Life in a Palaeolithic Cave

In July 2011, I went to the Czech Republic for 3 weeks to take part in an archaeological dig in a paleolithic cave, located in the spectacular Moravian Karst region. Here’s one of the updates I sent home.

After an interesting trip (Italian woman on the flight who kicked the back of my chair, and a German woman on the Vienna train who used our carriage as her personal change room), I arrived in the charming university town of Brno. My friend Su and I grabbed some traditional Czech desert from a nearby restaurant (tinned fruit and whipped cream) then crashed at the uni. At first glance, the accommodation looked alright. On closer inspection, however, there were a few teeny issues.

  1. bedbugs
  2. grotty kitchen, bathroom and toilet
  3. foosball table 20 metres from my room that seems to be the only entertainment available to the students, hence a 3:00am party at my front door
  4. construction workers outside at 6:00am, some of whom think it’s okay to stand on our balconies and watch us through our windows

That aside, the trip has turned out to be pretty good so far.

Day 1 was spent sampling many wonderful cafes in the city centre, including 2 visits to an aviation-themed lemonade bar. I also: explored the labyrinth that runs under the streets; discovered a couple of cool but seriously creepy crypts (one with several dozen bodies on display in glass-lidded coffins); checked out the gothic castle on the hill; and finished off the day with dinner at a traditional medieval restaurant, complete with a real knight in shining armour who was vanquished when a ceramic tankard was smashed over his head (talk about lively dinner entertainment!).

Moaning Brno statues

Day 2 was spent in and around the cave. It’s called Pod Hradem, and it’s a solid 20-minute walk up a very steep, snake-infested gradient. (We’ve been warned about the vipers, the only poisonous snake in Europe. All I’ve seen so far is a green tree snake about as large and as threatening as an obese worm – it practically launched itself off the path and tumbled to the bottom of the ravine just to get away from us.) The cave is deep, stretching into the hillside a good 40 metres or so. There’s a rumour that an iron door exists at the deepest part that leads to the 12th-century medieval castle perched on the cliff above. Despite the digging efforts of dozens of hopefuls over the years, the tunnel has never been found. What has been uncovered, though, are a treasure and a human skeleton with a dog beside it, all from the medieval era. In this year’s excavation, the archaeologists have turned up plenty of bones, including cave bear claws, jaws and vertebrae, but nothing medieval, and no Neanderthal or early modern human remains yet.

Pod Hradem Cave

Pod Hradem’s Gate (to discourage nightly visitors)

Day 3, and the bedbugs haven’t let up. Nor have the 3:00am student hallway parties. Nor have the 6:00am construction workers at the window. The bathroom is even grottier than the day before. Solution: move to lovely sparkling penthouse room in a central city hostel. Winner. So, while I haven’t actually done any excavating yet, I’m enjoying comfy accommodation in the heart of Brno. The restaurant food is very oily here, so I’m glad to have a functioning kitchen. I’ve discovered the Cabbage Markets, which are only a block from the hostel. Best cherries ever. And strawberries. And broccoli and beans and herbs and lettuces and tomatoes. Oh, and it’s mushroom season now, so there’s vats of mushrooms as well. Yum!

My impressions of the Czech Republic change from moment to moment. Beautiful architecture is quietly crumbling, as are all the 1950s communist-built structures (many have smashed window panes that no one’s bothered to refit). Every so often I’ll see a flash of modernity, like the hostel I’m staying in, and it looks out of place. But a few prominent buildings on the outskirts stand unfinished or neglected.

Service everywhere is prompt but brusque, which I’m told is a residual attitude from the communist era, when people were forced to do this work for the good of the Party. Everything is cheap. You can get a huge meal and a pint of beer for under $10. Trams are quaint and efficient. (People say the gypsies are too; I’ve seen them on most street corners but they haven’t hassled me yet.) You can always hear music playing from somewhere. And food is best eaten home-cooked, as the Czechs tend to love their oil and salt (I had crepes this morning and I swear the chef emptied his salt shaker into it – ate one mouthful and gagged).

But the best bit? The forest surrounding Pod Hradem cave is real Brothers Grimm territory. I can see why people created stories to warn children not to stray too far off the path. The atmosphere is delightfully spooky, and makes me shiver just a little each time I step into the moist darkness of the cave to rummage through the cool earth.

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