing street people. But I am a pushover for smaller ensembles in baroque settings with the tight acoustics of stone, granite, and gilded statues beneath lofty arched ceilings. For our second evening in town, I secured tickets to a string quartet performing “right next door” at the Annakirche. Oh, my, what a glorious setting and what beautiful music.
I know, but to clean up the panorama composed of four images, is to cheat you on the vaulted splendor of this place, which nonetheless was only about the width of twenty parishioners side to side. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Yes photos, surreptitiously snapped, without flash, were allowed at all of our small venue performances in Europe. I asked first, and was very unobtrusive in the taking. Chamber music just isn’t the same on a recording. Being up close with small ensembles in tight hard-surfaced venues you not only hear the nuances of each instrument individually, but feel them viscerally. The horsehair of the bow literally vibrates across the strings and comes at you like some sort of wondrous musical washboard road. And do you not feel like royalty wafted along in gilded splendor?
Another snippet from my goofy noodle. Hollywood Boulevard is a Johnny-come-lately to the sidewalk stars, which are scattered all over central Wien. This one is for fellow United pilot retiree Pfred Hayes (he mocked himself with his silly spelling) who was a music major in college. One of his professors had been an oboe performer in an orchestra conducted by Maestro Toscanini. At the end of a rehearsal, one of the oboist’s valve mechanisms structurally failed, and he dutifully and nervously presented himself to the maestro to explain his plight. Mr. Toscanini just stared quietly into space for a few seconds before replying that this would not be a problem, as that particular valve would not be needed at any point in any of the pieces being played that evening. The maestro had mentally fast forwarded through all the evening’s scores to render this judgement. Apocryphal? Perhaps, but what a juicy story.
The Vienna Bucket List box checked, it was time to take the train to the Czech Republic. A couple of side stories, here. We were planning on taking a trolley to the Meidling Bahnhof (train station) but I slipped up and got us on a local bus. It got us to the station, just fine, but as a milk run through multiple Viennese neighborhoods en route. Part of the fun. Our train took us to Breclav, which is pronounced Brehslav, and this is a fitting segue into the Czech language, which I admit intimidated me as we pondered this trip.
Like Hungarian, Czech is a language unique to itself, seriously challenged by the lack of vowels where our tongue would wish to place them, and with pronunciations at which even the Czechs shake their heads. For instance we pedaled through Znojmo, which is pronounced “Noy-mo,” and stayed the evening in Telc (Telsch) and Trebon (Chey-bonya). Go figure. Loren’s instructions gave us to understand that English would be little used or understood at the small places making up our biking venue, although we could hope for some English in Prague, or is that Praha? And we’re biking through here on our own? Gulp. I’m happy to report that we found that English worked fairly well amongst younger people in the small towns of the south of the Czech Republic, and our Google translator phone apps and Pure Adventure mini-glossary helped. That and smiles, and dumb “who me?” looks generally got the job done, especially when older cafe-keepers would call out their young offspring to translate. A case in point, on one day, nearing Trebon, we needed a stretch and butt break, so peeled off at a tiny cafe abutting our two bike-width path. We sought food and a libation, which turned out to be goulash and a mineral water. The goulash really called for a pivo, but we still had kilometers to ride ahead of us. Pondering the menu was greatly assisted when the owner called in his high school age son, and before we knew it we were honored special guests, given a wonderful pamphlet (in Czech, English, German, and Spanish) extolling the region we were biking through and would we please except a free serving of their in-house specialty of fish something or other? The kid was great, keenly interested in all things English language, especially when he learned we came from the U.S., evidencing frustration that as yet his vocabulary was insufficient to convey all he wished to share, and assuring us that English was his favorite subject in school. A pathway lunch stop turned into an iconic cultural moment. Why we travel.
Another sub-tangent, here. The Czech are a proud and conscientious people. Their geographic location between Germany to the west, Austria (as in Austro-Hungarian empire) to the south, and Russia to the north, has produced its fair share of subjugation, recently during and after WWII, about which more, anon. For now, recent history reminder is that Vaclav Havel and other intellectuals effected the Velvet Revolution to throw off the Soviet yoke in 1989, and the Velvet Divorce, to separate the Czech Republic out of the former Czechoslovakia four years later. This is the nation through whose countryside we bicycled, on a route designed by Tomas to give outsiders a sense of the beauty, history, and culture of his land, apart from the tourist sites in Prague. I can’t overstate how glad we are that we got to experience this.
