By JAY CAAUWE
The uneasy look on our drivers face could have been brought on by either a painful past reminder of border crossings, or the realization that he had conscripted with three Chicagoans embarked on a Saturday morning drinking mission. Our intent was earnest and our plan was not unreasonable. Look at a central European map and one soon realizes that Vienna is a stones throw from the Czech Republic to the north, spitting distance to Slovakia in the east, and within earshot of Hungary to the south. Mikal Zulakov had driven the five hours down from Prague to spend the next nine with us, as our hired courier.
When I originally spoke with “Mike” I had to repeat my request at least three times…. “We would like to have beers in each of the three aforementioned countries and be back at the hotel by supper. ” Language was not the barrier, as Mike spoke impeccable broken English in the fashion that your teenage son does when he comes home, just as you are taking the dog out in the morning. “You… vish… to drive… out of… country… and start, how you Americans say, a pub crawl… at 8am?”
Why yes we do and thus began the Eastern Bloc Tri Country Boozer 2008. Not that there was anything wrong with staying in Vienna, a marvelous and historic city. But any place that gave birth to Freud, Mozart and Hitler….well there’s some tortured individuals right there and the guilt associated seems to drape the city in a hidden fashion. The denizens are courteous, yet leery. Plus, after three days of an international investing conference, I had my fill of “What’s wrong with you Americans? ”
Kaiserschmarrn, a loved delicacy in Austria.
While hotel workers were distracted, we armed ourselves with rations pilfered from the Danube Room breakfast buffet of the Vienna Hilton. These tasty delicacies included Kaiserschmarrn, Salzburg Nockerln and Kasekreinner. The Saturday morning meeting of the Vienna Waltzing seniors could do with a little less cholesterol. Besides, what better way to barrel through the Austrian countryside, then while noshing on local Kasekreinner. This very Austrian countryside, not much unlike southern Indiana, soon gave way to broad vistas of towering wind turbine farms. Combining low torque ripple and high tip speeds of up to six times wind speed, these monsters of the Mistelbach have blades reaching 120 feet in length, while topping out at an impressive 300 feet. Meeting the electrical needs of about 250,000 homes, the Austrian wind parks account for the second highest European capacity generated by such….things.
Impressive as they are, the only thing I felt being generated was the desire to slake my thirst and wash away the taste of the Nockerln. So onward we went and with that we noticed that Mike became a bit more subdued as we approached the Czech border. Along the route, we had peppered him with some generic questions about life under Communist rule and he had limited his responses to vague references of family members gone missing in the night, neighbors that you could not trust or extortion money paid to keep your cow. We stopped the van at the border crossing, got out for a few pictures and felt a sudden and eerie silence. The border crossing station, now abandoned, served up an immediate image of what the hardships and brutality of that era provided. No Pennsylvania turnpike pass-through was this hulking structure. To scan to the left and right of the building, you were met with an obstacle course of berms and barbed wire running into the forest, where undoubtedly, gunshots chased down the many that tried to cross in a more secretive manner. The lanes up to the guard station were a series of flag stops and imposing barriers meant to slow and intimidate the would be traveler. One can only imagine the interrogations conducted in the cheerless building. With an uneasy “Ahem”, Mike suggested that it was time to move along.
The plan was…..what was the plan? Did we think that we would pull into some burg and find the nearest Bennigans, or Elephant and Castle? Mike, God love him, knew better and when a village was spotted on the horizon, he pointed the van towards the church steeple, a sure sign of a town center. We pulled into Breclav, gateway to Charvatska Ves and after that, we were on our own. The Dyjie River divides the town into the ‘dirt poor’ side and the ‘down and out’ side. In all fairness, Breclav was a thriving metropolis….ten centuries ago. The Slavic hill fort settlement of Poshanko was excavated in 1958, meticulously reconstructed and is maintained by the Institute of Archeology and Museology. This example of an early feudal estate consisted of communal agrarian units, small nuclear families, from which many fine examples of pottery, jewelry and armaments survive. Or so I am told, as this knowledge was gained through a pamphlet. Besides, any side trips to see ceremonial drinking vessels, empty ones at that, would have deterred us from our assignment.
One of many beers during the trip.
Not being picky, but considerably unversed in the local Czech dialect, we had to poke our heads into a couple of ramshackle storefronts until we found one that had the look of a bar, that is, it had stools. Other than that we may as well have been in a tool shed, judging by the looks of the patrons and décor. While no English was spoken, I did detect a Guns and Roses tattoo on the lower backside of our bartender, as she bent over and banged her head on the cooler, while getting my Pilsner. The selection of what beer to choose was fairly easy. In the universal language of alcohol, it’s easy to order up a local brew….from the Frisian “bir” to the Japanese “biiru”, its academic when ordering.
