Friday, 17 April 2015

And she makes puppets too

My talented neighbout, Jitka, also makes classic marionettes. I have spoken before about how puppets and puppetry are an important part of Czech culture, and about how I first came to discover Czech culture through puppetry.

Jitka has a workshop downstairs in her Czech farmhouse, where she designs and carves traditional wooden puppets. Unlike the puppets you tend to see in shops in Prague, hers are all individual designs and hand carved from local fruit wood. Although she will sell her creations to collectors, she is never more delighted than when her marionettes are bought to be used, as they should be, in the theatre. I am just said that my friend Hannah isn't here to check them out.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

My Talented Neighbour

Jitka lives in the large farmhouse across the road from us. As you enter the house you are surrounded by art and craftsmanship. Both she and her partner are extremely talented artists, although both would say that they are not artists but craftsmen. I would beg to differ - in both their cases I believe the boundary between craft and art is very much blurred.

Jitka can turn her hands to many things, but she certainly excels in those very Czech arts/crafts of painted eggs and puppets. To be sure you can buy painted eggs in the shops of Cesky Krumlov, but none will be as individual and delicate as Jitka's. Each takes her at least an hour to paint. Each stroke has to be applied individually as the wax dries too quickly to allow you to do more than one. I have tried to decorate a very basic egg and I cannot tell you how difficult it is. To produce eggs like this requires years of practice and talent.

Jitka has been selling her work at crafts markets and says she found herself sitting next to a woman, who is considered the mistress of Czech egg painting. To Jitka's delight and surprise the woman recognized Jitka's talent and was delighted to see the craft passing to the next generation. Sadly, although you will find dyes for egg-decorating in the local supermarket, few people will have the patience, skill or time to practice the old art as it should be done.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Changes on Prague Metro

As of today Prague has four new metro stations. The Green A line has been extended to Nemocnice Motel in the east of the city. As the Green line is the main line taken by travellers going to and from the airport, it is likely initially to cause confusion. For starters all those tourist books about Prague are suddenly out-of-date.You can download a map of the Metro and Bus stops at, however the changes are shown in the picture above (click to see a larger version).

Travellers coming from the airport will still catch the 119 bus, but it now terminates at the Nadrazi Veleslavin Metro Station and not Dejvicka. There are a number of changes to the bus services in that area and the number 2 tram has been cancelled, but these are hardly likely to impact on visitors or indeed many Prague residents.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Getting Around Prague

I've been asked to write some posts about practical issues, such as how do I get around, when the only car I can use at the moment is a hire one. The answer is the excellent public transport system here, Let's start with Prague.

The first thing to say is that it makes no sense to have a car in Prague, unless possibly if you live in the outskirts. The public transport system is really good and cheap.

First there is the metro system - the equivalent if London's tube but with only three colour-coded lines - red, yellow and green. Then there are the trams - there are more of these and they have the added advantage of taking you past a load of interesting sights. I am, as you will have gathered, a fan of Prague's trams. And finally there are buses, which you tend to see in Prague suburbs. If you are a visitor to the city you may only use a bus going to the airport or Prague Zoo.

I plan to talk about each of these modes of transport in dedicated blog posts, so for this post let us focus on getting around generally on the Prague Public Transport System. The first thing to say is the system is integrated - you buy one ticket for all forms of transport. The  basic ticket currently costs 32kc and allows you up to 90 minutes travel, during which you can jump on and off trams, metro trains and buses and combinations thereof. If you only want to make a short (max 30 minute) journey you can opt for a 24kc ticket.

The key thing to note is that the timer starts when you validate your ticket at the beginning of the journey. You will find yellow validation machines as you enter the metro station or train. On one end of the ticket you will find a blank space with arrows, slide this end into the machine face up until you hear the machine stamp the ticket. You must do this or face being fined. There are plenty of ticket inspectors working Prague's public transport and they don't care that you aren't a local, quite the opposite.

So where do you buy tickets? You will find ticket vending machines in metro stations and at the main tram stops (but not all of the latter). You need coins for the machines. To buy more than one ticket press the button as many times as you want tickets. You can also buy tickets in some newsagents and at various information centres, including the one in the arrivals lounge at the airport. It is a good idea to buy multiple tickets from these centres, as you will not make yourself popular with Prague commuters if you spend ages fumbling coins into the automatic machines.

