A trip with Czech Greenways
September 10, 2005
I began to get a little nervous on the train from Vienna to Breclav.I was feeling vulnerable, probably because I didn’t speak a word of the language. We didn’t speak the language in Vienna, where my wife, Linda, and I had caught the train that morning. And we most certainly weren’t going to speak the language in Breclav, the small city in the southern Czech Republic where we were supposed to start our five-day, self-guided village-to-village hiking trip.From time to time, the conductor made announcements , but I had no idea if he was saying the dining car was open, warning us not to stick our heads out the windows or announcing the next stop. Worse yet, I’d realized earlier in the day that I had no idea how to pronounce “Breclav.” When I’d gone to buy tickets at the train station, I’d said “Bress-lahv” to the main behind the window. He’d given me a blank look. I tried again: “Breck-lahv.” Another blank look. I showed him a piece of paper with “Breclav” written on it and he nodded and pushed two tickets across the counter. So if the conductor was announcing the name of the next stop, I probably wouldn’t recognize “Breclav” anyway. But I was nervous for another reason.I’d arranged our trip through a company called Czech Greenways that I’d found on the internet. All our communications had been by e-mail and, although everything went smoothly and professionally, I was acting mostly on faith. The only thing I knew for certain was that when I’d sent off something over a thousand dollars by international bank transfer, there’d been someone at the other end to collect that money. The company’s last e-mail had promised there’d be someone in Breclav to meet us when our train pulled in. But … how would I know when we got there? What would I do if there wasn’t anyone waiting for us? And … and … and …And I needn’t have worried, even for a moment. The signs at the Breclav station were clear. We piled off the train with our luggage and there, on the platform, was the impressively organized and thoroughly reassuring Tomas Leskovjan.Within minutes, we were loaded into Tomas’ van and heading to the nearby town of Mikulov. Along the way, we learned that we were in good hands indeed. Tomas is the founder, owner and president of Czech Greenways – a strong, competent man, who speaks excellent English, and still glows when he talks about the “Velvet Revolution,” the fall of Communism and the thrill of being allowed to own his own business and run his own life.In Mikulov, Tomas got us checked into our hotel, then took us to a nearby cafe where he introduced us to some of the best beer I have ever tasted (more on that later) and issued us enough gear to dispel any lingering doubts. He gave us detailed maps and written route descriptions for each day’s hike. He gave us a cell phone, with his number programmed in, so we could call him if there were any problems. And, finally, he gave us a GPS global positioning device, preprogrammed with each day’s route.We were in good hands. And drinking great beer.I immediately began to regret the fact that, in an effort to cram as many different experiences into a single vacation as possible, we had insisted on reducing Greenways’ recommended 10-day tour to just five days. Regardless of whether that decision was a wise one, Tomas had been extremely helpful in changing the tour to meet our demands. In fact, the trip we were taking in called the “Flexible Tour.” Part of the “flex” is in your ability to alter the itinerary; the other part is in the choice of transportation every day. For each day of the tour, you can decide to travel by foot, by bicycle or by horseback. You make those choices in advance and the route for each day is set up to match.We had decided on three days hiking and one day on horseback (at my wife’s insistence) . The first day, as is always the case, was a travel day – half of which I had already spent, nervously, on the train to Breclav.The rest of that first day, we spent walking through the town of Mikulov, which has some beautiful old buildings, a fine castle, a lovely central square and, unexpectedly, a large and sadly evocative Jewish cemetery. The cemetery covers several acres and the earliest gravestones date back to 1605. The Mikulov Jewish community was wiped out during the Nazi era and the graveyard, battered and vandalized, is now kept under lock and key. We got the key from its guardian, the owner of an art gallery in town, and spent an hour wandering among the graves.That evening, we had our first experience with Czech cuisine. Before we had left on the trip, an acquaintance who had visited the Czech Republic gave us her take on the food. “Has anyone ever told you that a great new Czech restaurant has just opened in town? No. And there’s a reason for that.”Czech food is simple, hearty, heavy and dull – with occasional truly bizarre touches, like the mound of whipped cream that appeared one night on top of an entree of pork slices in thick brown gravy. We really only found one thing to say about Czech food: It sure fills you up.The next morning, Tomas picked us up at the hotel and drove us to a nearby town where the actual hiking began.This was the third self-guided, village-to-village hiking tour that my wife and I have taken. The first was in the Pyrenees, along the border of Spain and France. The second was in Tuscany. It’s a wonderful way to get a close, intimate view of a country – or, more properly, of a small part of a country. You don’t really cover a lot of territory.For us, part of the pleasure is that it’s just the two of us walking together each day (we’re not really very sociable), relying on maps and route descriptions from the tour company. The tour company takes care of hotel reservations and carting luggage from town to town, so we can hike with just daypacks.That semi-solitude means you can really experience the country, without being trapped in a bubble of a dozen or so of your new English-speaking “best friends.” You’re on your own for lunch and dinner, making choices, taking chances. Sometimes that means whipped cream on your pork. More often, it means experiences that you will remember fondly.
