Friday, 23 December 2011

A Czech Winter Slideshow


Some of my best pictures of the Czech Republic in winter set to music from Iva Bittova's album Kolednice (the carolsinger) to just give you a flavour of what a special and magical place the Czech Republic can be winter.

Of course if you fancy visiting we have some lovely cottages and hotels on the new website http://www.czechholiday.co.uk

Thursday, 15 December 2011

the first snow


We had the first snow of the winter on the evening of St Nicholas, the day when Christmas celebrations begin in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately it was blowing such a gale that we had a virtual whiteout, which meant I was unable to go into town to photograph the celebrations.

The town squares fill up with people dressed as the saint, accompanied by devils and angels, ready for the ritual which repeated in homes too.

Small bells ring and chains rattle and the children, who have been getting more and more excited all day, are asked by St Nicholas if they have been good. On one side of the saint is a devil, on the other an angel - the two sides of man's nature with the saint a balance between the two. The children recount some of their achievements and some of their misdeeds and maybe say a poem and are rewarded with a present.

After the happy children have gone home, the adults get to play. St Nicholases, angels and devils retire to the pub for a warming slivovice or a cold beer.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Last Mushrooms


And so at last we come to the end of the mushroom season. The last mushrooms are to my mind some of nature's best - wood blewits with their lovely lilac gills, floral scent and firm flesh. They arrive when the first good frosts turn the other mushrooms to a brown mush, in fact they seem to need the frosts to fruit.

I picked these in the woods above my Czech home, but have picked them among the gorse bushes on Cleeve Hill in the Cotswolds. I was alone in the woods apart from some wild boar snorting in the undergrowth and making me jump and a herd of maybe a dozen deer. Many Czechs are not aware of the blewits, indeed I have been told categorically by neighbours that blewits are not good and even poisonous. It was a delightful walk - the air crisp and still, sunlight glancing through the trees. The blewits were a nice extra, a surprise even because I thought they might be over, but there they were nestling around a fallen fir tree, pushing up through the needles which they clinged on to as I tried to pick them.

But now I think they are over. It snowed last night (more of that in my next post) and there's more to come.

Monday, 28 November 2011

In Praise of Czech Windows

It has been freezing lately - see photographs of frost in my previous post - but my room is as they say in Britain 'toasty'.

One reason for this warmth is the wonder that is my wood-burning stove, of which I have blogged in the past. But another reason is Czech windows. In a Czech winter you need serious windows with serious double-glazing. The traditional windows in an old house like mine are made up of effectively two windows, each with its own handles, about four inches apart.

This arrangement has various advantages apart from keeping out the cold. One is that you can open the outer windows should you wish and leave the inner closed (or vice versa) which is useful for getting rid of condensation and cooling the place down a bit without having a breeze. Another is that you can put flowers in there - useful for deterring flies. And the last is that the space makes a brilliant fridge, allowing you to avoid having to go downstairs for the milk (see photograph above).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Sometimes a Picture...

We have had freezing fog for two nights (-5 degrees yesterday early evening) which covered everything with sharp points of frost. Then this morning I woke to find the sun pouring through the windows. Under the warm sun the ice was already falling from the trees like snow, so I grabbed my camera and walked over the hill to Horice na Sumave. Here is a collection of photos from that walk. Half an hour when I returned it all melted away.






Friday, 18 November 2011

Calendar

I came across this calendar in a Czech second-hand bookshop or antikvariat. It dates back to 1975 and features the art of Cyril Bouda. Each month is decorated with traditional Czech scenes for the month in question. Above we see Cervenec (July) - note the delighted mushroom finder at the bottom and the woodsmen bringing a raft of logs down the river to the sawmills. In the centre is a list of name days for the month.  And below is Brezen (March) with easter celebrations, the traditional execution of winter and the arrival of the stork heralding spring.


What I love about the calendar is that it features both customs that still are alive and some traditions which have died out.

As for the artist: Cyril Bouda was one of the best Czech twentieth-century draftsmen and illustrators. A student of Kysela and Švabinský, he was famous for his illustrations (such as The Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini or Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift) but he was also known for his tapestry designs. His motto was “Not a single day without a line”, attributed to Apelles, an ancient Greek painter and he kept to it, by the time he died in 1984 he had produced thousands of works of art. This means you can collect examples of his work relatively easily - why you could start with some of the 30+ stamps he designed!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

New Website

 

My apologies for not posting for a week or so. I have been very busy designing and creating a new website for my Czech holiday business. And inevitably it has taken longer than I thought - twice as long at least.

There are two reasons for the new website:
  • it became clear to me over the last year that in addition to my Czech Tours website I needed another to promote the Czech Republic as a tourism destination more widely as British people really don't know how wonderful the country is and what it has to offer
  • and to promote the other side of the business which I will be offering from 2012 - namely two-centre holidays in different towns right across the country and holiday cottages for rental. 
As a result the new website is very different from the Czech Tours one which basically offers the tours. The new site allows the visitor to explore by destination (ie by different areas of the Czech Republic or by town) or by accommodation type (hotel or country cottage) or by interest (eg cycling, natural history, arts and culture). 

