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Trip Report Czech Canada and a Little Cold War Border Zone

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A bit off the regular Fodor’s tourist path, but I thought I would share nonetheless for anyone looking for something a little different.

Our daughter’s school’s band and strings program was invited to Slavonice, Czech Republic for a two-day cultural exchange, including the opportunity to perform at the Institute Slavonice. Since the town is but a couple hours' drive from Vienna, DH and I thought it made for a perfect midweek road trip.

We set out on a sunny midday with no navigational devices other than GoogleMaps app for our iPhones, a Czech tourism map of castles and palaces and a bag of cold peanut M&Ms. Call us old school. Along the way we encountered a detour that, it appeared after talking to our friends who also made the trip, their GPS devices missed completely. Do GPS devices not offer real-time construction updates?

Living in Vienna and traveling about, I have begun a photo collection of abandoned border crossings (a silly romantic notion). Most of the buildings seem so forlorn, all the important immigration secrets in their walls left to be forgotten as countries join the EU. The building at the Austrian/Czech crossing was being offered for sale, though, and I wondered what entrepreneurial value (and secrets!) there might be in a remote crossing between the former Communist Czechoslovakia and non-Communist Austria.

Slavonice has an interesting history going back to medieval times, not the least of which is its beautifully preserved town square of medieval renaissance architecture. The town was also fortified in the period leading up to WWII, and many of the bunkers were refurbished for summertime reenactments between Wehrmacht and Czechoslovak forces. Approaching the town there was a colorful bunker close enough to the road that it made for a superb photo op, especially with the Communist-era utility pole in the background.

Once the Iron Curtain was put into place, Slavonice residents were relocated because of their proximity (about a kilometer) to non-Communist Austria, but otherwise the town was mostly ignored. Artists rediscovered the town after the Velvet Revolution and established the pleasant little artsy colony that it is today. Touring the Peace town square (and the entirety of the town, for that matter) does not take very long, but one is compelled to stop every few steps to admire the Sgraffito covered buildings. The town has retained its public address system, as well, and when the music festival was announced across the square, the hikers, cyclists, and other tourists visiting the town helped to fill the auditorium! How neat!

The band and strings performances were delightful (all parental bias notwithstanding ☺). The finale was performed by the local youth choir, Viva La Bella Slavonice, and was a series of Czech and Slovak folk songs, as well as "Tonight" from West Side Story, in Czech-accented English. The choir was so charming that it was impossible not to smile!

So why the Czech Canada reference? This region of Czech Republic, at the confluence of the former countries of Moravia and Bohemia, and Austria is one of rocky outcrops, rugged landscapes and dense forests, gently rolling hills and with a climate that apparently resembles Canada. The area is also extremely popular with cyclists; in fact, at times along our drive it appeared there were more road signs for cyclists than for vehicle drivers!

Following the performance we left Slavonice to explore some of the area before dinner, including Hrad Landstejn, one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in the area and about 15 minutes from the town. Indeed, we encountered gently rolling hills and dense forests, and not having ever been to rural Canada, we presumed the comparison was just. The fortress was closed for the day, but we could at least walk around the grounds and watch the storm clouds move into the area from atop the hill.

We returned to Slavonice a little early for dinner and so wandered over to the cemetery, for me a photo opportunity feast. This one was also a favorite with the local artists, several of whom were capturing the solemnity against a backdrop of thunder clouds and gray skies in watercolor and paint.

The rumble of the thunderstorm ever nearer, we tucked in to dinner in the restaurant of Hotel Arkada, where we were staying for the night. DH and I have been to Czech Republic three times, and have never once had anything other than a delicious meal. Being of Eastern European descent I am perhaps predisposed to enjoy my culinary heritage, but still, it just seems that the Czechs know how to prepare simple, straightforward, good food. And our dinner was no exception. Although we were tempted to start with the Mexikanische Jalapeño Poppers we opted for Bramboračky, the Czech version of potato pancakes, and bread with ham and gherkins; for the main course DH chose “grilled meat on a needle” (skewered meat—translations can be so humorous), and I savored a whole roasted trout with butter and caraway. Two glasses of a robust Czech red wine (me) and two Pilsners (DH) accompanied our meals, and DH had dessert. Our dinner came to 640 Kč, approximately 25€.

And then we retired to our room. Hotel Arkada is a basic, no-frills hotel, pretty much like all the hotels in Slavonice. The room was minimally sufficient for a single night, more or less. The hot water pressure in our top floor room (European level 2) was little more than a trickle, and I decided that in spite of the chilly, rainy evening and desire for a shower, spending an eternity trying to manage the hand-held device trickling hot water (especially after two glasses of wine) just wasn’t in the cards. The hotel also offers complimentary WiFi; the problem, however, was that the signal didn’t quite reach the top floor. Minor irritants, mostly because we were only staying the night. The sound of the rain on the skylights made for a pleasant lullaby, an agreeable compromise.

As this was also the hotel where the students were staying, I will say we enjoyed the usual European breakfast of meats, cheeses, yogurt, warm breads and so forth the following morning, surrounded by the cacophony of middle school students hopped up on the Fanta from the breakfast bar (!) but you will know otherwise. We beat a hasty retreat, loaded the car and began our wandering from Slavonice.

The evening thunderstorms resulted in overcast skies for our return journey; we decided to sightsee until the rain began, then point the car south and head home to Vienna. Driving east from Slavonice we spied several bunkers tucked in amidst the bright yellow rapeseed fields; at one bunker location a kindly person had mapped the additional bunkers tucked in the nearby (dark and foreboding) woods and tacked the information on a tree, for perhaps the more adventurous.

We paused in Písečné to get our bearings and were struck by the scene on my camera viewer. In one photo frame I had captured remnants of the Gothic castle, fading Sgraffito on the church, a Communist-era smokestack with a jumbo stork nest on the top, and the town offices, with their slightly shabby Czech and EU flags hanging limply in the damp air. So many of the little towns we drove through on this trip seemed lost in time; the leaden skies only added to the sense of the forgotten.

At the confluence of the Rivers Želetavka and Dyje we viewed Hrad Bitov, one of the largest and oldest Moravian castles. The castle is an impressive structure, made to seem even more imposing given its location atop the cliffs. We were late to arrive for the (required) tour, alas. Some other time. From the road up to Hrad Bitov one can view the ruins of Hrad Cornstejn, sitting atop the steppe vegetation slopes of the River Thaya and also a very photo-worthy side trip.

By this time the rain had begun, and almost held off long enough for us to reach Znojmo. After a scramble for parking, we sought warmth and food at a restaurant (whose name I did not capture) on the town square. The proprietor, Frau Helene ran the restaurant with an enviable perfection, evident in the food. Our lunch began with garlic soup studded with rye croutons, followed by a perfectly juicy beefsteak and potato salad for DH and yet again, a whole roasted trout with caraway for me. I often laugh to myself about the people who travel and seek out familiar, comfort foods, be they McDonalds or otherwise, but I just can not resist a well-roasted whole trout. Once again, another fabulous meal. If the Czechs ever desired world domination, they might achieve it through their food. Adding to the ambience in the restaurant was the playlist of American country music circa 1980s (Crystal Gayle, Kenny Rogers…), as well as Czech country covers of American country music, putting us in a cheery mood for the rainy drive home. You just can't beat a road trip like that. ☺

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