the view from St. Moritz

as you, my readers, might know, I usually try to fill my posts with lots of historically-relevant information about my travels. this post will focus more on the pictures.

as I’ve mentioned, Olomouc is a fantastic town. there’s lots to see and do and has a refreshingly un-touristy feel to it. one of the first places recommended to me upon reaching my hostel was the tower of the St. Moritz Cathedral (seen here). from the top, there are spectacular views of the town and surrounding area. the church was built between 1412 and 1540, and the tower up which I climbed is a remnant of a 13th century structure. my first attempt to climb the tower was thwarted by the conclusion of a funeral, complete with tubas and other appropriately somber brass instruments. later (after climbing the tower), I stepped in to see what the church looked like; I don’t recall ever being in a church during post-funeral clean-up, and it was rather interesting. women were sweeping up petals from the flower arrangements, picking up items left behind by mourners; one of the women stopped to answer her cell phone while cleaning. it was also interesting to see a thoroughly work-a-day church that’s somewhat down-at-the-heels and in need of repairs. there was even a sign out in front tracking donations to repair the roof. apparently the annual International Organ Festival is only enough to keep the organ in good repair … (the festival occurs in September every year; the Cathedral’s organ is “Moravia’s mightiest”, though I missed it by some weeks.)

the climb up the tower, while worth it, was the most terrifying climb I’ve ever made. the first portion sticks to the stone steps of the original tower, but the second part gives over to open-grate metal stairs that, while sturdy, rendered my knees quite weak. I’ve never had a particular problem with heights, but something about those stairs that nearly prevented me from mounting them. it’s rather hard to describe — something about being able to see how far it was to the level below, clinging to the exterior wall with a growing certainty that those stairs won’t hold your weight …but eventually I emerged through the flap door onto the roof. and the panoramic views were worth it.

Dolni namesti from St. Moritz,
City Hall on the left, Plague column on the right

astronomical clocks, pt. 2: Olomouc

despite the radiance of the Prague Clock, I found the clock in Olomouc (along with almost everything to do with the town) equally or more impressive and much, much less touristy. part of this stems, as alluded to in recent posts, from Olomouc’s interesting relationship with the realities and after-effects of communism, lasting realities that one can see with the city’s own Astronomical Clock.

also dating from the early 1400s (1420 in this instance), clock-makers remodeled and updated the Olomouc clock every century or so until, in 1945, as in Prague, the retreating Nazi army blasted the hell out of the clock, leaving only a few pieces to start a collection in the nearby history museum. the new communist regime proved keen to rebuild the clock, but naturally eschewed the religious aesthetic of the destroyed clock for one more representative and suitable for the ideal(ized) socialist state. rather than kings and saints, the clock features athletes, workers, farmers and scientists. while the calendar face still contains a listing of saints days, it also lists important dates in communist history, such as Stalin’s birthday.

after the end of communist rule, the new democratic regime elected to remove and/or destroy much of the statuary and public art associated with or a product of the socialist state. the remarkable nature and detail of the Olomouc clock, however, saved it from destruction and, as I said, it’s absolutely fascinating to behold. when compared to the clock in Prague, the mosaic background of the Olomouc clock sets it apart — and above, for me. the Olomouc clock has the lengthy chronology and the same weight of history, but with the additional, intriguing dimension provided by the social-realist redesign.

and perhaps even more winningly, standing and waiting for the noon display in Olomouc, I didn’t have to contend with anyone for a good view. well, no one apart from a pack of three-foot tall kindergartners in yellow safety vests on a field trip. but they didn’t do much to obstruct my view.

modern (Cold War) global realities confront ancient fortifications

another interesting remnant of the communist regime in Olomouc: a fallout bunker built into the base of the city wall. during the Cold War, the Civil Defense Association decided that the best place for an impenetrable bunker of safety, in the event of nuclear holocaust, was deep inside and/or beneath the city walls. standing at the very edge of the Iron Curtain, it’s easy to understand why officials in the Czech Republic might worry about impending war with the west. early annexation by Nazi Germany may have spared the nation the kind of damage visited upon active war zones (Dresden is less than 50km from the Czech border, and only 150km from Prague), but fear of destruction in an East-West conflict seemed perfectly reasonable.
and so, the Civil Defense Association carved a hole into the city’s centuries-old defensive wall and installed your standard, ugly mid-century nuclear bunker. the city now runs tours of it, though I don’t know how keen I’d feel to enter through that gated door on the left. (tours weren’t running while I was there.)
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Attention! Comrades of Olomouc a message from the Party

more than anywhere else I visited, the remnants of the Communist regime appeared most frequently around Olomouc. while the town certainly has its share of historic sites at its core it feels like your average working, university town, albeit one that has undergone changes in the last two decades. while I’m sure one could say the same about other places, like Prague and Brno, Olomouc seems like a work in progress, as an evolving, thriving city. in Český Krumlov there was a concerted effort to restore the medieval character of the town to appeal to tourists, and Prague readily embraced capitalist/consumerist culture and adapted itself to suit the new system and obfuscate elements of communism that didn’t fit into a limited, easily-quantifiable box of history.

in Olomouc, however, you see things like these speakers, still attached to a light post in Dolni nam (one of two large town squares), twenty-one years after the Velvet Revolution. the speakers broadcast messages from the Party to residents of Olomouc — the importance of productivity, working for the betterment of the state and society, admonitions not to worry about reports of unrest in Prague, what are you talking about “velvet revolution”? students don’t protest – that’s just silly. whether a reminder of the past or simply a matter of expending resources on more important things, Olomouc still has some of these unique remnants that more seamlessly blended that part of the past into the present for me, reminded me that the present builds upon the past and no matter how ardently we might deny what we have or have not done, those events remain part of our nature and sense of self.

