Sunday, August 16, 2009

Moravia and the Road to Olomouc

An impromptu visit to the Czech countryside? Absolutely. Our instructor Trish invited Domhnall and I to spend a few nights camping and biking the region around her village, an opportunity difficult to pass on, even if I found out I was going the day of.

We had to sprint to the station platform to catch our train with a minute to spare. This is more the European travel you see in movies and read about in books. In fact, I think this may be my first distance train-ride over here. A view of the scenery from our boxcar:
Onward to Moravia, the southern region of the Czech Republic. Our main destination was Olomouc (pronounced Oh-la-moatz). Here's a map for orientation:
We planned to meet Trish and her Czech husband Peter (pronounced Pet-tair) in Prerov, the village next to theirs, called Zeravice.

Standing in front of the train station in Prerov, it was clear that we weren't in the big city anymore. We could sense that foreigners don't make it down this way much.

Shortly, a Skoda wagon pulled up and off we went. The ride reminded me a bit of dark drive to Kentville when Jess and I first arrived in Nova Scotia - dark farmland as far as the eye could see (not that far at all). Though Moravia is known for its wine, most vineyards reside in the southmost part. Northern Moravia is the major hop-producing region, providing sweet bitterness to the soul of everyone's favorite fermented beverage - BEER.

Admittedly, the state of our accommodation was a bit unexpected. The details were scant at best and we were pretty amused on arrival. These photos were taken the following morning. You can imagine how spooky it was when we arrived in the pitch dark.

This past Christmas, without consulting Trisha, Peter bought a house a town over from where he grew up. House may not be the right term, as it appears to be something of an ancient brick barn. Accordingly, Trish calls it "the ruin."
Built around 300 years ago (to Peter's best estimate having consulted village elders), the nickname "the ruin" implies something even older. In some ways in appears so. I'm not sure exactly how they found it, but at the moment, it is quite empty; completely gutted to the point of dirt floors, missing walls/doors, and a well aged wood-and-clay frame. They led us through to the backyard where they had been so kind as to set up a tent with sleeping bags in it (no floor, no walls, obviously no beds). We learned that Trish and Peter are "temporarily" living with Peter's parents, so we were really just watching their place by ourselves for the night. They introduced us the designated bathroom area of the yard, gave us T.P. and shovel, and handed us the keys (no walls, no floor, no of course not.) The morning gave us a chance to get a better look at the place. With a ton of work it has potential.
Trish mentioned her ambition to be able to move in this coming winter. Since they are doing all the work themselves piecemeal, Domhnall and I are skeptical, but I do love their fruit garden, which needs no work: When we woke up, we followed their advice and chowed down on fresh apples, plumbs, and blackberries. When they came to pick us up with the bikes, Trish kindly brought us more breakfast and coffee. I'm coming around to rohlik Anglicky (English bacon bread - kind of like a bacon pizza roll that's typical for a Czech breakfast. The catch is that even though it has meat and cheese baked in, they don't refrigerate it or anything, leaving it in uncovered bins at the grocery for days at a time...).

It has absolutely POURED all night, but thankfully the tent was equipped with a rain cover. It became a continuing problem as the rain picked up again as we got ready. Always thinking ahead, Trisha brought us both ponchos and visors which she had picked up while teaching in Korea. It made for some interesting wardrobe - you'll see.

With bikes in tow behind the Skoda, Peter brought us up to a beautiful turquoise quarry that would have been ideal for a cliff jump and a swim if not for the rain. Unfortunately, it was raining so hard that couldn't get a picture of it.
Domhnall and I mount our chariots in the rain. We were hardly deterred by the weather. Besides, we had to show off our goofy outfits. "Us? Foreign? No way." To begin our trek, they drove us up to Hellstyn castle. I was immediately brought back to the fortified castle in Trujillo, but this castle definitely bested it.
Roll over Braveheart...
The misty rainy weather actually may have added to the medieval charm of the place... The view from the tower was excellent.
This may be my favorite picture I've taken since I've been over here:
With our limited command of Czech, we signed the castle guest book. Domhnall wrote "dobre!" (pronounced dobe-shay, it means "good!"), while I wrote "super" (means the same, but pronounced "sue-pair!").
After exploring for a bit longer, we had the garlic soup at a little restaurant in the castle (a Czech favorite, and even more devastating for one's breath than the name suggests...) before setting out. Luckily, the weather let up as we left. So off we went, a stinking Irish guy and an American with XXL ponchos and Korean sun visors...
The hops fields from afar:
Completely edible fruit grew on the streets (we of course cleared this with Peter). We made a plum stop along the way. Our journey began east of Lipnik and 30 km west of Olomouc. With a rather undetailed map, we had our work cut out for us.
The scenery was outstanding, but our bikes were not. I started out on a Soviet-era tank of a 4-speed with soft tires and an impossibly low seat. Domnall had similar issues with his and as a result we were constantly on the verge of kneeing ourselves in the chest while pushing up our Korean visors off our noses. It was all in good fun.
Here's an anecdote titled "The angry cashier of Velky Ujezd" (above, the church that prompted our pass-through)

On of the detours from our main course led us to one of our more interesting interactions with a local. At the potraviny (mini-grocery) in town, we picked up some fruit and juice to keep us going. It took forever to get through check-out though, as the elderly lady in front of us would put something on the belt, shake her head, go to an aisle, bring something else back (at a painfully slow pace mind you) and all the while the cashier (also an older lady) grew increasingly annoyed. We could almost feel her blood pressure rising. This is not exactly how we wanted her to be primed to deal with us.
Domhnall, after the successful transaction, one that was not assured at the start.

I was first through the line before Dom and she just started talking. Not at me, not about me (exclusively at least), but her barely audible mumbles seemed to have few nice things to say, we took it mostly about the poor old woman and her struggles to shop. We imagine the cashier was saying something like: "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, that old bag was un____ing believable. As if my life in this sleep Czech town was crumby enough boys just wouldn't understand the half of it, dressed up like water-proof elderly Korean vagabond cyclists..."

By the time Dom got through and we left, she was still at it to the lady and her kid that was behind us. So off we went.
At times the sun was beating down, and our bikes made us work twice as hard to get just as far, but boy was it worth it. The road to Olomouc had its share of visual treats...
Olomouc was even prettier than I expected. Well off the beaten path, it is like an oasis, a compact version of some of the quainter areas of Prague. It makes me wonder how many beautiful places there are in the world that no one knows about and has the chance to appreciate...
Thoroughly spent after hours of cycling up and down country roads, it felt incredible to just sit down and have a beer.
We resolved to take a train back down to Prerov thinking it would be easier. Trish had invited us out to dinner and we didn't want to keep them waiting. We ended up on a train in the complete wrong direction - something that is easily done when not a single soul speaks English. The rule of thumb is that the farther you are from a major city, the fewer people speak English, and we were a 3 hour train ride from Prague. No go on the communication front. Peter later said that he had never even heard of the town we ended up in. The only thing that redeemed the mishap was this rainbow:
We eventually found our way back and went out for steaks with Trisha, Peter and Philip. But first, I requested we make a stop so that I could get a better picture of the hops fields.
Trish suggested we run out to them, and it made for some great shots. With the sun setting, we reveled in the beautiful significance of the hops vines.