‘The world’s too big’ Ryan Montbleau
I hear the song and must admit it is so. Yet, being in Czech Republic feels like we’re getting away from the known. Our bicycles are detaching us from the comfort zone, although these parts of Europe are still easy to slide through. Pleasantly easy…
Entering the first big city in Czech Republic, Liberec and I catch myself thinking that I don’t like it. Not a bit. It has KFC, Mc. Donald, Zara, H&M, and while the city is in full swing there’s no sound to be heard. No stop lights, no police. It is as if everything goes automatic, without soul and grinning. I see skaters with full protection, cyclers in Lycra and people walking their dog in style. It is like I am back in Germany. I usually travel in a way that could be described as going back in time. But it is not fair of me to want Czech Republic being backward and old-fashioned. It is me who should change perspective.
I see homeless men sitting on a bench, their beer within reach. Darker skinned and rough-looking folks gather together at the edge of town, like us they seem to camp stealthy, but without the stash of food we soon have found ourselves. I see men in the supermarket buying white bread and beer. Workers joggle back home, standing on a bridge staring in the water. People seem to be a bit rigid, a bit more healthy and a little more stylish. Yet Soviet style living accommodations are outfitted with tiny windows surrounded by peeled off plaster. Boring structures. Living on the outskirts of town seems sad…
Tom and I find ourselves camps sometimes spotted by people. The hunter who’d tried to shot deers didn’t see us, he was pointing his gun in a blind not far from us. A few deers running through our little encampment, shots being fired. I’d asked myself whether we were actually safe? Neither are we seen by the group of people working on a train track. They maintain something while we hide in plain sight. Once we are discovered by a log cutter, we decide to leave camp and have our breakfast a bit further on. We end on a crisp clear river bank where heaps of human shit are far enough removed not to be smelled.
We enter Czech Republic by Liberec, circle around Jablonec and Tanvald in a mood best described as confused: do we like Czech Republic or do we want to go back to Poland, which was so much more old-fashioned and back to basic. When we cycle through rustic landscapes where simplicity and sheep rules, when we have our eyes meeting up with Sovjet style buildings and beautifully expired factories, when we see words like ‘autodily’ and ‘autodoplinky’ and coming to a halt in Harrachov, we decide to like this country.
I start loving this country when I try to order breakfast at the only place where they serve more than beer before 11 o’clock, yet expressing their confusing and absolute disbelieve when I ask: ‘Breakfast?’ When I order dumplings filled with blueberry I get dumplings filled with smoked pork meat. And that is what I love: no frills.
We move from camp in the woods to Trutnov when I opt it better to be in a hotel when one is having terrible side effects of a tiny insect: ticks. We both had to pluck off the ticks from our bodies almost every day, they especially were fond of Tom.
I stroll around in Trutnov and discover many funny things; the girl working at the tourist information office is dressed as if she’s going to attend a very sexy disco party (which is still hip in Czech Republic), the girl working at the pharmacy has fake eye lashes and long pink nails, also fake. One of the women at our hotel wears an asymmetric dress, the thick white bra strap shows off proudly on one side. Many people wear a mismatch of clothing in such a way it becomes beautifully bohemian. Another woman, Veronica, serves home-made pastries at the reception desk and gives us a few to go when we leave… Most of all, the pace of living is slower. I like that.
Wandering through the streets of Trutnov I admire the pastel colored European architecture, ice cream eating folks (about every single person) and a biological shop where they seem to greet me with ‘ciao’ and something very Hindi-alike ‘namaste’. I buy fresh sheep milk, Himalayan herbal tea and spelt chicory root coffee, an immersion heater for a ridiculous high price, and I’m set.
Trutnov has a very small center, where Tom and I sit on a bench each afternoon, soaking up the sunlight. Shops around us are small, some making advertisement for one bunch of bananas. A woman stands in her doorway selling one tray of strawberry’s. An additional surprise, a kind of arty circus is parading through town. Children forget about the Smurf ice cream dot on their cone, accidentally sliding it down on the cobblestone square.
So, yes, Liberec didn’t suit me at all. Suddenly we were back in the atmosphere of Germany. However authentic and shaggy the entrance of Czech was, I needed time to adjust. Now I see the charm of Chezh Republic and that what is still left from the Russian domination: chipped stucco, bricked windows, spray foam to avoid air, useful gardens full with vegetables and cut wood. Rows of tiny concrete cubicles hold cars and are removed from the apartment buildings. There are communal clothes lines in front of the buildings, playgrounds have fences all around them, there is plenty of weed and hedges are made of native tree species. Children are allowed to swim and play in a river, and a full container got me by surprise when I see it filled with vodka bottles.
When we cycle on, we are delighted to sleep in the forest again. Maybe we are so much enthralled we almost set the scene on fire. It sure does like we do, don’t you think? The low sunlight hits the trees beautifully and all I catch is a small blister when I try to save the chai spices from fire.
We cycle on road number 14 most of the route through Czech Republic and move to the 43, which brings us to Brno. We are not yet aware of any EuroVelo cycling route going through this country and are now on a busy road where trucks spot us too late, where car people love to tailgate and where we take refuge in the cut hay fields. However an annoyance we must be for the traffic, no one honks at us. And however a difficult thing to cycle on a road with no shoulder, I prefer that over a hayfield.
I find Czechs are fine people, yet very wary. To me, they seem to be a bit startled. It seems that when we ask for food in a restaurant they look at us as if we’re asking a very impolite, ugly question. Often their glance is shy or embarrassed. Often dark and questionable. Has it to do with the former communist system?
I have said: ‘Those whole European part I will cycle when I am 70 years. Nothing’s going to change there!’ Of course, that is not true: the authentic edge, the old-fashioned feeling and simplicity which is still abundant here will eventually fade. This is the right moment.
We move hotels in Brno, from an impersonal communist building to a beer brewery. Here we eat bramborák s masovou smesi, and here we enjoy Teatr Novogo Fronta with ‘Causa Fatalis’. When they finished the festival with an impressive play, a rather full-bodied, drunk woman runs behind the podium to hug them all. Our evenings start with a good hearty peasant meal and end with a free arty and acrobatic show. I get a vaccination against tick born sickness and smile with the nurse who sigh at every task she has to perform (such as writing down my name). It seems people are moody or extremely shy but often crack open at the most unexpected moments. Like the nurse when she walks out of the clinic, beaming with only smiles, aimed at us.
From Brno we discover EuroVelo route number 9. Now we are on quite roads, along a river and train track. We cycle in between low hills, with white poppy fields and rolling yellow wheat fields, neatly delimited with contrasting fields in purple, white, green or amber. Old men on bicycles, their handbag dangling on their handle bar, we pass many pivo (beer) café’s. The cycle route goes through grassy paths, over bumpy gravel, past questionable deserted factories and impressive ancient buildings. We cycle for hours over farm roads we would never have been able to find. We pass vineyards and people fishing, just in the middle of the cycle route. And we can only conclude one thing: the Czech’s are a bohemian bunch of people. We wave goodbye, and blow a hand kiss to this country when we enter Austria…