The new website is on http://www.czechholiday.co.uk and already I am getting feedback along the line of "I never knew that the Czech Republic was so beautiful" which suggests that I am at least beginning to address the first of the issues.

Do please visit the website and give me your feedback - the email is on the site.

Thanks.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Economics?

I thought I understood the basic rules of economics, but sometimes when I look at things in the Czech Republic I doubt it. Take for example the price of petrol.

In the UK if I want to buy cheap petrol I go to a big supplier, especially a supermarket petrol station. I would like to support one of the local independent stations, but the price differential is enormous. In the Czech Republic the reverse is often the case, better prices are to be found in the smaller outlets, so much so that it really is worth following the cheap signposts to the small independent supplier. Sometimes this is because fuel sales are a sideline to the main area of business (eg bus or lorry transport) but sometimes the reason is less obvious. How is this possible? Why does it happen? Surely the big suppliers can bulk buy fuel at a cheaper price? Answers to this conundrum welcome.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Trebic Jewish Quarter


After our visit to Slavonice and the 1938 bunkers (see previous post) my husband and I drove to Trebic, where we stayed in the old Jewish quarter. The quarter is now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, being one of the few well-preserved Jewish gettos left in Europe. Through my tourism business (see column right) I am fortunate to have discovered a wonderful hotel in a building which dates back to the 17th century. The hotel must be unique in having an ancient Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) in its basement. 

Having offloaded our bags in our room, we went for a walk around the quarter. The first place we visited was the Jewish cemetery, which sits on the hill above the Jewish quarter. There are over 3000 gravestones (we didn't count them) set on a steep slope and thousands more unmarked graves. You see two memorials as you enter the cemetery - the first is a large memorial to the men of the community who gave their lives in World War 1 (presumably fighting on the side of the Germans), the second a simple memorial to the 290 Jews who were victims of the Nazis. In the museum in the old synagogue you can see a list of their names. Family names appear on both.
The one hundred and twenty three houses and two synagogues of the Jewish quarter are squashed on to a slope between the river and the hill along two roads which go nowhere, but are linked by alleyways, some of which go through the houses. Now relatively quiet, the area would once have been vibrant and noisy, full of industry and a large Jewish population (1500 in 1890). The Jewish community was already in decline by the 1930s, but as the gravestones tell noone was left after 1945. It is a remarkably atmospheric place, as yet undiscovered by tourists. As we walked the empty streets back to the hotel in the falling dusk, the ghosts of the past walked beside us.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bunkers in the woods


Czechs view the events of 1938 very differently from us Brits. For them British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's betrayal at Munich (where he agreed to Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland) still galls and is one of the most important "what ifs" in modern history. We Brits have been led to believe that there was no point in supporting the Czechs in resisting Hitler, they lived "in a far-away country" with "people of whom we know nothing" (Chamberlain 1938) and needed British help to fight - help we could not provide. But if you explore the forests and mountains that ring the Czech Republic you will find evidence to the contrary.

Near Slavonice in South Bohemia my husband and I visited some of the bunkers, which Czechoslovakia had been building for Nazi invasion for several years upto 1938. The bunkers were approximately every 100 yards apart, giving a continuous field of fire. In front of the bunkers were barbwire and anti-tank defences. These fortifications went all the way along the border. The little Czechoslovak nation was mobilised in 1938 - the army that would have faced Hitler's troops was nearly as large as the Nazi's. And as the Czechs will tell you they were prepared to fight for the country that they had so long been denied and they will also tell you that they could have won. What would the history of the twentieth century have been like if they had?

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Gypsy Devils in Krumlov



After leading three tours of the Czech Republic I was due a break and my husband came over from the UK to make sure I took it. To help us Cesky Krumlov held its annual St Wenceslas Celebration. The town square was filled with a craft and food market and a large stage.

On the first evening of the celebrations, despite not being dressed for the drop in evening temperature with the sudden arrival of Autumn, we found ourselves transfixed by a performance by the Ciganski Diabli (Gypsy Devils) who give a gypsy flourish to adaptations of some well-known classical music.

The local Roma population was out in force for these wonderful ambassadors for gypsy musical virtousity. The younger members were at the front with their reversed baseball caps, whilst senior members stood or sat behind. They were joined in their enjoyment by a large number of other Krumlov residents and some foreigners such as ourselves and a group of Japanese who watched for a while before moving away. We might have been freezing (you could see your breath), but we weren't going anywhere until the last note had been played and the audience had risen to its feet to applaud.

If you want to know more about the group, visit their website on www.gypsydevils.com.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Walking around the World

I walked around the World on Thursday and it only took me three-and-a-half hours (it would have taken three but I stopped in a pub for a drink and an ice cream). The secret to this feat is the fact that a pond near to Trebon is called Svet, which translates as "world".

