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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Walking the rusty line

Swinoujscie (70km north of Szczecin), Poland
Saturday 2 August 2003
The PolishGerman border meets the Baltic at a beach which is popular on both sides of the border. Queues of daytrippers cross in each direction. In Poland, grey blocks of flats from the 1960s give the town a dour aspect, but looking closer it’s obvious that these are well maintained pots of geraniums spill over nearly every balcony.

Schwedt, Oder valley, Germany Monday 4 August
Drowsy-looking villages on the left bank of the Oder. This area was German until 1945, but now seems very Polish, and also poor and remote, though it’s scarcely 150km from Berlin (much further from Warsaw). On the German side the towns look neat and prosperous, though unemployment is high in this area.

Gubin, Neisse valley, Poland Sunday 10 August
Two Polish border guards accost me in a riverside park the border is the river Neisse, around 20m wide and shallow enough to wade across. The duty of preventing people crossing this frontier has been transferred from Germany to Poland. The guards are conscript soldiers. They are looking forward to no longer having this duty from May 2004 their successors will guard the less hospitable Poland Belarus border, 600km to the east.

Varmsdorf, northern Bohemia, Czech Republic
Friday 15 August
First entry into the Czech Republic the border crossing, like most here, has a market on the non-German side. For sale are cigarettes, alcohol, soft drinks (Germany recently imposed an environmental tax on plastic bottles), cheap clothes and shoes, and garish garden gnomes. In the Czech Republic these markets tend to be run by Vietnamese people. Local Czechs reveal hostility towards them the Vietnamese are said to exploit people as moneylenders and bad landlords. It all sounds like the scapegoating of another ethnic group 70 years ago. The gypsy population, which settled here 40 or 50 years ago to work in factories which are often now derelict, is regarded by some Czechs as backward, over-fecund, and feckless. These rather racist sentiments, occasionally appearing in more subtle forms from educated people, lend the Czech Republic an unsettling air.

Teplice, northern Bohemia, Czech Republic
Monday 18 August
I meet two English men who live here. One stays here with his Czech girlfriend and drives into Prague each day to work in real estate. The other, from County Durham, manages the Black & Decker plant in nearby Usti nad Labem. My job between school and university was in a South Yorkshire factory whose work was later transferred to this unit. The man from Durham explained that should wage costs rise rapidly once the Czech Republic joined the EU, the work would be moved again, probably to China.

Jáchymov, northern Bohemia, Czech Republic
Tuesday 26 August
I have high hopes of this town. When dominated by German speakers before the Second World War it was called Joachimsthal. The Germans, with mining skills, had originally been attracted in the Middle Ages by rich veins of silver. The silver was minted into coins of great renown called Joachimsthaler, or, shorter, Thaler. Maria Theresa silver thalers, from the late 18th century (when Austria ruled Bohemia) were used worldwide. There is one in the museum in Sharjah, UAE. The word was corrupted in English to dollar, so Jáchymov can be regarded as the home of the mighty US currency. Unfortunately the town museum, pointed out by a local prostitute eyeing the cars coming from Germany (a cross-border trade I ignore), is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, the fine medieval church is locked, and the centre of the town unkempt and disfigured by trolleybus wires.

Mariánské Lázne, western Bohemia, Czech Republic
Sunday 31 August
After six days’ hard walking I need a ‘cure’, so I stop in the former Marienbad, the most elegant spa in this region of mineral springs and resorts. In the Nové Lázne (New Bath) hotel, patronised by King Edward VII, a nurse prescribes in a perfunctory manner a mineral water bath and a massage. The treatment costs 700 Czech crowns (about £15). The previous day I reached the Mittelspunkt Europas monument high on the CzechGerman border, and the spa certainly seems the epitome of Mitteleuropa. Most of the other ‘patients’ are late middle-aged Germans on coach trips they love their spa treatments, and they like Czech prices.

Cesky Krumlov, southern Bohemia, Czech Republic
Saturday 6 September
Some friends come for my birthday. To keep the rendezvous I cheat and use cheap but slow Czech trains and buses to leap 100km along my route (I make it up later). Cesky Krumlov is the second busiest Czech tourist destination after Prague though most English-speaking visitors are Americans rather than British. We stay in a guesthouse run by an English man and his Slovak wife. He is trying to drum up tourism from Britain, and recently invited travel journalists from West Country papers on a freebie (direct BristolPrague Easyjet flights make this audience a good target). As well as the very pretty town, with medieval streets and fantastic castle, there is white-water rafting, walking, and other outdoor pursuits but accommodation here costs several times that elsewhere in the country.

Drnholec, southern Moravia, Czech Republic
Saturday 13 September
Rain all day. My weekly text message to friends is self-pitying. But the weather cannot hide the fertility of the countryside at one stage I cross a vast apple orchard. The previous night Znojmo was celebrating a massive harvest festival fair. A Beatles imitation band played and there was burcak, newly fermented wine, tasting like apple juice but with 9% alcohol. St Nicholas’s church was filled with produce cartwheels with different fruits and vegetables between the spokes. On Sunday morning sunshine reveals vast old barns for storing the harvest, and I walk through the vineyards to Mikulov, where the Dietrichstein family, wealthy from this cornucopia, had a splendid castle.

In next month’s issue Martin tackles Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia.