I've been doing a lot of reading about Prague in preparation for next summer's train trip trough Central and Eastern Europe. And frankly, I'm afraid. I'm very afraid.
Prague isn’t all beer halls and sausage stands. Gorgeous old churches and magnificent palaces abound. But at this point in the trip, we’ll no doubt want a break from historic beauty and will be seeking a bit of contrast, which the Museum of Communism is more than ready to provide. Its theme, “Communism – the Dream, the Reality, and the Nightmare,” involves an “immersive experience” in a factory, a schoolroom and an interrogation room. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
And if yet more thrills are needed, we can pop into its competitor, the KGB Muzeum, to view Lenin’s death mask, Trotsky’s murder weapon, the contents of the KGB laboratory where spy technology and weaponry were developed, and a beautiful banner handmade by children in a labor commune for “Grandpa Lenin.”
Just reading about that era makes me understand why the Czechs have some of the highest alcohol consumption in the world. But to be fair, they had a lot of dark years even before Grandpa Lenin. It’s hard to find a bridge or alleyway in Prague that isn’t (allegedly) haunted by beheaded medieval lords, cheated giants, star-crossed lovers or other unquiet souls. The very hottest place for the undead is 45 km outside of town in Castle Houska, which the locals are sure is the real and literal Gate of Hell.
The backstory: After countless reports of a bottomless pit from which half-animal, half-human creatures emerged to wreak havoc on the countryside, a medieval Duke decided to investigate the site. He offered to pardon any prisoner who would consent to being lowered on a rope into the pit and report what he’d seen. One prisoner agreed, but emerged screaming, white haired and utterly mad. Eventually they put a stone slab over the pit and built Houska Castle on top of it, but demonic entities continued to stir up trouble. Human troublemakers, from a 17th century alchemist to the Nazis, have performed various unsavory occult experiments on the site. Today Houska Castle is a tourist attraction, so of course, we’ll drop in. But only during daylight hours, when lots of people are around.
Sometimes, even the food is scary in the Czech Republic.
For instance, there’s a popular bar snack called Upotonek, literally “the drowned man,” which is a bloated, pickled sausage floating, corpse-like, in a pool of vinegar. Yummm....
As the year draws to a close, Czech tradition calls for placing a bowl of garlic under the table to protect your family in the year ahead. Of course, Rich and I have assured each other that this is nothing but superstition. But just in case...
Last week, my friend Victoria Twead wrote to ask if I’d like to take part in the Next Big Thing online event. She’s the author of the delightful Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, which my husband Rich, who has trouble remembering book titles, calls “Two Old Mules.” Vicky explained that the Next Big Thing is a way for authors and bloggers to share news about their most exciting upcoming projects. In her case, it’s her sixth book, Two Old Fools on a Camel. I can’t wait to discover what Rich is going to call that one.
What's My Next Big Thing?
I'm glad you asked.
Next summer, Rich and I are packing our suitcases, walking to the train station near our Seville apartment, and hopping a train that will, eventually, take us to Eastern Europe. Our route, still being planned with the aid of a huge railway map taped to our kitchen wall, is likely to include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, maybe Albania and a few other countries. We thought it would be fun to drop in on Transylvania, the Carpathian Mountains, Bulgaria’s recently excavated vampire graves, and the Czech Republic’s Houska Castle, which for centuries has been considered the real and literal “Gates of Hell.” Yes, we’re packing plenty of garlic and crucifixes. Not that we believe a word of all that superstitious claptrap, of course. But there’s no point in taking foolish chances...
The trip will be the subject of a whole series of blogs about the weird and wacky things we stumble into along the way. Will it turn into a book as well? Too early to say. Book concepts are like cats; you can’t force them to engage with you. Your best bet is to ignore them until they climb up into your lap and clamor for your attention. So for the moment I am thinking of this as an adventure chronicled in a series of blogs. We’ll see where it wants to go after that.
The Next Big Thing online event wants me to answer specific questions about my project, so here goes:
What is the working title of your project?
My travel posts always appear on my blog, “Enjoy Living Abroad.” If this project should eventually turn into a book, I briefly toyed with using the title The Next Big Thing. But a quick glance at Amazon revealed this is already the title of a romance novel, an adventure game, a novel about a reality show called From Fat to Fabulous, a country music album, a World Wrestling Foundation music album (who knew?) and a self-help workbook that someone ordered used from Amazon and then felt a little bitter about the fact that it was already filled in by another couple, requiring the extensive use of white-out. I don’t want to have to compete with all that! I’ll worry about book titles later.
Where did the idea come from for the blog?
