Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Czech Church Art

One of the most frustrating things about my research into the Archaeological Society trip to South Bohemia is that every time I try to visit a church I find it locked. Being British I expect to walk in and look around or at least go to a nearby house to collect a key. On a walk with a friend I discussed why this was and she told me about the problem the country has with thefts from churches. As a result churches have to be locked up and visitors like myself denied.

Now Ceske Novinny has run an article on the problem which shocked and appalled me. Apparently 90 per cent of religious buildings have been burgled since 1989.

In the article the diocesan heritage preserver to the Prague Archbishopric is quoted as saying "About a half of Gothic and Renaissance works of art and roughly one-third of baroque artefacts have disappeared (from Czech churches) in the past 20 years."

The culprits are often organized gangs linked to specialist foreign art traffickers who take the stolen artefacts across the border to Austria and Germany. The situation has been exacerbated by the relaxation of the border with the creation of the Schengen area. It is a terrible thing that these precious artefacts, which have a religious and cultural value which exceeds their monetary one, managed to survive atheist communism only to fall foul of black market forces under democracy.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Themes in the Blog - Czech Customs and Culture

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech Customs and Culture, click on the links above for the others.

CZECH CUSTOMS AND CULTURE

Monday, 21 December 2009

Egon Schiele and Cesky Krumlov


When it comes to local artists none is more famous than Egon Schiele. Schiele moved to his mother's hometown Cesky Krumlov in 1911 with his girlfriend and model Wally Neuzil. He had been visiting the town since his childhood and had been inspired by it to do some of his earliest work, including his earliest landscape - of the Budweiser gate. Although his life in the town came to an abrupt end in the face of the anger from the local burghers, who were shocked by his use of young girls as models, he returned to the town time and again for short stays to sketch the architecture, often from the hills above.

Now of course all is forgiven and Cesky Krumlov celebrates his work. The Egon Schiele Centrum is a major attraction - a large art gallery offering a small celebration of Schiele's life and work together with large visiting art exhibitions by different artists. The exhibitions vary in their interest, but it is always worth checking what is on at the Centrum if you are visiting Cesky Krumlov.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Czech Art


I have just been enjoying a fascinating post on the blog Adventures in the Print Trade about Czech Graphics of the 1970s. As I indicated in a previous post on Jiri Trnka - a visit to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Trade Fair Palace in Prague first opened my eyes to the wealth and creativity of Czech artists that was hidden by the Iron Curtain, and it is good to see Neil of the Print Trade blog making the same discovery.

One of the delights of discovering Czech art and especially its graphics is for me the influence of fairytales - another reason why I am not surprised that it has struck a chord with Neil, who is an authority on the subject. Fairytales seem to have infused Czech life in a way that is very special. So often people coming to my part of the world will comment that Cesky Krumlov is a fairytale place. And whilst visually I can see why people might say this, I think it is something more profound, something deep in the Czech pysche, that is calling.

Czech graphics are distinctive. There is something playlike about them, they have a humour that can be dark (like many a Grimm fairytale) but also are light of touch. My Czech puppeteer friend who first introduced me to this place is also, among her many accomplishments, a wonderful artist. In particular I like her prints. She was always being told when she was living and working in England how unusual her art was. Without in anyway diminishing the standard and originality of her work I now can see that it is rooted in the graphics of her homeland.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Blog Themes - Places to Visit

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Places to Visit in South Bohemia, more posts for other themes will follow.

PLACES TO VISIT IN SOUTH BOHEMIA
Page update 28 July 2010

Blog Themes - Czech History and Politics

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech History and Politics, click on the links above for the others.

CZECH HISTORY AND POLITICS

This post was updated on the 8th August 2010.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Blog Themes - Buying and Restoring a Czech House

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Buying and Restoring a Czech House, click on the links above for the others.

BUYING AND RESTORING A CZECH HOUSE

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Blog Themes - Day to Day Life.

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.
The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Day to Day Life, click on the links above for the others.

