Dobry Den and Dumplings - Czech Republic: Part Dva
August 31 - September 10, 2023
Rod McNealy and Bob Wright
At the Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc
Let’s start with the numbers. This was the second 1972 Czech Republic excursion, with the first occurring in 2018 - the halcyon, pre-Covid, carefree travel days. The trip was beautifully planned and orchestrated by our esteemed classmate, Helena Novakova. An added delight was Vitek Kloucek, who served as our principal guide on this trip and the 2018 adventure. This was the longest 1972 class trip to date, at ten days.
The trip included 35 classmates and partners. This included six female classmates - a record for any 1972 trip. They were: Mary Baldwin, Daryl English, Helene Fromm, Janet Howard, Helena Novakova and Christine Van Horne. Special thanks to Daryl for her tremendous outreach work in engaging female 1972 classmates! Doug and Joan Harrison, the McNealys, Daryl English and Barclay Foord, and Helena were repeat travelers from 2018.
The Women of '72 at our final dinner Saturday night
Our headquarters hotel in Prague, where we began our trip, was the fun, “hip and happening” Mama Shelter Hotel - think a mix of “Virgin Atlantic, Aloft, Planet Hollywood”. Located in the newly gentrified Prague suburb of Holesvice, formerly occupied by numerous factories. Now “the” place to live in modern Prague.
Mama Shelter was ideally located next to National Gallery - Veletržní Palace, a large indoor shopping center, and a beautiful and expansive city park (Královská obora Stromavka) housing the Prague Planetarium. John and Christine Van Horne and Rod and Patty McNealy were early Prague arrivals and visited the extensive and creatively displayed National Gallery exhibits. The Gallery also featured an ultra modern café, full of art students and tired tourists - the Gallery is huge! The hotel was also on a direct tram line into central Prague and the intrepid Cameron Smith and Bob Wright immediately ventured in to tour Old Town Prague. Bob went on an afternoon expedition to explore the expanse and beauty of the planetarium park as well.
The trip officially began on Thursday evening, August 31, with most classmates arriving in Prague that day by air or train from the U.S. or from other European cities. A Mama Shelter rooftop cocktail reception and buffet dinner launched our Czech Republic adventure under a spectacular full moon.
Our real adventuring started Friday, September 1 with a full day, including numerous stops in the complex included withing the walls of Prague Castle (St. Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, and Golden Lane) and a walk through Mala Strana - the area immediately below the large, lovely, and rambling Prague Castle complex. Throughout, Vitek and Helena did a fantastic job of relating relevant Czech history, which included an unusually high number of “defenestrations”, so everyone avoided getting too close to upper-story windows!
Following the downhill and scenic walk from Prague Castle and lunch, the group headed to the Museum of Slivovitz and some brandy tasting. To minimize any after-effects of the “tasting”, the group was treated to a boat trip on picturesque wooden boats for a tour of the Vltava River, which divides Prague into four districts.
The extraordinarily full day concluded with an exciting folkloric evening at U Marcanú. The traditional Czech menu was delightfully complemented by a terrific display of Czech music and dance from various regions of Moravia and Bohemia. Former Nassoon Doug Eisenhart capped the evening by leading us in a rousing rendition of “Old Nassau”. This prompted another tour group present to sing THEIR school song, with the U Marcanú band looking on at all of this in wonderment!
Still feeling the combined effects of jet lag, Slivovitz, and competitive “anthem singing”, the group launched our second full day on Saturday, September 2 with lovely Radka Vovetkova as our guide. The day’s theme was the Czech struggle against German and then Russian totalitarian regimes. We started with a visit to the nuclear bunker at Bezovka Parukárka. Thirty meters below Holy Cross Hill, this shelter was built in the 1950 - 1955 period at the direction of Soviet authorities. Located four floors below the surface and including three-meter-thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls, this shelter was built to accommodate up to 2,500 people for three days in the event of a nuclear attack. It is in excellent condition and could serve its original intended purpose today, and on short notice, if necessary. Touring it was a sober reminder that the nuclear holocaust both East and West feared during the Cold War sixty years ago remains a potential threat today.