Navigation is clearly an important aspect of a self guided trip in an unfamiliar country with a language and alphabet all its un-pronounceable own. The following scans from the very documents we had arrayed daily before us in our clear plastic-covered handlebar bags—the bicycle version of an aircraft Heads Up Display—give a hint at the thoroughness with which our routes were prepared. The actual maps were scaled such that each grid was one square kilometer, which made estimating distance simple, although estimates were unnecessary, given that the textual guidance was accurate to the 1/10th of a km, and our two GPS units were accurate to 1/100th of a km.
Yes, the yellow highlighting was already on the maps when Tomas provided them and walked us through the basics of the travel package at our excellent pension in Valtice, CZ.
Out on the road, the Czech Republic provides clear guidance. CZ is a bike-friendly place, with bicyclists and bike routes encountered regularly. I wonder if biking’s ubiquity is because they are a healthy robust people who like the out-of-doors, or maybe if some of that became a necessity when under Nazi or Soviet thumbs? At any rate, the signage was great. This sign was at a juncture of two hardpack dirt paths in the middle of a forest.
When we were on roads they were generally tertiary or secondary paved country roads with minimal auto traffic. The Czech drivers were routinely courteous, angling to the far side of the road as they passed us, and the roads were invariably clear of glass and other bike tire-damaging debris. And with each town one entered, there was a sign telling you the name of the place, and another as you left, indicating that you were now leaving that named place. Good information, itself, but also, precisely to the tenth of a km, accurately annotated on the textual directions. I quickly learned that passing these signs, it was invariably beneficial to re-zero the second of the two kilometer readouts on my GPS, as this micro-updating kept us out of trouble when we might encounter confusion as to which juncture to depart from the small town square, say. For example in one tiny town, the GPS, updated when we passed the “Entering” sign, coupled with the textual directions, told us we should be at a picket fence, where we would discover a tiny bike path angled off in the direction we needed, but a hundred or so meters out of sight over yonder. A woman and her adult daughter saw us circling and pondering, and came out asking which language—”Deutsche or English?” then, looking at our map, pointed us in the correct direction. Another cultural exchange moment. In sum, we never got lost in six days of pedaling, but we did have the occasional 0.2 km back track, or put the foot down moments, comparing the map/text/GPS with my innate sense of direction. Not too disquieting or stressful, but caution-inducing. And a few hours after departing we would arrive safely at our next lodging, the bags up in the room, legs happy to be done for the day, and smiles on our hearts and faces.
This missive begins with a picture the innkeeper took for us, as Cathy and I began our bicycling from the small town of Valtice, CZ. The Pension Prinz, with maybe six to eight rooms, was immaculate, and thoroughly modern in every respect, beds to bathrooms, t.v. to free Wi-Fi, which as I say, was the rule everywhere in the Czech Republic—the U.S. is terribly backwards in comparison. The kind innkeeper with limited English, and her English proficient eighteen year-old daughter made sure our every need was met, and as with all our CZ lodging, this included a robust breakfast to give us the energy for the days’ endeavors. Cereal with homemade yogurt and fresh fruit, eggs as you like them, juices, coffees, hot chocolate or tea, ham, salami, multiple types of cheese, hearty breads and rolls, fresh preserves, and the Czech equivalent of crumble-topped fruit-within coffee cake or Danish breakfast sweets. Oh so civilized.
We were typically on the road by nine, a little earlier on the longer days. The trip was nominally six days of biking, to which we added two additional rest and recon days in Telc, and Cesky Krumlov, so it was eight days biking total, averaging just under 27 miles a day, some shorter, some longer. This was the view, fifty meters from where sat at table, above.
