Jewels of Bohemia September 2016 Part 6
Before I begin relating the adventures of the day, I wanted to comment on the people in our group. I never asked to use any of our companion’s names in my writings, thus the vague reference using initials. It only took a couple of days traveling together for us to know that we were with a great group of people. Everyone had a terrific sense of humor, we are all adventuresome, more than prompt :), laid back, and interested in everything. Of course, it helped to be led by a guide who was very passionate about the countries we were touring, patient, and also had a good sense of humor!
The breakfast buffet this morning has just about everything you could want and then some! Surely all this food isn’t just for us! The heck of it is I have vowed to stop eating so much as my pants are definitely fitting a bit tighter then when I left home. I do keep my vow and limit my intake of food this morning but it wasn’t easy to do. Everything I ate was really tasty which didn’t surprise me at all. Pavel and the two women that took care of us last night were on duty again this morning. I wonder if they are the only employees?
Last night, Pavel informed Milan that a movie was being filmed in Slavonice and if they were filming in the town square we would have to work around them. No photo bombing allowed! Some people in our group said that when they looked out their windows this morning it was a bit disconcerting to see the square full of German soldiers. In fact, when we walk out the hotel door for our village tour the square is full of movie equipment and props, movie actors and extras, and lots of people bustling around that work behind the scenes. They aren’t filming right now so we are free to take photos or just stare at the, soldiers and period dressed town’s people and children, who are standing around waiting for “action”!
Milan gets one of the local men that have been cast as an extra to come and talk to us. As Milan asks questions and then interprets the man’s answers to us, I notice a woman who is with the movie company sternly looking over at us. Eventually the dark-haired lady calls out to Milan. It seems they are getting ready to shoot some of the movie and they need us to be quiet plus they need the man we are talking with to come back and do his part. We move away from the hubbub of the movie making and get our first look at ancient Slavonice. The 13th century village is special because so many buildings still retain the sgraffito that has been painted over, (probably with those pretty pastels we have been admiring), in so many other villages.
As we wander around looking up at the awesome old artwork on the side of the buildings, you can’t help but be amazed at the intricacy of the work covering the entire facade of the structure. If I understand the technique that produces sgraffito correctly, a dark layer of plaster (?) is laid over the wall’s surface and then the artist scratches his work through that layer to reach the lighter color underneath to create these incredible scenes. Milan gives us info on Slavonice as we walk and gawk at our ancient surroundings. Milan greets a man who is standing on the sidewalk and says that this fellow is going to show us a special place in a building that he is caretaker for.
The man takes us across the street and leads us through the big wooden doors of an old house, well; all the buildings are old here! There are many historical items on this floor but this isn’t what we are here to see. Milan and his friend take us upstairs and stand beside a door and tell us that it leads to a secret room where Protestants used to worship during the time when Catholics ruled and practicing another religion was prohibited. Paul has the honor of unlocking the door and we all file through into the spacious room. As there were downstairs, there are items any museum would love to have in the room but the main treasure is the original 16th or 17th century frescos that are painted along the top of three of the walls in the room. Milan talks about the frescos and then leads us to a faded painting where some people are being confronted by a big lizard wearing a huge hat. The theory is that the lizard represents the pope because it is wearing a pope’s mitre. I don’t think this painting was meant as a compliment to the pope in this era! Just imagine if these people’s secret had been discovered in those trying times!
When we leave the house with the clandestine room, Milan takes us to where part of the original rock wall that surrounded the town in the past still stands. As we are heading back to the hotel Paul and Ms. J find a funny sign posted in a window. Paul catches up with me and insists that I come back to see it. Hilarious, I hope that the photo of the sign will make you laugh as hard as we did.
We dodge through the movie equipment and people to get to the hotel where we take a short break. We gather in the lobby, walk to the bus and drive to a small town where we are going to make a ceramic souvenir for ourselves at the local ceramic shop. The first protocol is to put on aprons and to see the three men in these garments is an added bonus to our activity. Since Paul and I have little room in our luggage we select a simple item to paint. The rest of our group chooses mugs or bowls except Ms. D who also selects the flat piece that I did, both of us thinking we could turn it into a cat. After instructions are given all of us get to work. My cat turns into a “UCO”, unidentified ceramic object; Paul paints dots and a smile on his hippo. I look at other’s projects of flowers or geometric designs that people are painstakingly painting on their projects and I am impressed.
