Friday, 30 January 2015

A Tour of The Wallachian Open-Air Museum, Roznov Pod Radhostem

I regularly take visitors to the Wallachian Open Air Museum in Roznov Pod Radhostem and this year is not exception - I will be visiting the Museum with the Real Moravia Tour in May. It is quite unlike anything else you will see in the Czech Republic. That is because the Wallachians have a very distinctive culture, so much so it is argued by many historians that they originally migrated here from Romania. Wherever they came from, they settled in the beautiful Moravian-Silesian Beskydy Mountains, where they made a harsh living from farming sheep.

The Museum was the creation of the two Jaronek brothers, particularly the elder, Bohumír Jaronek who said We don´t want to build a dead store of buildings and objects, we want to build a living museum with the help of practical ethnology where the traditions, which have been inherited in Wallachia, the typical breeds and dwellings of the people are kept alive by means of work, customs, dances, songs and ceremonies. 

This concept was decades in advance of its time: the museum was opened in 1925. Over the years since many buildings and other objects have been added to the museum, but as Bohumir would have wished it remains very much a living museum. As you wander around the museum you will come across people in traditional costumes demonstrating traditional crafts and other activities. The Old Townlet, which forms the centre of the museum, is made up of original Wallachian wooden buildings. And some like the pubs and the post office are still in use. Last time I visited I came upon a a group of women and men in traditional costume singing and dancing.

The largest section of the Museum is given to Wallachian country life. The Wallachian Village, as this section is called, is spread over a hillside with groups of reconstructed houses forming small hamlets, as well as individual farms and shepherds. Look out for the delightful beehives which I featured in their own post a while back. My husband was fascinated by the building techniques on display. The dominant building material is wood, which is used for everything including the gutters and their brackets.

The newest section of the museum is the Water Mill Valley. Here in a series of buildings water, fed into a series of channels (made of wood of course) from a stream and ponds, drives all sorts of machinery. Of course this being Bohumir Jaronec's museum you can see the machinery being worked by a number of craftsmen. There's a smithy/hammer mill, a mill for hammering wool to make felt, a sawmill, oil crusher and I daresay others I have forgotten.

The Museum is enormous and to do it justice you should allow a day for your visit. If you cannot afford a day, book a tour of the Mill Valley and combine that with a visit to the Townlet.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Villa Tugendhat, Brno

A visit to this modernist masterpiece is always a highlight of any tour I run that goes to Brno. I first went there with my husband, who is a lover of buildings and all things architectural, so we took the longer technical tour. A large grin never left his face during the 90 minute visit.

The Villa was commissioned by Grete Loew Beer and her new husband Fritz Tugendhat in 1928. Both came from Jewish families that had become rich as a result of the huge expansion of textiles and other industries in Moravia that had in turn paid for the architectural transformation of Brno. Grete had been impressed by the work of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe when she had visited a house designed by him in Berlin and so commissioned to design the couple's dream home. He was told that money was no object. Tell that to any architect and you will make his day, tell it to a genius like Mies and you will get a masterpiece.

The villa is set on a hillside overlooking Brno. From the street it does not look as impressive or as large as it is, because you enter at the top floor. The two lower floors open on to the garden. When you enter the building you start to see why the building is so special and why it cost so much. Mies's famous motto of “Less is More” is exemplified by the lack of ornament and the emphasis on the materials used (steel, glass, marble) and the flow of walls and spaces. This extends to the fixtures and fittings, even the beautiful line of the door and window handles.

It is hard to imagine the impact this villa would have made in its day. We are used to white geometrical modernist buildings, but this was a time when most people were still thinking in terms of art deco. However, unlike in the UK where modernism took a long time getting going, the Czechs rapidly took modernism to their hearts. There are many more modernist gems to be found in Brno and elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but they deserve a separate post (or maybe more).

The story of the villa was not a happy one. The Tugendhats were able to enjoy their new home for only eight years, before they fled to Switzerland ahead of the German invasion. The villa became the property of the Nazis, used by the Gestapo, who removed the villa's fine semi-circular ebony wall which defines the dining room. And then the liberating Soviet troops treated the villa with such contempt that they used some of its living spaces as stabling for their horses. It wasn't until the 1980s that any attempt was made to restore the building. Now, thanks mostly to funds from the EU, the building is fully restored and open to visitors.

NB Entrance to the villa is restricted to groups of a maximum of 15 people and not all tours are in English. As a result it is advisable to book weeks if not months in advance. I recommend the shorter tour unless you have a particular interest. 

For more information about Brno visit

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Desk Calendar

I just had to share with you my desk calendar for 2015. It was half price in an art and stationary shop in Cesky Krumlov. At less than a £1 and featuring a photograph of a different mushroom every week I just had to have it!

I do have a worry about it though. It's okay now when there are no mushrooms to be had, but come the beginning of the mushroom season I suspect I may have to hide it, so that I am not tempted to grab my basket and disappear into the forest, leaving my work undone.

Jan Palach Day

At a time when the issues of democracy and freedom of speech are very much in mind, it was appropriate that I took time last week to walk to the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague to view the memorial to Jan Palach, the student who set fire to himself as protest in 1969. His act is often seen as a protest against the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, but he claimed to the doctor who treated him that instead "It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in." In other words it was a protest against the absence of protest over the loss of democracy.

I know this is not the first time I have blogged on this subject. You can read more about Jan Palach in a previous post here.  But it is a subject that consistently moves me, asking as it does what I would do to defend democracy in England. I am struck by how demoralized I sometimes feel about the state of British democracy and how much I feel that my voice is not heard. But how far would I go to defend it, I do not know. 

