Vienna to Prague

On The Road Travel Essays

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Vienna to Prague

(COURIER: These notes assume that you enter Czechoslovakia at the town of Hate, proceed north to Jihlava, and then get on the new Motorway to Prague.)

Lower Austria  We're traveling through the province known as Lower Austria (Niederosterreich), one of the nine provinces or Lander into which Austria was organized in 1920, following the dissolution of the Austrian Empire. It's called "Lower" because it's downstream (vis-a-vis the Danube) from Upper Austria. Vienna and the area immediately around it is a province by itself. Ironically, however, the official capital of Lower Austria is Vienna! — an arrangement that the Lower Austrians aren't too happy about (they would prefer that it be Krems).

Cradle of Austrian history: Back during the early Middle Ages, Lower Austria was much larger, and it was here that the Archduchy of Austria originated. This region was the gateway to eastern Europe. Peoples and tribes met here, and goods moving down the Danube were exchanged. (The Danube flows through the heart of Lower Austria.) The region took on great economic importance. Castles were built to defend this prosperity, and many of them stand today (550 castles and forts in Lower Austria). As monastic life flourished, abbeys were built on the hillsides, and were often fortified to protect them from passing armies; hence, from a distance, the abbeys are often indistinguishable from castles. With all this contact between eastern and western Europe, the people of Lower Austria became the most cosmopolitan of all in the Austrian Empire. E.G. architects and artists from all over Europe were commissioned to design cathedrals and palaces, and to decorate them. French, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish artists are responsible for the Gothic and Renaissance art works to be found in monasteries and churches all over Lower Austria.

Lower Austria today: In land area, the largest of Austria's nine provinces (7400 square miles); in population, second only to Vienna (which has been both a city and a province since 1921). Look for the letter "N" (for Niederosterreich) on license plates of cars: you'll be able to tell which motorists are "native," and which are visiting. "W" on the license plate means the driver is from Vienna (Wien), either out on a rural holiday, or else on his way Prague.

Weinviertel: We're moving along the fringes of the "Weinviertel," the wine district of Austria. (But wines are produced in other parts of Austria too — yet this is the oldest of the wine regions.) Old market towns still survive, where wine produce is brought in from the vineyards; also, harvest festivals still take place out in rural villages. Some of Austria's oldest folk traditions survive in the Weinviertel, which is one reason the people are unhappy about Vienna being the capital of Lower Austria: they believe that their local traditions are not taken seriously enough by cosmopolitan Viennese administrators, who don't take the effort to preserve them. One other product of this rich agricultural area is tobacco.

(COURIER: Once over the border, begin your introduction to Czechoslovakia; see special note at the end of Intro. to Czechoslovakia section.)

Moravia  We've entered the old kingdom of Moravia, which was absorbed into Bohemia fairly early in Czech history. (Capital of Moravia: Bmo.) Bohemia and Moravia together became known as "Czechy" — the Czech lands — and their people spoke the same language, which was slightly different from that spoken in neighboring Slovakia. We are now driving through the SE tip or Moravia, through a region known as Podyji, or the Thaya River Region. This is a favorite vacation area for Czechs, partly for its scenery, its lakes and lake sports, and also for the many castles that survive from a very early period of Czech history (the Premyslid dynasty, e.g. Good King Wenceslas). We cross the River Thaya (Czech name: Dyje) and enter the town of Znojmo.

Znojmo  This is a historic old junction city, since it lay on the main road from Vienna to Prague. In the 19th century it became a major railroad switching center. Just outside the town, many prehistoric sites have been unearthed, proving that this area was inhabited thousands of yours ago. The town of Znojmo itself was one of the earliest in Moravia, and is today protected as an "Ancient Monument" (strict regulations about what new buildings, industrial works, etc. can be constructed). Znojmo was a fortified trading city as early as 1084. Some recent discoveries have been made in the town: early frescoes, containing portraits of members of the Premyslid dynasty, were uncovered in the Church of St. Catherine; thus, we now know what Moravia's early rulers actually looked like.

Economic activity today: Though steps are taken to preserve the past, much economic activity centers in Znojmo. Foodstuffs are brought here from surrounding farms for processing — esp. world-renowned fruit and vegetable preserves. Bittersweet cucumbers are a local specialty, without which Czech gastronomic habits would collapse, since Czechs use the cucumbers to spice their famous Prague ham. Other activity: a new dam is being built on the River Thaya, part of a gigantic hydroelectric project to bring electricity to rural Czech villages and also to Austrian towns just over the border. Remember that Czechoslovakia is still recovering from the war, and its economy is strained to keep pace with popular demands for modern conveniences: electricity, autos, appliances, TV sets, etc.

Moravske Budejovice  This name means "Moravian Budweis," to distinguish it from another town called Budweis, to the west. "Budweis," of course, is the old German name for these towns, going back to the period of Austrian rule. In the other Budweis, called "Czech Budweis" (Ceske Budejovice), is a local brew from which the popular U.S. brand of beer, Budweiser, originally came.

Bohemian-Moravian Highlands  We're traveling along a broad plateau known as the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands; hills rise up here and there, with lakes full of mountain trout. These hills separate Bohemia from Moravia, and are ever popular with summer vacationers. Some of Moravia's oldest towns are situated in the Highlands, their churches and abbeys going back to the early Middle Ages. Originally, the whole region was covered by thick woods; early settlers had to burn vast tracts of land to clear them for farming. The Highlands form an important watershed: rivers running down the western slopes drain into the River Elbe, which carries the water north to the North Sea. Rivers running down the eastern slopes drain into the Danube, and are carried to the Black Sea. The highest peak of the Highlands is called Zdarske vrchy (2770 feet). Fishing is excellent in the streams, and hunters can get special permits to carry firearms for hunting stag, roebuck, wild rabbit, partridge, and pheasants. During the days of the Austrian empire, fashionable Viennese would come for the excellent hunting; artists were drawn here too, and filled many a canvas with scenes of mountains and lakes. Skiing is becoming ever more popular in the winter. In faming towns, one sees local people dressed in traditional costumes. Though farming is the main activity, the soil is generally poor, and the people who lived here had a hard time, and were known for their ruggedness and ability to survive. They lived off the forest products, trading them for foodstuffs brought in from outside. Hence the saying: "Wood is the bread of the Highlands." Since WW II, industrialization has grown rapidly, turning former hamlets into little cities (e.g. the village of Zdar has grown from 3.000 to almost 40,000!). This rapid growth has produced some odd Juxtapositions: wooden clapboard huts alongside modern apartment buildings: old women who still weave their own clothes walk the streets with office workers dressed in suits made in Prague. But Highlanders still love their breakfast soup, made of potatoes! (City folk are content with coffee for breakfast—nothing else.)

Jihlava (Pop. 36,000) The political, economic, and cultural center of the Highlands. It's the oldest mining town in Czechoslovakia, mainly for silver. In 1249, the first mining rights in Europe were granted the town. It was, in fact, one of Europe's largest towns at the time. Its chief landmarks are three churches: Church of St. James (patron saint of miners), which can be spotted by its twin towers, one taller and thinner than the other; Church of St. Catherine, which contains the Czech "Mona Lisa," a beautiful Madonna whose lips are forever smiling; and the Church of the Holy Cross.

(COURIER: After Jihlava, you get on the Motorway for Prague. No towns of any size go by, so use the time to give your introduction to Prague.)

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