19 December 2005

to the fatherland

J and I just got back to Iceland, which welcomed us in true fashion with a sideways-blown snowstorm. Our trip was tremendous in many ways (including the waistlines- J and I are both starting the laps today!) and I have to write before I forget.

One of the reasons we went to the CR was to see J's friends P&M. They live in a small town in southern Bohemia, almost to the Austrian border. I had been hearing about this area from him since I met him, and from my dad since I can remember. My great-great grandfather was born in southern Bohemia, then moved to America and ended up the mayor of a large town in Wisconsin in the 1800s. I'm always up for visiting the Ancestral Lands, so this trip south was a great chance.

We got an offer of a private flight from another friend F, a pilot with a Czech airline, but had to go train style due to the clouds on Wednesday. For anyone who hasn't been on a Czech train, they must be a part of your next trip there. These trains are how it might have been in the US, if cars and highways hadn't developed the way they did. The system criss-crosses the country with connecting trains arriving and departing with military punctuality. Most of the trains have compartments so if you're lucky and get the compartment to yourself, you ride in your own private room, complete with curtains, adjustable heat, and fold-up window tables.

Our destination was about 3 hours from Prague, with one train change in a somewhat dilapidated southern town that seems to be known only for changing trains and a large lumberyard. The route was absolute train-set perfect, with steep valleys lined with trees, ponds and streams, and tiny Czech towns shrouded in the bittersweet tang of coal smoke. Local roads edged with trees cut through the fields and disappeared under rail crossings, and on one of them I even saw a man with a pair of horses hauling wood. Definitely Old World.

We got to our destination and walked into town as dusk was falling to meet P at his office in town, a gorgeous turn-of-the-century building with a stair railing to rival Guimard's Paris Metro entrances. We all walked home with him through the cobbled streets to their newly finished house. It's in the center of the old town, mostly built at the very beginning of the 19th century, but with foundations back to the 14th or 15th century. There's a fantastic local restaurant downstairs, a tailor shop on the second floor, and the third and fourth floors are all theirs. They turned what was probably a pretty gloomy space into a marvel of skylit space, airy in a way I did not expect from a house in the center of so many ancient buildings. The original details of the place are still highlighted, such as the amazing doors, the hardware, and the stone staircases. Taking the trip to the basement was particularly interesting, although creepy- the top two stairs were made from tombstones!

P & M turned out to be the most extraordinary hosts I have ever met, offering us daily doses of all the best local flavors- locally produced yogurt, homemade tea, biscuits, homemade cherry cordial, and Christmas treats. They showed us around extensive portions of both Moravia and Bohemia, and had daily suggestions of interesting events in their own town. Among my favorites was a baroque music concert in the church next to their house. The music was all expertly performed by children from about age 10-14, and although we had to wear our coats and hats indoors (no cheap heat available there like here), the venue was tremendous. The church apparently has Roman foundations, and was rebuilt and modified over the centuries since then, so there are early Gothic paintings, a later roof that unfortunately cut the heads off the figures in said paintings, baroque painted flourishes, and more recently added pews. When we left, it was laden with souvenirs, wild hand-picked dried mushrooms, and tea.

I really enjoyed the organic nature of so much of the town- people added to it when they could or needed, so the layers of history are evident in every building. Before this, I was used to going to places where the buildings are perfect examples of a single period in time (such as many of the buildings in Paris) instead of a reflection of the whole history of an area and their fluctuations in prosperity and rulers.

This entry is becoming more of a novel than an entry.. if anyone is still with me, congratulations! I guess I wrote this one more for myself so I could remember than for an audience.

Ship sighting: Yep, back to the land of boats. I missed the sea while I was away, so I was happy to see the exuberance of Jól has continued in our abasence. More boats have been trimmed with lights, and even the ones in the drydock (Víkingur is still there, and this one has joined) are trimmed up. The arrival and departures show a LOT of activity on the ol' flutingaskip front (cargo ships)- lots of buying going on now maybe? One of them is called Polydefkis, which I hope is this monster of a boat, but google image search keeps giving me photos of this guy instead. Maybe he is coming too.


Petr said...

Hi Elisa, you seem to be really excited about Czech trains. I was especially amused by the phrase 'military punctuality'. Although the situation got better last years the Czech railways are famous for their delays. I personally remeber a situation some one year back when the train got one and half hour delay simply because the personnel was not able to find a lift for uploading a disabled person on a wheelchair. It was in Prague main station !!!!!
Anyway, I agree that the train trip in the CR is something to really recommend. Unfortunatelly, no railway to the scary castle :-)

The Prima said...

awesome post. that Czech trip sounds like the best trip ever ;-)