Other photos of the Czech Republic 

                                                                CZECH REPUBLIC


                                                   Prague, Kutna Hora, Ceske Budejovice, Cesky Krumlov

                                                                             October 1999


Prague is gloriously beautiful. The inner city has been largely untouched over the last 500 years, and at dusk its many spires, turrets and walls glow antique ivory, golden and russet. In the old town square, an intricate and charming clock sounds the hour from a tall tower. Two small doors open and a parade of 12 Apostles glides past - glaring down at the unworthy throng on the cobblestones below. The hours toll as a small skeleton pulls a chain; finally a golden cock crows out the hour.


We took an introductory walking tour of the city, learning about each castle and cathedral, and the notable people who had lived here.  Mozart enjoyed his visit to Prague - his opera "The Magic Flute" had been disdained by most Viennese but was well received by the Czechs.  Franz Kafka experienced a difficult life here as a German-speaking Jew; those who have read his novel "The Trial" will understand its genesis in the tortured paths and many dead-ends of the old city. Famous composers Dvorak and Smetana lived here; we celebrated their creativity by attending a concert of their work. Below is a beautiful old Jewish temple in Prague.

Prague's castle is high on a hill across the river from the old city. It has been extended so many times and in so many types of architecture (Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque) that it looks more like a town of castles than a single one. On a walking tour, our guide noted that a flag was flying over the castle signifying that Victor Havel was currently in the Czech Republic. Havel, the famous playwright who was tortured by the Communists and imprisoned six times, was the Czech president during our visit. We wandered through the beautiful castle gardens, watching the late afternoon glow on the ancient walls. Prague's main cathedral, both immense and intimate, has radiant stained glass windows.


In contrast to Prague's architectural beauty, Czech food is heavy, the coffee weak and the bread bland. (We were spoiled by France and Germany.) There's no soap offered in hotels - at least not at the budget hotels we used - and the towels were small and smelled a bit musty. According to the Czechs, the tap water is highly doubtful due to chlorine and rusty old pipes. Our American toothpaste ran out and the German kind tasted like licorice. Quite an experience early in the morning - licorice and fizzy bottled water!

36% of the new enrollees on the unemployment lists are recent graduates - young people who have gotten themselves educated, but have nowhere to use their energy and talents. Many of the Czech people seemed dour and unfriendly, and spoke little English. Fortunately, others were cheerful and helpful, and spoke heavily accented but quite good English.

Living in Prague is expensive for Czechs, as the average apartment rents for about Kc 10,000 a month - about the same as the average Czech paycheck. Because the currency exchange is very favorable (in 2000 it was US$1=Kc 32), Prague is quite inexpensive for visiting Americans. The guidebooks point out that hotel accommodations are the one high cost of visiting Prague. However, Lou was diligent in finding a $60/double hotel room with bath for the first two nights, and then a $40/night apartment for the last five nights. Both were clean and comfortable, if plain and modest by U.S. hotel standards.

Everything else, however, was very inexpensive. For example, a ticket on the efficient metro was only 12 Kc (35 cents) and could be used for any number of trips around town during a 60-minute period. A large mug of very good Czech beer cost only 18 Kc (60 cents.) We're talking about Budvar, the original Budweiser; on tap it's MUCH better than the American version. A huge and hearty Czech dinner - salad and a big platter of sauerkraut, beets, potatoes, dumplings, roast duckling and pig plus a stein of beer - cost under $15 for two. Woe to our waistlines!


We arranged to have dinner with a Servas couple. We thought the plan was to meet at their apartment, and we'd take them out to a local restaurant. Accordingly, we ate a skimpy lunch on the run - an apple for Lou and a bowl of soup for Joan. We bought a spray of orchids for our hosts ($3 at the metro flower stand) and arrived in a ravenous condition. We rang the bell of a shabby apartment building and a few moments later our host opened the door and ushered us into a cobblestone courtyard. The interior of the building matched the exterior. The walls were cracked, peeling and stained with age, the mailboxes broken and rusty, and the courtyard "garden" was dank and mossy concrete surrounding a few struggling trees. We climbed two flights of stone steps in semi-darkness and then went along  a narrow passage half-filled with junk. Our host ushered us in the last door, and we stepped directly into a small kitchen crowded with a tiny gas stove, an even smaller sink huddled in a corner, and - between the stove and small refrigerator - a 6" deep enamel shower pan, complete with hand-held shower head! After removing our shoes, we moved into the only other room in the apartment. Perhaps 12x15', it contained a double bed on one side, and a table and four chairs on the other. Lining the walls were bookcases, rows of record albums and a modest television set. Both rooms were impeccably neat and clean.

From our host's remarks, we estimated that the rent of this flat was only about $50-75 a month. He had made many improvements - including the shower in the kitchen. He mentioned that the communal toilet was in the courtyard - two floors below! On the plus side, besides the extremely low rent, a Czech landlord cannot easily remove a tenant. The landlord would need to provide a comparable apartment at the same rent in the surrounding neighborhood. The rent is semi-controlled, rising only 10% a year in a city that has high open market rents.

