Saturday, 27 June 2015

Freedom is hard won, but easily lost.

It's late in the evening and I should be in bed, but I realize that this is an important day and I really should write a blog post.

The 27th June is a day when the Czechs remember the victims of communism. Earlier this year I watched as a group of tourists posed in front of this memorial without any regard to what it means. The memorial is to those victims - the statues are symbolically disappearing, parts are missing. That is what political imprisonment does to its victims. You cease to exist as people. They break you down. In the end you do not get a proper grave. Your family has nowhere to grieve, hence the need for such a memorial.

 I watched but I did not do anything to stop the idiots gallivanting in front the disappearing men. My inaction was a sign perhaps that in similar circumstances I would be one of the silent majority and not one of the few that stands up for freedom.

We remember on this day of all days, because on 27th June 1950 after an infamous show trial Czechoslovak politician Milada Horakova was hung. Despite having had a confession tortured out of her, this unbelievably brave lady stood head held high in the court and rebutted her accusers.

Watch this video to hear the story of her trial.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Czech Castles - Pernstejn

The journey to Pernstejn castle is a delightful one. It takes you through the beautiful wooded valleys of the Moravian Highlands and then suddenly you see the proud medieval fortress perched high on a large rock.

This castle was so well-sited and designed that it was never taken by an enemy in any of the many wars that have raged across this land. If the enemy managed to get past the castle's many walls and ditches, through the maze of courtyards under constant fire from above, and made it into the main part of the castle, the defenders could withdraw to the Baborka tower, which was only connected to the rest of the castle by two wooden bridges. If the worst came to the worst I suppose they could have burnt them, but it never did.

Like some other Czech castles, Pernstejn comes with a resident ghostly white lady. In this case the ghost is that of a vain maid, who was forever admiring herself in her mistress' mirror rather than doing her duties. When a monk rebuked her for neglecting going to mass, she laughed at him and he cursed her. It is said that even now if a woman looks in one of the castle's mirrors, she will lose her beauty within a year.

Now the Castle is popular with Czechs - there was a group of excited children there when we last visited  - and with film-production companies. If the castle feels somehow familiar, it is probably because you've seen it on the big screen. It was a location in Van Helsing and Nosferatu, to name just two films.

Despite the castle's rural setting, Pernstejn is only an hour from Brno by public transport or you can opt for a guided tour and visit the caves of the Moravian Karst as well.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Salamander, salamander

Okay, I know it's a rubbish photo, but given how secretive the fire salamander is I was delighted to see it and manage to fire off a photo before it disappeared.

Just under four weeks ago (it feels much longer, given all the things I have been up to in the meantime) I was in Czech Paradise (Cesky Raj) researching a geological tour. I woke early and, although it had been raining heavily in the night and was still mizzling, I decided to walk the Riegerova trail. The trail is a nature trail with an emphasis on geology, but the most exciting sight was not the very impressive and varied rocks but a small golden and black amphibian.

I had nearly finished the trail and was walking down a track in the direction of a restaurant by the road, when I saw something gold and black some yards in front of me. I have never seen a salamander in the wild before, although they are to be found in Czech forests, and at first I didn't realise what it was. It seemed too brightly coloured to be an animal so at first sight I thought it a bit of rubbish left by some careless walker. When I drew closer and as the salamander made a dash for the verdant verge I scrambled to get my camera out of my rucksack.

It is amazing that such a brightly coloured animal can still be so secretive. Apparently it rarely comes out of its hiding places during the daytime and only then when it is raining. It likes to hide in rotten tree trunks, which may account for the legends about it living in fire as it would appear in people's fires when the log it was hiding in started to burn. The salamander has therefore a special place in alchemy and myth.

It very soon disappeared and I had to be content with this blurry picture. But I went on my way rejoicing at my luck at seeing it at all. I thought as I walked about how I would have shared this experience with my Czech friend, had she been alive. But then I thought that maybe she had been there all along, after all hadn't her online name been Salamander?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mikulov - Home of Wine


Mikulov is one of my favourite Czech places. In some ways it is like Cesky Krumlov, but without the tourists and with wine. It is in the south of Moravia on the Austrian border.

Mikulov sits at the end of the Palava Hills, which stand out against the surrounding plain like the back of a monstrous white-backed whale. The chalky soil and Moravia's sunny climate make this a perfect area for wines. In the outskirts of the town you will find the cellars of small local vineyards and in the town centre there are some excellent wine merchants, where you can sample the wines before you buy. Do try out the wine that uses the Palava grape variety, which was created nearby. It is a fruity white wine and a favourite of mine. Czech wine is a well-kept secret that is worth exploring and Mikulov is a great place to do it.

In the castle, which stands on a hill in the centre of the town, you can visit the excellent local museum. What may surprise you is the inclusion of the Roman gallery - yes, the Romans made it this far across the Danube and they brought wine-growing with them. Having discovered this, visit the museum's excellent exhibition about the history of wine-growing.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Prague Transport - Trams

As I said in a previous post trams are my preferred form of public transport in Prague. The metro is very limited and doesn't have the advantage of taking you past the city's sights. You can also get a much better idea of the layout of the city from a tram seat. There are a lot of tramlines, but there are four that are particularly useful for visitors to Prague.  These are:

Number 9 - runs along the castle side of the river from Anděl until it crosses the river at Újezd, going past the National Theatre and Národní třída, across Wenceslas Square, and on to the Main Train station and beyond, thus offering a direct route between the Na Knicezi bus station at Andel (and the buses from Cesky Krumlov) to the Train Station
Number 17 - runs from Vyšehrad, along the eastern bank past Charles Bridge, and through the Old Town before crossing the river
Number 22 - runs through the hotel area around Náměstí Míru, past the National Theatre and then over the river and up to Malostranské náměstí; then it winds its way up to the castle and on to Bílá Hora; it is the best way to get to the castle without climbing
Number 23- runs past Karlovo náměstí, over Wenceslas Square, stopping at Náměstí Republiky for the Old Town and the Obecní dům, over the river past the steps up to Letna Park and into Holešovice, stopping outside the Veletržní palác and its modern art gallery, and on to the Exhibition Areas and Stromovka Park.

