Bohemian Rhapsody

Trip Start Apr 20, 1998
1
4
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Trip End Nov 22, 2000


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Flag of Czech Republic  , Bohemia,
Tuesday, September 29, 1998

The following travel article was the first I ever wrote, and it was published in several newspapers, including The Scotsman and The Age (Aust).

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Scotsman rushed into the Kutna Hora information centre and, seeing it busy, turned to us. "Where's the church with the bones?" he gasped. We told him it was 2kms out of the town centre. "Ah, no. I┤m only here a few hours and I have to catch the last train to Prague in half an hour. I really, really wanted to see those bones."

It seems that Magic Prague casts a spell over its visitors. 90% of tourists who visit never spend a night away from the Czech Republic's capital. Instead, day trips are organised on coaches or trains where for a few hours they catch fleeting glances at some of the Republic's most beautiful towns.

Why? The towns are welcoming, cheaper and cleaner than the capital and deserve to be explored. We journeyed around the country and visited, arguably, the best towns in the Czech Republic.

Kutna Hora, an hour and a bit east from Prague, was not a promising start. Czech bus stations are as welcoming as a stolen passport. Our hearts sank when we arrived. Surely we were in the wrong town? Kutna Hora is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. This place was a dump.
 
This is the legacy of communism. The old town centres are like diamonds inserted deep into a pile of manure. To reach them we often had to walk past dilapidated flats and Skoda cars on blocks. Kutna Hora is a fine example of this legacy.
          
It may no longer be the case but Kutna Hora was once the second largest town in Bohemia outside of Prague. The silver coins minted here were the Euro of Central Europe at the time. When mining ceased in 1726 so did the prosperity of the town. The medieval townscape stagnated and remained basically unaltered, which was bad news for miners but good news for us.      
           
The cobble-stoned town square was a wonderful place to enjoy lunch, but it was only when we headed towards the Cathedral of St Barbara in the south of the town that the days of medieval silver merchants and poor miners returned. The cathedral and its three steeples surrounded by flying buttresses dominate the town, and rightly so. It is a stirring sight, with the cathedral sharing space with an old Jesuit building and chipped religious statues.
  It took 150 years to build this cathedral and it is considered one of the best Gothic churches in Europe. The funds didn't come from the royal coffers though. Instead it was the town's miners who paid for it, in honour of the town's patron saint St Barbara. Her statue is kept beneath the paintings of stars and flowers in the nave's vaulting.
           
Heading down the mine shaft at the Hradek Mining Museum we could see why the miners wanted to please St Barbara. Even with the shafts cemented, reinforced and enlarged it is a tight, dark and claustrophobic tour. It was made worse when a friend in front dropped and broke his torch. The rest of the group disappeared and for a moment I thought a quick prayer to St Barbara was in order. It is easy to imagine how miners felt holding tenuously to their candles and slithering through wet , narrow shafts knowing if they couldn't find their way back there'd be no search party to follow.
           
It's not the cathedral though, or the town's pock-holed Baroque and Rococo townhouses that tourists like the Scotsman come to Kutna Hora for. It's the ossuary at Sedlec. The cemetery at the church pulled in hordes of deceased after an Abbot sprinkled a jar of earth from the Holy Lands on it in the 13th century. The Black Plague boosted the popularity of the place, forcing the crypt to become a bone yard for 40,000 dead Czechs. In 1870 a local woodcutter was hired to set the bones into creative patterns. What else to do with old bones? But even the monks wouldn't have expected a giant eight-branched chandelier that hangs over the crypt and is composed of every bone in the body, or a skeletal Schwarzenberg family coat-of-arms. It would make a great scene in a low budget horror movie.  
           
Telc, like Kutna Hora, has a huge, cobble-stoned town square.  Nestling between Bohemia and Moravia in the south of the country, the town is fortified and surrounded by moats and ponds. The town square has seen a lot of action, from German occupation to communist rallies. It is also the most picturesque in the country. It felt as if we had stepped onto the stage of a pantomime as every shop and house has a colourful fašade covering once dull exteriors. It is almost a disappointment to step through a pink Baroque house with Biblical carvings and flowerbox windows to discover it is a shop selling cheap Bohemian glass. We did pick up a bargain though. In a toy shop we discovered a marionette of "The Good Soldier Sevjk", a Forrest Gump-like dolt who created havoc in the trenches of the First World War. It cost almost half the price of the same marionette in Prague. Wooden toys and marionettes are a speciality in the Czech Republic, and can be found substantially cheaper than in the capital.
           
Restaurants serve three course meals and genuine Budweiser beer at a fraction of the Western European price too. For $10 we had a filling goulash and dumplings, Bulgarian salad, fried cheese and a mound of fruit and ice-cream. The beer, golden, light and $1.60 a glass, is a dream come true for connoisseurs of lager.
           
