This summer, Rob Cameron and his former Radio Prague colleague Nick Carey – now of Chicago, Illinois - spent nineteen days travelling across the Czech Republic by train. The trains were very, very slow, giving them enough time to see a huge number of places on the way. They set foot in more than 80 towns and villages, crossed the border into Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria, and trundled over more than 2,000 km of track. They’re currently writing a book about their experiences. This is an audio diary of that trip - From As To Zlin…and back again.
This journey started as a joke. “Could you” I once asked a friend, a long time ago, “travel right across the Czech Republic using only the little local trains?” A flurry of time-table browsing followed, until he came up with a hypothetical journey from As, in the very western tip of Bohemia, to Zlin in southeast Moravia, in something like 36 hours. There would be no stopping, and at one point we’d have to hike over a mountain in the middle of the night.
Ten years later I found myself boarding a train for As, as the hypothetical journey became reality. Except for the not-stopping part – we did allow ourselves to stop, at the end of each day. But otherwise the rules were the same – slow trains and only slow trains, unless there was absolutely no alternative. Oh, and we did hike over a mountain too. But not at midnight.
“Asch” means grayling in German, a rather non-descript freshwater fish. It’s a good name for a town that's very wet and very grey when we arrive. There’s a trio of grayling leaping noisily and spewing water into a fountain on the main square. Otherwise there isn’t much to see in this former Sudeten German town – the elegant villas have been taken over by brothels or Vietnamese traders. We're not sorry to swap As for the grandeur of Frantiskove Lazne, a famous spa town just a few stops down the line. For over a hundred years people have come from far and wide to take the waters at Frantiskove Lazne, or Franzbad as it’s known in German.
After sampling the Salty spring and the Meadow spring and even rubbing the left foot of Frantisek – the cherubic infant whose statue dominates the town – it's back to the station to retrieve our backpacks and catch the 13:36 to Cheb.
Cheb offers more faded glory, more Vietnamese markets, and a forgettable lunch in a restaurant that has a photo of the main square with the caption “AdolfHitlerplatz”. Hmm, time to move on to Kadan, our port of call for the night.
The transition from West Bohemia to the industrial North is quite striking; you approach Kadan by train via a hydroelectric power station. But the town is a little-known baroque gem, full of winding medieval streets and stunning churches. And the crown jewel is this - the talking information board outside the 15th century Franciscan Monastery…
“…an assortment of flaming cats used to run between the town and the monastery nightly. Nobody knew how to stop this nightly bluster. In the end, it was decided to take out the dead body from the monastic tomb, and so it was done. After the dead body was thrown down from the monastic rocks into the River Ohre, the procession of flaming cats ceased to be appear.”
After the splendour of Kadan with its narrow alleys and flaming cats, Chomutov is something of a shock - all peeling tenement buildings and dank underpasses. The centre of town isn't bad, but dead on a Sunday. We traipse morosely round Chomutov's depressing zoo, before fleeing onwards to possibly the most soulless city in Europe - Most.
The afternoon sun is beating down as we pass the strip mines on the outside of Most, the earth peeled and scraped back to reveal the coal seams beneath. Most is a hideous, central-planned blot on the landscape. The Communists demolished the old town to get at the coal, and then re-built the city as one big concrete housing estate. After 20 minutes we spot a hotel. It's a grim concrete monstrosity. Our room is the stuff of nightmares. The wallpaper is mouldy and the shower stall shudders when you stand on it. There's a pretzel under the bed.
"Well, this is Day Three. It's 8.12 in the morning, on Monday morning, and we're just leaving the city of Most. It's quite an extraordinary place. As I was going to bed last night I was thinking of the film 1984. Not a very pleasant place at all is it."
"No. Actually last night we had a vote, that this is the worst place we'd ever seen in the Czech Republic, and we've both spent more than a decade apiece living in the Czech Republic. Not a very auspicious title for Most to take..."
