Walking in Bohemia: Where Isn't There A Road?

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November 12th 2009
Published: November 10th 2009
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After Berlin, I took a morning bus to Prague where I was meeting my father for several weeks. The most scenic part of the bus ride was passing miles of large fields of sunflowers, something that I had never seen on such a scale before. As with the rest of Europe, there was no border check, I couldn't even tell when we passed out of Germany, and obviously no new passport stamp. Interestingly, while travelling in six European countries resulted in only one stamp in my passport, I still had to use five different currencies (apparently, security issues are easier to integrate than monetary ones). I finally received a second stamp when I left Europe, not from Prague, from where I flew out, but in Hungary, from where my connecting flight to outside the EU departed. Okay, no more complaints about lack of passport stamps, I promise (at least until I get back to Europe😊

Upon arriving in Prague, I was quite proud of myself for figuring out how to use the metro to reach the street on which the hotel was located. I was less proud of the fact that I then walked up and down the same street multiple times before going far enough to reach the hotel. During this walk, I realized that English is less widely spoken in the Czech Republic than the other European countries I had visited so far this trip; good to know before heading into more rural areas. We had one full day in Prague (about 6 hours of which was spent sight-seeing and 2 hours wandering around looking for the sites) before setting out on the Czech greenway system, which, as advertised, is a series of walking/hiking routes throughout the country, including one series that goes from Prague to Vienna. We decided not to start the walk immediately in Prague, as it would involve several days of urban walking. We learned this from the helpful man working in the one bookstore, out of half dozen that we visited, that sold the map of the trail. (Technically, there is only a map for the Prague-Vienna Bike Greenway, in Czech, but it does show walking trails as well.)

So we decided to take a train for approximately 50 miles. When we arrived at the train station (with plenty of time to spare!), we interpreted the departure boards to mean that our train was leaving from track 3. With a feeling that I am sure many of you have experienced, we then waited at platform 3 praying that a train would arrive at our departure time on only one side of the track, but as fate would have it, there were trains on both sides. We happily ended up on the right train, in part because we saw people kicked off the second option, and set out. It was a little difficult to realize that we had reached our destination because the train stopped in the middle of the tracks - i.e., with tracks separating the train from the platforms on both sides. Nonetheless, we hopped off and found our way into town. As we would end up doing every day, we had to find a place to stay each time we entered a new town or city. Before departing, we had been led to believe that every village/town we walked through would have options for places to stay. This is not advice I would rely upon! We typically found that only every 3rd or 4th area had accommodation options, and even those were often hard to find. But that first night we lucked out, we found a hotel with restaurant within blocks of the supermarket and visitor information center. (It was also fortunate that we always carried enough food for several meals because particularly at lunch and breakfast, there often were no options for getting meals along the way.) We were nervous checking in because the manager made a big point of checking through the book to see if he had any space, but he was able to "squeeze" us into one of the multiple empty rooms. He actually turned out to be very friendly, offering to translate the entire 10 page menu for us because they didn't have any in English. My father handled the offer quite well, asking for suggestions for local dishes, but then got stuck with a rather large serving of meat; I stuck to boring but internationally-understood pizza.

On our first day of walking we were a bit surprised to find that the trail started along the street, but figured that we would find the off-road walking right around the infamous "next" corner. After several hours we were beginning to doubt the existence of such corner, but at least the street was relatively quiet and passed through nice countryside. To cut a potentially long story short, I'll tell you the outcome now - we walked 95% of the time on roads! The mythical walking paths were either just walking along smaller roads, impossible to find or twice as long to reach our destination. The scenery along the way was pastoral (to borrow my dad's description). We saw some interesting wildlife and at one point a huge castle in the distance, which upon arriving closer, turned out to be a factory, but was quite charming before that realization. What we didn't see were other hikers.

