Trip Journal - Czech Republic




Karlovy Vary -- 23 August 1998

We got on the train to Karlovy Vary, a three hour trip. It was a typical Czech train - it seemed to weave it's way through every small town and stop in each place for 10 minutes or so. We'd forgotten to get drinks before we left, and as this train was not equipped with a restaurant car, Paul was left really craving a Coke. When we stopped at the town of Most, he got up and left the compartment. I got into a conversation with a young woman with whom we were sharing the compartment. She is studying computers but loves to paint most of all. She was from a small town on the Polish border and was on her way to Cheb, just West of Karlovy Vary, just for the night to be with her boyfriend because he'd called and said he missed her. It was very sweet. We'd just gotten into a discussion about how so many people in Europe have cell phones when the other woman sharing our compartment yelled out from the window where she was standing "Your husband! Your husband!" We rushed to the window in time to see Paul running after the train, which was now pulling out of the station, two sodas in hand. When he realized that he wasn't going to catch the train, he threw up his hands as if in disgust. Despite feeling a bit panicky, I laughed because he looked so funny.

I sat down with the other two women to take stock of the situation. I was pretty sure Paul had our rail passes and money (I was wrong about the rail passes), so I figured he could get another train. And I assumed it would be better to go all the way to Karlovy Vary and wait there at the station for Paul to arrive on the next train. The two women consulted the conductor for me (she thought the whole thing was hysterical) and found out that there was another train in two hours. At least there was another train running. I just had to hope that I had reckoned the situation the same way Paul did and that I could get all the gear off the train in Karlovy Vary before it left again. I could probably arrange for a room for us while I was waiting. So I settled down, but it sure seemed awfully lonely without Paul. The young Czech woman and I continued our conversation. We'd gone two stops when suddenly the other woman started yelling from the window again, "Your husband! Your husband!". We all jumped up and ran to the window and there was Paul, running up to the train. I was so happy to see him, I couldn't believe it. You'd have though he'd been away 2 years instead of just 2 stations. We hugged in the corridor and then sat down, whereupon Paul produced a Czech cola and a lemon drink, neither one of which was very good, but it hardly mattered.

Paul: How'd he do it you ask. Well listen up and I'll tell you how it happened. When we pulled into the station at Most, I saw a little kiosk against the station just a few platforms over, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity. Oh, and Johnna had also said she'd really like something to drink, so I was trying to get something for her as well as for me. Anyway, I hopped off the train without saying anything to Johnna, figuring I had at least 5 minutes, hoping to pleasantly surprise her with a soda. I got through the crowd and over to the kiosk, bought the sodas, and as I turned around, saw that the train was stealthily pulling away from the platform. Muttering a string of profanities, I ran out, leaping over the tracks between the platforms, but it was no use, because by the time I got there, the train was moving too fast and all the doors were closed. There was no way to jump on. Now I really started to worry. As far was I knew, Johnna had no idea I'd left. I had no idea what she'd do when she noticed me missing after 15 or 20 minutes, but I felt really terrible imagining the worry I was about to cause her. I turned and ran in a bit of a panic back into the station, thinking furiously how else I could get to that train but knowing that the only thing I could really do was hope for another train going later. I took a quick inventory and found that fortunately i had my passport pouch with credit cards and cash in my pocket, and Johnna had everything else, including her own credit cards, so I knew she would be all right. Just as I was trying to figure out who to go ask about getting a ticket for another train, standing there in the middle of the station, a man walked right up to me and blurted out something in Czech, pointing out at the platforms. After several repetitions in response to blank stares from me, I concluded that he must have seen my mad dash and be asking me where I was heading. "Karlovy Vary" I said in my best Czech accent. He immediately turned and waved to me to follow him, then started jogging through the station, frequently urging me to hurry along. So I followed him. We ran down the stairs and back out to the kiosk where I had bought the sodas. I wondered for a moment if I had run off without paying and he had been sent by the woman to hunt me down and extract payment. But instead of shaking me down, he ducked into the side door of the kiosk, exchanged a few words with the woman there, grabbed his wallet, and then gestured to me to continue following him. We trotted out around to corner of the train station and into the parking lot, right up to a car, which he unlocked and indicated I should get in. I realized at this point of course that he meant to give me a ride, but Karlovy Vary was still 80 km away, so I couldn't believe that he was going to drive me all the way there. We screeched out onto the road and headed West. I tried English and German, but he seemed to speak only Czech. The only word I knew in Czech was the one for thank you, so I used it a lot. When we got a ways out, the road was running right along the train tracks and he was indicating to me that the train must be up ahead of us some where, so we went by the first train stop. Then the road left the tracks for a while, and when we could see it again, he seemed to think the train was now behind us. He kept looking over his shoulder to see if it was coming. We pulled off the highway and went ripping into the parking lot of the train station, dashed through and out to the platforms where he hastily consulted an official there and determined which train was ours. It had just arrived. I thanked him profusely and tried twice to give him some money for his trouble, but he refused. When the station came in, the conductor saw me and was very surprised. She escorted me in to our car, where Johnna grabbed me and squeezed the stuffing out of me. I think she was glad to see me.

