Copyright © 1998 David C. Hay
After a month in Warsaw, I headed out into the depths of Eastern Europe. I had a ticket for a flight from Athens to London and home in a month. All I had to do was to figure out how to get to Athens in that time. I planned to go to Prague, Budapest, Vienna and various parts of Yugoslavia. Maybe I'd cruise some of the Greek Islands.
So, once again I was on the road south from Warsaw with my thumb out.
The trip to Krakow this time was less eventful than the first time,
although it was made interesting by the fact that this was the
twenty-second of July, the national holiday. That was the anniversary of
the founding of the Polish People's Republic. (For some reason it's not
being celebrated any more . . . ) It felt funny being in on the
celebration of a socialist holiday, but I had to admit these folks did
know how to throw a party. In every village and town there were huge flags and other decorations. It was all totally uninhibited.
And Krakow was unbelievable. I don't remember the details as much as I remember the effect: I was surrounded by color. Huge multi-storey red and white banners (the Polish flag is red and white) were everywhere. There was a parade through the middle of the town square with stirring music and, most effectively, hundreds of people carrying candles.
I decided to take the train to Prague. I bought my ticket and then
carefully spent all of my Polish money before trying to board the train.
Except that apparently there was an extra ten zloty fee for boarding.
This only amounted to about a dollar and a half — but I didn't have ten
zloties. And the conductor wouldn't accept dollars.
(Or words to that effect.)
So now whatcha gonna do?
Now you should
understand that there was a vigorous black market in western currency in
Poland at that time. A dollar could buy you a lot more zloties on the
street than it ever could in the bank. It was also seriously illegal and
could get you in all kinds of trouble if you chose to participate.
But I didn't want a thousand zloties for my dollar. I only wanted ten.
So what I finally did was to take my chances with the young fellow sitting next to me on the bench. It turned out ok. I got my ten zloties and he got a dollar.
I had to change trains in Katovice at 3:00 am. This involved waiting for about an hour in a dimly lit, cavernous, and mostly empty train station deep in the heart of an industrial city — in the middle of the night. It was truly spooky, but it was fun too for the same reason. Not for the first or last time did I sit there wondering just how I came to be in this place at this time in my life.
Warsaw to Prague
Map copyright © National Geographic Society
On the train that actually took me to Prague I shared a compartment with a young mother and her 10
year old son, along with another woman. I'm a sucker for kids, so I found some paper and folded a
bird for the lad, which he loved. The ride was long enough so he got a few other items as well.
The other woman in the compartment was also interested in what I was doing — and she spoke English!
We had an engaging conversation which ultimately resulted in her inviting me to her home town of Plzen,
about sixty miles or so southwest of Prague. One of the nice things about being footloose and fancy free was that I could up and do such a thing. So, we agreed that after my four days in Prague I would go to Plzen.
Arriving in Prague after a month in Poland was interesting. I remember once reading a science fiction story about a man who traveled back in time and changed the tiniest thing. When he returned he discovered that things were different. Not in major ways, but in lots of little ways. The language was ever so slightly different, and there were different sorts of aesthetic touches all over.
I felt that way in Prague. Czech is a Slavic language, like Polish, and the words have similar structures. Many words in signs looked similar. Many of the letters aren't quite like Polish, though, with different diacritical marks. And it sounds different.
When I arrived I needed something in the train station so I started with the dozen or so Polish words I had learned. I quickly exhausted my vocabulary there, so I tried German, which I had taken ever so long ago in college. I got a little further, but still ultimately failed. Finally the nice lady looked at me sympathetically and said "May I help you?"
I don't think I am the only person who considers Prague to be simply the
most beautiful city in Europe. It was used for the movie Slaughterhouse
Five and many other movies as well. It is one of the few European
cities that was not heavily damaged during World War II, so the accumulated
beauty of several centuries is available for all to see, and it is
chockablock with exquisite architecture. In the town square is a wonderful
animated clock from the sixteenth century.
