A FARMER in an ancient tractor cut hay while the sun shone in a Bohemian meadow in the Czech Republic, last Sunday morning. At 10am, it was already 30°. Why he was cutting on a Sunday, I don’t know; maybe it was recreation and he enjoyed it.
Most days, the weather was glorious, although sometimes the Mothers of all Downpours would fall from the sky. Clouds gathered, thunder rolled and those caught outside were drenched in minutes. Heat and rain: it was like Tokyo in the mid-summer monsoons.
But that Sunday morning the sky was peerless blue. Walking along a quiet road, I looked out across the heat-hazed meadows and, suddenly, was back in the Tipperary of the 1950s, by the water — meadows of the River Suir.
I thought, yes, I’m right — the meadows grasses were as tall and as dense with wildflowers. Later, carrying our suitcase from our chalet across a mown meadow to where my son and family had parked their camper van, our feet kicked up the drying hay and the scent was as sweet and fresh as in those Tipperary meadows.
I have never before seen such vast unfenced fields of lush grass, edged by forests, as in the highlands of Slovakia. The wildflower varieties were almost countless, and day-flying moths rose in small clouds as one walked. What they do with all the grass, I cannot imagine. Only twice in our 1,500-mile journey through Czech, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia, did we see shepherds with sheep, and cattle were a rare sight.
On the Sunday I mention, we had driven south in the camper van from the town of Budejovice to the Sumava, a national park on the Austrian border with low mountains, many rivers and Lake Lipno, a huge expanse of water. At the Villa Bohemia caravan site alongside, dozens of Dutch motor homes were parked in neat rows. The site was unusually regimented. When, at 10.15pm, after dinner, the four of us, with my tiny grandson sleeping in his pram, sat chatting on the terrace, the manageress told us we must keep our voices down.
Next day, we moved to a more natural and conducive setting, where the Vltava river flows into the lake. There, we found Czechs only, largely families, spending the Sunday at small riverside ‘beaches’ or cycling the countless tracks that thread through the park. It was an idyllic scene, and we all swam in the river, and picnicked in the shade of the tall alders and birches along the banks.
Later, my son and I hired a canoe. The canoe-man drove us and our canoe 10 km upstream, launched us and left us to paddle slowly back over the course of three hours; the cost was €15. As we launched, a beautiful snake, two foot long, came surging out of the water onto the small concrete jetty, swarmed across it, stopped to eye us, then slid back into the water and swam away.
It was a grass snake, harmless, but a dramatic sight, with a chromium-yellow band of scales below its head. Grass snakes are, apparently, adept swimmers and have even been found in the sea, far from land.
As we drifted down in the quiet of the evening, we saw the stately trees and the water meadows and schools of fish shoaling over the gravel beds. Nowhere was the water deeper than a few feet and the health of the river was apparent from the number of fish. Fine brown trout and grayling are caught on dry fly, and in the Lipno Reservoir, bream, carp, pike-perch, and pike up to 26kg are landed regularly.
The Danube was blue when we saw it under a three-quarter moon the night we stayed on its bank in a small village in Austria. Sometimes, huge cruise boats passed, like Orient Express carriages on water, the windows lit up and guests dining inside, with shining brass and polished wood and waiters in white jackets. We next saw the Danube from the Buda Hills in Hungary, the stately river dividing the stately city below.