Friday, 18 December 2015

Happy Christmas


Happy Christmas to you all. 

This photograph is of the central panel in an altarpiece that you can see at the Ales Gallery of Gothic Art in the stables of Hluboka Castle. Don't you just love those cow eyes! The Gallery is full of treasures like this and yet most of the visitors to the castle just pass it by. 

I have had a fascinating 2015 and worked for some delightful visitors to the Czech Republic, some of whom I now count as friends. 

Sadly towards the end of the year I experienced problems with my ankle. It looks like I will need an operation, which means I am having to cancel some of the tours for next year. I am thinking about stopping leading tours altogether in October with the exception of tours for friends. I will update you on this blog.


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Sly Subversion - A Very Czech Trait


There is something about the Czechs that enjoys sticking a pin in pompous orthodoxy. It is often done slyly and with humour. It is there in The Good Soldier Sveyk and in the tales of Jara Cimrman.

And it is also to found in Czech architectural decoration. Above are some Atlases very grimly holding up the facade of a building on Brno's Svobody Namesti (Freedom Square). No humour here. Atlases like these can be found on many of the Czech Republic's larger buildings.

But if you walk down a road from the square you will find Czech subversion at work. Instead of an Atlas you get a dwarf!


Sunday, 6 December 2015

Christmas is Coming




Yesterday saw the official arrival of Christmas in Cesky Krumlov. The square was full of parents with the children listening to three devils playing jolly music whilst waiting for the arrival of St Nicholas. Two angel comperes stepped forward and announced the arrival of the great man and there he was. A tremor of excitement went through the younger members of the audience as he approached the stage. 

 
Small children stepped up to sing to the saint and answer questions about whether they had been good this year. It was all very wholesome and organized. Meanwhile on the opposite side of the square more riotous and traditional scenes were being played out. Here the devils far outnumbered the angels and there was not a St Nick to be seen. It was mostly the devils who were interrogating the children and those children who had not been good ended up in the devil's sack.



A female devil was inviting children to draw and display their diabolic portraits and other devils were offering the opportunity to throw horseshoes into a bin in return for a reward.
 
Meanwhile a couple of angels gave out sweets to the children.

The square was still heaving when I left. The adults were buying warm Gluhwein and sausages from the Christmas market stalls. And the children were thronging a stall selling illuminated devil's horns and fairy wands (or were they light sabres?). I made my way to the car passing yet more devils coming in the opposite direction rattling their chains and growling. Someone is going have to do something about Krumlov's devil/angel/St Nicholas ratio.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sleeping in a Wine Barrel


Looking back over 2015 one of my more unusual experiences was the night I spent in a converted wine barrel in a vineyard in the Palava hills near Mikulov. As I approached the barrel (above) I felt I was in a Tolkien-like world. The barrel was just big enough to take a small double bed and a bench seat and was very suited to a hobbit.


As I lay on my bed I took in the view through the semi-circular window of rows of vines laden with grapes and the small fig tree complete with fruit directly in front of my barrel. If I rolled over and drew back the curtains of the little rear window I could see the steep slope to the ridge of  Palava on which was lodged a ruined castle.

The lady from the vineyard appeared carrying a basket of goodies, including a bottle of wine, corkscrew, towel and various snacks. My inner Peregrin Took was delighted. She invited me to the cellar and I of course agreed. After an hour or so tasting the various wines on offer, I walked slightly unsteadily the 100 yards back to my barrel, carrying several bottles including some Palava. Palava is a grape variety unique to these hills which produces my favourite Czech wine.

After I had sobered up enough, I wandered into the village and to an excellent restaurant that had been recommended to me. I was in heaven. The sun set while I was eating and as I made my way back to the barrel I was glad of the torch which I had found in the basket. I lay on the bed once more, listening to the crickets as I drifted into sleep.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Photo Post - Czech embroidery



I am still having problems with RSI in my wrist, which makes typing for any length of time a problem. It has resulted in delays in writing that book for visitors to Cesky Krumlov, which I had planned to publish in October. It also makes typing blogposts a problem. So I have decided I will give you a photo post or two instead.

