A Day in Cheb // Ein Tag in Eger

A short drive from here, say twenty minutes, lands you in the Czech Republic. We haven’t taken as much advantage of this as you’d think, unlike a lot of border-dwellers, who pop across regularly for cheaper fuel and a perusal of the tax free shop. Last year we drove to Pilsen for the day, but we’re yet to get to Prague together (I was there in 2007 with my backpacking pals, it was a blur of huge meals, castles, unbelievably strong schnapps, and Kafka). Prague is on the list of places to cover while we’re living here. As is Budapest. And the Black Forest. And, you know, loads of other places, should time and money permit us the luxury.

Eine kurze Autofahrt von hier, circa 20 Minuten, und man landet in der Tschechischen Republik. Wir haben nicht so viele Vorteile ausgenutzt wie man vielleicht denken würde, im Gegensatz zu vielen Grenzbewohnern, die regelmäßig für billigen Kraftstoff und die Travel- Free Shops hinüberfahren. Letztes Jahr fuhren wir für einen Tag nach Pilsen, aber bis jetzt sind wir noch nicht zusammen in Prag gewesen (ich war dort im Jahr 2007 mit meinen Rucksackreisefreunden und es war eine Mischung aus riesigen Mahlzeiten, Burgen, unglaublich starkem Schnaps und Kafka). Prag ist auf der Liste von Orten, welche wir besuchen möchten, solange wir hier wohnen. Genau so wie Budapest. Und der Schwarzwald. Ebenso wie viele andere Orte, sollten Zeit und Geld uns diesen Luxus gönnen.

A water feature in Cheb's old town square.
A water feature in Cheb’s old town square.

But to Cheb (Eger, to the Germans), a town that has enjoyed – for lack of a better word – a tumultuous history that has seen it volleyed back and forth between kingdoms, countries, regimes, and states, since it was first officially proclaimed as a town in 1203. It has been Slavic, East Franconian, Swabian, and Bohemian, invaded by Sweden, proclaimed as a free royal town, burnt down, reigned over by a man who married his daughter and fathered two children with her (indeed the town square is named after him), the publishing home of National Socialism publication Der Hammer, visited and marched upon by Hitler, annexed to Germany and returned to (then) Czechoslovakia. It has also seen civil unrest between its Sudetenland German population and the Czechoslovak administration, and after WW2, the Sudetenland population were expelled and sought refuge in Bamberg.

Phew. A lot can happen in around eight hundred years.

Cheb (Eger für die Deutschen) hat, in Ermangelung eines besseren Wortes, eine turbulente Geschichte genossen. Es wurde zwischen Königreichen, Ländern, Regierungen und Staaten hin und hergestoßen, seitdem es im Jahre 1203 offiziell den Stadtstatus erhalten hat. Die Stadt war Slawisch, Ostfränkisch, Schwäbisch und Böhmisch, wurde durch die Schweden erobert und als freie königliche Stadt verkündet, niedergebrannt und beherrscht von einem Mann, der seine eigene Tochter heiratete und ihr zwei Kinder schenkte (in der Tat ist der Stadtplatz nach ihm benannt). Außerdem wurde in Cheb die nationalsozialistische Zeitung “Der Hammer” veröffentlich. Die Stadt wurde von Hitler besucht und später eingenommen, nach dem Krieg jedoch wieder an die damalige Tschechoslowakei zurückgegeben. Außerdem hat Cheb Unruhen zwischen den deutschen Sudeten und der tschechoslowakischen Regierung gesehen. Nach dem 2. Weltkrieg wurden die deutschen Sudeten vertrieben und fanden in Bamberg Zuflucht.

Puh. In rund 800 Jahren kann eine Menge geschehen.

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Cheb castle

Forty-five minutes after leaving Weiden, we pulled into a carpark manned by an old man with perfect German and a bum-bag. We paid him his calculated-on-the-spot fee and found ourselves in George of Podebrady (remember the man who married his daughter?) Square, the centre of the old town. Each building was a different colour, the square seemingly hemmed by rows of (ornately roofed) sweets.

Fünfundvierzig Minuten nachdem wir Weiden verlassen hatten, fuhren wir auf einen Parkplatz, welcher von einem alten, deutsch sprechenden Mann mit Bauchtasche bewacht wurde. Wir bezahlten die im Kopf berechneten Parkgebühren und fanden uns auf dem George von Podebrady (erinnert ihr euch an den Mann, der seine Tochter geheiratet hat?) Platz wieder, dem Zentrum der Altstadt. Jedes Gebäude hatte eine andere Farbe, der Platz war umgeben von bonbonfarbenen, kunstvoll gedeckten Gebäuden.