I was researching a possible walk for a short walking tour for a client and this was one on my list of possibles. It is now a definite. It is a wonderful walk, which with the exception on mountain scenery (it is in fact a very level walk) encompasses nearly every type of Czech landscape you can find. In just over 12 kilometres you walk alongside a lake/fishpond, past reedbeds filled with birds and brilliant jewel-like dragonflies, enter a protected woodland with its peatbogs and rare flowers, go through traditional farmland and flowermeadows and a forest with bilberry and cranberry plants, and finally through parkland. Along the walk are information boards about the animals (eg otters, edible and tree frogs), birds (eg ospreys and kingfishers) and plants (eg venus flytrap, mosses, and grass of parnasus) that thrive in the different habitats, as well as information about fishponds, traditional vernacular architecture and the formation of peatbogs.

It was a blissful walk: not too demanding, educational, and varied. Even the weather was perfect - sun, but not too hot with a slight breeze. I recommend it to you.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Views

One of the things I miss in the Czech Republic is the British habit of placing laybys at viewpoints. There are many places where I would love to stop the car and take a photo or at least not risk driving the car into an oncoming lorry because I was too busy looking at the wonderful view. But that is not to say that the Czechs do not love views or indeed have their own approach to appreciating them.

All across the Republic you will find lookout towers - not for sighting approaching foes or shooting deer (although there are deer hunting towers everywhere) but for admiring the view. One of the best is on top of Libin Hill near Prachatice. I took a taxi to the carpark and then climbed the two kilometres to the summit, paid my 10 crown entrance fee and climbed the 120 steps to the top of the tower. And what a view there was to be had from it - a 360 degree survey of the Sumava Forest, Budejovice plain and even beyond to Germany and Austria. Here are some of the photos I took there.




Then I descended both the tower and the hill, taking the medieval saltway the Golden Trail back to the ancient town of Prachatice.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Czech Workmen


A British ex-pat was talking to me the other day about the infinite fascination he finds in watching Czech workmen and their ability not to actually do any work. There always seem to be, as in this photo, a great deal of discussion involved, which can appear to be heated, heads are scratched, hands waved, shovels leaned on. Then there is "moving things" - piles of stones will get moved around alot, from one side of the site or hole to the other. This moving things business can take a lot of time, as was very apparent when the riverworks were underway in Cesky Krumlov, stones were dredged from the river bed, deposited on one side of the river and then moved to another. It took months. My ex-pat friend is convinced that Czech workmen are as expensive as their British equivalents not on an hourly basis but per job.

There are of course exceptions to this. Over the last few months the cliff by the road that enters Cesky Krumlov from Ceske Budejovice have been stabilised. Cliff falls had been known to close the road at times. The work required men to climb the cliff face and there hanging from ropes to drill into the cliff face. I watched the work in awe, especially as these guys seemed to be working all hours and through the weekends too (a remarkable occurrence). The work is now finished, alas. Alas - because unlike most Czech workmen who show the results of too much imbibing of Czech beer in the shape of their bellies, these guys were lean, muscular and fit, and in the heat of the Czech sun were usually stripped to the waist.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Music in Cesky Krumlov

video

Cesky Krumlov has been playing host to some world-famous musicians. Cura was performing here for several nights, whilst yesterday the town made national news broadcasts as it played host to a concert by Placido Domingo. As I drove home yesterday evening the town was awash with people dressed up to the nines, the car parks full and the police directing traffic. The best tickets for Domingo's concert were priced at 9000 czech crowns (at 27 crowns to the £ I leave you to work out how expensive they were).

I didn't go. I am in the middle of a tour and besides an outdoor concert in the centre of Cesky Krumlov does not appeal. If I'm going to pay that sort of money I'd rather be in a concert hall with proper accoustics.

But you don't have to pay anything sometimes to hear wonderful music in Krumlov. Last weekend the town square was taken over by Slovaks. There were information and market stalls in the centre and on a stage near the town hall I watched these wonderful Slovakian musicians. Their music is in the gypsy tradition, and done superbly.

Friday, 12 August 2011

What a difference a ten days make.

The day after I drove back to the Czech Republic from England I did what I always do on my return and went for a walk in the forest above the house. I went of course with mushroom basket in hand. I returned with it full of giant chanterelles - as you can see from the picture above. I had two meals of these treasures and froze enough for probably six more. I duly made a mental note to go back this week.

So it was that a Czech friend and I arrived in the forest this afternoon, but despite nearly two hours walking we found only small and sometimes dessicated mushrooms. This seems just weird to me as we have had several days' worth of rain in the village in the intervening time. Maybe our weird microclimate meant that the forest above us did not receive any rain. Mind you I'm not complaining I still have enough for a couple of meals and there's only limited space in the freezer compartment (which is full of wild strawberries, cherries and now chanterelles).

