Getting Lost in the Historical Landscapes of Bohemia

I have been traveling for over 50 years, and I get lost everywhere I go. I admit it freely. I adore geography, but don’t count on me or even follow me with a street map in my hands. But give me history on a trip, and I get lost in the learning in a way that fills my bran with wonder at the times gone by that shape the sites I am seeing, the people I meet, the times we live in today. I throw away street maps after a trip. I keep history books.

I’m also fascinated by the “Icarus syndrome” in mankind. That’s the Greek myth where Icarus flew too close to the sun, and the wax on his wings melted. Flying too close to the sun is a metaphor today for those who exhibit self-destructive, overly ambitions,  or otherwise disastrous behavior  with catastrophic consequences. A good deal of the history of Central Europe’s Bohemian region (and much of Western Europe for that matter)  was affected by leaders who “flew too close the sun” The remnants of these ultimately failed attempts are scattered all over Bohemia, like lost luggage at the airport.

I recently took the trip Jewels of the Bohemia with Overseas Adventure Travel. I confess that even though I have been to the anchor cities of Prague and Budapest before, I never really understood why the area was called Bohemia, or knew much about its history.  It’s got a long and complicated cultural history, and I learned the whole of Prague, Slovakia, and Hungary is not Bohemia. Bohemia in this context doesn’t refer to the Bohemian lifestyle as we currently understand it, but rather the Celtic tribe the Boli , also called the “desert of the Boli,” and later Bolohaemum. The Celtic occupation of the region actually goes as far back as the second century.

Today, Bohemia is really the Czech Republic, where our tour spent nine of the 14 days.  However, historically the borders of Bohemia kept changing depending on various rulers and noblemen such as the Hapsburgs, the Rosenberg’s, and the changes to the Austria- Hungarian empire. After those days, it became an independent Czechoslovakia that was handed over to Hitler in the 1938 Munich summit and was Nazi occupied. After World War Two, it became a Communist country, and was behind the Iron Curtain until the Velvet Revolution in1990.  The post- World War 1 events in Bohemia were the portions of Bohemia’s history we learned about most on this trip.

The Sudeten mountains are once again part of the Bohemian region, the closest mountain range. When it was occupied by the Nazis as part of Czechoslovakia,  the charming town of Cesky Krumlov was annexed from Czechoslovakia, incorporated into Germany, and became known as Sudetenland. Today, Bohemia (and now the independent Czech Republic) once again includes the charming town of Cesky Krumlov.

But of course the region is not all charm and beauty. There is plenty of “lost luggage” to be found, or remnants from the various recent wars. Particularly striking in contrast to the local charm was the labor camp we visited on the way to Cesky Krumlov known as the Vojna Memorial. Set in the middle of the forest, and built by the German prisoners  of war after World War Two, it was taken over by the Communists in 1948 .Czech prisoners had to work in uranium mines while incarcerated there.  Upon first looking at the site and walking around the grounds and barracks, it  reminded me exactly of the layout of the German concentration camps, at Auschwitz  and Birkeneau.

Butt the other forests in that region have sit quietly over the years, with their own dark stories to tell. We walked through another one of the remnants of the two wars, a time in between called the interbellum (or interwar period), when Czechoslovakia was preparing for possibly another war.  This is the period when Czechoslovakia had been handed over to Hitler and didn’t exist independently as a country.  So, we saw bunkers, fencing all around  with high and wide spikes to deter the enemy, and barbed wire fencing as well in anticipation of a second world war. The Czechoslovak government and army were operating in exile at this point until the government eventually gained independence after he Cold War. Czechoslovakia may or may not have fought in that forest while on exile, but with bunkers and barbed fencing intended to deter an enemy, the Germans likely did.

The history of the region is filled with more detail and more “lost luggage” then I can recount. Seeing it today as a reminder of failed attempts in history by those leaders with grandiose global demands is a lesson for any traveler, no matter which uncertain times they live in. A trip ot the Bohemian region with the addition of Slovakia in the Moravia region (famous for its wines and connected history) is a must-see for any traveler. And as I experienced on this trip, with the visit to Budapest at the end, the history of the Astro-Hungarian empire adds additional insight to a part of the world that seems forever evolving with the events of the day. The people however, remain resilient through it all, and perhaps that’ s the biggest lesson in the region. Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.”


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