Johnna: Karlovy Vary is a spa town with 12 thermal baths. It used to be the spa town in the Czech Republic at the turn of the century, and may still be, but it's hard for the healthy person to know, since the baths may not be entered without a prescription for metabolic or digestive disorder therapy. There's just one open-air pool for the healthy people. It hardly seems fair. The Karlovy Vary train station is really small, and all we knew was that we should try to get a bus the the campground, which was off the little map in our book. The only place to buy bus tickets was a little machine in front of the station, which only took small coins. We didn't have any. The bus schedule was inscrutable, so we rapidly decided to take a taxi instead, even if we did get overcharged. We'd set up camp and then get oriented. The taxi driver spoke a little German and drove like a maniac. Karlovy Vary is surrounded by mountains and the roads are full of switchbacks and hidden turns. Our driver spent as much time as was practicable on the other side of the road, moving over only to narrowly avoid hitting oncoming motorists and cyclists. It seemed like we'd been driving for a long time when the driver told us that the campground we asked for was coming up, but there was a cheaper one just 2 km further on. We said ok, figuring that one night at this place wouldn't kill us (though the trip there might) and if we didn't like it we could always move. I just hoped they'd have hot water.

My first impressions of the place were not favorable. The campground appeared to be a former army barracks, with 5 long, dark wood buildings in a row. There was a smashed desk in the parking lot. It didn't smell so good and we could hear noise from what seemed to be a quarry operation not far away. But the guy at reception was friendly, spoke English, the price was right, and we were tired. This was home for tonight. The guy at reception came out to show us where the showers were and apologized for the mess. Apparently there had been a large gathering of motorcyclists partying there the night before. That explained the pervasive smell of stale beer. We set the packs down and went to look for a spot to pitch the tent. The only place to do it was on the grass between the buildings, which seemed a little strange. There was only one other tent and a couple of trailer campers. There also seemed to be a few people staying in rooms in the barracks. We found ourselves a nice grassy spot right next to the outside power outlets where we could plug in Tamino. Once we got the tent set up we felt a lot better. We had our home. At this point I began to notice how beautiful the scenery was (outside the campground that is). We were surrounded by steep hills covered in lush, deep green spruces. The sound of the wind blowing through them was heavenly. We had a little picnic on the grass while it was still light out, and then it started to rain. We got into our nice, cozy, dry tent and read for the rest of the evening.