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a pedometer would be handy

after some consideration, I’ve settled on a unifying element of my trip to the Czech Republic: walking. my accidental 28km hike was just one of many foot-borne excursions I enjoyed during my travels. Czechs, I came to understand, enjoy their outdoor activities and hiking and biking trails snake everywhere across the countryside. before I left, I spotted tips in my guidebook for people looking to hike the length of either the Czech Republic or Slovakia and thought the idea absurd — what country has the hiking infrastructure to allow people to hike that far? to make an enjoyable vacation out of the activity?

the Czech Republic, I now know, for one. presumably Slovakia for another.

I went into a bookstore in Wenceslas Square in Prague looking for a standard, nationwide roadmap like the one I got in Ireland and there were nearly as many detailed local and regional ordinance survey recreational maps as there were for maps for the rest of the world. walks around Český Krumlov, around Prague, around Štramberk, around Olomouc, around Brno, around the Mikulov region … you name it, there was a recreation map to cover your needs. maybe two.

however, for those like me who don’t deem such detailed ordinance maps necessary, the trails are so adequately marked that you’ll do all right without them. as long as you know your destination, or the next town on your path, then the periodic signposts and painted markings on trees and farmhouse corners will lead you in the right direction. of course, you might be better off to have the hyper-detailed maps (or at least to consult them during a planning stage) so that you don’t end up hiking three times farther than you think you will hike and run most of the way back to town so as not to miss the last bus back to where you’re spending the night … but that adventure is for another post.

public transportation

I’ve had a draft post on public transportation waiting for me to expound on it for months — I use it whenever I travel and it has a sameness/ foreignness from place to place that begs comparison. the more I travel, the easier it become to adapt to different systems and, whether because of that or not, the public transportation systems of the Czech Republic were the easiest I have ever navigated. despite the occasional language barrier (most window clerks understood English), I always got to my destination — more or less leaving and arriving on time.

the systems are a public-private hybrid that offer a quite a variance in speed, comfort, and accessibility. the ones most heavily patronized by tourists were often much nicer (the train to Karlstejn versus the local I rode from Olomouc to Prague, as seen to the left, illustrates my point), which makes sense for an economy that relies as much on tourism as that of Czech. the one to Karlstejn reminded me of riding the Metra into Chicago from the nicer suburbs on a Saturday; on the ride from Olomouc I had the car to myself until a Czech woman with a fully-stocked traveller’s backpack joined me. (she chatted to people on the platform before the train departed, and then picked up a Czech romance novel once we got going.)

in the two larger towns I visited — Prague and Olomouc — there is a combination of buses, trams, and (in the case of Prague) metro. for the trams and subways, fares are collected on a kind of honor system. passengers are expected to purchase tickets from tabacs or yellow fare machines in stations for the correct fare, and then validate them upon boarding the tram or train. there aren’t any turnstyles in the metro stations, just validation machines, which struck me as rather odd after experiencing the lengths to which other cities go to prevent people from skipping turnstyles.

I say it’s regulated by a kind of honor system, though, because there are routine checks by transport police, who stop passengers and demand to see validated tickets. I encountered them twice while I was traveling, once on the Prague metro and once on the tram in Olomouc. the guys in Prague were standing in the exit tunnel in obvious police garb, trying to catch as many people as they could streaming up from the station platform. in Olomouc, a couple of (rather ratty-looking) plainclothes officers got on the tram before a long stretch between stops to check tickets, then got off. that pair even dutifully validated their tickets on boarding the tram, then tucked them away as they got off. (tickets are usually good for 60-75 minutes, to allow for transfers — I wonder if these transport cops validated new tickets every time they got onto a new bus or tram?)


apparently there have been problems (whether past or present) with non-police types taking it upon themselves to check passengers for tickets — and then collecting the fine of upwards of 500 crowns (around $30) for not having a validated ticket. to rectify that, legit officers carry silver-dollar sized, red shields that identify them as such. I had no idea what the guy who stopped me in Prague wanted, until I realized that he was half-heartedly holding up his transport badge, not just holding his arm at an awkward angle by his belt.
(the issue of transport police doesn’t arise on longer-distance buses, as you purchase your ticket from the driver, and then it’s on your honor to get off at the destination that you paid for.)

is the honor-system profitable? probably not as much as the tightly regulated systems of London or New York, but it does make for easier ingress and egress and an overall faster metro or tram ride.