Most was known as Brux in German, and Duchcov - 20 kilometres down the line - was known as Dux. This bustling little town is dominated by a large chateau, where the world's greatest lover Giovanni Casanova spent the last 13 years of his life, looking after the local count's library of obscure books. Casanova wasn't too happy in Dux by all accounts. We search for his final resting place, but his grave seems to have been lost.
Next stop Teplice. Something of a homecoming for me - I lived here back in 1993. The sound of the trolleybuses brings back fond memories of an idle summer in North Bohemia. Teplice has been loving restored, and walking through its pleasant streets the town's pre-war moniker "The Paris of Bohemia" doesn't seem so far-fetched after all.
It's spitting with rain by the time we take a chairlift up to Komari Hurka mountain - a big hill really - and back down again, before catching the last train of the day, to Usti nad Labem. It's a large, spread-out city and we have some trouble finding somewhere to stay. We end up at the wonderfully tacky Pension Lada, and fall asleep under the gaze of a large porcelain Buddha.
We leave Usti and head along the banks of the River Labe - or Elbe - en route for Decin. It's another glorious day, and picking our way through the backstreets of the city we stumble upon Decin's carefully renovated synagogue. Inside we're welcomed as long-lost sons by the head of Decin's Jewish community, Vladimir Poskocil, who brings us coffee and cake.
Decin's Jews were decimated by the Holocaust. Vladimir - who's 75 - only survived when he was hidden away by family friends. It's a sobering thought, and the sight of a neo-Nazi skinhead waiting for a train at Decin station makes us feel uncomfortable and angry...
We make a brief stop in the instantly forgettable town of Rumburk before arriving at our final destination - Jedlova, an almost deserted railway station in the middle of a forest. There's a steep 4km hike up Jedlova Hill which ends at a hilltop hostel with heart-stopping views of the valleys below. We've been on the rails for four days now, and it feels like an eternity.
We're woken by the sun rising in the woods. After the briefest of breakfasts it's off back down Jedlova hill in time for the 8:42 train. This is a travelling day, a 202 km jaunt through Ceska Lipa, Liberec, Tanvald, Zelezny Brod, Stara Paka, Martinice and Trutnov. We pass through narrow wooded valleys, offering picturesque glimpses of hamlets and farmhouses. We're entering the Krkonose Mountains now, and it's all beginning to look rather Germanic. It's a relief to stop for the night at Trutnov, where Vaclav Havel once worked in the brewery. We drink many pints of foamy Krakonos beer in his honour.
As we approach Teplice nad Metuji, the Adrsspaske Skaly rocks loom out of the trees. At Teplice we set out for a long hike through the rocky cities, but visions of being alone in the wilderness are shattered when we arrive at the rocks proper, and find them teeming with Polish tourists.
The walk leaves us starving, and fortified by a steaming plate of goulash, we head back to Teplice station. After a brief stop in Nachod we arrive in Opocno, a rather gloomy place clinging onto the drab plains of East Bohemia. Here the surly receptionist at the Hotel Holub eventually deigns to give us a room. We settle in and go for a brief pre-prandial walk around Opocno. The town produced the 2006 Miss World Tatana Kucharova and...that's about it. It shuts at 9pm.
We're awoken by Opocno's answer to the Hound of the Baskervilles, and after dropping and breaking the TV remote control, we head out into a drizzly morning. It's another travelling day - Tyniste nad Orlici, Letohrad, Dolni Lipka, Hanusovice, ending up in Jesenik. At Dolni Lipka we ask the gruff, bearded driver where Moravia starts. He growls and rummages around for a map. We discover that the border will be the point where we cross the river Morava.
It's an uneventful journey into Moravia, except for the Czechs dressed as American, Russian and British soldiers and helicopters landing in fields. We've forgotten about the passion for recreating World War Two battles in these parts. The train rattles through Alpine scenery - mountain passes and tunnels, pear trees laden with fruit. Jesenik turns out to be a delightful mountain spa town. We ask a waiter where Silesia is. "Um, I think we're in it" he says, to our surprise. We feast on chicken curry, Silesian style, and fall into a deep sleep.
