Jewels of Bohemia September 2016 part 3
This morning we set our luggage outside our door at 7:30 and we go down for breakfast where I enjoy the yummy croissants for the last time. Paul and I return to the room to gather our personal luggage and check to make sure we have not left anything behind. Everyone is in the lobby by 8:30 and we climb into the bus. Waessik, who is Polish, greets us with a big smile and a “good morning”. Once we have all settled in our chosen seats we are ready to hit the road to explore some more of the Czech Republic. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Prague but the three of us agree that we are ready to move on.
Once we leave Prague, Waessik drives the comfortable bus down narrow, curvy roads that travel through farm country and villages. On occasion Milan will speak to us about various topics via his microphone as we are driving. I spy two deer grazing in a hay-field this morning, someone sitting behind comments on them too; we also see cattle, a few horses, crop ground, and lots of big round hay bales.
After driving an hour and a half we reach our first stop of the day, the Vojna Memorial, a camp first built to house German prisoners of war. Vojna then became a forced labor camp to mine uranium when Russia took control of Czechoslovakia from 49 to 51. The communists then used Vojna to house political prisoners until 1961. The political prisoners were mostly people who supported democracy.
The first thing we see when we get out of the bus is a sign over the entrance gate and Milan tells us that it says “work will set you free”. Milan points out the irony of the statement since it is exactly what the sign over Auschwitz concentration camp declared. Our group walks through the gate and we look down the path between two barbed wire fences where the guards would patrol. There is a sculpture on the grounds showing a man at the top of a ladder while other prisoners are burrowing into the ground. The sculpture depicts how people tried to escape the misery of the camp to gain their freedom but rarely if ever did they succeed.
Milan leads us through the partially reconstructed camp relating grim and cruel stories as we go. There was a cultural building with a “library”, all communist material I’m sure, and a music room where the listeners had to sit on slat benches that were backless and rounded to make sure the prisoners couldn’t use the time to sleep. We walk through a small building that is a hospital which the inmates had to man themselves. Milan explains how much sickness there was among the inmates since the prisoners had no protective wear for the uranium mines they were forced to work in, plus they had to sleep in the same clothes. This left the men in constant exposure to the uranium which was obviously detrimental to their health. Many survivors suffered from cancer and leukemia in later years.
Milan leads us to the barracks where beds are crowded together in the small rooms and in tiers. There were also examples of solitary confinement cells making the crowded barracks look quite luxurious. Milan explains that the prisoners were paid a salary which allowed the communists to say that they were treating the prisoners fairly. The rest of that story is that the prisoners were also charged for their food, lodging and clothes so the prisoners ended up with a pittance of their pay. Milan told us that the prisoners were put to work early in the morning with no breakfast and their lunch and dinner would be very inadequate, (an example is watered down soup), thus adding to the deterioration of their health.
In the building that housed the Camp commander there was a memorial in remembrance of all those that had suffered or died in Vojna under the Stalinist times. There was also a sign with the names of those that were executed at this depressing place. Milan has one more stop for us and that is the underground cell where prisoners were put for the ultimate punishment. After sticking our heads inside the cell, most of us take a deep breath and step into the concrete pit. The tall people in our group can’t stand up straight in here and at 5’6″ the top of my head is close to touching the ceiling. There are not any windows, or any place to go to the bathroom, places to sit or lay down. Once that door was shut there would be nothing but darkness. How in the world could any human stand these conditions for long? It is time to move on down the road and although it is sobering and tough to visit places like Vojna it surely is important to do so to honor the victims of these atrocities.
After we have been driving for a while, Waessik pulls the bus off the road into a gas station area and brings it to a halt. Milan, with a quizzical smile, faces us and points to a small patch of green weeds across the road identifying the “weeds” as a marijuana field. Milan says he had our driver stop here because he has never seen this big of a field of marijuana. Milan informs us that the Czech Republic has recently decriminalized the drug and Milan says that they will have to wait and see what happens. Paul and I are more intrigued with the person that is stacking round bales of straw in the adjacent wheat field going up seven layers high! I also enjoy the colorful kites that are on display outside the gas station and think to myself that people can fly a kite while getting high as a kite:). Go ahead and groan that was bad.
Our next stop today is Pisek, a town founded in the 13th century. Milan first takes us to the Parish Church but we won’t be going inside as there is a wedding taking place. Milan says that it is o.k. to peek in the open door if we are very quiet. The church is full of wedding goers but what is really intriguing to me is that there is a seat for the bride and groom to sit on. This must be some long ceremony! We all quietly laugh at the basket outside the door that contains a horse collar, a ball and chain, and a bolt cutter. It would be fun to see what the wedding couple does with these items.
We walk down cobblestone streets laid in artful patterns as we pass by brightly painted houses whose window planters are filled with colorful flowers. Most of the businesses are closed and few people are on the streets, maybe they are all at the wedding! Milan fills us in on the history of the town as we walk towards the restaurant where we are to eat lunch. Milan points out the sand sculptures across the Otava River which we will visit after lunch. On the way to the restaurant we pass by stands where people are selling food, candy, and beer. It seems there is a beer festival going on today perhaps another reason the old part of town was so quiet!