DAY TO DAY LIFE IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC
List updated July 26th 2010.

Themes Covered in This Blog - Theme 1 Czech Nature

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.
The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech Nature, click on the links above for the others.

Czech Nature
This post was brought uptodate on 5th August.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

An Enterprising Woodpecker.

Please forgive the rather bad photo, it was taken through a misty window. I have been watching this chap for some weeks now. He or she comes regularly to investigate the cracks between the tiles on the barn next door and in the barn wall. Why peck at the frozen bark of the local trees, when you can have insects in ready-made cracks?

The barn is a real attraction for the local birds. I can stand at my window and watch nuthatches, redstarts, treecreepers, bluetits and more feasting on the insect buffet offered by the old barn. Allowing the bird life to come to me certainly beats wandering around in the cold weather clutching a pair of binoculars.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Restoring An Old Farmhouse, Making A Home


Across the village from our house stands an old farmhouse. The village is built at the upper end of a valley and sits in a semi-circle, as a result I look out of my lounge window and see the old farmhouse directly opposite my home. For a long time it was semi-derelict and a bit of a blot on the landscape. But now things are changing.

A local man has taken it on as a project. He needs a family home and is prepared to put in the hard work to turn this ruin into one. I wish him all the best in his endeavour. It was bad enough transforming our place, but he really has taken on a monster. Over the last few months the old roof has been removed and replaced. It looks to me as though he is doing much of it himself - work on the roof seemed to happen at weekends, the scaffolding was made not of the normal metal poles but of silver birch trunks nailed in place.

But making the house waterproof is the first step, every time I walk past I look at the windows and through them to the derelict interior. The new owner is a brave man, but for many Czechs the rise in house prices has made being brave the only option if you want a home.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Art Nouveau Architecture in Budejovice


Over the last few weeks I have been developing a website which promotes a comprehensive service for finding, buying and running properties in South Bohemia. The service is run by a fellow ex-pat, who has been helping Brits buy properties in the area for several years now. By the way I did it for free, so this is not a commercial.

I'm not a web designer, but I must say I am rather pleased with the result on http://sites.google.com/site/czechhouseandcottage/

It was created using Google's Sites, with a bit of HTML adjustment.

And it allowed me the pleasure of wandering round Ceske Budejovice taking photos of beautiful Art Nouveau apartment buildings ( see above). Of course the site also covers how to find cottages, and houses in Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice and South Bohemia, but we found we already had photos of the other property types.


As a Brit one tends to focus on the delightful old cottages, farmhouses and townhouses that abound here, and certainly that is what attracted us to buy here. But from an investment point of view Ceske Budejovice makes a lot of sense: Budejovice Airport is opening to international flights in 2012 and the city is the commercial centre of the region. And then there are these lovely Art Nouveau apartments and villas, and even Art Deco ones too.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

God I love this country!

Every time I leave this place it puts on its best show and charms me all over again. Today I walked down to catch the bus into Cesky Krumlov before getting the Student Agency Coach to Prague, from thence to the airport and so to rainy England.

We have been having some superb late Autumn weather recently, which has been breaking temperature records, 20 degrees and over, clear blue skies and sunshine. A couple of nights ago I walked up from the bus stop under a star-laden sky. In most parts of England when you are lucky enough to have a clear night sky, you can not see all the stars because of light pollution, you see perhaps the main stars, the main constellations. Looking up here I can see not only Orion, but all the smaller dimmer stars that glisten within it.

There was no moon, but the starlight was sufficient to light the road for me. When I came among the trees and so was forced to turn on my torch, there at my feet were more stars, this time of frost covered grass. This morning the frost was still sparkling in the early morning sun. A mixture of mist and woodsmoke hung around the valley, lit up by the low sunshine. Even the realisation that I had misread the bus timetable could not deflate my joy at today's display.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Getting Ready for the Czech Winter


I've been spending my last few days ensuring we are ready for the Czech winter. It gave the north of the country quite a shock in October by arriving two months early and bringing transport to a standstill as cars and lorries, still on summer tyres, slithered to a stop on snowbound roads. But here in the south we have avoided it, so far, but not for much longer.