This post features photographs of Czech embroidery and costumes which I gathered as part of the work I did for the Textile tour I did in June. I am running a modified version of the tour next June. If you are interested in coming - here's the link http://www.czechtours.co.uk/ride-of-the-kings

   

These embroideries are an important part of Czech traditional costumes. These can be seen in a number of museums in the Czech Republic and on certain holidays and in certain towns and areas you can see them being worn. The most famous event is the Ride of the Kings in Moravia, which takes place every year in Vlcnov and which I will be visiting next year with the tour - more of that in a future post.



My time with the ladies of the Textile Society this summer has given me an increased interest into Czech textiles, with the result that I bought a lovely embroidered table cloth in an antique centre. Here is a close-up:


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Magic Realism: A Kingdom of Souls by Daniela Hodrová

I reviewed this novel over on my magic realism blog. It is a fascinating and poetic evocation of Prague and the events there in the last century.



Magic Realism: A Kingdom of Souls by Daniela Hodrová: Through playful poetic prose, imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments, Daniela Hodrová shares...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Czech Few


This week a number of ceremonies are taking place to celebrate the contribution of the 2500 Czechs who flew with the RAF against the Nazis. A fifth of these men made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of Europe and their homeland. Those who came back were first greeted as heroes, but then as enemies when the Communists took control. Independently-minded defenders of freedom had no place in the Communist future.  Some fled the country once more. The former pilots that remained were imprisoned. After prison their lives continued to be ruined by their spell in the RAF - they remained under suspicion and supervision and they and their families were persecuted, denied access to good jobs and education.

Last year this memorial to their bravery and sacrifice was erected on a small park opposite the Malostranska Metro Station. The statue was funded by contributions from the British community in the Czech and Slovak Republics. A formal memorial was unveiled this week at Prague's castle. Sadly only one former Czech RAF pilot survived long enough to attend the event.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Destruction of the Golem

 Statue of Rabbi Loew, Prague

In a previous post I told of the Golem's creation, but the story does not end there.

For a while the Golem performed his duty well, patrolling the Jewish ghetto and protecting its inhabitants from attack. And then something changed - the different versions of the story vary as to why Rabbi Loew destroyed his creation. 
In one version it is said that the Golem ran amok because of unrequited love. In another the Rabbi fails or forgets to neutralize the Golem on the Sabbath as instructed. Or simply the danger was passed and that the Golem was no longer required. But the time had come for the Rabbi to undo what he had made. There are two ways of disabling a golem - the first is to remove the paper from the golem's mouth, thus taking away the gift of the true name of God, and the second is to change the word that is written in the clay of the golem's forehead, “emet” truth, deleting the first letter to form the hebrew word for death, “met”.

It is said that the Golem lies in the attic of Prague's Old New Synagogue, waiting a time when another holy man will place the true name of God into his mouth. At such a time he will rise and become once more the protector of the oppressed. There is even an Indiana Jones-style tale that Nazi soldiers broke into the attic and were destroyed. But therein lies the true sadness of the story. When the Jewish community of Prague faced its greatest danger, the Golem did not rise.

I have no doubt that the Golem has a similar appeal to the Czech psyche. For any nation that has been oppressed as the Czechs have been, the legend of a superhuman being rising to defeat your enemies is bound to appeal. The Golem has the added value of being a superhuman underdog. The Golem is there alongside King Wenceslas waiting in a hollow hill with his sleeping knights or the drum made of Jan Zizka's skin. All three are symbols of the Czech nation’s hope for freedom.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Pickpockets

I was talking to a customer the other day, who told me how the family of a friend of hers had been unlucky enough to have experienced the dubious attention of Prague's pickepockets not once but three times! And it reminded me that I had drafted but never posted this, partly because I like to be positive about this country.

Prague is a relatively safe city to visit, but there is a problem with pickpockets. They tend to target tourists and so it is a good idea not to look like one. If you're visiting the city,  I'd advise you to leave most of your money in the hotel safe and bury what you do take into your bags. Choose a bag that allows you to make it impossible for a thief to get things in one go. Keep your hand on top of your handbag if you are a woman and don't leave your wallet in your back pocket if you are a man. Or vice versa.

I  have had someone attempt to steal from me three times. The first time I was on the metro to the airport and someone managed to open the pockets on the outside of my bag. But I don't put valuables in the exterior pockets, instead burying them in my bag, so all they would have got was a pair of dirty knickers! The second time I was trying to get some leaflets from a rack in the Anděl Transport Information Centre. There was a couple supposedly embracing in the middle of the room, and I was forced to to squeeze past them. This time they tried to get into my handbag, but again anything of value was well hidden.