Being in the Czech Republic, with its recent history of political suppression, and speaking with Czechs who remember not only what it was to be unheard but also to know that speaking could cost them their liberty, makes me remember how lucky we English are to have had the concept of personal liberties enshrined in a charter exactly eight hundred years ago.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Mark of Three

Wander around many Czech towns at this time of year and you might notice on lintels and doors the letters K, M and B written in chalk as above. Sometimes the letters come with the year and sometimes you will see several sets of letters dating back several years. You may wonder what these stand for. Perhaps it is a sign that the electricity meter has been read, you think, or some sort of building work. Perhaps it is a sign like those one used to see in English villages - a coded message from a tramp or hobo, gypsy or fellow inhabitant of the road, that this is a house where the inhabitants are generous.

In fact of those options you would be closer to the truth with the last - it is a sign that the inhabitants have been generous. But the visitors were not down-at-heel beggers, but three kings. Twelfth Night in the Czech Republic is known as Three Kings Day, because on that day children (and adults) dress up as the three kings - Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar (in Czech Kašpar, Melichar and Baltazar) and go around the streets asking for donations to charity. When the householder has put their donation in the tin, the "Kings" write the initials K M and B above the door. What do the initials stand for? I have heard different answers - one simply that they are the initials of the kings' names and another that it stands for the words: Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ, bless this house). Of course both answers could be true.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Introducing British Christmas to Czech Children

My neighbour teaches English at our local primary school. She is not a qualified English teacher, but her English is good and a lot better than anyone else around and she has the greatest qualification, i.e she knows how to enthuse her pupils. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would be asked to talk to the children. She had been teaching the pupils various words to do with Christmas, but she needed a real Brit to talk about the differences between Czech and British Christmases.

I wasn't sure that I would have much to say, but of course as she and I chatted over her kitchen table the differences became clearer and clearer. It is strange to see your national customs through another country's eyes. So much that seems to you completely normal is at best novel to them and at times downright strange. And so I found myself walking into the school that I had walked past so many times on my way to the local minimart.

 The first thing I told the children was that we don't celebrate St Nicholas' Day (see my previous post), instead British children wait for the arrival of Father Christmas on Christmas Eve. The children were delighted to hear about Father Christmas (Jitka had taught them his name) and the need to leave a glass of sherry and a carrot for the reindeer, but didn't understand how he could come down the chimney. Czech houses have chimneys but they are fed by wood stoves not open fireplaces, so I showed them a picture of a fireplace in a British house. Then some bright spark asked if all English houses had fireplaces and I had to confess that they did not, but somehow Father Christmas still managed to get in!

I had brought my kindle tablet into the classroom and played the children a track of church bells which I had downloaded from Amazon and which, as it happens, was recorded at a small town near my English home. They were amazed by this. It is hard for someone so used to the peel of church bells as I am (my family home was 200 yards from the church ) to understand that this normal sound is something extraordinary once you step outside the UK. In the Czech Republic you seem to have either a carillon playing a tune or a simple tolling.

I talked about Christmas dinner which of course led into a discussion about what a pudding is. There is a Czech word - pudink - but it is for a blancmange type dessert.  And as for setting fire to it, well that caused some comment. Another area open to misunderstanding is Christmas crackers. In the Czech Republic if a child sees a cracker they think it is a cardboard container for sweets. There is no crack to be had, even if you pulled it. 

The final and, I presumed, weirdest British custom that I told them about was pantomime. I expected them to be surprised by men dressing up as women and the leading boy being played by a girl, but they took it all in their stride. Maybe it's because they are used to grown men dressing up as angels. I soon introduced them to audience participation and had them shouting "she's behind you" and "Oh yes she is!"  And so with a principal boy's slap to my thigh I congratulated them on their English and wished them a merry Christmas.

And so I will leave you with the same wish and this - a Czech advert about another difference between the English-speaking world's Christmas and the Czech one. They eat carp as their main meal not turkey and they buy the carp live, which means the man of the household has the duty of dispatching the carp on Chritstmas Eve:

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas Celebrations in the Czech Republic

I am in Britain and it feels very strange. Normally I am able to have two Christmases - the Czech and the British. That is because the Czech Christmas starts with St Nicholas Day on the 6th December, when the squares and streets fill up with people dressed as angels, devils and St Nick himself. Excited children are asked by the three whether they have been good or bad over the year and are given their rewards (usually) or punishments. The shops are stocked with chocolate or marzipan versions of the three interrogators. In the Czech Republic Christmas lasts for weeks ending on 12th Night or Three Kings Day (more of the latter in a future post).

Last year I was in Prague for St Nicholas Day and found myself travelling on a tram filled with children and their parents heading for the city's squares. Also on the tram and travelling with the same purpose were a number of the seasonal characters. Actually there were more devils than angels and more angels than saints, but then the devil always has the best (and warmest) costumes and it was bitterly cold. A group of students sat at the end of the carriage half-heartedly sporting plastic red horns and facepaint, which could have been picked up in any supermarket. But some people take the business seriously. For part of the journey I sat opposite a man in the most impressive devil costume. His horns had formerly adorned the head of a ram. His clothes were made of leather, fur and sheepskin and his boots (in which he was presumably hiding his cloven hooves) were traditional leather Czech ones. The age of the boots hinted that this costume had been decades in the creation, an inheritance perhaps. The contrast with the students couldn't have been greater. 

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