One point of note is that this wet and for the Czechs mild summer has had an interesting impact. The Prague News is announcing that as a consequence the famous bark beetle is dying off. It seems the environmentalists were right - nature is taking its course and intervening to restore balance and the Sumava authorities' drastic logging actions may not have been necessary afterall.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Update on Sumava Protest

The stand-off between environmental protesters and the Sumava Park Authority and its loggers continues. The protesters have been chaining themselves to condemned trees in an effort to stop the felling of trees in a restricted biological area. Apart that is for a brief period when there was a bomb scare, which the protesters claimed was designed to portray them in a bad light and seems to a cynic like me to be a means of getting them to leave the area. If so it worked briefly, but before the loggers could move in the protesters returned.

The protesters are arguing that the trees should not be felled and removed as proposed by the Authorities but left to decay and nature allowed to take its course. The Authorities claim that the trees need to be removed so that neighbouring trees are not attacked by the beetles.

Politicians have been divided over the issue. Now the European Commision is looking into what is happening, as the Sumava is part of a network of protected nature areas in Europe. The argument has been going on for some time. Back in November last year the former Park Director resigned, environmentalists believe due to pressure from the environment minister. The new director is Jan Stráský, former Prime Minister, who has been praised by the Czech President and climate-change denier Vaclav Klaus for his agressive approach to combatting the beetle. One thing seems certain -  the issue is unlikely to be resolved through dialogue as the two sides have a totally different attitude to the forest and nature generally.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Sumava Logging

Regular readers of this blog will know my views about the danger of the Sumava National Park's response to the problem of bark beetles. No one is underestimating the damage to the forest of the beetle. I have seen areas full of dead trees, but I do not believe that the wholesale clearance of trees which the Park authority proposes is an appropriate response.

Nor am I the only one. Five days ago a group of environmentalists (Czech Friends of the Earth) moved into an protected nature reserve which was under threat. In their press release they state:

The head of the National Park Šumava Jan Strasky launched a massive felling hundreds of trees in a unique mountain forest around Bird Creek on Modrava. Large-scale use of chainsaws is however in stark contradiction with the law. Friends of the Earth, while the park management has repeatedly pointed out that the felling without permission is illegal, but without result,. Sumava lovers from different places of the Republic, therefore, from this morning trying to prevent illegal logging on the spot. Friends of the Earth also serves initiative of the Czech Environmental Inspectorate, to stop the devastation of the park.

So far there has been a stand-off between the protestors and the authorities. I'll keep you informed of developments.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

More on Birdwatching

The area around Trebon is packed with man-made ponds dating back to at least the Renaissance and even the late middle ages. I say ponds, but they are actually often as large as any lake. They were built as carp lakes to supply the tables of the Catholic Czechs on Fridays and holy days (and frankly any other day given the Czechs' love of carp). The lakes may be large therefore but they are also shallow enough to farm carp in and therefore they make the perfect home for waterbirds - those that stay all year long, part of the year and those that are passing through. As a result of the richness of the birdlife the Trebonsko area is designated a UNESCO biosphere.

Two lakes of particular interest to the birdwatcher are the Velky and Maly Tisy. The Velky (Large) is easily accessible - take the 148 road from Horni Slovenice to Lomnice nad Luznice and turn right down a small road which takes you  past the fishery at Saloun. Just before the fishery the road bends, park here and you can walk along the raised tree-lined embankment of the pond.


I had a wonderful time, but I wished I had brought binoculars. In order to take a zoom photo of this grebe with a steady hand I rested on a concrete pillar on the edge of the pond. I am as my family will tell you capable of great concentration, ignoring everything else if I need to. It has been a boon when working in a busy office, but it can be a disadvantage. When I had got the shot I was after, I rose to discover I had been leaning in a pile of birdshit. My shirt was sodden and stinking and I had not noticed!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Jan Hus Day


Yesterday was Jan Hus Day (John Huss), a national holiday in the Czech Republic. While for many Czechs the day is just the excuse for a holiday, it actually commerates the death at the stake of the country's most influential son. 

"Seek the truth
Listen to the truth
Teach the truth
Love the truth
Abide by the truth
And defend the truth
Unto death."

This is my favourite Jan Hus quote, which I think sums up the man. While he was and is seen by his followers as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, Hus saw himself as a true Catholic, wishing simply to bring the church back to the truth of Christ's teaching and the practices of the early church. But in a world where there were at least two popes and sometimes three fighting it out for control of the church and using and being used by the secular powers Hus was always likely to fall foul of the political shifting sands. 


After he died and his ashes scattered on the River Rhine his followers in Bohemia expanded on his teachings in a way that he might not have supported and then one hundred years later Martin Luther too claimed to be a follower of Hus.

Hus' significance within Czech history goes beyond theological history, Hus has huge significance on national identity. He preached in the Czech language and was a leading reformer of the written language (he is responsible for the hacek accent). Rightly or wrongly he was identified as a hero by Czech nationalists:  he was deceived and destroyed by a German Emperor. His importance is reflected in the fact that you will find statues of Jan Hus in most towns and indeed Hus Squares and Streets.

But which Jan Hus is it - the man or the national myth? Which truth?

