Week 6, part 3

The walk from our penzion to the station in the "town" of Summerau, Austria.

Our conductor walks the platform during our first stop in the Czech Republic.

As soon as we left Linz for Summerau, we saw huge complexes of grey buildings with mazes of pipes and smokestacks lining the shores of a wide river carrying barges and other commercial traffic. We were getting a second look at the river we had seen as a small stream in the Black Forest: the Danube. It wasn't much longer before we were climbing into green rolling hills as darkness set in on the countryside. When we arrived in Summerau it was only about 5:00, but it was dark and quiet enough to make it feel like 10. We were in the middle of nowhere, and the station manager spoke only marginal English. It would be a couple of hours before the next train left for the Czech Republic, and it would require several connections after that to get anywhere of interest.

There were a couple of 20-something female backpackers at the station with us who were on their way to Cesky Krumlov.* This is a destination that comes with many high recommendations, and we wish we had had time to go there. From our "conversation" with the station manager, we were directed toward a penzion 500 meters off into the darkness. We wonder what those girls must have been thinking as they saw us disappear into the darkness of this remote countryside on the Austrian-Czech border. (* Many Czech words and place names use accents, haczeks - a little smiley symbol - and other markings over their letters. These markings are important in differentiating words and pronouncing them properly. To facilitate compatibility with English-language "plain text," we are forced to leave out these markings. We hope that everyone understands, and that no one gets confused by our using words that are, in effect, misspelled.)

The road we were pointed to went up a wind-swept hillside, where we could smell the "dairy air" and passed an occasional house. At the top of the hill we came to a highway, but no obvious sign of our zimmer. We saw a well-lit building on the corner and knocked on the door. It was some sort of business, and there was one man inside working late. He didn't speak English either. We said, "zimmer?" and he pointed across the road. We finally found the doorway, and the German-speaking lady there had a very nice room that cost us 440 schillings (<$30) including breakfast. She summoned her English-speaking daughter to help us discuss the details of breakfast, and where we could go to find dinner.

Dinner came from a bar that we had passed on the way up, and it turned out to be a feast that cost us about $20, which included the cost of two pints of fine local lager. Our server spoke two languages: German and Czech ... after all, this was a border town. Speaking slightly more Czech than German, we got our first use of a language that Obbie invested several weeks in studying, but ordering was still a struggle that involved constant references to our dictionaries.

A direct train to Prague left Summerau at shortly before 9 on Wednesday morning. After a good breakfast, we said a German good-by to our fine Austrian hostess as we paid her. As we made our way back to the bahnhof, we could see the rolling green hills of the countryside that we had inhabited for one night. A Czech train was waiting for us as we arrived, and we climbed aboard a second-class car ... our passes did not cover the Czech Republic, so we had to buy our tickets there as we went. On this day we opted for the cheap seats.

Our train car made us feel almost like we were entering the third world. The seats of our compartment resembled the bench seats of American cars from the late 40's. In fact, the entire car felt like it could have been built shortly after the second world war. We found painted steel where we'd usually seen lamination, the doors were heavy and crude but rugged and functional, and the bathrooms resembled those found in remote parks in the north woods. On a later trip we noticed that a similar toilet released its contents straight out the bottom of the train and onto the tracks. Something to think about if one ever considers walking along railroad tracks in Eastern Europe.

Before the train started moving, we were greeted by many people wearing uniforms. First was our conductor: a tall, young guy with a pony tail who spoke enough English to sell us our tickets. We were charged 120 schillings (about $40) for both of us to make the 4-hour trip to Prague. We didn't have exact change, so he gave us our change in Czech koruny. Next came a couple of guys asking us for our passports, which they stamped and handed back to us. Obbie said, "dekuji," (Czech for "thank you") to which they responded, "What you say?" We didn't know they were Austrians checking us on our way out. "Uh, danke," we responded with a good-natured acknowledgement.

The Czechs came through shortly later. The passport officer was accompanied by a customs officer. It was the first time we were asked, "do you have anything to declare? ... cigarettes? ... alcohol?" We did not, so the friendly young lady moved on. Not long after that, the train started moving. For the first hour or two, we followed a very scenic and winding course through the mountains that seperate the Czech Republic from Austria. We passed many farms, but we did not see any cows. In fact, as this is being written, we have just left the Czech Republic, and after a total of 15 hours on trains in this country, we never saw a single cow. No one has been able to explain why.

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