Sunday, September 27, 2015

On the Lam.

Travel writing quickly becomes fiction. Time passes, memory fades, but the pressure to publish and bring the saga of my and C's three-month sabbatical to an end remains. Which brings us to today, back in the United States, back in Anchorage even, a little over a month out of the Czech Republic, and only now filling in the blanks after Ceske Budejovice. To do so, I'll dig into memory to tell the tale. I did not keep contemporaneous notes, so I might have lost some of the details, but what follows is how I remember it happening

My arch-nemesis, Baron von Kleidentragger, somehow discovered our presence in Ceske Budejovice and dispatched an elite squadron of what he terms Stormtroopers—likely named in reference to the Third Reich and not the Star Wars trilogy—to find and capture C and I. Meanwhile, C and I were ensconced deep within Budvarka Pivnice, having spent the better part of four days drinking unfiltered Budweiser nonstop, when we spotted the first pair of the Baron's soldiers marching past the open door to the bar. The soldiers were on their way to our hotel room, which we had not actually been back to after checking in, having slept each night in pools of spilled beer and one random gutter. The soldiers would not find us there.

Relying on my years of training as an elite espionage agent for Albemarle County, I willed all of the accumulated alcohol out of my system, then willed all of the alcohol out of C's system too. We needed all of our reflexes to react. Clear headed, we assessed the situation, decided there were too many of the Baron's troops to battle, and decided to flee. Chased by Stormtroopers, it is only fitting we headed to Chateau Zbiroh.

If you have heard of Chateau Zbiroh at all you are probably either: a) Czech; or b) travelers like us who were looking for somewhere to spend a day or two between Ceske Budejoive and Prague and found a listing for the Chateau on The rooms cost a little more than we wanted to pay, but how often do you get to stay in a Chateau? Besides, the website advertised an underground swimming pool, and we had packed swim suits all over Europe. It was time to put them to use.

Chateau Zbiroh sits on the hill over the town of Zbiroh, close to the train but only if you have a car. Luckily the hotel sent a driver to pick us up at an additional charge. We checked in and made our way to our room, which in an earlier age probably housed a scullery maid. At our rate, we did not get the grand rooms advertised on the website; we were stuck into the servant quarters.

We took a tour of the Chateau (at an extra charge), and tried to follow the tour narrative in an English packet we were handed. The translation was not great, and it was hard to follow. The place has a long history stretching back to 1193, and housed at least three emperors. There was also some strong connection with the Knights Templar, but I never really understood the details, if there were any. The Chateau keeps a bunch of Templar artifacts in its museum, though, which made the whole thing feel like a Dan Brown novel. Mucha lived in the museum for a number of years, painting his Slav Epic in what is now the Mucha ballroom. He also made the Chateau a seat for the Masons: more Dan Brown. Curiously, we learned that the Masons (and Mucha) were instrumental in the creation of Czechoslovakia as a nation.

The Nazis occupied the Chateau during the Second World War. Tour materials claimed that a large quartz deposit (jasper) under the Chateau made it possible for Nazi intelligence to intercept radio signals from all around the globe. I'm vaguely familiar with the concept of quartz radios, but I have my doubts about the technical accuracy of the story. As the Nazis were departing the Chateau, probably in a hurry as Soviet armies moved in, they dumped documents, weapons, and the bric-a-brac of military life into the deepest well in Europe, conveniently located at the Chateau. Some of those artifacts are on display as part of the Chateau tour—rusty pistols mostly—and I suspect anything really interesting was carted off.

The well is also home to legend, as it apparently has some kind of false floor or side wall that is wired with explosives. People (which people, specifically, I'm not sure) now speculate that the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Lost Amber Room, is hidden behind these explosives. Our English tour documents claimed that “even the American Discovery Channel” could not figure out how to access whatever lies behind the false floor. Is the Discovery Channel really the world expert here? Am I really to believe that modern remote sensing or drilling technology can't determine whether there is or isn't something of significance to be unearthed? I suspect that the legend is more valuable to the hotel as a continuing mystery than as a busted myth. We never got to see the well itself. It is part of the outdoor tour, which was canceled due to rain, and would have cost extra in any case.

The hotel itself was fine, but nickled-and-dimed its guests. That pool for instance? It cost $20 an hour. Tripadvisor reviews kept bringing up chained birds, and indeed the hotel kept large birds of prey tethered on short leashes to roosts out front for our entertainment. We could hear them crying in the night. At least it sounded like crying to me. To the extent the Chateau wants to seek international guests, many of whom, like me, haven't seen animals kept like this since that sad zoo in Alamogordo, New Mexico circa 1980, the Chateau may want to rethink this attraction.