I gave up on a load of old roof timbers which I had been keeping under tarpaulin for a time when I might need them. They were showing signs of woodworm and some had a bloom of fungus. So I got two nice guys to appear with their chainsaw and cut them up along with the sycamore trees we cut down in the summer. That was three weeks ago and I have been splitting and stacking logs ever since, helped by the purchase of a heavy splitting axe from an ironmongers in Trebon. There is a huge pile of logs outside the front door, as I know from experience that I will not want to be fetching firewood from the snowheaps when they arrive in the yard.

The patio outside the front door was rebuilt this summer. The previous structure was a typical product of the previous owners - an awful lot of rather badly laid concrete (which probably fell off the back of a lorry). During last winter the concrete steps up to it were lethal, as they sloped in the wrong direction taking water into the foundations of the house where it turned to ice and then broke up the concrete. Result? I slipped on the ice and hurt my ankle. My lovely Czech builders found large granite sets beneath the surface of the patio, with which they rebuilt the steps and partly surfaced the patio. Everything now slopes in the right direction (I have been checking with jugs of water). And today the builders came to measure up the loft for insulation.

So are we ready for whatever the Czech winter will throw at us? We shall see; it has a habit of producing a few surprises.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Ceske Budejovice Gastronomically Attractive

As part of my research for the Archaeological Society Visit, I acquired a booklet called Ceske Budejovice Gastronomically Attractive, which is as you might expect a guide to eating out in Ceske Budejovice. And very useful it is too.

However the reason I am blogging about it is the blurb about one restaurant, which I will now replicate here, without comment. I will leave that to you, dear reader:

"The interior of Restaurace Beran is one of the most beautiful and diverse in the city. The cellars in the house are unusually structured into several separate rooms. The guest can sit in the Italian saloon dominated by a model of the leaning Tower of Pisa or a Mexican hacienda with decorations evoking the atmosphere of the Mexican countryside and last but not least a mountain chalet full of rural motifs. The visitor to Restaurace Beran will find a mountain belfry, a stone well, a bird hut and a genuine ram. The restaurant's interior is full of natural materials which create a very pleasant impression. Probably the biggest surprise awaits visitors in the evening hours. A unique lightshow brings a response from every visitor. The ringing of cowbells, the rumbling of a storm, the bleating of sheep or the St Nicholas frolicking of devils, accompanied by lighting effects are professionally blended into an integral several minute show. The menu consists of dishes of international cuisine. The menu consists of dishes typical of Mexican, Italian and traditional Czech cuisine. The recipes are simple and not difficult to prepare."

The photo comes from the restaurant's website - and shows the genuine ram.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Prachatice

As part of my research for the Archaeological Society trip to South Bohemia (see previous post) it was interesting to return to Prachatice the other day. It has been at least two years since I went there last and quite a bit of restoration has been taking place, including to the decoration on the renaissance buildings around the town square. Many have created using sgraffito, a process by which the design is scratched (hence the name) into the plaster.

I don't usually do posts in which the main content is photos, but it seems appropriate here. I hope you enjoy them.



Friday, 6 November 2009

White Hairs

Over the last few weeks I have been running around organising a visit to South Bohemia by some 35 members of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society. I am a long-standing member of the Society and in a fit of enthusiasm volunteered to organise the Society's annual overseas trip for 2010, in response to the news that the couple, who had been organising the trips for many successful years, were retiring.

The problems with the logistics of my offer did not at first hit me, until it dawned upon me that the Czech tourism year ends on 31st October at the latest, and often halfway through September for the smaller sites. I didn't know I was organising the trip until the beginning of October! So as you can imagine the last few weeks have been frantic. However they did afford me the opportunity to visit a load of historic sites, museums etc, some of which were unknown to me before I started the work and some which were known but unvisited. I promise to blog more about these visits in the near future.

