I don’t think there are a lot of travelogues online about the Czech villages of Banat. On one hand this thrills me but on the other it burdens me with the responsibility to describe something more than my personal experiences there.
I’ve noticed that the posts in my blog which don’t contain personal experiences don’t get read that much. Despite that, if I may, I’ll give you some information here as well. Who knows, you might win Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with it (is that show still being aired?) or fully complete a crossword.
If you remember, we just feasted on blackberries. We’ve now pulled over under the scorching August sun and Lukáš is trying to peek into a house he stayed in a few years ago. If you’ve read carefully so far, you know that in Banat you can’t just peek into someone’s house. The inhabited part is pushed to the back and from the street you can only see a decorated facade either with no windows or with windows whose shutters are generally closed.
Eventually we find out the people aren’t there. Just like many other Czechs from Banat, they must have gone back to their distant homeland.
What made them come here in first place though?
I’ll offer you a loose translation of a chronicle excerpt published on banat.cz:
In 1828 two explorers, of those who were getting ready to leave Bohemia in order to find a better place to live, went on a long journey south towards the Romanian territory of Banat. According to the chronicles, their names were Martin Mareš and Michal Glazer. When they came back, they said they had been warmly welcomed, that the land was beautiful, very fertile, that wonderful wheat, fruit and vines grew there. Urged by the news they brought, settlers went on a journey to the new hope. When questioned by their neighbours, they said, ‘In the next war the Czech land will be destroyed. Then we – the Banat settlers – will come back, restore our land and fill it with new, better people.’
By the irony of fate, today the Czechs of Banat are returning to the Czech Republic, drawn by better living opportunities.
The same website says that the person honoured to be the Czech coloniser is someone called Magyarly who founded the first two Czech villages in Banat, drawing dozens of families from the Czech lands with promises similar to the ones above. Those villages are Sv. Alžběta and Sv. Helena, named after his daughters. However, Magyarly didn’t fulfill his promises and the incoming Czechs, having nothing else to do, asked the military if they could join the local border forces. (Whose military, I cannot tell you. We’re talking about 19th century here.) ‘Hmm, not a bad idea,’ the military probably said to themselves and so went on and self-organised another such migration of Czechs to Banat, this time with people being directly sent to completely uninhabited lands. During that second wave of migration the villages of Bígr, Eibenthal, Rovensko and Šumice were found. As well as Gernik – the biggest among all.
Which is where we are now.
To be honest, I don’t know what to think. Lukáš prepared me for a journey back in time and, as we start the car, I try to adjust my expectations. What I see is:
- asphalt – I didn’t even see especially big holes;
- kids in normal summer shorts and T-shirts, walking under the sun and doing nothing. And although doing nothing is not a contemporary phenomenon, those kids look startingly ordinary to me (sneakers, a tricycle?);
- a tractor;
- a village shop – a typical village shop with warm bottled beer and packed snacks. They don’t even have cheese, butter or milk sold in kilos!
The kids are looking at us with curiousity. We say hi. They tell us ‘dobrý den’. I prick up my ears but no – they said it in a typical Czech way. Didn’t
Lukáš say they have a bit of a strange accent here? I shrug mentally and follow him, Juley in my arms.
The asphalt road makes a turn near a tree full of quinces (quinces! what a homely feeling! I ask Lukáš how you say ‘quince’ in Czech but he doesn’t know) and a house with interesting mosaic on its facade. We keep going forth and my expectations of wildness are finally beginning to get met. Here the ‘street’ is actually a crest trail. A steep one. We go down looking for Bouda’s house – Bouda is another family Lukáš once stayed with. Roosters crow and freely roaming dogs bark at us. Fortunately, they don’t get close.
We find the house. An old woman goes out, hands smelling of onion. She’s surely cooking something. From head to toes, she smells exactly the way real old women in real villages smell. Onion, animals, hay. They smell of their entire world. But it seems that they don’t have any bodily smell on their own as all of us urban people do. I like her.