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Examples of Špalíček houses (late Gothic period).

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We wandered down an alley that is a remnant from the Middle Ages, a classic example of where villagers dumped their waste, encouraging infestations of rats. Now it’s clean an sweet-coloured too, but I like to think the faint scent of years of human waste still lingers.

Wir wanderten durch eine Gasse, welche ein Überbleibsel aus dem Mittelalter und ein klassisches Beispiel dafür ist, wo die Bewohner ihren Abfall entsorgten und so den Rattenbefall förderten. Jetzt ist die Gasse sauber und bunt gestrichen, aber mir kommt es so vor, als könnte ich den schwachen Duft der jahrelang hier entsorgten menschlichen Abfälle noch riechen.

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The coloured houses followed us, or we them, to Cheb Castle.

Die farbigen Häuser folgten uns, oder wir ihnen, bis zu Cheb’s Burg.

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Cheb Castle dates back to around 1180, and while not a lot is left of it today, it’s still quite something. You cannot, however, smoke a pipe upon entering its grounds, grounds which contain old Slavic graves, original turrets and a big old canon. And elevated views across the town.

Die Burg Chebs stammt aus der Zeit um 1180. Von ihr ist nicht mehr viel übrig, aber doch noch genug für einen Besuch. Man darf jedoch keine Pfeife auf dem Gelände rauchen, welches alte slawische Gräber, originale Türmchen und große, alte Kanonen beherbergt, ebenso wie einen erhöhten Blick über die Stadt.

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What does remain intact is the two-storeyed Chapel of St Erhard and Ursula. The narrowest of winding staircases that separates the levels is punctuated by holes in the wall, in which they have recreated rooms as they would have been used hundreds of years ago.

Noch übrig ist die intakte zweistöckige Kapelle St. Erhard und Ursula. Die enge Wendeltreppe, welche die Ebenen trennt, wird durch Löcher in der Wand unterbrochen, in denen sich nachgebaute Zimmer befinden, so wie sie vor Hunderten von Jahren verwendet wurden

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The Black Tower also remains and a heart-attack inducing will spit you out at the top of it. The steps are a touch rickety, and my God, my legs still hurt … but … it was all red roofs and the wonderful Church of St Nicolas.

Auch der Schwarze Turm steht noch. Eine sehr enge Öffnung spuckt einen auf seiner Spitze aus. Die Schritte sind ein wenig wackelig und, mein Gott, meine Beine tun immer noch weh, aber all das war es wert für die roten Dächer und die wunderschöne Kirche St. Nicolas.

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We didn’t, of course, leave without eating – goulash for me, a meat plate for my more carnivorous German family – or stopping by the tax-free shop to pick up an assortment of arbitrary treats like Bassets Wine Gums and litre bottles of Ouzo and Baileys.

Wir sind natürlich nicht ohne zu essen zurückgefahren, Gulasch für mich, Fleischplatten für meine fleischliebende deutsche Familie, und auch nicht ohne bei dem Travel- Free Shop anzuhalten um ein Sortiment an willkürlichen Leckereien wie Bassets Wine Gums und Literflaschen Ouzo und Baileys zu kaufen.

A splendid day out, indeed.

Ein herrlicher Tag, in der Tat.

Catch up on the posts from the bilingual post challenge (that I set myself):

*** This was a far, far more complicated post than I a) should do and b) am capable of doing solo. Much thanks must go to SG, who gently suggested perhaps next time I try writing shorter, simpler sentences. I believe I shall. ***

A Day Trip to Pilsen

Yesterday, temperatures hit 20 degrees. In celebration of life reentering this hemisphere, I did two things; wore a skirt (a long one, my legs are not public-ready yet) and we decided to cross a border, a favourite past time of mine. The border we chose is a particularly close one – a mere 30km – and took us into the Czech Republic. We were headed for the town of Pilsen (Plzeň) famous for its beer and, as Wikipedia informed me, the second largest synagogue in Europe, Baroque architecture and a printing press.

We elected to take the route without tolls, just to inject a touch of spontaneity into the day, and on our way, came across this Bavarian vista:

Nothing like rolling green hills and a village on a church-topped hill, to remind one exactly what part of the world they are in.

