By Bicycle Across the Czech Republic
That summer Jaromir was planning on spending part of the summer in the Czech Republic, but I wanted to go job-prospecting in New Mexico. We compromised, and agreed we'd go together to the Czech Republic for three weeks. We'd spend one week in Kadaň, one week travelling together, and I would spend one week on my own or travelling with other people if we could find someone. We contacted all our Czech friends, and got a nibble from Jan Zacpalek, a meteorologist who had spent several years in Montréal. Jan (Honza) sent us a long fax packed with information on everything from renting bicycles in Prague to meteorological conditions in the High Tatras. Meanwhile, I did my best to improve my Czech vocabularly, in case I ended up travelling alone. Our friend Milan, who at that time was earning his living by buying used American cars and shipping them to the Czech Republic, offered to ship my old Peugeot in one of the cars, eliminating the need to rent a bike in Prague. This was the bike I built from parts I found in Serge's garage when I moved to Canada, and which had carried me all over Québec, Vermont, the Côte Nord and Newfoundland.
We landed in Prague on April 29, 1996.
I immediately began noticing subtle differences since our last trip. There were many new trams, and even the old ones were nicely painted now — often with advertising for North American brands. Billboards were popping up everywhere and shops were overflowing with merchandise from North American manufacturers — not surprisingly, at North American prices. Most bus and metro stations now had that staple of Western civilization, the automatic teller. The metro tram was still a bargain at six Kc ($0.30). However now the validating machines actually worked, there were inspectors who make spot checks in the metro, targeting especially students and foreigners. Violators paid a hundred Kc fee on the spot. New construction was everywhere, so much so that Jaromir frequently had trouble navigating, even neighborhoods he knows very well. In spite of everything our Czech friends have told us about how badly the country is doing in the post-Communist era Prague was obviously booming.
Our first task was to wrest the equivalent of an "honorable discharge" from the post-Soviet bureaucracy, which Jaromir needed in order to immigrate to the United States.
We found the office easily enough near Andelin Metro. Behind a locked gate on the fourth floor we stepped into the pages of "Good Soldier Švejk". Jaromir's request was clearly the most exotic transaction in recent history. The guards took him inside where he was examined by several officers. I was seated in the hall, and the gatekeeper with the red armband came by every few minutes, I guess to make sure I wasn't trafficking in any State secrets. "At last," Jaromir said, "they have a real American behind bars." That said, everyone was very nice, and in the end they agreed to put their stamp of approval on a text composed by Jaromir for a fee of 100 Kc. But payment has to be made with a stamp, available only at a certain desk in a nearby post office, where a sign indicated that stamps were only available in units of 400 Kc. However the people waiting in line encouraged him to ask anyway. When he mentioned that the sign said he couldn't buy a stamp for less than 400 Kc, the clerk asked if he wanted a receipt, and then shuffled away to write one up even though he said "no".
Our other big score that day was a set of detailed military maps for my route through southern Morava and southern Bohemia (I still have them, 21 years later). That evening we had dinner with Honza who, as it turned out, was willing and able to spend a week biking across the Czech Republic with me.
"Tati" (Jaromir's father) met us at the bus station with his bicycle, looking a little heavier but in robust health. We loaded the big suitcase on the bike and walked it home together. Kadaň, a pretty medieval town to begin with, was already in the middle of major reconstruction during our last visit. But this time there were many more freshly replastered and repainted buildings. Everywhere construction crews were busy uncovering one sparkling architectural gem after another, hidden under 45 years of Soviet severity, and there were dozens of new shops and restaurants. Most surprising for me was that since our last visit the Gypsy community had somehow been relocated far from the historic district. I don't understand how this could happen in the country where even death does not release the landlord from his tenants' absolute rights to occupy an apartment. But now all the Gypsies lived in new "panelky" on the edge of town, and the little white children were playing on the green in front of the baraky where Czechs once detoured around on their way downtown.
This playground was built on the former site of the Church of St. Anne, a Russian Orthodox church that was built around 1750. During the First Republic, Russians from the Carpathian region poured into Bohemia, fleeing Stalin. The church was razed during the Soviet era. When Jaromir was young, he remembers local dogs carrying off bones from the cemetery. That little green rectangle certainly contained a lot of history. Just across from it, next to the school, a synagogue was burned to the ground during the Nazi occupation. The Sudetenland is like a thin, worn blanket shared by an old couple who tug back-and-forth on it, straining the fabric further and further.
