I spent the weekend in Šumava, the mountains of southern Bohemia, with my friend, Kveta and her husband, Honza. They have talked of Šumava for as long as I have known them, and always that I should join them there, if ever there was time and good weather.
Finally it all came together and on Thursday I traveled by train and then by bus to meet Kveta and Honza in Stachy. They were waiting for me at the bus station and Honza shouldered my bag as we walked the lanes of his village to the home in which he was born.
Spring had come to Stachy, with early flowers blooming and the mornings rising soft and fine. The last of the snow had melted in Stachy only the day before, but on our afternoon walk up a gentle but insistent incline to the top of the ridge, we could see snow still blanketing the distant hills and mountains.
The Šumava mountains are ancient, similar to our Appalachians, and so they are small, made human-sized by the elements and worn down by time. They reminded me a bit of the hills of east Tennessee, and yet, they were nothing like them, either.
Three tribes of Celts spread throughout this area in 400 B.C., and Honza and his friends are proud of this heritage. I am a Celt, too, we determine. It has something to do with the way my index fingers look when placed side by side. I am more popular because of it.
We compare my fingers while sitting around the table of Honza’s childhood friend, Standa. He has telephoned for us to stop by on our way home from our walk. He serves us homemade steak tartare and mans the toaster, handing us hot slices of good Czech bread for the tartare, passed around on the end of a long fork.
The region is rich with natural beauty— peat bogs protected and preserved, but kitted with walkways, the Black Vltava River making its way to Prague over rocks in a rushing stream.
On Saturday, Honza, Kveta, and their friends, Mira and Marie, take me on a tour of the region. We will be gone all day.
We climb a high lookout in what is said to be the coldest place in these parts. We walked a snowy path, slick with melting snowpack, and here and there gigantic paw prints in the snow.
Fresh ones, it seemed to me, crisp around the edges like the impressions made by our shoes. A big dog, perhaps?
No, Honza said.
And it is cold up there, looking out on the mountains as the wind whips our facesand does its best to hide the coming spring from us. I take a couple of photos but decide that Honza has the right idea, and I follow him down the wooden steps, down three levels of them, until we reach the ground.
These mountains and this area have a complicated history. They lie in the Sudetenland, which Hitler exploited in the 1930’s. Under communism, because this area was so close to West Germany it was almost completely inhabited by the Soviet military, a buffer zone of sorts, , and we walked up a small gap in the spruce forest to a stone commemorating the people shot there as they tried to escape into Germany through the woods.
On a high hill I was snapping away at what was once an old church. Only the foundation is left and an outdoor altar has been erected with an artistic piece of amber glasswork depicting St. Martin. I was happily snapping my camera and I turn to take a few photos of the field beyond, a nice scene with cows.
“Thirty years ago you would have been shot for that,” Mira says. I stop. It scares me a little, even on this bright spring day, with friends.
Thirty years ago I wouldn’t even have been allowed on the spot, nor would Kveta, or Honza, or any of us. The military kept complete control of the area and Honza talked about not being allowed to travel, in his own country, his own region, just a few kilometers from his own back garden.
Earlier that day Kveta and I compared our childhoods. I learned to duck and cover. She learned to look out for American spies. I knew about bomb shelters. She knew about gas masks.
In Klatovy we visited a glass exhibit—Marie is an artist and was an excellent guide. Šumava was once an important area for glass factories. There are two types of rare sand here, white and black, beautiful pieces were made from it.
But then the communists came and destroyed the factories. Destroyed the exquisite glass. Destroyed the exquisite glass in the private homes of private citizens, throwing it out the windows, smashing it to the ground.
Because, of course, there was no private property.
Only a bit of this glass remains, smuggled to safety in children’s rucksacks.
Everywhere, if you look closely, or if Honza and Mira are there to point it out, you can see the remnants of the Soviet army, the remnants of freedoms and liberties, lives destroyed. How to make sense of it on a fine spring day, in an ancient place, with the Vtlava rushing, rushing on to Prague, and to the Elbe beyond.