As is the case for most people my first impressions of the Czech Republic were of Prague. Well, actually no, my first impressions were from a train window as I entered the country on a slow train from Germany. It was a few months after the Velvet Revolution, just before Easter, and the number of planes flying to Prague had not yet increased to take account of the number of people wanting to fly there. And so I flew to Frankfurt, took the train to Nurenburg, changed on to a smaller train and so on to Prague. It was a wonderful way to arrive, in that it gave me time to watch the changes, to feel the transformation.
Even now I recommend to anyone coming to Cesky Krumlov that they make the journey from Prague to Cesky Krumlov by train rather than hire a car and come down in a hermetically sealed pod. You will meet Czechs that way and you will see some wonderful countryside. The last part of the journey, after you climb on the little train at Ceske Budejovice, is particularly magical as the train winds its way through the forests of the Blanksy Les past a series of small villages.
But back to my first journey into Czecho. The train was full of Germans - a bunch of Bavarians with a large hamper of food and beer who talked very loudly and were on their way to flash the mighty deutschmark in Prague and a Prussian couple who talked to me in English. At the border our papers were checked first by the German border guards, then the train moved a few yards and the Czech guards arrived. Although it was about three months after the collapse of communism, many of its structures, mentality and behaviours were alive and strong, and these included those of the border guards. They arrived grim-faced, together with rifles, inspected the passports and papers as if certain we were enemies of the state, and slowly made their way through the train.
I was relieved when the jolt of the train indicated we were moving again and so we entered Czechoslovakia. My first impressions were not entirely favourable. As the night was drawing in I could not see much beyond the immediate environment of the railway line, but here everywhere looked run-down - the station buildings in need of repairs, long trains with coal, timber and other goods trundled past. The only countryside I could see was where the forest dark and mysterious pressed in. I felt a frisson down my spine. The fairytales of my childhood came to mind, somewhere out there were the woodcutter and hunter, bears, foxes and big, bad wolves.
At last we arrived in Prague Station. There standing on the platform was my puppeteer friend. She was buzzing with excitement, glad to be back in her homeland after 20 years, glad to have renewed acquaintances with ex-student friends now bigshots in the brave new world of post Velvet Revolution Prague. "Come," she said, "We have time for a coffee to Cafe Slavia."