We left on October 18th heading to Prague, figuring it would take us a couple of days of driving as we were going to take smaller roads and make a stop at Aggtelek National Park, which is a couple of hours northeast of Eger. Aggtelek is the first Hungarian national park to be dedicated to the protection of superficial land formations and caves which were listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995.
We like to visit caves, having done so in many places, some more memorable than others, but particularly those near the Carlisle’s at Cave Junction, Oregon. The caves at Aggtelek are quite impressive and quite expansive housing the largest stalactite cave of Europe in this area: the Baradla Cave (16 miles long, some of which is located across the border in Slovakia). The first written documentation from the caves dates back to 1549.
We explored the caves on a guided tour. They’ve been a tourist attraction since the 1920’s and it showed, a lot of the delicate structure damaged by smoke from wood fire torches used for lighting and visitors touching the cave surface. One thing Joanna and I both recall was a primer in how the influence of rock music had managed to infiltrate the Iron Curtain when our guide, in an excited fashion, ushered us into one of the larger sections of the cave, doused the house lights, and then entertained us with a light show played out to the music of Pink Floyd.
We drove to a small town after that (I cannot recall the name of this and the next city we stayed in) and secured a room in a hostel-like hotel. We walked into the center of town and had a fairly non-descript meal served to us in one of the most elegant settings I can ever recall. The level of service, table settings, and furnishings did not in any way match the food and yet, you could tell it was very important to those providing the service to maintain the illusion of sophistication. We can also recall the bites we all got that night from the bed bugs in our room, a not so pleasant souvenir or our trip to Slovakia.
The next day as we were driving, we happened upon some castle ruins perched high atop a hill. Intrigued, we drove around the base trying to find a way up to the top. After a bit of effort we succeeded, spending time in the ruins of a castle that had been left to decay. In a world where history is often preserved, it seemed so unique to find this abandoned property. We spent more than an hour climbing around, imagining what life must have been like when it was populated, feeling a ghost or two brush us on the shoulder as they passed by us.
We stopped that night in another small town and spent an hour or more walking the streets trying to find a restaurant or some place to eat, but to no avail. We went back to our room and ate what little food we had with us, went to bed and awoke the next morning with quite the appetite. We packed up the car in preparation for our drive to Prague that day and then went in search of food. We found a small café, filled with folks getting ready for their workday, moved into place (it was cafeteria style) and made our way down the line to observe the offerings. Almost all of it was bubbling in warming pans and the majority of it, to a uniform degree, was an entirely unappetizing color, mostly different shades of green or grey, or both with unidentifiable lumps of floating near the top.
It seems to me we grabbed one or two of the most innocent looking things we could find, some roll or piece of bread and poured a couple of cups of coffee. We sat down and as we started to drink the coffee, it filled our mouths with grounds and an unappetizing brownish sludge with a faint resemblance to recycled motor oil. With hunger crazed desperation, I looked and noticed a longish line in front of a counter and upon closer observation, could see that it was the beer line. We took a look at the breakfast we had assembled, looked back at the beer line, looked at each other, and I then got up and fetched us two beers. The lesson here is, when it’s eight o’clock in the morning and you are in a small town in Slovakia, your best bet is to do as the locals do.
We made it to Prague in the early afternoon and booked a small cabin without any plumbing or heat at a campground near the center of town. It was the third week of October and starting to get chilly, particularly for native Angelinos, and so not putting up the tent seemed like a good option. We made our way into town and I can’t recall where we ate that night, or any of our other meals in Prague as we experienced the same difficulty we’d had crossing the country to get there, that is the lack of restaurants, a reflection of their recent communist influenced past. We did eat a bit at the local McDonalds, a beacon of warmth to weary travelers, especially ones with a four year old.