Check out the tour I am running - In the footsteps of Jan Hus and the Hussites

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Tabor


A few days ago I was in the South Bohemian town of Tabor. I will be going there with a tour I am organising this September and my purpose in visiting was to gather material for the information pack I give my clients. Tabor has to be one of the most remarkable historic towns in the Czech Republic and I realised that I had not blogged about it, so here we go.
 

Two names dominate the history of the town - Jan Hus, the church reformer who died at the stake before the town's foundation but who wrote some of his most important works in nearby Kozi Hradek castle and Jan Zizka - the one-eyed military genius who turned the Hussites into a fighting force to be feared. Zizka's statue stands in the main square and another of Hus in a neighbouring square. Both men deserve posts of their own, which I will give them soon.

Tabor is above all the town of the Hussites, created by them in the fifteenth century as a fortress town and soon the centre of their religious and military movement. Their presence is to be felt at every turn. On the main square stands the Hussite Museum - newly refurbished and hugely informative it is a must for any visitor. The Museum also allows access to some of the enormous network of underground tunnels built by the Hussites and extended over the years. Other attractions include the Tabor Treasure exhibition, the city fortifications including the Kotnov tower and the lovely Deanery church.


 When I visited last week the place was relatively quiet - the market on the square was just closing and there was hardly anyone around and certainly no tourists. I was able to view the beautiful facades and gables of the medieval and renaissance burgher houses at my leisure.

 
When I return with my tour the place will be transformed. We will be coming for the three days of the Tabor Meeting (Taborska Setkani), when the town celebrates its Hussite past. There will be a  torchlight parade through the town, fireworks, medieval market, the Old Bohemian market, performances by Czech and foreign ensembles, street theatre, concerts, children’s activities and a lot more. The Sunday will be devoted to European Heritage Day, when the doors of normally closed historic buildings are opened.

This is a major event in the European living history calendar made even more important by the fact that this will be the 20th Tabor Meeting. Every hotel room in the town will be full. And I and my tour will be there. So she says, shamelessly plugging, book now to avoid disappointment on http://www.czechtours.co.uk/hussites-tour

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Harvests

I am told the Czech news has been full of doom and gloom about a failure in fruit this year - no cherries, no plums, no apples and pears. But they clearly haven't been in my orchard.

The branches on my early cherry tree have been weighed down with deep red fruit or they were until I and the birds relieved them of their treasure. The freezer is now full of bags of cherries and in the cupboard jars of cherries preserved in a mixture of gin and sugar are sitting waiting for my return from England in August.

Then there are the strawberries - my friend Hannah loved her strawberries and grew them both at her Krumlov riverside house and the house she was restoring by the lake. I have keeping an eye on both houses, as the slow business of Czech probate proceeds, and I pay myself in soft fruit - strawberries and raspberries.

But the greatest of fruits are the ones that no one plants or tends. They have a special richness that comes from God or Nature being their gardener. The wild strawberries are magnificent this year in their size and abundance. Usually there are too few even to survive the trip to the basket and certainly not to the house, but this year there have been so many that there are bags full in the freezer.

And what shall I drink with these fruits? Of course it is a drink made from another harvest. I have two bottles of elderflower syrup sitting in my cupboard. An easy drink to make and a delicious one that speaks of early summer. My method is simply to layer the flowers with sugar in a jug and leave for a day or two, then simply add bowling water and hey presto - elixir.

For the last few weeks I have been

Monday, 20 June 2011

Green Guerilla Strikes


In a covert operation Cesky Krumlov's very own Green Guerilla has struck a blow for all those who opposed the Town Council's and River Authority's destruction of a verdant island in the middle of the Vltava near the base of the castle cliffs.

In the early hours a few days ago the Green Guerilla in an action similar to that of the old Milk Tray advert hero scaled natural and man-made barriers to plant willow trees in the silt near the artificial island installed half-heartedly in response to the many protests of local people. It is unclear whether he abseiled in from the bridge or even a helicopter or whether he forded the roaring torrents, but unseen by drunken passers-by he planted a total of eight willows. Earlier reconnaisance missions (from the windows of a nearby shop) had revealed that despite the Council's vandalism of last year the river is already beginning to reinstate the island in full as a silt bank builds in the centre of the river. The willows' roots will aid this island's formation. His work done the Green Guerilla disppeared into the shadows.

"All because the lady loved her duck island"

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Voice of a Bird - Iva Bittova


Firstly my apologies for the slight break in my posts. I have been busy running a Czech arts tour for a lovely bunch of Australians and so have not had time to blog while I was doing that. I will be putting up a number of posts about the tour - we did some fab things, even if I do say so myself.

But today I will blog briefly about what I did last night by way of a reward and that was to attend a concert by Czech singer and musician Iva Bittova in Ceske Budejovice. It took some doing - no one in the information centre knew anything about it nor in the main music shop. Eventually I found the box office for the venue only to discover that its opening hours were restricted to Mons to Fris 4pm to 6pm. As I arrived on a Saturday I was forced to come back on the Monday, the day of the concert. I arrived at 4pm to make sure of a ticket. But I needn't have bothered - even though the venue must have had a capacity of about only 200 and Bittova is a major international artist when the show began there were still empty seats. So I found myself with a central aisle seat six rows back!

