Sunday, 6 August 2017

A tinker's craft


I have been looking for a present for my cousin's 25th wedding anniversary. It had to be small enough and tough enough to survive going in hand luggage. And this is what I found. It combines a ceramic base with a hand-woven wire rim attached by holes drilled in the rim of the base. Isn't it beautiful!

The dish is a good example of a domestic handicraft, which traditionally was hawked around the villages by Slovak tinkers. Legend has it that after the tinkers had presented the Empress Marie Theresa with a cradle made of wire so brilliantly that it would rock forever with one push, the grateful empress granted the tinkers the right to travel all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of their trade would have been in repairing pots or wrapping them  in wire nets to stop breakages. Mousetraps, birdcages, whisks, coat hooks, strainers, and other household goods were also offered. All the craftsmen needed in their packs were rolls of soft flexible wire, a hammer, pincers, and a stitching awl. The wire was bent cold and so no bellows or anvil were needed.

The days of the itinerant tinkers are over. But in Slovakia and the Czech Republic some craftsmen are keeping the tinkers' craft alive, adapting it to modern markets and I was lucky enough to meet one yesterday at a stall on Ceske Budejovice's main square.


Thursday, 27 July 2017

Prague - The Other City


I have just finished reading The Other City by Michal Ajvaz.

In this strange and lovely hymn to Prague, Michal Ajvaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues, all lurking on the peripheries of a town so familiar to tourists. The Other City is a guidebook to this invisible, "other Prague," overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads. Heir to the tradition and obsessions of Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the long and  distinguished line of Czech  fantasists, Ajvaz's Other City—his first novel to be translated into English—is the emblem of all the worlds we are blind to, being caught in our own ways of seeing.

It is one of several books I have read which portray an alternative Prague existing alongside the "real" Prague. I have reviewed some of them on my Magic Realism Books blog: including A Kingdom of Souls  by Daniela Hodrova,  Keeping Bedlam at Bay in The Prague Cafe by M Henderson Ellis, Gustav Meyrink's works including of course The Golem and of course Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  And there are more such books on my to-be-read list.

I am not surprised that Prague has almost spawned a sub-genre of place-based magic realism. During my first visit to the city, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, I was acutely aware of the magical or spiritual energy that seemed to flow out of Prague's ancient stones, rippling across the Vltava and climbing the steps to the castle and Emperor Rudolf's alchemical workshops. That magical echo is less audible now beneath the footsteps of eager tourists and the kerching of cash registers, but it is still there.


The Other City is set in a Czech winter, a time of year when I have always felt the Prague magic most acutely. Maybe it is because of the way the snow deadens sound and redraws the familier outlines of buildings, smudging the boundaries between water, land and sky.  Ajvaz's Other City also emerges at night, something that is hard to imagine in the real city busy 24/7.

The alternative Prague that Ajvaz creates is too fantastical for my liking, closer to surrealism than magic realism. The author obviously had great fun inventing an amazing alternative world and mixing it in with the real Prague - "Customers at Cafe Slavia are seldom assaulted by sharks". I particularly loved the idea of the bases of the statues on Charles Bridge being used as stalls for tiny elks, but at times the weirdness just went on too long. I am perhaps too Anglo Saxon to appreciate this very Czech absurdism. By the way there are some great jokes about the Czech language in the book; "Case endings were originally invocations of demons." For this failed student of Czech, they still are!

It is hard at times, as the novel's central character pursues the Other City and is at times pursued by it's inhabitants, to see where the novel is going. But there is a resolution - a philosophical one, which comes to the central character in the last chapter.  Ajvaz is a researcher at the Prague Centre for Theoretical Studies and has published not only a book on Borges but also one called Jungle of Light: Meditations on Seeing and in many ways this book is also a meditation on seeing. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the book for you.




Saturday, 22 July 2017

Limonade


On a hot day there is nothing better than to order a carafe of domaci limonade and sit at a terrace table under a parasol. This is not lemonade in the fizzy artificial sense. It is in fact a home-made fruit or herb squash. Domaci means home-made and is a useful word to look for on menus in all sorts of contexts.


Of course being home-made the flavours are only as limited as the ingredients available to its maker. Limonade may not even include lemons among its ingredients. Other common flavours are raspberry, mint, and ginger.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Walking the Bear Trail


I have been meaning to blog about walking the oldest nature trail in the Czech Republic for some time now. I actually walked the trail a year ago, but never got round to blog about it. 
The Bear Trail (Medvedi Stezka) gets its name from a stone three quarters of the way along the trail, which marks where the last brown bear in the country was shot in the 19th century. Now the only bear you will come across is on the signsposts and information boards for the trail, which feature a bear on a yellow and black background. 


Set in the spectacular scenery of the Sumava National Park. the trail links the two former lumberjack settlements of Ovesna and Cerny Kriz, both are on the train line from Cesky Krumlov. Although the trail is only 8.7 miles long, you should allow a day for the walk, as you will need to coincide your walk with the train timetable and you will want to stop for a drink and food at Jezerni Vrch.

