He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The Good Soldier Švejk and the July Crisis

The first six chapters of Švejk take  place during the July Crisis of 1914. It starts with Mrs Müllerová's famous remark: Tak nám zabili Ferdinanda, carries on to U kalicha where Švejk gets arrested by state-police detective Bretschneider. Then our hero spends time at Police Headquarters in Bartolomějská ulice, goes through a friendly interrogation at the Regional Criminal Court, spends happy days at the lunatic asylum Kateřinka, has a short visit at Salmovská police station and is again sent to Police Headquarters before he is finally released/thrown out with the words "May the Devil take you". He then returns home via U kalicha. By now Austria-Hungary has declared war on Serbia and we are entering August 1914.

Ninety-six years later, on 10 May 2010 I official started my own journey in the footsteps of Jaroslav Hašek and his hero Josef Švejk. The obvious start-off point was U kalicha where Švejk and landlord Palivec were arrested by police detective Bretschneider after both had made indiscreet remarks about the recent assassination of Franz Ferdinand and even about His Imperial Highness, Franz Joseph I. Palivec's famous and ill-conceived remark about the flies having defiled a portrait of the Emperor was to provide disastrous. The remark has gone down as a classic in Czech popular culture.

Today U Kalicha  (At the Chalice) is very different from what it was in 1914, but the location at Na Bojiští  is the same. In the 1950's the pub was expanded and revamped and was already during communist rule a major tourist attraction. After the property was handed back to the former owners in the early 1990's, the restaurant has been owned by brothers Pavel and Tomáš Töpfer and continued the tradition of catering for  tourists. The prices are about twice the normal Czech average so the place has few regulars. Still the food is Czech through and through and so is the Pilsner beer. It is believed to be co-incidental that Hašek choose this place is the starting scene for Švejk's adventures. He was apparently never  a regular here (although he was in numerous other taverns).

Around midday on this day in May 2010 the tourist groups hadn't arrived and at U kalicha there were two guests. One was a Norwegian tourist nosing around; the other guest was Prague born and bred Richard Hašek. He was engaging in a conversation with landlord Pavel Töpfer, not to be confused with Palivec. The two had immediately recognised each other. Mr Töpfer sat down at our table and joined in an amiable conversation. From what I understood the two gentlemen discussed business models, as they both to varying degrees make a living in the shadow of (and living from the fame of) the famous author.

I was greeted with a menu in Norwegian, and it had  surprisingly  few errors. Many menus in my home country are far worse, even in "native" Norwegian places. Pavel Töpfer showed us a book he is busy writing. Here  he  describes (among other things) people he has met during his forty years in the restaurant business. The book has pictures of notabilities ranging from Václav Havel to Nursultan Nazarbayev. Virtually every visitor of note has been here, so the commercialisation of Švejk is very successful in this particular place. Not that this is a bad thing in itself; it does after all propagate the fame of the novel across the world. There is a surprise in the book: Pavel Töpfer describes Norwegian and Swedish guests as noblesse! This is a reputation they don't have elsewhere, particularly not on the beaches of the Mediterranean or Alpine ski resorts. The explanation might be that Norwegian and Swedish visitors to Prague more often than not are elderly or at least grown up people - not the standard Scandinavian piss-head abroad. According to Mr Töpfer the worst are the Poles who buy one beer and share it between four, and Germans who always insist on paying separately, creating a logistic nightmare when they arrive in bus groups.

The day progressed splendidly. Richard and I walked round some of the places associated with his grandfather. We visited U kotva across the former county regional court, and had innumerable Pilsner beers at the classic U Jelínků. After this I had to throw in the towel, fast resembling a Scandinavian piss-head abroad myself. The next morning Richard dutifully reported that he had arrived home at 2.30 AM and had put the washing on! Czech beer is not only excellent, it doesn't give you a hangover either. The next day I was therefore fully fit to retrace the first six chapters of Švejk and take some more pictures.

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