She starts speaking and, finally, my ears catch this different type of Czech. Lukáš claims that’s the accent people used to speak in the Czech lands at the time of Banat’s colonization. The old woman treats Juley to plain wafers and he joyfully accepts. So do we. I admit I think, ‘ugh, who knows what crap is in these wafers’ but I can’t say no to that wonderful old woman. She says the whole family is at the field and that they’ll come back in the evening. That we should try again later.
The whole family is at the field! Oh, man. My expectations are more than met.
We go back to the shop which I find out is also a bakery and a restaurant. Lukáš has a warm beer that was supposedly stored in the firdge and then we go down the road by car to investigate potential camping spots. We pass the pub with parasols advertising Timisoreana beer. I note there’s a children’s playground next to it (where we’ll never go). We turn off the asphalt road and go down a quite broken street with a clear brook running to its side. Chickens walk in the brook importantly. We show them to Juley, even more joyful than him. You know that feeling of showing something to your child for the first time, right? And you know how, usually, they have a confused look on their faces. That’s the way it is – kids, especially toddlers, mostly take joy in familar things.
We follow the street down to its very end… and we see it…
The best camping spot ever-ever-ever.
A big flat clearing semi-circled by trees. The brook runs to its side, springing from one of its ends. The water is crystal clear and very cold. It’s full of some kind of miniscule creatures but you can drink from it with no worry at the spring. What a nice place indeed!
While Lukáš is setting up the tent, Juley is hanging around, finally free from the horrible seat, and I’m making dinner. Juley has an interesting crawling style – he already avoids touching the ground with his knees. I’m sure he’ll start walking by the end of our holiday.
Dinner is spaghetti with store-bought vegetable sauce which turns out to be horrible. The two of us barely eat it but Juley seems not to mind. He eats what he eats and smears the rest everywhere in the typical fashion of a one-year-old eating spaghetti with sauce on his own.
After dinner we put on an extra layer of clothes, I put Juley into the Manduca carrier and we go back to Bouda’s house.
Bouda and his wife might have spent the whole day at the field but they’re perfectly normal people who actually live somewhere around Plzen (as most of the Czechs who have returned from Banat), wear normal clothes and have smartphones. I find it weird, that mixture of modern and traditional. While conversing at the doorstep, he shows us photos of his house and we seem to be talking mainly about the Czech Republic. Then, however, comes the old woman with a big chunk of homemade cow cheese.
‘Do you have a bottle? I’ll give you milk.’
We don’t but she finds one. Then she gives us homebaked bread. It seems that it doesn’t matter we’re here just for a while and that we don’t even intend to cross the doorstep – we’re welcomed like true guests.
‘Come, come and see our little calf!’ she invites us in. I go into the yard with Juley and, together with one of her grandsons, she takes us to the cowshed where we see the little three-week-old (comletely independent, right, Juley?) calf.
Going back, she tells me about her first birth. She was at the field, she came back home and she gave birth. Right here, in the yard. Alone.
I’m amazed although there’s nothing extraordinary in that to her. I want her to tell me more. However, she bustles around, occupied by work.
Later I find out her second birth was difficult after all. She had to be droven to the nearest hospital for an emergency C-section. And yet, giving birth on your own after spending an entire day at the field in your ninth month – guys, those are our grandmothers! To think we consider ourselves to be powerful women.
It’s night already. We promise to meet Bouda and his family over a beer in one of the following days (it doesn’t happen but anyway). Then we go up the steep path and walk the quietened streets of the village towards the best camping spot ever-ever-ever. Juley, who’s fallen asleep on the way, wakes up a bit when I put him down in the tent but that’s not anything a couple of minutes of milk can’t solve.
When he falls into a deep sleep, I go out and finally do what I wanted to do so much from Slovakia onwards – I take a shower. With the ice-cold water of the brook.
Then I go to bed and the brook lulls me to sleep.
I was about to write “and I sleep tight” but… right…
When we wake up, business is already taking place further down the brook. Two elderly women seem to be making some sort of syrup. Their big metal cauldrons are painted purple. There’s smoke rising from the fire they’ve built.