"So we're on the 9.18 from Jesenik to Krnov, which actually goes into Poland and back into the Czech Republic, so going across two state borders but remaining in one historical province - that of Silesia - in one journey, which is unusual."
We've pondered all morning on Silesian identity. The Germanic black Silesian eagle features on several of Jesenik's landmarks, but what does it mean to be Silesian? There are no border guards on the train, but they're waiting at Glucholazy station, a severe, rather sinister building in dark red-brick. We nickname the guards Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They are upset when we take their photo.
It's lunchtime in Poland but there are no restaurants, only ice-cream stalls. So we settle for wody - ice cream - and pass the time on the main square. Nick almost bludgeons to death a five-year-old girl when he heaves open the heavy wooden doors to the post office. Polish ladies glare at us. We might not leave Glucholazy alive.
We do though, and make it back into the Czech Republic, arriving at Tremesna ve Slezsku for a ride on a narrow-gauge railway to Osoblaha. There we meet German narrow gauge enthusiast Marc Lobmann...
"We're starting at Hamburg, just continuing straight down to Poland. We had some normal operations in Poland, which were quite exotic for us. And we went from Poland directly to Tremesna and took in this narrow-gauge railroad. Tonight we'll continue to Przemysl, to the Beskydy mountains, where we'll ride a narrow gauge railroad, and finish up in Ukraine."
After bidding farewell to Mark we arrive in the city of Krnov, passing a flock of birds who’ve taken up residence in a tree. Greek food tonight, Krnov - improbably - has a large Greek population, refugees from the civil war. This all feels a long, long way from Prague.
First stop of the day - Opava, the historical capital of Austrian Silesia. It's a grand old place, and looks splendid in the sun. We head for the park, following the strains of brass band music to find a band entertaining a small and mostly elderly crowd. It's a wonderfully Austro-Hungarian way to start a Sunday. Afterwards we sit outside the art nouveau town hall, watching the world go by and nursing hangovers with coffee and juice. Not all of the town is pretty - much was destroyed in the war.
A series of trains both small and big take us across the Ostrava conglomoration, once the industrial heart of the Austro-Hungarian empire. We pass through Hlucin, Ostrava, Karvina, Bohumin, spotting working coal mines in the distance before ending up in Cesky Tesin. This is about as far east as you can travel by train in the Czech Republic - across the river is Cieszyn and Poland. In fact until 1920 Cesky Tesin and Cieszyn were one city. Today it straddles two countries.
In Cieszyn's Church of the Holy Cross it's a shock to see so many people in church, after years spent in the mostly atheist Czech Republic. Walking through the attractive cobbled streets it seems the Poles got the better deal in 1920. They got the high ground and the pretty old town. The Czechs got the train station and a few factories. We discuss this over borsht, pirogi and mnogo Zywiec beers, before finally heading for bed.
After an early start we walk briskly back across the border into the Czech Republic, and board the train for Frydek-Mistek. We're heading for Frenstat pod Radhostem in the heart of Moravia's Beskyd Mountains, the westernmost spur of the Carpathian range. At the top of a mountain called Radhost is a statue to the pagan god Radegast, and we embalk on a pilgrimmage. Us and about 2,000 others. They, however, take the chair lift. We walk. The Radegast beer at the summit is the best we've ever tasted.
The afternoon train deposits us in Valasske Mezirici, capital of the fictitious Kingdom of Wallachia. We have visions of a picturesque mountainous retreat and abundant Wallachian hospitality, so we'll ill-prepared for the housing estates and the foul receptionist at what seems to be the town's only hotel. We narrowly escape being drenched in a sudden storm, finding solace in the friendly waitresses of the U Zvonu restaurant, who ply us with Slivovice and bring us steaming bowls of saeurkraut soup. We've crossed the 1000 kilometre mark today, and all this travelling is beginning to take its toll.