We went out for supper that night as the same terrible restaurant where we last ate together, in a complex of stern Soviet-era buildings with their typical yellow and red signage, including the "Kino Hvězda", which used to be the Kino Ruda Hvězda" (Red Star Theater). Fortunately, each letter was a separate block, so it was easy to remove the "Ruda" and slight the letters back together when it became politically expedient to do so.
On May 1 we woke up in a former Communist country. Loudspeakers summoned us to the town square. A local election was coming up in a month. A rescue demonstration by the fire department was sponsored by the Social Democrats, whereas the oom-pah band playing in front of the Red Star Theater was sponsored by the Community Party.
Over dinner that night, Rudolf Born told me the story of his life As a young man, he had wanted to study biology, but the universities were closed by the Germans in 1939. From 1938-1940, he worked at Strkov, near Tabor, as manager of a crew of 80 working for a baron who owned owned a huge estate including hundreds of acres of crops, thousands of acres of forest land, 200 cows and 10 fish ponds. When his father fell ill, he returned home, eventually selling his father's farm at Břežany, near Plzen, to buy an apartment building in Prague. When the war ended, Sudetenland was cleared of Germans and vigorously repopulated by the new regime. On June 1, 1945, Rudolf Born, became one of those new colonists. He worked for a local landowner until 1948, when he was fired for asking the new Communist Commissioner of Agriculture why he arrived in Kadaň in a stolen car. Rudolf moved to Prague and did odd jobs, but meanwhile he made the acquaintance of Marie Tyndlova, a schoolteacher in Kadaň, from which he was now ostracized. He finally got a job as a gopher at a textile store and Prague, then as a laborer on a dam in Slapy. Rudolf and Marie were were married in 1950 or 51 in Plzen, by which time he was finally allowed to return to Kadaň. He worked at a series of odd jobs there, including six years at a stone quarry. He was still under surveillance by the secret police and therefore barred from working in his field.
I am writing while Tati talks and Jaromir translates, trying not to abandon all hope for happy to this long sad story. Tati was never again was allowed to have a job in his field, and he eventually stopped trying. He retired 18 years ago when he turned 60, and his wife retired from teaching in 1976. Stepanka immigrated to Canada in 1976 and Jaromir in 1986. Marie died of leukemia in September, 1994.
Sunday, May 5, 1996, found us back in Prague and getting ready for the trip through southern Morava. Honza met us in Volkovice at 7:30 in the morning for a last check of our equipment. It took what seemed like hours to sort out how we would get me, Honza, his bicycle and our luggage from Milka's apartment in Prague to Kyjov. Honza was thrown off the tramway with his bike — even though he had taken it earlier that morning — but arrived in Dejvická ahead of us. At Holešovice, we found out that bicycles were not allowed on the Intercity express from Prague to Budapest.
However, luckily for us there was another train at 12:15 from Hlavní that would get to Brno only a half hour later than the much less dependable bus.
The fast train from Prague to Brno is a classic European train, with closed compartments, wide red upholstered benches facing each other, and a window that opens. We spent the first half hour of of Prague standing up with our elbows on the open window frame, watching Eastern Europe roll by.
I was happy to finally be on the road. The forecast was good, according to my resident meteorologist, who had spent much of the previous week collecting highly detailed information from his best sources in the Czech Republic, France and England, and I realized early on that there was little I could do to prevent him from sharing that wealth of knowledge with me at every possible occasion. It was a lovely day, with dry air, brown brooks bursting their banks and tender buds exploding into yellow-green leaves as we wound our way south into Morava.
We had a smooth transfer in Brno. Honza retrieved his bike from the baggage car and loaded it on the train for Kyjov. We bought some koláč while we were waiting. "Jeden koláč" I said bravely, and when the shopkeeper pointed at the one I wanted, of course I responded "oui", which gave us all the giggles. My brain has two drives: "English" and "Other".
There were some nice round Šumava-like hills coming into Brno, but just beyond the land opened up into rolling emerald-green fields. The line of green was unbroken except for the occasional windbreak and the silhouettes of hares and pheasants. As in southern Bohemia, the villages are neat as a pin — all burnt orange clay tiles and honey-colored stucco.
We passed the time talking about Milan's "US Style" shop in Kyjov, with its stock of merchandise from the sex shops and biker hangouts in Montréal. I said I was afraid that as the Czech Republic modernized, it might lose many of the qualities that made it different from North America. Honza compared the Czech Republic to an adolescent who rushes to adopt everything he or she associates with adulthood, attaching too much importance to things that are ultimately very superficial.
