I flew into Vienna (which is closer to the part of Czech I was visiting than Prague airport) from Heathrow on Lufthansa, the German airline which comes complete with leather seats, which is typical German style. From Vienna I travelled by car to the town of Ivancice in the south of the Czech Republic, which is where I stayed. It's close to Brno, the second largest city.
I arrived at night, which is not the best time if you want a good impression. It was dark, not only because it's night, (Obviously), but also because there were no lights on the side of the road. Also, there were no people about, and very few cars. The cars that were about were only Skodas, most of which were quite old (More on this later). My initial impression was "Oh, it's poor". There are a few main reasons as to this. The first is the most important, which is that all the houses have plaster on the outsides, so the look like cheap council houses, or they are just so old that the need this. Secondly, there are no lights on the road, and there are no road markings anywhere. There is a large abundance of mud though, making me think it could easily become the countries largest export if there was only a market for genuine Czech mud. I decided at this point 'Mud' was probably the most important word to learn, as it must be an important part of peoples lives. It's on the roads, the cars, the lorries, and all over their (and my) feet. The mud adds to the poor look, along with the fact that many things are in a poor state of repair. There is, however, a more important word than mud, and it's "cold". Like the Eskimos, and their many words for snow, I expected there to be many Czech words for cold, but there is only one. There are many types of cold though, from the type which gets into you bones 5 seconds after you leave the building, to complete brass monkey weather, right along to the type where even Swedish cars won't start. And I was lucky!!. The temperature, I was informed, was mild for the time of year, hovering at about -1. Less is common. The air is very still and it's quite dry.
On the first night, I saw three men pushing a Skoda up a hill. I looked at many cars, as I've never seen so many old cars moving about under their own power. All of Skoda's models from the last 30 years or so are represented, along with a selection of Eastern Europe's other mechanical efforts, including Moskvitchs, Wartburgs, Trabants (Smoky buzzsaw engine standard feature on all models), Ladas, Romanian made Renaults, and worse still, Polish made Fiats. Imagine taking Fiats, not the best put together cars anyway, chooing the crappest models, then building them in communist Poland. Outstanding idea. The Skoda coupe is also present, a normal Skoda that has two less doors, and which looks like it's been sat on by an elephant at the back. The normal cars only come out in the day, mingle with the rest, then go back to bed. Quite how long these relics can keep going is a mystery, but they certainly add to the poor look and the communist ambience. The Romanian made Renaults are not called Renaults, but something else which is very difficult to read. Czech writing is easier to read, but not much easier to understand. Not many of the words are similar to English, and they have more letters in the alphabet, the extra ones having what I called "Grass" on the top. When the accents are grouped together, it looks like a normal word with a lawn. For example, Skoda is actually "koda" There is a big lack of vowel use too, making many things difficult to pronounce for non Czech speakers.
The architecture also adds to the communist look. Cobbled roads (In the town centres) and the trams which feature so much in Prague and Brno, the second city. Brno looks much more communist than Prague, but not because there is anything communist in it strangly. The shops are all modern chains, Bennetton, McDonalds, and the like. The buildings are all pre-communist, and so are the trams and cobbles, it's just that having seen so many films with these three things in Communist cities, for me they go together. It gives the city character though, a bit like being on a big film set. Brno is quite nice anyway, at least while it's light. After dark it becomes a bit dodgy, especially around the bus station, but that is true of most cities, for some reason I can't fathom. In Brno there are many trams, probably the city's biggest feature. Rails seem to be a big feature in all of the Czech republic. The public rail system is very comprehensive, and the map of local networks is very dense. Every little town with more than two houses gets it's own railway station, and there are many level crossings. At the stations, the platforms are low, so you "step up" into the train, and at the smaller stations, you can cross many tracks to get to your train . Of course, to me this looked yet again, communist. Perhaps I've seen to many films. It's charming though, despite the cold. The trains themselves are like some of the trains here if you are unlucky enough to travel on the old ones between parts of the West Midlands. I even managed to go on a train with a corridor! - quaint. The all are ontime however, which is great compared with the UK. Even if there's a metre of snow, all still runs ok. The trains are a preferable way of getting about than the buses. The buses are too old, and they are covered with a healthy layer of mud, and they are dark. When it is dark outside, the lights inside the bus are switched off also, so everybody sits in complete darkness, (Remember there are no road lights either), so they are all together on the bus huddled in big coats, in the darkness, and there is total silence. Hardly anyone on any bus talked when I was there . In the pubs too, there is little or no noise, except for the television. Anyway another good reason for taking the train is that the view of the scenery is bettter. For a start, the windows are not coated in mud, and the tracks run through better parts, giving much better views of the many expansive forests which dominate much of the Czech countryide. There are two types of forest, the first from trees and the second from concrete.