Of course, as typical annoying tourists, we grab baby and cameras and attach ourselves to them. The women are extremely sweet and, I’d even say, stylish. One of them smiles more while the other seems to be a bit more cautious and suspectful. They tell me the name of the fruit they’re making syrup of but I’ve never heard of it before. It’s something like elder but grows on trees, not on bushes. They say they’re making this syrup so as not to forget their own grandmothers’ recipe – that’s something that really impresses me. Aren’t they real authentic grandmothers? Could there be any that are even more real than them? Could they possibly fear the family tradition will be forgotten?
They reveal the technology – they add sugar, boil the syrup and pour it in bottles without sterilising it. They keep it in the cellar. It seems to work wonders with stomachache. Of course, in the end, they give us a little jar of syrup. We feel bad about it because we own more than they do. There are all kinds of food in our trunk. But they insist we keep it and want nothing in return.
I leave Lukáš to take photos of them and, with Juley in the Manduca carrier, go to the bakery for breakfast. The sun slowly rises as I go up the hill and we’re already warm. The bakery looks closed and there’s no bell to be seen but I wait in front of it patiently, then knock on a door and eventually manage to attract the baker’s attention. He gives me bread but says all pastries are sold out. Then, however, he suddenly finds a few and gives them to me – typical Czech pastries with a slight Banat taste… of chocolate.
Indeed, the much beloved by Czechs rohlik – a freshly baked white flour no-filling prolongated pastry – here is full of chocolate! The kolach, on its part – a round pastry with a jam or quark topping, is topped with apple jam and walnuts and is much tastier than the ones you can find in Czech bakeries. My hopes to offer Juley no-sugar breakfast melt away but we’re on holiday after all. The dough is very soft and I can swear it’s made with lard but I pretend I’m not thinking about that. I’m on holiday after all…
I walk along the brook and see a child sitting on a little bridge connecting his house and the street. I can’t but take out my camera despite Juley sabotaging me by instantly grabbing it. The boy seems so at peace, so deep in thought over the water running under his bare feet.
‘That’s what childhood is,’ I think. That’s it! Childhood is trees rustling, a brook bubbling and roosters crowing in the background. Childhood is the smell of cows and your grandma’s yelling when she finds out you’ve been rummaging the pantry. Childhood is running barefoot, getting stung by bees, filling your lungs with the honey scent of herbs in the air, your cheeks burning from the sun. That’s what childhood is.
Juley, I want so badly for you to experience all this! I want so badly for you – when you’re at that boy’s age and I can know that being outside on the bridge means you’re safe – to feel all this! No, I’m not old-fashioned. I just believe these sounds and smells are part of human nature. And that there’re almost gone from our everyday life.
I promise to be giving you as many opportunities for this as I possibly can!
Back in the camp, we start making breakfast. We somehow fail to take the milk off the stove on time and it almost boils over completely. Only little is left, which we use to make Juley popara. We’re quite upset because of the wasted present but there’s nothing we can do. At least something was left for Juley who’s now enjoying homemade bread soaked in homemade milk. A bio organic breakfast, I think, smiling. As for us, we’re having the rohliks and kolachs which are too sweet for him anyway. (Heeheehee, Juley, I guess you didn’t get lucky with those parents of yours!)
After the late breakfast we hang around in the clearing. ‘The cautious old woman’ takes her cows out one by one to drink from the brook. Juley crawls on the little bridge over it to see them close by. Then we tidy around and I put Juley to sleep in the stroller. I expect that he’s going to sleep for just half an hour there but it’s too hot to leave him in the tent. Be it the incessable rumble of the brook or the entire atmosphere of the best camping spot ever-ever-ever, but Juley sleeps for three hours! During that time we tidy the camp and the car trunk and make salad for lunch.
In the biggest heat I enter the brook with a bowl and start splashing ice-cold water over myself. There’s no other feeling as this! Lukáš does the same. Then we both feel as if after several cups of coffee. From time to time tourists pass across the clearing to refill their bottles at the spring. I bet they envy us for the nice spot!
Juley wakes up and we eat Shopska salad with homemade cow cheese and homemade bread. We need nothing else in that heat.
