Tuesday, November 2, 2010


It was sometime after three in the afternoon, and we had been walking the quiet valley in Southern Bohemia for about three hours. Coming out from the wood, up a gentle grade past summer cottages clustered at the edge of a meadow, then past several at the edge of a stream, we began to hear traffic passing on a nearby road. The forest gave way to fields, then the occasional industrial building. Next we walked along a narrow road lined on both sides with compact houses. A mother in a doorway could be heard loudly giving out to her child before finally relenting. In ways, the neighbourhood reminded me of certain streets I’ve walked along in Southern California. It was not a prosperous or impressive street, but the houses, each with its small garden, some with wreaths of autumn colours on the doors, reflected pride and a sense of belonging, the acknowledgement of being ‘at home’ felt by the homeowner.

Himself and I, on the other hand, were not feeling at home. We were hoping that, when we came to the end of the street, we would recognise enough of the landscape to discover where we had parked the car. Though neither of us said it to the other, with each step this hope seemed increasingly dim. We were not even sure we were coming into the right village.

There was not much traffic on the road we came out onto. Nor were there signs to identify where we were. I approached a man walking out of the gate of the yard before a small machine shop. ‘Do you speak English?’, I asked.

He shook his head.

‘German?’, I tried, then added quickly, ‘Deutsch?’

By this time, Himself, normally reluctant to ask directions, had reached my side.

‘Bahnhof?’ he asked. The stranger didn’t seem to speak German either, but this much he understood and pointed around the bend to our left.

How far? ‘Wie weit?’, asked Himself.

The man held up fingers. ‘Vier.’ Four. Zero. Zero. Only 400 meters. Good news. Except I was pretty certain by now that we were not in the right village after all. And by now, we were unable to agree on even its name, retaining only the vague sense that it began ‘Tri’ and ended with a V. Or maybe an R.

We were lost.

All Saints Day is a holiday in Austria and, for the first time since we arrived, the holiday fell on a Monday, giving us a long weekend. We decided on a short holiday stay in our favourite Český Krumlov pension. We spent a lazy Sunday afternoon on our room’s balcony, wrapped up against the chill and looking across the river at the fantasy-like painted tower. Later we strolled the streets, quiet and nearly deserted this cool Halloween evening, stopping to watch the play of light on the dark river. In the morning, after an indulgent and late breakfast, we set off to explore the surrounding country, following directions in an old guide book.

Leaving the road from Český Krumlov to České Budějovic, we wound around a small neighbourhood of houses, through fields and into the faded village of Zlata Koruna, site of a 14th century monastery. Another five kilometres farther, in another village, we turned right to find the railroad station we were looking for, really just a open-fronted shelter at the edge the tracks. We parked in the small car park and a few metres away found the shrine the guide book had mentioned and just beyond it the dusty track also mentioned. Two tracks in fact, one turning to the left and down a shady leaf-strewn hill, the other forking to the right. Studying the posted sign and map at the trailhead – in Czech, of course – we came to the conclusion it was loop trail and decided to take the path to the right and walk full circle on the return. So off we went, crossing a broad field that smelled of a recent application of natural fertilizer. The broad path headed toward a copse of tree away in the distance. Reaching that, it descended under the shade of trees into a valley where the river ran.

Our destination was Dívčí Kámen, the ruins of a castle built in the first half of the 14th century and abandoned two centuries later, in 1506. It lies in a valley between the Vltava river and one of its tributaries, a stream called Křemežský. Following red-and-white markers painted on trees, we walked along the winding path as it crossed and recrossed the stream, shaded by dense wood, a drift of golden leaves underfoot. Then, following iron markers indicating hrad, we started climbing again, up the rocky outcropping on which the castle is built. Soon we were climbing stone steps and walking along what must have been the barbican before entering the arch of a stone bastion. We could see the hollow in the wall that must have housed the enormous beam to bar the gate.

The castle stands high above the valley floor, and many of its walls are intact, though crumbling. It is impressively large, and walking around its perimeter, we looked down at the steep hill falling sharply away beneath the walls. The remains of a tower at an outer defensive wall stand, giving a view over the valley. From the floor of the castle interior, you can see massive red, white and grey boulders incorporated into the walls, the stone fissured in neat straight lines. The residence of the castle, at the end of an enclosed courtyard, apparently stood three or four stories high. At the top of the wall large windows also look out across the valley, too high to have been vulnerable to arrows or other missiles. It must have seemed impregnable, surrounded by water, its walls rises several hundred metres above the valley floor. It is currently under restoration; in fact a pair of men were at work with mortar and stone. Still, it is surprisingly accessible, open to all who take the trouble to find it. Rough timber benches have been assembled, suggesting the availability of informational talks and concerts.