The third time (actually chronologically it was the first time but that would rather spoil the build-up) they succeeded. It was my first visit to Prague in 1990 and I was very naive. Not only were westerners flooding into the newly opened city, but so were crooks from all over the former Soviet bloc. I was buying some coffees and turned with the cups in both hands to find my way barred by a group of Romanian gypsies who had appeared out of nowhere. I fought my way back to the table, managing to not spill any coffee but losing my purse in the process.

I was furious with myself. As a Londoner I was no stranger to the wiles of pickpockets and had broken my normal security rules. I was staying in the house of a lovely couple, old collegues of my friend, and they were mortified by what had happened to me.  Of course the sum of money I lost seemed relatively modest to me and enormous to them. They would not accept my assurances that it was okay. It was a matter of national honour. They fussed over me and presented me that evening with a supper of cold meats, which my friend told me were the product of the former family pig and a great honour. I felt fully recompensed and resolved to learn from the experience.

I hope by sharing this post with you, you can learn from my experience too.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Sgraffito


You can find sgraffito on the walls of old buildings throughout the Czech Republic. It is a form of wall decoration created by applying two layers of plaster with different consistencies and colour and then the careful scraping away (the word comes from the Italian verb to scratch) of some of the top layer to reveal the other thus creating a design. The designs can be simple but effective, as in the video above, creating the impression of stonework and sometimes depth. My husband and I came upon these two men restoring a building next to the Romanesque church in Trebic and I took this short video so I would be able to answer the questions I always get from customers on my trips.

But sgraffito can also be used to create complex pictures. Here are some from Litomysl and Prachatice:



In some cases colour is added, as here on a building in Prachatice. 



Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Legend of the Golem

 
Ales print of Rabbi Loew

Previously I talked in general about golems. In this post I want to tell you the legend of the Golem of Prague. Whether I do or not is another matter: it is so easy to get side-tracked when talking about the Golem.

There are several versions of the story but all place at the story's heart the historical figure of Rabbi Loew, who lived at the time of Rudolph II. Under Rudolph Prague enjoyed an esoteric heyday: alchemists were drawn to his court, astronomers and other thinkers thronged the city. In some ways the brilliant Rabbi Loew was part of that world. But like all Jews he was also apart. Belief in the blood libel, that Jews murdered Christian children before Passover, would regularly flare into murderous attacks on the Jewish communities, and it was the threat of such an attack that spurred the good rabbi into creating the Prague Golem.

In 1580 a particularly nasty priest was whipping up anti-Semitic feeling in the city and the rabbi sought an answer from heaven, asking in a dream for a way to defend his people from the coming pogrom. The answer he got back was “Make a Golem of clay and you will destroy the entire Jew-baiting company”. Now this was and is a major deal. In order to do this the Rabi was required the use of the true name of God, which if done without the Lord's blessing or due care would have resulted in the Rabi's destruction. But blessed with divine approval Loew went one night to the banks of the River Vltava together with two chosen companions and there formed a giant figure in the clay. One companion walked seven times around the figure reciting holy words and the Golem glowed fiery red in the dark night. The other walked seven times round the figure in the opposite direction and water replaced the fire. Last of all the Rabbi walked once round the body and placed a piece of paper on which was written the true name of God into the mouth of the Golem. Then he bowed to all points of the compass and the three men recited the words from Genesis: “And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” With those words the Golem opened his eyes.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

In the Footsteps of Franz Kafka


This post is a contribution towards the Magic Realism Bloghop 2015 I am organizing on Magic Realism Book Blog. About twenty blogs are taking part and you can find a list of these at the bottom of this post. 

Last weekend I was travelling back from my home in South Bohemia to my other home in England, when I stopped in Prague overnight. Prague - the city of Kafka's birth and life - is very different now from the one he knew, loved and hated. And yet it is possible to retrace his steps in the city and perhaps get a feel for what made the young Kafka one of the world's greatest magic realist writers. 

My first stop was the Franz Kafka Museum in Mala Strana on the west bank of the Vltava. The place was very busy and it was hard at times to concentrate on the exhibits. I suggest you go on a weekday. To be honest there is not much of Kafka to see there, except his writings, photographs of Kafka, his family and sweethearts, and photographs and videos of Prague at the time. The exhibition text and images are reprinted in the short book The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague which you can buy in the museum shop. But the book and the exhibition set the scene well and helped inform my subsequent explorations. 

