The Elbe

I cross the Elbe on a little wooden bridge so narrow that before I drive across I get out to take a look if the car will fit. For all it’s historical significance, here it resembles a common little creek, brown and a little swollen from all the rain.

I swear something feels different on the other side of the Elbe. Grey geese pick through the mud next to abandoned factories. Many of the houses are made from dark, horizontal wooden beams with white chinking. Roofs seem larger and droop farther towards the ground. Rather than oak and apple trees, rowans line the narrow streets, and in the dusk they look like so many red matches.

I stay overnight at the Hotel Alpský in a bare yellow room. The television is broken, perhaps for the best. I go to bed early. Cold air from the Carpathians blows in and I sleep well for the first time on the journey.

When I wake up, I notice for the first time that there’s a picture hanging over my head. At first I think it’s a scene from the American West: a well, a dusty shack, a desert with a few bare telephone poles. When I look closer, however, I realise it’s a picture of the source of the Elbe. When I look it up on a map, I discover it’s only a few kilometres away, and that there’s a road leading there directly from the Alpský which continues on to the Polish border. Perfect.

Only, ten minutes in I almost run over some Czech tourists and realise that I’m driving on a hiking trail. So I turn around and take the regular old pass to Poland and skip the source of the Elbe. Some things are better when they keep a little of their mystery about them.

 

The Crypt of St. George’s

In St. George’s Basilica in Prague there exists a statue of death unlike any I’ve ever seen: a small, green figure, with a hood of many sumptuous folds, standing alone in the crypt, set off to the side like something in storage. His intestines peek out under emaciated ribs, his eyes are hollow as cups, and a snake-like root or root-like snake comes out of the floor and winds it way up to his knee. 

As I gaze at him, it seems to me as if this entire basilica (Prague’s oldest) has only been built to house this strange, anonymous statue of death, though I know from the brochure that it holds the remains of an important saint and other objects of higher value.  

“If,” writes Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert, “in the white basilica of St George fire broke out, God forbid, its walls after the flames would be rose coloured… the fiery heat would make the limestone blush.” When I read these lines later in a small bookstore in Malá Strana, I picture (yes, God forbid!) fire burning down everything except this little green statue, which appears indestructible and brand new next to the peeling wall paintings and delicate reliefs.

I leave. Outside the castle and tucked into a corner near the British Embassy, a hundred bouquets of flowers are strewn in the street for Queen Elizabeth. I’d like to get closer and pay my respects but a television reporter is nearby, wobbling over the cobblestones in high heels and waiting to interview anyone who comes too close. She grins at me. Her mouth is full of menacing, brilliant white teeth.

P.S. For those confused, I decided after my failed attempt to sightsee on the first evening, that I would go for a walk in the morning before I left.

 

An Evening in Prague

Although I didn’t plan to stop in Prague, I did. And since it has World Heritage status and that’s, well, sort of the raison d’être of this road trip, I thought I’d go take a look. I arrived in the evening, and walked in the direction of the old town.

But as I stood on one of the many bridges over the Vlatava, considering where to begin, there came a sheet of rain so powerful and unexpected that I thought it was the foam of the Vlatava itself. I watched as everyone ran to their homes. The streets became empty and blue. The rain was orange, like the roofs, the facades, and the street-lamps. 

Consequently, I couldn’t see a thing. So as far as World Heritage goes, I have nothing to report. What I can tell you, however,  is that there is a little restaurant on Na Bojišti street that serves roast duck with caraway seeds, bread dumplings and soft red cabbage that tastes wonderful when you’ve just come in from the rain. And down the street, there is a hotel, the Tivoli, which has seen better days but is nonetheless bright and warm. There you can sit in bed and watch Czech television dramas until sleep finally comes.

A very welcome glass of Grog. Whatever that is.

Mushrooms

My hosts in Běleč, M and A, are crazy about collecting mushrooms. Day in and day out, all they think about are mushrooms. Every spare inch of their house is filled with mushrooms laid out in various stages of cleaning or drying. The green of the Billiard table is barely visible beneath all the mushrooms: chanterelles, oyster, porcini. A baking sheet is propped up precariously between the wood stove and the chairs, so that you have to tip toe everywhere. The cats are shooed off whenever they come too near.

When I meet A out in the forest in her red raincoat, she smiles like a child caught doing something it shouldn’t.

‘I promised I’d be quick today,’ she tells me.

‘Why do you have to be quick?’ I ask.  

‘We’ll, because yesterday I was out in the forest for six hours. Today I said I’d be back after two hours.’

