As to Zlin: A Czech odyssey by train

The 810 diesel - our home for 19 days

There's probably no better way to see a country than by train, preferably a really slow one, giving you lots of time to take in the countryside, meeting interesting people along the way. Radio Prague's Rob Cameron took that to the extreme earlier this year when he set out for a 19-day slow train odyssey across the Czech Republic, accompanied by friend and former Radio Prague colleague Nick Carey. They set foot in more than 80 towns and villages, crossed the border into Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria, and trundled over more than 2,000 km of track. Rob kept an audio diary of that trip - here's a sort of concentrated digest.

The 810 diesel - our home for 19 days
This journey started as a joke. “Could you” I once asked another friend, a long time ago, “travel right across the Czech Republic using only the little local trains? A flurry of time-table browsing followed, until he came up with a hypothetical journey from As, in the very western tip of Bohemia, to Zlin in southeast Moravia, in something like 36 hours. There would be no stopping, and at one point we’d have to hike over a mountain in the middle of the night.

Ten years later I found myself boarding a train for As, as the hypothetical journey became reality. Except for the not-stopping part – we did allow ourselves to stop, at the end of each day. But otherwise the rules were the same – slow trains and only slow trains, unless there was absolutely no alternative. Nick and I are currently writing a book about our trip. Here are the highlights.

If this trip offered us anything it was proof that the Czech Republic truly is a land of contrasts. Our first few days were spent travelling in a broad arc from western to northern Bohemia, taking us through one of the most picturesque and unspoilt towns in the region – Kadan, with its Franciscan monastery, baroque churches and an impressive fountain on the main square…

“It’s not the sort of thing you expect in this part of northern Bohemia. It’s only ever known as being an industrial part of the country - coal mining, heavy industry, lots of pollution. But this is really quite stunning. Unspoilt and clearly doing quite well from tourism.”

“It really is quite surprisingly beautiful…and neither of us had ever heard of it before.”

But later that day, after gorging on the medieval splendour of Kadan, we found ourselves arriving in possibly the most soulless city in Europe - Most.

The contrast with Kadan just down the road was incredible. The Communists literally demolished Most to get at the seams of coal underneath it – even moving a church on rails - and then rebuilt the city as one big concrete housing estate. We spent the night at a horrendous hotel, and were certainly keen to leave in the morning.

“It’s 8.12 in the morning, and we’re just leaving the city of Most. Not a very pleasant place at all is it.”

“No. It really is quite disgusting.”

“It’s just tower blocks upon tower blocks upon tower blocks…and yet this is a city of 70,000 people. Which is extraordinary…”

The trip was also about the trains. We spent most of our time on the 810 – a red and cream diesel passenger train with one, sometimes two carriages that goes very, very slowly, rather like a bus on rails.

However our journey also took us along a number of rare narrow-gauge routes, including one from Osoblaha to Tremesna ve Slezsku, in Silesia. It was there we met German narrow-gauge enthusiast Mark Lobmann:

"We're starting at Hamburg, just continuing straight down to Poland. And we went from Poland directly to Tremesna and took in this narrow-gauge railroad. Tonight we'll continue to Przemysl, to the Beskydy mountains, where we'll ride a narrow gauge railroad, and finish up in Ukraine."

And I’m keen to point the fact we could have such a conversation with Mark does not make us trainspotters. Well, not really. Though we did see a beautiful steam train on the way…

Being in Silesia allowed us to nip across the border into Poland. After a day trundling through Hlucin, Ostrava, Karvina and Bohumin we ended up in Cesky Tesin, and walked over a bridge across the River Ohre to Cieszyn, in Poland. In fact until 1920 Cesky Tesin and Cieszyn were one city. Today it straddles two countries.

As - Day 19
There were plenty more opportunities for cross-border comparisons – we also visited the towns of Glucholazy in Poland, Skalica in Slovakia, Selb and Furth im Wald, both in Germany, and Gmund in Austria. But most of the time we were of course exploring Czech towns and villages and trying to find out what makes Czechs tick. In Valasske Mezirici, it seemed to be slivovice and music…

This was a trio of young lads knocking back shots of slivovice and belting out traditional Moravian folk songs in the café at Valasske Mezirici station. And this was at 8am.

When we finally rolled back into As, at 14:49 in the afternoon, we were exhausted but delirious with success. We'd taken 86 train journeys and travelled 2,162 kilometres from one end of the country to the other and back again. We weren’t quite sure what led us to spend 19 days on an uncomfortable, agonisingly slow Czech train. I suppose, as Mallory said of Everest, "because it's there."