Quietly, on a rainy Friday morning we made a ‘back door’ border crossing by climbing 900 meters through the Karkanosze mountains out of Poland and dropping down into the Czech Republic.
The smooth tarmac of the road’s surface ended abruptly at the country’s entry sign and we bumped along a patched and weather-beaten version.
The route was interesting as it passed through former light industrial centres of glass and textile manufacturing. There was ski season paraphernalia in the larger villages but everything looked ramshackle and unkempt.
People plodded through the rain to wait for buses or to buy items at little local shops. We couldn’t work out what kind of living people made here and saw no schools, doctors’ surgeries or administrative centres. It seemed a rough life in the mountains compared to the wealth of the bohemian towns that we had previously explored around Prague.
Like elsewhere, the campsite we aimed to stay at appeared open at the gates but not open for business yet. It meant travelling further so we stopped at a busy local café for a very tasty lunch of meat and potatoes. Food and fuel was great value on our daily budget so we hoped to find a base to stay for a few days to explore.
At Liberec, we admired the splendidly fading old main square. It offered clues to its ancestry. Its beautiful and overly ornate Town Hall sported spires, statues, gothic tracery and a Ratskeller. Close by a definitive art deco building from 1929 featured motifs of industrial and agricultural workers standing above the streamlined barrelled windows. Surely this was a German town?
Liberec had once been part of the Austrian Empire and was settled by German and Flemish peoples. Named Reichenberg for its wealth, the striking similarity in architecture to Bolków and Jelenia Góra was now obviously apparent.
The towns had all prospered by light industry and manufacture and benefited from picturesque locations which allowed for leisure resorts to pander to the Germanic love of the ‘great outdoors’. Liberec had high culture in its late 19th century Opera House, art galleries, museums and a glitzy social live that revolved around cafes and hotels. After the First World War, it was initially declared to be the capital of German Bohemia but was quickly occupied by the Czechoslovak army.
The depression of the 1930s hit the town hard as it was reliant on light industry for employment. Hunger, anger and unrest with the Prague government led to the sudden rise of the Sudenten Democratic Party which became a political hotbed of Nazi fervour leading to the city being ‘awarded’ to Germany and Hitler laying out his plans for the Hitler Youth in a speech in the town’s square.
After World War II the town again became part of Czechoslovakia and the German population was expelled. Czechs were resettled but only to become part of the vastly increased Soviet State. Old borders east had been pushed west by Stalin and the Eastern Bloc now included Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany.
We cycled along a track following a bizarre metal pipe construction that crossed roads and bridges and occasionally belched out hot steam.
Stopping to ask passers-by we learnt it was the town’s historical hot water system, still feeding apartment blocks and high-rise flats. Free hot water for the workers! Communist state-controlled personal hygiene regulations in action!
We pitched up at the only campsite in Liberec, one of three vans but many motorbikers – it was MOTOfest and that meant only one thing – strong beer, scrubby bearded men, scary looking women and heavy rock!
Escaping the soundcheck we went to have a beer at the campsite bar before Act of God, Anarchia, Deathward and De Bill Heads all took to the stage.
It was going to be a long night…