Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) - 16. It's time to cross this bizarre Iron Curtain.
Photo: A section of the Czechoslovak border fence, now preserved, near Čížov, southern Moravia, which happens to be about 12 miles (20 km) west of Šatov. The concrete blocks were anti-tank defence. Be aware, this is only a partial representation of what the 'protection' was like: in reality, there were at least two fences in parallel, plus another further inland marking the border zone. But this is only on the border with neutral Austria. The frontier between West Germany, a key Nato member, and Czechoslovakia was, as described, far more complex and heavily fortified.
(This is a continuation which follows on from Part 2: First Forays into Vienna / Lower Austria - Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) - 15 - published on March 2.)
As the train trundled out of the last station in West Germany, I looked behind to see the remaining few metres of 'the west'. It was somewhere near midnight on Friday, December 28, 1973, very cold and here, high in the Bohemian Forest, the landscape was covered in thick snow. Next stop was somewhere across the Iron Curtain, in Czechoslovakia.
Within a minute or so, we rounded a bend and ground to a halt in a series of parallel sidings, all under the strident glare of a thousand floodlights. Either side of the rail complex were watchtowers and fences. Not one fence, not even two or three parallel fences, but boxes of fences – such that, if any would-be escapee managed to penetrate the first barrier, he or she would be faced with others on all sides. Without a detailed map, they would be clueless which to try next, and could even end up cutting wires to re-enter Czechoslovakia proper. Not that they would last that long in the set up here.
In that era, everyone had seen photos of the grim east-west border around Berlin: but this felt just as repressive, dangerous and inhuman – except it was in a rural setting, the whole affair surrounded by pine forests and hillside meadows, covered in a Christmas-card like carpet of snow
Armed border guards in white winter overalls patrolled outside with dogs, checking the undersides of the carriages with powerful lamps – as if anyone would try to enter the country like that on a night like this! As they did so, police worked their way down the train, checking visas. With few passengers, it was soon my turn to hand over my passport. I had to change money, £3.30 for each of my seven days on my visa.
It would be good for this story to describe the police as snarling, officious types, but that would be a lie. In truth, mine were neutral, neither nasty nor particularly friendly, just two fellows doing their jobs, probably wishing they were at home with their families. I don't think my bags were searched.
A little later, we were off, leaving behind the floodlights that were a match for Wembley or any other stadium in the west at the time, and into the cold, wintry darkness of western Bohemia.
What was I doing here, you might well ask?
Today, some two decades after low-cost airlines began enabling millions of western visitors each year (at least pre-Covid) to book a long weekend in Prague, Budapest or Bratislava, it is difficult to describe how unusual it was to travel for even a day beyond the Iron Curtain in 1973.
True, there were organised tours; the communist states loved them, bringing, as they did much needed 'hard currency' to prop up their ailing economies, but not many people went on those, relatively speaking.
Indeed, for most Britons, even travel to western Europe was only just becoming unremarkable and - a very few intrepid adventurers apart - the vast majority of private visitors to the likes of Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary had family or historic connections.
It wasn't just the language and normal travel barriers of the day that acted as deterrents: typically (it depended from country to country) you needed to apply for visas, in advance, which usually demanded to know where you were going. You needed to change specific sums of money each day, with official receipts to prove you had not used the black market. On top of these encumbrances, the quality of hotels and restaurants were often poor.
But perhaps the biggest impediment was the image of Soviet troops quelling uprisings - inevitably out of 'fraternal friendship', you understand - in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia with seemingly alarming regularity every decade or so.
So it is little wonder that your average family from Rochdale never had any thoughts of two weeks in the Tatras. Once they decided a fortnight in Blackpool was no longer exciting enough, the first, second and third choice was usually a package tour to Torremolinos, where, along with the cheap vino, you could rest assured there would also be decent fish and chips.
Loners usually had a specialist reason to overcome the negatives of travel to Warsaw Pact countries, be it perhaps architecture, wildlife or, in my case … steam locomotives.
For having invested heavily in railways in the immediate post war years, communist eastern Europe did not have the resources to scrap and replace thousands of what were still modern steam engines which – fuelled as they were by cheap coal mined locally at controlled prices – still had at least 20 years of economic life left in them.
Photo: The zenith of CSD express steam power, a 498.1, now preserved by the Slovak State Railways, on a visit to neighbouring Austria in 1997. A sister locomotive, 498.106, achieved a speed of 162 kmph (100.6 mph) when testing carriages in 1964. Photo credit: Herbert Ortner, Vienna, Austria.