I called his attention to a sign for Bzenec. Wasn't that where he did his military service? But Bzenec was on the far side of Kyjov. We had overshot our stop by about a half hour, and would have soon arrived at the Slovak border. A quick dismount at Veselí nad Moravou and an hour later we caught the train back to Kyjov. Honza's bicycle, fortunately, had not missed his stop and was waiting for us at the station.
Milan and Ava picked us up at the station, and there followed a jumble of people getting in and out of cars and driving at high speed down narrow streets in what felt like circle to me. I had no idea where we were going, but eventually five people ended up going for a beer at a local bar. In addition to Milan and Ava, we were joined by Lada (Ladislav), Milan's business partner, who would take us in for the night since according to them it was "too cold to camp". It seemed there had been a plan to visit a local wine cellar, but we had arrived too late. I asked for information about other wine cellars along the route, and suddenly there was a flurry of activity, ance once again we were flying along a narrow winding backroad that climbed high into the hilly terrain northwest of Kyjov. In Zavovice, we pulled up to a dusky doorway in a small hilltop settlement. An elderly but vigorous-looking couple came to the door and led us through the house and along a perilous path between various sheds and outbuildings until at the bottom of some narrow, damp-smelling steps, a wooden door opened into a tiny bunker containing a dozen or so large, blackened, purposeful-looking wooden barrels. Our host removed a cork at the top of a barrel and with a long glass tube with a big bubble on one end, he sucked out a quantity of white wine which he then released a shotfull at a time, holding the tube ceremoniously under his right arm, his finger over the narrow ened between glasses. We tasted three white and two red wines: Neuburg, Burgunske Bile, Smes, Zwiger Trebe and Frankovka. The quantity served was definitely more than a taste. The whites were smooth and fruity, the reds a bit young with an orange taste and color. As I felt myself slipping away, I pulled out my notebook and wrote down their names, as well as the name of our host, František Seda, a distinguished-looking fellow with a tanned bald head and clear green eyes. Other people began filtering in from the night. The group drinking wine and stamping their feet on the icy cellar floor included Frantisek's wife, his nephew — a stockbroker from Prague who was educated in Canada — his nephew's wife, another couple I wasn't able to identify, and our group.
I wasn't able to follow much of the conversation, but I sensed a lot of goodwill and wished desperately that I could have participated. I got a hearty response to my few attempts at conversation, especially when I was trying to explaing that I had had enough to drink. I finally remembered the phrase, "Jsem totalni namazena."
It was around 11:00 when we finally stumbled out, seriously inebriated since neither of us was in shape for serious drinking. Back at Lada's, Milan broke open a bottle of velvety homemade champagne. Finally around midnight I flopped fully clothed on my sleeping bag, not even bothering to take off my money belt.
In the morning Lada prepared a nice breakfast of boiled eggs and bread and Turkish coffee. We packed our bags and headed for Milan's shop, and around 10:00 he showed up with my bike. How strange it was to be reunited with this familiar object on the other side of the ocean. Her only apparent injury was a torn fender. Too bad she couldn't tell me tales of her life at sea! Honza's bike was another matter. We had quite a lot of work to do to outfit it to carry panniers. Trip to the hardware store. Then, incredibly, none of us could figure out how to work my fancy new pump. Finally, Milan managed to pump our tires using a hand pump powered by the cigarette lighter in his car. Ouf!
It was around 11:00 am when we finally pedaled away from Kyjov, me on pretty shakey legs. I was astonished to note that every woman over the age of 60 was dressed in full folk costume — flowered head scarf, printed apron and wool vest. There was quite a lot of traffic on the main highway, so in Svatobořice-Mistřin, we decided to try our luck on one of the "tourist paths", a nationwide trail system which might be the best in the world. The trails are marked in red, blue, green or yellow on the turistkych maps, and these colors match the symbols painted on trees and fence posts and walls of buildings along the trail. The surfaces are a mixture of cobblestone, sand, mud, crushed brick and concrete slabs. Many appear to be abandoned roads, but are generally quite bikeable. As we followed a cobblestone street through a sun-baked stucco village and over a rise to a sandy trail through the woods, my spirits rose, and I knew this would be a fabulous trip.