Then we tidy the camp once more; we put everything that shouldn’t be stolen (not that someone would steal something from us here) in the car and go for a walk. We take one of the routes that goes through the centre of the village and leads to the hills and from there to other villages. We don’t walk with a particular destination in mind; we depend on Juley after all. We’ll reach what we’ll reach.
The sun is burning and there are not many trees on the hilltops. We see a grove in the distance and head towards it so that we can let Juley crawl around a little. On our way there we see a field and people working in it. Men and women. We reach the grove which turns out to be really thin from close by and the ground is covered with thorns. Eventually we find an area that’s a bit grassier and let Juley do what he wants.
We think we hear horses in the distance and head on to look for them, mainly because of Juley. We go and go but there’s nothing to be seen. There are only hills ahead of us. One can visit all the Czech villages by going along these crest trails but most of the routes are dozens of kilometres long and even the official Czech Banat website says there’s a real chance one can get attacked by shepherd’s dogs on his way. Lukáš knows this very well because he’s visited those villages. And he’s been attacked by a dog.
No horses, a possibility for dogs ahead and clouds gathering up in the sky. Three things that make us go back. While walking back we start hearing the first thunders. The possibility for a storm doesn’t stop us from enjoying the blackberry bushes at the beginning of Gernik. At least one nice thing for Juley whose movement is restricted again albeit close to Mama’s and Papa’s hearts.
The sky already looks threatening when we pass by the bakery. There we’re greeted by a Czech man dressed in typical city attire and sporting a suitcase on wheels. Honza. With one sniff we realise he’s one of the know-it-all kind but we still take him to the pub which he’s so eager to get to. He’s really weird and annoying and Lukáš, in a typically male way, completely ignores him while I’m trying to talk with him without showing particular interest but also without offending him. We leave him at the pub and go on.
Suddenly, the treetops start rustling. Leaves begin to fly around. Chased by the storm, we still stop by the house with the little bridge where there are more kids now, even a woman with a baby. We start talking. It turns out they’re Czechs living in Belgium. They have five children. Something tells me their life there is as much full of serene moments as the one I witnessed in the morning.
Then we meet the smiling old woman from earlier today. ‘Oh no, there’s not going to be a storm,’ she says. ‘It happens very often here. One thinks there’s a great storm coming but in the end not a single drop falls from the sky.’
Not that we don’t believe her but we rush to the camp and get everything inside the tent and the car. It isn’t raining yet but we’re not going to risk and instead of cooking we’re going to have dinner at the bakery-restaurant. We go there by car, ready for a downpour.
A few minutes later we sit on the wooden benches and nothing’s remained from the threat of a storm. The village darkens in complete stillness. I order green bean soup and share it with Juley while I’m again pretending I don’t know it’s made with lard. Lukáš orders ćevapi and all of us share the place’s specialty – roasted potatoes with ground white cheese made with… yes, this time it’s clearly announced they’re made with lard. And that that’s what makes them a specialty.
I’ll lie if I say they weren’t tasty.
Even the green beans were good. Only Lukáš isn’t happy with the
ćevapi which are neither fresh nor homemade. This reminds me of the more boisterous old woman’s words which she said when she saw me with the rohliks and kolaches that morning. ‘That scoundrel, the baker, uses very little chocolate. Romanians here sell chocolate in chips, you know.’ For a short while I feel like a stupid tourist who’s been deceived when offered something claimed to be authentic. But then I laugh in my mind – doesn’t every authentic village have one such scoundrel who knows how to earn his bread more easily? And apart from indignation, isn’t there at least a tiny bit of envy in his fellow villagers?
