Denver Bar Association
December 2010
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Country Walks No Longer Forbidden: Visit to Czech Republic Offers Glimpses of Countryside and Castles

by David Erickson

A view of Cesky Krumlov from its castle in the Czech Republic.

A series of guided hikes in the former “forbidden zone” in the Czech Republic gave us various glimpses of the former Communist country. The Moravian region in the east, where our trek started, remains a rural treasure with old-growth forests and broad, lush meadows. Vegetation flourishes in the frequent rains, which soaked us during one trek up a steep mountain to see a ruined castle. Although there are few boundary fences, designated hiking trails often were marked with striped bands of colored paint on trees.

During our trek, we encountered several unusual and unexplained customs. In one small village, clotheslines were strung between rooftops across the main street, on which numerous socks were clipped as year-round banners. In other villages, some of the homes and businesses had full-sized stick figures in front, dressed in bright clothing. Some villages sprouted a tall pole near the center, with an evergreen tree attached to the top. The object, our guide told us, was to have as tall a pole as possible, although residents of neighboring villages would then attempt to cut it down or steal the tree.

Our trip, with friends from Denver, began on a Lufthansa flight direct to Frankfurt, which is a major hub for European air travel. Our rental car was waiting, followed by an exhilarating ride southeast on the autobahn. In Wurzburg, we departed the autobahn to follow the Romantic Road southwest to Fussen on the German–Austrian border. The road, a favorite of travelers, passes through numerous small, authentic, and well-preserved German towns, some with remnants of medieval walls.

The travelers enjoy wine tasting in Valtice.

We crossed the border into Austria and stayed in Vienna. A vibrant city, it has many historic buildings and plazas, and among its tangled streets are an infinite variety of shops. My wife Jeanne and I enjoyed an evening concert at Palais Auersperg, featuring Mozart overtures and Strauss waltzes. Then, during a slow walk back to our hotel we found ourselves hopelessly lost in a far corner of the city where we were rescued by a young and amused taxi driver.

The next morning, we met our personable and knowledgeable guide, Zuzana, a college teacher in Moravia, and our driver, Slovic, a Moravian who spoke no English. Our destination was the Moravian wine country in the “forbidden zone” adjoining the Austrian border, where during the Communist regime residents were removed and travel was forbidden.

We hiked across the Austrian-Czech border, then enjoyed lunch at an outdoor café in Lednice and visited the former winter castle of the Liechtenstein family. We also traveled to Valtice to see their former summer home. A royal and powerful family, the Liechtensteins forfeited most of their holdings in the Czech Republic, their ancestral homeland, for supporting the Nazis during World War II.

The following day in Mikulov, we had lunch at a small private wine cellar, a cavern carved into a rocky hill next to the owner’s house. Here, we sampled wines made from grapes of the local vineyards, a practice that was to continue throughout our trip west across the country.

The Czechs have been in the unfortunate position of being surrounded by sometimes aggressive and warring nations: Germany, Austria, Poland, and Russia. They were engulfed in the Battle of Hastings (1066), the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), Wars with France (1792–1814), World War I (1914–1918), German Occupation (1938), World War II (1939–1945), and Communist domination (1946–1989). Communist control finally ended with the Velvet Revolution in the fall of 1989, when calls for a general strike in Prague toppled the regime. Following this, Czechoslovakia was divided into two new countries: the Czech Republic in the west and Slovakia in the east.

Although the Czech language is daunting, many shops and restaurants had employees proficient in English and many had an English menu. Therefore, at meal time, we had few difficulties making our wishes known. We were also able to decipher many signs due to the common roots of some words. Although the Czech Republic is part of the European Union, it has not adopted the Euro as its currency. We found the Czech crown to be confusing and often found ourselves fumbling with unfamiliar notes and coins, uncertain of denominations and exchange rates.

On the seventh day of our trek, we crossed from Moravia into southern Bohemia, in the west of the Czech Republic. We visited Telc, with its finely preserved buildings surrounding a large central square, and toured Telc Castle. Then, during a long hike through the forest we saw numerous varieties of mushroom and military bunkers built before World War II. The bunkers were abandoned after the Munich Agreement in 1938, which ceded this strategic land to Germany.  In the small town of Trebon, we toured the Renaissance chateau of Petr Vok, the last heir of the noble Rosenberg family.  

From there we traveled to Cesky Krumlov, where a gigantic castle has been occupied by only three families since the Middle Ages: the Rosenbergs, the Eggenbergs, and the Schwarzenbergs. This magnificent complex and its gardens sit atop a high bluff. During the communist regime, the town was neglected and dilapidated; however, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and most of the buildings have now been restored to their medieval splendor. Several outdoor cafés adjoined the Vltava River, providing front seat views of canoes and rafts.

Our last two days were spent in Prague, a bustling city to the north and the heart of the Czech Republic. We stayed at a small hotel with tiny elegant rooms in the center of town. Numerous cafés had hand-lettered signs offering apple strudel and coffee at competing prices. The Charles Bridge, a magnificent medieval stone structure crossing the Vltava was jammed with tourists and local artists. The bridge links Old Town with the Lesser Quarter and for several hundred years was the only bridge in town crossing the river. Tourists flocked to Old Town Square for the chiming of a gigantic 15th Century Astronomical Clock, where representations of the 12 apostles appear in windows that open and close. At Prague Castle, we were intrigued by a towering lookout and climbed 300 narrow and spiraling stone steps to reach the summit and were rewarded with expansive views of the city.                                                                   

Our trek ended in Prague, followed by a short flight to Frankfurt and from there a direct flight to Denver. We arrived home tired, but grateful for the experience.

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