And, in this case, it meant we were getting close to a part of old Europe that is only now fully emerging from the 50-year shadow of Communism. The modern world has not yet swamped this region.I have realized that, although “hiking village-to-village” has a nice ring to it, that’s not really what we’re doing. Most days begin or end (sometimes both) with a car ride. In essence, we spend our nights in a series of charming villages and are driven to a delightful dayhike each day. Our Czech trip followed that same pattern. Tomas was the driver for a few stages. The other drivers, unlike Tomas, spoke little or no English – but no matter, they were always right where they were supposed to be, right when they were supposed to be there. And they were always friendly, even when we had to communicate by sign language.We actually only spent two days of our trip hiking. We canceled the third day’s hike for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. Both hiking days were a pleasure. We walked on well-marked trails through rolling fields and meadows and deep forests. The first day, hiking from Valtice to Lednice, we started and ended our walks at castles built by the powerful Liechtenstein dynasty. (I’d always thought of Liechtenstein as a faintly comic little principality, a tiny sliver of land that survives by selling postage stamps to collectors – which is mostly true. But for many centuries the Liechtenstein family controlled vast swathes of feudal Europe.)That day, we hiked for hours across what had once been a part of the Liechtenstein estates, which the family controlled from the early 1200s until the end of the World War II. Along the way, we stopped to marvel at a number of “follies,” unexpected erruptions of huge, totally pointless architecture – a Roman triumphal arch, a massive ornate column, a curved colonnade filled with statues – built in the middle of the forests for the amusement of the nobility. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We stopped for lunch at a nice restaurant in an elegant chateau on the shores of a lake. At the end of the hike, we toured the Liechtensteins’ impressive Chateau of Lednice, reading a rough English translation of the spiel the guide was delivering in incomprehensible Czech.Our second day’s hike was similar. We started at a fortress castle on a hilltop in the forest, from there we hiked across hilly woodlands. At one point, we passed through an area dotted with abandoned concrete bunkers that the Czechs had built to defend against the Germans in the 1930s. The bunkers were abandoned in 1938, when the British, the French and the Italians signed the infamous Munich Agreement, agreeing to turn this part of Czechoslovakia over to Hitler – as long as he promised not to make any more trouble.After passing through bucolic countryside (and a little too much semi-urban fringe), that day’s hike ended at the non-descript town of Nova Bystrice. From there, we traveled by a century-old narrow-gauge railway, through more deep forestland to the town of Jindrichuv Hradec, where our driver met us.Between these two days of hiking, there was a day spent on horseback. Let’s be very clear: I hate horses – but my wife loves them, so this day was a firm part of our plans. We started at a tiny farm, whose Czech owner keeps a small number of horses (plus, by the way, several falcons, which he uses for hunting). Accompanied by the owner and his handsome Czech girlfriend, Linda and I rode for hours through the countryside. We were mostly in a national park, riding on old Roman roads, across ancient stone bridges, through dense woods where the nobility once hunted. We stopped at a hilltop overlook above a deep river gorge and then turned back toward the farm. We rode along a country road, lined with cherry trees, branches bent low under the weight of ripe fruit. We reached up and grabbed handfuls of cherries, eating as we rode.I still hate horses, but it was a great day.But if the days of hiking and riding were wonderful, so were the towns where we spent our nights.One was just a crossroads, really, with yet another imposing castle on a crag high above.But the next night was spent in Telc, a beautiful town – also a UNESCO World Heritage site – with an exquisite central square. The square is lined with Renaissance buildings, all apparently built at about the same time after the original town was razed by fire. The effect is powerful.Our hotel was perfectly situated at one end of the square and our bedroom looked out over the Renaissance façades.Though Telc is largely untouched by tourism, it is beginning to be discovered. It was here that we heard English for the first time in several days. The next morning, our driver stopped briefly in Slavonice, a town much like Telc, but even less touched by tourism.But the final town was the most startling of the trip: Cesky Krumlov.Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site Cesky Krumlov is an almost perfectly preserved medieval town whose history reaches back nearly 800 years. Built in a crook of the Vltava River, the town spreads out from an enormous 13th century castle. The buildings are a superb mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, scattered along narrow winding streets. The town’s only real drawback is that, unlike Telc or Slavonice, it has been very thoroughly discovered by tourists. Almost every storefront houses a tourist-oriented business and the streets are thronged with visiting hordes – mostly Europeans and Japanese, but more than a few Americans. It was hard to find any signs of authentic “real life” anywhere. And yet, the charm and the magic of the town itself were so strong that we canceled the next day’s hike in order to spend more time wandering the streets.There was, of course, one extra factor influencing our decision to relax in CeskyKrumlov: great beer.When we sat down with Tomas in Mikulov on the first day of our trip he had proudly declared that “Czech beer is the best in the world.”