She can’t help herself. Even as we talk, her eyes move over the ground. She knows exactly where to look.  Hřib Smrkový like the roots of silver birches, Liška Obecná prefer ditches. There is no need to be stingy with insider information, there’s more than enough to go around.

Like all addicts, she is quick to point out anyone who’s got it worse. She tells me about cars that she sees which are positively sagging with mushrooms. Cars so full that their driver is no longer visible. She holds each mushroom to my nose so I can smell it’s delicate perfume.

When I wake up in the morning, the wood stove in the corner of my room has gone out, and sun shines into the room through the small window. Beyond the fields, tall, red pines bend cheerfully with every gust of wind. The clouds move by quickly. Rain falls for a few minutes at a time, then stops again. When I go downstairs, I find a bowl of mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and butter on the table.

I make breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and walk down to the old Jewish cemetery. Ancient graves with Hebrew letters stick out of the ground like a mouth of crooked teeth. Many trees have grown into and around the graves. On the edges of the cemetery, near the low walls, wild strawberries grow. Between the graves, mushrooms.

Leaving

I leave a few weeks later than I planned, just as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

In Munich, driving rain. As I head east, it clears, but remains grey. Every car on the Autobahn overtakes me. Even the starlings, in their nervous way, are faster than me.

Near Wallersdorf, brown foals stand placidly next to bare fields of purple earth. In Deggendorf, every other store stands empty. No one is out. I head up the mountain toward the Czech border, through Regen and Zwiesel. I’d like to park somewhere and take one last look down at Germany, but there’s too much fog, it’s impossible to see anything.

Želená Ruda is the Czech border town. There are hand painted signs advertising cigarettes. There are two gas stations and two casinos. There are four nail salons and wood smoke rising from tiny brown houses. To the left and right of the street, shacks are propped up, haphazardly, like theatre sets. Outside of them walls of glittering Christmas ornaments bird houses and woven baskets dangle. From the road, it’s impossible to see into the shacks but given the amount of stuff out on the street, it’s easy to imagine that inside they are empty. Their owners sit outside, as immobile as their wares, wrapped from head to toe against the damp cold.

I drive through Harmanice, past wet fields ringed with birches. The birches here are straighter, prettier (it seems to me), and farther along in their change of colour. I follow a winding road that traces the black, narrow Otava river. I drive through Střelské Hoštice, Předotice, Zvíkovské Podhradi. Towns pass by in an instant and are gone forever. Apple trees heavy with fruit line the roads. Apples roll into the street and under my tires.

I stop to eat in Jistebnice. It’s evening now, and the town is pitch black, except for the blue glow of a bank machine, and the tiny yellow windows of a tavern. A group of teenagers lean against a wall near my car. One of them sees my foreign license plate, and asks with a smile, what the hell I’m doing in Jistebnice. I’m on vacation, I say. He looks confused and shakes his head apologetically. Sorry, he says, my English very few. I ask him what he recommends at the tavern and he tells me to get the fish.

The tavern is a small room with six tables and an unlit fireplace in the corner. Five tables are full. People shout and laugh. Children swing between the tables and run behind the bar. I sit down at the sixth table and order a small beer and fish. The waitress laughs and tenderly tells me that at this tavern they serve only fish, so I’ll have to be more specific. She passes a menu, all in Czech, and patiently tries to translate it for me.  I order fried trout with potato salad and mayonnaise, eat quickly and leave. Voices and laughter follow me out into the street, then the door swings shut and they are gone. The teenagers have left and the night is cold and quiet. I drive through the dark, and turn on the radio to keep from nodding off. The sky is as black as the Otava. No moon, no stars.

 

 

Prague, Czech Republic

The last city we visited during our OWHC adventure was Prague. The Czech capital seems to be much more smaller than Vienna and Warsaw. Within the city center you can go almost everywhere on foot and the average distance between different districts is reachable during one walk. We knew Prague quiet well from the previous visits but the city has still many sites to offer. This time we have discovered what is hidden in Prague’s parks, we visited the Vietnamese temple and again found many places for young locals. Continue reading “Prague, Czech Republic”

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

During last three days we visited Český Krumlov – Czech’s second most popular tourist destination. The town was built around a castle in 13th century in Gothic style. Full of charming photo spots, it has a reputation of a city for a one-day visit and unfortunately is very overcrowded. That is why we decided to stay for two nights and discover how the city center looks like when all the tourists go back to their hotels. Continue reading “Český Krumlov, Czech Republic”