Monday, 31 December 2007

Kvinterna




In my last post I wrote of the frustrating invasion of the ubiquitous pop and rock concert into the New Year's celebrations at Cesky Krumlov. But not all is lost - on Sunday at the Museum of Building Crafts, in Dlouhá street, the wonderful Kvinterna gave a New Year concert of "Ancient and Alternative Music".

Kvinterna is a local group fronted by singer Hana Blochova. The group specialise in medieval, renaissance Christian and Jewish music, as well their own improvised music, but basically their music has a wonderful spirituality and so much more suited to my mood at this time of year. For an example of their click the above link to Youtube.

My favourite cd from them is Landscape of Sweet Sorrow, which brings together songs of the Sephardic Jews and Moravian folksongs and shows the similarities between these very different traditions. For more about Kvinterna, visit their website http://www.kvinterna.cz. And if you want to buy their cds you can either visit Cesky Krumlov's classical music shop on Latran near the bridge, where the owner will, if you wish, soon be suggesting all sorts of other Czech musical delights as well as Kvinterna, but if you can't make it to Krumlov visit http://cdmusic.cz for Czech music at Czech prices.

New Year's Eve


It is New Year's Eve and I am in England. We are planning no great celebrations - maybe a glass of wine at midnight, maybe not. Maybe we will even listen to the church bells ringing in the new year as we lie in bed.

Last year I was in Cesky Krumlov for New Year's Eve. It was cold but there was none of the usual snow. We stood on the hill near the Castle Gardens and watched the fireworks and heard rather bad rock music emanating from the Town Square ruining the atmosphere. My friend was furious, in the past there had been no town square concert, but quite magical bells and choirs. Now they were all drowned out by amplified recorded music - a sad symbol of what is happening to this lovely town - the uplifting drowning in the crass. After a short while drinking a champagne toast we left our vantage point and made our way home. This year in Krumlov there will be more of the same. I will not miss it, the company yes, the disappointment no.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Bears in the Moat


In the moat of the castle at Cesky Krumlov there live four bears. Bears have been kept at the castle since 1707 and they are as popular as ever with the visitors.

Every Christmas Eve the bears get a special treat. Several Christmas trees are placed in the moat (you can see one behind the bear in the photo) covered with gingerbread, cakes, sweets and fruit. But the goodies do not end there. As the bears are kept in their den, children and their families start to arrive bringing food presents for the bears. With the bears safely out of the way the families are allowed to place the presents under the trees themselves, the only time in the year they are allowed into the moat. Then the families retire and the bears are let out to feast on the festive goodies, with the children watching safely from the bridge.

The bears in the moat are a legacy of a time when wild bears could be found in the Sumava Mountains to the south of Cesky Krumlov. The last was shot in 1856 at the Bear's Stone (Medvedi Kamen) on the slopes of Mount Pernik. The bears are still wild animals and should be treated with respect. Apparently a few years ago ignoring all the signs to the contrary two American revellers decided to climb into the bear moat and make the bears' acquaintance more closely. The bears did not welcome their visitors, one was killed and the other badly mauled.

Carping


In town squares all over the Czech Republic there are large tanks full of carp. Carp or capr as they are called in the Czech Republic are the centre of the Christmas meal - the Czech equivalent of turkey. Shoppers buy the live fish and take them home, even keeping them in the bath until the time comes to kill and eat them.

To feed this love of carp over the years the Czechs have built man-made fishponds across the plains of the Republic. The largest complex of such ponds - or rather lakes (they are that big) - is to be found around the South Bohemian town of Trebon. The area is well worth a visit - it has UNESCO-protected area status and makes a good area to explore by bicycle. The ponds were created by Jakub Krcin, the master pond-maker to the Rosenbergs, who had a home in Cesky Krumlov. He may have been a genius when it came to building ponds, but like so many landscape transformers on behalf of the nobility he was a complete bastard when it came to dealing with the peasants whose homes he destroyed and whose labour he abused. So vilified was he in life and after his death that there are a host of ghost stories about him, including one where he is cursed every night to ride in a carriage drawn by two giant cats.

When our Czech house was a the home of a German-speaking farming family before the 1945, the yard featured a carp pond. The pond was fed by a stream, which flowed from a well behind the house through a channel in the barn. From the pond the stream flowed on under the gate and down the hill. Under the ownership of the Czech family that succeeded them the well fell into disrepair and the pond was replaced by a septic tank. As for the stream its way blocked it made its own way through the granite bedrock and into our cellar.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Czechs & the Devil


In shops all over the Czech Republic now you can buy chocolate devils, angels and St Nicholas ready for the Christmas celebrations. On the night before St Nicholas' Day (today) Cesky Krumlov Town Square fills up with people – adults and children - dressed as the saint, accompanied by devils and angels. That said the devils always seem to be in the majority – Satan has all the best fancy dress outfits!


Most years I try to buy my son a devil by way of a family joke, even though now he is 19 and is surely past all that. Ask a Czech why you have devils as well as angels and saints at Christmas and they will look at you and say that you cannot have angels without devils. How true. In Britain we have sanitised our beliefs and taken out the difficult, awkward bit – God as warm feeling but without edges. Don't scare the children.


The Czech approach is far healthier. “Have you been a good girl?” has a quite different feel to it, when asked by a saint, an angel and someone wearing horns, rather than by some redundant old geezer in red coat, false beard and bad breath, whose real identity is lost. And so the Czech child grows up with the devil – he is dad with a red face and horns, he is a chocolate figure wrapped in bright foil. He is comical, he is scary, he is ever present. But then Czech children grow up with angels too.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Jan Svankmajer


Our son is at Westminster University studying film production. He is a very talented scriptwriter and has just emailed us to say that he has come to the conclusion that his scripts are best realised through mixed-form animation. To many British readers of this blog the image of animation is of a medium for children. Not to the Czechs. Those of you who have read my earlier post about the roots of my love of Czecho will recall that it started with my job at the Puppet Centre Trust and an enduring friendship with someone I first knew as the creator of a puppet tv series. My friend brought with her in 1968 an understanding and love of the puppet artform. My son was a baby when the friendship first began to flower and so spent a significant and influential time in his childhood exploring her Blackheath flat with its collection of puppets and other Czech stimuli. I remember clearly sitting with her as she entertained him by animating a fox stole. His favourite book was a translation of a Czech collection of fairytales and his favourite character was the winter sprite (of whom I promise to speak in some later post). The book had very Czech illustrations with their combination of colour, humour and dark undertone. It is still to be found on his bedroom bookshelf and like his scripts can only have its width of imagination realised in animated form.

About three/four years ago we went as a family to stay with my friend at her flat in Prague. Near the Castle was a large gallery with an exhibition by the artist and filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. Here was and is an animator whose work could never be taken as being for children – not unless you want your child to wake up in the middle of the night screaming and telling you that there are snapping sheep's skulls with false eyes under the bed. The galleries displaying Svankmajer's two-dimensional work were impressive, but it was the last gallery that particularly delighted our son – it was full of sets and characters from Svankmajer's films, most strikingly from his take on Lewis Carol's Alice. I cannot adequately describe Svankmajer's animation to you: it is surreal, clever, at times slow and repetitive and at other times blackly humourous - it is very Czech. You will find clips of it on Youtube and there is a dedicated website on http://www.JanSvankmajer.com. One other thing of note happened on that holiday, our son made a point of getting up early enough to have lively debates with my friend about their respective views on films and scriptwriting before coming to breakfast with us. For a teenager to get up early on holiday is indeed remarkable and an indication that he was serious about pursuing a career in film. My friend has a lot to answer for (all of it good).

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Chimney


In a country which can get as cold in the winter as the Czech Republic, buildings are designed around the need to keep warm at that time of year. A friend, who is a specialist in traditional Czech building design and Czech stoves and chimneys in particular, was looking at a book we had brought over of Cotswolds buildings, when he asked why was it that chimneys were positioned at the outside wall of English houses, rather than in the centre (thus heating the whole house) as in Czecho. And another friend tells me that when she first came to England she was astonished to see water and sewage pipes running down the outside of walls. Having survived the 2005/6 winter I can tell you if the pipes in our house went down the outside we would have no water in the winter and we would have waterfalls down the side of the house when the spring thaw came.

