A walk in the Czech countryside
August 22, 2005
I began to get a little nervous on the train from Vienna to Breclav.I was feeling vulnerable, probably because I didn’t speak a word of the language. We didn’t speak the language in Vienna, where my wife, Linda, and I had caught the train that morning. And we most certainly weren’t going to speak the language in Breclav, the small city in the southern Czech Republic where we were supposed to start our five-day, self-guided village-to-village hiking trip.
From time to time, the conductor made announcements, but I had no idea if he was saying the dining car was open, warning us not to stick our heads out the windows or announcing the next stop. Worse yet, I’d realized earlier in the day that I had no idea how to pronounce “Breclav.” When I’d gone to buy tickets at the train station, I’d said “Bress-lahv” to the main behind the window. He’d given me a blank look. I tried again: “Breck-lahv.” Another blank look. I showed him a piece of paper with “Breclav” written on it and he nodded and pushed two tickets across the counter. So if the conductor was announcing the name of the next stop, I probably wouldn’t recognize “Breclav” anyway. But I was nervous for another reason.I’d arranged our trip through a Czech company called the Greenways Travel Club that I’d found on the Internet. All our communications had been by e-mail and, although everything went smoothly and professionally, I was acting mostly on faith. The only thing I knew for certain was that when I’d sent off something over $1,000 by international bank transfer, there’d been someone at the other end to collect that money. The company’s last e-mail had promised there’d be someone in Breclav to meet us when our train pulled in. But … how would I know when we got there? What would I do if there wasn’t anyone waiting for us? And … and … and …
And I needn’t have worried, even for a moment. The signs at the Breclav station were clear. We piled off the train with our luggage and there, on the platform, was the impressively organized and thoroughly reassuring Tomas Leskovjan.Within minutes, we were loaded into Tomas’ van and heading to the nearby town of Mikulov. Along the way, we learned that we were in good hands indeed. Tomas is the founder and president of Czech Greenways – a strong, competent man, who speaks excellent English, and still glows when he talks about the “Velvet Revolution,” the fall of Communism in then-Czechoslovakia.In Mikulov, Tomas got us checked into our hotel, then took us to a nearby cafe where he introduced us to some of the best beer I have ever tasted (more on that later) and issued us enough gear to dispel any lingering doubts. He gave us detailed maps and written route descriptions for each day’s hike. He gave us a cell phone, with his number programmed in, so we could call him if there were any problems. And, finally, he gave us a global positioning device, preprogrammed with each day’s route.We were in good hands. And drinking great beer.I immediately began to regret the fact that, in an effort to cram as many different experiences into a single vacation as possible, we had insisted on reducing Greenways’ recommended 10-day tour to just five days.
Regardless of whether that decision was a wise one, Tomas had been extremely helpful in changing the tour to meet our demands. In fact, the trip we were taking was called the “Flexible Tour.” Part of the “flex” is in your ability to alter the itinerary; the other part is in the choice of transportation every day. For each day of the tour, you can decide to travel by foot, by bicycle or by horseback. You make those choices in advance, and the route for each day is set up to match.We had decided on three days hiking and, at my wife’s insistence, one day on horseback. The first day, as is always the case, was a travel day – half of which I had already spent, nervously, on the train to Breclav.The rest of that first day, we spent walking through the town of Mikulov, which has some beautiful old buildings, a fine castle, a lovely central square and, unexpectedly, a large and sadly evocative Jewish cemetery. The cemetery covers several acres and the earliest gravestones date back to 1605. The Mikulov Jewish community was wiped out during the Nazi era and the graveyard, battered and vandalized, is now kept under lock and key. We got the key from its guardian, the owner of an art gallery in town, and spent an hour wandering among the graves.That evening, we had our first experience with Czech cuisine. Before we had left on the trip, an acquaintance who had visited the Czech Republic gave us her take on the food. “Has anyone ever told you that a great new Czech restaurant has just opened in town? No. And there’s a reason for that.”Czech food is simple, hearty, heavy and dull – with occasional truly bizarre touches, like the mound of whipped cream that appeared one night on top of an entree of pork slices in thick brown gravy. We really only found one thing to say about Czech food: It sure fills you up.The next morning, Tomas picked us up at the hotel and drove us to a nearby town where the actual hiking began.
This was the third self-guided, village-to-village hiking tour that my wife and I have taken. The first was in the Pyrenees, along the border of Spain and France. The second was in Tuscany. It’s a wonderful way to get a close, intimate view of a country – or, more properly, of a small part of a country. You don’t really cover a lot of territory.For us, part of the pleasure is that it’s just the two of us walking together each day (we’re not really very sociable), relying on maps and route descriptions from the tour company. The tour company takes care of hotel reservations and carting luggage from town to town, so we can hike with just day packs.That semi-solitude means you can really experience the country, without being trapped in a bubble of a dozen or so of your new English-speaking “best friends.” You’re on your own for lunch and dinner, making choices, taking chances. You’re on your own every evening, to explore towns as you choose. Sometimes that means whipped cream on your pork. More often, it means experiences that you will remember fondly for having discovered them yourself.And, in this case, it meant we were getting close to a part of old Europe that is only now fully emerging from the 50-year shadow of communism. The modern world has not yet swamped this region.I have realized that, although “hiking village to village” has a nice ring to it, that’s not really what we’re doing. Most days begin or end (sometimes both) with a car ride. In essence, we spend our nights in a series of charming villages and are driven to a delightful day hike each morning.
