Dec 4, 2010

There is more to Czech Republic than Prague

Eastern Europe’s small countries do not make it to the headlines very often. Travel wise, their cuisine is terrible, weather awful and people not the friendliest in the world. At the same time,  by being close to Russia and Germany, at wrong times in history, they endured occupation and hardship which one develops a certain sympathy for. In that sense, although there is a tendency to lump them together, all Eastern European countries have their own fixations and problems with history and politics despite being closely located to each other. For instance, take the divorcees Slovakia and Czech Republic. Despite having lived together for a long time, the former is very religious while the latter is one of the least god fearing countries in the world. Nevertheless, the region seems to demonstrate a deep routed cynicism, new found enthusism for consumerism but also corruption.

By pure luck, I run into this celebration in Hlavne Namestie in Bratislava.
While I am one of those that has been mesmerized by Prague, I will write here about the Czech country side. In the Fall of 2009, I left Budapest in a haste after a conference and took a train to Bratislava, Slovakia's capital, to be picked up by my friend. The train ride of 3,5 hours went along the Danube, amid Indian music coming from the compartment behind me that was full of Indians. Globalization on the banks of Danube:-). The train passed by  small Slovakian towns where worried and tired parents hugged their children goodbye, making me think how much I love taking local trains for short distances. It is the perfect way to see people and how they live. And it is amazing how my rusty German comes handy in this part of Europe: the driver in freezing Bratislava took me from the train station to the pedestrian zone Hlavne Namestia and told me to walk the remaining bit.

One of the ponds in Telc, Czech Republic.

Telc in Czech Republic is a UNESCO heritage site.

Telc is an example of renaissance architecture.
I left myself into the hands of my friend who drove me up to Telc, in southern Moravia. We stayed in a small local hotel which has Japanese tourists, believe it or not. The area also has good wine that you liquor yourself with in the cold. The next day, we visit the pretty town with its renaissance architecture. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and also has ponds that are quiet picturesque.  Despite being able to quietly walk around today, you can sense a certain weight in the air, when you see a David's star on a building or when you read the turbulent history of the region with an ethnic German minority  being expelled in 1945 and the region itself exchanging hands many times like many ethnically mixed border regions. Wikipedia’s famous Moravians list reflects this ethnic diversity: Freud (yes, the one we know as Austrian but Austria once upon a time included Moravia), Schumpeter, Oskar Schindler and Milan Kundera!

A testament to days gone in Moravia: a Jewish heritage but no Jews.

A Czech pub in Kuks: "this is as exotic as it gets", says my friend.

Let me introduce you to the god of beer in Kuks, in Czech Republic.
I am impressed with all these things that must have happened here but I protest that I am not going to romanticize about these people and Velvet Revolution and Charter 77 stories to close my eyes to the treatment of Roma in this country. My friend laughs. 

Spa building in Kuks in Czech Republic with sculptures of vices.

 A view of town from the spa building in Kuks.
We then hit the road further north to Hradec Kralove region, close to Poland. Indeed, one is taken by the beauty, history and the level of development in the country side that makes you realize that these people’s only fault was to be indeed on the wrong side of Europe. We arrive in Kuks and after sipping some beer in a pub -excellent in Czech Republic- visit the baroque spa building which is an estate with sculptures depicting vices and virtues by Matthias Braun. The sculptures are not only located in this estate but also in the forest. Due to natural conditions like water, there is more concern about their situation but one is impressed by the silence in the forest, the colors of the falling leaves and the posture of these sculptures. It makes you imagine who the hell commissioned all of this artwork and how people must have lived here at the turn of the century when it was Poland, Austria, Czechoslovakia or Germany? I am glad I saw something other than Prague.

The spa building with vices and virtues in Kuks.

Kuks forest sculptures in Czech Republic

The Kuks Forest Sculptures are simply poetic.