A Paradise of Peace and Quiet
Farmhouses in Bohemia
In Bohemia wooded hills alternate with rolling grainfields. Every now and then a castle appears. Hundreds of ponds are scattered over the landscape and every few miles you pass by a picturesque village. If you rent a farmhouse you can expect visits by deer.
Travelogue & photos: Piet de Geus
A watery red sun slowly rises above the horizon. Thick patches of morning haze ascend from the valleys. When the touringcar snakes its way through Plzen, many people are already up and about, often with a lunch box clasped under their arms.
By noon the bicycle touringcar passes by Castle Hluboká, originally a medieval fortress, but in the 19th century transformed into a white sugarpie that is reminiscent of Windsor Castle. A little later we bicycle between countless lakes, which actually should be called ponds. They have been made, often centuries ago, for carp culture. The surroundings become increasingly mountainous and everywhere on the sides of the road, people on ladders are picking cherries.
In one hour and a half we arrive in the hamlet Mícovice, at the foot of the Sumava mountains, where we have rented a farmhouse at # 41. The street numbering is Kafkaesque. What is the logic here? Have the numbers been assigned on basis of completion of the houses? Or maybe in order of membership of the communist party? Anyway, number 41 is neither next to 40 nor to 39. The people who are supposed to be our neighbors don't know where it is, either. After long deliberations, they tell us that we have to turn around and ride back out of the hamlet.
In a bend in the road, a few hills further, a cart track, just visible between the trees, leads downhill. Deep below us the number 41 is just readible. The owner, Mr. Dvorák, is standing next to the farmhouse, waving at us.
While we're descending the steep path, we promise ourselves, giggling, how we'll boast back home about our stay at the "Dvorák Cottage".
Many Czechs traditionally own a datcha in the countryside. Sometimes these are vacation homes, but more often they are farmhouses from families who migrated to the city, like the Dvorák family, who now lives in Prachatice. Mr.Dvorák leads us to a terrace with a table and chairs and a barbecue, between the berry bushes, on the edge of the cherry orchard. He brings us coffee and beer. He doesn't speak even one word of any foreign language, but he has solved that problem: he hands us a letter of welcome in English, which also provides us with some information about the farmhouse and the surroundings. If we're interested, it says, Mr.Dvorák will take us hunting for boar, deer or bears. And, in any event, he'll show us by car where we can find nearby stores, restaurants and a lake - in case we would like to go swimming.
This is paradise if you're looking for peace and quiet. From our garden we have a great view of the Mícovice valley and the hills on its far side. In our garden, which measures 6900 square feet, we find, except the stables and the orchard, also chickens and rabbits. The old farmhouse, where six people can sleep, has been decorated atmospherically. The walls of the living room are covered with hunting trophies: the head of a boar, a stuffed fox and many deer antlers. Threehundred Euro per week is certainly a steal.
A hundred cows over for coffee
Most rain falls in the summer
Our vistitors wake us by their mooing. Through the kitchen window three pairs of drowsy cow eyes stare at us. I open the door and see that we're surrounded, there are at least a hundred of them. Our neighbor tries to drive them away, but his wild gesturing makes no impression on the grazing herd.
The weather has changed, it's drizzling and it's cold: only 12° Celsius. This is my chance: in the shed sits an axe next to a huge heap of wood. I indulge myself and start chopping away at the blocks of wood with abandon. A little later, with a fire burning in the fireplace, we watch the pocasi on tv: the weather charts and statistics do not bode well. Even though on average it's a little warmer here than in The Netherlands, the climate is equally instable. Moreover, most rain falls during the summer.
It'll be impossible to do all the things we planned for this week. We're not going to be able to visit Ceský Krumlov and Ceské Budejovice, two old towns in this region. But we bicycle over the mountains to Prachatice. The suburbs consist of grey concrete residential high rises, but in the old town center we find Renaissance buildings, decorated with paintings and stucco. In the marketplace, Vietnamese people sell cartons of cigarettes.
We hike over wooded hills to Lhenice, a nice village not very far away. From there we walk between fields and woods. The road ends in a cart track, the cart track becomes a cow path and eventually we walk from hill to hill over pastures.
Yellow-ochre farmhouses lay scattered over the country. We cross several little bridges and pass by ponds with swans. Only after hours of walking, we return to civilization in the shape of the hamlet Hrbov. And then, coming home, we are welcomed by a deer with young.
Our only real bicycle trip brings us, between showers, to Kremze. From the hills we get a few beautiful views of the Sumava with its highest peak at 4086 feet (1362 meter). Everywhere in the villages hang loudspeakers, outside, on walls, apparently a leftover of communism. In Kremze, all of a sudden one of them starts blaring out the not very communist song I'm a gambler, followed by an announcement that is reminiscent of Don Camillo, who was the main character in a (in Europe) popular series of Italian movies based on novels by Giovanni Guareschi: "On behalf of the city council: everyone, come to the Bingo tonight. Don't listen to the priest and keep voting for us." Or something in that vein, my Czech isn't that good. Via a large detour through the Blanskýles mountains we bicycle back home.
A diner full of farmers and forest rangers
Going out for dinner can be an adventure here
It's Saturday, time to move. Next week we'll explore the region around Lake Orlík, 52.5 miles (70 km) to the North. Turning and twisting over bad roads we cross a few hills and bicycle through a whole lot of villages.
Little by little the woods make place for agriculture. Just after we have entered the provincial road to Písek it starts to pour. We find shelter underneath a double row of oak trees around a pond. The view is actually very pretty: the rain beating on the pond, the thick curtains of rain blowing over the fields and blurring the hills farther away.