Our host, who was born in Los Angeles to Czech parents and lived there until he was ten, holds dual citizenship. He speaks fluent, American-style English (in contrast to most Europeans, who speak like Brits) and is a Czech-to-English translator as well as a librarian. His plump, blonde wife speaks only Czech and was retired early from her job. They are in their late 40s.

After some 45 minutes, our host asked if we'd like coffee or tea. By this time we were faint with hunger. His wife soon arrived bearing plates with rolled up, sugared crepes. Not quite what we'd expected! These proved absolutely delicious, however, as they were filled with homemade apricot jam. After we'd exclaimed over them, she shyly asked her husband something in Czech, and he told us she wanted to fix something more for us. We heartily agreed, since he'd mentioned when we arrived that we wouldn't be going out to eat after all. Another half hour passed, and she appeared with small salad plates for each of us. On each were a mound of subtly spiced, minced, cooked cauliflower topped with strips of carrot and 3 narrow strips of lunchmeat plus 2 small wedges of tomato. These were offered with a basket of sliced bread and glasses of bottled water. Dessert followed - a red apple for each and a handful of walnuts. These were easily the tastiest apples and walnuts we've ever eaten! This was a VERY simple repast in a humble setting - yet offered with quiet dignity, real warmth and no apologies.

Our host spoke of watching the Russian tanks rumble into Prague in August 1968 at the end of the "Prague Spring," a time when Soviet controls on Czechoslovakia had loosened. He was 18 at the time. Ten years ago he watched the "Velvet Revolution" when Czechoslovakia bloodlessly separated from the USSR, and soon after witnessed the "Velvet Divorce" when the two peoples split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. With the Soviet yoke lifted, life is much better now. Czechs can read anything, travel freely, buy a greater variety of goods. Still, old elements of the Communist-controlled secret police have considerable power in the upper levels of the police force, and those same elements are also involved in political and commercial fraud, racketeering and other Mafia-like activities. He contrasted Czech life with that in Germany. The West Germans, in particular, are much more affluent. The Hungarians are both richer at one end of the spectrum and poorer at the other, while the Poles have about the same standard of living as the Czechs.

As we left, our host commented that we seemed different from most Americans - meaning those who stay at the Sheraton or other big hotels. We cringed somewhat to think of the vast gulf separating the American standard of living from that of Central Europe, and how much we take it for granted. In some ways our host and his wife are living richer lives than many Westerners who consume and consume and still are restless and unsatisfied.


For our final Servas visit in the Czech Republic, we took a train from Prague to the village of Kutna Hora, about 60 miles away. Once second only to Prague in importance due to its silver mines and important location on the salt route from Austria to Germany, Kutna Hora stopped growing when the silver mines were dug too low and flooded. The town retains much of its Medieval, early Renaissance flavor, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage City.

Our host met us at the train station with outstretched arms. We thought he was going to weep with joy at seeing us. We might have been long-lost relatives! He spent nearly three hours driving us around the town, jumping out at each of the town's highlights to explain it in quite good English.

SKULLS AND BONES:  Our first stop was the "ossuary" - an ancient Catholic church which had a very small cemetery next to it. So small, in fact, that a couple of hundred years ago the cemetery was dug up to make room for fresh burials. Three major plagues erupted in the town over the years, so this meant digging up the bones of some 40,000 people! In contemplating the huge pile of bones, some rather creative monk began to use them to create art - of a sort. Today, you can visit the church and, for a small fee, gape at the macabre creations. Garlands of grinning skulls, each interspersed with two thigh bones, are looped from the chapel ceiling. Four huge pyramids are ingeniously formed of skulls and bones. Two huge chalices of bones guard the doorway, and an immense and intricate "chandelier" of skulls and various bones hangs in the center of the chapel. The family crest of a local count was carefully worked out in bones, and the artist proudly signed and dated his work - in bones, of course. Ah, travel. To quote Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: "We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto!"

After this eye-popping introduction to Kutna Hora, our host took us on a looping journey through the village - to see a stunning Gothic cathedral, Medieval burghers' houses, the town square, a tower and the town hall. We reached his home in time for lunch with his wife. Equally friendly, but a bit more reserved  - perhaps because she spoke less English than her husband - his wife is a dentist. She sees some 20-25 patients a day in her cheerful red-and-white dental office, created by remodeling the family garage. Lunch was simple and delicious. She had picked fresh mushrooms from the fields the day before and combined these with noodles, cream and onions. This was accompanied by a dark local beer. A friend had contributed fresh Chinese cabbage from his garden for a simple salad. Dessert was spiced, poached pear slices. It was peasant's repast fit for a king! (Below, the dentist/mushroom-picker and her husband.)