We popped out of the woods in Milotice and found ourselves across from a castle surrounded by a moat. In the village, a tall church in shades of mustard and pumpkin tolling its bell with such sweet urgency that I was tempted to lock up the bikes and go in for noon mass. We followed the tourist path up a steep grade through a vineyard toward Dubňany. Halfway up the hill, Honza's wheel jammed, the axel nut having somehow come loose, and to my horror I discovered that I had neglected to pack a large cresent wrench in my tool kit. Honza pedaled back into town while I stayed with the bikes and wrote in my journal. A cuckoo poked fun at me, as happened so often during my misadventures in Ireland. Honza returned with a set of wrenches a local shopkeeper had generously loaned him, and we repaired the wheel.
In Dubňany, we stopped at the Pod Lipou. I had Moravske topinky, a garlic-laced pate on rye bread with onions, tomatoes, ham and shredded cheese, as well as hranolky with tatarka sauce and an excellent cabbage and carrot salad. It was a nice moment, in the cool dankness of the hospoda, swimming to the bottom of a half-liter of excellent local beer while our bicycles baked in the sun.
After lunch we had a lovely stretch of paved road across a lake and through the woods to Mutĕnice, where we pushed our bikes up a steep stone-paved hill beside a magnificent church to pick up another tourist trail through the woods to Dolní Bojanovice. Along the way, we stopped frequently to ask directions, and began noticing a recurring phenomenon. Whenever we asked for information, the response was so enthusiastic — especially from older people — that we would eventually flee, our newfound friends in pursuit, if we didn't want to spend the day with them. Honza had a theory that the enthusiasm of the delivery was inversely proportional to the accuracy of the information. I got the impression that the directions we got were accurate — if we went back in time 40 or 50 years.
This part of the path was quite rustic — no more than a footpath. We emerged from the woods on a cement slab road that lead downhill into Dolní Bojanovice. It was lovely, but it was time to pick up the pace if we wanted to make it to Lednice by evening.
We followed a secondary road to Josefov, where we stopped for ice cream and provisions, and cruised through Prušánky, Moravský Żiżkov, Velké Bilovice and across the European highway to Podivin. The pedaling was easy and the late afternoon light made me wish I had a video camera mounted on my handlebars, as we flew through one russet- and honey-colored village after another.
We arrived in Lednice around 7:00 pm, a little uneasy about calling on Milan's friends, but also not sure the autocamp was open so early in the season. In the end, we took the plunge and pedaled another 3 km to the tiny village of Nejdek, where we found Andre and Lejda Bigas, a Czech couple who had recently returned to their village after 15 years in Canada. They were restoring a fine older home that was returned to them during Restitution. In Toronto, they'd had a huge mortgage, and work in the construction business was unsteady, and they realized they could return to the Czech Republic and live on far less money. Andrej was trying to start a building supply store and butchery. They were surrounded by family, since he was from Nejdek and she was from Lednice. They welcomed us in true Moravian style, with soup, tea, supper and more tea. We ended up camping in their backyard. Honza's tent was quite comfortble, but the neighborhood dogs barked all night long, and about the time they quieted down, the neighborhood roosters took over.
We pedaled away early the next morning, following a lovely and lightly-traveled road that followed a river valley that widened into a reservoir. As we approached Pavlov, we had a stunning view of Divči Hrad, high on a hill overlooking a lake and surrounded by vineyards. We turned inland toward Dolní Dunajovice and then followed a backroad to Brod nad Dyji, Drnholec, Hrušovany, Bře&zhacek;any and Bo&zhacek;ice. In Bo&zhacek;ice, we found a narrow backroad along the Jeviškovka River, which wound through lush forest land, dotted with the remains of dozens of stone root cellars (or wine caves). We pushed on through Borotice, Lechovice, Prace, Bantice and Tĕštice. We had planned to camp that night, but there was no campground at Suchohrdly, so we pushed on to Znojmo. Aiming for the cheapest ubytovna in town, we found ourselves in a nicely restored historic area at the bottom of the hill. Honza disappeared behind some scaffolding, and motioned for me to follow with my bicycle. Suddenly we were in the stone-tiled corridors of a former Capuchin monastery, a massive, rambling building is exquisite disrepair where we were in one of only two rooms that were occupied that night. The price was a mere 140 kc ($7 CDN). And the easy-going caretaker had no objection to us storing our bicycles in the room. Showering was a bit of an adventure as usual, but afterwards we took a long walk around the old town, along streets lined with pink-flowering plum trees. We found a hospoda where we could sit outside. Honza pointed out some tall, hard-edged clouds appropriately named "alto cumulus castellanus." I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, downing another golden half liter of Czech beer in the and spending the night in a castle.