Resurfacing from the nuclear bunker, we headed to lunch at historic U Slovanske Lipy, the oldest pub in the Prague Zizkov neighborhood. Lunch featured THE traditional Czech meal of Svícková - basically pot roast, dumplings, gravy, root vegetables, and cranberry sauce. (Six months later, you’ll be hungry again!) Fortified, the group headed to Petschek Palace, an enormous “palace” in the center of Prague. It was originally a commercial bank of Julius Petschek and built between 1923 and 1929. However, its notoriety came after it was confiscated from the Jewish Petschek family and served as the Nazi Gestapo headquarters for the Prague region. Its basement vaults were converted to “interrogation” rooms (and torture chambers), from which few emerged alive.
We also received a brief but compelling overview of Czech history from the immediate pre-World War II period. Notable was the exhibit of the large map of pre-war Czechoslovakia and pictures from the Munich Agreement of 30 September, 1938. Most striking was the famous photo of Munich Agreement participants from Germany, Italy, France, and Britain, who, without consulting Czechoslovakia, handed significant parts of the country over to Adolf Hitler. Stunning.
This sobering day concluded with a visit to the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in central Prague. Here the Nazis cornered Czech paratroopers dropped into the country from Britain. Their assignment: assassinate Nazi Deputy Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich, who had conducted a brutal and bloody occupation of Bohemia and Moravia. While the plot succeeded in killing the ruthless and cold-blooded Heydrich, he was replaced by an equally horrific Nazi official and terrible reprisals were conducted in revenge, including the destruction of two entire towns and their occupants. Sobering indeed.
We then drove by the American Embassy, originally the home built in the 1920’s by Otto Petschek and the subject of “The Last Palace” by Norman Eisen, former Ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Many spent that evening in quiet reflection with either a group visit to the Prague Opera or some of the lovely classical concerts conducted across the city in spectacular locations, such as the Klementinum, Mirror Chapel, and Lobkowicz Palace.
Sunday, September 3 was a full day of hiking and trekking in an area in the beautiful Czech countryside in the northwestern part of the Czech Republic, near Dresden, known as “Bohemia Switzerland”. This included stops at Bastein Bridge, with continuation to Hrensko and the stunning natural arch formation known as Pravcicka Gate. After returning down the mountain, our bus transported us to Mezní Louka where we dined for lunch at the Hotel Mezní Louka. We then trekked from there to the Kamenice River. Any pre-trip conditioning really paid dividends, as the scenery was as lovely as the trekking was invigorating.
Our second full day of outdoor adventure followed on Monday, September 4. Today’s destination was the “Czech Paradise” and it certainly lived up to its name. The journey included a hike to Valdstejn Castle. This location dates from the 13th century, with later buildings on the site from the 17th century, all built and owned by the Waldstein Family, whose name reoccurred throughout the trip, as did that of Saint John of Nepomuk, famous for failing to divulge the confession of the Queen of Bohemia. We then walked to Hrubá Skála for a luncheon at the Hrubá Skála Restaurant. After walking back to our bus and then returning to Prague, we enjoyed our last night in that city with another delicious and traditional dinner at the brewery U Fleku.
Drinking and Dining at U Fleku
The group then returned to Mama Shelter, packed, and prepared for our departure on Tuesday, September 5 for the silver mining city of Kutná Hora. This city was once the largest producer of silver in Europe and it retains its medieval charm and scenic beauty in the St. Barbara’s Church, Jesuit College, Gothic Church, and Plague Column. We would see more of these throughout the trip. They were built by terrified citizens hoping for divine intervention against the early 18th century plague. A stark image of that period was the Sedlec Ossuary, which is said to contain skeletons and bones from over 40,000 residents whose remains had been exhumed during various construction projects over the centuries and are now presented here in various “artistic” displays.