Talking about types, I can’t help but describe the interesting company that is forming around us. Here are the annoying Honza (wasn’t he supposed to stay in the pub only?), a quiet middle-aged couple from Karlovy Vary (the man in it also can’t stand Honza :P), the baker himself, topless, apparently wearing his job-suiting belly with pride and the strangest retiree I’ve ever met – a man of not more than 35 who arrives with a jeep and a huge dog, sits at the table and pounces on his dinner. He once lifted something that was too heavy, screwed his waist and from then on he’s been declared a retiree with a degree of disability. He looks more like a gorilla to me, who can beat up anyone standing on his way but who am I to judge by his appearance? It’s interesting though that a guy like him has chosen to spend the greater part of the year in Banat. Why? Ah, people are so intriguing…
Even Honza. There’s something intriguing even in him; in his annoying comments. From the way he dominates the conversation you can just smell low self-esteem. He reveals to us his business idea – coffee shops where each person orders coffee at a machine and the machine records his fingerprints and so whichever coffe shop from that chain one visits, the machine there will prepare him his favourite drink. Innovative? I don’t know. I tell him I think drinking coffee is an experience and that, ideally, I’d like a barista to prepare one for me because every true barista adds something personal to the coffees he makes. And that the concept of automated coffee shops and, even more, of machines which are going to be recording my fingerprints doesn’t sound particularly good to me. However, he’s convinced there’s a market for his idea.
I sincerely wish him luck!
While we talk, Juley is falling asleep in the Manduca. He’s finding it hard but I think up a new lullaby for him which immediately has an effect and I’ll be using it for months after.
The woman from Karlovy Vary says she really likes what kind of a mother I am.
Can you believe that, guys? I? The ‘worst mother in the world’ by my own thoughts from a bit more than a year ago.
I smile and say thank you.
Beyond the lamp light it’s already a cool pitch-black night.
We wake up and once again I take Juley to the bakery. I only have five lei with me because yesterday the bread and all the pastries cost only three and a half. When I take the money out to pay for today’s bread though (all pastries are sold out unfortunately), the baker asks me for ten. It turns out yesterday he gave me those pastries and today he wants me to pay them.
Ah, you scoundrel!
Eventually, we agree that I give him the rest later today, on leaving.
We go back to the camp, have breakfast, wash the dishes in the grass using spring water. We unbuild the camp. Despite the fact we don’t really feel like it, we’re leaving the best camping spot ever-ever-ever.
A butterfly lands next to me and I decide to catch it and show it to Juley. I close my palms around it and let it go in front of him. I don’t know what his reaction is because mine is: !!!??? The butterfly has left an imprint on my palm. A colorful print of its wing pattern. It’s so beautiful. A butterfly tattoo!
Later Lukáš tells me the butterfly most probably died afterwards. That it probably imprinted its pattern due to the stress it experienced. I hope that’s not true. Otherwise it’s very sad. Died because of one show… Because of one display of beauty…
We leave before lunch. We stop by at the bakery, pay our debt and slowly and unwillingly leave Gernik. It’s slow but not because the village is really drawing us back that strongly but because the road we chose, in order not to go back to Moldova Noua, is horrible. It takes us hours before we escape the mountain. Fortunately, Juley is asleep. There’s only sunburnt grass around us and buildings that seem long-abandoned.
We reach the flat land, passing by typical Banat villages of peeling pastel-coloured buildings with the inevitable gates and closed window shutters. And there, we see the Danube again and start following it. Huge, blue, sparkling – like a sea. I am sure it never gets any more beautiful than here. Dark green hills rise from either of its sides. We see islets here and there, homes to little groves.
My task is to look at the map and singal to Lukáš before the exit to Eibenthal. There are too roads in it – a white and a yellow one – and of course I guide Lukáš to the white one.
Five minutes after the exit Lukáš has already recited the entire richness of the Czech dictionary of curses although he’s forbidden to use such words in Juley’s presence. The road twisting ahead of us seems even worse but we can’t even turn back. We just have to go on.
We go up the mountain, go out on the top and immediately see perfect asphalt running parralel to our road. If you could get murdered by a look, I’d already be shot by Lukáš’s.
‘How could I possibly know the third class road was better than the second class one?’ I shrug.
Lukáš needs a breath of air so we all go out. Juley and I hang around in a wooden pavilion; he gathers trash from the ground; I take a photo of him in front of the Eibental sign (also known with its Czech name Tisovo udoli or Tisovitse Valley, after the eponymous nice and clear little river). Then we go down to the valley, our first stop being once again a home Lukáš stayed in a few years ago.