But the visits to these Czech visitor sites have done nothing for my self image. Why? Because on a number of occasions I was asked if I was a pensioner! I am 51 and was horrified. At first I thought that this might be because in the Czech Republic women are allowed to retire early according to how many children they have had (or so I have been told) - a legacy of the communist era. But my friend suggested another reason - "It's because you don't dye your hair", she said, "All Czech women dye their hair, even when they are 80." And she is right. My husband and I spent an afternoon trying to spot women with white hair, and they were few and far between, I can tell you.

So what am I to do? In England it is somewhat in for a dig, especially among the educated middle classes, to dye your hair. I have been complimented on how well my hair was going grey - "You couldn't pay to get highlights like that," said my hairdresser, who should have had a vested interest in encouraging me to dye my hair. But in the Czech Republic, my second home, my hair makes me an old biddy. Oh, the dilema of having feet in two countries!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Czech Wedding



I was in Prachatice last Saturday looking at the wonderful frescos and wall decorations in the town square. Why? You will have to wait for another post about that! Anyway I was in Prachatice Town Square, when suddenly there was a great honking of car horns and a procession of cars swept round the square. The fact that they were all decorated with white ribbons rather gave the game away, if I hadn't already known, that this was to announce the arrival of a wedding party.

A group of musicians gathered by the door of a hotel and started up a traditional Czech song. Onlookers gathered, some of whom knew the party and others, one suspects, were just there for a good gawp - there is a type (usually women) that shamelessly gawps both in England and here. And, I confess, I became one of them as I waited to get a snap for this post. The bridal car swept round the square twice and then pulled up. Out she stepped in white and on the arm of her father walked in to a restaurant.

The first time I witnessed such an event, the noise of the honking (the drivers must have their hands permanently pressed on the horn) made me jump. Now I just go "Oh a wedding" and carry on with whatever I'm doing.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Kratochvile Chateau


Yesterday I visited the lovely Renaissance chateau of Kratochvile between Prachatice and Ceske Budejovice. It was quite unlike anything I had visited in the Czech Republic, a sort of Czech palace crossed with an Italian villa. Which is not altogether surprising as the palace was designed by an Italian architect Baldassar Maggi of Arogno for Vilem of Rozmberk.

It is a palace built for pleasure and reflection, something that is to be seen in the design of the rooms, with downstairs featuring incredible hunting scenes on the ceilings, including much to my delight a picture of a fox with feathers sticking out of its mouth, and then upstairs we have more celestial images, of the classical myths and biblical motifs. Downstairs the decoration are in strong bold pictures with bright colours, upstairs the decoration is incredible stucco work of a clarity and style that I have never seen before.


It is hard to imagine that this wonderful building was built on marshland and its unstable foundations have caused problems for its owners and now restorers over the years. Somehow it seemed appropriate to me, as if the palace was a mirage, a building not of this material world.

I read the back of the ticket and smiled. It read "It (the palace) calls on the visitor to find peace and regenerate one‘s spiritual forces. Let us obey this call and reflect about the past tales of passion, and if we understand them, we shall be able to understand ourselves." Trust those Czechs to put something like that on a ticket.

If you want to know more visit the palace website

Friday, 16 October 2009

Ants in the Wood

Just look at the size of this wood ants nest - my friend is nearly hidden by it! I gather that these large ones can contain as many as 300,000 ants and can be several years old. To them run trails up to 30 metres long along which come a constant stream of worker ants carrying food and nest materials. It is fascinating to watch the ants carrying huge and heavy objects, sometimes much bigger than themselves.