Leaving our friends to finish their master pieces, Paul and I take a walk through this tiny town which Milan told us is just starting to come back to life after being abandoned for years. Paul and I enjoy our exploration though it doesn’t take long because this really is a tiny place. As we return to the ceramic shop, Jennifer joins us and we hike in another direction and discover a lovely pond with a yellow house across the way. The house sits near the edge of the pond where its reflection is painted across the water’s surface. It is so peaceful here but we must return to the shop as it is nearly time to depart for Slavonice.
Milan has another surprise for us and instructs Waessik to drive down a very narrow, tree-lined road, intimating that perhaps buses aren’t supposed to drive this road but he muses if we don’t meet any police we will be o.k. Ha! We reach a highway and get out of the bus. There are two people sitting on a bench, (is this a bus stop?), who seem quite surprised to see a bunch of tourists disembark in the middle of nowhere. Milan leads us to a white cement post and shows us that we are in Czech Republic now but if we step to the other side of the pillar we will be in Austria. Cool! Of course, all of us walk across the “border” and visit Austria for a few minutes while snapping photos of one another.
Once we return to Slavonice, Milan has another fun suggestion for us before we have lunch. He will give each of us the Czech name of an ingredient that will be used in making an appetizer. We are to go to the grocery store, find and buy the ingredient, after which we will make the appetizer. Once we have the name of the item, pronounced by Milan but not spelled out, all of us walk to the grocery store which is just a short distance from the hotel. It is a great little store which is well stocked with a variety of food stuff and household needs. Paul and I try to find our food item, Hemernin, without help but as expected, we are at a complete loss. Milan comes along and tells us what section we need to be looking in. We still can’t find it so finally he just shows us where it is. Cheese! We go to the counter and pay for the cheese then return to the hotel.
All of us gather in a room next to the dining room to start putting together the appetizer. Wait a minute, where are Jennifer and Mr. D and his wife Ms. C? Milan heads back out the door and after several minutes have passed returns with our wayward friends. The trio missed the grocery store and I think Milan had to run them down and show them the way to the shop :). We get down to business and take turns doing various tasks to prepare the dish. Paul helps chop onions, others chop garlic, I add ingredients to the plastic container, a tough job but someone has to do it. Our effort results in a pickled cheese/onion/garlic appetizer; I can’t remember the real name. Even though this dish must be refrigerated for several days, surprise, surprise, we sit down at tables in the restaurant and Pavel and the young woman serve us the spicy appetizer! Lunch is on our own today and since we are already seated comfortably in the restaurant most of us just stay here for lunch. Paul, Jennifer and I don’t eat a big meal but what we order is really good. I tell Paul that I must go back to the grocery store and buy one of the many chocolate baked goods that were on display, (so much for my vow of eating less) and Paul wants ice cream from the shop we passed on our tour this morning. I have a terrible time deciding which chocolate goody to buy but finally decide on cake that has been dipped in chocolate. We then cross the street where Paul takes his time deciding on which flavor of ice cream to buy. As we savor our treats, we explore some more of the village. Upon our return to the hotel we get barked at by one of the movie people indicating we must get off the street. We are within a few feet of the hotel so I just wave towards it and keep walking. If you lived here, after a while this movie stuff could really become irritating!
We convene in the lobby at mid-afternoon to explore sites on the outskirts of Slavonice. Waessik drives us to Landstejn Fortress/Castle. Even though this place is a ruin it nevertheless is an impressive sight. Towering stone walls dominate from the hilltop and leave me in awe of the people who built such structures in the 13th century. Milan leads us up the pathway into the first “floor’ where we admire our surroundings. We continue onward and upward, looking in at a small room that was a chapel and then climb many steps to the top of the tower. From this height, we can see for miles which was one of the purposes of the Fortress, being able to see your enemies from a long way off. After enjoying the views, we leave Landstejn Fortress to continue exploring the countryside.
Milan tells us he would like to take us to a small segment of the Iron Curtain that is nearby if we would like to see it. Everyone is on board with this suggestion and soon we are driving down a dirt road where Waessik parks the bus next to a farmer’s field. The owner is kind enough to allow people to come see this sad reminder of Czech’s communist past and was wise enough to preserve a small portion of the Iron Curtain.
We walk over to the small section of the preserved Iron Curtain, which are just wooden posts strung with nasty barbed wire. Milan recounts the story of the day communism fell and how his parents went out with myriads of others to help tear the fence down. Milan emotionally relates how vividly he remembers as a child of nine (or 6?) when his folks returned crying with joy and carrying a piece of barbed wire from the Iron Curtain with them. What a feeling of elation that must have been, knowing that you were free to travel to neighboring Austria, or anywhere as far as that goes, that had been off-limits for decades.
