My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out that, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, or the castles and cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this part of my “Jams Are Fun” series about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it, takes place in the Middle-of-Nowhere, Czech Republic.
As a travel writer, I pride myself on coming up with creative solutions to vexing itinerary challenges. It’s a fun problem-solving exercise. But sometimes, things just don’t pan out.
On a recent guidebook-research trip through Eastern Europe, I wanted to drive my rental car from Prague to Kraków, with some countryside stops along the way. However, the international drop-off fees for going between the Czech Republic and Poland were prohibitively high. I was mightily pleased with myself to come up with a clever plan: I’d drop my car at an obscure little airport on the outskirts of the small city of Ostrava, just a 30-minute drive from the Polish border. And then, for the second part (and masterstroke) of my plan, my Polish driver friend, Andrew, would come pick me and bring me the rest of the way to Kraków, with some sightseeing stops en route. Brilliant! What could go wrong?
Excitedly, I emailed Andrew to set up the plan. He was totally game. By the way, Andrew Durman is a prince of a guy and one of my favorite Polish people. I’ve recommended him in our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook for years, and he’s provided hundreds — maybe thousands — of our readers with a warm welcome and a worry-free side-trips to outlying sights, or even scouring the Polish countryside in search of their family roots. When I brought my Chicago-area Dabrowski cousins to Kraków several years ago, it was Andrew who piled us into his van, drove us deep into pig-farming country, and translated our conversations with our newly discovered, long-lost Polish cousins. I always think of Andrew as my honorary Polish uncle.
The day of our big meetup arrived. And as I left the charming little Moravian village of Štramberk en route to the airport, I was feeling pretty smug about how well this was going to go. I love it when a plan comes together! Strangely, my GPS was showing the drive to the airport at more than double the 20 minutes I had expected. Hm. Must be a glitch.
Except…it was no glitch. After a few minutes, I ran into a long column of backed-up traffic, inexplicably jamming the remote country road. I bailed out and went looking for an alternate route. But that one was backed up, too. And the next one. And the next one.
And that’s when I heard the jet engines.
A fighter jet went screaming overhead. And then another one. And it slowly dawned on me that this was no random traffic jam. I crawled past a billboard and slowly deciphered its Czech message: “Air…Force Days…Saturday…September 20.” Wait, that’s…that’s…well, that’s today.
According to its website, the NATO Days in Ostrava and the Czech Air Force Days are “the biggest security show in all of Europe.” And I’m quoting here: “The main program, taking place at Ostrava Leoš Janáček Airport, consists of presentation of heavy military hardware, police and rescue equipment, dynamic displays of special forces’ training, flying displays, and presentations of armaments, equipment, and gear of individual units…the most-visited two-day family event in the Czech Republic.”
And so, I had scheduled a rendezvous at what I imagined to be a deserted regional airport on the very day it was hosting 200,000 visitors from all over Europe.
I called Andrew, who had figured out what was going on right around the time I did. “Hello Cameron! I have been sitting still in traffic for 20 minutes. What do you want to do?”
I had to drop off this car at this airport, before crossing into Poland. I had no choice (other than, perhaps, driving myself three hours to Kraków, then driving back three hours tomorrow to return the car, then finding a ride for the three hours back to Kraków). By hook or by crook, Andrew and I had to figure out some way to meet up…and leave this car behind.
Andrew and I — coming from opposite directions — inched toward each other and the airport, periodically calling each other to track progress. I called the rental car office and said, “I’m trying to get to the airport to drop off my car.” Nonplussed, the bored agent replied, “Oh. You know, there’s an air show today.”
As I got closer to the airport, Andrew called me to say he’d parked his car, and was walking back to direct me to the terminal. I pulled over to the side of the road and went looking for him. By this time, the air show was in full swing, with military jets doing their eardrum-piercing loop-de-loops overhead. We might as well have been on the deck of an aircraft carrier on family visit day. Employing a kind of surreal doppler radar, Andrew and I followed the deafening sound of jet engines through each other’s cell phones to triangulate our way closer and closer to each other. Finally, Andrew came into view, far down the road, and we greeted each other with a big, fraternal, Polish bear hug.
Andrew hopped in my car and said, “I told the cops up there what’s going on. He said you can just ignore all of the ‘no entry’ signs and drive up to the terminal anyway.” Gingerly, I navigated my car between throngs of aviation enthusiasts, and — with Andrew’s encouragement — drove the wrong way down a one-way service road. Approaching the police checkpoint, Andrew looked a little concerned. “Hm. That guy I talked to earlier isn’t here.” He hopped out of the car and, after a very animated conversation, told me it was OK to proceed. And so, by some miracle, we got the car back to the rental office.
We hiked a half-mile back to Andrew’s car, occasionally peering up to see the warplanes swirl overhead. By the time we reached the car, traffic had cleared out, and we zipped across the border and headed for Kraków. By the time we pulled up to my hotel — hours later than planned — Andrew and I were already laughing about our impromptu visit to Europe’s biggest air show.
If you savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad, check out the other posts in my “Jams Are Fun” series.
How about that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea?
Or that time I got pulled over by keystone kops in a remote corner of Bosnia?
Or, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily.
Aunt Mildred was right: Jams are fun, indeed. What’s your favorite travel jam?