10 Czech, Poland
CZECH REPUBLIC (ČESKÁ REPUBLIKA) June 1999
“Dipli, make like you’re a tram!” Jan commanded. We had just entered the maze of Prague old town and there was nowhere else, but on the tramlines, to go. Arm up in the air, holding a giant “Lolly Pop” baton, a policeman stopped us. “Pay! 500 korun!” We explained that there were no signs and no alternative. “Problem!” he said. With a sinking feeling we explained that we were lost and were looking for the tourist information office. “Five minutes diskussion, Pay! 1000 korun!” In English and German we said that he should rather help us. “ OK 300 korun!” Eventually he copied info from the Driver’s license and shouting “Embassy!” waved us on…
Safely parked at the camping, the next day, we could take the tram. Towers and domes around medieval squares connected by pedestrian areas were lovely to explore. The city is set on the wide Vlatava River and overlooked by the impressive buildings of the Praha Castle. The wide old Charles Bridge has 30 statues and artists display their works there to throngs of tourists. There were articles of glass, copper, iron, ceramics, leather, wood, lace and all forms of pictorial art depicting Prague. Goethe called Prague “the prettiest gem in the stone crown of the world”.In only 10 years, after 45 years of communism, The Czech Republic has recovered remarkably and modern shopping is much in evidence. (It also shed its neighbour, Slovakia 10 years ago when “Czechoslovakia” ceased to exist). In small towns there are still few cars around. In Czech generally 9 out of 10 cars are Skodas (locally manufactured). We did not know that Bata shoes come from the Czech Republic. The factory was founded by Thomas Bata in 1884.
For a change, we found a country not so expensive. Even in Rands prices were very reasonable, like large draft beer R3, Cappuccino R4, bread roll 16c. A main course was R25 to R29. We tried pork roast with cranberries and dumplings and crisp roll of pork filled with capers, egg and ham. A scoop of ice cream and small yoghurt were R1 each. Food seemed to have a sales tax of 5% and other goods 22%.
In the town of Plzen we visited the brewery museum where beer has been brewed for 700 years. We sampled the only original Pilsner, “Pilsner Urquell”. At Budweis (now Ceske Budejovice) we were taken through the Budvar Brewery where they produce 75 000 bottles an hour. Budweiser is exported to 52 countries (except USA; separate licence agreement). We both think it is The most delicious brand of “pivo”!The large fields of barley and hops for beer making were bordered with red poppies and white daisies. Along the roads are avenues of fruit trees. The cherry trees were covered with fruit and seemed to be abandoned. We climbed on to Dipli’s roof and filled bowls with large black juicy specimens. When we could eat no more Leoné cooked jam, marinated some in liqueur and preserved the rest in the freezer.
Cesky Krumlov hosts the Five-petalled Rose Festival every June. It is one of the most picturesque small medieval towns in Europe. Together with its castle on the riverbank, and old Market Square, its appearance is almost unchanged since the 18th century.The festivities included parades of people in lavish medieval dress. There was a constant program of traditional music and performances of ancient dances accompanied by sounds from weird old musical instruments. In different areas there were performances of drama, skill and comedy; also exhibitions of old crafts and games, such as knights jousting and battle axe throwing. The highlight was a modern audiovisual show on the castle terrace, depicting an historical event; followed by a spectacular fire works display.
One day when passing through the town of Brno we came across a gathering of folk dancers. Groups of people from different regions wearing colourful local costumes were doing intricate steps (including the polka, which is Czech’s contribution to dance floors).We enjoyed walking in the forests of the part called Bohemia. On one such occasion a woman came by on a tricycle pulled by three Huskies! However, in the Bohemian forests there are also Bohemian mosquitoes and Bohemian ticks; our guidebook mentions illnesses transmitted by them, like Lymes disease which sounds worse than Malaria. We started to itch at the very thought.
