16.10.2012 - 20.10.2012 21 °C
Episode 19: Zagreb to Prague
16 - 20 October 2012
Family history, nostalgia and grand castles
Train 172, wagon 256, seat 51 second class saw me taking a very comfortable 6 -ish hour train trip from Vienna to Prague. My sister and cousin met me at the train station and I confess it was nice having someone meet me and guide me rather than my trying to figure out where I was supposed to go and by what means while juggling backpack, day pack and my hand drawn directions.
My first visit to Prague was in 1966 and at that time my mother, brother and I stayed in an apartment where some friends of my grandmother lived. It was on the top floor of a building located on the upper part of Wenceslas Square and despite battling jetlag, I remember being most impressed by the man carrying two huge jugs of beer across the square at 7 o’clock in the morning. Given that I grew up in the land of the prohibition, this was unheard of and unseen in Seattle let alone to a 16 year old. I was also very impressed with all the red roofs of the buildings surrounding the apartment block as all the roofs in Seattle are a dull grey. Unfortunately, the original house was torn down and a rather atrocious ugly green building with a round window was constructed (and is still there). And further, that end of Wenceslas Square has been changed from a pedestrian plaza to a two-way road. In 1966, Prague was a depressing city where there were few cars and smiling people, no feeling of cheer and no stores: everything was handed to you over a counter by a dour saleslady.
Fast forward to 2012. My sister, cousin and I stayed just outside of Prague the first night. We wandered into the Old Town (Stareměstské namesti) in the evening and met up with Lubos, a friend of mine from Mongolia. We were invited to a secret squirrel place where you had to go up the alley way, knock on a door, go down the stairs and you found yourself in a renovated, crowded and noisy cellar. Wine, sausage and cheese were on order and the owner showed us his wine cellar which, for a total wine novice, looked very impressive. The streets of the Old Town were crowed with predominately Japanese tourists that seemed to thrive on the crystal shops that all sold the same style of crystal and I heart Prague magnets.
The next day we went to the cottage my grandmother lived in during her latter years. The cottage sits on the outskirts of Senohraby, a village about 30 km to the southeast of Prague which has been around since the 15th century, and very near the railway line and Sázava River. Although located in an open, grassed area, the cottage is surrounded by forest and the log cabin my father hand built in the mid-1930s when he was about 15 years old still stands on the small hill next to the cottage. The Sázava River is within walking distance of the cottage and was a very popular swimming park (Senohrabske Plovarne) when my parents were growing up. It is still very popular and if you look at early pictures not a lot has changed over the last 60 years.
What has changed is Hrad (castle) Zlenice, commonly called the “Watchtower” after the name of the original village attached to the castle, which is undergoing a rather nice restoration. The castle is about a 5 minute walk into the forest from the swimming park. Built in about 1351 by Jan of Zlenice, it sits on a small promontory overlooking the river. Jan seems to have been part of a gentry family and really didn’t seem to fare too well: in the same year he named the castle after himself, he had to forfeit the castle as part of a loan to his brothers. Later on, the castle was used as a popular background for several Czech artists, Josef Lada being the one most familiar to me.
I remember walking by the ruins with my sister back in 1966 and there was a small gang of young boys hanging around who just stood there and stared as we walked by. I confess, in retrospect, that I may have been a wee bit of a sight to stare at given that I was wearing my plaid yellow Bermuda shorts which came to my knees. They were the ‘in’ garment at that time in Seattle. Unfortunately, they were only ‘in’ in Seattle. They were a point of conversation wherever I went in Czechoslovakia and I’m sure that the Bermuda style never made the fashion pages in Czechoslovakia. The girls were into wearing what we called “hot pants” at that time which was considered a bit riské in Seattle. This was also my first introduction to speedos on the male body and at 16 I had no idea where I was supposed to look as American boys generally wore very austere cut-offs which came to their knees. I was never sure, but I suspect that the boys were squatters but my sister and I just glared back at the boys as we walked by, no words were exchnaged and all passed by peacefully.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in Prague or Senohraby as we wanted to spend a few days castle hopping and in a nutshell, the weather was fine, the autumn colours stunning and the palaces we visited were all grand despite the fact that the only way we could see the insides was to go on organised tours.