Our little pub here had made it even more fun and easy by having a laminated poster from which you ordered. Not quite a menu, but more like one of those early 1960′s era barbershop posters that had all the men’s hairstyles on them. You would go in the shop with Dad and point at the Everly Brothers pompadour and as Dad winked at the barber you knew you were in for thes sixth buzz cut. Perusing the poster, I quickly calculated that 9am might be a tad early for something dark and heavy and went with the Krusovice Imperial. Slightly hazy, with a doughy aroma, its caramel color and earthy hops guaranteed a refreshing morning starter. Paying for the beer was another matter. The Czech Republic, while part of the 27 member EU, is not one of the 15 Euro currency countries, and gee whiz, we forgot to pack our Czech Korunas, for the difficult international currency transaction of paying for beer. Turning their nose up at our Euros, we were directed to the currency exchange, which as it turns out, was the next window over from the bar and in fact officiated by the bartender. Something very Sam Drucker-ish about the whole thing. Handing the bartender/banker a crisp US twenty, was met with an incredulous look. It is quite possible that she had never seen US currency before, as she viewed it as if it were a death warrant. Retreating to my other pocket, I laid a twenty Euro note on the counter, which was soon replaced by roughly 300 Czech Korunas. Each the size of a cardboard PGA tournament check. Now feeling flush with cash, I returned to the shed and we gleefully ordered another round. All told, six (or was it eleven?) beers cost a whopping seven Korunas. Looking to support the local economy, we decided it was our duty to cross the river.
The Dyjie meanders in serpentine fashion, and aided by the Morava River, joins the Danube on its eastward journey, finally emptying into the Black Sea. As Europe’s second longest river, the Danube flows for a distance of nearly 1,800 miles, passing through several Central and Eastern European capitals. The Danube has inspired waltzes, symphonies, a German school of landscape painting and even the Bulgarian National Anthem. The swirling, muddy Dyjie, however, conjures up images of gruel or sluicing. Nothing romantic or even remotely Sierra Club about it. Once across and turning down a lane parallel to the river, our now keen Czech pub senses kicked in. Keen in that our locator senses worked, but our common sense indicators could have used some honing. All in all, it was not a bad choice of bars, given that there were no good choices available. As HST so aptly put it, “When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro,” and this was a decidedly weird place.
It had a late 1950′s, Akron Ohio rec room feel, right down to the retro, leopard print bar with faux wood Formica top. A garish avocado colored sofa occupied a corner supported not by spindles or legs, but on concrete blocks. Many fist sized holes pocked the bar-room area paneling, including several behind the bar. But it was not so much the integrity of the room that fixed our interest, but the regulars that inhabited it. We had purchased our beers, (Zatec Lager, a jammy, coco dusted medium body brew, with a friendly molasses finish) and gathered ourselves away from the four locals enjoying their morning bingeing. A machine hanging on a nearby wall got my attention, with its flashing pinwheels lights and caricatures of grinning couples, but I was hard pressed to figure out if it was a jukebox or condom dispenser. Picking up on the English being spoke within our group, a townie decided to introduce himself. Or that’s how Fodors would have described it. Even among my Irish relatives, I have never seen someone so cataclysmically sodden. Coming at us like a monkey on roller skates, eyes swimming in tomatoey colored sockets, he burped out unintelligible utterances, before teetering backwards and slurring a reference about John Wayne. Our new pal ” Duke” graciously accepted our buying him a beer, but turned down the much more needed breath mints that we continually plied on him. Again, the universal language of alcohol proved a worthy ambassador as no coherent conversation would have taken place even if we spoke Czech or if the Duke spoke any human language. In mid-ramble, he dropped his beer bottle, bounced off a wall and bounded out the door. Peering out the window, I watched as the Duke slalomed down the river bank and for all I know floated his way to Romania.
Turning away from the window, I was met with the goofy, toothless grin of what we presumed to be the Dukes mom. With her mouth agape, we incorrectly ascertained that she too, was a willing drinking partner. However, this charmer had more hygienic interests in mind. A couple of gestures to her mouth, prompted us to gladly produce Tic-Tacs, Listerine Breath Strips or whatever similar product came out of our pockets quickest. Armed to the gums with the equivalent (for her at least) of oral Pine-Sol, she disappeared in the same manner as her son. Now alone in the bar, our gazed fixed on the bartender, who gave us a look of “I think it’s closing time”. Much as we would have liked to linger in Breclav longer, we were on a schedule. We bid adieu and headed back to the van where we found a sleeping Mike. This pattern would be repeated throughout the remainder of our odyssey.