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Czech it out!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

My father escaped communist Czechoslovakia when he was 26, running the border from Yugoslavia to Austria and never looking back. Through hard work and the kindness of strangers and organizations such as Catholic Charities, he eventually ended up in the U.S., learned English, married a girl from Michigan, had two kids and a long, successful career with the government. A good ol’ US success story (and of course, there is more to the story, but that’s for another time).

We traveled to visit our relatives in Czechoslovakia in 1988, 1995, 2000 and this fall in 2011. Each time was a very different experience, and the contrast between my first visit in 1988 – when I was 8 years old – and this most recent trip is remarkable. At age 8, what stands out in my memory are the striking cultural differences. Police stopping our red rental car constantly, with bogus complaints: no minors under age 12 are allowed to sit in the front seat. Someone wasn’t wearing a seat belt. What were we taking pictures of? Passports, please. We traveled with a suitcase of US goodies to ease interactions with the police and border guards; cigarette cartons were the most popular hand-off.

Food was bland and unappealing to my 8-yr-old palette. Tasteless homemade cheeses, meats smothered in gravy, lots of potatoes. I felt wealthy compared to the people with whom we met and stayed. Everything that I took for granted – jeans, sneakers, cotton t-shirts, books – was an expensive, hard-to-get commodity in the communist world.

In particular, the landscape was a shock. Quaint villages, yes, but falling into decay for lack of funds and no state desire to maintain their historic charm. And behind every little town hovered that special communist gift to the world: utilitarian housing monstrosities. Tall, blocky structures in neutral shades of grays and browns, these buildings seem to suck all joy and love and will to live from the air around them. [It’s not just foreigners who feel this way. On this most recent trip to Eastern Europe we met a local Polish tour guide who referred to these types of buildings – one of which she herself lived in – as “Crimes against humanity.”]

Flash forward to 2011, more than 20 years since the fall of communism. What a difference private enterprise and 2 decades of freedom makes. The food tastes better. The historic districts are polished and shiny. The people lack for nothing – everything can be bought locally, no more trips to Vienna for shopping. The communist buildings have been repainted in bright colors in an effort to make them more tolerable. And for the tourist, there’s loads more to do and see, with enthusiastic entrepreneurs ready and eager to show you their winery, their restaurant, their store, their mountain resort.

Cute Czech Village....

...and nearby communist buildings. Note the red and green facade; in the past these would have been left gray.

The Glorious A380

We started off this visit by flying into Prague and immediately driving to Brno, in the eastern part of the country, where my family lives. To Seth’s delight, we flew the shiny new Air France A380 from New York to Paris, before connecting to Prague. You would not believe how such a huge plane could provide one of the smoothest flights of our lives! An incredible plane, even if the Air France seat configuration is one of the most packed.

Once in Brno, my uncle took us to visit the nearby Punkva Caves, a beautiful series of caves in a mountain abyss, culminating in a boat ride through a watery cavern.

The Punkva Caves

Wine grapes

After the cave tour, we headed to a small,  family owned winery for a delightful wine tasting experience: Lacina Winery in Velké Pavlovice, a village in the Moravia region of the Czech Republic, about 40km from Brno. We were escorted down into the historic wine cellar – a candle-lit space with curved ceilings dating from the 16th century – and treated to an extensive sampling of 12 of the family’s wines, ranging from excellent, dry whites to smooth reds. A father and son team run the winery: the dad grows and bottles the wine, and the son, Pavel, is the host and salesman. An excellent English-speaker who lived in Chicago for some time, Pavel is passionate about his wine and eager to grow the company. Their wines are available in the US under the label “Blue Hills,” and honestly, the tasting was as good as any we’ve had in Napa and Sonoma, with many award-winning varieties. We’ll be looking for these wines when we’re back home.

Pavel Lacina hosting our tasting

Happy wine tasters

My uncle hired an accordion player to serenade us during the tasting, and also at the next stop – dinner. Accordions are my dad’s favorite instrument in the world. It was very sweet. Actually, a second player joined for the dinner portion, and we had a delicious feast of Czech specialties, with more wine and an accordion soundtrack.

Czech dinner + accordion accompaniment

The next day we ventured to Vienna, a short 2-hr drive away. We’ve been a few times before, so we just hit a few highlights on our rainy visit: Schönbrunn Palace, the Sacher Hotel for Sacher Torte, naturally, and a sausage street snack.

Schönbrunn Palace

From top left: At the Sacher Hotel, Posing at Schoenbrunn, Sacher Hotel, Sausage snack

It always cracks me up how there are so many people dressed in 17th century costumes in Vienna, hawking classical music concerts, operas and plays to tourists. I love that there is at least one place in the world where classical music is a novelty and tourists might be enticed to pay for a concert by a wigged-up man in a velvety peach coat.

Costumed Viennese Salesmen

After Vienna, we headed to Slovakia for the tour of my dad’s life… those stories to come in the next installment!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Friday, December 16, 2011 11:48 am

    I love the palace, of course. But I loved hearing about your contrasting visits the most. And the photos of Seth were great, lol.
    ~S 🙂

  2. Tuesday, July 3, 2012 2:07 pm

    I have never seen the old Czechoslovakia,but I would imagine it was sad and gray when you had your first visit here. Right now, I guess the only communist legacy left is the lack of good customer service.

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