After we returned from an eleven-day trip to Europe last summer, my husband remarked, “That was the best vacation I’ve ever had.” Finally, I got it right, I thought, after twenty years of traveling together.
Actually, I can’t take all the credit. The fact that we left our children at home probably had something to do with Peter’s enthusiastic pronouncement. While traveling with kids has its own moments of joy, getting away with just your honey beside you renews and refreshes your relationship. And Peter and I discovered a dream of a country to get lost in for a few days: the Czech Republic.
From the rolling hills of Bohemia—with its amazing natural beauty and array of outdoor adventures—to sophisticated Prague—with its big-city ambiance and cultural attractions, the Czech Republic charmed us so completely, we can’t wait to go back.
“It’s the people,” Peter said. “They’re so friendly.” Of course, the same is true of locals in many destinations, but something about the folks in this former East Bloc country impressed us. Perhaps it’s the quiet, resolute spirit that shines in their eyes—the same spirit that shone in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution when tens of thousands of Czech citizens banded together on Wenceslas Square day after day, facing their Communist oppressors and saying, “We want our country back.” They got it. And not a single shot was fired.
In the quarter century since, this small country—the size of Maine—has gal-loped full speed toward the modern age. Its citizens have rebuilt, repaired, and repainted buildings whose architecture will make you swoon. In the countryside a fairy-tale atmosphere presides, but in the capital city well-dressed urbanites hold cell phones in one hand and Star-bucks cups in the other. In fact, the Czech Republic is a study in contrasts, and its many facets—old and new, elegant and austere—combine to make this gem of a country well worth exploring.
CASTLES AND CANOES
Our schedule allowed about a week in the Czech Republic, so we opted to split our time between Prague and the Bohemian countryside. We headed to Bohemia first in order to enjoy the International Music Festival celebrated annually in Cesky Krumlov, a medieval town known for its immense castle and picturesque charm.
Krumlov sits about two hours to the south of Prague by train—make that a very warm train. While modern metros met us in Prague, the train Peter and I boarded for our trip south was decidedly behind the times. Having backpacked in Europe in the early 80’s, I remembered these old German trains well: very basic décor and no air conditioning. The difference was I could handle a little heat back in my salad days.
Now however I could hardly breathe. The only air available swirled in noisily through the window in our compartment —that is until the train hit a bump and the window banged shut. I’d open it again, and a moment later, bang! It was so hot our clothes became glued to the vinyl upholstery.
Peter finally jumped off at a stop to get a cold beer to cool us down. Before he returned, the doors slammed shut and the train lurched. I jumped up, opened the train door, stood in the stairwell, and shouted “Peter!” as loud as I could. On the platform, people looked up, but Peter was nowhere to be found. Panicked, I kept shouting. A conductor came along wagging his finger at me and saying something in Czech, which I knew not a word of. “My man!” I said, hoping he would understand. He didn’t. Luckily, Peter came running up just in time to climb aboard. I was a nervous wreck, but the beer he popped open, cold and delicious, helped calm me down.
Krumlov is a cozy town wrapped completely by the looping river Vltava, a green ribbon which flows northward to Prague. In fact, the river attracts canoeists and kayakers through-out the summer months, and outfitters offering rentals abound along its banks. After checking into our pension, Peter and I strolled along a narrow, cobble-stone street that descends from the main square to the river. Enroute, a woman in a small booth offered Mojitos for sale. Watching her crush the mint leaves and add all sorts of delightful ingredients topped off with a scoop of shaved ice, Peter and I suddenly found ourselves very thirsty. Drinks in hand, we wandered down to the riverbank to watch people float by in their boats.
Upriver from where we sat the water flowed over a weir, dropping about three feet. Boaters could either choose to ride down a narrow sluice, which erupted with an explosion of white water at the bottom or get out and carry the boat along the river’s edge and reenter the river at the lower level. As Peter and I watched, nearly every boat that took the sluice tipped over. We wondered whether we’d be so bold on our canoe trip planned for the next day.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Looks pretty risky to me.”
“The river’s shallow, Peg. You won’t get hurt,” Peter said. “I’ll be fun!”
I said I’d think about it.
FORESTS AND MEADOWS
The next day dawned brilliantly. Under an azure blue sky sprinkled with powdered-sugar clouds, Peter and I walked from breakfast at our pension to a nearby outfitter and rented our canoe. We chose a three-hour float downriver to another town, where a van would transport us back to Krumlov—all for a cost of only $30. Equipped with sunscreen, water, lifejackets, and visors to shade the sun, Peter and I embarked in our canoe, a little wobbly at first—with me in the front and him in the rear.
The last time Peter and I canoed together was not exactly smooth sailing. In fact, we traded boats so we wouldn’t have to canoe together. I think it has something to do with both of us being a little headstrong—some might say, bullheaded. And when we lock horns, it’s not a pretty sight.