Kutna Hora is a town near Prague with a splendid cathedral. The town also has a church where the contents of abandoned graves were deposited. In 1870 a local woodcarver “decorated” the semi-subterranean church with the bones of some 40 000 people – arranging the bones in the shape of bells, a chandelier, a coat of arms and huge pyramids. Heavy rain made us decide to stay right there for the night; between a cemetery and a very large spooky abandoned convent. No lights in windows; no movement of cars or people at all there that night…
Czech has many castles and chateaux. We chose to see only a few. Two impressive ones were Hluboka built in the style of Windsor Castle and a towering fairy tale “hrad” from the mid 14th century, Karlstein.
After two weeks in Czech, we decided to drive east towards Poland. Suddenly we heard a grating sound, then a clattering from the rear. Miraculously, at that moment, an open area appeared next to a field of pink poppies, where we could pull off the narrow road. While identifying the sound, the starter motor also gave up! After opening the diff cover, Jan found 3 pinion teeth and 2 crown wheel teeth in the bottom. The centre portion was also damaged (worked too hard for too long!) Both side shafts also twisted (requiring full hub dismantling, as they would not pull through the stub axle). Jan worked for many hours over two days installing the starter motor, removing the diff, etc. and readying everything for front wheel drive. Sent e-mail to our friends requesting parts. And proceeded to wait… Some days in a field; sometimes in a “kempink”(as they say in Czech); some nights at a hypermarket. On Jan’s birthday the good news came “Spares ahoy”… Into Prague to celebrate we went. The 54-kg in 3 parcels professionally packed by “Cotton’s World Wide Spares” were easily extracted from Prague Airport. In the mean time the batteries had died. We fortunately eventually found deep cycle batteries. For the Diff fitment process we landed up in a summer camping ground which is usually a sports field of fine black gravel, now covered with enormous sheets of white felt material; ideal for lying under Dipli. After some hours of toil, the back wheels could drive again!
POLAND (POLSKA) July 1999
Surprised looks at our car registration, but no hassles at the border. The narrow main roads had been patched over and over and were as bumpy as a gravel road.
We went to Wroclaw (pronounced: ‘Vrotswhaf ’ in English) to walk around the old town which had been rebuilt after 75% WW II destruction. On the ancient salt Market Square there was an amazing volume of lovely long stemmed roses for sale. Under the gothic arches of the old town hall we heard a live orchestra and a performance of opera arias. Wroclaw has a unique huge circular painting (114m x 15m). The canvas depicts a famous battle and was painted in 1894, a century after the battle.
Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps were used from 1940 to 1945 to exterminate about 2 million people. The entire spread out area is now a museum. The barbed wire encampments with watchtowers contain prisoners’ living quarters, with crude bunks and washing facilities. In the buildings are also the SS confiscated photos, documents and mountains of possessions (like combs and brushes, spectacles, artificial limbs and women’s hair,). The retreating Nazis partly destroyed all except one of the gas chambers and crematoria. The ominous railway tracks and ramps are still intact.The batteries still did not seem to be charging properly. We decided to plug in at a Camp site and go into Krakow by bus. There was no war damage in Krakow and the old plaza with the beautiful 16th century Renaissance Cloth Hall is stunning. Inside the old building are souvenir stalls with amber, woodcarving, dolls, leather, etc. L simply could not decide what amber object to buy. Roundly polished looked like beads. Rough ones looked like stones. Large clear ones Jan defined as fakes. T-shirts with the CK-logo (“City of Krakow”; not “Calvin Klein”) were going for a song.
We were enchanted by a coffee shop, in an old building with low vaulted ceiling. Hessian coffee bags covered the seats and screens and antique coffee making accessories were displayed. The Polish music was like 60’s folk. The chain of coffee bars is called “Sklep z Kawq Pozegmanie z Afryka” (“ Shop of Coffee Farewell to Africa”)! Around the old town, what used to be the defensive wall and moat, is now a green belt called in Polish: “Planty”. The benches in the shade are for weary sightseers.