(Unfortunately, I didn't have any film when I was in Prague, and it was
prohibitively expensive. This picture is by Jaroslav Friedl from the
book, Zlata Praha, by the Olympia Press of Prague.)
But Prague had also been invaded by the Russians five years earlier. While I would not exactly call Warsaw care-free, it was much more animated than Prague. I did meet up with two friendly young women who showed me many of the sights and who seemed to enjoy themselves. But they told me that people were much more cautious than they had been before 1968.
One of my four days was spent in the train station. At best buying a
ticket anywhere in Eastern Europe was always a major production. First
you waited in line to order your ticket. Then you waited in line to pay
for it. Then you waited in line to pick it up. That is, if everything
went well. Not counting the time the fellow decided to go on break just
as you arrived at his window. Or the time when you spent an hour waiting,
only to discover that you were in the wrong line.
Foolishly, I wanted to do something complicated. You see, I was planning to stay with the relatives of some New York friends of mine in Vodnany, perhaps a hundred miles south of Prague. But I also wanted to visit Plzen as well. And I had to know when I was getting to Vodnany so I could call the people there and tell them when I would arrive. Of course you had to make an appointment to use the telephone. So I planned that for 1:00 pm. That gave me a few hours to find out the train schedules. Which I did, called, and we made our arrangements.
But I still had to buy tickets. As it happens, there are lots of rail lines in Czechoslovakia, so on paper it looked like a simple matter to go from Prague to Plzen to Vodnany. On one day I would go from Prague to Plzen. Two days later I would go from Plzen to Vodnany.
Apparently this was too complicated. It required many hours of drawing pictures in my journal, gesticulating and grunting to finally get my tickets. As luck would have it, however, when later I met up with my two new friends, they looked at what I had purchased and told me that after all that I in fact had the wrong things. The coupons I had wouldn't get me where I wanted to go.
(Or words to that effect.)
So now whatcha gonna do?
What I did was to rush back to the station with my friends in tow and we went to the
information booth. This time there was a woman there who spoke English.
She went to the front of the line at one of the windows and in less than
half an hour took care of everything for me.
Now why didn't I do that the first time?
So, after four days in the most beautiful city on Earth I found myself in
Plzen one evening. My Pilsner friend met my train and set me up in a dorm
room at the local university. The next morning we saw the town. It is a
charming town with its own beer museum. (It seems that Plzen is the home of
Pilsner beer. They invented it.)
The Brewery Museum in Plzen
After a morning of wandering around in a delightful little city, she invited me home to meet her family. Now, in Czech homes it is customary to remove your shoes before entering. The problem was that when I removed my shoes (remember, I had been on the road for over a month by now), I had holes in my socks! I was horribly embarrassed. My friend's mother, however, proceeded to swoop down upon me, and fifteen minutes later I no longer had holes in my socks! She had repaired them.
So much for the bad guys that lived behind the iron curtain.
At any rate, the afternoon was as lovely as the morning, but I was on my own in the evening. It seems that my friend's husband wasn't that keen on her going out with me in the evening. For that matter, I was never actually told whether he knew about our daytime adventures, either. Ah well. I will always wonder . . .
The next morning I took the train to a larger town where I had to change
for the glorified trolley that would take me to Vodnany. Unfortunately my
lack of film meant that I couldn't photograph this small waiting room where I spent half an hour.
It was priceless. On one side was a
giant deli counter, behind which was a round man and his equally round
wife. On the other side of the room, two or three people were waiting,
and each had a look of the local country that was priceless. The
clothing, the caps — they were all so appropriate to the scene, and quite
unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It was right out of a movie.
Prague to Plzen to Vodnany
Map copyright © National Geographic Society
My friends' relatives put me up in Vodnany, another small Czech town.
By now I had seen several and it was funny how the Eastern European towns
looked alike. Each
town I had seen so far was built around a town square
with streets spreading out from there. The apartment where I was staying
was just a block off the square, so I could watch the town go about its
business from the front window.
