It’s been a while since, well I posted anything, but especially since I took and wrote about another European adventure. It’s been a busy year with work, visits and plenty to do in London but on 2 September I dove head first into one of the most unique and adventurous trips I’ve taken to date. From Gatwick Airport in London, I flew to Prague, in the Czech Republic, where I would meet up with another Radical Travel group (this trip was under their Eastern Trekker tours, last year’s Greece trip was with their group Busabout, and I’ve also travelled with their Shamrocker tours to Ireland and Haggis Adventures to Wales. The experience has always been so great I just keep booking with their companies!). We would be taking a whirlwind tour of the highlights of Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia in 9 days. Whew!
Despite an earlier than necessary arrival at Gatwick, I still ended up getting into Prague quite a bit later than I expected (due to travel delay caused by “EasyJet crew member deciding not to show up for work” according to our pilot. Real professionalism there!). Although my hostel for the first night was easy enough to find – and I ended up taking a cab anyway – this unfortunately meant I saw absolutely nothing of the city aside from the drive in and drive out the next morning. I’ve heard amazing things about Prague and so I’ll definitely make a point to travel back some day but at midnight all I wanted to do was get some rest before meeting the group the next morning.
An early start saw me and about 35 groggy Australians filing into our massive Eastern Trekker coach, in which we would spend a lot of time over the next nine days. The antipodean majority of the trip (I was the only American and there were two Canadians, we were later joined by a couple of Brits but everyone else was Aussie or Kiwi) seemed a bit overwhelming to me. I’m always impressed by the Aussie travel culture in which young people will travel through Europe, living in hostels and out of a backpack, for three, five, seven, twelve months at a time. Their stamina isn’t just limited to moving between major European destinations – they also manage a party spirit throughout. Regardless of my misgivings, I quickly found that I had some incredibly fun and friendly tripmates and, just as important, our fun, friendly and slightly goofy tour leader and driver who would be guiding us through the sights, parties, food, languages and border crossings of the five countries we would see on our trip.
We rolled out of Prague, and again the brief views made me wish I had more time, and onwards to Olomouc, a rural Czech town and our first stop for the night. However on the way we had a really special detour planned to the tiny town of Sedlec. There, in the middle ages, an abbot of the church had gone on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and had returned with a jar of dirt from Jerusalem which he spread on the grounds of his church. News of this drove thousands in the area to bury their loved ones there and as the timing corresponded with the Plague, this became a mass grave. When a new church was built in the 15th and 16th century, a new church was built on the site, the bones of the buried exhumed and piled in a corner in the church.
In 1870, an artist was commissioned to restack the bones – but he did more than that, using the human remains to design chandeliers, coats of arms, candle holders, alters and more – the entire church is filled with the bones of between 40,000 and 70,000 individuals who were buried in the original churchyard and unsurprisingly, the Sedlec Ossuary is known more commonly as the Church of Human Bones. Surprisingly, although the place was certainly macabre, the feel was not eerie or morbid but still retained the grandeur of a church and the tastefulness of a memorial. It was definitely one of the most unique sites I had ever seen and my trip had barely begun.
After Sedlec, we carried on into Olomouc where we’d be staying for the night. Olomouc is quite rural but home to the largest university in the Czech Republic so quite a student town. We had a walking tour of the town centre which, I would come to realise, was quite similar to a number of the other towns we’d be seeing with a central town square surrounding a main public building, and a spiderweb of streets leading out from the square. The walking tour was brief – it wasn’t a very big town – but despite the beautiful churches and residences, and the lovely town square where we even had time for a glass of wine in an open air café under the large clocktower, the main highlights of the evening were still to come.
We had been warned that a major part of our trip would focus around the local delicacies – and that in most of the places we were visiting these would be anything but delicate. Eastern European food conjures up images of hearty roasts, meaty stews, thick sausages and lots and lots of vodka. This image hits the mark (as our tour guide said gleefully when asked about vegetarian options, “oh, vegetarians have SO many options! You have baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, smashed potatoes, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes….”) and tonight was our first chance to experience this for ourselves. The Czech local menu was overwhelmingly meat heavy with options like chicken ala duck, sausage platters and more. I opted for the goulash, a delicious stew-like serving of boiled meat, onions, potatoes and spices, served with thick potato pancakes. After that and a few Czech beers I was feeling perfectly content with the world.
But instead of calling it a night after our wonderful dinner, our guide directed us instead to an outskirt of the city where, he warned, we should prepare for takeoff because it was time for the airplane party. This Eastern Trekker tradition involves a permanently grounded Soviet-era plane (which, the story goes, was gifted to the town of Olomouc for being good communists) that had been converted into a bar and nightclub. Although we were the only attendees at the airplane party (a good thing too – our group of nearly 40 was definitely hitting capacity) it was a great social first night, another unbelievably unique venue and an opportunity to sample some of that famous Eastern European vodka.
Although the party was clearly going to be raging until the early hours, I took the opportunity to head back to our hotel a bit earlier than that – the next day was going to be Poland and Auschwitz and with a new country ahead of us, I was going to be getting plenty of sleep to make the most of it.