Our first few days, we were in the Czech region of Moravia. This is the Czech vineyard region, and we took the opportunity to test drive several varietals with our dinners. This is also the region in which the Liechtenstein family held power for years—yes the same folks for whom the small country between Switzerland and Austria is named, a country now with the highest per capita GDP in the world, a finance and insurance enclave. The progenitors obviously wielded great wealth, as we discovered on day one. Our textual guide gave us precise locations of several “Follies” as they are called—erected in the middle of the forests by the Liechtenstein families so that they could properly enjoy outings there with guest visitors. Then, as now, there are the superrich and the rest of us.
Further along on day one, our route had us biking a levy berm alongside a meandering river, one of many lakes and rivers we cruised beside. And here’s as good a time as any to discuss the weather and riding conditions. This day was mostly sunny, with scattered cotton balls, but a good part of our week we had multiple scattered cloud layers that summed up to overcast or nearly so, sometimes darker than a well-digger’s nether parts, and looking altogether threatening. We saw rain hither and yon, but actually encountered it only twice—once just after we pulled into lunch under a broad umbrella at a directions-recommended cafe to the north of Hardegg, the smallest town in Austria, just across the border to our south. The rain, heavy while we ate, passed on by the time we resumed bicycling. Camelot. And finally, it began raining on us the last 2 km of our longest and final day of riding, as we entered Cesky Krumlov, actually causing me to don my rain jacket, carried all those kilometers in the pannier bag mounted over the rear wheel. The other meteorological aspect was relentless headwinds, every day. Not blow you off your bike strong, but just enough to wear you down by the end of the day. This was an east to west routing, and I suspect the prevailing winds are westerly. A little penance for the privilege. That said, the cloudiness and winds came part and parcel with unseasonal cool temperature—Fahrenheit low fifties when we started in the morning, to mid sixties in the afternoon. Ideal exercise temperatures.
I’m usually behind the lens, not in front of it, but here’s a treat from Cathy’s i-phone of a little light-hearted abandon by me on this first day’s ride. As we exited a forest trail, here was this lake and a handy parent-for-kid made wooden plank swing just sitting there as engraved invitation.
Our first day destination was Mikulov, with this being its town square, “namesti,” in Czech. This Czech name tickled me throughout, given its similarity in sound and spelling to the Sanskrit “namaste,” the greeting of hello and goodbye in Nepal, and meaning roughly “I bow to the spiritual within you.” Not a bad name for the greeting place that is the center of all these small rural communities in the Czech Republic. Our Hotel Galant was just that, and located about a block off the square, where I bought a nifty linen ball cap from one of those tiny wooden sidewalk sales casitas you see beyond the statue.
I’ve mentioned the Czech affinity for relaxing with a brewski, and I felt duty bound out of respect for the culture to do my part to fit in. We walked up the hill, taking in our guidebook suggestion to visit the ancient Jewish cemetery, which like all cemeteries, stands as quiet testament to the history of an area. On the way we had passed a small neighborhood square with a recommended sweet shop, itself, right next door to a delightful version of a Czech “Cheers” watering hole. What’s a guy and gal to do? Note the renaissance structures reflected in the window, and the page torn out of my guidebook beneath my 0.5L Pilsner Urquell. This became a recurring theme of our time in CZ—big breakfast which lasted for most, if not all, of the ride, then an afternoon snack like this one after biking, followed by dinner later in the evening. All the food groups here—pivo, chocolate, a cookie, and a fresh apricot. Somebody’s gotta do it.
The next morning we launched for Vranov nad Dyji. I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce that last word in the name. Clueless. It was a fairly longish day, with lots of hills to climb, the steady headwind, and the aforementioned rain just as we pulled into the “U Svestku” pub for lunch. This area was littered with WWII pillboxes, concrete bunkers for soldiers to watch for the onslaught of enemy troops. Our textual directions also suggested we stop and take a look at a remnant of the Communist Cold War after the Nazis had been defeated and prior to the Velvet Revolution. I’ll return to this theme as my commentary takes us to Prague, but this scene is a sobering reminder of the bastard case that was Soviet communism. This barbed wire, these barricades and watch towers were not put there to keep others out, but, like the Berlin Wall, to keep the citizens in. Think on that for awhile. So much for the workers’ paradise.
Here’s Cathy arcing through another small town on the way to Vranov. Don’t you find it fascinating that the red octagonal stop sign is near universally the same the world over, with the textual admonition in English? The church itself, was mentioned as a navigational check point to the nearest tenth of a kilometer, of course.