Kafka's childhood was restricted to a small area in the Old Town of Prague across the river from Mala Strana. He was born at what is now Namesti Franze Kafky 3, on the edge of the old Jewish ghetto. Only the doorway remains of the original house. The majority of his childhood years were spent at Dum U Minuty, a late Gothic house with Renaissance frescoes on the Old Town Square. He recounts the dread he felt in his journey from his home across the square, through Tynska Street to Masna Street and the German elementary school there. The little boy would cling to shop doorways and pillars on the way, with the family's Czech cook threatening him and abusing him. In 1893 a ten-year old Franz Kafka graduated to the Grammar School which was located in the Kinsky Palace on the Old Town Square - it is now part of the National Gallery. 

Other buildings in the Old Town Square featured in Kafka's life. His father had a haberdashery shop there. At number 16 Kafka had one of his first jobs, whilst next door was home of the Fanta family, which hosted intellectual gatherings that Kafka attended. Then there are a number of sites in the vicinity of the Square: on Ovocny trh Kafka studied law from 1901 to 1906 and he stayed for nine years in an apartment in Celetna 3 (U Tri Kealu) - it was there that he first experimented with writing. 

Kafka's Prague had three distinct ethnic groups - the Czechs, the Germans and the Jews. Kafka was a German-speaking Jew. The old ghetto may have been torn down and replaced with new impressive Art Nouveau buildings, but as Kafka said, "In us all it [the old Jewish ghetto] still lives - the dark corners, the secret alleys, shuttered windows, squalid courtyards, rowdy pubs, and sinister inns... The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age." (Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch). For a while Kafka lived in the area at Parizska 26, sadly now demolished, and it was there that he wrote The Metamorphosis. Close by on the junction of Dusni and Vezenska Streets, you will find the 2003 sculpture (shown above) by Jaroslav Rona.The small Kafka on the shoulders of a headless giant is an image from the story Description of a Struggle but the giant is walking on a cobble mosaic depicting a beetle or cockroach. Also on Vezenska (no. 11) you will find the former Cafe Savoy, where Kafka attended the performances of Yiddish theatre that were very influentual on his writing, most notably on The Metamorphosis. 

For other influences you can walk to 19 Wenceslas Square (the offices of Assicurazioni Generali) or Na Porici 7 (Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia) in Mala Strana to see the buildings where Kafka worked as a bureaucrat and lawyer. He wrote in a letter: "Writing and the office cannot be reconciled" and yet he could not escape the den of bureaucrats. His work at Workers' Accident took a particular toll but fed into his writings - he saw at first hand the consequences of dehumanizing mechanization and bureaucracy in the terrible industrial accidents that proliferated at this time.


The final spot on any Kafka trail is in the suburb of Zizkov. It is his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery. He died on June 3 1924. The cemetery is a strange spot much removed from the bustle of central Prague where Kafka lived. The cemetery has a poignant air. As you walk to the grave, which is signposted from the entrance, you pass plaques on the wall to  those who died in the concentration camps. Among the Nazis' victims were Kafka's sisters and many of his friends. Had Kafka not died of TB he would probably have been another name on the list of writers killed in the camps on the wall a few metres from his grave. Kafka's Prague only survived him by fifteen years.




Thursday, 23 July 2015

Bird Lake


As the Student Agency bus crosses Ceske Budejovice's city boundary, you probably aren't paying much attention to the glimpse of water beyond a curtain of trees. Within seconds the coach has passed by and the view changes to large out-of-town shopping centres and brightly painted blocks of flats. But the complex of five small lakes is worth a visit. The 25 minute tram ride from Ceske Budejovice's main train station takes you to a very special place.




The lakes may be within a stone's throw of human activity, but they are an amazing reserve for nature, especially but not exclusively for birds. Indeed the noise of the throngs of gulls and terns that inhabit the lakes' small islands can even drown out the sound of traffic on the main road to Pisek and Prague. Although they are the loudest inhabitants of the lake, the gulls and terns are not the rarest (gulls are common even in this country in Central Europe). In among them my husband and I spotted common pochards, the rarer red-crested pochard, little grebes, great crested grebes and black-necked grebes. A pied flycatcher flitted between the branches of the oaks that line the lake's banks. On the opposite bank of the lake farthest away from the road there was a large herony with not only grey herons but also night herons. In total 191 bird species have been seen on the lakes and I can well believe it.


