I wanted to see more of the Czech Republic. The back of the Prague map at Sir Toby’s listed some popular places and the logical next destination, where everyone headed after Prague, was a quiet little town in southern Bohemia called Ceský Krumlov. Its maze of medieval alleyways twisting around an unusually large castle reportedly took you back to the fourteen century, but with a sewage system. And there were 200 bars for 15,000 people; surely here I could stumble into my time-traveling medieval tavern and be set on adventure. The downside was that with so much charm oozing around every corner its tourist population topped its actual population in the summertime, and Prague had thoroughly worn me out on that account, not to mention the clubs, pubs, and busy big cities accounts, too.
I scanned the map further and the name “Poets’ Corner Hostel” caught my eye; sounds like just the kind of place I want to be, I thought. But it was in a town called Olomouc, in the opposite direction of Ceský Krumlov.
“What’s in Olomouc?” I asked the girl working at the front desk.
“Oh, nothing,” she rolled her eyes. “It’s the kind of place to go if you want to write a book for two days.”
She couldn’t have chosen more perfect words, as that was exactly what I was looking to do; I immediately booked two nights at Poets’ Corner.
As the train rode through the Czech countryside, I felt the resistant knot that had settled in me nearly a month ago dissipate. A river wound through a forest below and some people walked alongside it. It was nothing spectacular, but I was enchanted by its beauty, feeling as if I were plunging in myself. For the first time, it fully hit me that I was in a different country with a different culture. I acutely remember feeling the Western world fall behind a shady veil.
I knew as soon as I arrived at the Olomouc train station that I would spend more than two days there. Instead of a Burger King there was a small produce stand manned by the surliest Czech woman imaginable. Sunlight was flooding in through the open doors. There was another acute feeling, that my body had plopped down here and refused to budge.
As I suspected, Poets’ Corner instantly felt like home. It was an apartment with only a few dorm-style bedrooms, and as some people were quietly hanging out in its cozy lounge, the owner, Ian, sat down and gave me the rundown on Olomouc. I mentioned that it was the hostel’s name that brought me here and he said that they liked the name as it tells you what kind of place it is, and if they named it “Crazy Drunken Party Hostel” it would attract a different kind of crowd, or something to that extent.
Yet my plan to have a quiet night in and work on my book failed spectacularly that night, for it was the last night of one of the guys who’d been working at the hostel, Mitch, and he, a girl also staying there named Stacey, and I went out to a bar, meeting up with a group of Czech and/or Slovak girls, an English guy, and a cute dog belonging to one of the girls. This was as comfortable as the bar by our hostel in Prague, but livelier and with a lax animal policy that I enjoyed. Afterward we went to a club called Vertigo, and another called Metro, both dim, smoky underground lounges with brick walls and dark décor. There was one thing I had to get used to when going out in the Czech Republic and that was my clothes still smelling like cigarettes the next morning.
A few beers, a shot of the Slovak juniper berry liquor borovicka, and one or two of becherovka, a golden Czech liquor that “tastes like Christmas” (which might be the best description since only two people reportedly know what goes in it), and I woke up the next morning with a mild hangover to help me say goodbye to Stacey and Mitch and start my explorations of Olomouc.
It’s funny how misleading photos can be; if you looked at my albums of Prague and Olomouc you’d think Prague was grand and Olomouc nothing special, but the experience was the opposite. Prague was a tourist-crowded disappointment and Olomouc was exactly what I was looking for. Yet it’s hard to describe just what is so amazing about it. Even Lonely Planet calls it “a hidden gem,” but all they can say about it is that it’s a student town with a nice main square and a bunch of bars. On top of that, since the student population was on break for the summer it was empty; we nearly had Vertigo and Metro to ourselves the first night, and the little streets (cobblestone as always) were beautifully deserted. There were nights when I walked through and was completely alone; but I never felt lonely or unsafe.
I ended up staying for five days, spending my time in cafes (I preferred Café Sant Angelo, where I found a nice spot to write, to Café 87 by the modern art museum, though both were good), teahouses, the park, and just wandering around. Olomouc is more a place to live than to visit, but there are enough buildings and museums to keep you busy for a couple of days, like St. Wenceslas Cathedral. It’s a white and sea-green version of St. Vitus’ in Prague, but its size, intricacy, and grandeur are dramatically enhanced by its lording over a humble town. Inside it showcases golden splendor. I am always shocked at how wealthy churches in smaller towns can be.
The town is lovely and similar to Prague. It has a main square filled with baroque fountains and statues, most notably the Holy Trinity Column and a separated pair of turtles, one of whom is carrying what I interpret as the world on its back. There is also an astronomical clock, though it’s not the original and Prague’s is admittedly better. You pass old Romanesque churches on your way to the grocery store and baroque architecture that nonchalantly places statues in the middle of nondescript apartment buildings. But instead of everyone clicking their cameras at all of it, people pass by without a second glance. I don’t think there are ever more than fifty tourists in the city at once.
While visiting the Archdiocesan museum one day, I stumbled upon the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace, a tiny 12th century Romanesque courtyard where almost every window was unique and an iron-girded well in the middle bored silently into the ground. I spent an hour at least in this peaceful sanctuary, doing what I did best on this whole trip (journaling. What did you think :P).
