Bus to Skalní Mlýn; In which we have three consecutive great strokes of luck; Punkevní Cave; A strategic calculation; No Sloup for you!; Kateřinská Cave; Confusion over possibly illicit photographs; Nuns with combat boots and a mushroom; Return to Blansko; The irony of the tourist office; To camp or not to camp? - the decision is made by the weather; The Hotel Probe; Old man with a scythe

In the morning, we descended late to breakfast, as has become traditional. After so many early mornings, I guess we both decided we deserved to stay a bit late in bed. I really do wish I was a naturally early riser - I’d get so much more accomplished, really. In any case, we barely made it in time for breakfast, and didn’t get to sneak quite enough from the buffet for lunch. Shame, really, it was a good spread. I made sure we got a slice of watermelon each, since it had been so long since I’d tasted it or even seen it, that I’d forgotten what it tasted like. One nice touch was a bowl of hard-boiled eggs. We filled a bag with five or six of them and they kept us going all day.

We had no idea where we were staying that night, but the hotel let us keep our packs in the storage room, so that was one thing off our minds. There were lots of other things on our minds, though - chief among them the fact that we had no money. We had money in our bank accounts, of course, in the form of Canadian dollars - but completely useless to us unless we could find an ATM and withdraw some Czech korunas. We had about 300Kč between us - after bus fare, it wouldn’t have been enough to pay for admission to one cave, much less the three we planned to visit. With fifteen minutes left until the bus came, we were running frantically around town trying to find an ATM. Or Sheryl was running, at least - I myself was limping slowly and painfully, since earlier that morning I’d had one of the stupidest injuries I’ve ever had (getting out of the shower I’d caught the edge of the shower stall between toe and toenail, stumbled, and torn half the nail of my right great tow off, not to mention smashing the toe itself all to hell. Never mind, I was just happy I hadn’t broken it). The search was a failure and so we decided once again to trust in fate and St. Jude, get on the bus, and hope to find an ATM in Skalní Mlýn.

Needless to say, there was no ATM in Skalní Mlýn. There wasn’t much at all in Skalní Mlýn, actually - a souvenir shop, a hotel and a ticket office for the caves. Still, even knowing we had no cash on us, we lined up for a ticket anyway, hoping they’d accept a credit card. No other place in the Czech Republic had, but hey - you never know. And anyway, the question of whether we needed a reservation or not was still not settled. I was unsurprised to find that they didn’t accept credit card payment, unsurprised to find that yes, you needed to book two weeks in advance, and very surprised to find that they’d had a cancellation and could fit us in at noon. Great news - thank you St. Jude. We only needed to find some money. Suddenly I remembered I had €30 in my pocket, and asked if they accepted Euros. They didn’t, but the very patient woman said we could change them at the hotel and they’d hold the reservation for three minutes. We ran frantically to the hotel, changed all the Euros we had at a rapacious exchange rate, and ran frantically back to the ticket desk - in time. With our ticket clutched in hand, we asked how to get to the cave. It was a 20-minute walk, we were told, or we could pay $5 each for the novelty train ride to the cave entrance. Our ticket said 12:00 and it was 11:40, so we decided to skip the novelty train and run for it. Or - again - limp quickly and painfully in my case. I slipped the ticket into my pocket and we ran off down the paved road that led to the Punkevní Cave.

Under other circumstances, the walk to the cave entrance would have been very pleasant and worth lingering over, leading as it did through two kilometers of cool green woodland beside a lovely stream. It reminded me greatly of the Bruce Trail back home. We didn’t have time to enjoy the scenery, though - we had to run to make our tour. We did, just barely. We arrived at the cave entrance with two minutes to spare. Relieved, I dipped into my pocket for the ticket, only to find it missing. I must have dropped it or it must have fallen out while we were running. After all that effort and luck, we were going to miss the cave. I felt like a stupid little boy who’s completely fucked up and doesn’t know how to fix it. Sheryl’s silver tongue came to our rescue, though, and she was able to sweet-talk the ticket attendant into calling the woman we’d dealt with at the ticket office. Being a conspicuous, memorable pain in the ass can occasionally have its benefits - the woman remembered us and vouched for us, and we were able to join our tour, me shamefacedly ducking my head while the ticket woman sighed good-naturedly.

The Punkevní Cave system was worth all the inconvenience, expense and humiliation, though - worth it five times over. The tour was an hour long, through some of the most amazing formations I’ve ever seen. The first section of the tour was through a huge cavern system with amazing stalactites and stalagmites. After walking through a hundred meters of entrance tunnel, we rounded a corner and the cavern literally made me gasp. Words can’t do a good cave justice - I’ve probably been in a hundred caves and no description or photograph can capture the magnificent accidental architecture of these beautiful subterranean spaces. The initial area was one of the largest caverns I’ve ever seen - the ceiling must have been fifty meters. Even Harrison Cave in Barbados isn’t as big. St. Michael’s Cave in Gibraltar is probably as large, but not as rich in dripstone formations. I’ve always preferred ‘wild’ caves - undeveloped ones without artificial lighting, stairs and levelled walkways - but access to caves like that is few and far between, and I know very well that in most cases the caves that are open to the public are the best I’m going to get, not being a geologist or a professional speleologist (if such a thing exists). Punkevní Cave, though very much a developed tourist cave, was magnificent. The second section of the tour was by boat along the subterranean Punkva River. I’d experienced an underground river before, when I went through the Te Anau Caves in New Zealand, so it wasn’t new to me, but Sheryl was as enchanted as I had been. There’s nothing quite like gliding silently along an underground river in a flat-bottomed boat, with the chill of the cave air around you and the rock ceiling slipping past just overhead. It’s very easy to understand, in a cave, all those legends from antiquity about the descent into the underworld.

