Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Mr Bata's Amazing Lifts

My husband writes and gives talks about the history of buildings. His English Buildings Blog has just won the AMARA award for best architecture blog for the second year in a row. But despite the English focus of the blog Phil's interest is international and I love organizing trips to the many architectural gems of the Czech Republic for him. One such gem is Zlin.

Zlin is an amazing city for anyone interested in the history of modern architecture. It is hard to credit, when you see the city's functionalist buildings, that it was mostly built in the first four decades of the 20th century, it looks so modern. Zlin is/was very much the corporate town of the Bata Shoe Factory. Tomas Bata and his successor Jan Bata, the company's owners, commissioned not only factory buildings, but office blocks, workers' housing, schools, hospital and other community buildings.

At the heart of the city is the office building Number 12, the earliest skyscraper in Central Europe. You can take the paternoster lift to the cafe at the top and get a bird's-eye view of the city. A paternoster lift does not stop at each floor for passengers, instead alarmingly you have to step in as it moves past. There used to be a lot of these lifts in Central Europe, but now for health and safety reasons only a few remain.

There is another old lift in the building - on the corner of the skyscraper, but you are not allowed in. This was Jan Bata's personal lift and it was also his office, allowing him to go to whichever floor he wished and supervise his employees there. The office can be viewed now as part of the ground floor exhibition area. Technically it is remarkable. It is not simply a large lift with a desk and chair in it, but a fully functioning office with telephone, basin with hot and cold running water, air-conditioning, alarm system, automatic fire detector and door lock control.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Don't you just love Czech graphics!

I found this bag for the disposing of dog poo (it comes with a cardboard scoop inside) hanging on a post in Vimperk. Of course I had to have a copy for my dog-owning sister. The graphic's humour  is so very Czech.

As an added bonus on the reverse of the bag are instructions and this the company's logo:

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

About Czech Hotels

For my business I stayed in hotels around the Czech Republic and I put customers into hotels. And I tried to stay in the hotels before recommending them to my customers (it was a hard job but someone had to do it). The reason I did this is that the standard of Czech hotels tends to vary and it is not always clear without visiting and indeed staying in them which are good and which not. I have learned a lot over the years and I thought I would pass some of that experience on to you.

The star-rating you see on websites can be misleading. There is a formal Czech body classifying hotels, but most Czech hotels have not chosen to go that route. The star-listing you see most of the time is the one the hotel has chosen for itself. I often find that a 4* hotel is closer to a 3* one in my reckoning but sometimes the reverse is the case. So look carefully at the facilities and the photographs on the hotel's website before booking.

Old or New
Many Czech hotels and pensions are in old buildings, which were designed for a different age. That is one of their charms - you might find yourself sleeping in a room with carved beams, an arched ceiling or pillars. You might eat your breakfast in a vaulted cellar. But with this antiquity comes a price. These hotels were not designed for modern conveniences, such as air-conditioning or under-floor heating. What is more, the buildings may be subject to planning controls that limit structural changes. The absence of air-conditioning is a frequent complaint on hotel review sites, usually from Americans as we Europeans regard air-con as an exception. If you want all mod-cons stay in a modern hotel. But if you do so, check where the hotel is in relation to the historic town centre.

Czech hotels and pensions in the major cities usually come with en-suite facilities - often in the form of a shower. But in the less touristy areas and in the cheaper accommodation it is worth checking before booking. Sound-proofing in Czech hotels can vary. So it is a good idea not to go for the room with the picturesque view across the town square, unless you are happy to hear people enjoying themselves at night. Increasingly Czech hotels provide free WiFi for their guests. However, the thick walls of some of the older buildings can interfere with reception. If this is important to you, it is worth saying so when booking, as some rooms will have better reception than others.

For British guests it is worth pointing out that there are often no tea-making facilities in the room. If having a cuppa before you go to bed matters, bring a kettle. Even where there is a kettle and packets of tea or coffee, check whether you will be charged for consumption of a packet. I was really shocked by this the first time I saw it and now I check. By the way, the tea provided will not be as strong as we Brits are used to: bring your own or use two bags if you prefer a strong cup. You may need to buy some milk as that is not always provided. You can nearly always drink the tap water, unless told not to.