We have recycled the old wood stoves, which put out a great amount of heat and have the added advantage that you can keep a mug of tea warm on top of them. Some time when we can afford to we will replace them with better ones. The best Czech stoves are covered with ceramic tiles, which keep the heat wonderfully. You will see huge ones in Cesky Krumlov Castle, but Czech farmhouses had them too - so big Granny or a sick child can lie on top of them and gain the benefit of the warmth and negative ions given off by the stove.

We have just had the chimney repaired - the photo above shows it before the repairs. This large metal door in the chimney was in the attic. The greasy stains below the door betray the use to which the chimney was put. A British friend who bought an old farm in another village found the former owners shoving a pig through such a door and up the chimney, where they proposed to smoke it. Our chimney has a smaller door - not big enough for a pig now, but big enough to give a sweep access to the flue and that is all we need.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Buying Clothes in the Czech Republic


The Czechs have an inferiority complex when it comes to clothes and fashion design. A Czech friend of mine was horrified to hear I buy my shoes from Bata rather than from a British shoe manufacturer. Never mind that Bata is a shoe manufacturer that has a proud and long tradition of high quality shoes – indeed by the early 1930s it was the world's leading shoe manufacturer having factories all over the world including in England.

Even worse the Czechs seem to think British clothes are the height of quality and design. All over the Czech Republic you will find shops called UK Zone or something similar where you can buy second-hand British clothes. I hate to think where the clothes have come from – perhaps those collections which pretend to be for charity.

You can buy some wonderful Czech clothes. A week ago I went to a boutique in Ceske Budejovice. The small shop is crammed with beautiful Czech designer clothes at English high street prices – highly original with beautiful colours, cut and detail. I must have made the shop owner's day, nay her week more like – as I bought a load of clothes to replace my tired English ones.


Sunday, 18 November 2007

Snow


Well, it has arrived - Winter and with it heavy snow. They are saying such a large amount of snow so early hasn't happened in living memory. After last winter snow's virtual no-show this is great, and the Czechs are flocking to the ski resorts. Although I do hope we are not about to have another hard winter like the one in 2005/2006, as there are a lot of old Czech roofs which will not survive it, including one on a barn down the road.

The really annoying thing about this is that I am in England at the moment facing English November rain instead. Darn it!

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Lunch

Lunch (obed) is the main meal in the Czech Republic, so different from the snatched British lunch of sandwiches and a cup of tea. In Horice Na Sumave, as in most Czech towns, there is a restaurant where the local workers go to eat. In the summer I was invited to lunch by a neighbour who was working there. It was not somewhere I would think of going – it is so unlike a British restaurant. In some ways it feels like a cross between a canteen and a cafe – there are leatherette bank seats along the wall with tables in front of them at which sit the customers. Above their heads are hunting trophies – boar skins, deer antlers and stuffed beasts.


My friend comes and goes taking orders and returning behind the bar to pour drinks and chat to me. There is no menu – this is a shock to me – instead there is a set meal of goulash soup followed by wild boar stew with dumplings. Not only were there the customers sitting at tables but also people would come in with stacked metal or plastic containers like mess tins, these would be filled and taken back to the place of work. The Czech set lunch is substantial and very tasty and to be recommended to visitors. Even when you go to restaurants which do offer a menu to choose from, do look for these set lunches. They are often incredibly good value and moreover will be served quickly.


Tuesday, 13 November 2007

An Encounter With A Boar


I was driving home the other day from Cesky Krumlov via the route that skirts the castle gardens. It was about midnight and the skies were cloudy, so the road was very dark. Then in the lights of my car he appeared - a huge wild boar. He ambled across the road and along the road side before turning into the bushes.

Wild boars are common around here. You will also find signs of them in the woods, such as scuffed-up ground where they seek for food. They are a favourite prey for the local huntsmen. As I think I have said before we found two boar skins in the barn when we bought our house. Wild boar stew is a common dish in the local restaurants. This chap was totally unfazed and rightly unworried by my intrusion into his nightly foraging. We passed in the night and continued on our way.

Monday, 12 November 2007

The Remnants of Autumn

A few days ago we had a severe frost. The night had been clear following a series of dull cloudy days and in the morning the sky was completely blue. We have already had the first snow of Winter – in October – finishing off the mushroom harvest. But the larches and silver birches have retained their autumnal colour - a gold which in the sunshine almost glisters against the dark green of the firs. The frost did some damage and with each slight breath of wind more leaves fell. I love this time of year – well I love all the seasons here. But it was on a similar November day that we first moved into the house or rather the former owners moved out and so this time of year has a special place in my heart.

Aware that there will not be many days like this left before Winter truly sets in and the snow comes and covers all, I took my coat and walked up into the woods above the house. I was alone, everything was silent apart from the occasional falling leaf and the crack of twigs under my feet. On this late Autumn day you could see the wood's framework more clearly, the trees were not obscured by leaves, the rocks were clear of undergrowth. There were still a few mushrooms to be seen – the fly agaric of the fairytales, false chanterelles and even some soggy boletes.

I walked my usual mushroom collecting route, bringing me to the top of the hill and a point overlooking a pool surrounded by cliffs. It is an old quarry working but now is overgrown with birch and other trees, the rocks dropped away at my feet into the slate-grey waters. I think each time I come here, that I should throw an offering into the pool, something from my basket of mushrooms. I would hurl it as far as it would go and watch it bounce over the rocks and into the depths. An offering to the gods and spirits of the waters. As the Czechs will never tire of telling you, we (the Brits and the Czechs) are both nations that are descended from the Celts, and a sacrifice to the water – that dark entrance to the Celtic underworld - would seem appropriate.


Saturday, 10 November 2007

The Early Morning Bus from Horice

This morning I caught the early bus from Horice Na Sumave into Cesky Krumlov as I needed to catch the early train from Budejovice. A neighbour very kindly dropped me off at the bus stop – it was snowing, that wet snow that will not settle for long and cruelly raises small children's hopes. There were a good dozen people waiting. What was remarkable about it was the time – 4.48 am. The Czech work hours come as a shock to us Brits, many people start at 6 am or 6.30 am and then knock off at lunchtime. The rest of the afternoon for the many men is spent in the pub. The women come home or shop - schools stop at a similar time. My neighbour therefore was doing me a very great favour – she did not need to get up at 4am, well not any more. As we trundled up the hill and down again in her old skoda, she told me how she regularly used to walk the route in rain, snow and dark in order to get to Ceske Budejovice in time for work. I shivered at the thought of it.


Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Chata and Chalupa - Cabins and Cottages


During the communist era it was not possible for Czechs to travel abroad easily and so many Czechs had second homes in the country. My Czech friend argues that the authorities actually encouraged this as a means of reducing anti-government resentment. Every weekend the family would pile into their cars and disappear to their base in the country to grow vegetables, sit round the barbecue, drink beer and sing into the night. And of course the Czech pastimes of fishing and mushroom picking are also associated with the trip to the chata.

There are two types of second home - the chata - a cabin built for the purpose of recreation, and the chalupa - a cottage (though sometimes a large farmhouse or similar) which once was a residential property. They can range from the very basic - some chata are merely sheds made of whatever was at hand - to the luxurious. One development that helped fuel the growth of cottage ownership in the period following the Second World War was the availability of empty ex-German homes in the Sudetenland. Another was the rise of a back-to-nature movement, connected with the scouting movement and influenced by the pioneers of American Wild West - you will even find the occasional totem pole outside a chata!

The house we bought had been used as a chalupa - although it had previously been the family home. It is a large farmhouse of the German style and is set in a village where probably 40% of the houses are second homes. For Brits looking to buy Czech property chata and chalupa offer a chance to buy somewhere in beautiful setting. They vary considerably in state of repair - sometimes they are their former owners' pride and joy, sometimes they have been the victims of the Czech obsession with do-it-yourself and sometimes they are old buildings which the Czechs have effectively camped in, not having the money to restore.