I can honestly say that the hour and half that followed were some of the most enjoyable of my life. Listening to Bittova on cd or even watching videos is nothing to seeing and hearing her in person. She so clearly enjoys what she is doing that there is an excitement that spills into the hall. Although she can do emotion (just listen to her singing in Godar's Mater), there were also some wonderful moments of Czech whimsical humour. I don't know of any other singer who can use their voice as completely and in so many ways as she does. Just watch this video - and see how she has the voice of a bird as well as that of a human.

So powerful was the impression on me that I found myself crying with delight, something that has never happened to me before at a concert. Although I confess that my tears were also for my friend who loved Bittova and who had wanted to come with me next time Bittova played locally.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Birdwatching At Home in the Czech Republic


Our area of the Czech Republic is rightly famous as a destination for birdwatchers. There are several internationally recognised areas where ornithologists can see many unusual and common European birds. I am going to do a post or two about my birdwatching trips, but I actually don't need to go anywhere as the birds just come to me.

I am surrounded by birds and birdsong every time I work in the garden and orchard. The most common bird is the redstart (shown here in photo taken from Wikipedia) and it is as cheeky as any robin. In fact it is so friendly that the other day one arrived in my house, fluttering around the living room and bumping into the window. Then a few days later a swallow expertly flew through a crack at the top of my window, took a swing around the house, decided there was nothing worth investigation before equally expertly flying out again.

Other regular avian visitors to the garden are treecreepers who explore the rough granite stone walls of the barn for insects, woodpeckers (green, spotted and the non-British grey-headed), fieldfares, nuthatches, wagtails, tits, finches of various types,(including serins, siskins, and bramblings) and the ubiquitous magpies. A friend of mine has had the stunning scarlet rosefinch in her garden, but she lives closer to the forest edge.

Birds of prey are also to be seen from my garden. As I have said in a previous post we sometimes see black kites here and buzzards (common and rough-legged) are usually circling somewhere. The other day I saw three birds of prey being attacked by one brave magpie. The two larger birds (buzzards) ignored it, but the smaller of the three suddenly responded with a hurtling dive at the pesky magpie. You could almost hear the magpie cry, "Shit!!! It's a sparrowhawk." as it fled. 

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Toilet breaks

I was driving along a country road the other day behind an old Skoda. The road was typical of many one gets in the Czech countryside - built at a time when there were no cars and few carts and so narrow enough to make overtaking difficult. And as is the case with many such roads it was lined with fruit trees which made overtaking even more dangerous, so there I was - stuck but philosophical. Then suddenly the car in front started to indicate - I could see no side road down which it could be turning and sure enough all the Skoda did was pull up. I  could do nothing but stop behind the car as the road rose to brow just beyond the parked cars.

What was the matter? Imagine my annoyance when the male driver and his passenger jumped out of the car and walk away. Then in clear sight they proceeded to pee against one of the fruit trees. When they had finished they walked nonchalantly back to the car doing up their flies.  

I have observed such behaviour regularly - Czech males peeing in public. On any car trip of length you are likely to see this (and not just on car trips). As a Brit I still find this lack of embarrassment strange. What is it about the Czech male? Is it, as I suspect, a cultural thing? A friend of mine once told me "I do enjoy peeing in nature." Getting back to nature certainly has a great appeal to the Czech psyche, maybe this is a reason. Or is it related to the copious amounts of beer Czech men drink?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Sharing the Garden


Having spent so long doing up my Czech house I am at last turning my attention to our enormous garden. Well, I say 'garden' it's really an overgrown orchard - very overgrown. As long-standing readers of my blog will be aware I started the hard process of mowing some of it a few years ago. At first my only option was to hand scythe, but each year I have managed to get more of it to a point where my electric strimmer can take some of the strain off my shoulder and arm muscles.  

The improvement is such that this year I decided to start planting some shrubs. My friend Hannah had always urged me to improve the garden. She was a great one for planting decorative shrubs and plants with edible fruit (very Czech) and what little was left of her busy life was spent gardening, including removing snails from her strawberries and throwing them over the fence. I pointed out that that was all very well if you are in the Czech Republic all the time, but I am not and so the battle against pests would be lost almost as soon as it began. Now with Hannah's death I found myself rethinking my position. With a large population of snails and ground riddled with mouseholes it was a no to strawberries and runnerbeans but more substantial shrubs might be possible.

I returned from the garden centre (Czech garden centres are very different to English ones - less flowers and more trees) with an aronia bush, two sea buckthorns (male and female to allow pollination), an edible amelianchior, raspberries, thornless blackberry and cranberry. After a day's digging the shrubs stood proud on a bank half way down the garden, where the blossom and bright fruit will be visible from the window by my desk.

