A travelogue by Dave Taylor
I am on a train to the southeastern part of the Czech Republic, South Moravia, to the town of Breclev (jits-luv) where I will get my bicycle to begin my trip.
The last two days in Prague were all about history. I learned about King Charles IV (thumbs up), the years under Soviet rule (thumbs down), Vaclav Havel, the first Czech President after the fall of the Soviet Republic (two thumbs up) and the passion Mozart had for Czech women (understandable). It is claimed he wrote the overture to Don Giovanni the morning it premiered, as he was preoccupied and distracted by his carousing.
Local food is delicious — meat oriented with roast duck and pork, sausages, cabbages and potatoes being staple but fine dining, vegan and international cuisine also abundant in Prague. The dollar is strong against the Czech Koruna and food is cheap, a three course meal in a local restaurant averaging $15, no alcohol but including tip, (beer is very cheap) and a more upscale meal usually not more than $30.
After arriving in the village of Valtice (val-teetsa) I get my bicycle and take a short ride to the nearby Colonnade at Riestna, which was built in the early 1800s and used as a lookout on the border with Austria during the first and second world wars. From the top it is possible to see the rolling farmlands of Austria for miles and enjoy the beauty of Valtice at sunset.
I ride through many small towns and villages on my way to Mikoluv, a decent sized town where I am thrilled to discover a couple of instances of traditional music and dancing, the first being in the Jewish quarter. The second is some regional dancing a few blocks away with colorful Moravian costumes and enthusiastic dancers. In total contrast, earlier in the day I visited an archaeological park outside the village of Pavlov where I encountered a group of twentysomethings who showed up dressed as prehistoric mammoth hunters for seemingly no other reason than to have something fun and different to do. I would have taken their picture but they were carrying spears.
The first part of the day I spend riding through the agricultural countryside, past wheat, corn and sunflowers that seemed to stretch to the rooftops and spires of villages in the distance. Many of the small towns are powered by or at least supplemented by impressive solar farms and occasional wind turbines, all testifying to the progressiveness of this region when it comes to energy. The second part of the day brings a steady rain and motivates me to seek out pubs and cafes whenever I can find them, happy to point at menus with no English translations or at pictures that often bear little resemblance to what is actually served. The highlight of the day is a tour of a medieval hunting castle that is remarkably well preserved called Novy Hrádek (hrad being the Czech word for castle). A second magnificent castle from the 17th century towers above my overnight village, Vranov nad Dyji.
Journeying through many small and unremarkable villages I begin to see poppies, white and red, being farmed for the seed along with more wheat and corn fields. A sign describes how the farmers of old would work and transform the land as if it were a palette, symbiotically, using the natural landscape to the advantage of both the farmer and the land. That changed in the ‘40s, it says, “with the modernization of agriculture, the Czech landscape was transformed into a food producing machine devoid of hedgerows and old trees. Likewise, the souls of the country folk were sentenced to live in open spaces at the edge of vast fields without the old familiar tracks”. Riding through a small quaint village called Stará Hlína, I stumble onto the Village Smithy of Czechia. A sign with a blacksmith caught my eye with the word “restaurátorství” (restoration) underneath and a saying in quotes that translated to “once upon a time this was a blacksmith house”. There are a few tables and a cafe sign as well. Unfortunately they aren’t open so I can’t eat (of course I eat at the real one almost every day). I cross from Moravia into Southern Bohemia and end my day’s ride at the medieval town of Slavonice (sla-vo-nitsa) where I load my bike on a train for an hour ride to another medieval town, Telc (telch) when I overnight. Both are towns with cobblestone streets and Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Telc would be one of two UNESCO World Heritage towns on my trip, the second coming a few days later.
The next day has me going to the most difficult town to pronounce, practically impossible unless you are born with the language, Jindrichuv Hradek. I have it pronounced for me at least a dozen times and still can’t repeat it. It translates to “Henry’s Castle”, so I go with that.
The following day I ride into the fisheries area, overnighting in Trebon where large fish farms are located. Carp is big in Czechia and it’s exactly the carp that you imagine: the round mouth bottom feeding behemoth of the mud. It is the traditional Christmas meal there, cooked and served whole.
Czech desserts are delicious, ranging from palacinky, a cross between a sweet pancake and a crepe; trdelník, a rolled roasted pastry usually dusted with powdered sugar or cinnamon and sometimes filled with ice cream and toppings; to strudel, especially in the Moravian and South Bohemian regions close to Austria.
At the end of my final day on the bike I arrive in Cesky Krumlov, arguably the most famous city for tourists outside of Prague and perhaps Plzen (Pilsen as in beer and Pilsner Urquell). Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage town, beautifully preserved from the 13th Century with a large castle and the world’s oldest working baroque theater. The Vltava River winds through the town and it was bustling with tourists, shops and restaurants in stark contrast to the quiet villages I visited over the previous week.
All in all, I travelled through 61 towns and villages along my route, watching folks going about their daily affairs, from kids going to and from school to retirees relaxing at local cafes. I took with me as I left the beauty of the countryside, the friendliness of the people and a reinforced belief that there is strength and beauty in diversity, and that we are all so much more alike than we are different, even halfway across the world.