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Maria & Brett's HUGE Trip 06-07-08-09-? ok, so the Socceroos lost in 'that' penalty against Italy; Adriatic summers aren't long enough (bliss!); and we found that you should never use the term "Eastern Bloc" when talking to a Czech (Central Europe, please).

Gothic castles and ex-Soviet airbases

CZECH REPUBLIC | Friday, 19 October 2007 | Views [3464]

Wanna come inside my garage?

Wanna come inside my garage?

“We have prepared a special programme for you” greeted us at 7:30 in the morning as we met our friends, Daša and Přemysl at the spot by the railway crossing.

As we slithered into the back seat of their car, as honey finds its way from a spoon, we peered up at our hosts in the front and tried to locate the source of all this cheerfulness – which should be completely outlawed at this time on a Sunday morning.

Driving through the completely dead streets of Prague on our way north out of town, bits of evidence started to make their presence known in our understanding: last night was the final Jack’s Birthday promotion that Maria was involved in (and I went along to make sure the produce was indeed fit for consumption); I remember getting home a little after 3am; we’d agreed the day earlier to head out for a mystery day…. The missing link is WHY THE F#$@ did we agree to a Sunday day trip that started so early. I hoped to find out.

Just as Qantas keeps idle passengers occupied with little knick-knacks of edible stuff, Daša thrust into our hands a huge bottle of pear and apple ‘morst’ (juice) made from fresh fruit pickings the weekend before. They’d even visited a man on the outskirts of town who operates an archaic wooden crusher built specifically for all the Czechs that do exactly this – for about 2 weeks of the year.

Making our way north through beautifully scenic lakes and rivers, Maria and I both agreed that we’d never seen such beautiful parts of the Czech countryside before. We felt like we’d travelled through Slovenia, Germany, Switzerland… all in one day.

I could tell Přemysl was up to something the minute I saw a smirk enter the creases of his mouth. “I have this friend, and sometimes you can find him at this old Russian airbase, but I’m not sure if he’s there, and I’m not sure if we can get there…” but sure enough, we left the country lane we were on, passed through a rusty old gate amongst bushes and rubble and drove down a gravel track – before a motorbike appeared from behind us and thundered past us on one wheel down the narrow gravel track….

The bushes gave way to a wide open clearing, and smoother concrete – which later revealed itself as the tarmac of an old Soviet airbase near Mimoň in the north. What I couldn’t comprehend was the vast space that completely surrounded us, the spiderweb network of taxiways that darted in and out underneath our wheels, the amount of people skating, cycling or just flying kites on the main runway – and the fact that we were now driving on it.

Before we knew it, Přemysl had navigated his way to the disused bunkers, which were in full use by entrepreneurial pilots of light aircraft. It was very much the post-Soviet version of the backyard shed!! Only this time there were 1000s of dollars’ worth of modern technology poking out of the sheds.

With a brief word in Czech by Přemysl, a young pilot waved to us and said in perfect English “You want to go up for a flight?” Přemysl negotiated a price (total about $60AU per hour) and within minutes I was strapping myself in and doing the pre-flight checks with the pilot, now known to be Jan.

Although I’d agreed to go up for 15 minutes, the view over a nearby gothic castle on top of a high mountain peak was simply too breathtaking to even consider returning to base after the agreed time. So we continued back over the base at about 3,000ft… to an equally impressive peak on which perched a gorgeous Romanesque castle complex (see photo). As if reading my thoughts (unless I was rambling without knowing), Jan made a tight pass around the castle as if pirouetting on a 5-cent coin, close enough that we could peer down into the ample cleavages if we’d not been more occupied by the gorgeous view of the complex and the heart-thumping G-forces that were pushing against the plane as we tightened the pass and went round again for a closer look.

One of the best travel guides-come-pilots I’ve met (haven’t you met a lot too?!), Jan told me that it was absolutely illegal to climb these two peaks during the Soviet era for fear that you might actually be able to peer into the airbase complex that is nestled amongst the surrounding hills.

At this point I decided to put the camera down and just soak it all up instead. Jan, meanwhile, straightened up and headed back to the base – making a very sharp final turn and landing on grass beside the 2000m runway “to preserve the tyres”.

After the month of traipsing around the country in honour of a well-known man by the name of Daniel’s, Maria had already found a snug spot in the back seat of the car, and couldn’t be persuaded the trust her life in the hands of a Czech we’d just met. Don’t blame her!

After bidding farewell to our weekend pilot, we made directly for a nearby pub (passing the eerily deserted soviet-style apartment blocks – streets and streets of discarded and rotting concrete towers). For about $7.50 we were rewarded with delicious sauerkraut-and-klobasa (sausage) soup, a pint of beer, a main meal of beef, rice and veggies, and coffee. We weren’t even charged extra for the raised eyebrows that the waitress gave Maria when the latte was ordered (we felt like we were Sydneysiders in a country NSW town!!).

Of course what Czech adventure would be complete without a trip “to the nature”, an expression that never fails to prompt a smile every time we hear it. “The Nature” is a catch-all for everything like: countryside; forest; hills; mountains; rivers; lakes; meadows; farms; valleys; rocky outcrops etc etc. But the funny thing is that when one Czech says to another “I went to the Nature on the weekend”, it’s not uncommon to hear the response “Ahh, so you went rockclimbing before sailing on the lake and then canoeing down the river in the valley?” (slight exaggeration, but it’s close!).

So our Nature trip involved a trek into a forest, following a stream back to its source up the hill – which we couldn’t locate because the source appeared from nowhere in the middle of a flat section in the forest, creating one of the longest rivers from a natural spring in the whole of central Europe.

Of course, at this time of year (as if we knew!) we had to also go mushroom picking. At first we had no idea what to look for (not your Coles variety) but after a while we began spotting them, before Přemysl or Daša would cut us down with a simple “No, they’re not the right ones”, but sure enough we got the bug, and Maria and I were off with our eyes to the ground, disappearing in random directions up the mountain.

Like Hansel and Gretel we got lost in the woods (nothing to do with the Czech version of the fairytale Daša had told us as we entered the dark canopy), but luckily our random wanderings led us directly back to the car with a booty-load of mushrooms – which actually looked ugly as anything. (We’re not going to eat them, are we??!!)

Our trip to the nature ended with a drive through the hills, while inumerous hangliders, gliders and ultralight-ers soared above us like kites, confirming our long-held suspicion that Czechs are the most active outdoorists on the planet!, passing pastureland with real cows grazing with mountains rising up behind them… felt like a little slice of Slovenia! (must be the one spot in the Czech Rep where cows are actually bred!! All menus in restaurants typically have pork, chicken and a few expensive beef dishes)

Of course we stopped the car to pick apples by the roadside on our way back to Prague filling our shirt fronts with bundles of fresh stuff – thinking we’d never eat so many apples in a lifetime (but we surely did).

As we drove back into Prague alongside the multitudes of Czechs that leave Prague for the weekend, we couldn’t believe that we’d only been gone for a day. It’s amazing what you can do and see in one day, especially if you have friends that prepare mystery “programmes” for you.  Now we really feel like the active Czechs that we’ve been trying to understand for a long time now.

Tags: The Great Outdoors


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