And here’s how things looked on the descent into Vranov, and the next morning, from our Hotel Zamecky before starting the climb out of town for a visit to the chateau (née castle, or zamecky, in Czech) on the hill.
Vranov is a small market town on the Dyji river. The name translates as Vranov over the Dyji river. We tried to find a recommended restaurant near a dam on the river, but went the wrong way, to the dam upstream, not the one downstream (here’s a recommendation for a small refinement to the guidebook, Loren). We didn’t find the cafe, but we did encounter this unexpected delight in the late afternoon glowing light. Eye candy.
This is an area famous for marionettes, and here was a collection quietly hanging out in a resident’s window beside the river. Serendipity. Dinner at the hotel was just fine, then exhausted sleep before the next day’s ride beginning with an ugly climb, stopped as soon as it was finished, to visit the Vranov chateau. These had all once been castles, but later were renamed chateaus. We had to wait about :10 for a set tour of the chateau, dating from the 11th century, and remodeled in the 17th when renaissance architecture was all the rage. Cathy is literally checking her e-mail with the chateau Wi-Fi while I look for perspective on the statue of Hercules fighting off some beastly sort from the underworld.
This is the view, when looking back down on the town and the river. Our hotel is dead center in the frame, right next to where the curving road crosses the river.
I think I got the name of this hall correct. The Althanns, who did the remodel, wanted to extol their heritage.
This day’s ride, another longish one, ended up in the town of Slavonice, where we boarded one of two afternoon trains to Telc, and our planned two night stopover. Telc is yet another Unesco World Heritage Site, and a perfect place to calm down and enjoy some R&R. Our Hotel Celerin was the lynchpin of one corner of Namesti Zachariase, the town square. Throughout the Czech republic we found buildings colored in various pastel shades. Telc is noted for the colors on the square.
The first evening we discovered a restaurant not (yet) mentioned in the guidebook recommendations, called Zach’s, named for the Namesti Zachariase square on which it is located. It was rather modern in decor as compared to the more baroque cafes we often frequented. The food was excellent, as was the local pivo, and a fine Moravian Reserve Frankovka red wine. Penny pinchers take note—at this top notch restaurant with fine service, we had a mug of beer and a glass of wine respectively to go with our appetizer, then the bottle of reserve wine with our sumptuous dinners, followed by a marvelous apfel strudel with vanilla ice cream for desert, and the tab came out to around $55 USD with the tip. Total. The Czech Republic is part of the European Union, but it has retained its own currency, the Koruna, or “Crown.” The official rate of exchange is approximately $1 USD = 24 CZK. It took awhile to get used to the fact that the coins we had were not fractions of a Crown, but whole Crown denominations of fifty or less, and it took awhile longer to realize how inexpensive travel in the Czech Republic is. If you want to visit a terrific place where you can stretch your dollar, this is it.
On our second day the townspeople had set up a small community stage in the square, and there were local youth musical groups performing songs and dances. At one point, while enjoying an afternoon pivo and sweets break, we heard gospels, sung a cappella in English, and discovered another bit of serendipity. A high school choral group on summer tour from a Chicago suburb was traveling from a prior performance in Prague to one in Vienna. One of the students discovered that he had left his passport in the Prague hotel room, so the group leaders created an impromptu stop in Telc, awaiting the passport, and got permission to join in the Telc day of song and dance. And they were terrific.
Rested and onward to Jinrichuv Hradec, which our guidebook refers to as unpronounceable, meaning simply Henry’s Castle. Hotel Concertina was right on the main square, and as you can see the bike-friendly Czechs provide guidance to locking bike rack parking just off the square.
And Jindrichuv Hradec has its own take on pastel facades. Here, Pure-Adventures outdid themselves, literally. They had upgraded our room to a suite, but I had to request a more modest room when discovering that the bedroom was a loft up a narrow circular staircase from the living area, and more importantly, the bathroom. For us gentlemen of a certain age, that becomes a worthy nocturnal consideration. Ahem.
Next up, a relatively short 29 km ride to Trebon, sitting next to a large lake, and possessed of a chateau which we declined to explore internally, in stead taking in the grounds via a stroll.