Last spring, Rich and I were sitting on a tiny, pitching, jam-packed Portuguese ferry in the pouring rain, en route Culatra Island to show Jan the Beachcomber photos of a painting I’d done of him. “I love this kind of travel,” Rich suddenly said to me, “I miss this kind of travel. It’s time for another big adventure.” By the time the ferry reached the island, we had hatched the plot for our train trip through Eastern Europe
Jan the Beachcomber. For more on Jan, and a photo of his amazing beach hut, visit my art web site.
What genre does your blog fall under?
If it becomes a book and then a movie, which actors would you choose to play your characters?
I’m thinking Annette Bening, as people have occasionally said I look like her. I’m sure she gets the same thing at parties: “Say, aren’t you the woman who wrote that book, Dancing in the Fountain...?” Rich can’t decide between Brad Pitt and the guy who plays Neal Caffrey on White Collar. Your thoughts?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your blog series?
Karen and Rich voluntarily travel to places in Eastern Europe no one with any sense would ever go.
If it becomes a book, will it be self-published or represented by an agency?
I prefer self-publishing, so I’ll probably go that route. Although for the right price, I suppose I could be bought...
How long will you be working on this blog series?
Our trip will take about three months, but I’ve already started doing the research and recently posted a blog about some preliminary discoveries: Bulgaria, So Much More Than Vampire Graves (with recipes). Scroll down to see it below.
What other works would you compare this story to within your genre?
There are lots of great travel blogs out there. One of my favorites is WanderingEarl.com, written by a guy who has been on the road since 1999. I’ve never met Earl, but we correspond occasionally, and he's suggested meeting up with us in Romania next summer. In fact, we hope to meet lots of expat and local travel bloggers along the way, people who know the territory and can introduce us to eccentric people and places.
Who or what inspired you to write this blog series?
Rich reminded me that we’re both happiest when we have a grand adventure on the horizon.
What else about your project might pique the reader’s interest?
We’re going to see how far off the beaten path we can get. Do you know anyone who’s been to the Carpathian Mountains? Me neither. And we hope to get to the bottom of various mysteries. Do Romanian grandmothers still cut the baby’s umbilical cord with a reaping-hook these days? What were the experiments the Nazis did at the old Houska “Gates of Hell” Castle? Why is Earl wandering? Inquiring minds want to know, and your intrepid reporter is working the beat. More to follow.
And now it's my pleasure to pass the torch on to five of my fellow writers, so that they can tell us about their Next Big Thing.
Susan Pohlman is the author of the award-winning Halfway to Each Other, the remarkable and moving true story of a couple on the brink of divorce who restore their marriage during a year in Italy. Based in Arizona, Susan is a film writer, freelance journalist and writing instructor/coach who leads writing retreats in Europe. In addition to her personal blog, she recently launched Expat Chat, where I was fortunate enough to be her first guest blogger. She's just completed a new book, and I'm looking forward to hearing all about it in her Next Big Thing blog.
Joan Fallon chose to reinvent her life by moving from Scotland to Andalucia, where she wrote the critically acclaimed Daughters of Spain about the lives of Spanish women during the years of Franco's dictatorship. Since then, she's published three novels set in Spain and is about to publish her fourth. I was lucky enough to be an advance reader of her upcoming book Santiago Tales, which interweaves the stories of various pilgrims and provides a richly detailed description of what it's really like to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago today.
Lots of people think about living abroad, but what about working overseas, in an era when jobs are notoriously hard to come by? Susanna Perkins has written a wonderful free e-book called Untether Yourself: 5 Portable Careers to Support You Overseas, in which she describes income-generating activities you can develop now, before you leave home, and take with you almost anywhere in the world. Her blog, Future Expats Forum, is packed with the kind of practical advice I wish I'd had before setting off for Spain.
Polly Burns lives in the southeast of England, where she raises her young son, longs for sunnier, more exotic climes and writes a quirky and eclectic blog called Caught Writing. Her principle subjects are writing and travel, two things close to my heart. She's confided in me that her Next Big Thing involves taking her son for an extended stay in southern France, so the two of them can really immerse themselves in another culture. As you can imagine, I am all for this plan, and can't wait to read all about it in her forthcoming blog.
I've known Cat Gaa since she arrived in Seville five years ago and enthusiastically embraced the lifestyle of a guiri (foreigner), teaching English to Spanish kids, travelling throughout Spain, exploring the food and culture, and writing her Sunshine and Siestas blog. Her posts deal with such vital survival techniques as how to eat tapas like a Spaniard, how to cook delicacies such as oreja a la plancha (grilled pigs' ears), and how to emerge victorious when dealing with the Spanish bureaucrats controlling those all-important residency visas.
This blog is a promotion-free zone.
As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only mention things I happen to find interesting and/or useful. Whew! I wanted to clear that up before we went any further. Thanks for listening.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel
I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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