However such is the affection in which the Czechs hold their country cottages and cabins that many would not consider selling them - they are part of their best family memories - and many that do do not go through an estate agent. It therefore helps to have someone with local knowledge to assist you in finding your dream house. We found ours with the help of a local company which helps Brits find property in the area of Cesky Krumlov - we recommend them. Check out their website on http://www.czechpropertysearch.co.uk

Monday, 22 October 2007

And Gathering


In my last post I talked about the Czechs as a nation of hunters and in previous posts I have talked about the Czech obsession with gathering mushrooms. In both cases they are very unlike us Brits. For the Czechs hunting is something done by all classes, unlike the British class-ridden approach. Whilst for mushrooming the contrast is even starker - going mushrooming in the Czech Republic is something that starts young, in Britain it doesn't start at all, unless you are unusual. A Czech child will take their little basket and go with their mum or granny into the forest and learn what to pick and what not. My mother, like most Brits, regarded all mushrooms with suspicion unless they were field mushrooms and I was told very clearly never to pick any fungi - they were dangerous. Now unusually I do collect mushrooms. Thanks to the instruction of my Czech friend I now recognise, collect and most importantly eat over 20 types of fungus.

A year ago I had an experience which sums up the differences perfectly. I was in the Forest of Dean collecting mushrooms - being late in the year I was on the look out for the purple Wood Blewits. I was rummaging about in the undergrowth beside a track, when a group passed by close enough for me to hear their conversation. "What is she doing?" "Looking for something, I think." and so on. I carried on and collected a reasonable trawl of purple treasures (blewits are one of my favourite mushrooms).

After a while the group came back, and again the speculation started as to what I was doing - something that would never happen in the Czech Republic as everyone would know what I was up to. For one woman in the group curiousity got the better of her and she broke away from the group and joined me. "What are you looking for?" she asked.

"Mushrooms" I replied, "Would you like to see them." I opened the bag and she looked in. She looked back at me askance. "It's all right," I assured her "They are quite edible."

"Well I hope you know what you are doing, otherwise you won't be around to do it again." She said. I assured her that I did. And she returned to her group and went her way.

When I tell this story to my Czech friends they are amazed that the British should ever be surprised at someone mushrooming, and even more so by the fear of mushrooms that she betrays. Then I tell them about her group - it was made up of a man riding a camel, and three people leading llamas. Of course to a Brit such eccentricity is taken without batting an eyelid, indeed she and her fellows regarded me as the weird one. To my Czech audience this stretches the credulity to breaking point - those Brits are weird.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Hunting

When we moved into our house we found two boar skins lying in the straw in the barn, in the house the walls of the stairwell were decorated with skulls of deer and a stuffed bird. In the local restaurants you can eat wild boar, rabbit and venison. We love it - game is a favourite food of ours. The Czechs are great ones for hunting - and it seems to be something enjoyed by all classes (unlike in England). Czech men are often dressed in the typical Czech huntsman attire - second-hand army fatigues and boots.

Across the countryside you will find hides like the one above. They look out across groves in forests, fields near to the wood edge, anywhere that deer will come to feed. Sometimes you will find a block of rock salt nearby to help attract the deer.

Yes, the Czechs are great nation of hunters..... and gatherers.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Czech Dogs


The Czechs are very fond of their dogs. The above photo shows a typical Czech dog - in other words low slung with short legs, curled tail and perky demeanour. On seeing your Czech dog you have the fun of trying to work out its mixed parentage (and grandparentage) - bit of dachshund, bit of labrador, a touch of corgi perhaps! You will find signs in the Prague warning against dog fouling in parks graphically showing a cartoon of just such a dog with curly tail raised doing its business.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Horice Na Sumave Passion Play


Horice Na Sumave is famous for its passion play. The play is performed each summer outdoors in a theatre created in a natural arena just above the town. The audience is under cover, the actors not so. The 50 performers are local amateurs and when we first saw it a couple of years ago, Jesus was performed appropriately enough by our carpenter. The play is delightful, even if we hardly understand a word, in a way only amateur productions can be, and the play has the added piquancy of the devotion of the performers.

The play has been performed since the 19th century with a break during the Nazi and Communist regimes. It even used to have its own theatre, which was destroyed by the communists. Originally it was performed in German up until the Second World War, after which the German-speaking population were expelled to Germany and a new Czech population established. Thus when the passion play was revived in 1993 it was rewritten in Czech.

As a postscript when we first moved to the area, the town used to have a hotel innocently called Hotel Passion. There was a sign for the hotel on the main road just before you came to the turn off to Horice. I note that they have now renamed the Hotel Stare Skola, no doubt because of the unwanted attention the hotel used to receive.

For more about the history of the Horice Na Sumave Passion Play - check out the dedicated page on the Cesky Krumlov website from which we have borrowed the above photo.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Chanterelles

A friend of ours, who works on the North Sea oil rigs, has just bought a forester's cottage in the woods. The house is sited right next to the forest as you would expect and there is even a small private gate from the garden that takes you immediately into the trees. To get there you climb a winding forestry road out of Cesky Krumlov, on which you will occasionally meet large forestry lorries laden with trunks coming down in the opposite direction – not something to enjoy on the narrow road, but which mean that in the winter the road is kept clear of snow.

Alongside the cottage runs a track which after a brief spell among the trees takes you to an expanse of upland grassland and spectacular views across the Sumava mountains all the way to Austria. That is of course if you get that far. The woods behind the little house are a first-class place for collecting egg-yolk coloured chanterelle mushrooms in the moss covered ground. My friend's partner being Czech born and bred has of course discovered this fact and moreover in the spell after the rain did not even make it to the garden gate and into the forest before her basket was full of these treasures with their slight scent of apricots. I do wonder however whether having mushrooms reliably on your doorstep will not in some way reduce the enjoyment of the hunt. We shall see.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Seashells in the Czech Republic


As you may recall in an earlier post as part of my decorations for our Czech house I brought over some seashells collected on a beach in Kent. I thought they would be very English objects for my Czech home, a bit of the seaside in landlocked central Europe. I very carefully washed them (so as not to smell) and placed them in a bowl of tap water on the windowsill, thus showing off their colours and patterns. There they sat for a few weeks; they sit there no longer.

The local man, who had first found the house for me two years ago, arrived one morning on my doorstep with his three children. I was pleased to see them and invited them in. Fruit tea and cola were offered and accepted and we settled down to an awkward silence. He is a man who never uses a sentence when one word will do, and often not that. My Czech was not able to sustain a one-sided conversation, and our attempts at broken German were equally short-lived.

The little lad made up for his father's silence with a running commentary in Czech on anything and everything. His father produced a small plastic toy which had come out of a chocolate egg - it was an octopus. We counted the legs - first in Czech and then in English. I had no toys to keep him occupied, but then I had a brainwave. I took the shell bowl from the window, drained off the water and showed the shells to the children. All three children including the teenage eldest daughter were totally caught up in looking at the shells. The different shells were looked at in detail, held up to the light, the razorshell became a false finger nail, the small empty crabshell scuttled again, and the shells were used to make pictures on the floor. Of particular note were the two fossilised shark's teeth, which had come from the same beach, and were suitably violent for a small boy's imagination. I suggested that the children could choose some to take away with them and a long process of selection took place. The older girls chose a few pretty shells, but the little boy found it impossible to stop - "To mam" he said over and over - "I have that".

They left clutching a bag of shells. It was fascinating to see how something that we Brits take for granted was so wonderful. These children will not have seen the sea, let alone walked on a beach collecting shells. So now the bowl is nearly empty and I will have to return to the seaside to replace its contents. There are more children in the village.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

A visit to Ceske Budejovice


Normally when we go to Ceske Budejovice it is with a specific purpose - we go, do what we need to do and come away again. But a few days ago we decided to spend some time as tourists. Ceske Budejovice is a place which is often compared unfavourably with Cesky Krumlov – it is a large town and comes with retail parks, factories and all that that implies. It simply is not as pretty as Krumlov and it doesn't perch quaintly in a lovely setting.

