There. Now that you’ve learned how to correctly spell the country, you don’t ever need that word again, since the country no longer exists.
It’s the Czech Republic now, forever separated from the Slovak Republic, so “Czech” is not only easier to spell, but it’s easy to pronounce (“check”) but so is its major city, Prague (“praagh”).
That’s the end of easy. For the rest of the cities in the Czech Republic, many of which we recently toured on a bicycle, pronouncing them was the hardest part of the trip. Basically, if you take about six consonants and mash them together, that’s the name of the next village on the tour, which was delightful in spite of the problems we had trying to tell people where we were. To give you an idea of pronunciation in the Czech Republic, try to say “Vcthnk.” It’s hard for us Americans, who depend on our vowels.
Now try to say “Matzleinsdf.” The latter word is a real town, one of which we visited on the tour, run by Austin Adventures, which took us on lovely country roads along the Danube River from Vienna to Prague. The countryside was rolling farmland and vineyards and the Bohemian Forest, with red roofed cottages in each tiny village, usually centered around an enormous abbey or monastery or castle. Austin provided us with printed and detailed tour routes each day, and we Americans dutifully followed them by looking for road signs that looked to us like alphabetical jokes: “Oberfucha:? “Weinschenke Marchsteiner (green sign)”? Most of us gave up actually saying the names of the towns early, calling them instead “the town before the one we’re staying in tonight,” or “the first town on Thursday’s route map.”
If we thought town names were a heavy load for those of us who have mostly studied, and lived amongst, the Romance languages our whole lives, the menus were even more of a translatable hurdle. While some Czech menus had English translations under each dish, the smaller the village we visited the less English there was on the menu, so that when we stopped for lunch at the pretty little town of Prachatice, we were faced with three choices of main courses: 1) Husarska rolada, spenat, variace, knedliku, for 119 Krowns, 2) Cisarska kutleta, stouchane brambory s petrzelkou, for 115 Krowns, or 3) Budejovicka hovezi pecene, testoviny, for 109 Krowns.
Having tried to order meat and potatoes in another country with an equally difficult list of entrees and receiving a jelly crepe for dinner, we depended on the broken German/Czech of our tour guide and, as usual, received an incredibly delicious and fresh green salad and hot bratwurst with red cabbage.
Our Austin guides tried to help by printing out a three-page sheet listing hundreds of foods with both the Czech and English words next to them. But after trying a few — “doppeltes Lendenstuck” is filet of beef and “Hausfrauenart” is herring fillets with onions in sour cream, we found that we were too hungry to study the long list before pointing or gesturing or, if we were lucky, finding the tiny English translations below the Czech.
This problem in no way detracted from the enjoyment of the Czech cuisine, which is excellent. We found the food of the Czech Republic lighter than we had expected, with delicate trout, crisp green salads with warm baked squares of blue cheese on top, a garlic soup similar to French onion, tender pork knuckle served on an individual spit, vegetable strudels, beautiful desserts using their fresh fruits, including a poppy seed cake with pear sauce, and magazine-cover-pretty candy such as multicolored marzipan fish and chocolate made into every shape imaginable.
We biked through the famous Austrian wine region of Wachau and tasted numerous light Rieslings, Green Veltliners and a few reds, and of course when we got to the Czech border, the beer flowed. The town of Ceske Budejovice is the home of the original Budweiser brewery. The beer tastes completely different from American Budweiser, because the beer’s originator, a Czech named Busch, adopted the name Budweiser for his concoction in 1857 after visiting the U.S., even though the beer was different. The United States and the Czech Republic both ended up with the name Budweiser for two different beers, and in 1911 came into an agreement that using the same name was fine but that no U.S. Budweiser would be sold in Europe. The Budweiser that we had in the Czech Republic had a deeper flavor that most of us thought was better than the American version, and it was also less bubbly than American Bud.
When we biked through the lake district from Trebon to Ceske Budejovice we found ourselves in carp country; each village has its own fish pond, and unlike Americans, who usually do not eat carp, Czechs have it on every menu, and it is in fact their most important food at Christmastime. The locals make sure they will have their Christmas carp by buying it live the week before December 25 and storing it swimming in their bathtubs to keep it fresh until it is served at the holiday meal.
Language problems were easily solved by our taste buds, which were pleased no matter what the dish was called. At a delightful litte restaurant called Staroceska Kavarna, on the steps leading up to the Prague Castle, for example, we had to agree with what the menu said, that “Medovy durt vytvoreny podle staroslovanske receptury. Lahodna chut prekvapi l ty nejnarocnejsi gurmany,” or “This cake, using honey instead of sugar, is made to an old Slavonic recipe. Its delicious taste will surprise even the most demanding gourmets.”