There is one downside though, don't stand on the trail or you will have them running up your leg. And, boy, can those guys bite! They also can spray venom from their abdomens. My worst experiences tend to happen when I'm looking for mushrooms. I've noticed the best mushrooms often grow on an ant trail and my greed sometimes gets the better of my good sense. So if you see a strange British woman hopping around in a Czech forest flapping at her legs you will know it's me.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Timber

Forestry is a major industry in the Czech Republic and timber a major export. If you are sitting on a train waiting, the chances are you are waiting for a freight train loaded with wood to pass. Worse, you could be driving along a road in the Sumava National Park when you meet a huge lorry, laden with logs, coming in the opposite direction at a speed totally unsuited to the width of the road.


In the old days the logs were transported by water for example by the Schwarzenberg Canal At an exhibition in the history of the Sumava that I visited at the South Bohemian Museum in Ceske Budejovice I saw a wonderful film on work of the woodsmen. The film showed all stages in the journey from forest to sawmill, including its transportation first on wooden sledges and then by river. On the last stage the woodsmen used iron hooks to bind the logs into rafts, that they then rode down to the sawmill. The photo above comes from a site about these timber rafts, you will find it here.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Jiri Trnka - Filmmaker


In my previous post I talked about Jiri Trnka's wonderful book illustrations, but he is probably (rightly) better known as a maker of stop-frame animated films. One of my favourites is shown above - The Hand, (click on the arrow to watch the video). Trnka is perhaps better known for his adapatation of A Midsummer's Night's Dream or the Hans Christian Anderson story The Emperor's Nightingale, but this, his last film, shows the power of puppets and animation in the hands of a master to speak of important things. The film is a powerful allegory on totalitarianism and the artist, it is sad but amusing. Perhaps the best indication of its power is the fact that it was banned by the then Communist government.

When we first visited Prague, my husband, son and I went to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in the Trade Fair Palace. This is a gallery that is often missed by tourists. It is slightly off the visitors' beaten path and I don't think people from the western part of Europe and the US really appreciate the importance of the contribution made by Czech artists to modern art, we certainly didn't before we went through the doors of the Trade Fair Palace. One of the great things about the museum is that it mixes applied and high arts, hence there is a section devoted to Trnka, including a set from one of his films. It was one of the highlights of the museum for us, especially for our son. Now years later our son is in his final year at film school and over the summer vacation a set was built on our dining room table. Jiri Trnka was partly responsible for that.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Jiri Trnka - Illustrator


I recently bought an old book from a second-hand bookshop called Legends of Old Bohemia. It was published by Paul Hamlyn in the UK and by Artia in the former Czechoslovakia, where the book was printed and designed. The book appealed to me on three grounds - firstly of course the subject matter, secondly it was translated by Edith Pargeter (see my blogpost on her) a favourite author of mine and finally the illustrations were by Jiri Trnka (illustration from book above).


I had first come across Jiri Trnka , when I was working at the Puppet Centre in Battersea. There I had come to admire Jiri Trnka as a designer and maker of animated films. In my next post I will give talk more about his animated films. But he was a man of many parts and created some wonderful book illustrations. And this book is full of them.


I also have a copy of Grimm's Fairytales (again published by Paul Hamlyn) illustrated by Trnka, and again absolutely wonderful. The last three illustrations are from it - very Trnka and very Czech.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Collecting Berries


I was very amused this summer to see on the BBC's coverage one of the RHS garden shows (Chelsea or Hampton Court) an enthusiastic presenter singing praises of a berrypicker. "You can get it in the plastic version or a deluxe wooden version." The plastic pickers' prices began at about £8. At this point I nearly choked on my cup of tea. Goodness knows what a deluxe wood version costs!

My shock was because this wonderful new device has been on sale in Czech ironmongers for centuries. And you can bet they don't cost very much at all and they are made of wood. At the Museum of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice I saw a lovely film from the late 1940s of lorryloads of Czechs hitting the Sumava forest with buckets for the fruit and berrypickers. They were picking bilberries and cranberries. So my advice is if you want a deluxe berrypicker take a cheap flight to the Czech Republic, better still get several for presents for Christmas. You might get your money back and you get a great holiday as well.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Exchange Rate


When we bought our Czech house three years ago the exchange rate was just over 40 and it stayed there until last summer. Then the financial crisis hit and sterling dropped to 30 crowns and then to as low as 23, rose to 30 and now seems to be dropping again. It had always been in my calculations that the Crown would strengthen as the Czech economy grew. But this current level appears to me to be definitely too low, many things including essentials are now cheaper in the UK, in some cases significantly so.