After an hour the weather clears up and we continue bicycling on an oaktree-lined road to Písek. Sometimes the road looks more like a dam between two ponds. From far away we can see Písek, with 28.000 inhabitants one of the larger towns in South-Bohemia, situated in a wide river valley. Around the marketplace is the old center with beautifully renovated buildings.
We leave Písek by way of nasty hairpin bends and bicycle between the Otava and the Vltava rivers, which join in the Orlík reservoir, over a hilltop with villages. We cross a high bridge over the reservoir with its steep, rocky shore. Unfortunately the weather isn't good for swimming.
A little later we arrive in Kucer, a hamlet between rolling fields of grain. The last house, where the road changes into a sand path, is Mrs. Rosenbreyerová's farmhouse. She receives us with coffee and beer. She brought us bread from Prague and in the village she buys us lard and ten eggs, for which she doesn't allow us to pay.
Going out for dinner can be quite an adventure here. Because the workday begins very early, people have dinner around noon. In the local hostinec we're already late at noon. The place is filled with farmers and forest rangers. The last few entrees are just being wiped of the menu, a blackboard. The landlord confers with a Czech couple.
The result is that we not only share a table with them, but also - literally - their food: rice and stuffed peppers. I drink a tankard of delicious Czech beer with the meal.
They can't believe that I, because of a planned walk, have had enough after only one tankard. The Czech drink at least 4 large tankards with their meals, before they get back on their tractors or pick up the chainsaw they were working with before dinner...
The apples are already coloring red
No spectacle in the Bohemian countryside
We're on our way to Bechyne, a small and sleepy spa, Southwest of Kucer. Just after we have passed by the charming village of Kvétov, we race down a winding road through the woods. All of a sudden I hear a heavy thunder and the earth starts to tremble. With squeaking brakes I succeed to avoid a collision with a boar who crosses the road just in front of my bicycle. "Did you see that? I almost killed a boar." Judging by the look on her face, my girlfriend has a different estimate of the consequences of that crash.
Bechyne has a few pretty old streets and the view of the Luznice deep down is enchanting. The town also boasts an old fortress, a 16th century church and a 15th century convent.
It's not spectacular, but spectacle is not what the Bohemian countryside offers. Atmospheric it is, though, especially if you're moved by the somewhat melancholy, all but depressed Central European view of life.
Through vast forests and along fields of grain we return to Kucer. We praise our good luck for the size of the bus shelters, which are big enough to shelter both us and our two bicycles from the rain.
Breznice, Northwest of Kucer, also is a nice provincial town. The center is an oblong square with a big 17th century Jesuit church. The market on the town square consists of two stalls, which is the usual amount here. The walls of the local castle are covered with bathroom tiles.
The route back is gorgeous. Narrow, winding roads, lined with apple trees whose fruit is already coloring red, bring us from one village to the next: seven within ten kilometers (7.5 miles).
One village is even more picturesque than the other, with all those yellow-ochre houses. And always the through road passes by the village square. The rising vapors, caused by the showers that just ended, add to the otherworldly atmosphere.
Birds of Prey circle in the air
Hills with panoramic views and thick woods
This is our last week. During a 90 km (67.5 miles) tour we pass by no less than 35 villages. Petrovice is a treacherous village, like so many of them. After a relaxed decline into the village square, there's a bend in the road and then, next thing you know, the road inclines steeply out of the valley.
Beneath the high-lying castle of Vysoký Chlumec and through the nice town of Sedlcany we bicycle to Kovárovice, a hamlet twenty km (15 miles) South of Prague.
Kovárovice's town center is an intersection of sandpaths. The brand new Hávlicek family (who live in Prague) mansion is on the edge of the hamlet, but then again, that goes for all buildings here. The lawn looks like a billiard cloth, but typically Czech are the apple trees and the vegetable greenhouse in the garden. Mr. Hávlicek drives us by car to Pysely and Senohraby, to show us where to find stores, restaurants and the train station where the train to Prague leaves.
We have to get used to Prague. Not only is it summer all of a sudden, 27° Centigrade, but also it's so crowded. We visit the synagogue and the Jewish cemetary in Josefov, walk by the Staremetské námestí with the statue of Johannus Hus, the old city hall and the Týn- and St.Nicholas churches. We push ourselves over the Karls Bridge and go with the flow of tourists up the hill to the castle, where we arrive just in time to see the changing of the guards. Via the St.Vitus cathedral and the Golden Alley we leave the castle hill. By way of the Wenceslas Square we go back to the train station, just in time for the last train. Only when we are walking on the deserted road in the dark from Senohraby to Kovárovice, we slowly regain our peace of mind.
Our bicycle trip along the Sázava river to the town of the same name is a lot more relaxing. Hills with beautiful panoramic views and thick forest alternate as usual. A few times we snake up cobblestone roads, a line of cars following patiently in our tracks. As soon as we're back home we settle on the roof terrace. Combines are harvesting the wheat, while birds of prey fly in circles high above us. Right after the combines have finished their work, the first deer appear to search the stubble.
In this area many inhabitants of Prague spend their weekends and vacations. Walking between the grainfields we discover more and more vacation homes. Hidden in the forest, they do not disturb the landscape.
Wandering around, we have arrived in Mirosovice, where we eat in the simple train station restaurant. They serve pork in a delicious dill creamsauce with steamed bread for less than the price of a hamburger sandwich.
On our last day we visit Konopiste castle, which lies in a large park. It has huge collections of suits of armour, china and hunting trophies. In the parking lot is a souvenir market where they sell Bohemian glass for very little money. When we really can't stuff more in our bicycle packs, it is time to find the road restaurant where we will be picked up by the bicycle touringcar. We ask a postman of the Ceské Posta for directions. It isn't easy to explain, so he steers his van all over Benesov and leads us to the parking lot of the road restaurant. I don't see a Dutch postman doing that.