Karlovy Vary -- 24 August 1998

We woke up to genuine fall weather, cool and clear. It was wonderful to feel so full of energy. The only downside was that the weather alternated between sun and rain about every fifteen minutes all day. but I was ready to do something. Paul's knee was still bothering him and he wanted to give it a real rest for a couple of days. So I went to reception, got myself a map (50 Korun), asked about how to get the bus into town, and set out. I hadn't realized it until I looked at the map that we weren't really in Karlovy Vary. The other campsite was, but we were in the Southern outskirts of a little village called Brezova, about 5 km South of Karlovy Vary. Not that it really mattered, except that none of the busses mentioned in the Lonely Planet actually went that far. I walked into Brezova, a cute little village with one church and no real grocery stores to speak of. One little shop had a padlock on the door and the other was a slightly scary place. There was a mastiff dog with really silly bottom teeth that stuck out beyond his "lips." He looked ridiculous but I took his growl seriously, since dogs almost never dislike me. The owner seemed disinclined to intervene, so I figured I'd give his shop a miss. One of my scouting duties was to discover a food source, and I hoped I'd have better luck in Karlovy Vary. I stood across from the Post Office at the bus stop. The bus only ran every hour or so. I wanted to make sure that I didn't miss it. But of course I was looking for a bus. What actually showed up was a white minivan. I didn't know whether to get on or not. But everyone else was so I figured I should too. Then there was the question about how much it might cost. I hopefully put 6 korun, which was what the bus was meant to cost, into the driver's hands and took the ticket from him. After I sat down, the driver looked back at me once or twice, and I worried that I had paid too little and he thought I was a thief. I've gotten better about not worrying if people know I'm a foreigner but I'm still very concerned about doing the correct thing. Later, I realized that of course the driver would know everyone in a village this size and that he was probably just curious about me. I am exceptionally skilled at worrying however.

I furtively followed that map into town the whole way, so that I would know where I was if I was on the wrong bus. When we arrived at the last stop, I got off with everyone else. We were in a nice park, so I walked to the corner to read the street signs, then sat down to get my bearings. My plans: to go to Tourist Information, get some cash, some groceries, get oriented with the town, and then on the way back, check out the first campsite to see if we thought it was worth moving there. I wanted to go look around the town, but I thought I should ascertain early whether we'd be moving to the other campsite, because we'd need to coordinate with the bus schedule. At least that was my excuse for stressing out a little. Anyway, I figured I'd see the town with Paul the next day. The Tourist Information offices were really just glorified exchange offices that also sold maps and postcards. Pretty disappointing. I did find a bankomat though, and there was a centralized film listing. The X-Files film wasn't playing yet. I walked around for quite a while looking for a grocery store, but never did find one. Finally, I decided to get the next bus and check out the campground. I figured we'd probably be able to get bread and cheese in Brezova, once I'd conquered the buck-toothed dog. The bus was parked in roughly the same spot that I'd left it. I saw two women get on, and I figured they were boarding for the return trip. The driver however, gave me a smile and said, "Two minutes, up there. Now I have Pause!" He was very sweet. So I walked over to where he had pointed and just about the time I arrived, the minibus pulled up.

I wasn't sure there was a stop at the other campground, but it didn't seem to matter. When I rose out of my seat, the driver careened to the side of the road and halted with a hearty screech. All Czech drivers are maniacs. I thanked him and got off. Reception was apparently closed. No one was around. From the signs, it looked like they opened again at 3:00. I figured I'd just have a look around. The bungalows looked quite nice, but the tent areas were all gravel, like parking lots. It was obviously meant for caravans. There didn't seem to be enough shower facilities for the number of people there. That morning, Paul and I had taken over a whole shower room for ourselves (there were two rooms but no signs to tell which was for men and which was for women), just locked the door and had the place to ourselves. There was lots of hot water and there were hooks to hang up the hand-held shower. (I just don't get the concept of having to hold the water source in one of your hands.) So, the 'cheap' campground was looking better and better all the time. Even with the factory noise. And the shooting range at the restaurant next door. When I came back through, reception was open again. I went in to ask the price. It was almost twice what we were paying at our current place. Yup, I began to see that we were pretty well off where we were. I walked back in the rain; it was only a couple of kilometers. I passed a German couple who said, "Guten Tag," to me. I was so pleased. I must be really starved for meaningful human interaction. When we got to Brezova, the buck-toothed Mastiff growled at us all, and I ditched the idea of groceries just then. The other place was still padlocked shut. I walked by the restaurant next door to the campground to look at the prices. From what I could read, they were quite reasonable. The German couple stopped to ask me (in German) if I knew about a ceramic place in the area. I looked in the Lonely Planet but found nothing, and they went on, presumably to ask someone in the restaurant. Then I thought to look at the map, which showed a street called Keramika. I was pretty sure that must be the place, so I ran over and showed the couple. I probably looked as eager to be liked as a golden retriever. I don't know if they ever found what they were looking for or not.

