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Music in the Middle of Nowhere: Two Weeks in Zlate Hory, Czech Republic

[Editor's Note: in the summer of 2004, my 16-year-old daughter Alana participated in a summer music institute in the Jeseníki Mountains of the Czech Republic (please click here for a story about the program). We decided to make a family vacation of it. Our 11-year-old son Rafael is also a musician, and although he was not a formal participant, he spent most of his time making music. Which left Dina and me with not much to do except hike. Fortunately, it's a great place for hiking. The program directors are Roman Placek and Edita Blaskova.]

The flight to Prague was smooth and we found Edita gathering people at the airport. Almost immediately, we were in the countryside—just minutes from Prague. Then it was five hours on the bus, through spectacular scenery (a little like Tuscany, especially the sunflower fields, and a little like the countryside around La Chaux de Fonts, Switzerland). The last hour or so was very twisty, up extremely narrow roads.

It's very beautiful here, but pretty isolated. Dina and I are planning lots of side excursions, but transportation may be a problem. 14 mountainous miles to Jeseník, and this town small enough that when we got lost on our walk, we simply asked (in our broken Czech) for Roman Placek music and were immediately directed to the correct street.

Written Czech has many cognates with English, French, and Spanish—I can guess the meaning of many of the signs. Spoken Czech remains a mystery, though I can get a few words here and there, and with context and gesture, can figure out the speaker's meaning occasionally—if they're speaking slowly, directly to me or one of my family, and use their hands a lot.

Today we just explored the town (and most things were closed on Sunday. We did note two small supermarkets and a fruit and vegetable market that also sells tofu, seitan, and soy milk. We also noticed another musical school, named for Franz Schubert (whose mother was born here) and several small spas. Got back to the institute with clear blue bright skies, but ten minutes later it was pouring: note to self—keep that London rain poncho handy!

The opening concert featured a brief beautiful piece by Roman that he wrote for the town, and a gypsy-influenced folk ensemble with a truly amazing cimbalon player, Petr Pavlinec, and lead fiddler, Miroslav Kolacia. The cimbalon (pronounced tsimballon) is a giant hammered dulcimer, with the strings grouped in bundles of five or six. We bought the CD.

After the well-attended formal concert and dinner, they set up in the wine cellar for a private party, for us and a few of Roman and Edita's friends—who sang along rowdily and with much waving of arms, to all the Czech folksongs. They started the concert around five, and finished playing in the cellar around 10—as the crowd got more and more rowdy. This was small and pubby and very wonderful, especially since it's one of the only places around here that's not choked with cigarette smoke.

The hotel we're in is about two miles from town (which means nothing is in walking distance), brand new, not quite finished. Very clean, but lacking such amenities as shower curtains and screens. The shower is hand-held and attached to the bath, which I don't mind—but the tub is cramped. They do have those nifty water-saving toilets with two different settings for the amount of water.

This region is probably very much as it was decades ago—except, of course, that it's no longer a Communist Russian satellite. But "progress" seems to have passed it by. Although it serves a large Czech tourist clientele, there are very few tourist businesses—a film store, a single tacky souvenir shop, another not as tacky. Of course there are many bars and restaurants that probably owe a good portion of their livelihood to the tourist trade, but that's it. The town has a certain shabbbiness; many of the buildings display naked bricks underneath peeling stucco—but it doesn't feel decrepit and dangerous, the way St. Petersburg does. Cars range in age from the late 50s/early 60s to brand new, with a surprising number over 40 years old. Everyone still smokes here, though thank goodness both the music school and the hotel are smoke-free inside (other than the beer parlor at the front of the restaurant, which is always thick with smoke.

On a Monday, of course, the stores are open. We went to one of the supermarkets, but bought almost nothing; most of the goods seemed dusty and stale. We bought only yogurt and water. At the fruit and vegetable market—the one that advertises tofu, seitan, and soymilk on the window—it was also hard to find anything to buy. We did pick up a couple of small orange and a cucumber. There are good sources for produce, somewhere, because the quality of produce we've been served at the hotel is very high. And certainly the cuke we bought was quite good (the oranges were awful). We bought a loaf of good bread at the bakery, and also a chocolate-covered angel food pastry that most of us didn't care for very much.

In fact, it's been a delightful surprise how much produce has been on our plates: two kinds of cabbage salad, fresh cukes and tomatoes at every meal, and occasionally a lettuce leaf. Generous use of herbs: dill, sage, onion, parsley, others. Also wonderful cheeses and yogurt, making breakfast a very Israeli experience. However, in the majority of places we tried throughout our visit, the entrees—for vegetarians, at least—were mostly uninteresting (and hard to find).

We went for a quick hike up the side of the mountain behind the town. From the bottom, there's a view of a small chapel and then, much higher, a lookout tower. Roman told us that it's the custom on New Year's Eve to do a group hike there at midnight, and that Edita as a girl had fallen hard on the ice during that hike and injured her back. Hard for a violinist!

We got a little past the chapel and then the thunder rolled in so we turned around and took every shortcut to the bottom. The storm took a good half-hour to arrive, though.