Our Czech trip followed that same pattern. Tomas was the driver for a few stages. The other drivers, unlike Tomas, spoke little or no English – but no matter, they were always right where they were supposed to be, right when they were supposed to be there. And they were always friendly, even when we had to communicate by sign language.We actually only spent two days of our trip hiking. We canceled the third day’s hike for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Both hiking days were a pleasure. We walked on well-marked trails through rolling fields and meadows and deep forests. The first day, hiking from Valtice to Lednice, we started and ended our walks at castles built by the powerful Liechtenstein dynasty. (I’d always thought of Liechtenstein as a faintly comic little principality, a tiny sliver of land that survives by selling postage stamps to collectors. But for many centuries the Liechtenstein family controlled vast swaths of feudal Europe.)That day, we hiked for hours across what had once been a part of the Liechtenstein estates, which the family controlled from the early 1200s until the end of the World War II. Along the way, we stopped to marvel at a number of “follies,” unexpected eruptions of huge, totally pointless architecture – a Roman triumphal arch, a massive ornate column, a curved colonnade filled with statues – built in the middle of the forest for the amusement of the nobility. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant in an elegant chateau on the shores of a lake. At the end of the hike, we toured the Liechtensteins’ impressive Chateau of Lednice, reading a rough English translation of the spiel the guide was delivering in incomprehensible Czech.Our second day’s hike was similar. We started at a fortress castle on a hilltop in the forest, and from there we hiked across hilly woodlands. At one point, we passed through an area dotted with abandoned concrete bunkers that the Czechs had built to defend against the Germans in the 1930s. The bunkers were abandoned in 1938, when the British, the French and the Italians signed the infamous Munich Agreement, cheerfully agreeing to turn this part of Czechoslovakia over to Hitler – as long as he promised not to make any more trouble.
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After passing through bucolic countryside (and a little too much semi-urban fringe), that day’s hike ended at the town of Nova Bystrice. From there, we traveled by a century-old narrow-gauge railway, through more deep forest to the town of Jindrichuv Hradec, where our driver met us.Between these two days of hiking, there was a day spent on horseback. Let’s be very clear: I hate horses – but my wife loves them, so this day was a firm part of our plans. We started at a tiny farm, whose owner keeps a small number of horses (plus, by the way, several falcons, which he uses for hunting). Accompanied by the owner and his handsome girlfriend, Linda and I rode for hours through the countryside. We were mostly in a national park, riding on old Roman roads, across ancient stone bridges, through dense woods where the nobility once hunted. We stopped at a hilltop overlook above a deep river gorge and then turned back toward the farm. We rode along a country road, lined with cherry trees, branches bent low under the weight of ripe fruit. We reached up and grabbed handfuls of cherries, eating as we rode.I still hate horses, but it was a great day.But if the days of hiking and riding were wonderful, so were the towns where we spent our nights.
One was just a crossroads, really, with yet another imposing castle on a crag high above.But the next night was spent in Telc, a beautiful town – a UNESCO World Heritage site – with an exquisite central square. The square is lined with Renaissance buildings, all apparently built at about the same time after the original town was razed by fire. The effect is powerful.Our hotel was perfectly situated at one end of the square, and our bedroom looked out over the Renaissance façades.Though Telc is largely untouched by tourism, it is beginning to be discovered. It was here that we heard English for the first time in several days. The next morning, our driver stopped briefly in Slavonice, a town much like Telc, but even less affected by tourism.But the final town was the most startling of the trip: Cesky Krumlov.Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, Cesky Krumlov is an almost perfectly preserved medieval town whose history reaches back nearly 800 years. Built in a crook of the Vltava River, the town spreads out from an enormous 13th-century castle. The buildings are a superb mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, scattered along narrow winding streets.
The town’s only real drawback is that, unlike Telc or Slavonice, it has been very thoroughly discovered by tourists. Almost every storefront houses a tourist-oriented business and the streets are thronged with visiting hordes – mostly Europeans and Japanese, but more than a few Americans. It was hard to find any signs of authentic “real life” anywhere. And yet, the charm and the magic of the town itself were so strong that we canceled the next day’s hike in order to spend more time wandering the streets.There was, of course, one extra factor influencing our decision to relax in Cesky Krumlov: great beer.When we sat down with Tomas in Mikulov on the first day of our trip he had proudly declared that “Czech beer is the best in the world.”We had nodded politely and assumed that this was normal national pride showing itself. Eventually, we decided he was absolutely correct. The only Czech beer I’ve ever encountered in the United States is Pilsner Urquell, which never overwhelmed me. But the real gems are the smaller breweries’ dark beers – and the best of all was the Eggenburg dark beer, brewed in Cesky Krumlov at the Pivovar Eggenburg brewery (founded in 1560).Next time, I’ll know to take the entire 10-day tour, to learn a few words of Czech – and to insist on cerna pivo Eggenburg (dark Eggenburg beer) from the very start.
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.Contact information:Greenways Travel Clubphysical address:Namesti 24/27692 01 MikulovCzech Republicphone: 011-420-603-479-814e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org: http://www.visitgreenways.com