My first impressions of Czech Republic, not including a quick underground ride from the train station to bus station in Prague, came from the village of Načeradec. Arriving at after dark only provided me with the knowledge that the winding roads were narrow and our host teacher’s husband was not afraid to take them on at a high speed. But the morning illuminated a tiny village settled on a base of rolling, recently harvested fields.
The historic cobblestone town square contained a church dating back to the 12th Century and is lined with shops that look much the same as they must have two hundred years ago or more. A few residential roads branched off with a scattering of houses on each, none of them further than a half mile or so from the village center.
As I said, Načeradec is tiny. Therefore, the selection of conveniences one has to choose from is also tiny. The place where about 600 people call home has no restaurants, no ATM, no wifi and most unfortunately no ice cream shop. While there were three painfully small grocery stores, I am not sure any two were ever open at the same time, and though there was a gas station, I only saw that open once as well. The highlights of our student-provided town tour were the football field and the big farm.
The interesting thing about the lack of conveniences, like wifi and ice cream, is that while they did prove to be trying, I don’t think it at all diminished the quality of life in Načeradec at all. If anything, the pace of life here felt more natural and satisfying. Some of the people seemed embarrassed to admit to us they lacked some conveniences we’ve come to take as a given, but in reality, it was a refreshing experience in many ways.
While small, Naceradec does have it’s claim to fame. It is one of a few villages, and believe it or not, probably the biggest, that lie in the shadow of Blanik. Blanik is a mountain full of Czech legends, literally. The story is that the revered Saint Wenceslas and his knights lie sleeping within the mountain, ready to rise in defense of Czech Republic if it is ever invaded from all directions.
Of course, while spending five days in Naceradec, we had to make the trek to Blanik’s black tower, which protrudes slightly from the hilltop’s foliage. It was along the way to Blanik that we discovered the villagers favorite fall past time – mushroom picking. For the first hour of our walk we followed a man with a large wicker basket tucked under his arm. As the scenery switched from stretching fields to a dimly lit forest, the basket man veered off into a grove of trees shrouded in perfect mushroom light. We passed more and more mushroom harvesters as we meandered through the woods and past a small village. Between their wicker baskets, the Middle Earth-like feel of the forest, and of course, the actual task of mushroom picking, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my favorite mythical Tolkien creatures, hobbits.
We spotted several interesting species of fungi ourselves as we ascended Blanik. Unfortunately, my ignorance of poisonous versus eatable mushrooms prevented me from plucking some of my own, but they all looked quite delicious.
The actual tower atop Blanik was fairly anticlimactic. The tall black structure was closed during the week and gave off a modern air that failed to coincide with the historic legend. But this did not diminish the eery beauty of the fairy tale-like forest we traveled through to get there. Also, although the legend was of Wenceslas and his knights was proven untrue during the Prague Spring of 1968 as the five armies of the Warsaw Pact attacked Czeckoslovakia without any ghost soldiers rising from Blanik, the importance the location holds in Czech folklore could be sensed and appreciated.
On our way back we passed even more mushroom pickers, causing us to feel pangs of regrets for not asking some our students to show us their national pastime. As we saw the forest open into the fields, even two hours after we first passed into the forest, we saw our basket toting mushroom man, still crouched in pursuit of tasty houby in the same forest grove. To me, this man proved to be a perfect personification of Načeradec. Embracing Czech tradition, he set off on his quest for mushrooms with nothing more than he needed and taking no less time than he desired. It is a mindset to hold onto as we then journey on to the big, booming city of Prague.