In terms of its timing and itinerary, the majority of our trip has not overlapped too much with the Typical American vacation
. Now that we are in Europe, however, and now that we find ourselves on the road at the same time many American students and professionals decide to get away from the US, we are suddenly running into more familiar faces than we are used to. Actually, as Americans seem to be among the more gregarious and outspoken travelers on the globe, more often than not we have we have gotten into little dialogues with them not just more frequently, but also sometimes a bit against our will. Don't get us wrong, we too are generally chatty and affable folks, but after about the first month or so of our trip we grew a little more reluctant to launch into yet another protracted round of predictable questions followed by either vague, boring, or exaggerated answers. Trust us, the fifth or sixth time you have to run through the litany of answers to a laundry list of questions about itinerary, luggage, digital photos, finances, and shopping you start to get a bit tired of hearing yourself speak. Nevertheless, after ten and a half months or so, we have not yet learned how to be rude to these many friendly and always curious strangers, so more often than we would like we again find ourselves navigating the gauntlet of polite chit chat.
Two things we have learned from all these reluctant conversations on buses, trains, and planes, is that Americans are among the most friendly and most annoying people on this earth. About 15 minutes before we pulled into the station at Cesky Krumlov, one such person started to bend, and then nearly broke our ear. Matt, a fairly typical American in everything from his kit to his charisma, leaned across the aisle to start in on the interrogation. At first he asked a few questions about our path to and from the Czech Republic, but about the time we noticed that he wasn't even listening to our responses, he surrendered his pretense of listening and reverted to his more comfortable form of long winded and completely un-solicited diatribes
. Perhaps it is something about traveling alone or something about coming across people who understand your language as well as your homeland, but after about 7 minutes Matt had fallen into that all too typical pattern of expounding at length about anything and everything that popped into the conversation. Many Americans, it seems, like very much to be experts and often, regardless of how little they actually know about a topic, will turn anyone around them into an instant audience. In either case, we found this extremely annoying, and we beg all of you who know us and who will soon find yourselves sitting across the proverbial table from us to prevent us from falling too deeply into the Matt trap.
Exhausted from the journey, we headed down narrow alley and picturesque square alike until we located our hostel, into which we fell with open arms. From that point on, we had two and a half full days of blissful nothingness on the itinerary and precious little to do in terms of touring or chores.
We picked a good location, if we do say so ourselves, for a time out filled with nothing but sloth. Cesky Krumlov had been recommended to us by many a traveler - each bearing a wistful look and sporting a slight catch in the throat during the discussion - as a perfectly preserved lazy little Bohemian hamlet
. And indeed it is just that. Stuck in the nook of a tight horseshoe bend in the Vltava river, CK is nestled oh so sweetly between the river's swift coming and its going. Water surrounds the old town on all sides, rushing past terraced dining patios cantilevered out over the stream flow and under rickety wooden bridges and stout stone archways. On hot days, adventurous tourists and perhaps even some overheated locals take to the water to raft and canoe on its soft eddies and swirls or to plunge in with nothing more than an inner tube, letting the river move them along downstream. Because the river doubles back on itself, sopping backpackers, who could rent inner tubes very cheaply, were often seen scurrying through the renaissance-era town from one end, where they could put in, to the other, where they'd jump out, wet bathing suits clinging to them as they hauled their large rubber inner tubes back to the start. We contemplated engaging in a similar activity but couldn't be bothered to exert so much energy when the living was so nice and easy stream side.