Once we were over the border, several things happened.  Large, Bangkok style fake-goods bazaars popped up in the middle of unassuming villages. Petrol prices dropped remarkably – service stations were full of solid German cars filling up. The landscape changed its hue from green to shades of yellow and the stout, well maintained houses of German villages were replaced with the less stout, less well maintained houses of Czech villages. The difference, to be honest, was remarkable, and not just because I have spent long enough in Germany to come to expect the world’s houses to be sturdy and constantly freshly painted. The switch from gleaming to ramshackle, more than anything, threw into sharp relief, the German adherence to doing things well. Ditto with the roads. SG was horrified at the sight of patchy, slightly bumpy roads- as a Sydneysider, I wasn’t. No one maintains things like the Germans – roads, houses, cars. Actually, scrap that, no one makes things like the Germans.

And so we wound our way through the Czech countryside, through patches of forest, out across vast expanses of yellowed pasture. There were times of great, fairy tale esque beauty, and times of suspecting we were driving through the location used to film the Hostel films.

We reached Pilsen in just under two hours – and vowed to use the toll roads on the way home, if only to avoid Hostel film location creepiness at dusk – and found a park with ease. I remarked I wanted to do nothing but find a cafe, order a glass of wine and sit in the sun. Having absolutely no plans (unusual) beyond drinking a Pilsner in Pilsen, SG agreed. As it transpired, having no plans was a good thing because, as it also transpired, everything in Pilsen is closed on a Saturday. Good thing we didn’t want to see anything – or, better put, didn’t really know what there was to be seen.

The first sight that greeted us was this rather stately one …

Cathedral of St. Bartholomew

… and directly opposite it was a cafe with chairs in the sun. I voted we take a load off there. Granted it was 5 minutes from where we had parked the car and the whole of Pilsen was yet to be discovered, but the whole of Pilsen, it was plain to see, was closed. We pressed on for a little while, SG positively certain there had to be more. We walked down little polished stone streets and admired brightly painted old houses and shop fronts …

… until it became apparent the lone cafe that was a) open and b) had seats in the sun, was the one we first came across. And so we made the grave error of returning to it, SG disappointed in himself that he hadn’t planned ahead and chosen a day on which the city was actually open. I said expecting a city of 150,000 people + to be open on a Saturday was an easy mistake to make. Anyone could make it.

I won’t rant unnecessarily, but the cafe we returned to was a farce. I had to ask the waitress twice – and very politely – whether she was going to come outside and take our order and the second time she referred me to her colleague who could speak English and her colleague barked at me, ‘I have no time. Go outside, I will come.’ She didn’t come. And when she did, it was because SG waved her over. I lost it. I became the nightmare westerner who is horrified by poor service. And let it be said, I am not horrified easily. Men have defecated by dumpsters in Madrid, vomited on themselves in Greece and ordered another round of sambuccas. I have enjoyed the searing snobbiness of Sydney’s various social scenes. I don’t get pissed off that easily, but when I am sitting in your cafe for nearly half an hour and I have had to ask you twice if you are going to deign to take my order at any point, and you have essentially spat on my politely phrased request and then ignored me, that is when I get pissed off.

And so we left. Before I got violent. Or became that dreaded tourist who complains loudly because things aren’t the same as they are ‘at home’. I don’t want to be that girl.

We wound up at a small Italian place (why is it that no matter where I go in the world, I always eat pizza?) where the waitstaff were completely lovely, menus appeared on tables within moments of sitting down and the waiter wanted to practice his German.

SG finally got his Pilsner in Pilsen …

… and I got my two glasses of white wine. Then we had ice cream. Balance was restored.

Pilsen is a lovely city and with the sun shining it was even lovelier, although I would imagine, dark skies and rain wouldn’t do its mystery a disservice. It is old and pretty and romantic, the Europe of postcards and film. There seem to be plenty of cafes and restaurants and bars and the cultural vein pulsing beneath the quaintness of it all is evident in the tiny museums, antique shops and hole in the wall galleries.

Just don’t go on a Saturday. And don’t go to a cafe directly in front of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral. Apart from that, enjoy.

Driving home, I realised what crossing borders does, when one is in the process of making somewhere new a home. It makes you miss your home. It makes what you have left behind for the day or the weekend, seem cosy and welcoming upon returning to it. Yesterday wasn’t just about checking out another city – it was about starting to feel at home in my new town. As we crossed the border back into Germany, and the signs became readable once more, and the crazy Bavarian dialect came back on the radio, a little something clicked. This new part of the world became a little less new and a little more familiar. A little more like home.