We began each day with a visit to a cukarna for Turkish coffee and chlebíčky and stocking up on provisions at the nearby potravany, followed the usual comedy of asking for directions. From Znojmo we followed a backroad to Mašovice, climbing through fields of wheat and alfalfa, through Bezkov, Horni Břečkov and then joined the "pink" highway to Leśna. On this larger but still lightly-traveled road we had sweeping views of a large, undulating hills. There followed a blinding brake-screeching freefall into then Dyje River gorge past a fabulous castle on a pinnacle overlooking the village. After pigging out on diabelska topinka, michany salat and pivo in the bright sun at the Country Saloon, we paid for our downhill run by dragging our bikes up the hill behind the castle toward Safov.
The best biking of the trip was between Vranov and Slavonice, running along the top of a grassy ridge, unbroken except by the tiniest of villages and an occasional fish pond. At times, we were within 100 meters of the Austrian border, marked by sign posts and a strip of uncultivated land. The road was completely deserted, and outlined in blooming apple trees. The isolation that gives this area its charm is probably due to the fact that during the Communist era it was forbidden to live within a certain distance of the Austrian border.
It was a difficult but rewarding day, with over 60 km of very hilly terrain behind us. At sunset we found ourselves on a hill overlooking Slavonice. We rolled into town, bumped under a stone archway and emerged in the tiny main square, surrounded by 16th century buildings of unearthly beauty, etched in the Italianate style with geometric patterns and elaborate illustrations. Both hotels were booked up for a forestry convention, but we found a nice room at a textile school for 170 kc.
After a cold shower, we strolled under a star-filled sky through the silent village. Our faces were ruddy from the sun and the wind, and the cool night air made us grateful for our warm sweaters. We woke the next morning to a steady downpour, and holed up in a cukarna with vaulted ceilings and a curved window overlooking the courtyard while we waited for the storm to pass. At noon it was still coming down, so we pedalled away in the pouring rain. I sang softly to myself to get over my discomfort, and was eventually able to notice that the woods were lovely in the rain. We stopped for lunch at a classic Czech hospoda in Nova Bystřice — spicy potato soup, rohlíky and beef goulash with knedlíky. We abandoned our plan to go over the mountain to the lake country near Chlum because of the weather, and made for Jindřichův Hradec because it was a sizable town and we were pretty sure we could find a place to stay. We ended up at an ubytovna in a crumbling Soviet-era industrial building that also housed a driving school, the Socialist party offices, and what looked like a halfway house for troubled teens. The manager asked for my "občanka" (Czech ID), and when Honza admitted I was a foreigner, they asked us to say we were there "on business" if we spoke to anyone in town, since tourists were not allowed to stay there. But there in that unpromising environment I had my first hot shower since arriving in the Czech Republic.
The next morning dawned cool and cloudy, but with a high ceiling, and since we were now within striking distance of Veselí, we had time to get there the long way around, through the lake country near Trebon. We flew along a pink highway from J Hradec to Lasenice and turned onto a white road in Dolní Lhota, threading our way between villaged built around a spider's web of ancient fish ponds, often leaving the white road for tourist trails that ran along the dikes and through dense forests where, after an abundant rain, the path was reduced to two flooded ruts. We spread out our lunch on the stump of enormous tree, and I lay on my back listening to the calls of the morning doves, magpies, kos, finches and the distant tapping of a woodpecker. After five days on the road, my thick polar fleece had picked up the scents of the places we'd been: wild mushrooms, the dusky of old buildings with thick walls, cigarette smoke from the hospodas, hops from my own perspiration and coal fires from the chimneys in the villages.
We stretched the remaining distance to its maximum, finding forgotten trails from Pribaz to Mníšek, Stříbřec and Stará Hlína, through Lužnice, Lomnice, Ponědraž and Ponědražka. As a final folly, we pedaled into Veselí through a flooded field, and somehow made our way to the home of Jaromir's Aunt Jižka.
It was not hard to arrange to accompany Honza to the train, using my bike to carry his baggage, and then shipping both bikes to their respective destinations. Then it was time for him to board the forest green fast train to Prague, so much like the train we boarded at the start of our trip. He held me a long time, and said what I wanted to say if I could have found the words: "I will remember this time with you forever."