On our return to the overworld, however, we faced a small dilemma. It was 2pm. The next two caves on our list - Kateřinská and Sloupsko-Šošŭvské, both closed at 4. It was 6 or 8 kilometers to Sloup and the entrance of the Sloupsko-Šošŭvské system, so there was no way we were getting to do all three caves in one day, especially with my injured toe. We opted for the Kateřinská Cave, which was close - only half a kilometer from Skalní Mlýn - and then to catch the bus back to Blansko and use the time to look for a cheaper place to stay. I’d wanted to win Sheryl over to the idea of illicit camping, so we thought we’d take a look around when we arrived back in town.

The Kateřinská Cave was much smaller than the Punkevní Cave, but it had to good-sized caverns. The tour was conducted half in English, which was a nice surprise. There was some confusion over whether or not photography was allowed - we saw a no-camera sign, but other people were taking them so I shot a few frames. The guide came over and told us that it cost extra for photos, and we thought she said we could take some but pay the extra afterward. But two minutes later she scolded us for taking pictures. Very confusing. I continued to shoot a little, surreptitiously, on the chance that she had been scolding someone else. When the tour ended I offered to pay the extra, and she looked anxious and said we mustn’t tell anyone we’d taken photos. So I’m still not sure what that was all about. The cave itself was worth the confusion, though. There was a nice forest of stalactites and soda straws and one dripstone formation they called the Witch (in English) and Baba Yaga (in Czech) that looked exactly like an old hunched woman with a hook nose and a pointy hat. Someone had thoughtfully added a stick for her to lean on as well.

While we waited for the bus back to Blansko, I amused myself by sneaking pictures of some nuns wearing combat boots and carrying a mushroom - yet another example of the Czech love of mushrooms. I thought I was being fairly subtle, shooting from the hip without looking at them (my preferred method of portraiture) but when I looked through the photos later I saw that one of the nuns at least was wise to me - she was looking directly at the camera in every shot. I should have just asked them for a photo, but it’s no fun when people pose.

When we arrived back in Blansko, we discovered that the building we had thought was the tourist office the night before, and which had been closed, wasn’t the tourist office at all (despite the big English word ‘information’ painted on it). The real tourist office was a kilometer away in the town centre, and it had been open when we arrived the night before. This pissed me off, because it was likely they’d have been able to recommend a cheaper place to stay than the 1250Kč hotel we’d stayed in. Indeed, this turned out to be the case, as we discovered when we reached the office and inquired. There was a ‘budget hotel’ which they didn’t normally like to recommend, but which was huge and always had room, and cost only 700Kč for a room. This still seemed a bit steep to me - about CAD$50 - but it’s around what you’d pay for a private double in a hostel and breakfast was included. We said we’d think about it and went off to the supermarket to decide whether to take it or to camp for the night somewhere. The weather made the decision for us, though - no more than twenty minutes later the sky turned black and a giant thunderstorm began - very dramatic with multiple simultaneous lightning bolts and loud rolling thunder. There was a lot of rain… far too much to consider camping - it would have been utter misery and everything we owned would have been soaked. So after waiting under awnings for awhile to see if the rain would slow down at all - which it didn’t - we ran through the wind and the lashing rain to the other side of town to find the budget hotel, arriving soaked and breathless and grateful that our packs were still in storage at last night’s expensive hotel.

Tonight’s hotel, when we found it, turned out to be called the Hotel Probe. This made us a little nervous and we wondered what sort of invasive medical procedures we were letting ourselves in for. The place itself was run-down and a bit stinky - okay, a lot stinky - with small rooms and very thin walls. I think it may have been a nursing home in a previous life, though Sheryl was leaning more towards ‘flophouse’. But hey, it was dry and it had beds. I’ve been itchy since, though, so we may not have been the only ones sleeping in them.

When the rain let up, we walked down the hill to the last hotel opposite the train station to retrieve our packs. The cheap hotel, by the way, was no more than 200 meters away from the expensive one, which was infuriating. I wouldn’t have thought to look at it, though - it doesn’t look at all like a hotel, it looks like one old apartment building in the middle of a cluster of four or five of them - so I’m finding it hard to draw a lesson from the whole hotel episode, to be honest.

As we walked back up the hill after buying groceries and run, we met an old man mowing his lawn with a scythe. We were afraid for a moment that we’d pushed our luck that last little bit too far, and here was old man Death come for us at last. He displayed no inclination to harvest our mortal souls, though, and came over to chat, but we had no languages in common so it was a short conversation. I must say, I’ve never seen a scythe actually used before, but the old guy was pretty good with it. I was impressed by how fast he was, even though he had to stop and sharpen it often. Later on, we saw him with a lawnmower (and his scythe over his shoulder), so maybe he only uses the scythe for small areas. Anyway, he was one of the few friendly Czechs we’ve met so far (who haven’t been paid to be friendly, anyway), so it was nice to meet him. I don’t like to make generalizations like that, but it’s been quite noticeable. Outside of tourist-oriented Prague, nine times out of ten when we smiled at someone we passed they’d make a face like they’d smelled something bad and look away. I had read that Czechs dislike tourists since joining the EU, and see them as just another set of invaders in a long historical list. I can certainly sympathize - I grew up in a tourist town myself and tourists are annoying idiots even when the do speak your language. But still, a smile costs nothing, right? It’s not as if we were asking anything of them. Maybe smiling at strangers is considered impolite here.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

August 14th, 2008

Hey chris,

Those caves are amazing. Nice shots! Too bad they aren’t under water so I can go diving. :)

¬ Nicola
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.
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