And there was another activity to undertake—a tour of the 700 year-old Regent Brewery. The tour was a bit much, conducted in Czech with brief asides in English, although the tasting directly from the storage vats was a nice finish. And this detail of an old brewing device appealed to me. Don’t ask as to its use, I couldn’t even pronounce the Czech name for the gadget, let alone translate it. But I like the look of it just the same.
Trebon is situated in that part of what by now had become Bohemia, the part where they cultivate fish in the lakes strewn about, which is why we had a fish dinner at Supina a Supinka following the brew sampling.
And then the next day, our longest journey of the trip—62 hilly, blustery kilometers to Cesky Krumlov. I’ll begin with a few images of the ride.
Here’s a couple of random recollections. Throughout our biking we were constantly wafted along by the beautiful lyrics of song birds. They were a delight everywhere we pedaled. And cherries. Multiple times we came upon cherry trees chockablock loaded with ripe fire-engine red cherries, their branches overhanging the bikeways as open invitation to sample the tangy sweet treats along the way. Yum.
Ol’ What’s Her Name resting on her laurels while I rearranged the three maps that were needed for keeping up with this day’s navigational niceties.
And then, there was an opportunity for an impromptu picnic lunch break consuming the sandwiches we had made at breakfast in Trebon, along with some fresh fruit and nuts.
Following another forest tunnel through trees, we had a steep descent into the Vltava river valley where Cesky Krumlov is located, the entrance per our directions pretty much set the stage for the place, which could well have been created on a Hollywood sound stage for a baroque period story complete with massive castle and gothic church.
The Vltava is more commonly known in the U.S., by its German name—the Moldau, musically memorialized by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana in his orchestral piece Ma Vlast (My Country). It flows south to north, here on its way to Prague, and Smetana’s composition delightfully recreates its bubbling currents. This is a decidedly eye-popping place, whose only down side is quaintness situated just right for inclusion on tourist bus itineraries between Prague and Vienna—a there goes the neighborhood sort of inevitability, I suppose. Besides the medieval Cesky, there’s also a modern play version with kayakers and rafters drifting along, as here, where we had stopped our pedestrian meanderings, beginning to suffer from castle overload, to take in a rejuvenating snack of Czech sweets.
After refreshing our energy we walked the short distance on this bank to an un unexpected delight—a museum dedicated to the early 20th century work of photographer Josef Seidel. The museum is a period remodel of his home/studio. It’s like walking back a hundred years and seeing not only what his personal life and work methods were, but enjoying pictures and artifacts that let you see and feel life at this tumultuous time before the First World War, and then the new realities devolving from WWI and WWII. This wasn’t revisiting war so much as experiencing the region, and him, as they got on with the day to day business of life. It seemed an honor and privilege to gaze on Mr. Seidel’s life, and how he viewed the world around him, as here, on a bellows camera with its inverted and reversed ground glass rendering of his garden and Cesky Krumlov beyond.
A glimpse of St. Vitus’ spire across the Vltava, the scene gentled by the warpage of olden glass, the window etching and the comforting shade of green window frame. I spent my entire time in his home and studio in whispered reverence.
To give you an idea of the sort of accommodations arranged for us, let me show you our room in Cesky Krumlov’s Hotel Ruze, a former 16th century Jesuit dormitory. The view out the window, just out of sight on the far left of the frame was of the river rushing by. We kept it open all evening, lulled in slumber by Smetana’s rushing water sounds.
We ate dinner at two CK cafes listed in our guide. Krcma Satlava was only so-so. Our dinner, the second evening, next to the river at Papa’s Living Restaurant was most excellent, prepared and served by a staff that provide not just typical Czech dishes, heavy on meat and starches with rich sauces, but also southern European and South American entrees, and extraordinary salads. I had a goat cheese salad that must have taken an entire herd of goats to cheese up for me. Portions here, and at all Czech restaurants assured that no one went away hungry. By the time we were done and had walked back across the river to the Ruze, it was time to take in a gentle sunset, at 8:56 in the evening, two days after the Summer Solstice.