On the outskitrts of Brno, and Prague, there are miles of concrete towerblocks, packed together, the like of which I've only seen in Hong Kong before. All nice and square, the one thing the communists did bring to the Czech republic in large amounts were set-squares. All the communist buildings, (The genuine ones) are very big on right angles, and many of them are unneccesarily offensive, perhaps designed by blind people. Hopefully these won't last too long, and will be replaced by something altogether more appealing. I saw some new houses whilst I was there, and these are much better, even if the outside walls are painted green or yellow or powder blue. It's Legoland. They have metal gutters too, because the cold cracks plastic ones. Another strange thing is that the plug sockets are half way up the wall, and many of the toilets have this built in 'shelf' thing moulded into the porcelain. About half of all the toilets I found were like this. I'm not sure what this shelf was for, but it's bloody inconvenient, unless you want to particularly want to examine what you did.
I got to see even more forests, of both kind, on the way to Prague by bus. The journey was more than two hours with no comfort stops, which can be uncomfortable if you have diahorrea from the food, which is possible. I'll mention a bit about the food before I get to Prague, it's an important part of the culture. I know this because everybody I met wanted to feed me constantly, all day. If I had woke up to find myself being fed intraveneousley by drip in the night, I may not have been too suprised. If I had, the drip would have almost certainly conatined fat, as this is is the most vital ingredient in the national cuisine. Pork fried in fat, chicken fried in fat, fish fried in fat. Sausages that contain more than a healthy dose of fat. You get the picture.
Salt is the next most important thing. Some of the food is good, and I'll deal with that first. Sausages - The mostly fall into the category of good, which is a good thing, as there are tons of them, one for every possible occasion and eventuality. Breakfast? Sausage. Dinner? Sausage. Sausage is the answer to everything. Broken fanbelt? There is probably even a sausage for this. The next thing is pickled things. Masses of them. If you can pickle it, they have. Pickled cabbage is pretty good, though the fermented variety, (Kraut) is a little strange. When I first tried it, I though Mmm, great, but the more that I ate the less that I liked it. The other pickled things are great though, if you, like that sort of thing. The bad things are pretty strange though, like pork with grain. I had to eat some of this before I decided that it was gross. It tastes a bit like what sugar puffs would be like if you ate them with sausage. Errgh. (or phooey, as they say). Carp was not too special either, though it tasted quite a lot of oil, as it had absorbed a good litre I think, from when it was fried. The fried pork and chicken also tasted some of oil. The bonemarrow sandwich didn't however, but it had it's own type of disgusting. You could always wash it down with some slivovic though, the national hard liquor. At 60-70%, it's like cough medicine mixed with turps. Guaranteed to remove any cold or flu, and anything else for that matter. The locals can down it like water, but then they are used to it. The famous Czech beer is much less %, but it left me cold. I'm no fan and judge of beer, so it all tasted the same to me. Ironic that my first, and only Czech sentence was "I want beer please". It's not too bad with the sausage though. Falling into the "Hmmm" category of food were the dumplings, another Czech dish. These are just basically heavy warm dense bread. Much of the food is heavy and dense anyway, so much it's suprising it doesn't exert a gravitational pull.
Back to Prague anyway. Prague is similar to London. It doesn't look communist, and all the cars are new. In fact you could be in one of many European capitals, like Vienna for example. It was teeming with tourists, even in winter. Most of them flock to the astronomical clock in old town square like moths to a bulb, so I went as well. It's nice anyway. So is the square. There are many architectural sights around, and somewhat inevitably, a catherderal or two. Prague Castle sits upon a hill, so if you go up there you can see down on all of the city. From high it looks even more like other European capital. I was somewhat underwhelmed by Prague. I had hoped it would be a litte more different to home. It is very 'fairytale' though, and I can see why many others would love it. Like any other capital though, it has many immigrants, and in Prague, many of them are from Russia, and the other ex-USSR places.
I went again in May 1999 and again many times after that.
Copyright © M.F.Hughes 1999