THE LAST THING I WANTED TO DO before I got to Olomouc, a town in the north-eastern part of the Czech Republic, was eat cheese that reeked of unwashed feet. The stench of Olomouc cheese or, in Czech, Olomoucke tvaruzky had etched a permanent warning on my brain that read "Stay far, far away!" Every time I'd come within five feet of any Czech supermarket dairy counter, the foul smell would announce its presence to my nostrils.
But there I was, in a village just outside the historic university town, in a museum dedicated to the planet's stinkiest milk derivative. A friend in Prague once bet me to eat some. I lost. My mission, I decided, was to finally fulfill the dare.
Inside, a video in Czech took us through 400 years of the cheese's history, showing courageous women loading the silver-dollar-size cakes of cheese from the conveyor belt to the basket while the triumphant soundtrack of Chariots of Fire played in the background. The Germans on the tour looked as mystified as I was. We wandered through a room that displayed ancient cheesemaking instruments and found that the line at the gift shop was out the door (must've been the music). Rather than wait, I was back on the road, not a scent of cheese on my breath, the spires of Olomouc towering before me.
When the Prague Warsaw train passes through Olomouc, few travelers bother to crane their necks for a view of the town's leafy streets and gothic architecture. Fewer still get off to visit this town with a name that looks as foreign to our eyes (pronounced: Oh-low-moetz) as the cheese is to our olfactory glands.
As I wandered Olomouc's cobblestone streets, passing imposing Baroque churches and the 18th-century palaces that have been converted into lecture halls for the 400-year-old Palacky University, I remembered something I'd heard about the city: After the Swedes ended their eight-year occupation of Olomouc in 1650 and moved on to other spoils in Europe, the town was in such disrepair that the ruling Austrian authorities considered completely wiping it from existence.
Fortunately for us, they didn't. As I turned a corner, confronted with a choice of winding downhill alleys intermittently covered by high stone arches and flanked by black street lamps bolted to 18th century burgher houses, I found it impossible not to draw comparisons between this city of 100,000 and Prague's Mala Strana district. Though the Czech capital rightly deserves to be crowned one of the most beautiful cities in the world, in a way Olomouc feels like the Prague of ten years ago, when the stink of post-communism kept less adventurous tourists on the other side of the old Iron Curtain.
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Like the Swedes, the communists, who ruled the Czech lands for 41 years, did their part to mess up Olomouc, too. While waiting to meet a friend of a friend, I stood staring at the once-medieval astronomical clock in Horni Namesti (Upper Square). Today, the clock is not only the most beautiful socialist-themed astronomical clock in the world, it's the only socialist-themed astronomical clock in the world. Built into the Renaissance-era town hall, the two-story mosaic and time-keeping device's 12-inch figurines of barrel-chested workers and sinewy, bandanna-clad women put on an hourly procession. Unlike at Prague's astronomical clock, few stop to watch it.
"Yes, we hate it," said Tereza, the friend of a friend. Born and raised in Olomouc, Tereza recently graduated from Palacky University and now works for the city's arts and culture department. She had graciously volunteered to give me a tour of her hometown. "Like a lot of things, the communists really screwed this one up."
I kind of liked the clock, but then again, I didn't have to live with it. While Tereza and her family had to put an obligatory Soviet flag in their window (before 1989's Velvet Revolution), I was parked in front of the TV watching Super Bowl halftime shows and singing "The Star-Spangled Banner"? at baseball games, a kinder, gentler form of propaganda that I've come to dislike as much as she does the clock.
Tereza and I wandered aimlessly. She pointed out sites of interest: Mozart once stayed here, Austrian Empress Maria Thereza there; a nearly 900-year-old Romanesque bishop's palace and a church built on the site where the local saint, Saint Jan Sarkener, was tortured and killed in 1620. Eventually, we ended up in front of the gothic Saint Moritz church. And a few minutes after that, having paid the 50-cent entrance fee and scaled the steep circular stone staircase, we were at the top of the church's bell tower, one of the highest points in the city. The city's two spires those of the town hall and the medieval cathedral of Saint Wenceslas dominate the skyline from near opposite ends of the Old Town. My eyes were drawn to the gray, boxy communist-era department store that was plopped right in front of the church.
