Sunday, May 18, 2014

Twisted Vagabondage Tale From Bohemia

On my first visit to communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 (right before the Velvet Revolution), I drove down in my rented Skoda to the legendary Bohemian locus of Cesky Krumlov, the most picturesque village in the country.

I realized that to be truly Bohemian, you had to actually be from the geographical region labeled Bohemia on the map. This charmed historical backwater in a jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped demesne filled with dissidents, drifters and dreamers surely fit the bill.

The unconventional “boho” inhabitants (who have lent their name as derivatory slang to artists and intellectuals across Die Welt) were then only nominally socialist. They instead practiced a severe form of ultra-capitalism called the “black market,” which back then worked wonderfully well for us all.

“Deutschmarks?” the Bohemian in a blue suit and no tie sidled up to me.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting caught by the secret police?” I countered.

“Nein, nein, nicht Stasi!” His insistence on speaking German, a language I don't know, was evidence he didn't believe I was really American. Perhaps I was a spy from East Germany? He scribbled the amount of Czech koruna per Deutschmark.

“No, dollars!” I reemphasized.

He penned down an even better deal (no: staggering).

I quickly removed a Jackson from my special belt with its secret zippered lining, feeling a tad like an art smuggler. The amateur kapitalist snatched the Jackson and dumped an enormous wad of (worthless) Czech crowns into my hand, then made a mad run for it.

It wasn't exactly the deal we'd agreed on. Still, the amount was suitable to act like a Holy Roman Emperor in a luxus hotel for a couple of days at least. The transaction was a stubborn reminder that unorthodoxy (artistic or otherwise) is endemic to historic loci no matter who rules.

Flush in illegal crowns, I nevertheless ended up grounded at the Communist Party Workers Hostel, since western capitalists traveling independently here had to register every night with the police. Keeping the window open in the dorm room I shared with no other guests, I breathed in the pleasant smell of damp and disinfectant while exclamation points dropped out of the atmosphere onto the cobblestones, luring me like a lullabye.

And that’s when the “brainwashing” began. . . .

* * *

Recently, I revisited Cesky Krumlov, wondering if it had changed much with the advent of ultra-capitalist reform and frei democratization (you can even still smoke in kavarna and pivnice), featuring a tourismo blitzkrieg of mostly Teutonic trampers who all call the city “Krumau”. Tourism now makes the city swell with more foreigners than locals, who today number less than 20,000 souls.

After a fifteen-minute walk from the train station to the main square, I once again stumbled like a dazed time traveler upon serendipity, my Rockports scraping the cobbles of this 750-year-old masterpiece of Habsburgian architectural opulence. With the awesome rush of the Vltava river everywhere, once immortalized by Czech nationalist composer Smetana in Ma Vlast (My Country), I fell under a spell.

I wandered like a somnambulist into a nice pensiony called Pension Jan on Pod Vyhlidkou 232, where I had to settle for a double at CZK 650. After wrapping myself like mummified remains in a Band-Aid-colored comforter, I caught a quick nap before retackling the tarmac.

Awake only an hour later, I set off to sightsee, finding my way to the buzzing town square. Ignoring an overcrowded Infocentrum, I made a beeline to one of my favorite hives—now, let’s see, where was it? Oops, wrong ulice!

* * *

Departing the inner sanctum of the so-called Communist Party Workers Hostel, I wandered the quiet streets until I almost bumped into a fellow tourist with John Lennon glasses and a leather daypack.

“Oh, hullo! Sorry!”

“Ah, a Brit!” I said, noticing the accent.

“Yus, from Nottinghamshire.”

“Like, where Robin Hood is from?” I asked naively.

“Not far from Sherwood Forest, yus. . . .”

“I’m from New York,” I proudly responded.

“Really, are you a Communist?”


“I am. That’s why I’m here.”

I began to wonder if he really was from England. There was something dodgy about his accent.

“This place will nuvur change. It’s fantastic, but watch out for all the travellers!”

“What do you mean by that?” I said peevishly. “I’m a traveler, aren’t you—or do you mean I’m a backpacker, while you're a tourist?”

He explained away the misunderstanding, informing me that in Great Britain, traveller is just a euphemism for aggressive homeless chap.

Later, I realized he was referring to the caravan Gypsies, who seem like colorful beings out of Universal Pictures—a different kind of Bohemian with no nation to call home and a name dredged up from North Africa wth possible origin among the Untouchables of the Indian subcontinent. Passing by a dive bar, I was attracted by the wild strains of frenzied violins.

* * *

There in the recent past, the Kafkaesque castle complex, rising up through a labyrinth of red roofs, diverted my attention. I walked toward it on Latran Ulice, then through the iron gates, across the Bear Moat, and into a second courtyard featuring the entrance—but with the line being way long, I decided to bag it.

Yay, lunch time!

Near the Budejovicka Gate at a must-go victuals venue called Hospoda 99, I took a seat on the sunlit terrace enjoying the al fresco atmosphere and ordering a pivo: Staropramen. Many Czechs prefer it over Pilsner-Urquell and Budvar, probably the most popular export brands of pilsner, a Czech invention. I also ordered some roast pork with peas, a longtime staple for both the Bolsheviks and the Bourgeoisie.

If you are a vegan, you can amble over to Laibon on Parkan Ulice, an actual vegetarian haven and tea house filled with fragrant new hippies wearing Phish concert T-shirts.

Later, at a joint called the Horror Bar on Masna Ulice, I sucked a skoumavky, a little test tube filled with blood-red liquor. What? I don’t know. Suddenly realizing I was surrounded by Bohemian vampires, I immediately asked for the check in Czech, then thanked them before bolting like astronomer Tycho Brahe in a brouhaha of thunder and lightning.

Outside, I met a fellow American backpacker who mentioned he was staying at the Hostel Skippy for only 250 crowns. “Greeaaat!” I elongated like Tony the Tiger. No thanks, pal. Unfortunately, he thought I was making fun of him, but actually I was just in a hurry to leave.

There was one more thing I really wanted to see: The Egon Schiele Centrum Museum. One of my favorite artists, Schiele set up his easel for a short time in this village, while working on his famous Dead Town series and naughty female nudes. Incidentally, angry pitchfork-wielding villagers drove poor Egon out of the town, because they viewed the revolutionary genius as a pornographer.

Though much has changed in this UNESCO World Heritage site, especially the revivified kaffe klatches for emerging artists, I like it better in some ways, despite all the tourists. Still, I’m glad I went while it was behind the Iron Curtain. While festive Cesky Krumlov has transformed a lot, the real Bohemians (from which Left Bank Parisians and East Village Hipsters derive their schtick) remain pretty much the same: defiant but friendly, independent but not fiercely so. Nevertheless remember: the Cold War here was always fought not with propaganda, but with penicillin!

John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly,, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.

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