Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.
“Wine rejoices the heart of man” – Goethe
If you’ve ever been to the Czech Republic, chances are you left with the impression that this place is strictly a beer nation. And that’s partially true. Hell, the stats even back that up, as Czechs are the leading per capita beer drinkers in the world. It’s such a commonplace beverage, a part of the day-to-day life, that the expression, “Beer isn’t alcohol” can be heard once in a while to describe how drinking beer doesn’t really count as drinking (otherwise we’d have to admit to ourselves that we all do a hell of a lot of drinking).
But, always the strange cousin to the Bohemian region of Czech Republic, Moravia’s fertile soil and favourable climate has turned the south-eastern region of the country into a very popular wine region. And for good reason – do they ever treat wine like water in those parts.
Moravians are known to be a little different when compared to Bohemians (those living in the Western half of the country) or anyone else in the Czech Republic for that matter. The Canadian in me likens it to the Maritimes – where the pace is a little slower, the people are calmer and kinder, and they speak with a bit of a funny accent. This is a nice change from Prague, or any capital city for that matter, where the pace is often a lot faster and people would just as soon run you over before stopping.
I’d been to southern Moravia before, last year for a wine-soaked weekend in Mikluv and was eager to return again this summer. The pleasantness of the people and the beauty of the landscapes make it perfect place to blow off some steam. With that, I went headfirst into Moravia with a local tour guide and a bottomless glass of wine.
This year Valtice was our destination. Valtice is a small town of about 3500 inhabitants a stone’s throw away from the Austrian border. It’s small, pleasant, quieter, and all-together different than the rest of the country. Our group of five took a small train in from Brno and immediately the friendliness of the people was on display. While nerdily explaining the makeup of the Justice League to my girlfriend (she asked, honest) my accent was overheard and one of the men on the train was keen to turn around and talk to me about his time in Canada, Jaromir Jagr, and ask what I thought about the Czech Republic.
We got off at the small train station and walked about ten minutes into the city centre, with groups and groups of cyclists zooming by. It was something we’d see throughout the day. Biking through these Moravian towns and stopping in the cellars is a common weekend activity in the Czech Republic. And why not? There are “wine bike routes” assigned to give cyclists the perfect mix of biking in the sun and afternoon buzzes. It’s illegal as all hell, but the rule of thumb here is something akin to, “Eff that.”
The town is quaint and well groomed. The city-centre, which is only about a block or two, is lined with wine shops, signs to the various cellars around town, and highlighted by the gorgeous Chateau Valtice, a Baroque residence constructed in the thirteenth century. It really is something to see.
Like most visitors, our day was spent cellar-hopping. When we first arrived I tried to take the temperature of our group and see if anyone was interested in lunch. We had, after all, train-hopped all morning to get to our destination. My suggestion was met with disappointed looks that told me I was being naïve: You’ve just had a long trip. It’s time for wine, rookie.
But what wine it was. Fantastic bottles of white and rosé (Czech isn’t exactly known for its red), and different tastes for whatever you like. Oh, and because it’s all made locally, it is dirt cheap. We sat in the sun, sharing a bottle and watching helmeted cyclists and locals alike wander in to have a quick glass and a cigarette before wherever it was they had to get to (usually the next cellar). It’s an atmosphere both incredibly serine and hard to beat.
After sampling a couple of the different options available (Pálava being the most uniquely Czech, I’m told), we broke for lunch. And just to remind you that, while you’re in Moravia it’s still the Czech Republic, our options were limited to pork and duck. Again, packs of younger to middle-aged folks rode in on bikes, popped off their helmets and sat down for lunch.
Of all the cellars, the most stunning was definitely the Valtice underground cellars. A veritable labyrinth that runs underneath the city. An entrance fee gives you free range to explore these catacombs of wine with a glass in hand. The slepiéři – Moravian sommeliers, though I prefer the term cellarmen – are there to fill your cup with whatever you wish while you wander the web of wine cellars. They’re chilly and dark and, after a few glasses, things certainly get a lot looser and sillier. It’s basically a playground for adults.
By four o’clock clear thoughts became harder and conversations between our group got more grunty and guttural. At least I remember as much. By eight we were wiped, sun-soaked and satiated, stumbling back to the train station, each one of us with sizeable smiles upon our faces.
So my final thought on the Moravian experience is this: It’s brilliant. You drink wine, you enjoy life, and there’s really no need to worry about anything else while you’re down in the cellar. Or outside the cellar for that matter. It’s such a pleasant way of living it’s criminal.