Out and About in the Czech Republic & Slovakia

by Tom Zahn
An article to guide travelers to places "less traveled" is by itself somewhat absurd. Some experience, however, at “stumbling" across truly wonderful places may in fact be worth sharing. I will let the reader decide if these adventures are of any value to them. Most of what this region still has to be discovered, may be found somewhere between these lines. Since it is finally the purpose of this article to inspire those who wish to continue the search for unique places and unrehearsed moments of friendship and faith.

Holiday in Nové Hutě: I had packed for a week, as I was told we would be far from any conveniences. Thus, 1 liter milk, 2 liters juice, 8 kilos potatoes, onions, carrots, garlic and a bottle of Rum hardly seemed unreasonable. In addition to other necessities, it came to about 40 kilos. I suppose that I hadn't quite grasped that we would be walking 10 Km from train to cottage.
Before the first kilometer, I had fallen behind the others, and I was already thinking of a way to lighten my load. Surely, it wouldn't be too much further, I thought. I was convinced it would be easier to return later for whatever I should leave behind. My companions could only wonder why I was bringing so much. They persuaded me not to leave anything behind, but encouraged me by offering to share some of my load. The remaining 9 Km was a struggle I won’t soon forget. Especially the last 200 meters, which is as clear in my mind today as it was 9 years ago. I wanted to stop and lay down in the snow, just for awhile, but it was getting colder, and we were now loosing light. I could not have rounded the last corner before the cottage any later. The smell of hot soup and a warm welcome carried us all inside.

Ironically, after only an hour or so of rest, the whole group was off again to a pub, "just" 3 Km away. Thank goodness it was not necessary to bring a pack, but imagine my surprise when there in the same village was a grocery store. This would be the last time I would pack as though I would not see civilization again. Still, there are times, especially those unexpected state holidays, when I wished I had prepared more carefully.

The Bus to Tichy Potok: Getting to Levoča in NE Slovakia was not an adventure in and of itself. It was when I strayed further North and East from there that made me wonder if in fact I had accidentally crossed into Poland or Ukraine. From the moment I stepped onto the bus, supposedly destine for Tichy Potok, my adventure began. There was a discussion and disagreement between the other passengers and the driver as to whether I could even get there on this bus. As I could only make out every third (or fewer) word, it was all I could do to simply wait until a decision was made. Once everyone had their say, I was given a nod, and directed to sit in the front. The driver would let me know when to get off.

I could hardly keep from noticing my fellow passengers. So different was their language and customs from those in the comparatively urban Levoča. Shorter, and with darker skin, they were dressed in what appeared to be their very best cloths, which reminded me of the traditional costumes I had seen at festivals. Amidst all of this, there were the chickens, ducks and baby pigs almost as numerous as the people.

The moment of truth, however, was still to come, as the bus turned North at Spišský Hrád, and began to wind it's way up the long slope of a mountain road and into a cloud. The bus slowly made it's way over the top of a high ridge on serpentine bends wide enough for nothing more than the bus alone. It struck me then and there that I didn't have a clue how I would get along at my destination. I didn't know if there would be a place to stay, and no one knew that I was coming. How on earth would I get back? I quietly panicked.

As the driver began the descent of the steep northern slope, snow covered, hair-pinned curves, and thickly forested shadow was all that remained of the mountain. There, in the midst of my terror, the anthem, "Fight The Power", began screaming from the driver’s radio. I had to laugh out loud, almost out of hysteria. Just as suddenly, I became aware of eyes gazing at me in the mirror, I felt them on the back of my neck as well. A few moments later, in what appeared to be nowhere, the bus stopped, and I was told in words I did not entirely grasp, “Get out”. I didn't realize it at the time, since I didn’t understand this dialect at all, but another bus to Tichy Potok was to stop there in about 20 minutes. Thus, I walked the remaining 6Km into what was the edge of the world for me, laughing out loud as the bus I should have waited for passed, and the lyrics that had made it here before me, continued to play in my head.