Many of the locals that we met along the way, however, were extremely kind/helpful. One evening we stayed in a room at a horse farm, and the owner brought over the mother of a young girl taking a riding lesson to interpret for us to make sure we were all set. In another inn, the waitress brought us the German menus, as that was the only foreign language menu they had. I actually would have been better off with the Czech one with my list of Czech vocab from the guidebook but we were ready to resort to the inevitable pizza option. Instead though, the waitress came over and handed me a cell phone - she had called her daughter, who spoke English, to act as an interpreter. Her daughter asked us what we wanted to eat, how we wanted it prepared, etc. and translated for her mom - in all, we had three conversations with the daughter to ensure the right order. At several places we communicated with the owners solely through hand-motions and my dozen or so words of Czech. With one woman we exchanged ages (after she asked) and she was quite impressed that we were doing this walk, and then called out her husband to help make sure we understood the map for the next day. One other favorite was the assistance we received from a tourist when checking in at another inn. He was actually Czech himself, but had been living in Canada for the last 25 years. As I was trying to explain to the manager that we didn't want meals he wryly noted, "don't worry, they won't feed you anyway." He then added that the rooms were a little expensive because they included lots of features that you didn't want or need.

The first five days of our walk took us to Tabor, where we were fortunate enough to arrive in time for a weekend Renaissance festival. On Friday evening, we were in the main square, which was charming and right where our hotel was located, to watch the torch-lit costumed parade arrive, including men on horseback, prisoners in wagons, flag throwers, etc. There was a laser light/music show and then fireworks. The fireworks were set off within the square, including from the turret of a very old church. It was really impressive to watch the display in an enclosed space like that. After the fireworks, we sampled some of the traditional food for sale and went back to our room, from which we could hear the bands performing in the square. On Saturday, we visited the crafts markets, watched various performances and caught the costume parade on our way out of town.

From Tabor we went to Cesky Krumlov. The entire town has been designated a UNESCO heritage site, and deservedly so. The town still retains primarily cobblestone streets, mainly very narrow, and has restored many of the buildings to their medieval appearance, including restoring the original designs drawn on the buildings. The primary attraction of the town is a fantastic castle, including one of the most intact baroque theaters in the world. The guide told us that performances often ran for half or full days and if the lord of the manor didn't like the play, he would close the curtain on his box, exit the theater and not pay the performers. Apparently, that did not happen much at this particular theater as the actors in most performances included members of the aristocrat families. Because there often was not time for costume changes, many actors would play two roles, often one female and one male, and have different makeup on each side of their faces, choosing which side to present to the audience based on which character they were playing at the time. We ended up spending several days in this town, in a room at the top of an old woman's house, as there were several very nice day walks in the area and walking without the large bags was a welcome change. (Although I have to note, I think that my father is one of the only people in the world who walks faster with a large hiking bag on than without!)

When we finally went to Cesky Krumlov we moved on to a town whose name I can no longer remember, (the downside of writing a blog entry more than a month after the events transpired and without my notebook at hand), but which had another wonderful place to stay, this time without the smell of cats, and interesting castle. This castle featured a music chamber where the musicians sat underground and the noise simply floated out from a hole in the ground, so that they players were never actually seen by the audience. One one of our walks from this town, we decided to follow a well-advertised nature trail. Turns out, good advertisement does not equate to good maintenance, and we found ourselves bushwhacking along a buggy riverbed, alternatively described if one were feeling less generous as a swamp. After a couple of hours we gave it up and ended up back in our more usual venue, walking along the roads.

At the end of the walking section of our trip, we returned for two days in Prague, one of which was spent on a fantastic walking tour of the City, and the other spent visiting Terezin, a German ghetto/concentration camp about 60 km from the city that was used for propaganda purposes. After my father left Prague I moved from the luxury of our hotel room back to the life of shared dorm rooms, although at least Prague has clean ones in good locations. I spent the next few days exploring the City, including taking a half-day guided tour of the former Jewish quarter and an audio-guided tour of the Prague castle. On the first tour, I met a wonderful couple from Florida, who invited me to join them for dinner that evening and with whom I spent the next day site-seeing as well. After a final day of wandering, it was off to Israel!

For a real time update, I am still in Israel, now about 400+ miles into a hike through the country with 200 miles through the desert left to go. I'll try to add more later about this experience, and trust me, hiking and camping with three strangers for 2 months is quite an experience - even before you take into account the terrain, the people, the environment, etc.


23rd November 2009

Where isn't There a Road
Dear Aladdine, Well,you certainly,in thiis trek: Have given new meaning to the Frost ending,where the narrator says: "I took the path less taken,and it has made all the difference." Stay well. Your Friend, Bob Cammett

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