We find the house and enter the yard as the gate is unlocked. Houses look pretty normal here. We don’t see the typical Banat facades leading to courtyards. We walk further, cautious, ready to be attacked by a dog any moment. However, nobody’s here to greet us. What’s interesting is that we are in a yard but still there are fences of other houses in it. It’s the first time I’ve seen such an architectural solution. 🙂 Dogs finally start barking at us from behind slits in the fences and we glimpse people being outside in the sunny day. A man says something and we find out the old woman who lived here has also returned to the Czech Republic.
We go back to the road and follow the little river into the village. It’s definitely a more ordinary one. Instead of closed yards hiding cowsheds, here we see typical gardens facing the street, planted with flowers rather than vegetables. Plum trees grow on the pavements.
We stop by at the local restaurant which looks like a canteen. There’s no menu. The polite woman, who speaks Czech a bit like a foreigner, starts serving some things to us. She also gives us a bottle of water we never asked for but it’s okay. Just like everytime we decide to enjoy our lunch, Juley gets full in three minutes and then wants to be taken out of the highchair and allowed to hang around. He’s tired and when he’s tired he falls into a particular confused state of mind in which he laughs, gets an insane look on his face, runs and squeals. He starts crawling around the restaurant where luckily there’s no one else. He starts examining the objects displayed on the short windowsill, most of which, of course, are fragile.
After I use thousands of napkins to wipe the soup under the highchair, we hastily beg for the bill. It turns out to be considerably bigger than we thought. Ah, those Banat Czechs. They know how to run a business very well indeed.
We need to decide what we’re going to do with the remainder of the day so we go to the village’s pub. There are tables outside and something like a garden where Juley can roam wild. There also must be internet there. A group of young Czechs are sitting next to us. Typical backpackers. They laugh at some show they’re listening to on a phone, drink beers and are in no hurry. I stare and stare but somehow I can’t relate to them. Have they passed – the years when we used to go to the mountain with friends, all our belongings fitting in a backpack? I guess they have. Or we’re in some sort of a fifteen-twenty-year pause after which our children won’t be willing to and won’t have to go anywhere with us.
In my mind, I go back to the place we slept last night. Back to the brook and back to Gernik. And I feel good. I feel good not to be a ’23-year-old backpacker’ but to have a small child and travel with him. It’s not as light-weight as it used to be but it’s good. It’s good indeed.
In the end, we decide not to sleep in the village. There are still many kilometres ahead to Bulgaria and something else that we want to experience in Romania except for the life of Banat Czechs. And that’s its mineral spas.
Before we leave, though, we stop by at an old acquantaince of Lukáš who comes with his wife and little girl, almost the same age as Juley. We spend some time talking by the car. They have an ordinary life. Just like us, they go to work, drive cars and have a child who also resists riding in a stroller from time to time. Only their Czech is a bit different. A bit… Banat-like.
Then we go down the river, as far as the car will allow us. We’re going to explore the village through our windows because it’s afternoon already and night will once again find us on the road. The further down we go, the eerier Eibenthal becomes; the deeper it sinks in the shadows of the valley. The houses look like summer homes with big flower gardens. But it looks as if no one lives in them. They both remind me of my soul home (which is a small wooden house with a flower garden and a big sunny window under which I work) but have a degree of desolation about them. Something whose time has passed.
I write in my phone notes: ‘Thorny bushes – the silent power of nature. One day all these houses, all blocks of flats and factories will be overgrown by thorny bushes.’
The world will be quiet. Just from time to time the silence will be broken by the thump of a brick, falling on the ground covered with long years of dead leaves.
I don’t know why I think about the end of the world. But that’s me. Sometimes, just out of the blue, I’m overcome by strange feelings.
I don’t mind that. I love living in them for a while.
I love believing that these feelings come to me because I’m open to them.
And when I imagine myself being open… well, it just gets easier to breathe.
Anyway… The world is still alive. Here we are – Lukáš, Juley and I – descending the mountain down the new asphalt road. We see caves in the rocks to our left, chasms to the right. And again – like a sea far from the sea – the Danube sparkles ahead of us.
Until now we were looking for the Czech face of Romania.
We’re now ready to pay her our whole attention.
All photos above besides the last one and the ones Lukáš is in are Lukáš’s.
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