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.)


  1. Amazing travels! I have always wanted to get over there and search out my long lost third cousins from Kaufman side. Have you ever read Bohumil Hrabal? His book I served the King of England reminds me of this post. Hilarious, beautiful, dark, confusing.

    1. Hrabal? Not only have I never read anything by Hrabal, prior to finding this comment I had never even heard of the guy. But he is in my queue now, and I look forward to the experience. I was not conscious of seeing any Kaufmans on our trip, but would like to think I rubbed shoulders with a few cousins somewhere along the way.