Hrad Karlstejn, a late Gothic castle located about 20 kilometres southwest of Prague in the village of Karlŝtejn was the first castle we visited. It was built by the Czech king and Roman Emperor Charles IV in the mid-1300s as a place for safekeeping his little stash of royal treasures and jewels. There is lots of history and fables and myths associated with the castle, but the most entertaining to me is the story about Katerina Bechynova, a wife of a burgrave who lived in the castle. Katerina had a bad bustle day and murdered fourteen maidservants and topped the cake by obviously having a thing about cats as she hid them alive in various places around the castle. Betcha they would have smelled like prawns in a hubcap after a few days.
Hrad Krivoklat founded in the 12th century was the second castle we visited. The castle is about 40 km west of Prague and sits on a promontory of rolling hills overlooking a mainly deciduous forest which was flush with autumn colours. It was said to be the favourite castle of King Wenceslas IV as he quite enjoyed the hunting and sporting he could do in the surrounding woods. Some movie company was shooting a period film on the day we were there. Most of the action was inside the castle, but it was good fun looking at the actors in their costumes, many standing around smoking very modern cigarettes. The most outstanding and impressive feature of this castle to me was the huge library with over 52,000 volumes of books. The dungeons and torture chamber were not visited as listening to the monotone drone of the unsmiling tour guide was torture enough.
Hrad Loket, located about 140km to the west of Prague, was the third castle we visited and was my favourite, mainly because it was the smallest we visited and seemed the most unpretentious. We stopped in Karlovy Vary on the way to the castle which is a spa city located about 130 km to the west of Prague. The city has had a rough history having been incorporated by Czechoslovakia and Germany at various times and then was under Communist rule until the fall of the Soviet Union. Karlovy Vary is famous for its hot springs and is supposedly very popular with jet setters and celebrities. A part of the 2006 film Casino Royale with Daniel Craig was filmed there and if the cars that parked in front of the Grandhotel Pupp were any indication, there were certainly lots of people with lots of money there. It was also evident by all the signage that there was a significant number of Russians in the city.
People have attributed lots of healing powers to the mineral spring waters of Karlovy Vary. These waters purportedly can treat diabetes, liver disease, neurological disorders, obesity and gout. The practice of balneology (sitting and drinking spa waters) is still very much in effect. People fill their made in china traditional sipping cups, “made in a shape especially designed to preserve the temperature and CO2 content”, with the warm mineral water and sip the water while strolling around the streets and colonnades.
Karlovy Vary is also the home of Becherovka, a 76% proof liqueur made from a secret squirrel recipe of herbs and spices. My parents always swore that Becherovka, taken in the evening, was of great medicinal value for ones stomach. I just remember it causing a group of us to happily, animatedly and un-abashedly sing YMCA.
Hrad Loket is one of the oldest stone castles in the Czech Republic and is surrounded on three sides by the Ohre River. It’s been called the “Impregnable Castle of Bohemia” due to its thick walls. It burned down in 1725 but was rebuilt by 1822. The village of Loket surrounds the castle unlike the other castles we visited where the village was at the bottom of the hill and we had to walk up the hill to the castle. I was quite entertained by the brochure that advertised wedding ceremonies you could have in the castle: the standard ceremony of 20 minutes will put you about $4,700 out of pocket while the Ceremony with Program III, lasting one hour with a performance of fencers and musicians, will cost you about $15,000.
When I started planning my trip, I was pretty determined that I was not going to leave terra firma or terra marine at any time. I investigated taking a freighter across the Atlantic and after spending an inordinate time on the computer, I decided I needed to be pragmatic. There is an entire community out there that are freighter travellers so there was no shortage of information or advice. However, the two obstacles I faced were scheduling and cost. Most of the freighter trips starting from Europe or the UK took at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, and many times there would be a suggestion of a departure date and arrival date, but no guarantee. A ship could be stuck in port for any period of time and without warning if there were any sort of hiccups. I did investigate the Queen Mary as I thought that as we had immigrated to the United Stated on the Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, it would be rather good fun to travel again on her sister ship. However, I needed to get to New York on a certain date as I was meeting my mother and the Queen Mary schedule just didn’t work out. Also, although freighter travel may have been the paupers’ way to travel at one time, the costs associated with the freighters these days are more for the king and would have covered another three trips around the world for me.
So, after our short castle hopping trip, I bade my sister and cousin farewell and I jumped on a plane to get to New York.
Next stop: New York