Later, we took a much shorter walk near the hotel. Across the street is an abandoned church. Most of the churches here have Orthodox-style onion-domes made of wood, although the country is almost entirely Catholic. Our last food treat for the day—Dina and I shared a Pilsen beer. They're served in huge half-liter glasses, but they go down easily. The best beer I think I've ever had—both light and full-bodied, with a rich flavor. The alcohol hit me less hard (sharing one of these with Dina) than a much smaller portion often does at home. There are many varieties of Czeck beer and over the course of the trip, I tried several, including black beer. My favorites were the Pilsen and Budwar.

Wednesday evening, 7/21

Yesterday we walked with Andreika, one of Edita's nieces, to rent bicycles at the Hotel Bohema: a large resort with tennis, swimming, mini golf, etc To get there, we walked through the lovely grounds of the sanitarium Edem, where people go for arthritis treatment. Bikes were all in use, but behind the Bohema is a magnificent trail network through conifer and deciduous forests, not quite flat but close. Oddly, we encountered a car and a truck on these rutted woods trails. We made a big loop through the woods and came back out at the Edem again, just a couple of blocks from the music school. Between the Edem and Golden Mountain's building is a lovely street with large Victorian-Czech homes alongside a very pretty little park. One even had a steeple.

In the evening, Roman gave a talk about Sharka, a movement from "My Country," by Smetana (whose name means "cream" in Czech). He played the piece, explained the whole legend, and then played the CD again with commentary. Very enlightening. This was followed by an "orchestra" rehearsal—only ten musicians plus Roman conducting. They sounded great! Rafael, four years younger than the next player, held his own in second violin, and seemed extremely glad to be included.

Today, Dina and I went up another trail on the other end of downtown, to a place that translates as Saint Anthony. There wasn't really anything up there, other than a large house that contained a restaurant—couldn't tell if it was abandoned—but the views were magnificent, looking both over the broad plain leading into Poland, and the hills behind Zlate Hory.

In the afternoon, we walked back to the Bohema, where we'd made a reservation this time. And then off to Glucholazy, Poland. The Polish border is just a short walk from the edge of Zlate Hory (along Poland Street, of course), but there's nothing right over the line except a long hill down to the town, several kilometers onward. But immediately, the signs changed, the landscape changed (Zlate Hory is mountainous and this was more of a plain, even though there was a definite change in elevation). I found written Polish much easier to decipher than Czeck, but having studied none of it, spoken laguange was not easy. I'd been worried all the signs would be in Cyryllic—but the Roman alphabet is used exclusively. Some signs had crossed "l"s, making them look like "t"s.

The Polish side was a lot more commercial, with many billboards and a general air of commerce. When we got into the town, expecting another sleepy and depressed border village like Zlate Hory, we were quite impressed. It's a bustling town of 15,000 (Zlate Hory has 4600 according to our pamphlet). Businesses are thriving, the stores are full of quality merchandise, including excellent produce—the stuff in Zlate Hory is pretty tired looking, and our hotel keeper has made at least one trip to Poland for better produce. The town also feels much more classically European, with a stone church that would be at home in France, a Gothic stone tower that looked Scandinavian, and a traditional town square, currently torn up for repaving—which meant, to our delight, no motorized vehicles. We enjoyed it a great deal, though we had no bike locks, and that meant no cafes. We did change 100 Czech crowns into 13 zlotys, so we could buy a bottle of water (59 Polish cents for a liter and a half, about 20 cents US). I noticed in the supermarket that alcohol is very cheap; the prices would look good in dollars. At 3-1/2 zloty to the dollar, they were amazing.

After the long pull uphill to return, we saw a town character we've seen every day. I dubbed him "Mountain Man"; he looks like my image of Heidi's grandfather, with long greyish-white hair, an amazing beard, and green and gray clothes that always include a vest. Roman told me he's a gold miner named Henry and will take people on gold expeditions, and he's also the best guide to the local museum (we saw him on his way from a pub to the museum the first day we explored). Over the next week, we had several conversations with him, with our few words of Czech. He has his own gallery in the museum, with an amazing rock and mineral collection, and postcards and fake money with his picture on it. On our last visit, he even gave me a swig of amber brandy.

Tonight, Andrew (the 15-year-old violinist/pianist), Seth (18-year-old cellist), and Chris (viola faculty) played a beautiful string trio by Henry Sheng, the oldest student. It was absolutely gorgeous, and this was its world premier, even though it was written in 1985. Then Alena and Cynthia played viola duets; Alena is the principal violist among 14 (the rest male) in an orchestra in Ostrava; she and I have been having fun communicating in German (which I've never studied but somehow makes sense to me). The last part of the evening was listening to an excelent rehearsal with Roman (cello) and John (piano faculty). Both very expressive musicians.

After spending all of Wednesday walking and biking, and after Dina cut her foot when the lamp in our room fell and broke its glass shade, we wanted an easy day. So Thursday we took the bus to Jeseník, which I'm guessing has 30,000 or so inhabitants. I was, frankly, very disappointed. With the exception of one glassware shop with decent if unexciting merchandise and US prices, there was basically nothing there. Architecturally uninteresting, except for a handful of nice churches. Shopping seemed to be all about ice cream and booze. And even though it's a town whose economy is heavily dependent on tourists, there seemed to be nothing to see or do if you didn't want to hike. Of course, to be fair, we didn't go into the spa, since the program has a planned field trip and a concert there—and that's probably the best thing to do in the town.