For a long time the Czech government was buoyant about this, apparently seeing the Crown's strength as some sign of virility. But as far as I see it can only harm the local economy. It is noticeable that the numbers of visitors in Cesky Krumlov are down. I gather that spend is down too. The town has always relied heavily on EU visitors, especially their neighbours the Germans and Austrians coming on day trips.

Whilst the rise in the crown could be argued to be because of improvements in the Czech economy, but not everyone has benefited from these. I was chatting to a neighbour who told me that she has seen no increase in her wage as a waitress for five years and that now everything is very expensive. Nor is it just a problem with the crown/pound exchange rate, the crown/euro rate is so out of kilter that she told me she and her friends go shopping in Austria where they get more for their money than here in Cesky Krumlov.

The wider economy is suffering – the second quarter of this year saw the largest decrease on GDP year on year (5.5 per cent) in the country's history with a fall of 12.8 per cent in manufacturing. As someone who has worked in economic regeneration this worries me immensely. Some towns rely on one major employer or one industry and this ridiculous exchange rate can only make life for those businesses and their communities very hard indeed. Unemployment rates are rising, they reached 8.5 per cent in August.

I find it extraordinary – I just can't understand why this happening. Experts seem to be similarly bewildered and have been predicting in a drop in exchange rates for some time. Well we must wait and see what is to come, one thing is certain, everything is uncertain now.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Fox


Just over a year ago I blogged about my meetings with Czech foxes I wrote then of how they are meant to be lucky. My meetings with our local fox have continued, often I will see it making its way across the fields as I walk up from the bus or down from the woods. And I have come to associate it with creativity, one of my favourite poems is Ted Hughes' Thought Fox, which is for my money the best poem about the writing process I know:

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is print

As some readers of this blog will be aware one important reason why I bought my Czech home is that I needed somewhere to write. It is so to speak my den, my dark hole, built into the hillside, a hill called Fox's Lair. Over the last year I have indeed started to write again, and not just this blog, and superstitiously I have partly put it down to my fox companion. Even when I do not see him, I hear him in the woods above the house, tormenting the village dogs. "Ha!" he seems to be saying, "You have sold your freedom for a bowl of meat. I have the woods, all the roots and dark places as my kingdom." And at this the village dogs go mad with vain barking.

I have put his face on my door in the form of a brass knocker, he hangs on the wall as one of a set of horse brasses, I have drawn him in oil pastels. And the more I find out about him and his place in folklore and superstition, the more I think I have found the right familiar. A month or so ago I was telling my husband about this, and how strangely although I had been writing almost continuously, my fox had kept out of sight. My husband stopped me at this point "Look, look," he said. There in broad daylight no more than a metre away from the window my fox was strolling across the grass in the direction of the neighbours' chickens.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Bark Beetles


I was disappointed to see, when I made my visit to the forest above our village, that there has been a lot of tree felling. Swathes of forest have been felled and some of my favourite spots for mushrooms disturbed in the process. Then I noticed these strange boxes on poles.

They are cause for concern, they are bark beetle traps. The bark beetle has been responsible for major damage in the Sumava National Park, sometimes called the Green Roof of Europe. Opinion is divided between those who wish to fell and dispose of infected trees and those who see the beetle's damage as part of a natural process. Direct action has happened with protesters literally hugging trees.

