Czech 'Noblewomen' and a Final Twist in the Tale of Intrigue-filled Buffets near Plzeň
Updated: Apr 15
Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) 19 - Steam and Iron Curtain don't Mix, part VI
Photo: I have searched through piles of old FTs, press releases and assorted journalistic detritus to find a far better shot than this of a "Nobelwoman' at Plzeň - alas, all in vain. So this rather mediocre print is all I have to show for the eight days in Czechoslovakia on this trip. I think it too must be in Plzeň, and shows a 475.1 Šlechtična departing, possibly on a working to České Budějovice (better known, perhaps, as Budweiss) in southern Bohemia.
[Note: this is a continuation of part V, published on March 25. If you haven't read that, you will not understand the main point of this piece.]
Wednesday, January 02, 1974 – Prague, Hlavní Station
My train pulled into Prague at some awful hour, and I must have stumbled out to find a buffet for some tea and eats.
Now those of you who've read this tale from the beginning might be musing: I thought your purpose in coming here to photograph steam locomotives, especially those big blue express engines? OK, we've followed you around Bohemia, Moravia and into Slovakia, but apart from being detained by border guards, trying to twirl old Mrs Mlynárova around a Bratislava dance floor, charm her daughter while avoiding the wrath of her son-in-law, meeting some soldier for a furtive conversation on a station platform and eaten fried carp, well, … you haven't really done that much, have you? And it's now your fifth day in the country. When are you going to get on with it?
You'll be impressed to know that it was that Wednesday morning in Prague that exactly the same thoughts began entering my head. I only had three full days left in the country, and so far I'd barely risked getting my camera out. It was time for a new approach, and I tried what you might call the route 1 method: Somehow I found the Czechoslovak Railways HQ and manage to ask permission to take photos.
I was assigned a lady guide, and taken to what I assumed to be a main locomotive depot. It was a step forward, but there was only one steam loco, a freight engine, on shed. Still, the guide had been pleasant enough, and I'd learned that Czechs in uniform weren't all waiting to lock me up for revealing a camera. I was encouraged. However, I failed to procure any paper permit saying I could take photos: and that was a major omission.
Whatever, I was in essence too late: Prague was largely devoid of steam, and I had to move on. The main hope now appeared to be Plzeň, where I'd first arrived four days earlier.
I forget how it happened, perhaps I met them on the train, but that night I ended up with a bunch of Czech students in their hostel, where I spent the following three nights. The next day, emboldened by my 'official success' in Prague, I sought out the local railway HQ for some sort of official photographic permit.
“Oh, it's alright. You don't need any permit to photograph trains,” the man behind the desk said, after negotiating several offices in my quest. “Just go ahead.”
Really? That's fine then, and I went back to Plzeň station feeling much better. Indeed, as I arrived a freight train was pulling in, headed by one of their ubiquitous 556 class steam locos. I went forward, camera in hand, ready to get to work. It was then that I noticed the consist: it was a train of tanks.
Of course, I rapidly feigned a lack of interest, and put the camera out of sight. Then another realisation hit me; how could I have been so stupid? If the police or military pull me in, any protestation that the railway HQ had said no permit was required would fall on deaf ears. Where was my proof? And even if they believed me, military security would surely overrule railway operations.
It was definitely one of the problems with Plzeň: the military, or military looking types, seemed everywhere. Logical, really – western Bohemia jutted out into West Germany, and historically, this was sensitive, strategic territory. Should the Cold War ever turn hot, Plzeň would be a major logistics centre.
Still, I couldn't leave Czechoslovakia empty handed, and I began to take the odd photo on the station, mostly of passenger workings, later photographing from a bridge outside the station, balancing the camera on the parapet and guessing the shot without looking through the viewfinder, all in an attempt to avoid attracting attention.
One afternoon, I caught a local train heading north, and found the locomotive depot. It was then that I saw perhaps half a dozen of the big blue 498.1s, my main quarry, all looking very forlorn and very much out of service in the fading winter light. So that was that then: the hopes of any return to service were false: my engines wouldn't be out on the tracks.
It was probably the Friday, around 5.00 pm, when a local train to Prague pulled in unexpectedly behind a 475.1. These were simpler, two-cylinder machines, so less powerful and less glamorous than the 498.1s, but were about the most impressive steam engines still in service by this time.
Indeed, Czech crews nicknamed them Šlechtična – noblewoman – because of their elegant lines - although I've only found that out recently, with the aid of the internet.
I suspect this Šlechtična was substituting for a failed diesel, and as it was far too dark for photography, and my last night in town, I ran to the ticket office to buy a return to the first stop – the small town of Rokycany, about 18 km to the east.
In an empty section of a carriage, I opened the window and breathed in the mixture of cold air and sulphurous loco exhaust as we stormed out of Plzeň. Ah, the smell of steam! It wasn't long, however, before some unburned carbon got in an eye, and the window had to be closed.