The next morning we were met by a driver arranged by Pure-Adventures and taken to the bus station for our drive to Prague, where we were met by another driver to take us to our Hotel Constans on one of the small pedestrian streets in Lesser Town, located just a block from the U.S. Embassy and about a :05 walk to the western portal of Charles Bridge. This bridge was originally the only one across the Vltava, and now is unquestionably the most popular with tourists, a vibrant artery in a vibrant city.
Every time I had mentioned Prague to others, I’d heard back nothing but gushing accolades. Nor shall I disavow that mindset. If there is a downside it would have to be summer crowds. This is a city with vast areas dedicated to foot traffic, and Prague seemed on a par with the masses one experiences in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many cameras being wielded at the too numerous to count sights. It’s like those videos one sees of people on cell phones stumbling off unseen curbs, or walking into closed glass doors. Not that I was any better, but the entire world seemed to be ambulating Prague’s pathways with their faces transfigured with permanent camera transplants, or frozen arms extended to a glassy-eyed 14 inch distance staring single-mindedly at their smart phone LCD screen. Then, there were the Asians. I’m sorry if this seems prejudicial, but it would be impossible to count the number of Chinese and Japanese tourists, usually frenetically scurrying in large groups, then stopping to deploy their divining rod “selfie” devices extending their smart phones out before them for yet another “here I am in front of the XYZ” photo. The generous way to address all this is to say that wondrous Prague is a target rich environment. You may fire when ready, Gridley, which is pretty much constantly in Prague.
Over on the east (right bank) side of the river is Old Town, with its endlessly appealing Namesti, the Clock Tower, and the cathedral of Our Lady Before Tyn. Nice 360 degree views from the Clock Tower, but also delights that are closer in.
Shortly after arriving at the square we were treated to a wonderful surprise—the open area of the square, shown above, blocked off for a military review. I have no idea what the occasion was, but we spent a delightful hour witnessing the parading of colors, marching and close order drill, all accompanied by military bands surely putting a smile on John Phillip Sousa’s divine countenance. What fun.
The Clock Tower not only keeps time, topside, but down near street level there is its famous Astronomical Clock. I’ll shortcut paraphrase the Lonely Planet Guide description of this paean to 15th century Prague concerns, which goes through its ritual on the hour throughout the day. Beginning :10-:15 before the hour, enormous crowds begin massing before it for the roughly one minute action. The four small figures you see near the middle, bestride the clock, represent medieval anxieties of Vanity, Greed, Death (the skeleton, natch), and Pagan Invasion. Down lower are the Chronicler, Angel, Astronomer, and Philosopher. On the hour Death rings a bell and inverts his hourglass, and the starred-in-blue-window covers open to reveal the Twelve Apostles parading by to take in all the gawkers arrayed below, finishing with a crowing cock and the ringing of the hour. As to Mr. Pagan Invasion, I wonder if there is some way to get ISIS to rethink their caliphate dream’s C-4 and beheading M.O. and replace it with something as embraceable as this? Sorry, that just slipped out.
Prague has both a Metro and the ever-present trolley. Buy your ticket for 90 minutes, a day, or three days, and get on and off from either as often as you want. The Mrs. and I managed to figure out the process and the routings to beneficial relief of tired feet. That said, we nonetheless walked mile upon mile through the Czech capital. The trolley is a delightful way to get around, and makes you feel like one of the locals, even if they know better.
My convoluted thought processes seem to find association in what comes next. Bear with me. As with Salzburg, Prague’s river meanders betwixt hills, on one of which is the enormous castle and equally large St. Vitus Cathedral. Throughout our travels I found myself taking an inordinate number of photos in portrait vs. landscape layout. Upon reflection, I concluded this was a natural byproduct of tall churches and castles built in communities laid out and built in keeping with the narrow confines of ambling oxcarts, and thus providing insufficient space for a photographer to pull back for perspective. St. Vitus cathedral is certainly such an edifice. I’ve heard descriptions of these extraordinary cathedrals as reflecting the architectural and religious sensibilities of the time—the spires metaphorically pointing to heaven’s zenith. Makes sense to me, and I don’t wonder that evoking God’s transcendent throne on high would be a necessary motivation to undertake construction of such an incredible engineering project, accomplished in more than multiple generations’ lifetimes. But to what purpose in present day, ever more rigidly secular Europe? We never seemed to be nearby for Sunday mass (and both Austria and the Czech Republic are nominally Roman Catholic), but I can’t help but notice that these churches, large and small, were either shuttered other days, or lost to tourist exploration. This Protestant sees Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air to 21st. century Roman Catholicism, and he seems deeply concerned about the Church’s relevance in the eyes of the citizens of nominally theistic-accepting countries. I hope he succeeds in better integrating the church and aligning its potential with humankind. Arguably a worthy and profoundly beneficial goal.