Because we did not know what else to do with out time, we took the hike into town for lunch and toured the local museum. On the way back, we walked deeper into the woods. We stopped at a barbed wire fence, blocking the entrance to a cement bunker. It looked... institutional. Or maybe militarized. A crash sounded in the woods behind us. C screamed. It turned our to be a tree branch that let loose, falling to the ground.  But clearly the place had us on edge. It was not much of a stretch to think Nazi zombies were crashing through the woods.  Time to move on. One step ahead of the Baron as always.

(In the hall of the scullery maids.)

(The Zbiroh woods.)

(A picture of a picture of the Chateau.)

(View from the Chateau.)

(Entrance to the hotel.  Ok, it is grander than the Motel 6.)

(So, if you saw this sign on a staircase, what would you do?)

(We followed this stairwell into darkness.  Really.  Then turned around and came back up.  Wonder what was down there?)

(On the train, leaving Zbiroh.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The King of Locks

C and I packed and prepared to leave our hotel-that-was-not-entirely-sure-it-was-ready-to-be-a-hotel in Ceske Budejovice a little after 8:00, early perhaps but well within the usual ambit of business hours in the hospitality business. We shouldered our bags, locked our room, went down two flights of stairs and through a glass door that locked automatically on closing, providing, I suppose, an extra measure of security for us, the only guests. One last long and wide flight of wooden stairs, worn concave in the center, took us to the ground floor, a covered hall separated from the street by a wooden door, an interior courtyard by a full-length and locked wrought iron gate, and the cafe/bar that doubled as reception by a locked door with a piece of paper suggesting—if we deciphered the Czech correctly—that the cafe was closed. Not really a problem, though; we had prepaid for the room and felt free to leave.

“What should we do with the key?”

“I don't know. Just leave it in the room. I'm sure they'll find it.”

“Ok.” I left my bags in the hall and made the climb back upstairs for the last time. I put the keys in the lock and left them there. No one was going to pass by to take them, and the staff would find them soon enough. I headed back downstairs. C and I again hefted the bags and headed to the street.

The door heading outside was the sort of thing that we, as tourists, find charming about the Old World: weathered wood planks held together by iron bands, all secured to a stone arch by six-inch hinges that would be at home in a Tolkein novel. It is the sort of touch I might expect to find at a Disney castle but that carries an aura of authenticity here where, well, that is just what doors look like. C gave the handle a turn and a tug, then looked down at the modern and solid looking deadbolt, an apparent retrofit.

“It's locked.”

I turned to look back up at the automatically locking glass door and thought about the set of keys I had just left on the other side.


We had pulled into Ceske Budejovice a few days earlier after several hours on two trains, first traveling with crowds through Austria, then traveling in a nearly empty train through the woods, hills, and farms of the Czech Republic. After our prior touch-and-go attempt to find lodging in Munich on the fly, we had booked a room in advance. We had an address in hand and a map thanks to our phones and an international data plan. The door on the street under the right number appeared to lead to a cafe, and at the time of our arrival six men and women were crowding the door trying to muscle a four-foot tall safe of prodigious weight either into or out of the building. We stood in front holding our bags and whispering back and forth.

“Is this it?”

“I don't know. I guess so.”

You might think if you were trying to run a hotel and two befuddled foreigners speaking a foreign language showed up with luggage, you might—assume? hope?—they were here to part with some money and do their small part to make your business viable. Perhaps you would smile and make sweeping motions with your arms to show, regardless of the language barrier, that the strangers should please enter the door and become customers. Not the case here. After what felt like minutes but may have only been seconds of standing around and feeling we were somehow in the way, we interrupted to ask, “Hotel? Pension? Ano?”

We got an affirmative sign, and decided it was ok to walk up the plywood ramp that had appeared in order to help in some undefined manner with moving the safe. We made our way into the cafe where a young woman stood behind the counter.

“Dobry den. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, a very little.”

“We have a reservation?” This we phrased as much as a question as a statement of fact. It still was not clear we were in the right place. But yes, we did have a reservation, and yes, she was expecting us. The young woman read from a small hand-written script in English that someone had left for her (or that she had prepared in advance), explaining that payment was due, describing how to get to the room, and noting that the key she handed to us would open all three doors. Three doors. Got it.

After unlocking two doors we settled into our room and then took a walk to get our bearings. We climbed the black tower for an overview of the town square. A bit unsure after Bratislava of how to tell if a restaurant served food or bar snacks, and tired from a day of travel, we took the safe but still tasty option of sitting down for a pizza on the same square. And we ordered our first pints of Budweiser.