Instead, one rainy afternoon we visited the town's castle, bequeathed to some lucky, connected and probably debauched family with ties to the Hapsburg emperors. Inexplicably - at least to us, since our castle guide wasn't primo - the family's symbols were a five petaled red rose and a bear, regrettably for the latter, since the family took it upon themselves to enslave a whole troop of brown bears in their makeshift moat, the ancestors of whom still lumber around in their concrete cell. Later, after the bears expire, they are allowed to move inside the castle after being skinned; to be honest, the practice is a bit spooky because there are so many dead bear skins lying around on the floor in the three hundred or so odd rooms. It seems understatement may not have been this family's cup of tea
. At any rate, the castle passed from generation to generation and from family to family, after each successive lined died out - interbreeding has that effect - until the twentieth century and its tumultuous times, at which point the current inhabitants were knocked out of their aristocratic idyll and shooed out of their ancestral chateau. Since 1992, the castle has been put on view for prying eyes like ours, and we were pleased to have been given the opportunity, not only to see some of the more whimsical rooms of the palace (one rococo theater, colored a lemony yellow, was decorated by a famous Austrian with portraits of society notables from the time (including himself) in various amusing or compromising positions vaguely reminiscent of their own well known foibles and misadventures). We also liked the view from the castle grounds, located on a craggy bluff overlooking the river and the tile-roofed town below. Finally, for a touch of the kitsch, we appreciated the four piece horn band that played a few renaissance ballads in the outer courtyard of the palace, along with the two mounted horsemen in pageboy getups, who announced an upcoming joust taking place in the castle grounds later that day (alas, it was not to be, said the rain).
But sightseeing was obviously not high on our list in this little Bohemian gem. More often than not, we were merely sleeping or eating or reading or writing or strolling or browsing
. We navigated the lovely cobblestoned streets, drank in the panoramas of green, hearty countryside and explored the wealth of dining options in the village. We sampled goulash, a soupy, paprika-laced delivery vehicle for chunks of meat. We tried bread dumplings - dense, white bread textured slices of cooled dumpling loafs. And we ordered sauerkraut, roast pork and drought pilsner to round out the culinary experience. We also spent a good deal of time - at least by our standards - sitting in smoky bars, surrounded by belligerent European drunks, watching the last few games of the World Cup. It was our first experience with the fervor and passion Europeans bring to the sport of soccer, and we enjoyed our time getting to know the players, figuring out which teams had developed bad reputations and why, and trying to decipher the finer points of penalties, fouls, etc. Perhaps it wasn't our favorite thing to watch, but it was sufficiently entertaining to keep us non-sportaholics interested until the very last. I think we like competitions between nations in any form.
Another thing we definitely like is life in a small town. Sure, mundane and practice matters like how to earn enough money to put bread on the table are always an issue in smaller places, but aside from these issues it seems that smaller towns, and the people who decide to live in them, have simply figured out a better way to exist. Who knows, maybe the diversification that is brought about by a more robust economy results in a lot of fairly un-attractive architecture and lot and lots of lifeless activity. Restaurant owners, hotel managers, and book-store clerks sell things that people not only need but enjoy. Is it any wonder that in many larger cities these are also the places we go to find happy people? Certainly small towns have a tendency to leave us wanting for something and often thinking about our once wonderful existence in downtown Chicago, but for the most part, we very much enjoy our time in them.
Ironically, much of this debate between the merits and demerits of urban living came up while we were in Cesky Krumlov because based on our schedule, this was the place we decided to take some time to find ourselves a place to live in Denver. With a few hours of internet research and a handful of emails directed to potential landlords and building managers, our return to the life in a big (ish) city seemed inevitable. With that thought we decided to unplug for the rest of the day and soak up a few more hours of the good life in a small town.
In our trip around the world we have passed through a number of large cities and dense urban centers that are truly amazing, but in many ways, the best spots we have seen and some of our most treasured memories have come from our time in smaller towns that are a little further from the beaten path. One such place that is worthy of mention and also worthy of a detour if you find yourself in Prague is Cesky Krumlov. For hundreds and hundreds of years this small hamlet high in the Carpathian Alps (?) has been nestled in its own little time capsule far away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and far from the reach of modern Europe. For these reasons, and perhaps because we had reached a time in the trip that we just needed a short break, Cesky Krumlov turned out to be something of a sanctuary for us, and a place where we relaxed and enjoyed the sweeter side of life in Eastern Europe.