Hold on, as there’s a second facet here. I mentioned the Czech geopolitical realities, a byproduct of its geographic location in a continent with a long history of conflict. Prior to the blitzkrieg grab of Poland, the Third Reich employed the anschluss to annex Austria, and then decided the Sudetenland, including Moravia and Bohemia should also be part of greater Germany. As the tide turned in 1945, the Russian bear came barreling along in the opposite direction. By VE Day, the map of European spoils had been redrawn, with Czechoslovakia now under the “patronage” of the Soviet Union. The 1989 Velvet Revolution was hard on the 1987 heels of President Reagan’s call to General Secretary Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall.” The times, they were-a-changing. What better example of communism’s reversal of fortune, than this image, taken just off Prague’s Na Prikope, shopping district thoroughfare? Eat your heart out, Vladimir Putin.
Cathy and I walked the Prague pathways in this area near Wenceslas Square where the 1989 crowds, no longer tolerant of their communist overlords, surged back and forth in nearly bloodless rebellion. The Museum of Communism was well worth the sobering time spent seeing laid out, through Czech eyes, the promises, deceits, failures and eventual collapse of Czech communism.
I’ve failed to translate this, but it would appear to be Nazi propaganda warning about the evil hand of godless Soviet Socialism reaching for St. Vitus Cathedral and the Castle. And then after the war, there were those watch towers and barbed wire.
Near the statue of St.Wenceslas is this small memorial to two young Czech men. Their deaths were in early 1969, shortly after the Soviets had crushed a popular uprising in Hungary. Two days before his death by self immolation, Jan Palach wrote “people must fight against the evil they feel equal to at that moment.” He died a martyr protesting the Soviet occupation of his Vast. Jan Zajic also martyred himself by self-immolation—on the 21st anniversary of communist domination. This small memorial was placed here after the Velvet Revolution, which two decades later finally gave Czech nationalism the light of day.
So, religious relevance and unshackled nationalism sharing one rough patch of mental ground in my psyche? My fervent pondering is beyond my conclusions at present. While I don’t have a stake in the Czech circumstance, I find much fondness for the resilience of the Czech people and wonder what the future will hold for them and like-minded peoples the world over, including right here at home?
Nearing a merciful close to this long-winded amble, I return to the treasure that music posed on our trip. By the time we had reached Cesky Krumlov, accessing the internet by free Wi-Fi, we had scored reservations for two more concerts—in Prague. On our first evening we walked across the Charles Bridge and entered the Mirror Chapel, a small oasis in the block-square Klementinum edifice on the way to Old Town Square. The ensemble was a string quartet, a soprano, and a pipe organist, performing in various combinations, selections from WA Mozart, Antonio Vivaldi, Tomaso Albinoni, Johann Pachebel…
…and Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and Schubert’s Ave Maria. I hope the Musician’s Union will forgive me. Anyway, that’s a video link which can give you a small hint of what it was like there. Remember, I had to be surreptitious about video—they’d said that photos without flash were okay, but the subject of videos was never entertained….
And on the next evening in Municipal House we attended performances of the Prague Symphony of Schubert’s “The Great” Ninth Symphony, Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and vocal selections from Tannhauser and Parsifal.
A parting snippet of Close household silliness. From past trips to Alaska and northern New England, we’ve got an in-house game of who is going to make a given trip’s first sighting of a Moose. As you probably know, Moose are a beast of North America. But on the very last morning in Prague, just minutes before our pickup for the train station to catch our uber bus to Munich for the flight home, I nailed a biggie, that will surely go down in the Del Mar homestead archives as a monumental score.
Enough, already. If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a gold star for perseverance and indulgence.
As ever, TWC
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