Traveling With Ruza:
We were back on the train, after a long day of strolling the medieval stone streets, passageways and paths of Český Krumlov. From early in the morning, we had walked up one narrow lane after another, through the castle and the castle garden, and back to the train in the late afternoon. All this with a mutt named Ruža. Everyone liked her, and she minded us well. We traveled for the better part of a month, from one end of Moravia to the other side of Bohemia without so much as a complaint. That is until we met the “Conductor” with no name.

On that train from Český Krumlov, we settled into a compartment where the other passengers smiled, sharing the relief of finding a seat. It was the last train of the day, a local, and we would be stopping at every station along the line. We settled in for a long ride. Ruza was carried on in “her” camera bag. She laid comfortably on it, beneath our feet. Our fellow passengers made no objections, and we got along just fine. Until, the first ticket clerk appeared at our door.

Immediately, she said “Where are it's muzzle and leash?” Marie answered politely, as she obediently began to place Ruza back into her bag. The eyes of the other passengers rolled. I could not follow this conversation word for word, but it was clear the ticket clerk was not amused by Marie’s cheerful, but questioning response. "Is there a problem?" “This”, the clerk indicated Ruza, is a "problem".

I asked Marie to explain, after the woman abruptly withdrew. She said that the disagreement had been about a rule concerning travel with pets. No sooner did I think that our troubles were over, when this tightly uniformed ticket clerk returned holding the remnant of a rule book. She read several passages aloud, which Marie then asked to see for herself. Again, they disagreed about the meaning of some specific terms in a particular passage, describing exactly the container that must be used for carrying a pet.

The other passengers became involved, discussing amongst themselves and the ticket clerk, the precise meaning of the passage "appropriate containment of pet".  The irony of the situation seemed funny to me, but the discussion only angered the conductor further. For her it was no longer an issue about the dog, who was now zipped up inside a shoulder bag. She had lost her authority, and was now determined to make us pay. The debate went on for a while, when Marie finally informed the menacing official that the dog did not belong to her. In defiance and with resignation, she told the clerk “the dog is his”. And, as I did not know what was happening, she needed to translate everything to me. The official withdrew in a fit of rage, slamming our compartment door.

One stop later, she returned with another uniformed official. He began right in, by instructing Marie to inform me that, since the container for the dog is not according to railway code, the dog and I must get off at the next stop”. They waited as Marie dutifully translated. I then responded, via Marie, by asking this Official for his name. His quick and certain reply, “My name is a State secret”, was my first encounter with the former regime of arbitrary authority. It was indeed not to be the last.

The train slowed for another stop, but we weren't making any move to get off. I was asking the official why I must leave the train, when my dog was in the same container that had complied in every other train across the Czech Republic. I proceeded to rummage through all of our train tickets, from the past 4 weeks. The conductors both began to be anxious about their other responsibilities, which aggravated them even more. I sat looking up at them, along with five other passengers, wondering if they would physically remove me from the train. I did not budge.

The conductor’s final word was to threaten that, if I caused the train to be delayed, I would be fined. I pointed out that the train was already behind schedule, and then I added that I must be refunded for the unused part of my ticket. Again, our door was slammed as they left. It was a nervous few moments, waiting for what would come next, but shortly the train began to move again. The conductor returned to say that I must get off at the next stop, or he would have the police come and remove me. Fortunately, the next stop was our destination. We agreed to leave, along with everyone else, as this was also the end of the line.

As a post script,
this event also taught about one of the vital resources that exist here in the Czech Republic. The Book of Wishes & Complaints, which is required for all state owned services. While it may be an inconvenience, and perhaps feel like an act of futility, writing the details of an account such as this indeed had a follow up. The fact that I reported the clerk and conductor's refusal to disclose their names, I suppose has indirectly led to the requirement that rail employees must wear name tags. In this way, it seems as though an act of defiance and complaint, led to a small victory. 
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