Czech beds
The beds in Czech hotels are usually quite hard; which is something that I like. It is common practice for a double bed to have two single mattresses rather than one double one. Not all Czech hotel receptionists understand the difference between a double and a twin room, so it is better to ask specifically for a room with two beds rather than for a twin.

Most Czech hotel bookings are for bed and breakfast. Breakfast is usually a continental buffet one, although often you will have the choice of scrambled eggs, sausages and even bacon. Some but not all hotels have restaurants. Apartment hotels do not include breakfast in the price, as you have the facility to make it in your apartment, although you may find that they also offer a breakfast for an additional fee.

When you arrive
When you arrive at a Czech hotel you will be asked to show your passport, which may be photocopied or the details entered into a form. This is because Czech hotels are legally required to get this information.

Enjoy your stay.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

What are the Roots of the Golem Legend?

The Golem legend, although it refers to the real historical figure Rabbi Loew, didn’t really appear until the 19th century. It seems to draw on or at least play to two separate traditions - the Jewish golem tradition and the Slavic folk story of the clay child. In the latter a childless couple make a child out of clay which, like the gingerbread man, outgrows its creators and becomes a destructive force. This last story is of course a universal myth - human beings losing control of the being they have created. It appears in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and can be read as a warning against hubris.

But the story is more than that: as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, the golem myth “is based on a faith almost as old as the human species namely, that dead matter is not really dead but can be brought to life. I am not exaggerating when I say that the golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed one hundred years ago. What are the computers and robots of our time if not golems?”

The Golem is born of mud and to mud he is returned - earth to earth, ashes to ashes. But the Golem can rise again.

The most famous book about the Prague Golem is that by Gustav Meyrink. Meyrink deserves an entire post on this blog dedicated to his extraordinary life and works and he will get it some day. Here let us just look at Meyrink's portrayal of the Golem. Although his book is titled The Golem, the Golem is not the central character. He is an elusive figure appearing every thirty-three years in the Jewish ghetto, terrifying those who meet him. He is in some ways the embodiment of the Jewish community’s collective suffering, coming to life in a room without a door. But he is also the reflection of the individual he meets. When the central character meets the Golem, he finds with horror that the creature has his own face. 

If Meyrink wrote the definitive novel, then in 1920 Paul Wegener created the definitive movie: The Golem, how he came into the world.  It is an amazing production and still powerful after all these decades. See image above. 

It seems to me that one of the most important reasons for our ongoing fascination with the Prague Golem is that he does indeed reflect deep aspects in our psyche. As I said in my earlier posts, we are all golems. When we look in the Golem's face we see our own, stripped of intellect and language, containing a natural and unnatural power, driven by the need to protect but at the same time capable of extreme acts of destruction. He is in Jungian terms a Shadow. In the story of the Prague Golem, he is presumably Rabbi Loew’s Shadow. 

When a woman looks at the Golem, she sees more. He is male to her female, the elemental man made of mud combined with the elements of fire, water and air, supremely strong and, let us remember, sexual (in the legend it is his love for a woman that proves his downfall). Or is that just me fantasizing?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Burcak - dangerously gluggable.

Burcak (2) 

For a brief period in early Autumn stalls appear at the side of roads and outside supermarkets. Plastic barrels and bottles stand on market tables and beside them in a foldable chair sits a young woman (usually) studying at her mobile phone. A sign states Burčák, the alcoholic beverage created by Moravian winemakers by adding sugar to freshly crushed grapes and allowing the concoction to ferment  a bit.

