Travel: Bohemian rhapsodies - David Bowen motors through Bohemia, to find lakes, meadows, sleepy villages, and potent reminders of the region's chequered past
Saturday 07 May 1994
It was an alarming experience, even if the rationale for this unmarked piece of Cold War real estate was not hard to imagine. We were about 50 miles from the western edges of the former Soviet empire: close your eyes, go back a few years, and the runway comes alive with lumbering Russian transport planes.
That is much of the fascination of this part of Europe, once tucked away just behind the Iron Curtain. As you come through eastern Germany, there are constant reminders: empty watch-towers guarding the 'corridor' motorways to Berlin; more on the Baltic beaches, to ensure that no one tried to swim to Denmark; still the odd trundling truck full of Russian soldiers with outsized peaked caps.
Bohemia itself is bursting with historical symbolism - starting with the name. Until the beginning of last year, it was western Czechoslovakia. Then the Slovaks decided they wanted to be separate, so the Czechs had to think up a new name. They have arrived at the Czech Republic, but no one is happy with it. You can tell that from the nationality plates on the cars: I saw CR, CZ and, once, on a taxi, C?.
Bohemia is the name the region held for longest. In the 14th century it was the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire, and Prague was the imperial capital. Bohemia crystal is still the surest way of separating a tourist from his Deutschmarks. The main problem with renaming the country Bohemia is that it is inaccurate: the eastern part, before you get to Slovakia, is Moravia.
It is a jolly place, ideal for a motoring holiday. This is motoring, not driving - pleasurable, stress- free whooshing along virtually empty roads. No hedges to block the view, meadows crammed with poppies, sleepy villages, beautiful lakes and castles. Straight out of an old Shell poster.
It has prices to match, too. A beer cost 20p last year, and it was possible to get a pounds 2 meal. The beer is wonderful, the food less so. Meat and one veg is standard; my girlfriend, a vegetarian, just about survived on cheese and one veg.
The Czechs stepped peaceably away from Communism in 1989 but, being a pragmatic lot, are only slowly dismantling the state-controlled economy. As a result, restaurants and hotels are less plentiful than in Poland or Hungary. In the Prague area, 'Zimmer' signs mark the opening-up of the private accommodation market, and a few hotels have been brought up to Western standards. Elsewhere, it is wise to take a tent: there are many more campsites than those marked on the official Cedok map.
Bohemia has no shortage of visitors, but most stay in Prague or close by. Prague is a jewel, but is also wildly overcrowded.
No such danger for the rest of the region. Away from the trunk routes into Germany, which are crammed with foul-smelling lorries, the roads are well-surfaced and almost empty. If you do, by chance, come up behind a Skoda pootling along a little too slowly, it will more than likely pull over to let you pass.
There are Germans and Austrians, of course, but they tend to stick close to the border, filling the campsites at weekends. Most Czechs speak some German (only a few young ones have any English), and the German place names are still given in guidebooks. Whatever their memories of the Second World War - much of this area was Sudetenland, annexed by Hitler in 1938 - the Czechs have a down-to- earth appreciation of the power of the Deutschmark.
We headed south from Prague and came to Tabor, where we found a different sort of history. This was the centre of the 15th-century hippie scene, where radical Protestant groups came to hang loose. The Adamites, the farthest-out of the lot, used to extinguish the candles in the middle of church services and do all sorts of things not normally associated with divine worship. Hence the term Bohemian.
Now the centre of Tabor is a pretty and restful place if, like most Czech towns, set within a belt of grey concrete housing. We did not go into church to find out what was happening, because there was a wedding there. There was also a wedding in the mayor's office and another one apparently in the post office. The central square was buzzing with joyfully decorated Skodas.
We skirted Ceske Budejovice where Budweiser Budvar is brewed, and headed on to Cesky Krumlov (or Krumau). This is the most popular of the 'Rose Towns', named after the symbols of local medieval bigwigs, and is stunning. It is a perfect medieval walled town, set on a meandering river and overlooked by a grand castle. The town was German-speaking until 1945, when the Schwarzenbergs, who lived in the castle, were thrown out along with most of the inhabitants. I was struck by the corridors they had built across elaborate buttresses to get from one part of the castle to another without having to use stairs. They were obviously a lazy bunch, which made me warm to them.
Cesky Krumlov is also a place to find relief from schnitzel overload: some of the restaurants specialise in fish from the river. You could get a meal for pounds 4 here.
Just before the Austrian border, we stopped at Lake Lipno. The guidebooks are snooty about this, because it is artificial and was one of the few places the Czechs could go for a swim before the border opened. I liked it.
We stayed at an excellent campsite at Cerna and went for a paddle in a turn-of-the-century pedalo. The helpful camp attendants handed us a brochure telling us that we would be able to see for ourselves how the people 'put into practice the results of the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia'. The brochure was two major political shifts out of date, but that would not bother the pragmatic Czechs.
The Sumava forest in the far south-west, which I had intended to be our ultimate destination, was something of a disappointment. I had read that it was wild and contained bogs and few people - thanks to the expulsions of 1945. But it just was not wild enough, and we could not find any bogs. There were plenty of people, too - hikers and cyclists from across the border.
We were due to take the ferry back from Hamburg, so we drove up through Poland. The Krkonose Mountains on the Polish-Czech border are beautiful, though their bleakness is accentuated by horrific acid rain damage. I was baffled by pillboxes near the border. When had the Czechs needed to defend themselves against the Poles? In Poland, I realised the answer: until 1945, this was Silesia, as German as Bavaria. Then the Polish border was pushed 100 miles west, and German Silesia disappeared. History again.
Flights: British Airways (0345 222111) in its World Offer has return flights from London to Prague from pounds 149: the stay must include at least one Saturday night. The airline operates two flights a day: flying time is one hour 55 minutes.
Car hire: Under its Europe on Wheels programme, Hertz (0345 555 888) offers car hire in Czechoslovakia from pounds 49 per day including unlimited mileage, collision damage waiver and tax.
Travel advice: Cedok, 49 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (071-378 6009) can make hotel bookings and other travel arrangements for Bohemia.
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