After lunch at the 19th century restaurant U Dacický, where we enyoyed illustrations of the life and work of Rannaissance native Miculáš Dacický, the day concluded with a drive to Brno, and the lovely Barceló Brno Palace Hotel. Once an apartment building for wealthy Jewish families of Brno, it is now a very stately hotel convenient to the center of Brno. Brno is famous for its rivalry with Prague and our guide Vitek regaled us with various jokes made at the expense of residents from both cities. Brno is in the center of Southern Moravia, while Prague is viewed as the “capital” of Bohemia.
We did an early evening walk of the area near the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, near our hotel and the city center. There were numerous restaurants nearby, but we still had to carefully navigate the hilly streets and modern trams that traversed the city center. The modern tram systems throughout the Czech Republic were a continued reminder of the tremendous progress made in the post-Soviet era.
On Wednesday, September 6, the group traveled a short distance to the Villa Stiassni, though street closures for line-painting made it a longer journey than the actual distance. But the detours were worth the effort as the villa was a striking modernist structure on beautiful, if hilly, grounds. The Great Depression of 1929 obviously had no impact on Czech textile magnate Alfred Stiassni. He commissioned architect Ernst Wiesner to build this strikingly Modernist series of buildings in which the family lived for only eight years. Stiassni and family had the great good sense to emigrate from Czechoslovakia in 1938, just before the Nazi occupation.
The town of Olomouc was our next stop after the Villa Stiassni, with a great photo opportunity at the Holy Trinity Column - another erected by thankful citizens post Plague. Saint Wenceslas Cathedral provided some beautiful interiors and we all learned that, despite the Christmas carol, Wenceslas might have been “good”, but he was definitely not a “king”.
We next visited the town of Krtiny and the Pilgrimage Church of the Name of the Virgin Mary there. One of the oldest pilgrimages, it dates back to the 13th century.
As the sun was beginning to set, our last stop was Austerlitz, the site of one of Emperor Napoleon’s greatest victories. From the high ground vantage point, we could imagine the scene from December, 1805 when Napoleon’s troops defeated armies from Austrian, Russian, and British Empires. Looking at the beautiful and peaceful green landscape, it was hard to imagine the suffering and loss that occurred here.
At the Austerlitz Monument
The evening concluded at the Brewery Pegas, where we were reminded that the Czechs drink more beer than any other EU nation. And with good reason— it’s delicious. Plus the dinner was accompanied by the omnipresent dumplings, so the group was totally refreshed and restored from a great day of touring.
Thursday, September 7 was quite a long but great day. Before sunrise, early birds Cameron Smith, Bob Wright and Helena Novakova hiked up to Spilbirk Castle, which dominates the landscape in central Brno. After enjoying a beautiful sunrise there, they continued to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, where they witnessed an early morning service and organ recital. After breakfast, our group set off from Brno for Lednice Castle, located in South Moravia in the southeast corner of the Czech Republic. We were continually amazed and impressed with the number, size, and beauty of these Czech structures. Who knew there were so many? Lednice Castle, originally a Renaissance villa, is much more than just one building, but rather a series of impressive structures. In the 17th century it became a summer residence of the ruling Princes of Liechtenstein, another family whose name surfaced continually on our trip. Members of this family owned Lednice from the 13th century until 1939, when their outspoken objection to the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia made them “personae non grata”, so they subsequently departed for their own country - Vaduz, or Liechtenstein.
That afternoon we were treated to a wine tasting at the Pod Krížkem Wine Cellar, owned by a young vintner who now runs the family business. He shared six different varieties of wines from this region. Almost as notable as the wine were the bottle labels, which featured various family members engaged in stages of the wine-making process. Of course, the location of the tasting was equally impressive - the cave-like wine cellar, with various coins and currencies stuck to the moist brick ceiling. Maybe it was the six wine varieties, the dark cellar, or the slight incline, but the group returned carefully to the bus for our journey to Valtice. Here we were only a short distance from Austria. The historic link to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had ruled this entire area until 1918, became very real. And so did the spectacular Valtice Castle - yet another stunning Czech edifice.
We then journeyed on to nearby Mikulov. Mikulov’s history includes strong ties to the Austrian - German regions, and is an important part of Jewish heritage. Jews settled in this region under the protection of the Liechtenstein family and the area became the center of the Moravian Jewish population. Tragically, this concentration in one area made it an easy target for the Nazis. Today, there is almost no Jewish population in the area, once the center of Jewish life in the region.
