I was somehow pulled into a half-brained scheme to take a bus from Prague to a small town called Turnov in Cesky Raj—otherwise known as Bohemian Paradise. If it sounds like a song by Queen, it’s because it almost is. Full of castles on mountaintops, cottages, and apple orchards, this region of Northern Bohemia inspired many Czech fairy tales about gnomes.
Our destination was Trosky Castle, a stone ruin on top of a mountain. We could see the two stone towers in the distance as we trudged on. At the foot of the mountain my friends and I stopped with rumbling stomachs at a cottage with crates of apples and tomatoes at the gate. We said our dobry dens to the people in the yard and were soon joined by an old woman who spoke only Czech. We smiled as she explained the history of Cesky Raj in her native tongue.
She disappeared into her cottage and produced two guinea pigs. I was soon holding a quivering rodent called Kleopatra who seemed ready to wet the sleeve of my jacket in terror. The woman led us into her yard where she kept a caged bird that could imitate the sounds other animals. The Czech woman demonstrated the bird’s ability to bark and meow as I ineffectively tried to pass off the panicking piggy. “She not wants me,” I stuttered in Czech, and the woman smiled and told us that she had eight more guinea pigs in the house.
We left the castle feeling exhausted and hungry. We took a different trail to the bottom, walking down the rural roads past bales of hay and gypsy caravans that seemed to go on forever.
My friends and I stopped at the first pub we found and were startled to find the interior to be a sort of museum of communism. Imagine an Applebee’s, only much smaller, and rather than pictures of celebrities and the retired jerseys of local sports teams cluttering the walls there are framed photos of Stalin and genuine hammer-and-sickle jerseys tacked up instead. The four locals at the other table seemed amused by our presence.
The owner of the pub only spoke Czech and Russian. We told him we were from New York and he nearly burst a blood vessel. He didn’t understand me when I ordered water, but went straight to the tap when everyone else ordered a pivo. In the Czech Republic you get some strange looks when you order water because the beer is cheaper. The only item on the menu that any of us recognized was smazeny syr—a flat, rectangular mozzarella stick that far surpasses its American cousin in flavor.
We watched him cooking in the kitchen with the door wide open. The man brought us plates of fried cheese and boiled potatoes with a side of tartar sauce. He gave anyone who was finished another rectangle of fried cheese. My friend Emily and I received bananas because Women Need Potassium.
After we finished our meals we had a train to catch, so my friends and I said na schled to the Stalin-themed pub and made a dash for the nearby train station. We returned to Prague, where no one was surprised by tourists and many people spoke English. In Turnov and the villages we visited, the people didn’t expect visitors and they didn’t understand why it was necessary for me to photograph the molding on their windows. I felt like I saw a glimpse of Czech life and not version that was adapted to suit American tourists.
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