Up early to catch the 9.24 en route to Zlin, our halfway point. We end up at the station with lots of time to spare, and head for the buffet. We pass on the slivovice that everyone else seems to be knocking back at 8.30 in the morning, and opt for coffee instead. Suddenly we hear voices and the strains of an accordion in the restaurant next door. Three young men, belting out Moravian folk songs at the top of their lungs, bottles of slivovice slung over their shoulders.
It's a great start the day and puts us in a fine mood for our arrival in Zlin, Bata's shoe town, purpose-built to house the workers in his shoe empire. We find an excellent hotel, dump our foetid washing at the desk, and go for a swim and sauna in the municipal pool. It's early afternoon and it's very nice to stop moving, for half a day at least.
Either something I ate in Zlin didn't agree with me or I've got dehydrated. I've been sick as a dog and much of Day Twelve goes by in a blur - Stare Mesto, Uherske Hradiste - former capital of the Great Moravian Empire - Kunovice, Veseli nad Moravou. It's only once we walk across the border into Slovakia that I start perking up a little, enough to enjoy an early evening beer in the town of Skalica as the church bells chime on the main square.
In 1918 Skalica was briefly the seat of an independent Slovak government, one of those footnotes of history that you stumble across and then instantly forget. Today it's pretty but hardly the centre of the universe, heralding an early dinner of Halusky - the Slovak national dish - and an early night.
We wake to find a thunderstorm raging outside the hotel. There's always something disconcerting about a heavy storm at eight in the morning, and we're almost dodging bolts of lightning as we make our way to the station. We stop at a pub for water. It's 7.45 a.m. and inside two guys are playing pool and two more are drinking. All are gypsies. Outside another gypsy man stands outside in the rain, hands in pockets. Not many prospects for them in Skalica.
We board a train for Kuty - a major border crossing - and earn hateful stares when we dare to open the windows to clear away the steam. Opening a window on a train in the Czech and Slovak republics is something approaching a cardinal sin.
At Breclav, back on the Czech side, we hear odd explosions as we get down from the train. Perhaps Breclav is being bombed? It turns out to be some kind of nearby quarry. Breclav is characterless and we spend as little time here as possible, moving on instead to the wonderful chateau at Valtice - eating cheese and salami rolls in the castle park - and on to Mikulov, and spend a sombre half hour visiting the ancient Jewish cemetery. One last train to Znojmo, one of Moravia's best kept secrets. The second-best secret is Znojmo's Hostan beer...this pub below the pension serves the 13 degree variety.
Another early start. Today we will hike 16 kilometres with packs from Jemnice, in the middle of nowhere, to Dacice, also in the middle of nowhere, but there's no train line between them so we have to walk. We fortify ourselves with homegrown blackberries and walnuts bought on Znojmo's town square, before heading via Moravske Budejovice to Jemnice. On the way we spot the gleaming cooling towers of the Dukovany nuclear power station in the distance.
It's a tough walk to Dacice - much of it along a road - but we're rewarded with a granite cube-like monument commemorating the invention of the world's first sugar cube at the Dacice sugar refinery in 1843. From Dacice it's on through thick woody countryside to Telc and its famous wedding-cake town square. We crossed the invisible border from Moravia into Bohemia on our hike, and back in Bohemia, sipping beers on the square, we feel slightly closer to our goal.
A glance at the cloudless skies above Telc suggests it's going to be a scorcher, and much of the day goes by in a blur, an endless search for bottles of chilled water as we trek through Kostelec, Jindrichuv Hradec, Obratan - taking in another narrow-gauge railway - Veseli nad Luznici and finally Trebon, where we feast on grilled carp doused in garlic sauce and drink fine wine. It is hot.
More border crossings today. A short trip takes us to the Austrian border, and we alight at Ceske Velenice. It's a brief walk past massage parlours and Vietnamese markets to Gmund, on the Austrian side. Until 1920 Ceske Velenice and Gmund were one town, indeed Ceske Velenice was simply known as "Gmund III". Then it was partitioned as Czechoslovakia finally carved out its new frontiers. Again, the Austrians got the best bits - the pretty town square with its outdoor cafes.