However were it not being compared with its UNESCO-rated neighbour Ceske Budejovice would score highly on the tourist map. The old town bounded by the river on one side and moat on the other is a delight. The town square is enormous surrounded by arcaded renaissance and baroque buildings. We wandered around the square and the various streets that radiate from it – finding that Budejovice offers a far better range of shops and gifts than Cesky Krumlov does. Krumlov's shops tend to all of a kind, offering the same gifts in every shop. Why is that? Surely the tourists at whom Krumlov's shops are aiming their wares would like more variety. But no, it is all part of the lack of imagination which Krumlov displays in dealing with tourists. You will like wooden toys, amber beads and fancy soaps, or else!

But the highlight of our visit to Budejovice was unquestionably the Church of the Sacrifice of Our Lady. The church is impressive sitting on another large square, although the eye goes to the building of the former city armoury next to it first. But it is the inside of the church that excels. The medieval murals around the nave (on walls and nave pillars) are real stunners (see picture). The side aisles have some great painted vaulting brackets showing a number of gurning faces. On the altar is a panel painting of the Virgin Mary of Budejovice (early 15th century). All of which mean that the church alone makes visiting Budejovice well worth while.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

More on water and the Czechs


In a previous post I talked about Czecho not having a sea - Wot No Sea. Anyone visiting Cesky Krumlov during the summer will have noticed that the Czechs enjoy messing about on the river.

The river on a sunny day will be full of Czech holiday makers in canoes, rubber rafts and even rubber tubes making their way down the Vltava. It is something of an institution for young people to have a holiday travelling down river by boat from the river's beginnings at Lake Lipno, sometimes all the way to Prague. Their goods are stored in plastic barrels, bottles of beer are trailed in the water to keep them cool and everyone has a wonderful time. There are campsites for the travellers along the river banks. There is a clear appeal to young couples - beer, freedom, and scantily clad females, but you will also see whole families in rafts making their way north.

Part of the fun is taking the various rapids along the way and falling in. The capsizing Czechs make for great free entertainment for the people lining the banks and bridges at Krumlov. People who make it through the rapids successfully get cheered and those who fall in in style are also applauded. If you fancy a go yourself there are shops which will hire you the equipment and even take you upriver to your starting point or collect you from your chosen destination. You don't even need to go far, the ox-bow bends in the river at Cesky Krumlov mean that you can just go round and round easily. Perhaps by the end of the day you too can take the traitorous rapids and stay afloat.

Friday, 7 September 2007

News from UNESCO re Cesky Krumlov


There has been some good news on the UNESCO front. In my post a couple of months ago about the Alchemist's House I told you about the fears some of us have for Cesky Krumlov and the fate of its historic buildings in the face of high levels of unsustainable tourism and inappropriate developments which are killing the heritage goose that lays the golden eggs. I was involved in helping a group of concerned local residents write to UNESCO asking for action to be taken.

And I am glad to report that UNESCO appears to have heeded their appeals. In the report that went to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in July it was reported that: “In February 2007, the World Heritage Centre received information concerning the inappropriate use of certain buildings of the Historic Centre of Cesky Krumlov from representatives of the local community (non-governmental organizations based in the Historic Centre of Cesky Krumlov)”. And it was agreed that the World Heritage Committee “requests the State Party to provide to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2009, an up-dated report on the progress made ....... on the state of conservation of the property, including guidelines for the use of the monuments within the Historic Centre of Cesky Krumlov.”

The local Cesky Krumlov newspaper has reported that UNESCO is asking for an audit. My Czech friends are delighted, but know this is only the beginning of changing the disastrous policy for managing this wonderful town. As for me, of course I will help further if I can, although it needs to be their initiative. It is said that this old town demands a toll of those that fall in love with her. If by using my skill in community empowerment I pay part of her toll, so be it. It will be interesting to see what else this beautiful but demanding mistress asks of me.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Wot No Sea!


Some of my English friends do not see how I could possibly buy a house in a country, which has no seaside, surely they say it would be better to buy in France or Spain, Croatia or Bulgaria. The British magazines about buying property abroad hardly mention the Czech Republic apart from references to buying in Prague or Brno. Again I think the assumption is that this landlocked country has little to appeal to us sea-loving Brits. Well they are wrong - there is water here, it just isn't salty.

A friend of mine came over for a long weekend with me a few weeks back. She had stayed with friends last year in Cesky Krumlov and loved it, so I decided to introduce her to the countryside around here. We took the little train from Horice Na Sumave station up to Lake Lipno. The ride is a complete joy and for only a couple of quid it is also a complete steal. It winds through the hills and wooded valleys behind our house, past unspoilt Lake Olsina in a natural bowl of mountains.

My friend could not help herself but kept exclaiming at the beauty of the scenery - "I had no idea that it was this beautiful," she said "No wonder you love living here." The train follows the shoreline of Lake Lipno with spectacular views of the Sumava beyond. This is the Czech equivalent of the Lake District, with the mountains covered with thick forests and snow in the winter. Lake Lipno is 48 kilometres long and up to 10 kilometres wide. The lake is the site of all sorts of activities you would normally find at the seaside - sailing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding, together with quieter activities such as fishing and swimming. But this inland "sea" offers more sports in the winter - skating, iceboarding and even ice skiing, whilst on the shore at Lipno there is a proper (land-based) ski resort.

My friend now plans to bring her teenage sons for a action-packed holiday at Lipno. As for me the very thought of all that activity leaves me exhausted. Give me instead a glass of Czech red wine on the veranda of a restaurant looking out over the lake, as the sun sets behind the Sumava mountains turning the still water surface from pink to silver to dark steel

The Walk From The Station


I have already written about the walk up from the bus stop, so here I thought I might tell you about the walk from the small rail station that serves Horice Na Sumave. Again as with the walk from the bus stop the walk should be taken slowly and in a leisurely manner, to allow frequent stops to admire the views that unfold, the details of nature that reveal themselves, always the walk changes. I say this and all of it is true, but it is also true that the stop gives me time to catch my breath on the hill up to the village.

The road from the station goes along a level section at first - across a field of gunnera and thistles you can see a beautifully restored mill or farmhouse. At this time of year the the field is full of small birds, finches clearing the thistle heads of their downy seeds and as you pass they suddenly take flight to hide among the silver birch trees. The next major landmark is the town swimming pond. These wonderful creations are all over the Czech countryside - man-made ponds designed for swimming in in the summer and skating on in the winter. Ours is fed by the little river that starts in the hill above the house and is the home of ducks and frequented by housemartins skimming small insects off the surface. I remember as a teenager cycling to a similar swimming pond in a village near my Cotswold home. I remember too how wonderful the water was, unclourinated, warm with only the rays of the sun. Of course the health and safety bods have long since closed it down, but here in the Czech Republic the swimming ponds survive.

I then pass a small copse of elder and birch, where in the winter I was greeted by a huge chattering of hundreds of invisible birds. In the grass verge the other day I found two young snakes curled up and perfectly still. In the winter there was a dead deer in the snow. The road bends under a rail bridge and the walk up the hill starts. There are two groups of wayside trees - they are how I know where I am in the dark. The first at this time of year is host to mushrooms (though mostly inedible) and the second to a treecreeper, a little mouse-like bird that does indeed creep up the tree. In between I have wonderful views and of course the company of the ubiquitous cows.

At the top of the hill one arrives in the village. At the T-junction there is the village pond and the crucifix, with Christ's lolling head now blotted with bird droppings. There is a footpath sign - we are 700 metres above sea-level it tells us and so many miles from Horni Plana. Some time I will tell you about the walk to Horni Plana.

The Party

I finally decided to have a housewarming party. It's two years since we bought the house. I know, but it has hardly been in a fit state to host visits from curious neighbours. They all thought I was mad to buy the place - that crazy Englishwoman living in that wreck of a house when she could have a nice new one. But it is now looking pretty wonderful and the vision I had for it two years ago is now beginning to be visible to all.

