The last few days have been a whirlwind of experiences, sights, new cities, new friends, even a castle! I have left the Czech Republic for the beauty and snow of Austria. (The snow is unusual, so I am experiencing the winter of the Salzkammergut region with the colors of autumn!) But first let’s rewind to a small, medieval time warp of a town called Cesky Krumlov.
The ambience of Cesky Krumlov is a stark contrast to bustling Prague. Time slows down. You linger over coffee, ponder and breathe, aimlessly stroll through winding medieval lanes. The town is nestled into the S-bend (or oxbow) of the Vltava River, with the castle dominating the town on the other side. Take away the tour groups and photo-snapping tourists and you will believe you have time-traveled to the days of knights, kings, and peddlers. The buildings are remarkably well-preserved. Under communism, the town was blanketed in grime and pollution from nearby industry and no one had the money to build new buildings, so a jewel of a medieval town hid underneath all the dirt, only to be rediscovered in the 1990s. Gorgeous original paintings on building facades were uncovered and restored, structures repaired, and tourists began to flock into the town so evocative of the past.
This town is in the Sudentenland, which was traditionally German. In 1938, Hitler annexed the Sudentenland from Czechoslovakia with the approval of the Allies and pushed all Czechs out of the region. When the war ended, Czechoslovakia pushed out all the Germans who had lived here their entire lives. So the town is German in origin but today populated with Czechs.
The main attraction is the castle. It is beautiful! I did not bother to take a guided tour of the interior, since the castle grounds are free to wander and endlessly fascinating. The noble family that owned the castle brought bears to live in a cage in their moat and today there are still bears there. The inner courtyards are colorfully painted with geometric designs and scenes from legends and history. A large tower keeps watch over the town. The real gems are the Baroque theater and the gardens. I did not get to see the inside of the theater, but it is one of two surviving Baroque theaters in the world. Most burned down because they lit productions with candles and used fireworks while changing scenery. The gardens are absolutely huge for such a small town. Two levels, both with geometric designs – one French formal and one English formal. With the leaves lightly showering down from the tree canopy, it was a joy to stroll.
A highlight of Cesky Krumlov – the pubs! I ate some of the best meals of my trip in these pubs. It is hearty fare – roasted rabbit and pheasant, lots of potatoes and cabbage, and all washed down by the local beer Eggenberg. I also tried a drink I had only heard of in fantasy and historical fiction novels. Hot, spiced mead. It was cold and rainy, so the mead was perfect, warmed you up inside. Spiced with cinnamon. Truly wonderful.
Now I am in Austria, in a tiny town called Thomasroith in the Salzkammergut region. Only 30 minutes from Salzburg. I have been adopted into a wonderful family here, the family of my long-time penpal Andreas. We have been penpals for 15 years, since we were 12 years old. I was extremely nervous to meet him after all these years, but we have had a wonderful time. So much to talk about and learn from each other! I am staying with his grandmother and have met all his family and his girlfriend. They have really welcomed me with hugs, lots of hearty food, stories, and smiles – I am honored to be here.
Andreas has been showing me so much of his country. It is very cold and snowy right now – very unusual for this time of year, and I think it is beautiful. The hills and mountains seem to slumber in the white blanket, the smoke curling into the clouds like a contented sigh of a pipe smoked in front of a warm winter fire. We have seen so much, I cannot even begin to share everything here! Mauthausen, the concentration camp. The city of Linz with its Gothic cathedral. The Danube River. Small typical Austrian towns and their weekly markets. The cathedral and castle of Salzburg, famous to Americans because of the Sound of Music. Traditional Austrian food and drink, like a hot drink called Glühwein served mostly at Christmas time, and a donut-like fluffy pastry called Bauernkrapfen that are made in the local farms and sold once a week. I am coming home with some recipes!
We visited the Salzkammergut region yesterday – full of lakes and mountains. Under about a foot of new snow. (Again, the weather has been crazy – last week felt like summer, this week deep winter. Much like Wisconsin!) First to the salt mine in Hallstadt. Salt has been mined here since before even the Middle Ages. We went into a couple of the mine shafts with a tour and learned how they removed the salt: send water down into the shaft, let it sit and absorb the salt from the rock, and then pump the mixture called brine back up to a factory where they disolve the salt out of the water. We even slid down the slides miners used to quickly get into the mine. Andreas also showed me a coal mine in his town of Thomasroith. There is a long mining heritage here and his grandfather was a miner. The churches all have the patron saint of miners, Saint Barbara. Andreas is a part of the mining organization that continues to educate people about their mining heritage, even though the mines have closed here. They have special uniforms and teach schoolchildren about how they mined coal. I got a personal tour of the coal mine and Andreas showed me the equipment they used. Fascinating! Coal comes from wood that has been compacted under layers of earth for many years, creating a black charcoal.
I have also been learning so much just in conversation with family and neighbors about life in Austria during World War II, since they know I am a history major. In Austria, the people were expected to be members of Nazi organizations, like the Hitler Youth or the military. If you did not agree with the Nazis and ignored your summons to join these groups, the SS would come and either shoot you or send you to a concentration camp. The elderly neighbor told us of a farmer who refused to come to the local draft office and he was shot in his fields by the SS. The older generation is afraid such things that happened under the Nazis could happen again because there is a small Neo-Nazis movement in Austria and throughout Europe, even though the Neo-Nazis are outlawed.
On to pleasanter topics…Austria, like all of Europe, is football (soccer) crazy. Andreas showed me the local soccer field here in Thomasroith for the local football team. Every town has a football team that plays in a league. Some leagues are considered a higher level than other leagues. When there is a football match on TV, everyone watches. They have shirts and scarves to show their team affiliation. I now have a scarf for the Austrian national team!
We sipped cappuchino in a famous coffeehouse in Bad Ischl, where the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire used to drink his coffee. It is fancy – gilded mirrors and pictures, wait staff in special black and white uniforms, crystal chandeliers. Austria was once a great power in Europe, with the capital of the Hapsburg empire in Vienna. The Emperor of Austria was also the king of Hungary and controlled almost half of Europe, from the Balkans to the Black Sea. The last emperor before the empire was dissolved in World War I, Franz Josef, would summer at a villa in Bad Ischl and hunt in the surrounding woods. I saw the very desk in his villa where he signed a declaration of war on Serbia, thus starting the dominoes to fall and start World War I.
Today we go to the local spa. Time for some much needed relaxation!