To the extent Ceske Budejovice has an international reputation, it is known for its beer, which has been brewed in the area since the 13th century. Two different breweries have brewed and exported beer under the name Budweiser from Ceske Budejovice, and both have been involved in a three-way trade mark dispute with Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser here in the United States. I have no idea what has become of the older Czech brewery using the Budweiser name, but the more recent (since 1895, almost 20 years later than Anheuser-Busch started using the Budweiser name) has a strong presence throughout the Czech Republic. As a result of the trade mark disputes, the American Budweiser can only be sold in the European Union as “Bud,” and Czech Budweiser is marketed as Czechvar in the U.S. The claims have, I think, all been resolved or dismissed, and as I understand it agreements were at one time reached whereby Anheuser-Busch (or, rather, its parent InBev) agreed to market the Czech beer in the U.S. Presumably the parties have kissed and made up, though the Czech brewery still asks “King of beers?” with a smirk, confident with good reason that its beer would win any blind tasting.

As all tourists in Ceske Budejovice must, we toured the brewery. A cute, young girl led our tour in English. She had a heavy Slavic accent that (strictly as a matter of insensitive cultural stereotype) was completely out of character with her being a cute, young girl (but that was surely in character with her being Czech). She made multiple references to the number of “hectacres” of beer brewed (do they really measure beer by area in the Czech Republic?), sounding like Crazy Vaclav and making C and I snicker every time. Perhaps this is why Americans have a bad reputation overseas.

Equating Ceske Budejovice solely with its brewery tour, though, is selling the place short. We would have liked to stay longer to further enjoy quiet nights on the square, sample some wines in addition to the beers, and, perhaps most of all, take day trips on foot and by bike on the trails in the region. But, once again thanks to Munich, we had booked ahead in a town further north and it was time to move on. Which is why we are up and packed at 8:00, sitting on the worn steps in the entry hall to our hotel, wondering when the cafe will open. Staring at the third door.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

They Have a Different Word for Everything

And just like that, I have no idea what is going on. Austrians may be impossible to understand, but at least I can read their signs. But the Slovaks? They use our same alphabet, but have decided on a whole different way of organizing the letters. As a result, C and I found ourselves in Bratislava, hungry, sitting down for a lunch of . . . braided cheese? A little research after the fact suggests we decided on a bar for lunch with a menu of “snacks to eat with beer.” I assume it is the equivalent of traveling to New Jersey, deciding you feel peckish, and walking into an old-man-bar to order a nice bowl of beer nuts for what is often in Europe the largest meal of the day. But it was not a complete loss. The bar had a large screen TV playing a video survey of the most important women in pop music today, so I was totally brought up to speed on . . . twerking? Or was that last year? Maybe I'm not as up to speed as I'd hoped. I suppose the subtle flavors of braided cheese distracted me from the many global cultural lessons being televised to a room empty but for C and I.

Bratislava was certainly a step further east than Vienna. Like pretty much anywhere listed in a guide book, the town came replete with old buildings, cobbled streets, and postcard vendors. But here we for the first time intersected the web of global backpacking routes, finding ourselves at the Tourist Information office with someone shouldering a didgeridoo and someone else traveling the world with juggling pins strapped to his Deuter, perhaps how I would have packed for a trip some 30 years ago. We were all scratching our heads, trying to get a lay on what there was to do in the border regions of Slovakia.

In our case we opted to visit the Eastern European Center for Photography. Who would have thought we would have to travel to Slovakia to be introduced to the work of the Korean Dancing Photographer? Sometimes I think I have an understanding of and appreciation for what it means to be art. Then I run across something like the Dancing Photographer and have to throw all preconceptions out of the window: the defenestration of understanding.

“I work in contradictions. For example, I named this piece 'The Skinny Pig.' Pigs are not skinny. They are fat. So it should have been called 'The Fat Pig.' But I did not call it 'The Fat Pig.' I called it 'The Skinny Pig.'”

And therein lies the art.

We are heading next to the Czech Republic, where I am told they have found yet a third way to organize and derive meaning from the letters in the Roman alphabet. I am also told the Czechs know a thing or two about beer. So here is to hoping that we learn how to read “cheese” and “beer snack” on any menu we are handed.

(C looking dubious about lunch.  She has the braided cheese.  I've got blue cheese in a jar of pickled onions.)

(Bratislava street.)

(We needed to mail post cards.  So was this place a post office or a bank?  We weren't sure up until the moment that the clerk put stamps on and hand cancelled our mail.)

(Bratislava church.)