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).

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