I wrote out an invite and hand delivered it to all the houses in the village, where either there was a letterbox or there was someone at home. The first response by those who opened their doors to me was bewilderment (clearly this sort of thing is not done out here) and then as they read the invitation it changed to delight. Thank you, they would come. I wasn't sure whether this was the usual Czech way of saying no, but hoped rather that curiousity would get the better of them.

I laid down a stock of sausages and beer and waited the day, hoping that the summer night storms would not hit us that evening. I needn't have worried. A stream of visitors arrived throughout the evening - bearing cakes, home-made slivovic (plum brandy), wine and flowers. The weather held and we sat outside and drank and ate. There were regular guided tours of the house at the request of my visitors - "Jesus, Maria!" was a regular exclamation at the changed house and in particular at the central heating water tanks taking up the space of a small ship's boiler room. Fortuanately one of my neighbours turned out to be a heating engineer who explained that this was, actually despite its size, not an extravagence but the most effective way to heat the house.

I had cut and sharpened some hazel sticks and the kids stuck sausages on the end of them so the sausages could roast them over the fire. The sausages had been split in four at both ends, and curled back like an octopus' tentacles in the flames. There was clearly a nack to it, one which I and the younger children had to be shown. One neighbour arrived with a jug of burcak - the young cloudy wine still in a state of fermentation, which you can buy in unnamed bottles from roadside stalls. I had seen it but never tasted it before and it is lovely - how any wine gets to its final state in Czecho escapes me!

Everyone chattered and talked with each other; new arrivals came and old ones went throughout the evening and at the end the hard-drinkers were singing. A major topic of conversation was of course the wild mushroom harvest, gazing at the full moon they commented that the moon would be good for the mushrooms, which were as they spoke muscling their way through the leaf litter and pine needles in the forest on the hill behind the house.

At the end of the day I had invitations to go and eat at various houses in the village, and am now waved at every time I drive or walk through the village. One neighbour commented to me -"It is good you do this, we Czechs never do this, we do not meet as a village. It is funny it takes an Englishwoman to do it." So there you go, even when I don't try I am being a community development worker. I think I will make this an annual thing - a summer party for the village - my present to this small community that has allowed me to join it.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

In the orchard


This morning I was knee-deep in grass and nettles picking red currants from the bushes at the end of the orchard. My Czech friends suggest I get a pair of goats or a few sheep to keep the grass down, but that all seems a little too much responsibility to me – for starters I would need to ensure a supply of water and then I would need to check that the fence is without holes. All too much work.


The orchard doesn't entirely belong to us, part of it we rent and part - well I am not sure what to make of it - the land registry map bears so little resemblance to what is on the ground and the fence is there and has been for years with everyone respecting it.


The orchard is a joy. It is old and full of hidden treasures, a large cherry tree of great height, apple trees of summer and winter varieties, plum trees with lovely sweet small fruit and now red currants. We share the fruit with the wildlife of the area – wasps of course, but other larger beasts as well. Today I found a defined deer track through the grass leading from the plum tree to where windfall apples were on the ground, their droppings clearly showed they had first feasted on plums. They are welcome to them, we have more than enough.

Eating fish at Lake Lipno


On a couple of occasions recently we have gone to Lake Lipno to eat at the restaurants along the shore and look out across the lake as the sun sets. One of the things that really strikes you is how in contrast to Cesky Krumlov and even Ceske Budejovice this part of Czecho, only a few miles away, is not geared to the English-speaking tourist.

This is Dutch or German territory. The Dutch have arrived here in their droves – camping in tents and campervans at the various local campsites, or even buying up local properties. The reason I am told for the latter is that they are investing in a part of the world that is sufficiently high above sea level not to be threatened by global warming. Last night we were sitting around a fire in the garden of some Czech neighbours drinking pear schnapps and the subject got on to the Dutch. It would appear that they are not all together popular around here – the comment was made that you would never see Dutch people sitting by a fire with the Czechs. This is probably a problem more with the fact that the Dutch “colony” here is sufficiently large that it can keep to itself (as happens with the Brits elsewhere) than with the Dutch themselves.

Anyway back to the Lipno restaurants the menus were in Czech, German and sometimes Dutch and fortunately I speak enough German to get by and if that fails have a Czech phrasebook with a convenient menu section. The second restaurant we went to was a fish restaurant. Unlike fish restaurants at home Czech fish restaurants of course specialise in freshwater fish – especially the ubiquitous carp (which the Czechs eat for Christmas lunch by the way and which you buy from large tanks set up in town squares from November onwards). Our conversation with our waiter was not good, and he arrived with two portions of butter fried pike which we had not ordered and which was of course more expensive than the trout that we had. We could not work out if he was pulling a fast one, or if he was particularly thick – we had accompanied our order (made in both German and Czech) with much pointing at the relevant menu item. Either way he didn't get a tip at the end of the meal and we will not be going back there again.

As we came out of the restaurant the sun was setting. All along the shore line there were solitary fishermen with rod and line catching a free meal. The lake was like glass in the twilight and the Sumava mountains rose out of mist on the other side. Our tempers calmed, we took some photos and came home.

The thrill of mushrooms


My husband was still asleep when I awoke early yesterday. The sun was already beginning to pour round the curtain into our room and it was obvious that it was going to be hot. The last few days we have had rain as the tail-end of the weather system that brought floods to England crossed over Central Europe. The parched earth here was desperate for rain and drank it in. The Czechs were getting worried. No snow melt this year, due to virtually no snow, and now no spring or summer rain - there would be no mushrooms and the Czechs are lost without mushrooms. Czech coins feature a heraldic lion with two tails – it would be more appropriate if it was a fungus rampant.

I too have caught the mushroom bug – so leaving husband and son sleeping I snuck out of the house and climbed the path to the woods above the village. Even before I got there I was picking small puffballs in the grass and then on entering the woods I discovered that the rain had indeed worked its magic. My basket was soon half full.

There is a certain joy in mushrooming that I find hard to explain – firstly there is always a pleasure in getting something for free and of course wild mushrooms are delicious – but it is more than that. I have always loved finding wild food – my mum used to take me collecting blackberries as a child, although in those days more went in my mouth than the bowl. But mushrooming is special. One of the joys is that mushrooms can almost appear overnight and so unlike blackberries you do not observe them ripening – a place that was barren a couple of days ago can be full of mushrooms now. This gives a wonderful element of surprise to the whole business. Of course one learns the best spots to look, but they cannot always be relied upon. So there is an element of the hunt in mushrooming that there isn't in other wild food gathering.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Making our Czech house a home


We have been decorating the house. The major work has now all been finished – the ceilings replastered, the floors half-stripped, new bathrooms installed and now we get to the stage of making the house a home. My husband has been painting the doors – downstairs a bright blue and upstairs grey. It is amazing how a lick of paint can transform the most cruddy of doors (and boy are they cruddy – the cheapest doors the previous owners could find). We would love at some point to replace them with good wood ones, but this being an old house there is not a doorway of the same size anywhere and none that are anything like regular in their proportions and so to replace them as we would wish would mean commissioning a carpenter to make each door individually and first we must pay for the new roof. And so for now a lick of gloss paint will have to do.




A few weeks ago we came over from England with two suitcases full of little things to decorate the place with. It is fascinating to see what one chooses in these circumstances. We now have a large bookcase full of mostly fiction (English classic and contemporary novels, US detective stories and a selection of European titles including several Czech masters), poetry (English and European) and some books on myths, jungian psychology and of course fairytales, including a favourite from our son's childhood an old Hamlyn book translated from the Czech and illustrated with typically Czech graphics. Our son commented that it wouldn't be our home without books in every room – we are working on it.