I am normally in the conservationists' side on issues such as this, but find myself in a quandary. I am sufficiently old to remember the destruction wrought by the dutch elm disease in Britain. I have a vivid memory of a fine line of old elms that stood on the top bank of a local field, one of which housed a rope down which the local boy scouts would slide. And I remember running and catching the leaves as the sick trees suddenly let them fall. For a few years the barren corpses of the elms stood until unsound they too fell. England lost a major natural feature, its elm trees, in a matter of months and they have not come back properly. All because of a bark beetle and the fungus that it carried. I would hate to watch the same happen here.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Airport Security

The recent conviction of terrorists who were targeting commercial airlines reminded me of an incident at Prague Airport. I noticed a large plastic bag, unattended, next to a bank of seats by the Relay newsagents. Being a Brit and thus having had to be aware of potential bombs since the IRA's attacks in the 1970's I immediately went into bomb alert mode.

Fortunately walking towards me and the bag were two Czech security police, so I walked on confident that they would see the bag and deal with it. Fifteen minutes later I walked back and there was the bag, the security police had walked straight past it. I decided that I would report it. The two policemen were now on their return patrol and so I walked up to them and told them. They hardly responded and I watched in amazement as they sauntered in the bag's direction. I do not know if they acted on my information, my flight was being called.

I cannot say how shocked I was by their attitude. Of course I knew that in all probability the bag was completely harmless, but it needed to be treated as if it wasn't. In the UK it would certainly have been dealt with efficiently and without fuss but nevertheless seriously. The Czech Republic has soldiers in Afghanistan - it is a potential target, as indeed is every country in the West. I pray to God that the Czechs do not have to deal with terrorism, as we Brits have done over the decades.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Dawn in the Woods


I mentioned that I have been wandering round our local woods at dawn. Well mushrooms aren't the only reason for going. I love the misty Czech dawns – the view across wooded hills towards the Klet mountain, the light coming through the trees picking out countless dew bejewelled webs, deer crossing my path and the song of birds.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The Early Bird Catches the Mushroom


I was up and out of the house at 6am this morning. This was partly because the weather is so hot that to attempt anything physical after 10 is foolhardy and I wanted a walk in the woods. Of course this was not just any walk but a mushroom-gathering one, and in order to get the best one has to be up early. Already there were two women in the wood rummaging under fallen pine branches. On the road on the other side of the hill several cars were parked, including this one which had illegally been driven up the track to gain a few yards on its owners' mushrooming rivals.

Well I was lucky and got a good basketful. This year is a spectacular one for chanterelles. They are huge (four inches high) but the moss in which they nestle is likewise tall, so it is very easy to miss them. In addition I got some sheep's polypore, hedgehog mushrooms and russulas. So that's my supper sorted for a couple of days.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I share in the Czech obsession of mushrooming and how in England I am often met with disbelief when I assure people I meet in the forest that you can eat what I have collected. I would like to think that my eccentricity on this is seen as normal in the Czech Republic. But this is not always the case. Czechs are taught what to collect by their parents and grandparents, they inherit a repertoire of mushrooms that they collect and often this is not large. I was taught mushrooming by a Czech with a large repertoire and I have additionally made a great study of mushroom books (so much so at least two are to be found next to the loo in both my Czech and British homes).

Today a fellow mushroomer (a Czech) stopped me in the woods, and she busily told me that the charcoal burner (a russula much prized in Britain) was not edible and wrongly identified the sheep's polypore as a field mushroom. Tut, tut, tut, she went as I showed her I was confident enough to nibble some, and away she went shaking her head. Another Czech friend with whom I occasionally go mushrooming was shocked that I collect blewits (great favourites of mine and ones which are now commercially cultivated) or fungi that grow on trees. She will however collect the blusher – which you will find often listed as poisonous in English books, but which is very popular in the Czech Republic.

So there you go, I can't win. By the way I have eaten blusher – it's okay but not worth the fuss the Czechs make over it, especially as you go through a polaver to cook it.

PS. In response to Karen's comment - here is a photo of my basket of mushrooms. The egg yellow ones are chanterelles, the charcoal coloured one is (you guessed it) charcoal burner, the white ones with the beige tops are sheeps polypore, and the large brown one is a boletus.

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