If you are driving past such a stall, do stop, sample the burčák and buy a bottle. But be careful. Firstly the liquid is still fermenting and so if you drive too quickly over those Czech bumpy roads you may have a burcak explosion on your hands and the car will smell of fermenting wine for weeks. And secondly burcak tastes like grape lemonade and you will be tempted to glug it down, but it is definitely alcoholic. Normally burcak is 4% alcohol, but it can be twice as strong. And as it comes in unmarked bottles you don't know what the strength is. I have seen claims on the web that Burcak continues to ferment in your stomach, but I have my doubts.

Burcak is around only for a few weeks and I love it. So do the Czechs. In Moravia it is at the centre of festivities, where the alcoholic power of the stuff can be observed! It makes a visit to Czech Republic in September worth while.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Closing the Business

Today the last of my tours ended. The final set of customers, a group of walkers from Yorkshire, returned home. I have really enjoyed sharing my love of the Czech Republic with my customers. What is more I can honestly say that almost without exception they have been fascinating people to meet. Maybe it is something about the type of person who wants to holiday in the Czech Republic that explains this, I don't know. 

It is therefore with a certain sadness that I have decided to close down the business. I have a number of reasons for this. One being that due to family ill-health it is difficult to commit to definitely being in the Czech Republic on a certain date. I could have continued offering holidays that did not require my presence (like the walking holidays) but for the impact of Brexit. I blogged about the Referendum in June before the vote and everything I feared then has come true. The pound has plummetted, making it hard for me to make a profit. I am worried about my status as an expat and have seen and heard nothing to make me believe that the British Government has grasped what Brexit is doing to those of us with homes in Europe. 

I am not however giving up on the Czech Republic and I certainly am not giving up on this blog. Quite the opposite. My intention is to write and blog more. I can turn my experience as a specialist Czech holiday provider into guide books, such as the one on Cesky Krumlov I published earlier this year. It may be that as things settle I will return to the tourism business, although it would almost certainly be as tour guide rather than as a tour provider. On the other hand I might enjoy writing more.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Dutch hospitality in Czech Paradise

Sometimes you meet people with whom you just click. Of course that is an experience that I have had in the UK, but somehow I find it happens more frequently here. I don't know why it is like that. It is in part I suspect because being the outsider makes me less likely to give in to British reserve. Maybe I just find it easier to get on with the Czechs.

Two people I clicked with were my hosts at the pension I stayed at over last weekend in Czech Paradise. Jan and Jeanette are, like me, non-Czechs who fell in love with this country and who bought a home here. Obviously we have a lot in common to talk about: horror stories about buying and restoring ruined Czech farmhouses, the trail of serendipity that brought us here in the first place. Also staying were Harold and Will, who came first as paying visitors and have been coming back as friends ever since.

Pension Kidafo sits in a hectare of land studded with fruit trees. I commiserated with them about the endless mowing required. After I arrived we sat drinking a beer, chatting and watching butterflies sipping the juices leaking from fallen plums. I was introduced to the cats that my hosts had adopted and which were watching the butterflies with hunters' eyes.

When I went upstairs to change before we went to a local restaurant, and I found a bottle of Czech bubbly by my door! Jan and Jeanette give a bottle to the first visitor from a nationality and I was the first Brit. Of course I shared the bottle with my hosts. The warmth of their welcome reminded me of my friend Hannah, who always made visitors staying in her pension feel like old friends. It is a rare gift to be able to put people at ease like that.

Until now I have not talked on this blog about the pensions and hotels I have stayed in. This is because of my business. People pay for my knowledge of where best to stay. But by this time next week the last of my customers will be on their way home, so I am breaking with this rule.

Jan and Jeanette's pension is in a small town called Libun. The town isn't that impressive, but its location is brilliant. Libun sits on the plain below the Prachovske Rocks, one of the area's most spectacular rock towns. It also stands on the junction of two railway lines. One runs east/west from Turnov, via Jicin and on to Hradec Kralove. The other runs from the Skoda city of Mlada Boleslav, via Sobotka to Stary Paka. What this means that you can explore a large part of Czech Paradise without having to change trains and indeed having to hire a car. Perfect for walkers and those of us who support environmentally sound tourism.

You can book your room at Pension Kidafo on Booking.com and AirBnB.


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