On the window sills of the main room there are three low white ceramic dishes. One contains pebbles of various hues and another of shells, both pebbles and shells collected on a beach in Kent. They are shown off to their best by lying in water – hold your face close to either and inhale and you will smell the sea, here in this landlocked country. The other bowl contains a collection of fossils – ammonites and a devil's toenail from the muddy beaches of the River Severn, bivalves from the Cotswold heights and some sharks teeth that I found in the shingle of that Kent beach. On the dining table is a small wine carafe holding a bunch of wildflowers collected from a meadow near the train station. Our son has given the house a large marionette, which he carried all the way back from Thailand in his knapsack. It looks strangely at home here. Upstairs a large Mexican embroidery the size of a small sheet and covered with hand-sewn brightly coloured animals adorns the landing wall.




The most Czech thing in the house is the hand-carved head of Jesus crucified that hangs at the top of the stairs. This was the first thing I bought for the house – a piece of work from our carpenter who had first introduced me to the house and aptly was playing Jesus in the local passionplay and clearly was getting heavily into the part.

Birds in the Czech Republic


I was sitting on the terrace the other day drinking a mug of tea, when there was a loud clattering on the stable veranda. I looked up expecting to see one of the local dogs looking down at me or at least the farm cat, but no – a small bird was peering over the edge. The bird was dark brown-black with a chestnut-covered tail and rump. He is a regular visitor to the yard searching for insects in the crannies of the barn walls. I am no ornithologist but by dint of buying a book of European birds I know him to be a black redstart. Other regular visitors to the yard include a nuthatch, with its black eyestripe like some designer sunglasses and lovely blue-grey wings and head, and house martins who nest under the eaves and do aerobatics against the sky. NB the house martin is not to be confused with the pine martin. The latter is also common here and a pest – such a confusion led to my husband talking at cross purposes with our Czech friend, who told us that martins chew their way through cables and so many Czechs put martin traps in the lofts!

Living where we do in a small village near to the Czech Sumava forests the common birds are less those of a English suburban garden but more those of woodlands and open fields. I regularly see a treecreeper working the bark of one of the trees that line the road to Horice. As for buzzards they are almost so common around here for it to be remarkable when you do not see one. Once my husband saw a buzzard flying over with a large grass snake in its talons. Another bird I have seen on my walks to the woods is the grey-headed woodpecker – something we do not get in England. Some of the villages on the wetlands around Ceske Budejovice have wheels erected on poles to attract visiting storks, which once they have nested you will see in groups in the fields. The last bird that I think I will mention is the butcher bird – the shrike – which was sat half way up a silver birch the other day with its cruel long hooked beak and harsh cry.

Monday, 23 July 2007

Floods


The first time we visited Cesky Krumlov was after the terrible floods of 2002. On our first night our friends gave us a tour of the town - it went something like this: " You see that line on the plaster of the house, that is where the flood water rose to."... "The water came down there and right up here." It was almost amusing the way the flood, "the worst in 1000 years" (although I am not sure who was measuring the water height in 1002) kept creeping into the tour of this most beautiful of towns. The floods clearly did huge damage and it has taken years to restore all the buildings. Like my friends, when giving a town tour to visitors, I find myself pointing out the flood line.

But I never really understood why the flood made such an impression on my friends, until now. In the last few days floods have torn through my beloved Gloucestershire. Even Winchcombe, the little Cotswold town of my birth, was hit by almost tidal waters as they swept off the hills and, channelled into the corner of Winchcombe's steep valley, tore through the streets and tore down dry-stone walls, flinging the stones around like pebbles. As a girl I was confirmed in the great Norman abbey of Tewkesbury, where as I write the flood waters have broken through into foundations and vaults. It was this news more than any other that brought tears to my eyes. The abbey normally stands above Tewkesbury's regular floods, its ancient builders (building yes just under 1000 years ago) had known how and where to place this holy site. Somehow therefore it is the waters' disregard for the old and the wonderful that hurts more than anything.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The walk home



Our small village is about 20 minutes walk from Horice Na Sumave and the bus stop for Cesky Krumlov. Well it is 20 minutes if you walk briskly, more like 30 if like me you dawdle and enjoy the views.

The walk takes you past the village crucifix and pond and up a short steep hill. On one side is a semi-derelict farm, from which I am always amazed to see lights burning at night, on the other a small huddle of trees where the local children have created a den. At the top of the hill you pass some tumble down walls made of the local granite. These push in at either side and on the left even seem to form some sort of circular structure. Perhaps these are all that is left of the toll gate that gave the village its name - I do not know despite checking the map in the local museum. Passing over the hill the narrow road drops down into Horice. When I first arrived the road was an overgrown track, which was impassable in the snows of 2006 (I know I tried and sank up to my waist in snow before giving up), now the road is tarmaced thanks to some funding from the EU. The view across to Horice Na Sumave is a lovely one, any time of year, but particularly in winter (see above).

Often on my walk I see the local wildlife - buzzards sweeping the air searching for rabbits, deer grazing at the field's edge under the eaves of the woods. Once I even came across an adder sunning itself on the warm tarmac, which I was relieved to see slipped away to the long grass verge as I approached. You pass under the main road to Lipno and into the town. Occasionally loud marching music abruptly breaks the silence from some loudspeakers sited on a pole as you enter the town followed by some sort of announcement. My friend tells me that this is a legacy of the communist times.

The way home at night is a very different experience. The last bus gets in about 11.00 and so the walk is done in the dark. The EU did not provide any lighting and in many ways I am glad of it. If the sky is clear, you get a wonderful panorama of stars and planets, unspoilt by light pollution. I find on such occasions the walk takes even longer as I keep stopping to look up. Once I was even rewarded with a sensational display of shooting stars. I am reminded of my childhood, when my dad and I used to go out with our dog and whilst the dog did his business in the bushes, we would try to identify the constellations. When the sky is clouded over, my walk home is a different story. The road is very dark, with only the pool of light from my torch. I lose track of where I am. But I can tell as I get towards the top of the hill, from the soft breathing of the cattle and the more alarming bellow of the bull. Once over the brow the village lights appear reassuringly beneath my feet. I can see the front of my house illuminated by a streetlamp. Within a few minutes I am home.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Czech Graffiti



I came across this wonderful piece of graffiti on a pillar of a footbridge in Cesky Krumlov. In my work in inner city Britain I have seen many a piece of graffiti, some of it quite artistic, some awful and some of it cryptic advertisements for where to buy drugs, but I have never seen anything like this. It is a very accurate portrait of the townscape of Krumlov, drawn by someone who obviously loves the town. Czechs clearly do graffiti differently.

Okay, so there is a load of rubbish graffiti too, but this example is not a one-off. In Prague I saw stencilled images of Nostrodamus and Kafka!

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Counting

Twice a week I have a Czech language lesson. They say it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and as I struggle with my new language I realise that this dog is definitely getting old!

Now in most languages you often start with learning to count. Pity the poor souls who take this route when learning Czech. One is jedna, two dve, three (not so easy - it has the soft r) tři, but then you hit four - aaarghh! Four is čtyři - phonetically (or as near as I can get it) chteeeezrzree.

Okay you think, I'll give up on that - I'll try days of the week instead. Bad idea. Again you start ok: Monday - pondeli, Tuesday - utery, Wednesday - streda, and then you hit the fourth day in the week - čtvrtek. And don't even think about telling the time - not only is there čtyři to cope with but also quarter past - čtvrtek - and quarter to - tři čtvrté. The worst time of all is quarter to four - tři čtvrté na čtyři.

My secret is always to buy three apples or five and make sure my watch is telling the correct time. The old dog may not be able to do the trick, but there is more than one way to skin a cat!

Monday, 9 July 2007

Whitewashing Visitors


My sister and her family are staying in our Czech home at the moment. They have been there for a week, having spent a fortnight there last August/September. Just as last year the weather until the day they arrived was perfect - sunny and dry as is normal at this time of year. But, as has become a standing family joke, they brought English rain with them.