Later on I discovered my life-completing factor: teahouses. Olomouc had three of them in the old town, minutes from each other. The first one I stumbled into was Dobrá cajovna. Unlike the English style teahouses where older women in starchy hats sit and gossip, or nicer establishments that sit on a busy downtown street, these were quiet, dim houses divided into pockets of semi-secluded nooks where people kicked off their shoes and sat on pillows for peaceful reading sessions or hours-long chats over a pot of tea they chose from a menu of blue, green, red, and white teas over twelve pages long.
Dobra Cajovna had that oriental character teahouses in that region have. It was decked out with rugs, pillows, Buddha statuettes, and pots of bamboo. I found a spot on the rooftop, where the outside of the building was painted tea green and adjoined to somebody’s crumbling white house. The seats were wicker, the tables were upturned barrels with patterned doilies flattened beneath sheets of glass and held together by friction and gravity. The interior spilled out in the form of bamboo plants and strings of those paper-thin bright cloth squares with elephants and Hindi writing on them strung from the wall to the canopy. I didn’t get a good picture of this lovely terrace, but luckily they have some in a blog post.
I sat there for many peaceful hours, half-listening to the two young guys by the door chatting in Czech as the scent of peach flavored tobacco from their hookah drifted on the fresh air toward me and I infused my tea lives like the waiter had shown me. You don’t want to boil them; you pour out water into a bowl to let it cool for a few minutes, then steep the leaves in that for thirty seconds, and pour into your drinking bowl. One of those things I brought home with me.
My favorite spot in Olomouc, however, was the city park below the old fortifications. You walk through the medieval wall to get down to the long grassy strip cut by a little river that flows through the town. The walls make it feel like an enclosed oasis where people ride their bikes or walk the footpaths along the river. Every evening it was filled with people hanging out on the grass, behind the little hills, by the old ruins, along the walls, couples strolling or sitting on benches, little dogs, and, once, a group that gathered in the gazebo to play music.
If you cross the river the park continues over a large area with little gardens, huge wooden sculptures, and a formal rose garden. For a small city’s park, it’s an impressive effort. It’s probably my favorite city park in the world, one of those few places I truly fell in love with and one of the reasons I loved Olomouc.
Another night, Ian took everyone at the hostel to a pre-season hockey game of the Olomouc Roosters at the rink just around the corner. Tickets were ridiculously cheap, the hockey was good, and the stadium was mostly empty. Only about a hundred people came out to watch, but their presence went far beyond their numbers. In such a small stadium where you could sit anywhere you wanted, the gap between fans and players was far smaller than the great chasm at NHL games that makes the teams seem a world away. At one point, as if in slow motion I saw one of the players lift another player up over his head and flip him over onto the ice. I was unable to believe it and asked the guy next to me “did you see that!?” But he claimed he’d seen nothing!
A similar occurrence happened on my last night there, when Stacey had returned and taken over Mitch’s spot and we went to Metro again. I swear a guest at the hostel that night, a man from Manchester in his late thirties or forties, said he was a pornographer! As we sat around the kitchen and he filled us in on his back story, he mentioned that he liked to take long vacations from time to time and could do so thanks to the industry he worked in. Someone asked him what that was.
“Pornography,” he said, and there was a pause, and then, “Oh! Cool,” and a nod. But others claim that he said he met two girls and they said they were in pornography. Whatever the truth, he made an offhand comment in Metro that has since skipped through my mind many times. Talking about some weird experience he had, he said, “…you just have to warm up to it.”
That’s just it, isn’t it? I’ve often remembered that little phrase when I collided with something that resulted in an awkward first dance. It’s not to say I warmed up to everything; hardly. It’s to say I’ve remembered that attitude toward things in those moments, and let the sides settle their conflict as they would over time rather than closing the door right away.
At the end of one afternoon spent in the park, I came to the top of the steps onto a street just outside the old walls and saw a tiny pub with a suit of armor in the window and I believe a torn pirate’s flag hanging off the swinging sign above the door. I dipped for a moment into what were just two little dimly lit rooms of a medieval house with a few surprised people sitting at old wooden tables drinking beer. When I got back to the hostel I’d forgotten the place’s name and described it to everyone as the little medieval bar by the park. But no one seemed to know what I was talking about, and I couldn’t find it again.
I hadn’t hit such a high point in my travels since Ireland. I think the appeal of Olomouc can be attributed to a few things. First, it’s a student town and with the many diversions that come with that life never gets dull. Starting in the end of the summer, too, there’s almost always some event going on. Second is how accessible its life is to an outsider. It’s the perfect sized town – not too big, not too small – for someone who isn’t looking to see monuments as much as looking to get a taste for the life of another place. That’s really what Olomouc offers, no more and no less. And third is its wonderful (and only) hostel. You’re coming into a community rather than a bed, and it really links you to the place. Without it I’m sure Olomouc would still be one of my favorite destinations, but I doubt it would be one of the few places that felt more like home. I’ve seen many different travelers and I don’t think the majority of them would find what I found here, but the people who have been struck by it all seemed to find that very same thing.