It was close to 100 degrees and muggy as a bathhouse on July 26th in Czechia. There was no breeze and even the dandelions in the grass outside our hotel looked like they’d had it with the weather. Hot vinyl beckoned, as the group assembled for our vintage car tour of Ostrava.
This was my birthday, and it was a bit surreal. I couldn’t imagine a much stranger place to spend it.
I have never written “Ostrava” down on a travel bucket list. Indeed, before the TBEX conference settled on this town as a destination, I had never heard of it. Yet here I stood, with a group of friends I can only describe as soulmates. We don’t really have a lot in common besides our passion for travel. Inexplicably, the universe keeps looping us together, on different continents, in different outfits, for outlandish adventures. It’s awesome, and bizarre. Particularly in the heat of this July day.
A quick Google search turned up a 1990’s article from Mother Jones about this former industrial capital. Let me sum up what it said: “Ostrava is the absolute armpit of Europe. It’s like Soviet Detroit. Never go there unless you’re into death, decay and severe depression.”
Granted this article was written in 1994. And also, I kind of like abandoned and decaying places. Like the crumbling (and now closed) prison I toured in Estonia.
I was in Novosibirsk in 1996 and when I think of cities full of crumbling post-soviet structures, this city will always be my OG. I have a soft spot for cities where bureaucracy and politics square-danced with architecture, then got lapped by history, leaving a lot of pretty weeds to grow stubbornly in the cracks.
The more the years pass in these former Soviet industrial zones, the more the weeds seem to take over. But not in Ostrava.
A lot has changed in the last 24 years. Ostrava has risen above the closure of its coal mines and has taken back the land, creating features from the giant rusting edifices that advertise the city’s industrial past. The Gong, a modern convention center inside what was once a massive fuel storage tank, is just one such example. Next to the Bolt Tower (named for Usain Bolt), the convention center is surrounded with a vast network of rusting metal pipes and tubes. It looks like a post apocalyptic water park, for giants.
Large sculptures, neon works and paintings sway between these structures and a public jukebox invites passerby to share their thoughts, by way of random vintage musical selection.
It’s all incredibly hipster.
Hipster was a word that also came to mind when the vintage cars pulled up in front of our hotel. We were a group of about a dozen riders and drivers, distributed into five or six perfectly refurbished and preserved cars. The cars included vintage BMWs, a Porsche and an MG. They dated from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. The group of riders included a rag tag bunch of travel journalist friends that I have known for the better part of the last decade, and many of which I consider dear friends.
For an instant I really regretted that my kids were not with me on this trip. They would love this tour. They would probably love all of Ostrava, save the extreme heat.
The 1939 BMW convertible looked sweet to me. First because of it’s amply padded and couchlike back seat. Second because of the “air conditioning” a convertible would afford. Third, because the charming driver, George was apparently the head of this vintage car tour operation. George was zoot suited, gold toothed, suave and debonair. He displayed a great deal of knowledge and love of Glenn Miller and Cole Porter music, which he hummed along to as we drove through the city streets of Ostrava and beyond.
“I was born in the wrong time, ” he explained, “I really love this, this era.”
We cruised past Ostrava’s main square and Old Town, closed to traffic, and passed by the Gong and Bolt tower.
“Usain Bolt was once a passenger in this very car,” George told us proudly. “He sat right where you were sitting.”
Our first stop was the Landek Park and Mihal mine. The mine is now closed. This mine was open until the 1990s. When it shut, the workers just left. Many of the possessions were left behind and that is what is on display there now. It’s quite eerie to see the empty boots and dusty clothes, just hanging there like industrial ghosts.
Outside the atmosphere is parklike and children can ride the mine train. It reminded me of the train from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang in which the child catchers snared the children. Slightly sinister, but still fun.
Back on the road and in the breeze, George shared some truly awful and dirty jokes with us. I’m telling you this because if you ever meet George, and he asks if you like dirty jokes, you should probably take a Nancy Reagan approach and just say no.
Next we came to the wide boulevards and massive Soviet era structures of the Poruba district.Nowadays this is a popular place to live and shop and the streets were full of women pushing strollers, and workers rushing back from their lunches.
A parade of vintage cars is an exciting event here. Everyone stopped in their tracks to get a look at us. So many people waved when we stopped, and school children raced to snap pictures with us and the cars.
You can’t miss the history in the bones of this city’s architecture. Here is where many miners and workers were housed after WW2. It’s still a popular place to live. The architecture is grandiose and imposing. Yet there is also something incredibly sad about some of the buildings. Like a house that is now too large for its occupants.
These structures feel full of ghosts, and I almost expected to catch a whiff of mothballs. Fortunately, a large sunflower garden elevated the energy, reminding me of all the new life here.
Maybe it was just the heat causing me to see spirits.
Several of the riders switched cars at this point. I stayed with George and the Beamer. Despite his dirty jokes, I liked him. I like Cole Porter too, and that breeze was delicious. Plus, I didn’t fancy wearing a helmet or riding in a rumble seat like some of the other cars demanded. Birthday privilege, I decided.
Our final stop was the stadium and it was at this point that the skies opened up and let loose a torrential downpour. Like all good summer storms, it was a welcome one. Tops were hastily put up and we had a chance to see the vintage wipers in full swish. The smell of ozone coming off hot asphalt brought me right back to the Jersey summers of my childhood.
Tooling around former soviet-era structures, past post industrial complexes, listening to “in the mood,” wasn’t at all how I had pictured spending this birthday. But looking around at my group of buddies, plucked from assorted places across the globe, it somehow made sense. Something about the extreme randomness of it all.
I can tell you all about this experience. But I still cannot entirely explain how I keep finding myself with this improbable group of friends, in the most unlikely places, having the most unique adventures.
” We must have known each other in a past life,” I said.
“Yes,” they agreed. “And Happy Birthday!”
“Thank You!” I said.
Thanks again to George, to the TBEX conference and to the city of Ostrava, for sending me on one of the most surreal, but pleasant and memorable tours I’ve been on.
I do recommend this tour to others if you are in Ostrava for any reason, including a conference, touring the mines and old city, or if you show up for Colors, the summer music festival.
Just skip George’s dirty jokes. Trust me.
Individual tours can be organized through Trofeonike, by directly contacting Marcela. This annual event features a caravan of vintage cars (pre 1945) and period costumes. I imagine it would be quite the sight to behold if you are in the Moravian-Silesian territory at that time!