The advantage of that for us is they need something to do to pass the time and so last year we got a large chunk of whitewashing done for us! My sister wanted to be an art restorer when she was younger, but was denied by having done the wrong exams. So her art restoration skills were put into practice on the decorations in the house. In the old days the whitewashed walls of the houses in the area were decorated using coloured paint on rollers. The rollers produced a regular pattern on the walls similar to wallpaper. When the decoration grew old and tired, it was whitewashed over and a new pattern applied. Thus on the walls of our old house there were layers of decoration stretching back through many years and generations of house-proud German families. My sister painstakingly removed the layers and counted ten before hitting the stone wall.

The problem with these decorations is unless you know to apply a coat of stabiliser to the wall before applying the whitewash, the paint of previous decorators will appear like a ghostly signature on the wall. Not having any experience of whitewash (to those Czechs reading this, we use emulsion paint in the UK) I wasted a whole day painting a room, only to wake up the following morning to see the paint coming through. Whitewash has other disadvantages not least being the fact that it comes off on your clothes if you lean against it - so don't put coat hooks on the wall - but on the upside it does allow the old walls to breathe. What with the ghostly hand of past decorators and breathing walls this house has a life of its own.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Czech coffee (and tea?)


Czech coffee (kava) is drunk dark and strong. It is like a giant turkish coffee and with just as great a caffeine kick. A lady friend of mine has been plying me with it in her flat for several months now and so I decided to ask for a lesson on how to make it. Basically you need several spoonfuls of well-ground roasted coffee in the bottom of a mug or cup, add boiling water, stir well, add milk and sugar to taste, and stir again. Then let the coffee stand for a while until the grounds settle at the bottom. Drink at your leisure until just before you hit the mud of coffee grounds!

There is a Czech phrase "To je silná káva" - "that's rich coffee" meaning "that's rich". There is an equivalent for tea - only it's in the opposite - "that's weak tea" meaning "nothing much". As usual the Czechs are spot on - the tea here is indeed nothing much. Tea here is served horribly weak - "gnat's piss" as they say in England. Sadly the Czechs are under the illusion that the tea that we export here under the name of English Breakfast Tea is actually what the Brits drink. Well for any Czechs reading this, may I disillusion you - we do not drink Lipton's export tea in England, we drink Typhoo or PG Tips - tea which "will put hair on your chest" (another English phrase about tea). My husband and I bring large amounts of English teabags over from England in our luggage, so we can drink proper tea.

All this talk of coffee and tea reminds me of my first visit to Prague and a visit to Cafe Slavia. I arrived at the cafe one day to meet up with my puppeteer friend, to find her trying to explain to the waiter that she wanted the tea with milk and to leave the teabag in. For years she had told me how she was really Czech and there she was desperate for that most British of institutions - a proper cup of tea!

If you do come to Krumlov, don't try to find a British cuppa. Instead go to the Laibon tearooms (see the photo) run by the lovely David and try out the exotic teas they have on offer. I recommend the yogi tea.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Beer - Czech Breakfast - Yes?

The Czechs have a saying - "Beer makes men beautiful bodies." And if that is true Czech men are the most beautiful in the world - because the Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per head in the world - one bottle every day for every man, woman and child.

The reason for this high consumption rate is possibly the low price of beer here - a bottle of Budvar will cost about 25p (10 kcs) in a local supermarket and maybe 50p (20 kcs) in a pub. The Czechs regard cheap beer as a birthright. No Czech government wishing to stay in power would dare increase the prices, so when the EU tried to raise duty on beer last year the Czech Government blocked the rise. The other reason is of course the quality. There are breweries all across the Czech Republic - the most famous of these are Pilsner Urquel (Plzensky Prazdroj), Gambrinus, Bernard, Kozel, Staropramen and of course our local Budvar.

Budvar for me means that I am getting near home. Ceske Budejovice, the nearest large town to our home, is the home of Budweiser Budvar - the real Budweiser and infinitely superior to the American stuff. You pass the brewery on the train from Prague, it is a sign to get your bags from the luggage rack and get ready. There is a large bottle, several floors high attached to the side of the brewery, so you shouldn't miss it.

That Czechs drink beer at any point of the day was brought home to us when we moved into our house. A gang of blokes turned up to move out the furniture of the family we were buying the house from about 7.00am. After an hour or so's hard work humping chunky furniture around they stopped and started looking for something. One came up to us and made a shape of a box in the air, we shook our heads blankly. Suddenly there was a shout and someone appeared carrying a crate of beer. Bottles were cracked open and they began to drink. The leader came up to my husband and offered a bottle - in broken English he said "Beer - Czech breakfast. English breakfast - whisky and soda, yes?"

Our favourite Czech beers are Gambrinus and Bernard. I am particularly fond of the Czech dark beer, which English drinkers will be less familiar with. Dark beer according to another Czech saying is meant to increase the size of a woman's breasts. I don't know if that is true, but it is certainly worth trying before you resort to surgery!

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Svejk or Kafka - two sides of the Czech nation


My Czech friend believes that the Czechs are either like the Good Soldier Svejk of the novel of the same name, bumbling through life indifferent to the impositions of authority, or like the heroes of Kafka's novels stuck helpless in an impossible maze of bureaucracy. The more time I spend in this country, the more I come to realise that her analysis is correct. These two great Czech writers had indeed captured something of the Czech soul.

I am regularly struck by the Czechs' laissez faire attitude to life. An example of this is the lack of timekeeping as exemplified in my last post by the failure of the local town hall to keep to office hours (which played to my advantage) and the irregular collection dates for rubbish (which doesn't). Had this been in England the local householders would have been ringing up the town hall to complain and muttering darkly to one another about how we pay our money and should get proper service. The Czechs on the other hand are positively Mediterranean in their attitude. They shrug their shoulders, as if to say, "That is how it is. What do you expect?"

Our house is full of nearly finished and annoying items of work that the builder, the plumber and electrician all need some day to get round to sorting. Every time I sit on the loo and it rocks because the plumber has yet to fix it to the floor, I am reminded of this. Every time I end up turning on my very expensive central heating by hand, when I should be able to do it by mobile phone from England, I am reminded. I do not take offence at this or feel that I am hard done by. I have observed that nearly all the Czech homes I have been in are in a similar state.

Then on the other hand there is Czech bureaucracy. Things that are simple in England can take up an inordinate amount of time here, waiting in one office to get the right form, waiting in another office to get the form stamped and then in another and another, and then finally being told you've got the wrong form and need to go back to the first office for another one. Even the simple job of paying a bill requires a trip to the bank or post office and filling in a form, as the Czechs have yet to discover cheques. It gets more complicated when trying to understand Czech laws, which can be overly complicated and indeed contradictory. As a Czech friend explained, when a new law comes in, they don't necessarily change the old ones which it should replace. So what do you do, faced with this impasse? Well you can do nothing, be paralysed by the Gordian knot of bureaucracy or you can proceed although in some way or another you will be breaking one law while obeying another. Kafka or Svejk, take your choice.

This is actually damaging for the Czech economy and society. For starters a lot of transactions happen on the wrong side of the law (brown envelopes and the like) not just to avoid paying tax (an old Czech saying is "He who does not steal from the state, steals from his family") but also to get something done sometime this side of doomsday. But there are other serious consequences for this country. The whole culture appears to biased against things happening, against people taking ownership of their own lives and fates. As a Brit and one who has been involved in helping communities help themselves, I am shocked by how difficult it is to mobilise people to improve things. Firstly people do not believe that anything will change if they do something and secondly they believe (often rightly) that bureaucracy will stop them.

A few months ago I was working with a collection of local residents about issues relating to their home town. It was clear from meeting with them that they really did want to change things. It was agreed that they would individually write to the authorities involved, which they have done. I also got them to agree (or so I thought) to set up a group not only to fight for changes, but also to access the large amounts of EU money that are available for programmes of positive change. I now discover that they have decided not to proceed with forming the group. Why? Because of the bureaucracy involved in registering it - whereas in England unincorporated community groups are able to start up easily. As a Brit I would still have gone ahead with it, but then I was brought up in a deep-seated can-do culture that believes in climbing mountains because they are there. My Czech friends, seeing the high hurdle in front of them, believing perhaps that they could do very little and what they could do was only influence others, talked themselves out of taking the next step. Who am I to judge? I cannot understand. They are right in the context of their own history and culture. But meanwhile there are piles of EU money waiting for the Czechs to claim, or waiting at least until 2012 when it will go elsewhere.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Czech rubbish collection

In front of our house gate is the dustbin. It is old and rusty with holes in the bottom and was inherited from the previous owners. This vital piece of kit is the source of much amusement and bemusement.