Just then, the shooting started again. We'd been ruefully laughing at it this morning, as another of the charming attributes of our abode. We hoped it wouldn't go on all day. This morning, we hadn't known the source. But of course, now we knew it was from the restaurant/shooting gallery, which also had a putt-putt course and a laser light disco. Nothing is ever all that it seems in the Czech Republic.

I reported my findings to Paul and he concurred that despite the factory noise and the guns, we should stay. We ate some lunch on the lawn and then got forced inside by the rain. That evening we went to the restauant/disco/golf course/shooting range for dinner. We had huge, decent mushroom pizzas (our other staple) for $2.00 each. then we went back to our cozy tent and read in bed.

Karlovy Vary -- 25 August 1998

Paul was still resting his knee, so I took the minibus into Karlovy Vary, saw everything and took 48 pictures. I was a wild woman.

The charm of the town is in its lovely late 19th century houses all lined up on either side of the Tepla River and climbing up into the beautiful pine-forested hills sheltering it. It's a cure town, so there are lovely walks where patients and the rest of us could have our constitutionals, and best and funniest of all, where you can take the water "cure". To do this, you buy a funny porcelain cup from any of the many kiosks that sell them. The kiosks are everywhere and there are hundreds of cups to choose from. Some are the blue and white Bohemian pattern, some look like Grecian urns. There were several hideous pearlized pink ones. Whatever the color, size and shape, all have a little straw built into them, so that you can walk around to improve your circulation while you sip the water and let it do its good. Watching several hundred people all taking this quite seriously is way better than TV.

The Mlynská Colonnade was built in 1881 in the Neoclassical style. It's a big space with lots of columns (naturally) and a roof but open to the air. It has lots of statues placed on the roof. There are several fountains, which dispense the water at various temperatures: 38, 50 and 72 degrees Celsius.

Further along the main street is the Zámecká Tower (1608), which is all that's left of the castle on the site of which Charles IV once had a hunting lodge back in the 1300s. Kind of a 'non' sight, as far as I was concerned. The only reason it is a sight is because Charles IV (Holy Roman Emperor) is supposed to have found a thermal spring there while hunting a stag. He built the hunting lodge there and named the area after himself (Karlovy Vary means Charles' Bath).

Another colonnade, a very beautiful Victorian structure, but not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet, is directly below the tower. A little further on is the most famous spring, Vrídlo, now housed in the supremely ugly Communist-era Colonnade (1975) called Vrídelni. Whereas the other colonnades are open to the air, Vrídelni is all enclosed under glass. The fountains for the five springs have goofy, geometric shapes on top of them, also made of glass. In another room, a huge spring has been 'harnessed' in a round fountain. Surrounding it are strange round silver metal boxes that capture and vent the heat of the spring. It's very weird, but so telling of the Soviet mentality. In all the other colonnades, there is a sense that you are interacting with nature. It is providing something helpful and good and you appreciate the wonder and grandeur of such a gift. In Vrídelni, it is obvious that the Soviets wished to show that they could conquer nature, and by extension, harness it, and force it to do work for the People. The overwhelming impression is that things and people must be forced to do productive work, because left to themselves they would not do it. I didn't like the building but there was great people watching.