A few days later I inspected the plants to discover that someone/thing had chewed the bark of my aronia. This was unexpected - snail damage on the raspberries yes, rabbit attack on the blackberry - but not a large shrub. Look closely at the photo above and you will see the culprit - a deer. I knew they regularly strip my plum trees of fruit on the lower branches, but I was not expecting them to eat bark in early summer. During the day I never see them in the orchard (this photo was taken at dawn from the window hence the lack of clarity), but I do see their droppings.

I checked the internet and discovered that the answer to this problem was human urine. Apparently they are scared off by human scent. So urine it was. I leave you to work out how it was delivered to the aronia bush!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

A Relationship With Trees


When I was in the Cesky Raj - Bohemian Paradise - I passed this old tree on the side of the road and had to stop and take this photograph. For the Czechs the old limetree merits a wooden roof to protect its stump, a sign and to be marked on the map. But a cursory examination of most Czech maps will find 'significant' trees - 'dub' (oak), lipa (lime) etc.

I have been unable to find out any real significance in these trees, other than they are usually old and so have been a feature in the landscape for several generations - this tree is about 280 years old.Yes, we Brits do on occasion preserve trees but usually they have some historical or at least legendary claim on our thoughts and time. When I contrast the Czech veneration for these trees to British attitudes it seems so much greater.

As I have said in previous posts the forest plays an important part in the Czech psyche and I think this tree veneration is part of this. But in the case of limes - they are a symbol of nationhood. The limetree is the national tree and linked to the legendary founder of the Czech nation Queen Libuse. My research into the life of Czech religious reformer Jan Hus (John Huss) reveals that he reputedly preached regularly under trees. These trees or what is left of them are now of course significant.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Rock Castle at Sloup v Cechach


A few weeks ago I was visiting the Bohemian Switzerland on behalf of a client and was making my way to Jicin when my satnav decided to take me on the scenic route. I am very glad it did, because it brought me through some lovely old villages with the traditional wooden houses of the northen Sudetenland and to this rock castle at Sloup v Cechach.

The northern part of the Czech Republic cannot boast the wonderful unspoilt towns of South Bohemia, its towns have been too industrialised. But it can boast spectacular sandstone formations like the one above and is a mecca for lovers of spectacular scenery, geology and rockclimbing. Some were converted into rock castles when robbers or local leaders built forts on the top of them. But in this one much of the castle is hollowed out of the rock itself (Sloup means column in Czech).



You enter the castle via a small door at the base of the rock and then climb a staircase cut through the rock, with toolmarks on the wall, further up you will find rooms - a black kitchen, chapels, living rooms, and more buildings on top of the rock itself. It probably started as a shelter for local people and then in the later middle ages became a more formal fortress. After a period as the base of a robber knight it was besieged and taken. During the Baroque period the rock was home to a hermit and several chapels were built for pilgrims to the site.

It really is the most weird place and one unlike anything I have experienced elsewhere. You are left alone to explore the rooms clutching an information sheet and imagining the past, so much better than the rather boring guided tours the Czechs normally insist on providing. My visit did not take long, but I left grateful to my satnav.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Czech Customs Museum - Easter


Easter in the Czech Republic is one of the most important events in the year. I have blogged before about the custom of painting easter eggs and women being beaten with woven willow switches in return for luck and easter eggs before now. A troupe of my neighbours' children (girls and boys) went round the village collecting eggs, chanting Easter rhymes and waving switches on Easter Monday (although not necessarily in that order). Twenty-first century commercialism  has sadly got in on the act - if you are too lazy or have not been trained to make the switch yourself you can buy them in Tescos! As I have covered egg painting and switches in a previous post, I will leave my comments at that and move on to something else.

No, in this post I want to talk about a wonderful Prague museum, which is regularly and sadly overlooked by foreign visitors. My excuse for doing so, (not that I need an excuse, as this is my blog and I can post what I like) is that it is the Musaion - the Museum of Czech Ethnography - in Kinsky Gardens and of course features the Easter celebrations in its displays.

The picture from the museum collection above is of a figure of death or the old winter - called Caramura (in Moravia) or Morena (in the Sumava). The figure is usually made of straw and decorated with a necklace of eggs. The figure is processed to a river where it is torn apart, burnt and the remains thrown into the river. With winter dead, spring and Easter can begin. Other easter exhibits included a large collection of traditional decorated eggs (different areas have different forms of decoration) and switches.


In all the time I was in the museum, which was over an hour, I think there was only one other visitor. We were outnumbered by the old ladies who were the Museum's attendants. As I left I said "Muzeum je krasne" (the museum is beautiful), to which I got broad smiles Why wasn't the museum full of Czechs, let alone foreign tourists? I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the exhibits - there were exhibits on the Lent and Christmas, Masopust, Harvest festivals, birth and marriage traditions, traditional folk costumes, folkart, crafts and furniture and even more recent traditions such as the Czech hiking tradition. Most of the notices were in Czech, but all the rooms had summaries in English.

