A few minutes earlier I had checked into a Spartan hotel on the town’s main, triangular-shaped square, where the friendly receptionist almost gasped when I told here where I was from. “New York?!” she said, covering her mouth, reacting as if I said I’d gone on a walk, got lost, and ended up here a couple miles from the Czech-Austrian border.
Which was sort of true. I had just finished a 15-mile walk where I strolled by a plus-sized monastery in the middle of nowhere, around crumbling medieval Landstejn castle, through a field dotted with World War II-era bunkers. I was hiking around the southern part of the Czech Republic, following a series of trails that goes from Prague to Vienna. And what I really wanted at this moment was a beer. I got several of them, thanks to my waitress.
And then, about 15 minutes later, as my beer was three-quarters finished (I’m a fast drinker), there she was again. “Here you go,” she said, setting down another pint next to my nearly empty glass. I took a few swigs of beer and tried jotting something down in my notebook. I was already starting to feel a little tipsy. Then, a few minutes later, boom! Another pint landed in front of me, and she was gone. A soccer match was on the TV. No one seemed to care about it except for a Grizzly Adams-looking guy. I considered trying to talk to him, but thought better of it when I saw someone ask if the empty chair at his table was free and he responded with a growl.
These kinds of pubs – where an almost-empty pint glass is an invitation to have another – were once de rigeur in the Czech Republic. They’ve slowly faded into history now, a relic of the Communist days when you could sit in a pub all day and not worry about losing your job. If you look hard enough, though, there are still some around. U Zlateho Tygra and U Hrocha in Prague are two where you still might find this kind of service in Prague.
Or come to Slavonice. Tourism here was nonexistent during the communist era. It was simply too close to the border for the ruling government’s comfort. Over two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, tourists are still not really coming, which is a shame because this town is a gem. Founded in the 12th century, Slavonice began to flourish during the 15th and 16th centuries, as it was on the main trade route between Prague and Vienna, hence the many remarkable Renaissance houses that line the gorgeous triangle-shaped square. But damage from the Thirty Years War, the return of the plague in 1680, and a change in the trade route caused the city’s rapid decline. By the 20th century, its unfortunate location next to the border kept the communists from building in the town as well. No one was allowed to move this close to the border – unless, of course, you were a proven tried and true party-liner. That’s why today, little exists outside of the square. There are a couple streets past the town’s thick late-medieval walls. Then the town just stops. There’s no sprawl of dreary communist-era concrete block apartment buildings, no modern grid-like tract homes.
Today, part of the town’s population is made up of artists who fled the big city – that would be Prague – for a quieter refuge. There are a few art galleries sprinkled around town and a hip hotel, Besidka, where every room was designed by a different artist.
I didn’t get to see any of those art galleries. Because 90 minutes and several beers later, I needed a nap. The waitress appeared in front of me again with a freshly poured pint in her hand. “Okay, last one,” I said in slurred Czech. She laughed. So did a few other people sitting around me, knowing that the waitress just put me to bed for the night. I stumbled up to the hotel room and fell into bed.