Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Prague to Olomouc, Written 19 June 2008

My last evening in Prague was fantastic. A small pub drilling out some low key drum and bass (that seems like an oxymoron) with a student feel, lots of younger Czechs exhibiting different clothing and hair styles, just having a good time. It’s pretty mellow but fun is definitely on the agenda…

I really enjoyed my time with Jaroslav, our conversation meandered from Southeast Asia to Japanese and Korean film to growing up in communism to canoeing in the Czech Republic to hitchhiking horror stories…I really wish I could have stayed longer in Prague. I have a feeling I’ll be back.

Wednesday morning I got a relatively lazy start to my day and headed off to the hitchhiking spot listed in hitchwiki. Metro from I.P. Pavlova to Opatov, and found the right bus to get to K Suvoku. It was just a 9 minute bus ride from the metro station, but…it was miles away. Getting off in Suvoku, the only establishments were some pivnice (beer houses) and restauraces…green green green, with red roofs and white houses scattered about. I really was astonished that so close to central Prague I felt completely in the countryside. Not like the suburban sprawl of Tokyo, obviously, but not even like the sprawl in France, or England…lovely.

I got to the petrol station, asked around for a ride to Brno at the McDonald’s, no one was headed that way, so I decided to use the restroom, then went out to the lot again, and asked the only person that had arrived in that timeframe. He was headed to Bratislava but agreed to take me, so off I was. First ride of the day took 7 minutes to catch.

A German couple who were headed to Bratislava because he races motorbikes for BMW. They had a decked out van with a trailer behind for his motorbikes. DVD Player was blasting Dire Straits and Rory Gallagher concerts, and he was winding adventurously through traffic considering the size of his vehicle and trailer. Lovely couple, he has a used clothing company in Germany and he distributes used clothes to Africa and Eastern Europe. He regularly heads off on trips to ride his bike around West Africa and Eastern Europe. She barely spoke English but lots of smiles…a great ride.

We were chatting too much and we missed the last petrol station before the road split, me wanting to head north to Olomouc, them heading south to Bratislava. So I asked to get let off at the next petrol station, which unfortunately was headed in the wrong direction. We sat and had a coffee and I decided I would wait optimistically since there was a turnaround point, but it didn't work. The sun was beating down and after 1.5 hours, I decided my approach would be to catch a bus back into Brno and then try and find a good spot to hitch from. If I couldn’t, I would catch a bus or train to Olomouc.

Went up to a guy who spoke no English, so he wrote on a sheet of paper the bus number I was looking for and gave me very detailed directions, none of which I understood, as to where I could catch that bus. I signaled in the direction away from him, and he nodded yes, and I’m thinking, hmm that is a lot less complicated than what you just blurted at me. Anyway, thanked him and headed on my way.

10 minutes later, totally confused as to where I am, no bus stops to be seen, and wander into the IKEA parking lot where I meet David. He is playing with his son in the parking lot trying to put things in the trunk and I ask him if he can tell me where the bus is. I show him the number 67 and he says, oh, Brno centrum. I say yes, and he says, if you want I can take you there. Of course I oblige, and then I meet Christopher, his 2.5 year old son. When Christopher is told to greet me, he says ahoj with no hesitation, but when he realizes I’m getting in the car with them, his eyes widen and his lips draw shut. I’m told by David that he has just gone over talking with him about how he should be careful of strangers. Go figure.

Anyway, we chat on the way back to Brno, about his travels in Korea and Vietnam for 8 months, how he doesn't like Czech people because they’re grumpy (all Czech people say this yet they’re all smiley…strange strange people)…and we go around Brno for a bit before I get let off at the bus station.

Turns out I missed the bus by…2 minutes. Next one is in…2 hours. I decide to go over to the bus stop anyway, and find the one person in the line who speaks English and he tells me in fact there is a bus in 5 minutes headed to Olomouc. I’m suspicious but stick around (what options do I have at this point?!) The bus driver arrives and I’m told that in fact he isn’t going all the way to Olomouc – only to Prostejov. But it appears that’s on the way to Olomouc so I think why not, I don't want to stick around the bus terminal for the next 2 hours.

What a gorgeous ride. Czech countryside is…rolling poppy fields, bright floating white that looks like cotton balls swaying in the grass…yellow flowers dotting the landscape…castles popping out on the horizon…tiny, tiny villages with elderly Czechs riding on their bicycles with bags of potatoes strapped to their bikes…

I arrived in Prostejov…I can bet that tourists aren’t common there…the bus timetables in the Czech Republic make no sense whatsoever. So imagine the scene: the place names are listed vertically; Brno, Prostejov, Olomouc, Ostrava. Then the times listed next to them are listed, but they’re going reverse – therefore counter-intuitively, you’re actually looking at a bus that’s going from Ostrava to Brno. This happened many times on the chart, but also sometimes there were schedules for buses that were indeed going from Brno to Ostrava. So many different columns for km traveled, price, time, special holiday time, etc etc…it was a big mess. I pondered over the schedule with a lovely girl from Olomouc and finally she said that she thought there would be a bus in 15 minutes, and if there wasn’t, there was a train in half an hour. Prostejov was a small town that felt like most small almost-countryside towns feel, and it was great to watch the people going by.

We did get the bus at 17.45, and rather than go the 20km direct to Olomouc, it went on windy countryside roads to get to Olseny to drop people off. The public transport in the Czech Republic is impressive; punctual, affordable, numerous, with good connections, clean, and safe. I’m a big fan of countries with good public transport so this is greatly augmenting my impression of this place.

I arrived in Olomouc and watching the names of the bus stops clearly written, realized I was in Fakultni nemocnice, where Petra had told me to get off to catch the tram. I did so, and arrived in the city centre shortly thereafter. She came to meet me and we went to the Good Tea Room ( in Czech) – another small (or not so small) detail of Czech life that I’ve quickly grown fond of.

Tea Rooms are increasingly common in the Czech Republic. Basically, they’re smaller dim-lit establishments where there are tables with chairs, or there’s a separate area with cushions and you sit on the ground without shoes. There’s a separate room for nargileh/sheesha. The walls are covered with various photographs relating to tea; perhaps of plantations around the world with the locals involved, or just portraits of locals from areas that grow tea, and there are trinkets, mostly of an Asian feel – bamboo window coverings and small lamps and candle holders. It’s supremely relaxing, of course added to by the fact that you’ve got this book-thick menu to peruse through with descriptions of tea from hundreds of regions around the world, talking about their histories and their distinctive tastes and purposes and functions.

I left the tea room after awhile to take some twilight photos around Olomouc and loved the feel of the empty streets in contrast to the lively pivnices around town. It’s got a completely different feel to Prague, and though I did see a few guesthouses dotted around, it seems to remain largely unspoiled by tourism as of yet.

I had my first Czech meal in a pub and enjoyed it – Pepin’s pork with mushrooms on rice. I went back to meet Petra and company and then we moved back to the pub I had eaten at, joined by some biology professors from the university. I think the Czechs are extremely friendly people once the initial interaction is made; maybe breaking the ice seems more difficult or awkward, but they’re really lovely people.

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