As we drove into Mikulov, the Mikulov Castle provided a stunning setting with its high, hilltop location. A bright, warm, and sunny day, it made a beautiful picture. Until we all realized we had to climb the “picturesque” hill to see the lovely town and the castle. While not quite separating the hikers from the non-hikers in the group, it certainly put some space between them. But the vantage point and the delightful town made the journey worth the “hoof”!
That evening, we finished the day at the scenic Hotel Volarik, where we were treated to a wonderful buffet and folkloric trio in the hotel’s cellar. Despite the unique setting, the varied buffet offerings, and the music, the cumulative impact of active days, bus rides, and castles on hilltops started to take its toll and the group made its apologies to the folkloric trio, gathered up a few of our adventurers who had traipsed upstairs to the bar, and headed back to Brno.
Friday, September 8 saw us leaving Brno behind and heading for the St. Prokopius Basilica in Trebíc.
We checked into our final hotel of the trip that afternoon, the stunning and appropriately named Romanticky Hotel Mlyn Karlštejn. It is hard to imagine a more lovely, relaxing location, next to a gently flowing stream (the sound from which could have been recorded for soothing “white noise”!), complete with families playing in the stream and ducks and other birds stopping for a drink. And yet another Czech castle - the imposing Karlštejn Castle -dominated the entire scene.
Some in the group were relieved to hear that Helena and Vitek had arranged horse-drawn carriages to transport those who wished up the steep streets to the castle. We all realized now why they placed these imposing edifices on very high ground - even the fittest of attackers would struggle up these inclines. And our group was just going for dinner! Karlštejn Castle has been described as the epitome of European castles and it lived up to its billing. This location and the wonderful hotel really formed a lovely “bookend” to our remarkable journey.
Saturday, September 9 was our last full day on the tour. Many headed out one more time for a bucolic but challenging hike along the Berounka River to Hostim and then to Svatý Jan pod Skalou (“St. John under the Rock”), in the hilly landscape of the Horovice Uplands, and we visited the former Benedictine monastery located there in 1037.
Hiking to Hostim
From there, we could see the hill Herinky at 1,440 ft. in elevation above the town; we would end up hiking there. Before doing so, we visited an old limestone quarry at Solvayovy Iomi, toured the mining museum there, and rested as we rode an old steam engine train all through the quarry along narrow gauge tracks. From the top of hill Herinky, we enjoyed spectacular views of the countryside and the town below from which we had traveled.
Others took the time on Saturday for a more leisurely stroll back to Karlštejn Castle, while some just took the time to savor the lovely setting around the hotel and the unique and fun animal park that was immediately adjacent. While no tigers were seen, there was a lion!
Wistfully but triumphantly, we gathered on what was a beautiful evening for a final dinner on the veranda overlooking the water at the Hotel Mlyn Karlštejn. We enjoyed lovely food, location, and company. It seemed incredible that our adventure was over, but equally incredible was the totality of all we had seen, hiked, and savored. Vitek and Helena had made these days full, meaningful, educational, fun, and fulfilling (emphasis on “filling” in the cuisine context!).
Of course, added benefits were meeting classmates and partners for the first time as well as renewing previous acquaintances. Former Class President Bob Wright did a great job in summarizing the trip, voicing our gratitude to Helena for a spectacular adventure, and reminding all about upcoming 1972 events and gatherings. With some leaving very early the next morning, it soon became time for Doug Eisenhart to lead the group in one last rendition of “Old Nassau”. And in praise of wonderful and unforgettable Czechia, we also sing. Time to start planning “Czechia Part Tri”!
Many among us documented our adventures with photos and videos. You can see them by clicking the link below.
TRIP PHOTOS ARE POSTED HERE.
And for a quick and fun video put together by Mary Baldwin that compiles much of what we did into a series of snippets lasting less than nine minutes, you can click below.
Czech Republic Trip 2023
Here's to our intrepid leader, who made all of our incredible experiences possible -- thank you HELENA!!