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.

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