Bohemia On The Prairie


Few New Jersey commuters think of Interstate 80 as the conduit to grand adventure. And for those who do contemplate the transcontinental journey on I-80 — its western terminus is San Francisco — the long Midwestern slog through days of corn fields may seem less exciting than the southerly route through deserts and canyons.

But for those making the trip in October, I-80 offers a pleasure largely unsuspected by Northeastern travelers: Iowa’s fall foliage, whose brilliant hues light up a pastoral landscape as distinctive as any in New England. And the ideal spot for a leaf-peeping detour is Cedar Rapids, a short jog north on I-380, where a lively Bohemian heritage brings fall beer and harvest festivals.

Toward the turn of the last century, Jewish merchants were among the Central European settlers of this small Midwestern city about 100 miles east of Des Moines. Today, the Jewish presence is minimal — though Temple Judah, a Reform synagogue, has a close-knit congregation — but fans of Mittel-European pastry will find plenty to kindle nostalgia in the bakeries and Old World markets of Czech Village-New Bohemia Main Street District, a historic neighborhood on the banks of the Cedar River.

Those banks overflowed in biblical fashion in June of 2008, submerging much of downtown Cedar Rapids in eight or more feet of water. Historic structures and collections were inundated; already-struggling merchants feared the worst. But like the plucky immigrants before them, locals rebuilt and reopened, and today the area offers a funky blend of vintage charm and modern artisanal fare.

Czech Village is centered on and around 16th Avenue S.W. near the 16th Avenue Bridge; its spiritual heart is the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library. The original museum campus on the riverbanks was so badly damaged in the flood that its exhibitions moved to temporary space, while the historic main building was relocated to a new, higher-elevation lot nearby. It formally reopened to great fanfare in 2012, with expanded galleries and lovingly restored phonograph recordings of Bohemian songs.

Even for those without Central-European ties, the museum aims to engage patrons with multimedia recreations of the European immigrant experience — one common to many American families — and with updated historical exhibits that dramatize Czechoslovakia’s Communist struggles and Velvet Revolution. There are replicas of the steerage section of a trans-Atlantic steamship; a watchtower from the Communist era; and a Secret Police car.

There is no more fitting symbol of Cedar Rapids’ post-flood renaissance than NewBo City Market, which opened in the fall of 2012 as part of the Czech Village downtown reconstruction effort.

Filling an entire square block, the market — whose name is a contraction of “new Bohemian” — brings together the city’s Czech-Slovak roots with an effort to synthesize the region’s agricultural identity and modern foodie culture.

In addition to local merchants selling everything from corn to cupcakes, the market features rotating seasonal stalls, a hands-on kitchen for cooking classes, seasonal fairs and farmer’s markets in the sprawling front yard, children’s entertainers and concerts by area musicians.

Throughout Czech Village, an Old World spirit is tangible amid a contemporary mix of hair salons, pubs and boutiques that keep the district from feeling like a theme park. It’s fun to browse through the crystal, garnet and ceramic handicrafts at mom-and-pop shops like Czech Cottage. And you might even hear Czech spoken at Sykora Bakery, where nostalgists and noshers line up for dark Bohemian rye bread, yeasty houska rolls, and pastries filled with poppy seeds and raisins.

Even Brucemore, a grand estate that is Iowa’s only National Trust Historic Site, is a place to immerse in Czech culture — despite the fact that none of the three prominent families who occupied it between the 1880s and the 1980s was Czech.

On 26 landscaped acres just east of downtown, the Queen Anne-style brick mansion hosts a lineup of concerts that feature Janacek, Dvorak and other Bohemian masters alongside Shakespeare, cabaret, art shows and Bach on a 1929 Skinner pipe organ. In October, when Iowa foliage hits its colorful peak, Brucemore’s formal gardens, pond and orchard are an ideal spot to enjoy a heartland autumn.

It’s also the time of year to engage in that most Czech of pastimes — raising a mug of frothy, golden beer. The Czechs, as I have observed from Prague to Peoria, are among the most enthusiastic of imbibers, with families filling whole tables at beer halls from morning till night.

In any season, Czech Village is home to rollicking old-time pubs like the Red Baron and modern craft spots like Lion Bridge Brewery. The Czech Fall Festival brings Czechtoberfest, filling the streets with oompah and embroidery.

Meanwhile, over at the National Czech and Slovak Museum, the BrewNost! International Beer Tasting Festival draws thousands of merrymakers to its music-filled tents. There may be a more authentic way to experience Iowa culture in autumn — but I doubt it.