Cow Head Rock

The first section of the walk between Ovesna and Jezerni is probably the most spectacular, as you climb the forested slopes of Mt Pernik - the trail rises from 736m above sea level to 1037m before dropping down to Jezerni. Walking in the forest can be a bit tedious, but not so on the Bear Trail, because all the way up are a number of rock formations with descriptive names: including Pernikova Skala (Gingerbread Rocks), Goticky Portal (Gothic door), Hrib (Mushroom), Obri Kostky (Giant's Dice), Draci tlama (Dragon's Mouth) and Soutezka lapku (The Highwaymen's Gorge). In places the forest parts to afford spectacular views across the river valley to the ancient forested hill of Boubin.




At Jezerni Vrch you will find the Schwarzenberg Wood Canal and places to eat and drink. After refreshments you continue along the trail past the Bear Stone and on to Cerny Kriz and the train back home.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Saints Cyril and Methodius


The Czechs have two bank holidays back to back in early July (5th and 6th), which always catch me out.I roll up to a shop or bank only to realise my mistake. The two dates are both related to three holy men in Czech history. The latter is Jan Hus's day and I have blogged about it already here. The former is dedicated to the founding fathers of Czech and Slavic christianity: St Cyril and St Methodius.

1150 years ago the two "apostles to the Slavs" arrived in the empire of Great Moravia. The Empire was large and powerful extending as far as that of Charlemagne.

The two brothers had attended the University of Constantinople and were considered the best scholars in Christendom and they brought that scholarship to bear in their missionary work.. Their contribution to Czech and more widely Slavic Christianity and culture cannot be overstated. They invented a Slavic alphabet Glagolitic, which formed the basis for Cyrillic, in order to translate the Bible into the local language. They also put into writing the Slavic Civil Code.

For this anniversary there are a number of celebrations taking place in the country, culminating in annual national pilgrimage to the Monastery of St Cyril and St Methodius at Velehrad (above). The basilica is an extremely impressive Baroque church, but if you want to get an idea of the early churches of the Slavs go to the archaeological site of Mikulcice, where you can see the foundations of twelve churches from a thousand years ago.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Horice Na Sumava Passion Play


Before we had even bought our Czech home, we attended a performance of the Passion Play at the small town of Horice Na Sumave. This year I was invited to see it again by a neighbour who is taking part in the chorus.

When we arrived at the open-air theatre on the outskirts of town an hour before curtain up (not that there was a curtain) there was already a lot of people sitting at tables drinking beer and tucking into chips and mayonnaise. As it was the first night, this was very much a performance by and for the locals. There was a group of Austrians. whose town also has a passion play and who were made very welcome. 


The Passion Play is staged in a specially landscaped amphitheatre. The audience sits on the flat undercover, but the performers must risk the elements. The show starts at 8.30pm, so as the play proceeds towards the crucifixion the night takes over. Torches gutter and from the wooded hills come the calls of wild animals. It all makes for a very special experience and even though the play is in Czech I was very much engaged in the show.



Passion plays have been performed at Horice Na Sumave since 1816. The Horice Passion was so famous that in 1897 it was the subject of one of the earliest films, made by Klaw and Erlanger and distributed by Edison's Company. The Passion then went on for hours and was performed in a huge theatre complex on the site of the current theatre.

The original theatre complex

So what happened? Why isn't the Horice Passion as well known as Obergammergau? What happened was first the Second War and the displacement of the German population and therefore the play's performers from the area. The new Czech population tried to revive the plays and apparently the 1946 and 1947 performances (now in Czech) were a great success. But the arrival of the Communists in power ensured that this expression of communal religion was suppressed. The theatre was demolished and it seemed that the Horice Passion was silenced.


But the spirit of the Passion was and is strong. No sooner had Communism been overthrown, but the Passion play began to be revived. A society was set up and in 1993 the Passion was once more performed on the hillside above Horice Na Sumave. As I sat in the gloom last night, watching Christ on the cross being raising above the theatre, it did not matter that this was an amateur production, that the Pharisees appeared to be wearing lampshades or that the acting was sometimes a bit wooden. The passion behind the Passion won through and the commitment of those taking part gave the play an authenticity that a professional production would lack.


Thursday, 29 June 2017

Back At Last



At last I have made it back to the Czech Republic! The last 12 months have been, as the Queen would say, an “annus horribilis”. First there was Brexit, which threw my whole future in this country into doubt and is still not much clearer. Then in the Autumn my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the prostate and my mother with Alzheimers. Of course as they were both in the UK I wanted to be there for them. And then to cap it all I had a minor heart attack at the end of November and another scare in May a few weeks after Dad's death.

Is this the end of my Czech Adventures? No. I still love this country and I have many friends here. I just cannot commit myself to being here the way I used to be. Family comes first. How long this situation will last, I do not know. My Czech friend Hannah used to say that the way to make God laugh is to tell him your plans. He certainly will have had a good laugh at me. Twice I got so far as to buy the plane tickets to come back here, only to have to cancel them. So I am not making plans any more. I will just enjoy the time I have here.

Is this the end of this blog? Far from it. Already I have enough subjects for posts to last me for years: places I have visited, sights I have seen, observations I have made, to say nothing of what may happen in the future. The only issue, as has been the case over the last year, is the other demands on my time. They have eased at least for the moment, so here's hoping!

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