Brand new trams are being introduced on some lines. But if you want to get a feel for the past why not try the Number 91 tram. This vintage tram runs around central Prague from April to mid-November on Saturdays and Sundays. The trams start at the Public Transport Museum at  Vozovna Střešovice, then runs past  Pražský hrad,  Malostranská, Malostranské náměsti, the National Theatre, Národní třída, Wenceslas Square, Náměstí republiky, Veletržní, terminating at the Exhibition Halls (Výstaviště Holešovice) and back again.  Prague has had trams since 1875, when they were horse-drawn. Take a trip on the 91 to the Museum to find out more.

Friday, 1 May 2015


One of the members of the Archaeological Group I have organized three tours for over the years is a Baroque nut. I know to always include some Baroque architecture to keep him happy and so it was inevitable that I would take the group to Kroměříž one day.

Kroměříž is a small Moravian city half way between Brno and Olomouc and it is renowned for its Baroque architecture, so renowned that UNESCO has made it giving it World Heritage Site listing because The Gardens and Castle at Kroměříž are an exceptionally complete and well-preserved example of a princely residence and its associated landscape of the 17th and 18th centuries. The ensemble, and in particular the pleasure garden, played a significant role in the development of Baroque garden and palace design in central Europe.

The best way to take in the sites is to follow the UNESCO Way. This signposted route takes you past some (but not all of the city sites). It starts at the gate to the Palace Garden, a large landscaped park with some more formal features. The next major stop is the Archbishop's Baroque Palace itself. There are several tours of the Palace complex to choose from, of the Archbishop's sumptuous state and private rooms, the Archbishop's picture gallery with paintings by Titian, Cranach,, Durer, Van Dyke and other masters, or the Palace Tower to gain a birdseye view of the city. From the Palace the Way winds through the city streets past two major churches of St John and St Maurice, before ending at what is for me the highlight of Kroměříž - The Flower Garden. This Baroque pleasure garden is a unique example of garden design and architecture of this period (1665). Take your time here to wander through the flowerbeds, through the statue-lined arcade and then climb up on to the viewing platform on the arcade's roof.

If all this sightseeing has given you a thirst, walk to the Large Square where  the Cerny Orel hotel and pub has its very own microbrewery. I tried to buy some beer to take home, but the bottle leaked all over the car boot, so now I just enjoy a glass or three when I am there.

Here's a video of some of the Baroque delights of Kroměříž:

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Getting Around Prague - The Metro

Prague has three metro lines - A (green), B (yellow) and C (red). The lines cross at only three stations (Můstek, Muzeum and Florenc), all of which are in the centre of the city and are actually not that far from each other. In other words if you want to change lines you have to go into the centre and then come out again, so you may find it easier to hop on a tram instead. It is also worth noting that some of the central stations are very close together and that it may be easier to walk to your destination. Metro stations, especially the interchange ones, are often large and will have several exits. It is a good idea to study a map carefully and note the roads to which the stations exit. Only a limited number of stations have lifts.

Line A goes from Depo Hostivař in the west of the city to in the Nemocnice Motel east. Some of the key stations on the line are
  • Náměstí Míru - an important interchange for trams and an area where you will find many hotels 
  • Muzeum - located at the top of Wenceslas Square next to the National Museum
  • Můstek - also located on Wenceslas Square (halfway up and at the bottom): Můstek is also useful for visiting the Old Town Square
  • Staroměstská - also for the Old Town plus the Jewish quarter
  • Malostranská - the area below the castle known as the Lesser Town or Malá Strana
  • Hradčanská - for the castle (saves the climb up from Malostranská)
  • Nadrazi Veleslavin Metro Station - for the 119 bus to the airport.
Line B goes from Černý Most in the west to Zličín in the east. Some of the key stations on the line are:
  • Černý Most, a major bus station with buses departing for Český Ráj and other areas in the north
  • Florenc, the main bus station with buses departing for Brno, and many other Czech and international destinations
  • Náměstí Republiky, for the Municipal House (Obecní dům) and the Old Town
  • Můstek, for Wenceslas Square and the Old Town
  • Národní třída, on the edge of the New Town, useful for the National Theatre and as a tram stop (the very useful number 9 tram stops there)
  • Karlovo náměstí - for tram connections and the New Town
  • Andel - bus station with buses departing for Cesky Krumlov and South and West Bohemia
  • Zličín - for the number 100 airport bus and buses to Plzen and West Bohemia
Line C goes from Letňany in the north to Haje in the south west. Some of the key stations on the line are:
  • Nádraží Holešovice - for the train station of the same name and the bus to the Zoo and Troja Palace
  • Vltavská - for the Veletrzni Palac Modern Art Museum and Holešovice
  • Florenc - the main bus station with buses departing for Brno, and many other Czech and international destinations  
  • Hlavní nádraží - the Main Train Station, also convenient for the National Museum
  • I. P. Pavlova - for the New Town and an area where you will find many hotels
  • Vyšehrad - for Vyšehrad castle and cemetery
Trains on the metro are frequent and generally of a high standard. Crowding is not as bad as on the London Tube, but it is a good idea to avoid the rush hour (3pm - 5pm). Trains do not run after midnight.


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