We had nodded politely and assumed that this was normal national pride showing itself. Eventually, we decided he was absolutely exactly correct. The only Czech beer I’ve ever encountered in the United States is Pilsner Urquell, which never overwhelmed me. But the real gems are the smaller breweries’ dark beers – and the best of all was the Eggenburg dark beer, brewed in Cesky Krumlov at the Pivovar Eggenburg brewery (founded in 1560).Next time, I’ll know to take the entire 10-day tour, to learn a few words of Czech – and to insist on cerna pivo Eggenburg (dark Eggenburg beer) from the very start.Contact information:Greenways Travel Clubphysical address:Namesti 24/27692 01 MikulovCzech Republicphone: 011-420-603-479-814e-mail: email@example.com: http://www.visitgreenways.comTomas Leskovjan smiles when I ask him about the “Velvet Revolution.””It was the best time of my life,” he says. “The most exciting time. It still is.”The Velvet Revolution was Czechoslovakia’s non-violent revolution, which overthrew the country’s hard-line Communist government in the course of six remarkable weeks at the end of 1989. It brought democracy to the nation and saw former dissident writer Vaclav Havel installed as president.”Suddenly, you could own something,” says Tomas, who was in his 20s at the time. “You could stand on your own.”Tomas was ready and eager to try.”I had the first grocery store in Mikulov. I didn’t really have a store. Just my old two-stroke car, a Skoda. I drove it to the city and bought groceries, then drove back to Mikulov to sell them.
“Everyone was so excited. They rushed to buy everything I brought. I still remember that. It is still a wonderful time.”Of course, capitalism has two sides. Soon enough, larger companies came in and took over the grocery business, but Tomas was prepared to keep “standing on his own.”He signed up for a course in “Entrepreneurship,” sponsored by Duke University. It was a short, intense lesson in how to avoid beginner’s mistakes in a brand-new economy.”They taught us not to go too far. Not to expand too fast. Some people here started new businesses and made a lot of money fast. They bought cars and houses and expanded – and they lost everything.”We learned not to borrow money. Not to get in debt. Not to go too fast.”Tomas decided that tourism was going to be the strength of the new Czech Republic (which split amicably from the Slovak Republic at the end of 1992). He started with bicycle tours, founding a company called Topbicycle, which he still operates. Then he expanded to the wider array of hiking, biking and horseback adventures offered by the Greenways Travel Club.Tomas started small and has stayed solid. He’s not trying to be a big-time wheeler-dealer; he just wants to stand on his own.Everything he does seems perfectly under control, carefully planned. And this approach has certainly led to success. One day, when we called by cell phone to arrange a pickup at the end of our day’s hike, Tomas assured us that the driver was on his way. Tomas himself was in Prague, meeting a tour group of 20 people from the Sierra Club.And our driver appeared, as promised, right on cue.It may seem like a small point, but it is a mistake to consider the Czech Republic part of “Eastern Europe.”Mention that to a Czech and (if he speaks English, of course) he is likely to reply, perhaps with some heat, “No. This is Central Europe.”He’d be right – and, yes, it makes a difference.The four decades of the Cold War taught us to think of the world in terms of East and West. “Our” part of Europe was Western Europe. “Their” part, behind the Iron Curtain, was East.But geographically and, more important, historically, nations like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary – all formerly part of the Eastern Bloc – are very much at the heart of Europe.Franz Kafka, perhaps the first truly “modern” writer, was born in Prague and spent most of his life there.Sigmund Freud was born in Moravia, which is part of the Czech Republic.But rather than listing names, here’s the point: Through the great sweep of European history, the land that is now the Czech Republic was an integral part of events and the development of the culture.When we visit there, the language is strange, but the countryside and the castles seem familiar. And the people are, well, just like “us.”Eastern Europe? That’s the next step over: Albania, Rumania, Bulgaria. Those lands and their culture are a little more remote.- Andy StoneVail Colorado