The Polish folklore museum showed embroidered traditional costumes, and painted peasant houses. There was an old water powered press to extract oil from flax. There were examples of intricate papercutting art. The rituals associated with painted eggs and spring festivals and crib building competitions at Christmas were shown. We saw the equipment used to beat hand-woven woollen fabric in boiling water to make it thicker for freezing winters.As in many Polish cities, the Jewish population was exterminated. Krakow had 70,000; now there are 100. Steven Spielberg’s “Schindlers List” tells the story.
We trudged up the Wawel hill to the 16th C Castle and the Cathedral where 100 kings and queens are buried. We were suffering from impression overload and decided to head for the salt mines….
In slow 5pm traffic we drove 15km outside Krakow to the Wielicza salt mine. We parked the night next to a restaurant. Leone had excellent duck. Jan had a meat dish served in a “bowl” made out of bread, complete with crust lid.
Next morning, down to 135 m, walking through an eerie world of pits and chambers, hand hewn out of solid salt during the last 700 years. Down at this level, there is a carved out cathedral. It has sculptures and chandeliers of salt crystal. It took 30 years and 20,000 tons of rock salt had to be removed. The newest statue is of the Polish Pope. He has been in office since 1978. His recent visit attracted huge crowds in Poland. (Still very much a Catholic country).
Warsaw. In 1939 the city was bombed and 10% was destroyed, but after the uprising in 1944 the Nazis systematically demolished 85% of the city. Over half of the population of 700 000 perished. The old Town Square was rebuilt in the ‘50s, but the castle only in 1984, with money collected from Poles worldwide. The interiors are as beautiful as when originally built. From the Communist era there are many grey faceless apartment blocks and a monstrous Palace of Culture. Things to see were so spread out that we did not use public transport. We had overnight parking at a centrally situated campsite; also in a park and at a sportsfield. We had the sandladders over the back windows and we felt quite safe.
Sunday at noon there was a Chopin music concert, next to his large statue in a garden of red roses. It was very hot and we brought our deck chairs to the shade. We never found any concrete tributes to Copernicus (astronomer), but we did find the Marie Curie museum (discoverer of radium). The National Museum displayed Polish art from 19th/20th century.
While searching for a supermarket, we saw a parking area with a boom, and spikes, which go down into the ground, when the boom is lifted. Later, in the parking area of a Hypermarket, Jan saw how the owner was shoved aside and his big new station wagon hijacked.
We made a 500km detour to visit the Bialowieza National Park on the Belarus border. Russian tsars, German dukes and kings had hunted there and although they had depleted it of animals, the primeval forest was preserved. An ornithologist took us on a lovely hike. (However, there were no visible birds). Nearby in the European Bison Reserve we saw some of the 250 bison in the Park. There are only 3000 worldwide; also wolves, wild boar and deer could be seen.
We were heading south to the Slovak border. On the outskirts of Lublin in front of the Open air Museum we parked for the night. There were cars and people around. It was hot and we sat outside writing until late. At about midnight, shouting and banging on the Camper’s sides awakened us. L said, “Stop it!” Jan said “Schh”. The pulling and hammering on the doors and cursing became more violent.
A blow cracked the front R window. One was tugging on the back door. Jan was watching at the front (He thought he might open the window and spray him). The attacker moved the mirror arm and by hanging onto it and with one foot on the wheel, he kicked the LF window several times till it broke out of its frame with a crash. As he landed on his feet, his face was level with the opening. J sprayed him. He reversed and came forward again with his elbow over his nose.
Then he got the “chilli juice” straight in the eyes and face. He spluttered and gasped: “Gaz!” Thug no. 2 came to the same opening and J was ready to give him a full dose of Oliocapsicum in the face. While they were stumbling about blinded and coughing, Jan found the keys (it felt like an eternity!) and we could drive off. Some of the gas got to the back and Leoné had her face in a pillow. Although we wanted to get far away fast, we had to stop to remove the glass fragments Jan was sitting on! We spent the rest of the night parked safely at a filling station, with all night traffic disturbance – it was the local hooker pick up point!The following night we camped next to a Polish family, who invited us to their campfire for Polish vodka, roasted potatoes and folk songs.
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