AMERICAN "PROPAGANDA":  We spent the rest of our six-hour visit with elbows on the dining table, discussing the effects of the change from communism to capitalistic democracy. Our hosts say it is wonderful to be able to travel, speak and read freely - but that the average person is worse off economically. The unemployment rate is very high and there is great uncertainty about the future. When the Czechs broke away from the USSR ten years ago, most people were wildly excited about the possibility of living as well as those in First World countries. Instead, they've lost their security while watching their standard of living fall The dour and depressed faces we have seen here reflect this drop from earlier expectations. (Of course, points out economist Lou, the communist welfare economy proved unsustainable in the long run.) The stores carry a much greater variety of consumer goods than under communism, but few can afford any but the cheapest items. Most of the stores look like Woolworths in the 1950s.

We had fun trying to communicate with the Czechs, many of whom speak some German - but few of whom speak any English. When we tried to buy some shampoo in a rather elegant parfumerie, Lou decided to get exactly the right kind. (Joan would have been happy with ANYTHING, as long as it was shampoo and not shoe polish.) He persisted in trying to communicate with someone who didn't understand one word of English. Finally, Lou held up his three middle fingers, putting down first the one on the left and saying firmly "Oily. Nein!" and then putting down the one on the right and again saying "Dry, Nein!". This left him showing an obscene gesture at the poor clerk - who had no way of understanding that Lou was trying to say that we didn't want shampoo for oily hair or for dry hair, but something in between. Finally, someone else in the shop called out "normal!" and we all had a good laugh.


We had a four-day visit to Ceske Budejovice, a wonderful old medieval town in Southern Bohemia near the Austrian border. This is the home of Budweiser beer, which we always thought was German in origin. All Bud is brewed here, except for that sold in the USA, which is brewed by Anhauser-Busch under a special agreement with this Czech factory. The two of us took a one-hour tour of the Budweiser plant with a guide who spoke excellent but heavily accented English. She kept talking about the many "vertical conical cylindrical" fermentation vats, each of which hold some 500,000 one-liter mugs of beer! We also went into the hot chamber where huge copper vats boil the hops and mash them together, and the cold chambers where the beer is matured. Budweiser - when freshly brewed - tastes vastly better than the canned stuff in U.S. grocery stores.


We took a day trip to the charming Medieval village of Cesky Krumlov, about an hour by train from Ceske Budejovice. Our train ride was a "milk run", as it stopped about every half mile at a decrepit station to pick up a passenger or two. Because there are no crossing lights or barriers, the train had to toot at every street. We traveled at a speed of 500 toots an hour. The train passed through wooded areas that made us look around for Hansel and Gretel, then emerged in open areas with rolling green hills dotted with tiny, red-roofed villages and clusters of maple trees turning red and gold in the bright autumn light. The castle tower in Cesky Krumlov looks as if it were made of colored icing and ready for the top of a very fancy cake. This is truly a land of fairy tales and legends. We toured the castle, filled with gorgeous tapestries and incredible furniture, climbed the tower to view the tiny town below and then headed for a beer hall for an excellent dinner of smoked pork in thick potato pancakes, served with the best sauerbraten and sauerkraut we've ever had. Washed down with Budweiser beer, of course.

After hiking back up the hill in the dark to the old train station, we were picked up by the "train" - a single tram car tooting toward us out of the dark. For much of the ride, the two of us passengers equaled in number the two employees - conductor and engineer - and saluted by red-capped station masters at each nearly deserted station along the way.


During our lunch in Kutna Hora, Lou had asked our host about the Czech perception of America. His answer was thought-provoking. We thought he'd be judgmental about U.S. meddling with its air power in nearby Kosovo, but he was far more concerned about the impact of Western culture. Interestingly, he compared the Soviet government's centrally-directed propaganda with the America's decentralized, market-directed "propaganda" - via film, television, brand-name goods and franchise businesses. In our American naiveté, we wouldn't have thought of labeling both political and economic pressure as "propaganda." Our friend held up his hand with fingers spread and extended in front of his face and, looking between his fingers at us said, "Sure, we Czechs will be like the Soviets"; and later, "Sure, we Czechs will be like the Americans." He seemed to be saying that this overlay of foreign ideas is a mask laid over the Czech identity, and also that it creates a prison that restricts Czechs from determining their own destiny.

Certainly, this small country with relatively meager resources has been overrun and exploited by others many times. America never has faced this in-your-face challenge to its identity. While we don't have easy answers to the problems raised, we value these open discussions about how others perceive the U.S. and their reaction to our enormous power and influence over them. We're beginning to realize how little we have looked at the world from any but our own perspective. Virtually all maps sold in America place the U.S. in the very center, as though this was the way the entire world is oriented. It was a bit shocking to come across a map in New Zealand that made America look "upside down."

Other photos of the Czech Republic

After returning to Prague, we took a train to POLAND



GUIDEBOOK:  Central Europe (Lonely Planet)

BACKGROUND READING: The Trial by Franz Kafka

FILMS: Kolya; The Shop on Main Street

(1999 Prices):

PRAGUE: Our conveniently located studio apartment was $40/night. The apartment owner's name is Jan Muller; he has several rental apts. Fax: 00420 2 225 18734   accomm.jan@post.cz

CESKE BUDEJOVICE:  Penzion Centrum. Na Mlynske stoce 8. Well-located small pension with reasonable rates, including breakfast. Ph: 038 520 30




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net