In order to get your bin emptied, you have to go to the Horice Na Sumava Town Hall and register, so I recently went with a Czech friend to sort out the bin. We arrived at the Town Hall down an alley off the main square to be greeted with a sign that the offices were not open on that day. I was ready to turn away, when my Czech friend said "Let's see if they are open." and went in. The place looked empty but in one room to the right we found two women in an office. They knew me at once - the news of the British woman from the village had proceeded me. They looked at me with interest and smiles.

There was no problem with sorting the bin for me. I paid an embarrassingly small sum, which probably costs more to collect than I actually paid, and they gave me a sticker, like a car tax disc, which you stick on the bin to show the dustbin men that you have paid. It would be emptied once a week, the women explained, on Monday. I went home, stuck the sticker on the bin and put in a load of rubbish ready for collection. Of course the dustmen did not come on Monday, but several days later they appeared with a lorry, that was more like a skiptruck than a British dustbin lorry. As far as I can observe there is no regular day for rubbish collection at all. And when the lorry does turn up I have to run out the house and point at the bin to get it emptied. I have seen my neighbour do the same. But hey, the rubbish goes and that is the main thing.

In towns, lots of people don't bother with this bin-registering lark (probably because it is more expensive), but pop out quietly in the dead of night and deposit carefully wrapped rubbish in the public litter bins, which are emptied regularly. As my punster of a husband put it recently "It's bin a real learning curve, I can tell you."

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Two rules for visitors to Prague



I spent a few pleasant hours in Prague a few weeks ago. It is a city which is very special for me - it was here that I first fell in love with Czecho. I try to spend some time wandering aimlessly every time I visit - it's by far the best way to discover the city's hidden treasures. I have two rules:

No. 1 When you see a crowd of tourists, especially a gang of shirtless British stagnighters, dive down the nearest alley. It is amazing how just going a few yards to the left or right of the tourist routes, which stretch from Charles Bridge to the Town Square, or from the Bridge up to the Castle, you will find yourself alone.

No.2 Look up. It is easy to have your eyes captivated by the glitter of shop fronts and the allure of mammon and not to see Prague's architectural and decorative treasures above. Look up and you will see frescos, sgraffito, carvings, and sculpture. Look up and you will see architecture from all that great city's long history.

And as a result of following either or both of these rules you will have the added bonus of getting lost and so find a part of the city that you weren't looking for, but should have been.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

When yes means no

A month ago I tried to organise the removal of several piles of rusty metal, including old bedsteads, guttering, weird pressed metal kitchen units from the communist times (probably the 1960s), broken cast iron stoves and so forth. They were taking up a lot of space in the yard and making it look awful. The Horice Na Sumave Town Council has a waste metal collection, but by the time the lorry gets to our part of the district it is already full and frankly our delightful assortment of Czech iron would make up at least half a load.

Eventually my friend found a friend who had a friend who would take it. This being the way things tend to work in the Czech Republic. The man arrived and we went round the yard and into the old barn and as I pointed out the rusting piles, he nodded and smiled. Friday, he would come on Friday morning, he said; we shook hands on it and off he went in his car. Friday came, nothing happened. No lorry turned up and I wasted a day waiting for him. On Saturday my friend telephoned me - a major international incident had been triggered by my iron.

Somewhere in the Chinese whispers that had led to the process, the any-old-iron man had been led to believe that there were five tonnes of metal in my yard. He was insulted to be asked to take my paltry piles away, it would cost him more money to hire a lorry than he would make. There had been a major bust up with his friend who had told him about the iron in the first place and now twenty years of friendship between the two was under threat. His friend had then rung mine in distress about what has happened and after she had spent half an hour calming him down, she had had to ring the iron man and done the same to him. After that she rang me.

We both expressed our frustration at the process. Why, oh why, had the man said yes he would take it when he inspected the iron in the yard, when he should have said no? The answer is that they do it all the time. The Czechs have a problem saying no. They will tell you what they think you want to hear, and that means saying yes when they have no intention of doing anything. As a Brit, I hate it, and find it incredibly hard to get used to. I do not mind being told bad news - in fact it is almost a national characteristic to quite like it - but I hate being lied to and regard it as downright rude. I suspect the Czechs see it totally differently. But at least the ironman didn't get halfway and then leave everything partially done - unlike some Czech carpenters I have known!

Friday, 1 June 2007

Gardens and gardening


Just like the British the Czechs are never so happy as when they are gardening. The desire to grow things and to have some small part of this earth that they can shape and tend is very deep in them.

One way the communists kept the Czechs under control was to allow them all their allotments and their little huts. It doesn't matter that these might be along the side of a railway line on the wrong side of town, each rectangle of land is carefully tended with apple trees and lines of vegetables and flowers. The little shed may be made of a rickety affair made from odd scraps of wood but it exudes a certain pride. This is where the family comes at weekends to help, to sit around fires and cook sausages and drink beer or homemade plum brandy (made from the plums of the tree they are sitting under). And from your passing train you see briefly into their little kingdom and then they are gone again, but as you pass through each village, town and city this scene is revisited time and time again

It is not an accident that possibly the best book on gardening was written by a Czech - The Gardener's Year by Karel Capek (illustrated by his brother Josef see above). No writer I know so brilliantly describes the joys and trials of gardening or with such poetry. For example he writes of buds "You must stand still; and then you will see open lips and furtive glances, tender fingers, and raised arms, the fragility of a baby, and the rebellious outburst of the will to live, and then you will hear the infinite march of the buds faintly roaring." And all the time he talks of the soil "I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. . . . He lives buried in the ground."

But the Czechs are not blessed with England's glorious temperate weather and as a result cannot have the infinite variety of plant options that the English have, garden centres here seem meagre affairs after the cornucopia of the English ones. I find it incredibly hard to find plants that will survive here - that will survive both the harsh winter and the hotter dryer summers. Lavender? No. Bluebells? No. I must learn to garden like the Czechs and to know and love the sharp differential of seasons, as Capek did, and the limitations they bring.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Sad Story of the Alchemist's House


If you walk down the Siroka - the market street in Cesky Krumlov in which you will find the Egon Schiele Art Centrum - you will see the Alchemist's House. This wonderful renaissance house is the most perfect example of burgher home in the town and indeed anywhere. Its association with the alchemist Anton Michael of Ebbersbach, a former resident, gives the house its local name and this in turn gave a group of local people the idea for a use for the building - the creation of an alchemy museum.

The museum would have covered the history of alchemy both in Krumlov and further afield, and it would have looked at alchemy's legacy - to science (the alchemists developed many of the early scientific methods) and to literature. It was a perfect idea for Cesky Krumlov, commercially attractive and appropriate. It also would have meant the restoration of the building - sensitive restoration because the people involved in developing the project cared and still do care about the building. The building was owned by the "Cesky Krumlov Development Fund". You can find out what it claims to be doing on the web - that it was protecting the heritage and developing the town for the benefit of local people and future generations. Let us decide from its behaviour over the Alchemist's House whether this is the case.

The proposers of the Alchemy Museum concept were encouraged to work up their business plans and to look for funding. If they did this, they were told, they would get the house. So they set about doing just that. Then they heard that the house had been sold behind their backs to a hotel developer. It is obvious that a hotel conversion of this building is inappropriate. As I indicated in my previous post hotels require changes to the internal fabric of the building incompatible with heritage conservation concerns. Criticism of the hotel proposals has come from national and regional conservation bodies. Does the Development Fund listen? Well it hasn't yet.

Anton Michael of Ebbersbach was an unethical charlatan, who had claimed to be able to grow gold coins by watering them. The Development Fund has found another way to grow gold!

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