Czech Republic, Land of No Smiles
Following the First World War, the Czechs and Slovaks of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire merged to form Czechoslovakia, but on January 1, 1993, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic became independent states and thus Czechoslovakia ceased to exist in Central Europe, southeast of Germany. Without undermining this country's extremely complicated and rich history, I will only present the salient points. Vaclav Klaus has been president since March 2003.
In 1939, Hitler forced Czechoslovakia to surrender and made it a protectorate. A provisional government was set up in London. Except for the brutality of the German occupation, it suffered relatively little from the war. American troops entered Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1945. At the Potsdam Conference of 1945, approval was made to expel three million Germans and exchange minorities between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. But in their elections of 1946 the Communists emerged as the strong party and began a political agitation that gave them control of the government. Political and cultural liberty was curtailed and riots occurred in 1953, reflecting economic discontent. In response, a limited liberalization trend began. A new constitution was enacted in 1960. Some restrictions of the press, education and cultural activities were eased and local authorities received increased economic autonomy. Since profit considerations were introduced into their economy, Czechoslovakia became celebrated internationally for its experimental theater work and its fine films; but political power was still in the hands of a small circle in the Communist party.
The Soviet-style repressive policies of mass arrests, union purges and religious persecution continued. By 1977, a group of 700 intellectuals had had enough and signed a declaration of human rights which only instigated further Soviet repressive measures. As democratization swept through Eastern Europe in 1989, bringing down the party leadership, and a new non-Communist playwright named Vaclav Havel, became president, thus the "Velvet Revolution" was completed and the Soviet troops departed in May 1991. However, the new government was forced with several difficulties including a distressed and inefficient economic system in need of reform. In 1993, the 74-year-old alliance would separate into independent states and drafts of new Czech and Slovak constitutions were drawn.
I decided to visit a spa in Karlovy Vary, famous for its curative thermal springs, which on the Internet looked like a good deal, the only problem was that it was in the heart of Bohemia. Since I was planning a visit to Poland for Christmas anyway, I booked my trip. The hotel was clean and nice, the meals were boring but adequate, and great detail was paid to my desire to lose five pounds. I cannot complain about the spa treatments because they actually were quite good, even though I could not communicate with anyone as I was plunged into a bath, or hosed alternately with hot and cold water.
The attendants were all Russian who spoke no English and German was spoken around the town, which was an hour south of the capital, Prague. The anti-American sentiment was made quite clear to me. The hotel staff was rude but I am a very stubborn person, and since I had paid well in advance in American dollars I was going to stay until the end even if I had no one to speak to. Luckily there was a Spanish station on TV so I could at least watch a movie in my room at night. To make my trip worse, as I was leaving, a transportation strike erupted and I was not sure how I was going to get to Berlin to catch my plane. I finally paid a taxi driver a small fortune to drive me to the airport as riots broke out at the train station. At that point I was wondering what I was doing there.
In general, it was an interesting adventure but I would not recommend it to you, unless you are majoring in political science! It was the atmosphere of being totally unfriendly to tourists which turned me off. Thank goodness for the jewelry stores where I spent my korunas buying garnets and crystals, and long walks in the colonade where I drank the stinking hot water from the thermals which made the town so famous during the Austrian - Hungarian Monarchy. There was no attempt to accommodate you in any way. If you did not like something, that was just too bad because you were not getting a replacement. You spoiled bourgeois! They certainly did not encourage tourism; although they welcomed the German marks.
I hope they resolve their political and economic problems and improve their sour disposition because they will not compete in the tourist industry. My next spa experience will be in Arizona, where I can watch smiling faces as I practice my yoga. I don't know about you, but for me it is important to see a smiling face; it reaffirms that I am certainly welcome and that my business is appreciated.