You might wonder how something as calm and carefree as a canoe ride might prompt problems in a relationship. The answer lies in the paddling techniques—or lack thereof. Knowing this would be an issue, I proposed that I paddle only on the left side, and Peter paddle only on the right. We practiced a little, and our system seemed to work. Good thing, too, because just ahead churned the first sluice, a tamer version of the one we’d watched the day before, but nonetheless, a concern.
“Hold your paddle up, Peg,” Peter shouted and before I knew it, we were swooshing through as water splashed in our faces. It was a quick thrill, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle the excitement and trauma of the larger sluice up ahead, the one where nine out of ten boaters tipped over.
As we approached, I began to worry that the water would carry us into the narrow opening before we had a chance to pull up to the dock. Paddling like mad on both sides of the boat, I succeeded in turning us around back-wards, and Peter succeed-ed in losing his patience with me. In all the confusion, I did grab hold of the dock, hanging on mightily even though we were jammed in pointing the wrong way among a throng of other boaters also hoping to avoid the wild waters ahead.
Somehow we managed to get our canoe past the sluice and into calmer waters without either of us getting wet. Peter came up with a new nickname for me —“Panicky Peg”—and laughed about my inept paddling. As the river stretched before us on an utterly perfect afternoon —low humidity and an even 80°—we had plenty of time to refine our canoeing techniques and ended up having a wonderful time, snaking past deep forests and golden meadows, some dotted with colorful tents. More than once we passed canoes laden with camping gear and cheerful locals on vacation. “Ahoj,” we’d shout, which in Czech means hi. They’d bellow back “Ahoj,” and Peter and I felt happy to be in such good company.
CHAMPAGNE AND VIVALDI
That evening we found ourselves surrounded by happy faces once again at an outdoor concert in a park beside the river, listening to Vivaldi Orchestra Prague, one of a half dozen performances spread over a two-week period that comprise the International Music Festival. As one would expect at a classical concert, the crowd was well dressed and reserved, quite different from the boisterous boaters we’d seen earlier.
The music was enchanting. Dressed in period costumes, musicians played lilting melodies by Vivaldi, their instruments occasionally complemented by a lovely soloist whose magical voice echoed from the walls of the nearby castle. The band’s leader played a Baroque violin that sang almost as sweetly as the soprano. During intermission under a darkened sky, tables laden with complimentary glasses of champagne, a variety of hors d’oeuvres, and candles shivering in the light breeze drew the crowd to its bounty. Later when the concert ended, a lady nearby said in a thick accent, her eyes shining, “Isn’t this so very romantic?”
“Very,” I said.
The next day we toured the Krumlov Castle, which combines Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture to create an imposing structure that towers over the town. Through the centuries a pro-cession of nobility lived in the castle—the Rozmberks, Eggenbergs, and Schwarzenbergs—and it became the setting for a multitude of cultural and social events ranging from dances to masked balls to theatrical performances. In fact, the Baroque theatre is the castle’s most prized structure. Nearly all of the original equipment from the second half of the 1700’s remains intact, making it one of only two in the world so well preserved (the other is in Drottningholm, Sweden).
In fact, the entire town center of Krumlov swells with ancient homes and businesses, many of which cater to today’s tourist trade. An old monastery now houses a five-star hotel. The former town brewery has become an arts center. A Jesuit seminary is home to a regional museum, where Peter and I spent an hour wandering among the artifacts of local history. Again I felt moved by the spirit of this small country, whose fate had so often been foiled by larger countries’ attempts to take it over.
PAST AND FUTURE
At dinner that evening on a stone terrace with a brilliant view of the castle and the landscape beyond, Peter and I listened to Maynard Ferguson’s band warming up nearby for the evening’s concert, which we were anticipating with excitement. But first as we dined, Peter and I enjoyed a concert of a different kind—from a group of musicians who, while not as famous as the master trumpeter hitting high notes in the back-ground, captivated us with such heart-felt music, it pierced right to the bone.
A flyer advertising gypsy music drew us in to this restaurant just a short walk uphill from the main square, and when then trio began to play, I knew it would be memorable. A handsome young man with dark hair, a crooked smile, and silver rings decorating his fingers played haunting tunes on his violin with such a natural grace, I couldn’t stop watching him as he strolled among the diners serenading us with his soul-stirring music. He stopped in front of me, smiled, and asked, “Where are you from?” Hearing my answer, he launched into a spirited version of “When the Saints Come Marching In.” For a Dutch couple nearby, he played “Tulips from Amsterdam.”
As the young man fiddled, I could see that quiet, but resolute spirit shining in his eyes, the same spirit I had come to recognize in the faces of the people of the Czech Republic: a sense of pride in who they are and what they value. It’s as if they are rooted to their land in a way Americans can never match. Their land defines who they are and links them to the past and the future.
I think that’s why Peter and I loved the Czech Republic so much. It’s an evolution in progress, a meeting of what was and what will be, propelled by people who recognize the power of pride.
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