The first time I flew, and only the second time I’d left England was in 1986 aged 16. Not really an obvious choice of places to go was Czechoslovakia. The country of course no longer exists, what was, has been split in two and replaced by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Back then it was still one, and very much communist. My two main memories are that the food was hearty but plain, even for those days, and that shops had very little in them. I remember looking into a photo shop window, it had one camera, a small pyramid of 6 rolls of 35mm Orwo film, and that was it! I did later on in my trip see some Agfa super 8 film for sale! Somewhat appropriately I had my first SLR by this point and it was the Russian made Zenith 11.
I arrived at Prague airport late morning and by 2pm was outside Prague, in the “new” village of Lidice. I say “new” as the original was destroyed along with many of its people by the Nazi’s during WW2. Even at the age of 16 I could sense the sadness. On the site of the old village stands a memorial with an eternal flame.
Back in Prague I checked into a typical Soviet hotel of the time, this was all pre-arranged, as back then, any foreign visitor had to arrange travel and accommodation through the state run tourist organisation called “Cedok”. In many ways this made life much easier. Next morning, I visited Wenceslas Square, site of Russian tanks invading and taking over the country in 1968. At that point only 18 years before.
St Vitas Cathedral, famously photographed so magnificently by Sudek, then Gold Lane which lead down to the gothic Charles Bridge, spanning the Vltava, back through the main square with its astronomical clock, then I was off – to Karlovy Vary.
Karlovy Vary is a spa town, Czech’s go there to take the water, which they mostly do through odd shaped jugs where the handle is the spout! I have one somewhere that I must photograph as a still life at some point! Anyway- I assume the water is mineral rich and good. Most famous these days for the site of the casino in Casino Royal, with Daniel Craig as 007, I stayed in the Park Hotel, which although nice was a bit run down back then, these days according to google it’s a very posh Richmond Hotel!
Somewhere near was Hluboka Castle, which I remember had a wonderful collection of marble sculptures.
Brno followed, these days I know to be the home of Foma film, I wish I had known that then, I would have tried to visit. Onward towards a village (I think) called Telc, here a film was in production, very exciting for me.
Finally I made it to Bratislava. I remember passing a Skoda car that had people working on the engine, and had simply turned the car up on its side to do so! Skoda cars are not what they once were! I remember the bridge with its space age viewing platform atop, and a market where I brought a tiny amount in value, but huge in quantity of strawberries, I ate so many they had a detrimental effect for the rest of the day!
Then I was out of towns and up into the Tatra Mountains, right on the border with Poland. With the aid of a chairlift I reached the summit of Mt Chopock (2024 meters), journeyed down the Dunajec river on a raft, and at some point visited some famous caves. Today, both the location and the name evade me!
Photographically, I was shooting on Tudor film. I doubt you will have heard of it. The company I worked for used it, it was one of many that was actually budget Fuji with a different packaging. It was a basic 200 asa colour print film that did the job. In 1986 I didn’t think much of it, but now wish I had shot Portra – but when did Portra enter I lives? (That’s another post!).
My Zenith 11 never let me down, it was built like a tank, and the joke was, made from the off cuts of tanks. I will do a dedicated post about the Zenith at some point.
All too soon I was back on the plane for England but first a visit to the Duty Free Tourist shop. As there was nothing else to spend money on the rest of the trip, and nothing to buy, added to the fact the currency was of no use outside Czechoslovakia I spent my remaining cash, and brought a Bohemian crystal flower vase – I still have it. I look back on this trip with happy memories, like many of my trips, but perhaps this one being my first big excursion outside of England it has a special place. Someday I hope to return to Prague to see the changes now it has opened up to the West.
….are you still reading? You really should go out and make some pictures!