There were five fountains in a row where people congregated, taking pictures of each other while they dipped their cups into each of the fountains. I'd been stopping at every kiosk to have a look at the cups. In Vrídelni, there were four very nice wooden kiosks, all selling the same cups, as far as I could tell. I couldn't decide which cup to get (no surprise there) so I left the colonnade and figured I'd head into the paths in the hills. I walked to the end of town and there was the Diana funicular. I had thought it would be in the middle of the forest somewhere, or in a park. All of a sudden, it seemed like a really good idea to take the funicular up the hill and then walk the 2 km in the downhill direction only. A whole bunch of us entered the funicular office at the same time. None of us were Czech. There was a large chart, prominently displayed, of all the different trips you might do. There were two stops and you could go to the first only; skip the first and go to the second one only, go down only, etc. There also seemed to be different prices for adults, children, students and dogs. But it was incredibly confusing, probably even for speakers of Czech. None of us could figure it out, but neither did it seem like a good idea to ask the rather formidable-looking woman at the ticket window. But finally, a Japanese man on his own went to the window in a display of courage I will never forget and said very quickly, "Up and down, how much?" That broke the ice. We always think we have to get whatever information we need or want on our own. It's so hard to admit that you don't know. But it's really stupid because you can't be expected to know every language. And I'd think nothing of asking for directions of someone in, say, Houston. The rest of us got in line and bought our tickets, but our cowardice had cost us; the funicular had already left and we had to wait 15 minutes for the next one. I sat in front and it was a nice, long satisfying ride (166 M) -- not like the funicular in Budapest. There are two cars, one going up while the other goes down, and they appear to be attached to opposite ends of the same cable. We stopped at Jelená Skok (Stag's Leap) first, where the two cars both stopped at the same time, and the track split. Then we continued to the top, where the Diana Tower is located. It cost 10 Korun (20¢) to go up, a great bargain. You could either take the stairs or the elevator. Again, I wisely chose to take the stairs the easy way and let the elevator carry me up. Once there, I could see the whole topography of the area. It felt like I could see all the way into Bavaria. The landscape is similar, all pine-covered hills. I could see Brezova's church steeple and in the other direction, the more industrial side of Karlovy Vary, which must be where they're hiding all the good supermarkets.

I was hungry when I came down the stairs of the tower. I went into the hunting lodge-style cafe nearby. There were animal skins on the walls and the dark wooden ceiling was painted with roses in deep shades of red. Several signs warned you that photos were only allowed if you paid 30 korun first. That seemed to be the per photo price. I sat down, but no one came over to take my order (I waited about 10 minutes), so I got up and left. I'd seen an Italian cafe back in town that had looked nice. I figured I'd have a nice walk through the forest and down the hill and really work up my appetite. It was beautiful and quiet, and smelled heavenly. I got lost once, because all the signs were in Czech and I didn't recognize any of the placed names. But I found a map and straightened myself out. When I got back to town, I was next to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a gorgeous building with gold onion towers. I came down the stairs to the main street and got a chance to see the 'backside' of town. Much of it is in ruins, or in the slow process of being restored. I guess you have to keep up the appearances of the touristy areas if you're going to be able to afford the rest of the renovations.

By the time I got to the cafe, I was starving. I quickly ordered four-cheese risotto and a cappucino. Then I waited restlessly until it came and wolfed it down. Everyone probably thought I was a barbarian. The risotto was really rich and I felt a little sick after eating so quickly.

After lunch, it was high time that I got myself a little cup and had a drink of the water. I went back to Vrídelni, which in my humble opinion, had the best cups. An orchestra was playing, which was very nice. I bought my cup (140 Korun/$4.00) and tried out the 72 degree water, which I figured must be the temperature that the water comes out of the ground, and hence, the most pure. It was quite salty and tasted like it was full of minerals (apparently the water contains over 40). I left the Communist Colonnade to take a walk on the promenade out in the sunshine. And gawk at all the other people doing the same thing, of course.