Our last stop for the afternoon is to look at WWII bunkers in the National reserve known as Czech Canada. We walk down a rough country road to reach the forest where the bunkers are located. Upon entering the forest, we walk by the first camouflaged bunker, an innocuous round dome hunkering among the trees. I catch movement to my left and am startled to see a tow-headed boy gathering pine cones in a bucket. I look around but there doesn’t appear to be anyone else around. Weird. We pass two or three more bunkers before arriving at the “show” bunker and a man is waiting for us here. Ah, the mystery of the lone boy is solved as this is his father. Milan talks about the work and cost of the bunkers the Czech government expended on the project meant to protect the Czech border from an invasion by the Germans. In the end, the government made the decision not to fight Germany. It is ironic that the bunkers were used during the cold war to keep Czech citizens from escaping to the West to freedom.
Milan introduces us to the fellow that is going to unlock the bunker so we can tour it and then we file into the concrete fortifications in groups of three. You understand why the bunkers are placed so closely together because the area that the two machine guns can cover is very limited. The bunker is cramped for space due to all the equipment that is stored in it but wow is it interesting.
After this fun and interesting afternoon, we return to the hotel where we have an hour before our next activity this evening! Good old Waessik, cheerful as ever, drives us to a nearby village where we are being hosted by a family who is cooking dinner for us. As we pull up to the house we are greeted by a pretty woman who takes us into a large back yard. My first reaction is that they have enough firewood here to last for two years! Hey, the drummer/singer from the band last night walks out to welcome us to their home and introduces a neighbor and her daughter who are helping prepare the meal. The first order of business is the welcome drink which is liquor made from the pears from their tree. Oh yikes, this sounds a lot like the horinka we were given in Romania. Once we all have some of the liquor in hand a toast is given and most people in group down the drink in one gulp. I take a sip of the burning liquid, sigh and figure I may as well get this over with and copy the example of my cohorts. It makes me gasp but at least I didn’t offend our hosts by not drinking it! The majority of our group, including Paul and Jennifer, think the pear liquor was quite good.
Once the welcoming ceremony is finished we traipse into a large open room in the house where we sit on chairs and couches sitting around the perimeter of the room. The couple is going to demonstrate how to make one type of dumplings that we have been eating with so many of our meals. They work very well together as they show us the secret of cooking the perfect dumplings. The only hiccup in the cooking demonstration is when the woman remembers that she forgot to grease the mug, (yes they cook the dumplings in coffee mugs), after her husband had packed the dough in it. The good news is that she remembered her faux pas on the very first cup that her husband filled with dough.
There are two tables for us, one in the dining room and one in the kitchen. Paul, Jennifer, the three sisters and me occupy the table in the kitchen. Our personable hosts serve us a delicious potato soup to start the meal and honestly, the generous bowl of soup would have been enough for our meal. It is followed with two kinds of pork, roast and ham, dumplings and vegetables. It is all fabulous but the ham was my favorite part of the meal.
We have some drama after the meal, the first event being that one member of our group can’t get the bathroom door unlocked so Milan and our host must push in on the door and talk her through the trick to unlocking the door! When we leave our table, and join the others in the dining room there is a flurry of activity in the kitchen by our table. It seems that a napkin caught fire from one of the candles on our table! Holy Smokes that could have been bad. Once the napkin is extinguished, everyone in the group presents our host family with a gift we brought from the U.S. Paul and I let Jennifer present our gifts since she came up with the idea of a dish towel with sunflowers on it, which is the state flower of Kansas. We also give them a ball cap that Jennifer’s son who works for Kansas Wildlife and Parks donated to us for one of the gifts. Jennifer also used Google translate to write a card to our hosts, thanking them for hosting us and to explain the reasoning behind the gifts we brought. Milan went over what Jennifer had written yesterday before Jennifer wrote it in the card and made a few changes for her. Milan seemed pleased with this personalized touch of the card. Way to go Jennifer!
Paul has brought our photo book that we take on trips to show people photos of our ranch. After everyone has presented their gifts and we are preparing to leave, Paul takes the book over to our hosts and is explaining the photos in the book. Because some of our group is beginning to leave our hosts feel the need to escort us out and they place our book with the other gifts! Oops, Paul didn’t know how to explain that he wasn’t giving the book to them; he just wanted to share a little bit of Kansas with them. Oh well, no big deal but I bet our hosts wonder why we thought they would want a book of photos of a Kansas ranch from people they don’t even know!
Next blog, Leaving Czech Republic and going to Milan’s home country Slovakia