Prague is an immensely beautiful city, full of grand boulevards, incredible buildings, a substantial history down each street. Comprised of four cities (Castle Quarter, Little Quarter, Old Town, and New Town), even New Town dates back to the 1,400’s. We walked many blocks seeing all of the major sites, witnessed a changing of the guards at the presidential palace, went past the house where Kafka was born, and took lots of pictures, none of which I documented so I can’t for the life of me recall which buildings they represent. I’ll have to do a better job if we re-visit there this year.
Our last day in town we spent part of the afternoon trying to track down a large supply of Pilsner Urquell (Plzeňský Prazdroj), the most famous of Czech beers and the original pilsner (first brewed in 1842) to take to Paris with us. We drove around a number of blocks, looking in vain for a store but in the end, returned to camp empty handed. It was yet another example of the lack of retail services then offered.
We arose early the next morning, the 23rd, to begin what was anticipated to be a 9-10 hour drive. It was raining out and dreary and the girls went to sleep quickly, the car warm and dry. We’d gotten off the motorway and were driving on a two-lane road in a small town somewhere outside of Prague on the way to Pilzen when I recognized that I would need to pay attention to the next series of directional signs to keep us on course, particularly with Joanna sleeping.
I was following behind a Czech local in an older car resembling a Lada, the Russian made car that became popular during the last two decades of the Soviet era, particularly in former Soviet bloc countries, where they became a symbol of city life. We were driving at a moderate speed on this two-lane road, with a fairly tall embankment on the left side; blocking the view in that direction. We approached a curve to the left and I lost sight of the Lada as it rounded the curve. At the same time, a directional sign appeared and I looked to the right, just before the curve to note the direction we would need to take.
As I rounded the curve and returned my eyes to the road in front of me to my horror I saw that the Lada had stopped in the middle of the lane. I slammed on the brakes and waited with a sickening desperation as we slid towards the back of the car. Luck was not on my side that day as we slammed into its rear end pretty hard. Jessica and Joanna came awake immediately and fortunately, were not injured, just shaken up.
We all got out of the car and then spent about a half hour with the Czech driver, talking about our options. He wanted to go to the local police station, but I was reluctant to do so and in the end, we exchanged our information and we drove off, with a badly damaged front end. Of course, his solidly constructed workers car suffered only minor damage, maybe a scratch or two on the bumper. We drove off and an hour or so later got to the border crossing with Germany.
This is when it became apparent that we should have gone to the local police station as suggested, as the guards on the Czech side were very suspicious. They had taken our passports when they stopped us and so we sat in the car for quite some time while they checked to see if any hit and runs had been reported. When it became apparent to them that our story checked out, we crossed over the border, where the German’s looked at us as if we were criminals for having violated the car like we did. In fact, from that point on, any time spent in Germany provided us with disapproving looks for driving around with a damaged car, which must be against the local custom.
We cleared the German side and just beyond the border was a duty free shop, where we stopped and sure enough, found the Pilsner Urquell we’d been looking for the day before, so we purchased a few six packs. We took off for the nearest small town on the two-lane road, not paying attention to our speed, as we were just relieved to be across the border. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of light ahead and thought nothing of it until at some small distance ahead we were waived over by the local police, victims of a speed trap. We paid our fine on the spot and drove on a short distance, where I turned over the wheel to Joanna as I felt, for the time being, that I was jinxed.
It all just made a long day even longer. We’d stopped and called Hertz, who once assured that the car seemed drivable advised that they would take care of dealing with the damages once we turned in the car at the completion of our trip. While it was drivable, we were concerned about it all the way to Paris, making for a stressful drive. But make we did, arriving sometime in the early evening near Francois and Heike’s new house in Montigny-Le-Bretonneux. Directions were confusing, and so we stopped at a nearby gas station while Francois came in his car to fetch us.
Heike had prepared some dinner for us, and Francois had laid into some Jack Daniels and thus, as the evening spun on, we got caught up, told our tale and gradually relaxed under the calming influence of Tennessee’s finest sour mash whiskey. When you travel, there are some days that you just survive and if lucky, you find that warm dry place that rewards you for the effort you made, as we had found ours.