When Token Czech Friend, Tour Guide and Interpreter Jana told her mother that she was taking monthly trips around the country with a random American backpacker, her mother expressed concerns for Jana’s safety. “After all,” she said, “he could be mafia.”
Understandably, my first purchase in Karlštejn causes Jana a bit of stress:
You can find them all throughout Souvenir Row, your first stop in town: China-made toy Uzis, 9mms, M16s, AK47s, all one-hundred percent realistic in appearance and weight, all one-hundred percent capable of propelling a yellow rubber bead with enough force to seriously annoy the average housecat.
This is the kind of toy that can either get you killed or sued in America. This is the kind of toy I have wanted my entire life. Cost? 250Kč.
Jana looks embarrassed as I heft one of the pistols in my hand. “Do you want the silver one or the black one?” I ask. She just stares at me, then finally says, “I look better in silver.”
That’s how I know I’ve won.
We spend a good ten minutes shooting the absolute crap out of each other before we finally call a truce and join forces against a particularly menacing set of fenceposts. Then we run out of bullets. I go back to the vendor and buy about thirty thousand million more.
We soon discover that it is a good thing to be armed to the teeth, since Karlštejn is crawling with the Italian mob…that is, with mobs of Italians. There are only two things Italians hate more than BB-gun toting Americans: silence, and traveling in groups of less than 250. We spend the rest of the day shooting them.
Oh yeah, and we see the town. This is what it’s like:
Karlštejn lies along the bank of the Berounka river 29 km from Prague, a beautiful European town of the type often seen in American World War II movies. The first thing you see off the train is the biggest, greenest field in the world. In seconds I expect to see Steve McQueen roaring by on a motorcycle, chased by Nazis in sidecars.
The most celebrated feature of the town is the High Gothic castle, built in 1348 and personally supervised by Charles IV, as a place to keep his family jewels safe. He accomplished this by staffing it only with men, and forbidding access to women, for religious reasons. Uh-huh.
Fun Stuff for Boring People
We reach the first level of the upward hike to the castle, a Wax Museum which shows what Czech historical figures such as Charles IV and Rudolf II would actually have looked like. In the case of legendary Austro-Hungarian queen Maria Theresa, this is not necessarily a good thing.
Suddenly a man in 45 kg worth of armor lurches past us, smoking Lucky Strike Lights (choice of all Round Table knights). We decide he might be someone worth following.
Fun Stuff for Everyone Else
We end up in a clearing where a young man in chain mail and braces shows us how to fire a giant replica of the crossbows used by the castle guards, which are so powerful that they have a metal ring in which to place your foot while you pull the bowstring into place. Once armed, the weapon is so big it must be braced firmly against the shoulder. He tells us that it covers as great a distance as a longbow, and generates the same amount of force: that is, easily enough to pierce a sheet of metal. I fire at the target, and generate enough force to dislocate my shoulder. I ask him if he’ll take my gun in trade.
By now the remainder of the group has decided that no other customers are going to show up for the performance – this is the first weekend of the season, and business is slow. Nevertheless, they figure that an audience of two is better than none, and launch into a full performance consisting of beautiful dancing women in medieval costumes with bells on their wrists, and musclebound men beating each other mercilessly with swords, maces, spears, and their helmets. I ask if I can give it a try. They take one look at my biceps and laugh themselves to tears. COST: 60Kč
Restaurant Pick: U Karla IV
An approximate budget for dining in Karlštejn can be determined by simply taking your average Prague price and doubling it. We walk into several places and head right back out before we find a good one, a warm medieval tavern with wooden tables, and lots of dead things on the wall.
The waitress takes one look at our handguns and says “Eat anything you want, just don’t kill me.”
COST: 250Kč – this is the cost of the gun you should have bought.
Café Pick: U Blanky z Valois
The customer service and salesmanship which have gone missing in Prague have clearly retired to this sporty café, which features a narrow outdoor porch shielded from unpleasant spring winds by clear plastic tarpaulin. And a highly caffeinated barman.
Jana: Ja si dám kavu.
Barman: Vídeñskou, Alžírskou, Irskou, Italskou…?
He manages to sell us everything in the dessert counter before we finally shoot him. COST: Nothing, if you’re armed.
Yeah yeah, there’s a castle. But get a load of this: we enter the Well Tower and see a giant wheel almost three meters in diameter, attached to a massive water bucket. This, apparently, is the castle well.
About the size of the smoking section at Bohemia Bagel, the well drops beneath us for a stunning 78 meters into darkness, unquestionably the entire height of the castle itself. At the very bottom, I can see a tiny fragment of light; when I turn to ask Jana about it, it flickers ever so slightly. That’s when I realize that I’m looking at our reflection.
As we leave, a group of chattering Italians peek into the well and suddenly fall silent for several minutes, until one of them whistles and mutters something. I tell Jana I have just learned how to say “Ty Vole” in Italian.
And Don’t Forget to Leave
Half an hour into the return voyage and we seem to be entering a very cool town which I don’t remember passing on the way out, a place with regal churches, slick office buildings, and quaint Bohemian homes. I resolve to explore this town at the first opportunity. It dawns on me when I hear the words “Smichovské Nádráží“ that I have a helluva lot of work to do.
I Think I Can, I Think I Can
In Czech, a local train is actually called a “Personal Train”. This is because they move at about human walking speed. Your half-hour journey follows the Berounka River and takes a pleasant tour of every village, hamlet, doghouse, outhouse, and pile of dirt along the way. While less-advanced express or high speed trains actually require a train station before they come to a complete stop, Personal Trains don’t even require so much as a reason. COST: 80Kč (53Kč with Z Card).