If you don't see your fellow passengers validating tickets, it is because they very sensibly have bought a season ticket. There are tourist tickets available for 24 hrs and 72 hrs (110kc and 310kc). The next ticket up is the monthly season, but at 550kc if you are staying for a week it is still worth getting.

The Prague Transport System has an excellent website - the English version is here:

The website offers maps and other information, up-to-date news of any works and diversions and an online journey planner.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Palava Hills

I first saw the Palava Hills from the road that runs from Brno to Vienna. The sun was shining and it caught the white cliffs that run along the ten-kilometre spine of the hills. The hills appeared to flash against the clear blue Moravian sky.

This is an ancient landscape. Human beings have been walking and hunting on these hills since approximately 27,000 BC. We know this because the camps, belongings and graves of these mammoth hunters have been and continue to be discovered on the Palava's slopes. A visit to the museum of the mammoth hunters at Dolni Vestonice is highly recommended and gives you a real understanding of life here millennia ago. Looking up at the hills it is not hard to imagine our forebears driving wild horses over the cliffs or trapping them in the hills' limestone folds. Later humans also left their mark on the hills in the form of three castles, now picturesque ruins . 

Several footpaths wend along and across the hills, giving excellent views and taking you through a series of nature reserves. The hills are famous for the wildflowers (if you are coming to see these, it is best to visit in Spring), the rarest of these being the Palava Lumnitzer carnation and the Spring Adonis flower. Eagle owls nest in the old quarries, while the Palava's caves are home to rare bats. To aid the visitor there are a number of trails with interpretation boards explaining the history, nature and geology of the hills. 

Given my love of walking, history and nature, you will not be surprised that the Palava is a place I love.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Czech Castles - Zvíkov

Let us start my occasional series of posts on Czech castles with the castle often referred to as the "king of Czech castles" - Zvíkov. I first went there with a tour by an archaeological society on our way up from the Šumava to Prague Airport. It was a perfect point for breaking the journey.

Few castles can have such a naturally defensible position: Zvíkov stands on a rocky promontory at the junction of the Vltava and Otava rivers accessible only along a narrow strip of land (see photo above). Also in the photograph you can see the tower which has atear-shaped footprint designed to deflect artillery. The castle's defences were so impenetrable that the Hussites were unable to take it after four months of siege. 

As you enter the castle's courtyards you discover that Zvíkov is not just an impressive fortification. The castle was a royal residence and the two-storey arcaded palace is lovely. Inside the palace you will find an absolute gem - The Chapel of St Wenceslas. Here restorers found under a coat of whitewash a series of late 15th century wall paintings. There are further paintings on the walls of the arcade and in the Wedding Hall. 

Zvíkov is less known and less visited by foreign tourists, although plenty of Czechs enjoy the castle's treasures. One reason for this is the absence of easy public transport links or tourist minibus routes. However there is a beautiful way to arrive at the castle: take the boat from Týn nad Vltavou or Orlík dam.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Spotting Czech Castles

The Czechs proudly boast that their country has more castles per square mile than any other country. Of course that is partly explained by the Czech Republic's rather violent history - there are so many castles because they were needed. 

As you drive around the country, you will frequently see signs to a hrad (castle),  or zamek (manor house or palace) or occasionally to a tvrz (translated in my dictionary as stronghold but more often in my experience it is a fortified manor). And if you follow those signs you may come to just a pile of rubble barely recognizable as a castle or you may come to a hugely impressive structure heaving with visitors. Either way this is a country for castle spotters. 

It is even a country for castle collectors, as the authorities sometimes offer dilapidated castles at cut-down prices. However such deals come with lots of strings attached - you have to get certain repairs done within a specified timescale or forfeit your ownership. One hears of poor castle owners hardly managing to get the necessary permissions before their time runs out and their castle reverts to the former owner. 

But back to castle spotting. Given the sheer number of castles in the country it is surprising that so few are visited by tourists. There are certain castles that are on the tourist's radar: Prague of course, Český Krumlov, Karlštejn, Hluboka Nad Vltavou, and Křivoklát: all castles that are visitable on a day trip from Prague. But there are hundreds more. Some of these are equally impressive, all will be less touristy, and many will give you an insight into the history of the country.

I recently looked through my previous blogposts and was surprised that I had only written posts about Sloup Castle in Czech Switzerland, the massive castle at Jindřichův Hradec and Český Krumlov castle, even though I have visited many Czech castles over the years. Over the next year or so, I intend to rectify this and write a series of occasional posts about some of my favourite castles. Watch this space.


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