I combined my museum visit with a walk up onto Petrin Hill - another one of Prague's well-kept secrets. The Hill has is covered with woods and orchards and allows the best view of the old city. I went in spring, my favourite time for visiting the hill - it was covered with wildflowers (grape hyacinths, yellow stars of Bethlehem, blue squill and violets) and the fruit trees were in blossom.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Flashes of wonder

Today has been a remarkable day for insects.

Yesterday morning I was working in the orchard clearing some space for some shrubs I had bought, when I noticed that the cherry tree blossom was about to burst. I withdrew into the shade and cool of the house for a midday break and when I re-emerged at 3pm I found that the miracle had happened and the cherry tree was covered with white blossom. Today I returned to the orchard to plant the aforementioned shrubs and was amazed to find the cherrytree was buzzing loudly and the blossom shimmering with frantic bees.

video

Then this evening I went to Cesky Krumlov to feed Hannah's (Salamander's) cats, my way took me along the bank of the River Vltava. Another miracle - the air was full of mayflies (even if it is still only April). I watched with amusement as the diners at the riverside restaurants waved their hands as insects landed in the food and hair. By the time I made my way back to my car it was nearly dark and the mayflies were swirling flashes of light in the ray of the spotlights that illuminate the castle. It was a magical moment and one Hannah would have loved. Looking back through this blog I realise how often when I spoke of her, it was because we were sharing a moment of wonder such as this. In a way I feel we still are.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Other parts - 1 - Litomysl


My Czech travel business gives me the most wonderful justification for going on trips to various parts of the Czech Republic. I have a customer for whom I'm organising a fly-drive holiday aroung some of the best of Czech countryside and towns, so of course I have to go and check the hotels out, don't I! Over the last four days I have been up in the north visiting Bohemian Switzerland, the Bohemian Paradise area, and Litomysl, and I managed to call in on Hlinsko on the way back too. I have taken loads of photos and so over the next few posts I thought I would do some photographic blogposts about what I've seen. So let us begin with Litomysl.


Litomysl is like Cesky Krumlov on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. It has a wonderful arcaded square, the highlight in which is for me the Knights House (now used as a gallery). The facade of the house is decorated with a series of carved knights.

Litomysl's Renaissance Palace is covered with the most incredible sgraffito decoration. The decoration on the outside is just amazing:

But the work on the inner wall of the courtyard is even more spectacular and include this portrayal of the Battle of the Malvian Bridge.
 I cannot do justice to the Palace and its decoration in this blog, you will just have to visit Litomysl yourself.

Litomysl's other main claim to fame is that it is the birthplace of Czech composer - Smetana. The town plays host to a major international music festival in June - the Smetanova. I came across this fountain - currently dry for the winter - in which children were playing. What a photograph cannot portray is the fact that speakers built into the wall were playing music by Smetana.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Saying Goodbye


Today saw the funeral in Prague of my friend Hannah. I didn't go, I daren't - I drove for nine hours yesterday and a similar time the day before and a further round trip to Prague was beyond me and my aching back. In any case I always think funerals should be for the family and although Hannah was the older sister I never had that doesn't quite count. Tomorrow there is a get-together of her friends in her house in Cesky Krumlov, which I will go to. But today I had the day to myself to think and to say goodbye.

About a month ago - maybe a bit less - we were having a whimsical discussion about what to do about funeral arrangements. It was already clear that she almost certainly had terminal cancer, but Hannah was the sort of person who is able to enjoy the funny side of the darkest things. I suggested that we should put her in a boat and launch it on to her beloved Lake Olsina, so that she could sail off into the sunset - sunsets there are often spectacular. She liked the idea but then said it would be too much of a shock for the poor carp fishermen when they come to drain the lake next year for the carp harvest - it might even start a "woman in the lake" murder enquiry, so we moved on to other equally unrealistic ideas.

Yesterday as I drove across Germany I was thinking about this conversation. Her son Danny has created a website in her honour and I had searched out some photos of her prints to send him, among them was the print shown above (the original of which is in her Olsina cottage). It made me think. Today I made an origami boat, dipped it in wax to make it last longer. I printed out the photo and cut out the little man. With these on the car seat beside me, I drove off to Olsina as the sun headed towards the horizon.


On the bank above the cottage I stopped to pick some of the violets which had so delighted Hannah in previous springs and which alas did not come out this year until after she had gone into the hospice. I had at least been able to tell her about them in a telephone conversation only five days before her death, and she was pleased. I stood on a small beach of the lake where she and I last summer had stripped down to our pants and swum in the warm summer water, whilst the carp rose to the surface a few feet away. The carp were still rising this evening. Out on the water two crested grebes were calling each other. The only other sound was the lap of small waves against the shingle and the beat of a heron's wings overhead.


As the sun slid out of sight, I rested the boat on the water. At first the little man stood in his bobbing boat waving at me, until it turned and the current took him on a new adventure, first out into the lake and then along the shoreline away from Hannah's cottage. The boat soon disappeared behind a small headland, covered with willows and fringed with bullrushes, and was gone. It was turning dark, I walked back to the car and made my way home.  

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