The Czechs got the railway station. Oh well. After an hour in Austria we walk back to the Czech Republic, past a deserted border crossing. We've heard the roads are packed with prostitutes, but there are none here on a Sunday. Perhaps they're in church. From Ceske Velenice it's on past Ceske Budejovice, Cerny Kriz and Volary, where a steam train is being shunted up and down the rails in the soft evening light.
It's a magnificent sight, and stays with us as we arrive at our final destination, Vimperk, a charming little town nestling high up in the mountains. This is another homecoming for me - it was here that I spent my first two weeks in Czechoslovakia, back in 1992. A sign for the Hajna Hora campsite triggers a flood of memories, but I remember little else about the town. It was my friend Albert - the same guy who came up with the idea for this journey - who first took us to Vimperk 15 years ago, a trip that was to change my life. The circle is complete.
Another travelling day, and a relatively uneventful one. It's hot, we're rather worn out, and have our eyes on the prize so to speak. At Volyne we meet Jiri Franc, the 75-year-old son of a legionnaire. He is a mine of information, having experienced almost all the 20th century had to offer Czechoslovakia - Masaryk, the Nazis, Communism. The talk turns to Munich, and we ask if he still resented us Brits for betraying Czechoslovakia. "No," he says. "But if Chamberlain was alive, by God I'd give him a good slapping."
Strakonice is rather dull, bearing all the hallmarks of a town that has been beaten up by history - first by American bombs in '45, then by communist central planners. Horazdovice too looked unexciting, so we skipped it, heading instead for Klatovy. By now we're both suffering from severe CFF - Czech Food Fatigue - but Klatovy's only alternative is Chinese. It is delicious, filling, cheap and utterly predictable. And drenched in MSG, which keeps us up all night with frantic nightmares and heart palpitations. Two days left.
Klatovy station boasts an extraordinary socialist-realist mural, showing workers looking intently at five-year plans whilst collective farm employees heft bales of corn and children play. At the far end a border guard looks through a pair of binoculars for those foolish or ungrateful enough to attempt to flee this workers' paradise. We decide to flee Klatovy, and fast. Domazlice allows us to stock up on the delicious Chodske kolace - cakes with curd cheese named after the Chods, who used to protect the borders of the Kingdom of Bohemia, accompanied by some kind of Labrador.
From Domazlice it's a hop, skip and a jump across the border into Germany, and the town of Furth am Wald in Bavaria. We get there at lunchtime, but Bavaria seems to be shut. A newsagent called Winni saves us with bratwurst, and shows us his collection of Beatles records. Back to Domazlice, and on to Tachov. This was once a beautiful town, but Communist planners had run riot, the House of Culture - now a supermarket - easily winning the prize of ugliest building in Bohemia. We stay in some sort of converted tower block. We're so tired after 19 days it feels like the Ritz.
A really, really early start, as we want to get to the town of Chodova Plana, home to the Chodovar brewery, which offers the unique prospect of bathing in beer. We strip off in a little changing room, emerging in soft white dressing gowns. A nurse is waiting, and she shows us the large grey metal tubs with smart copper taps. They are filled with the mixture of local spring water, beer and yeast and heated to a pleasant bath-like temperature.
"It feels remarkably good just to be able to sit and relax, lie in a bath for a little while. If you think about all we've seen...it's really amazing just how much of the country we've covered. And quite fitting that we should end it in a brewery, given the place beer plays in Czech culture..."
When we finally roll into As, at 14:49 in the afternoon, we're exhausted but delirious with success and smelling slightly of beer. We've been on the rails for 19 days, have taken 86 train journeys and travelled 2,162 kilometres from one end of the country to the other and back again. We're not quite sure what led us to spend 19 days on an uncomfortable, agonisingly slow Czech train. I suppose, as Mallory said of Everest - because it's there.
Forgotten Czech net bag makes a comeback
Iconic Czech brands that survived competition from the West after the fall of communism
Czechs and Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia: a complex picture
Cold War “king of Šumava” story brought to life in new film by Irish director
Unions: Strike Wednesday will hit most Czech schools