It was getting late and I wanted to get to the grocery store at the top of the hill before I went home. It's on the bus route but if I took the bus there, I'd just have to wait an hour for the next one at the grocery store. I wanted to see if I could time it so that I could walk up the stairs to the top of the hill, get groceries and catch my breath, and then walk out of the store just as the bus was pulling up. That's pretty much what happened except that I stupidly took a set of stairs that went to within 10 feet of the upper road but no further. I had to go all the way down again because I couldn't find a way to climb the last 10 feet. At the bottom, I saw the sign (a man with a red circle around him) that tells you this isn't an official 'road'. I wandered around until I found the man with a blue circle around him, and ascended again. It was quite a long walk to the store, but I had great views and took lots of pictures. The store, unfortunately, was terrible. Bad produce, only processed cheese, and no good (i.e. "known") brands of toothpaste. But I got a few things and went out to wait for the bus. I almost missed it, because a regular city bus stopped at the same time and I didn't see the little white minivan behind it until it started to leave. But I waved at it and the driver stopped just a little way up the road and let me on. It was a different driver; he was younger and less friendly than the other one.

When I got home, Paul was exactly where I'd left him, loafing in the tent. We had dinner, then Paul decided he was up for a walk into Brezova. There's a little movie theater near the bus stop and we went in to see what was playing. It was very confusing. We thought a movie should be starting in a few minutes, but everything was dark except the little bar. We finally asked the woman behind the counter and by writing it down she eventually got us to understand that the movie theater wasn't playing a film until the first of Sept. How funny; it was closed for the summer. Poor Paul, who'd been reading in the tent all day, had to go back there. But the bar/restaurant at the campground was open (it had been closed for the last two nights) and we took Tamino and the journals in there for a change of scene. We were the only paying customers. there was a small group of the bartender's friends smoking like chimneys at the other end of the room, and a little jezivcik (Czech for Dachshund) who ran the place. His job was to walk around and make sure everyone was having a good time. If not, he allowed you to scratch him behind the ears and rub his belly until you were happy again. But it was all very businesslike -- he played no favorites. That night, after we'd gone to bed, we had a lot of rain and some thunder. I couldn't sleep because it was so heavy and loud on the tent.

Karlovy Vary -- 26 August 1998

We had breakfast at the restaurant. It was quite good and fairly reasonable at 60 Korun. We had rolls and bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes, cucumber and paprikas, with coffee and tea. This seems to be the standard Czech breakfast. The dog was off-duty and barely gave us the time of day. Maybe he had a hangover. Our plan was to go to Loket, a tiny town 8 km away, that had a beautiful fairy-tale castle. We took the minibus into town, then walked to the bus station office (quite a hike) and then proceeded to have a very hard time trying to get information about the busses. The actual bus stop was down some stairs across the road and the bus had left by the time we got there. The schedules were incomprehensible (we couldn't even find the bus we had supposedly just missed) and we started feeling like the whole enterprise was too hard. We decided to skip Loket. I was disappointed , but then I realized it was because Morris had given us Loket as a quest and I hated to 'fail'. But we didn't need to tell him we hadn't gone, did we?

So we repeated most of my journey from the day before, except that it was way more fun with Paul, and no one pressured me against my will or coerced me in any way to write that, promise. We did try the Karlovy Vary wafers: huge, flat, round, sugary treats that I had skipped the day before. The guy selling them (10 Korun) puts them in a waffle iron to heat them up. They're great. We also ate lunch at the Diana cafe. Our chicken, fries and veggies were drenched in butter. It was delicious but at the same time, you knew that all that fat was making a bee-line for the walls of your arteries.

When we got back, we brought the mats outside to hang out on, but within five minutes it was raining. We scrambled back into the tent and worked on the journals. Like the night before, after we went to bed, we had torrential downpours and thunderstorms. Sigh.