The evening concert was good, but it didn't include the piece Roman and John were working on. Next time. Also at the concert was Jana, a Czech woman who had helped us understand the bus fare to Jeseník, along with her mother, Bokuna. who teaches classical guitar. I got them a ride back up the hill in the minivan, saving them an hour of late-night walking—and they invited us to visit their cabin near our hotel. If we can follow the rather scanty directions, we'll do it. (We tried several days later, but weren't able to locate them.)


Today's highlight was a sunset walk through beautiful woods to a recreation of a gold mill, with most of the academy students. The light flitted through the pines, the cloudy day had cleared, and the creek sparkled. Two large water wheels, one above the other. The upper one pounds boulders into small rocks, and the lower grinds the small rocks to powder. then the gold is sifted with a pan, as in California. But even without the mill, the pines and soft grasses made a very inviting, almost magical, spot, and all of us had a good time. It's located on the road between our hotel (the U Pekina) and town.

Saturday, the entire academy except for Peter and Roman went several hours each way to the fairy-tale Renaissance town of Litomisl, which deserves (and will get) an article of its own.

Sunday evening, we went back to Jeseník, up a high hill to the magnificent Priessnitz Sanatorium—the spa. A campus of numerous buildings offering treatments to those staying for a while, the spa is centered around a huge main building with gilded terraces on the outside, crystal chandeliers, a grand spiral stair that appears to be made of marble, and some stunning, very untraditional artwork. On the outside, the manicured grounds offer several magnificent views of the mountains, along with a small commercial village and an ATM machine.

The way it works here: you reserve a few days, see a doctor at the beginning of your visit, and get a custom prescription for several treatments per day: massage, water therapies, mineral treatments, and so forth. Prices are very reasonable and include room and board as well as all the treatments.

Monday, July 26

Today we finally hiked to the Biskupia Kopa (Bishop's Tower), which replaced an earlier tower in 1898; Dina said she'd feel really incomplete if we never made it there. It stands atop the same hill as the chapel we've hiked to previously, overlooking the town. It was a good two hours of hiking to reach it, some of it fairly steep. So we needed a day with several hours free, and a good clear sky. The tower base is at an altitude of 890 meters, and then several flights of stairs add another 18 meters, and lead to a panoramic 360-degree view, with a telescope for viewing on the south side of the platform-strong enough that we could find the Academy among all the high-rises that surround it, and also get nice close-ups of Reyviz (a pretty little hamlet on the way to Jeseník) and Glucholazy. While it was too hazy to make out the far-away Tatra Mountains, we could see quite a bit of the countryside on both sides of the border. There's no charge for the telescope, but a 16 crown admission to the tower. The toll-taker has a foreign coin collection, and specifically requested (in German) that we pay with our American coins!

The Polish border runs directly behind the tower, and I took a photo of the Polish National Park sign. The border is marked only by a series of stone posts, painted with a P on the Polish side and a C on the Czech side, though just below the tower there's another sign proclaiming "Czech Republic." But no gates, no passport control, no officials. You can actually stand with a foot in each country.

Our next excursion, with most of the group, was a rainy trip to Maria Hilf, another mountain chapel commemorating a miracle: A pregnant woman was chased by Swedish soldiers during the 30 Years War, prayed to the Virgin Mary, and was surrounded by a fog so dense that the soldiers went right past her! The son she was carrying later market the spot, and of course, thousands of people made pilgrimages. Eventually, a chapel was built. During the Communist rule, the government dynamited the chapel, but pilgrims kept coming. After the 1989 revolution, and several years of fundraising, a beautiful new chapel was built over a period of several years and consecrated in 1995. Two long covered porches lead to a central chapel that's simple and graceful, paying homage both to the original church and to the heavenward sweep of the best modern churches. A place of beauty and serenity, even in a downpour (thank goodness for those porch roofs). The name Maria Hilf translates from German as Maria the Helper (In Czech, it's Maria Pomocna).

The town museum, housed in a 1698 building that was once the first post office in Silesia, has a small but surprisingly strong and diverse collection. A few paintings from local artists, mostly Czech landscapes but also an artist whose work is kind of a mix of Cubism, traditional portraiture, and Socialist Realism. The painting gallery is only one section; the bulk of the museum is given over to mining, minerals—a beautiful collection—the local witch trials of some centuries back, and domestic life (a favorite was the kitchen exhibit, with its huge old masonry wood-fired cookstove).

And then the program was over. Except for Roman, Edita, and their families, and a few people who were staying at the spa following the program, students, non-local faculty and families all boarded a charter bus for Prague the next morning. While our ambitious plans to visit Krakow and Olomouc and Brno and Bratislava hadn't worked out, we were able to "go with the flow," scale back our ambitions, scale up a whole lot of local mountains, and have a great time right where we were.

Shel Horowitz's, e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, offers an entire chapter on low-cost travel.

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