As usual there are tables reserved for us in the restaurant which is quite crowded with customers. On the menu today is wild boar, hey this is why we travel, to experience new things in new places. The wild boar meat which is swimming in a tasty brown sauce isn’t too bad for someone like me who doesn’t care for wild game. I feel a little bad though as there is a wild boar head hanging on the wall right next to our table. When we have finished our meal, we go outside to a tent where beer on tap is being sold. Milan gathers us around him looking very pleased with himself as he tells us about the bartender in the restaurant where we ate. It seems this man is a master bartender who has won many medals in beer drawing competitions in the Czech Republic. He is so famous that bartenders from Prague and elsewhere come to learn from the man. Milan has spoken to the fellow who has agreed to demonstrate for our group the art of drawing a perfect beer. The bartender is supposed to put on the demo at this tent but the man is so busy that we have to return to the restaurant and crowd around the bar to watch the Master at work.
We clog the area around the bar while the first thing the bartender explains via Milan is that the glasses must be washed and rinsed properly through three different tubs of water. The next thing he tells us is that you never draw beer into a dry glass, the glass must be wet. After that I am lost as he demonstrates different ways to draw beer to make a completely different tasting beer from the same tap. I didn’t get around to sampling what I think was called milk beer but those that did said it definitely was smoother than a normal beer. Anyway it was another one of those unexpected events that Milan often added throughout this tour to make our time here even more special. We thank the busy bartender and leave him and his real customers in peace.
Our group strolls back through the various food and beer stands and Milan stops at one place where dough is being wrapped around a rotating cylinder and then cooked over charcoal. Milan buys one of the wonderful smelling treats called Trdelnik (nope can’t pronounce it) and hands out a sample to all of us. Oh yum, that is so tasty, trdelnik is so good in fact that Paul goes back to buy another one which he shares with Jennifer and me and whoever wants a bite. We stop in front of another vendor’s tent where Milan explains some of the different candies that are for sale there. One of the sisters buys a fudge type candy and she is kind enough to have the proprietor cut it in enough pieces so all of us can sample the sweet treat. Mmm, that is really good too.
Milan takes us across the bridge to the sand sculptures which are standing near the river’s edge. The sculptures depict characters from Czech fairy tales and include a really cool, fire-breathing dragon, humans, and a donkey that looks a lot like the one in Winnie the Pooh. I love these sand sculptures! There is a cute little girl who walks up to the dragon and poses by it while her mom takes her photo (as do I). Then she turns around and appears to slightly curtsy to the beast now and then, it takes me a moment to realize she has seen her shadow and is moving slightly to make her shadow move. How cute is that!
Milan now takes us towards the small carnival where we pass by a booth that is selling cookies in various shapes such as hearts and minions! The minion cookies are hilarious and for those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about they are characters from one of my favorite animated films, Despicable Me. What a hoot. Again one member of our group generously shares some of the licorice type candy she bought with all of us. The rides here are mostly for children but we see a father and son having fun in the bumper car ring which makes Milan reminisce how the bumper cars were his favorite thing at carnivals when he was a kid. I preferred the merry-go-round as a youngster myself:). We reach the bus where our driver cheerily greets us and soon we are on our way to our final destination today, Cesky Krumlov.
We reach Cesky Krumlov by late afternoon and because the streets that lead to our hotel are so narrow, Waessik has to let us off at the bus stop where we walk to our hotel, carrying our personal luggage with us. The large suitcases will be delivered via a van to the hotel. As we near the old town the view is just breathtaking. I feel like we have been put down in the middle of a fairy tale as I gaze over the red-tiled roof tops and see the stunning castle on the hill overlooking the town. Wow just wow! We reach the main square and there is our hotel, The Old Inn Hotel, right on the square. It gets even better when Paul and I discover that our very comfortable, third-floor room looks out on the beautiful square. This is wonderful. Before dinner we Kansans wander around this lovely village discovering picturesque views around every corner.
After a tasty dinner, Paul, Jennifer and I decide to walk up to the castle since according to Milan the view of Cesky at night is not to be missed. The three of us bump into the California sisters and the couple from Michigan and together we search for a way to the top of the castle complex. Our impromptu group notice people coming down some unlit stairs and we figure what the heck. Sure enough the stairs lead to the complex walkway and we are rewarded with a dazzling view of Cesky after dark. We join others in snapping pictures of the twinkling town below us. All of us then stroll down this walk way which takes us through some open air parts of the dimly lit castle. We emerge at the opposite end of the complex where the part of the castle with the distinct pink turret stands. It was beautiful by daylight and it is stunning at night! It is a wonderful way to end our day.
What a day we have had from the sobering Vojna Memorial to the festive town of Pisek and last but not least to the “Fairy Tale” city of Cesky Krumlov.
Next blog, Exploring Cesky Krumlov