Plzeň. Even then, I knew the city was famed for its beer. But shuffling into the station buffet at 05.30 that Saturday morning, I felt no desire to join the merry Plzeňer proletariat quaffing their local brew as if it were ten minutes before closing time. I took a coffee, watched and wondered what I had come to. Because, even out of the high plateau of the Bohemian Forest, it was still 'orribly cold, and if I am honest, depressingly unwelcoming. And there was another problem. Photographing anywhere away from popular tourist spots in communist countries raised suspicions: photographing railways – deemed of military importance by the authorities - raised suspicions to alarm levels. And in Plzeň, it seemed there were people in military uniforms everywhere you looked. I'd stated on my visa that I would be going to Prague, Bratslava and Nové Zámky, a town in south-western Slovakia, on the main line from Hungary to Poland. So, for want of something better to do, I boarded a train for Prague. The trip did little to raise my spirits. The line was clearly dominated by diesels - I saw but three steam engines en route, hum-drum freight engines and not one blue beauty. Prague was more cold, damp greyness with a good sprinkling of military types on every platform of the station. It didn't feel like a place to show off your camera, even if the one body I'd brought was an East-German made Exakta. Somewhat at a loss as to what to do and feeling like arriving in Bratislava on the first evening of my tour was just way too fast, I had a brainwave. Instead of heading south-east on the main line to Slovakia, I'd head more south, to the small town of Znojmo, in southern Moravia. It wasn't far off my route, so I could blag my way out of any problems if anyone asked why it wasn't on my visa. At least, that was my theory. But why choose Znojmo, a rural town off the main rail routes and not one where my 498.1 quarry would be found? That is a very good question, I must admit. The answer is, in truth, quite crackpot and barely logical. I was simply fascinated, almost mesmerised by this damned border, and Znojmo was the closest town to the border with Austria, just opposite Retz, where I'd been the previous summer. It was as if I had to keep seeing it to believe it. I learned a few words of Czech speaking to other passengers on the train – or tried to - and arrived at Znojmo at around 5.00 pm. Now one thing you should know about Czechoslovakia in those days is, in total contrast to the stadium lights on the German border, the place was dark, very dark. There were simply very few lights to be seen at Znojmo railway station, nor in the town. I've also learned since that the old town is rather twee and pretty. But the railway station is not near the old town, nor was it pretty. However, this otherwise benighted train stop had a hotel, or at least rooms, I was told, as I was directed through a back door in the station buffet and told to find the hotelier.
A little lady who must have been sixty or more appeared. “Have you got a room free?” I enquired, automatically using German. “Yes,” she said, quite friendly – in spite of the fact that, in my Anglo-Saxon crudeness, I'd forgotten to add the almost de rigueur “gnädige Frau” to show respect. “How much is that, please?” I asked. “Fifty-four crowns,” she replied. I did some quick mental arithmetic. The official rate to the crown was about Kčs 31 to the pound sterling. So we were talking about £1.70 – Euro 2.00 perhaps in modern money. I thought about it for a second.
Znojmo was a long way from civilization. “Haven't you got anything cheaper?” I asked. There I stood, in my jeans, green Canadian combat jacket (it had a lot of pockets for films and lenses), with rucksack on my back. She looked at me, down, then up. “OK, zwolf Kronen,” she said, “Aber es gibt viele better,” she intoned by way of warning. I needn't have worried. She showed me to a room which was clearly a workers' abode, with perhaps eight or ten bunk beds. But in between Christmas and New Year, I was the sole resident. And, having slept in numerous less than five-star abodes in Afghanistan, India and Turkey, take it from me, for £0.40, and with perfectly clean, white sheets, it would turn out to be the best value-for-money, commercial kip I've had in a lifetime - and in more ways than mere slumber. I had a meal in the buffet and wondered what to do next. Now it turned out that there was a railway that headed towards the Austrian border, and on towards Retz. Except that, for passenger trains, it terminated at a place called Šatov. My guess was that it ran across to Austria, but was open for freight only. There was a passenger train leaving at about 9.00 pm, returning at something like 9.45 pm. I thought I'd take it, but I checked with the gnädige Frau that the hotel would still be open. “Oh yes,” she said, “Don't worry.” The single unit railbus – of a type still in use in Hungary today – ticked over in the station and slowly acquired its motley collection of passengers, consisting, it seemed, almost entirely of Šatov's teenagers out to enjoy the not-so-bright lights of small-town Znojmo – plus me.
But with only 30 minutes or so of the evening left before Jana had to be deposited with her parents, the average Jaroslav certainly wasn't interested in some strange bloke wearing a combat jacket in the back seat of the unit.
Soon enough, we bumped off into the night, the little train lurching into an ocean of south Moravian blackness. The lurching stopped 15 minutes later, and Šatov's most hormone-filled youth filed off, hopeful, no doubt, of a kiss and cuddle on the walk back home. I supposed it was time for me to alight as well, although it was painfully obvious that there was little but darkness to be seen. Out on the platform, I looked south. The station building was about 50 metres distant, illuminated – if you can call it that - by three electric bulbs of probably 40 watts each. Somewhat ominously, there were also what looked like a group of soldiers. I thought it might be a wise move to get back on the train, and so turned and grabbed the handrails to climb back in. It was then I then heard some very Slavic shouting, and looked down the platform to see the squad of soldiers hot footing it down the platform towards – you've guessed it - me. To be continued.
Please note: this is from memory, so the exact times and exchange rates may be a bit out. The room rates were, however, 54 and 12 crowns respectively. That little scene with the gnädige Frau is seared into my memory, and for good reason. See part 4 :)