Bohemia revisited: The holiday that changed my life
- 1 September 2012
- From the section Magazine
Holidays can expose the traveller to cultures, languages and experiences they would not get at home, but trying to recreate them many years on might not always be successful.
There are times you should pay attention in school, and the lesson where they teach you how to recognise various farm animals is definitely one of them.
It was one o'clock in the morning, on a steep hillside in South Bohemia. There we stood, four middle-aged men on a fool's errand of recreating a 20-year-old holiday, about to be gored to death in a meadow.
"It's got horns. Doesn't that mean it's a bull?" one of us said. "Not necessarily," said another, nervously. "It could be a cow."
We stumbled on through the wet grass, summoning tired legs to tackle what felt like an almost vertical slope, slithering on cow pats and stinging ourselves on nettles, trying to avoid the menacing gaze of the huge, silent beast breathing heavily nearby.
It was a cow. Several cows in fact. They skittered away as we passed them.
A few seconds later we had negotiated the electric fence that contained them and reached a forest clearing. It was here in this clearing, 20 years ago, that I had decided I wanted to move to Czechoslovakia.
The clearing housed a small campsite called Hajna Hora - Gamekeeper's Mountain.
It was just outside a pretty little town called Vimperk, deep in the Sumava forest, close to the German border.
You could stand in the clearing and watch shooting stars overhead. When you got bored of that you could go into town and drink the best beer in the world for $0.16 (10p) a pint. It was, simply, paradise.
How I ended up there is a long story, but I spent a blissful two weeks that summer with a trio of friends from Ireland, hiking Bohemia's woods and fields by day, quaffing its fine lagers by night.
We were restless souls, I suppose, unhappy in dead-end jobs and looking for life elsewhere. In a clearing in Czechoslovakia, we found it.
Twenty years on, the four of us stood in the same clearing, trying to make out the contours of the little wooden chalet where we were due to spend the night.
The camp was still there, run by the same owner, a man named Pavel, who had greeted us and our nostalgic endeavour with warm enthusiasm. He even claimed, improbably, to remember us.
Pavel was 67 now, on his second marriage, to a much younger Ukrainian woman who cooked us borscht for breakfast.
"I'm thinking of selling this place to be honest," he said to me, casting his eyes around the campsite he had run for the last 33 years.
"Some Dutch people offered me a good price, but I turned them down. Who knows what they would have done with it."
Armed with my old photos, we set about revisiting previous haunts, trying to jog 20-year-old memories and pausing to reflect on how much - and how little - things had changed.
For a start, the country we first visited in 1992 no longer exists. It quietly consigned itself to the history books at midnight on 31 December 1992, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia were born. Both are now members of EU, the border crossings are gone, as are the guards who once leafed suspiciously through our passports.
The ancient Trabant cars in the pictures have disappeared, the Czech car maker Skoda too is no longer a laughing stock - it is now part of the Volkswagen group and makes some of the most popular cars in Europe.
Otherwise Vimperk appeared pretty much unchanged. It was already a sleepy town in 1992, now it seemed to have slipped into a coma - the victim of the slow flight to the cities that is emptying Czech towns everywhere.
Vimperk supposedly has a population of 8,000, but I do not think we ever saw more than 80 of them.
For a better sense of the town's history we ambled up a steep lane to Vimperk Castle, home of the local museum.
Once again we brandished my photos from 1992, in particular looking for a courtyard where I am shown leaning against a concrete hammer and sickle, a relic of the recent communist past.
We found the courtyard, but no monument - in its place a huge pile of stones.
Intrigued, we went inside, and actually found an old photograph of the monument in better days, mounted on a granite plinth in 1958, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Communist takeover.
We asked the woman at the ticket counter what had happened to it. She laughed at my photo and pointed at the heap of rocks. "It's still there. Under those stones."
Standing in that courtyard, staring blankly at a pile of stones where my 23-year-old self had once posed for a photo, I was suddenly hit by the elasticity of time. The past may feel awfully distant. But it is never that far behind.
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