I wasn't terribly ambitious by now. I was, frankly, a bit tired from
travelling, so I spent a week there just recuperating. They played Dvorak
on the stereo and there were usually children playing just outside the
window. There was something incredibly peaceful about listening to that
music and watching those children. I happily spent hours at it, without
even noticing the time. The kids were playing a kind of futile stickball,
where the pitcher would throw the ball, the batter would swing and miss,
and they would both go running after the ball. A few moments later they
would bring it back and repeat the procedure all over again. The script
never changed, and they played that way for hour after hour.
If Vodnany was a town, the place where Grandmother lived, high up in the mountains, was clearly a village. We went to see her and I got to see an amazing way of life. Her house was quite primitive, but the setting in which she lived was nothing short of spectacular. And this from someone who grew up in Colorado! She and her dwelling were literally part of the mountain.
The family included a couple of young men and one night we walked a mile or so to go to a night club, where I learned the real joys of Czech beer. From that night, I will always be a fan of Pilsner Urquel.
One day we toured the local castle in Czeske Budejovice (home of the original Budweiser — this is truly beer country.) It wasn't renovated, so it was a little dusty in the corners, but it was fun to see.
On to Brno . . .
My hosts assured me that hitch-hiking was ok in Czechoslovakia, so one day I set out on the road to Brno. I didn't know anything about Brno, but it was the next big city over, so it seemed like the place to go. (Later I learned that this was where Mendel had done his famous experiments in fruit-fly genetics, thus learning about dominant and recessive genes)
As I waited, I was joined by a couple of young Czech hippies. They couldn't have been more than eighteen years old, but they were fully in uniform. She had long straight blonde hair and looked just like Mary Travers. He had medium length curly hair. They both wore jeans and t-shirts. Unfortunately, they spoke no English. The woman was decidedly cool to me, but the young man was friendly.
Getting rides was tough this time. We got a few short ones, but none that really took us very far. I finally got discouraged and left them to go look for a bus. I found one that took me maybe halfway there, but when I returned to the road, whom should I see but my traveling friends!
In the evening, we finally got the ride that took us all the way into Brno. This was, shall we say, an interesting ride. The fellow and I were gentlemen so we took the back seat. That way, the lady could sit in front. This turned out to be wise.
This part of Czechoslovakia is very mountainous. The roads are narrow and winding. Our driver may not have understood this. He didn't do any of it at less than 100 km (60 mi) per hour. When we arrived in Brno, the lady was white. The guy and I were fine. We were able to hunch down behind the front seat so we didn't have to see what was going on around us.
In Brno, it turned out that my young friends were quite helpless: They had never been away from home before. I on the other hand, knew exactly what to do: You go to the best hotel in town (where there will be someone who speaks English), and ask there for the nearest student hotel. We did that and very shortly we were ensconced in one of the better student hotels I've been in.
. . . and Bratislava
The next morning I should have left early, to get the best inter-city traffic. But as I was walking down the streets of Brno, who should I see but the same two young ladies with whom I had toured Prague! This was cool!
So, of course we had to have breakfast together and see Brno together.
Petrof Cathedral in Brno
I didn't get out of
town until nearly noon. Which meant that for the day, I didn't get further
than Bratislava, which was maybe a hundred miles south.
As it happened this was ok, though, because Bratislava turns out to be a very interesting town. It is now the capital of the new Republic of Slovakia, but even then it was a major city.
Vodnany to Bratislava
Map copyright © National Geographic Society
Outside Brno I met Koji, a Japanese fellow with whom I would spend several days. In Bratislava, as we wandered around in the evening together, we stumbled onto an amazing bridge across the Danube. Unlike a suspension bridge, it had only one tower, which tilted back, away from the riverbank. Heavy stays cantilevered the deck, extending out to it all the way across. The lines of that structure were wonderfully exhilerating! A flying saucer appeared to have landed on top of the tower. I suppose that could have been a restaurant, but it was too far away to tell for sure.
The Bratislava Bridge