Rokycany was a small station, as befitted the town. Nonetheless, across the tracks was a buffet, from which wafted the sounds of some boisterous goings-on. With half an hour to wait before my train back, I trudged over: after all, there would be no better place to get a cup of tea.
I opened the door to see a single, long table at which perhaps a dozen or more men were seated, all with mugs of beer – and these didn't look like their first of the evening. It was not yet six, but the mood was more like closing time in a city centre put on a Saturday night.
Except, when I walked in, things fell silent, as everyone stared at this stranger in a Canadian combat jacket.
But not for long: within seconds, a place was found for the new arrival, and a mug of beer appeared in front of me. Who the hell was I? Where was I from? What was I doing here?
I suppose we spoke in a mixture of German and English, and I forget about what, but I don't think the subjects of dialectical materialism or dictatorship of the proletariat were mentioned. Everyone was jolly, and well inebriated. After a few minutes, the man at the far end of the table, making space, beckoned me up to him. He was in army uniform, and I guessed, probably a sergeant.
“Don't take any notice of this lot. Drunkards, the whole lot of 'em!” he said.
I think we were speaking English, but if it was German, I understood him clearly enough.
“A shame on Czechoslovakia! Tell your friends in England, we're not all riff-raff, you know!”
He too, was well oiled, but nothing like so far gone, or at least he could take his drink better.
Then he turned, looked me in the eyes, and said, calmly and clearly: “You must know this: we don't want war.”
Back in Plzeň, I found my way to the hostel and went out with three or four of the students. Since it was my last night, and I had money which had to be spent I told them I'd pay. One was Russian – probably the first Russian I'd ever met and spoken too. And the alcohol probably loosened my tongue. I seem to remember we drank to peace a good few times. Alas, I forget their names and never remade contact.
I probably took an hour or two to recover the next morning, before heading for the station and the train to Nurnberg. The scenery through western Bohemia – in daylight this time - was impressive, steep, rocky hills and deep ravines. No wonder Czechoslovakia was reluctant to surrender this very defendable territory – though largely inhabited in 1938 by Sudeten Germans – to Hitler's Reich.
Soon enough, we arrived in those grim sidings – and once again there were soldiers probing under the carriages, dogs barking, border guards checking visas, hammers or something banging against the bodywork.
“You have Czechoslovak money?”
“No, none” I replied. I probably had enough for a meal, but if found, not even the nastiest border guard would bother with that. Or was I getting over confident?
“OK” - and I was left alone. After eight days in Czechoslovakia, it all seemed less threatening this time round. And in daylight.
I caught an overnight boat to reach England on the Monday morning. There was a go-slow on British Rail, with no trains on the Sunday, so I had to kill a day in Rotterdam. The “Hook Continental” from Harwich Parkeston Quay – normally an express – stopped several times on the journey to Liverpool Street to supplement the reduced commuter services: names like Romford and Shenfield became semi-visible through the condensation on the windows.
Back in Derby, friends greeted me with relief. “We seriously thought you might not be coming back,” one said.
As I wrote earlier, it is difficult today to convey the immenseness of the barrier that was the Iron Curtain. Not just physically, but the psychology and the bureaucracy and visa stuff: it was all such a disincentive to travel.
I first went back to Šatov in 1993 (as per the photos), and then a couple more times in the 2000s. The border is open now, all part of Schengen, and proper, long electric trains now run from Znojmo all the way to Vienna.
The last time in Šatov, probably 2010, I met Josef, who had lived in the adjacent hamlet of Hnanice until he'd got out somehow, I forget when exactly, and made himself a life in Australia.
“They used to stick long, steel rods into the coal to skewer anyone hiding underneath, trying to escape,” he told me, speaking about the border guards back in the old days.
I think it was 2009 when, driving back from Frankfurt, I called in at Rockycany one August. The station was neat and tidy. The buffet was closed: it's drunkards long since having found other watering holes, and no longer a shame on the Czech lands.
I've long thought about those two incidents. The first might, I suppose, have been a set up, a test to see if I were a British agent and might try to recruit the former Leeds student who didn't want war. But the second, well, there was no way anyone would know I'd jump on that train to Rockycany: so the sergeant, or whatever his rank, must have been sincere. I think they both were.
But why did they say this? Perhaps a Czech sociologist specialising in the the period could confirm, but I can only think that the state propaganda was so insistent that the capitalist west was out to destroy the wonderful Czechoslovak Socialist state, yet the evidence available was so flimsy that the public and even military people found it absurd. (The former student from Leeds was only doing his national service – I think he'd said he studied medicine.)
Well, we avoided any war, and broke down the wall. But to this day, whenever I go through Bratislava station, I look at the buffet on platform 1 and remember that New Year's Day, the conscript soldier, and what he said.
Finally: a YouTube video: My first visit to Czechoslovakia kindled an interest in the Sudetenland, its former German-speaking inhabitants, and what today is frequently called the “infamous” Munich agreement of 1938. Only yesterday, I found this Biographics video, which appears to me as one of the best summaries of the Sudeten Germans and the whole controversy.