Many regard Telc has one of the best towns in the Czech Republic, but it is not the most popular. We found this out trying to find a cheap room in Cesky Krumlov. Only a few miles from the Austrian border this UNESCO town is one of the most beautiful in Europe. Untouched for at least two hundred years its creaky sand-coloured houses lean over narrow alleyways while its enormous castle carved out of a rock towers over the old town. A river runs around the village where canoeists spent the day shooting down a slide into the shallow water. We tried it the next day and capsized.       

The grand Cesky Krumlov castle and mansion tower is now being carefully restored. Its crowning triumph is the Masquerade Hall which features a party of masked guests painted on the walls and windows, enjoying an 18th century ball. Apparently a masked ball could go on for days in summer. The castle also contains a gilded coach that must be the most expensive piece of kitsch ever made. Completely covered in gold and resplendent with cherubs, it delivered gifts to Pope Urban VIII and then, mysteriously, was never used again.
           
We visited the town museum and found, like the restaurants, it was very similar to all other provincial museums - full of exhibits and empty of people. An elderly lady silently followed us around. We thought it was to stop us touching the exhibits but she just wanted to be helpful. She showed us how a phonograph worked, and then pushed a few buttons to make a display of wooden toys light up. In gratitude we bought a few postcards which brought a smile to her well worn face.
           
Moving on to the spa town of Karlovy Vary in the east of the country we saw a rare thing, signs in Russian. Once it was the official second language, now Czechs looks down on it in disdain. In most towns and cities information centres, tours and restaurants offer English and German translations only. It is a surprise just how well the tourist towns we visited cater for the English tourist. Particularly helpful are the information centres, who will book accommodation and provide times for buses and trains as well as selling colour booklets on local history. All you need to do is say "dekuji" (thank you) as you leave.
           
Karl Marx, Peter the Great and Tolstoy all came to Karlovy Vary and it is still popular with rich Russians seeking cures from the warm waters. The only spa opened to visitors though is the open air thermal swimming pool. The pool overlooks the old town with its large mansions and hotels. Large, grinning Czech women in white smocks are there to great you if you want a rub down or sauna.
           
The town was popular with aristocrats, and has changed so little you almost expect a coach to drop off a royal couple at their hotel door before they retreat to a private spa. It's like a genteel Victorian town with its neat gardens and faded buildings.
           
Some of the hotels, like the large Pension Kosmos which we stayed in, had faded more than others. The carpet was upturned, the rooms smelt and the furniture was broken and dusty. A Californian girl we meet claimed the rooms next to hers were used as a brothel. Certainly a large number of men sat around the foyer for no particular reason when we left.    
           
The north of Bohemia, our last stop, attracts few tourists. It is seen as the industrial heart of the country, with towns one large jumble of pre-fabricated flats. It was also the Sudetenland - where Germans were forcibly evicted and returned to their native country after the Second World War.             
            
Litomerice was founded by Germans, but there are few reminders of their culture in the town. Czechs re-populated Litomerice, which is small but pleasant. It provided us with the best bed and breakfast in the country. The giant spider on the Penzion U Pavouka sign didn't look welcoming but the owner with giant handlebar moustache was. You can always trust men with oversized moustaches.
           
The next day it rained and didn't stop until we were soaked and cold. It made the countryside look drab and depressing and the buildings worn and decrepit, as if the north remained under the yoke of communism. Perhaps it was suitable, for we spent the day in the near-by town of Terezin.
           
Terezin is a fortress town that became a concentration camp for deported Jews on their way to the death camps in Poland. We walked with knotted stomachs through the Ghetto Museum, once the boy's dormitory where a newspaper was secretly printed for the Jewish population. A large group of German schoolchildren were visiting and were uncharacteristically quiet. The Czechs, who never did treat their Jewish population well, had previously wanted to forget about the 140,000 Jews who passed through here. Now there is a sense of honesty and a willingness to remember their plight.
           
There are moving poems written by the Jewish children of the camp. One that caught our eye was written by a boy who either looked forward to manhood or knew he'd never reach it:
           
"A little garden, fragrant and full of roses,
  The path is narrow, and a little boy walks along it.
  The little boy, a sweet boy, like that of a growing blossom,
  When the blossom comes to bloom, the little boy will be no more."
           
The Germans too are facing up to their past. In the visitors book one had written: "We have to handle our history together".
           
We walked through the rain from the museum to the "Small Fortress", used first by the Czech authorities and then the Gestapo as a prison. It is a eerie place, not touched by the authorities since the town was liberated by the Soviets. There are still rusted shackles on the wall of the solitary confinement cells and bottles of medicine in the sparse hospital room.

It wasn't a pleasant day, but you can't expect a country to offer only fairytale castles and whimsical villages. There is a dark past to many European countries. The Czech Republic has theirs, but is honest enough to admit it. That's what is so rewarding about travelling around this country. If you delve deep enough you can find the hidden bones
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