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The Tatras
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Leave Stary 

smetanasbirthplace.jpg
Smetana's birthplace - Richard, our friend & Gary

We enjoyed a long side-trip by car through other parts of Czechoslovakia.   We rented a little blue Skoda, a reliable car that served us well.  We shared the road with the East German Wartburg, a massive car still built along old fashioned lines with the rear window curving down over the trunk.   The old city of Kutna Hora gave us a feel for the old Bohemia, and there were no signs of troops.  We pulled off the highway in Litomysl because it was the birthplace of the Czech composer, Bedrich Smetena.  We stopped in a bar and asked around.  A middle-aged man said that he would be happy to take us there, but first we would have to sample the local beer and food.  He had cousins in Chicago.  He treated us to a hearty meal, then we set off in the Skoda for a shuttered brewery that looked like it had once been a villa of some sort.  There was a plaque indicating that in fact if was the composer's birthplace.  We took our friend back to the center of town, and dropped him off. 

 

We were very grateful to our guide for his generosity, both time and money.  We knew how much hard currency meant in Eastern Europe, so we tried to hand him some dollars.  He coldly refused us, and looked away to a by-stander on a park bench.   We drove off wondering what had happened.  Could it be that we had broken some rule of hospitality by trying to thank him in this way?  That seemed unlikely after spending hours with him, eating and drinking and scrambling around a shuttered brewery.  We thought again and concluded that maybe the guy sitting next to him on the park bench was the key.  Could it be that our friend could get in trouble for publicly associating with us?  That became our working theory.  It dawned on us that what was a lark for us could become a serious matter for others.

 

We continued through Moravia and into Slovakia, with the Tatra Mountains as our destination.  We noticed that there were two resort towns in the Tatras, Horny Smokovec and Stary Smokovec  (You can imagine what three 22-year-old guys made of that one!)  We made Stary Smokovec our destination so that when we departed, we could say that we "left Stary."

 

It wasn't that easy.  The town was full of hotels, but they were all reserved for groups:  "Nur gruppen."  "Only groups" was the German refrain that we heard time and again from hotel clerks.  Reserving whole resort towns to workplace groups indicated the primitive state of Soviet bloc tourism!  We almost gave up and headed for Horny Smakovic when a desk clerk took pity on us and found a room for us to share.

 

In any event, there wasn't really time to visit the Tatras.  They looked lovely, but we were a long way from Prague.  The next morning, we piled into our Skoda and headed back to our base in the capital the Junior Hotel Praha.

 

The Czech portion of our railway trip to Krakow gave us another window into life in Czechoslovakia, this time courtesy of a chatty conductor.  He took us under his wing, but at certain points along the way, he motioned us to lower our heads so that he could salute the Soviet troops at various checkpoints.  He also pointed out Gypsy camps and said that officially, they did not exist.  In communist Czechoslovakia there was no such thing as Gypsies.  As we approached Poland, he got out what became one of our prized possessions, a railway map of Eastern Europe.  He drew a curve across Polish territory and said that it really should be part of Czechoslovakia.  (Of course it wasTeschen.).  We were seeing first-hand what we had learned in class, that everyone in Eastern Europe carried around a map in their heads that corresponded to the time when their own country enjoyed its most expansive boundaries.  The problem was that all these imaginary maps came from different eras, so the boundaries overlapped and conflict resulted. 

Next chapter:  Krakow

Last updated September 2, 2002.