"It used to be a nice square," Tereza said with a tone of regret.
I confessed that I had a hard time understanding the communist aesthetic. While the astronomical clock had some serious kitsch value, I was perplexed as to why they'd replace a centuries-old gothic clock with images of scientists and hammer-toting workers. And why would they replace a public space in front of a beautiful gothic church with a drab, perfectly square department store?
"It's quite simple," Tereza said, pulling a strand of wind-whipped blond hair from her eyes. "They just made stuff that wouldn't get anyone excited. That was the point. They didn't want anyone to think."
We stood there in silence for a long minute, staring out at the concrete block apartments that surround the city. I considered her insight: In the West, we're bombarded with the exact opposite. We're supposed to get so excited about what we're spoon-fed that we spend our waking hours playing Monday-morning quarterback or pondering the goings-on of TV programs. Different approaches, nearly the same results.
I had an idea: "Wanna get some cheese?"
"Olomouc cheese?" she responded, wrinkling her nose at the thought before slowly shaking her head. "You're with the wrong person if you want to eat that stuff it smells so bad that my dad has to keep it on the balcony." Instead, she invited me to a local club where she was going to be D.J.'ing that night. Tereza and I parted ways, and I did some more wandering, hoping to wind up in a restaurant with a plate of stinky cheese in front of me.
Instead, I found myself in the Baroque church of Saint Michael Somewhere in another room, a chorus of monks belted out medieval chants. I explored the hallways of the adjoining vaulted seminary, taking in the large saintly paintings on the walls and pieta sculptures tucked into corners. That's when I noticed a sign guiding me to the church tower. A sucker for views, I started the climb, amazed that there was no entrance fee. Within a few steps the circular stone staircase became pitch black. I hesitated, unsure whether I should trudge forth. This is the kind of adventure, I thought, that I'd never have in other European cities. There are no such pathways or stairways that haven't been completely sterilized for the tourist. Except in Olomouc. I lifted my right foot and began the blind climb.
Though the view from Saint Michael's bell tower was not as commanding as from Saint Moritz, I loved the haphazard, not-ready-for-tour-groups feel. Boards creaked under my feet, and I had to step over large beams just to get around. On my way back down, still in the dark, I briefly lost my balance and braced my hand against the wall to stabilize myself. When I did, I slapped on a light switch, illuminating the entire stairwell. I was glad I hadn't found it on my way up, that I'd mustered up the courage to make a go of it in the dark.
Tereza's club, Belmondo, was just outside the old city walls, on a block that has become nightlife central for young Olomoucers. The Crack, Rasputans, and Cin Cin are all are steps away. By midnight, Belmondo was crammed with college students, a large handful of whom were American, Canadian, and British. The university offers medical degrees in English, attracting students from all over the world and helping to give Olomouc an unlikely international feel.
As Tereza spun James Brown, Prince, and hip-hop mixes to the energetic crowd on the parquet, I sat on a couch behind the turntables chatting with her soon-to-be-doctor friends until the day's wanderings caught up with me and I finally retired to my hotel room.
The next day, my last before heading to south Moravia, I ate dinner in a restaurant that served stinky cheese. My last chance. When the plate arrived, the familiar odor instantly assaulted my sense of smell. But, I thought, at least I can leave this near-Prague-rivaling city having scratched another dare off my list.
And with that, the Chariots of Fire theme playing in my head, I stabbed the first of the five cakes of Olomouc cheese, loaded it in my mouth, and commenced chewing. It was actually quite tasty.
THE STINKY CHEESE MUSEUM
(A.W. spol., Palackeho Street 4, Lostice; +420-583-401-211; gives regular tours. Later, chow down on cheese and more at POTREFENA HUSA (Opletalova 1; +420-585-203-171).
See Tereza spin on Saturday nights at CLUB
BELMONDO (Mlynska 4; +420-585-208-425).
Other nearby clubs to check out: CAPTAIN MORGAN'S (Mlynska 2; +420-585-234-665),
THE CRACK (Mlynska 4; +430-585-208-428).
After dancing, head back to the POETS CORNER HOSTEL for a great night's sleep (hostelolomouc.com).
Photos by Geo D Oliver