From the barbican walls we looked across the quiet valley, trees still thickly leaved, though whole patches of deep yellow and orange stood out against green. Nearby is strange formation of rock, a narrow free-standing wall of shale-like grey-black stone. This natural rock wall stands about 70 metres high and extends possibly 20 metres deep, but it is remarkably narrow – as little as two or three metres at some points. It juts eerily into space, tall and narrow with irregular faceted face, water at its base, trees growing around it and from it. It too must have formed some natural defence for the castle.

The castle ruins, hidden in the wooded valley, the brooding wall balanced beside it, the dark waters of the winding stream and wider river, and the pale late-fall light seemed other worldly, as though we were lost in a mythical place, beyond time, beyond the familiar. And so it seemed as we picked the path, heading along the trail now marked with yellow-and-white symbols painted on trees. We considered how far we had walked. Two or three kilometres? More? I ventured it was as far as from our house in Ireland to the barracks at the juncture of the road to Cahir.

Did I really think it was that far, my husband wondered?

I didn’t know because we haven’t yet seen how far we had to go.

And so we walked, uncertain when we would return to the loop trailhead, talking of this and that, trying to remember how many bridges we had crossed along the way, stopping to look at overhanging rock formations, wondering if the summer houses we passed had been, before the Velvet Revolution, those of Communist party officials.

‘I don’t remember those red buildings,’ he said at last. Nor did I. Clearly we were not yet at the end of the trail.

The noise of traffic from the road was louder as we approached a slip road. But which way should we turn? Himself thought left; I favoured the right. And soon we were walking that direction, lured by the yellow-and-white symbols I saw along the way. Not long after that, we found ourselves on the small street of houses, then out on the main raod where the stranger pointed us in the direction of the bahnhof.

Which, when we found it, was not the train station where we had left the car. We were now in Holulov, and we had no idea how far it was to the car, or even which direction to turn. We stood near a mounted tourist map, though, and we were able to locate our starting point. It was Třísov, and it seemed to be about two kilometres away. A school boy, about 12, sitting on a bench near the station, didn’t speak either English or German. However, he gave directions in Czech, delivered with incomprehensible fluency and accompanied by a succession of motions indicating that we should go straight, then right, then left then right and . . . .

To us, bewildered tourists, they made no sense at all.

There was no one else about. The tourist office, signed with the familiar green i, was closed, as was the café next to it. We looked around at roads going right, left, up and back in the direction from which we came. At last, we looked at the train track, its twin rails pointing neatly, inevitably, unequivocally to our destination.

And so we started walking again, in the fading afternoon light, through the broad countryside, stepping from railroad tie to railroad tie between the iron tracks.

 I was nervous, periodically looking over my shoulder. Shouldn’t we walk along side the track, I urged, starting every time a car or truck engine roared in the distance.

‘Don’t worry,’ Himself assured me. ‘You’ll feel the vibration as well as hear it.’

I knew he was right; still I tried walking to the side of the rails. I found myself stumbling over rubble, scraggy shrub and the corners of ties, however. It went smoother stepping neatly along the ties, some of them creosoted timber, some smooth concrete. Passing markers every tenth of a kilometre, we counted down our progress. I was relieved when the rails crossed the river to find we were not on a narrow trestle but on a wide earthen bridge nearly indistinguishable from the surface we had been crossing.

The midday blue had drained from overhead; the sky faded to monochromatic pale tones. To our right, hills curved gently upward where here and there dark cattle and sheep grazed. To our left, the land dropped off into a shallow valley where the bright gold and russets of the trees were also dimming to shades of monochrome. Distant trees bristled blackly along the horizon. The grey tarmac road cut diagonally across the broad fields and the tracks, then disappeared. We wondered aloud at the strange sight to passing drivers we must make.

It was late now, and I was getting tired. I stepped from tie to tie with less energy than before. It had been many hours since breakfast, and I began to stumble, catching the toe of my boot on the edge of the ties or on the protruding spikes. I looked over my shoulder, wondering if, in the face of an on-rushing engine, we could jump clear in time.

At last, though, the gentle curve of track unreeled and I could see, in a grey-toned space at the edge of the world not far from a wood, half hidden by a red car behind a white one, a navy blue car.

‘The car. I see it!’

It was indeed our car, though we were still about five hundred metres from it. In my excitement, I began leaping again with enthusiasm, nearly running.

‘Slow down,’ said my husband. ‘Hang on!’

I did so, reluctantly. However, there were just a couple hundred metres to go. Then, finally, we were in the car and out of the chill, boots replaced with soft shoes, tucking into the food we had packed – cheese and ham and pâté, apples, rolls and fresh tart.

‘Hunger makes the best sauce of all,’ said Himself.

And he was right.

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