Petřín Hill; Cable car; Mirror maze; Issues with the hostel at Macocha indicate something may be going wrong; Prague to Blansko; Arriving in Blansko after everything is closed... or so we thought; An expensive hotel

Our last day in Prague, and we planned to use as much of it as we could. In the morning we crossed town and the river, and took the cable car up to the top of Petřín Hill. It was raining again, but the views of the city were still good and we both love cable cars (I’m not really sure why, they’re just fun). We’d heard about a mirror labyrinth at the top of the hill from our friend Dave. I don’t like to spend a lot of time looking at my ugly mug in mirrors, but Sheryl wanted to go and we checked it out online and the pictures looked neat. The building housing it, when we found it beside the Eiffel-Tower-lookalike, was large and so the labyrinth seemed promising. We paid the admission fee of 70Kč with a bit of a flinch, but since we were there already and wanted to go…

The so-called labyrinth was one of the biggest tourist ripoffs I’ve ever seen, and I grew up in a tourist town so I know what I’m talking about. It was no more than 8 or 10 meters long, and there were no possible turns or branches - it was basically a single twisting mirrored hallway. At the end of it was a painting depicting the defeat of an invading Swedish army during the Thirty Years’ War, and after that was a room of funhouse mirrors. The whole thing took us no more than five minutes to go through, and that was only because we went through twice looking for something we might have missed. Walking quickly, you could go through it in thirty seconds. We left feeling angry and cheated, and we wanted to tell everyone waiting in line not to waste their money - I’m not sure why we didn’t. We should have.

Back down the hill, where our next stop was the tourist information bureau for the Czech Republic in Starometskyé nám. We wanted to check two things: first, that my attempt to make a reservation at a hikers’ hostel in Macocha had succeeded; and second, to try and book tickets for the Punkevní Cave, one of our reasons for visiting the area. The woman we spoke to assured us that we didn’t need to make reservations for the cave, that we could just show up any time and we could take the tour. This made us happy, because we’d been told we should book two weeks ahead for this particular cave tour, and since two weeks ago we hadn’t even known we’d be in the country, we hadn’t. As for the hostel reservation, we had to continue to take our chances, because she wasn’t able to get through - no one picked up the phone. This should have been our first warning that something was going wrong. I can’t say I was filled with confidence at the development, but travel is full of setbacks and uncertainties and things don’t always go smoothly (in fact it’s a rare and pleasant surprise when something does). I told myself that we’d deal with whatever came when we arrived in Blansko.

Blansko was the next stop - or rather, the train station was. We got there and got our tickets in good time, and found, again, what we thought was the right train. The station name at the first stop confirmed that we did, so all was good. We knew we had one change of train at Třebová but we were confident we’d make it. We settled back in our individual seats and relaxed. Attentive readers will have noticed that I wrote individual seats, which is the mark of a first-class compartment in Czech trains, as distinguished from the second-class bench seating, a fact we hadn’t realized until the conductor came to take our tickets and made us move. The switch of seats wasn’t such a great hardship, though - I can do without an armrest, I’m tough that way.

As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, though, Czech trains can be relied upon to run between five and ten minutes late, and this one was no exception. I began to worry about missing our connection in Třebová, and as we finally approached the stop I was more or less resigned to waiting for the next train. Happily the connecting train had waited for ours, and we ran hell-bent for leather down the platform stairs, through the inevitably graffiti-covered tunnel, and back up the stairs on the other platform, jumping onto the connecting train with all of a minute to spare - an eternity compared to some of our time margins for catching trains.

If I’d known what was waiting for us in Blansko, I’d have been less eager to make that train. We alighted on a desolate platform in the middle of an industrial area and left through the station, to find a whole lot of nothing. A steep wooded hill on one side of the tracks, a road and a lot of closed buildings on the other. Oh well, we thought, we weren’t planning to stay in Blansko anyway. We went down the street to the bus station and found the schedule for the bus to Skalní Mlýn, our real destination. We knew there were five daily buses, but we didn’t know the times. Checking the schedule, we found that, naturally, the last bus had left five minutes previously. Now what to do? We knew it was eight kilometers from Blansko to Skalní Mlýn, which we really didn’t fancy walking with our packs on rural roads in the dark. We called the number for the hostel we’d planned to stay at, only to find that it was the number for a different hotel. Between the receptionist’s three words of English and my three words of Czech, I got the number for the hostel. The receptionist had given me the wrong area code, though, and so we were temporarily stymied - until Sheryl hit on the autistically brilliant idea of trying every area code, starting with the one we knew worked. What had worked for one worked now for the other, and we got through to the hostel. Our sense of victory was short-lived however, since we found out that they’d never heard of me. Obviously my attempt at a reservation had been unsuccessful. They had space for the night, but not the next night or the night after. This left us with a set of unpleasant alternatives: Walk the two hours with the packs to Machocha; Try to find someplace to stay in Blansko; Take a taxi to Machocha; or pitch the tent somewhere unobtrusive and deal with the question in the morning. I was in favour of the last - I’ve done it many times and haven’t yet had a problem - but it was a damp night and Sheryl was unhappy at the thought of camping, so that option was out. Neither of us really considered hiking or taking a taxi to Machocha - too uncertain and too expensive, respectively. So that left trying to find a place in Blansko.

The tourist office across the street from the train station had closed at 4pm (at least, we thought it was the tourist office - see tomorrow’s dispatch for a nice but of irony) and so we were limited to what we could come up with on our own. The nice girl at the counter of the train station thought she knew a place, but she wasn’t from Blansko and wasn’t sure. As far as we knew, the only place to stay was across the road at the Hotel Machocha. Yes, you read that right - “hotel”. They had one room left, at 1250Kč (CAD$90). It was horribly expensive but it included breakfast. So, I thought to myself, we can spend a couple of hours combing the town, with packs on, for a place to stay, likely finding only pensions which would be more expensive than the railway hotel, and possibly lose the last remaining room at the hotel while we’re looking, or we could just take the bloody room, cry over the expense, and have a nice restful sleep and a good breakfast. We were both upset over the cost of the hostel, and more than a bit humiliated in my case (hardened world travellers don’t run for a hotel at the first setback, right?) but in the end we took it. In retrospect, it’s entirely debatable whether it was the correct decision. We could have saved $50 if we’d looked harder (see tomorrow’s entry for details) but there was a certain comfort in having a warm dry place to sleep right in front of us. In the future I hope we can be a little more adaptable and more willing to just pitch the tent in a dark corner. But everyone has their comfort level, and that was past Sheryl’s for the time being. There was no point in pressing the issue - if you don’t feel safe you won’t sleep, and that would have defeated the purpose of the exercise.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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