It is an easy walk through the lakes – level and not too long but packed with animals and plants of interest. There are even plenty of information boards to tell us what to look for. The nature reserve is quite simply an amazing place and one for which I am seriously thinking of buying some binoculars. It is enough to make anyone a keen birdwatcher.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Trosky Castle - Walking in Czech Paradise


I took two Australian friends for a short walking tour of Czech Paradise in May and I have been meaning to blog about it ever since

Czech Paradise (Cesky Raj in Czech) is a brilliant place for walking. It's actually a brilliant place full stop one of my favourites in the Czech Republic. I arrived a few days earlier than my friends because I had some walks to check and research. The weather wasn't great until my friends brought sunshine from Australia.

We really only had two days for our walks. The first took us via Trosky castle a stunning ruin perched on the cores of two extinct volcanoes. Castles with two towers, at either end, are a familiar form in the Czech Republic, but few if any dominate the landscape the way Trosky does. Indeed the two towers are symbols of the area. Visible from all directions, they create a landmark for the traveller, be they arriving on foot, in a car or by train. The castle's position results in commanding views - it's claimed that these views extend as far as Prague and you can certainle see as far as the Giant Mountains as well as large parts of Czech Paradise and the surrounding area.

The two towers are called Baba - the crone - and Panna - the maiden. But don't be deceived by the names: both are equally old (14th century). Between the two towers is the palace area. The downside of the incredible location was the climb we had to make from the train station on the first hot day of the year. But there is a pub next to the entrance of the castle, which was a welcome sight and where I introduced my friends to the Czech soft drink Kofola.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Prachatice Bobbin Lace Museum


One memory of the 2015 season will be the visit I made with two ladies from the Textile Society of Great Britain to the Museum of Bobbin Lace in Prachatice. I have a photograph of the two of them engaged in deep conversation with the museum's curator. I will not post it here, because like me the ladies would prefer if photographs of themselves were not seen generally. But that doesn't matter, I have it and it reminds me of why I do this job of tour organizing. Let's face it I am not doing this for the money!

There are times when things go wrong on the best organized of tours or you don't click with the customer. But those times are the exception. And there are times, whether through design or accident, when everything works beyond expectation and it is all worthwhile. The visit to the Lace Museum was one such occasion. I had established that both ladies were interested, nay extremely knowledgeable, in lace, and I knew the museum from previous tours. But it was the personal chemistry between the curator and the ladies that was so lovely and unexpected.

He told them how the museum grew from a collection of his wife's. She had come from a long line of lace makers and when the revolution happened she had expressed a desire to create a museum to share her collection. Alas his wife died, but he was carrying on with the museum, one suspects partly as a way of keeping her alive in some way. Now here were two elderly ladies who not only shared his wife's passion, but were very knowledgeable. One of them was even active in a similar museum in the UK.

It wasn't all one way of course. My two ladies clearly got a lot from listening to him and viewing the collection. Dozens of photographs were taken – no doubt much better than my amateur efforts – and will almost certainly be used in talks to other textile lovers. I was delighted.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Free Guide to Cesky Krumlov


Over the years I have been asked many times when I am going to write a book about the Czech Republic and I always put it off. How could I possibly compete with the Rough Guides or Rick Steves of this world? But then I thought about it.

The guides you can buy tend to be of the whole country with only a short section on each town, city or area (with the exception of Prague). They tend to be not personalized and certainly aren't in any way lyrical. They aren't written by an insider, who also understands what is unusual to the non-Czech. So maybe I could offer something different. 

I have decided I will write a number of guides about places I know well and which, I know from my work organizing tours and holidays in the country, will be of interest for people looking beyond Prague. I am starting with the town I know best - Cesky Krumlov. This has meant that I have been having great fun, wandering around my home town being a tourist again (after 10 years of being a resident), taking photos and reminding myself what it feels like to arrive new to this lovely town.

The full guide will not be published until this Autumn at the earliest, but in the meantime I have produced a short (10 pages) pdf of a section of the book. It's a guided tour of the town as if I was walking with you through the town. Everyone who signs up to the newsletter for this blog will get a link to download the book. 

Here's the address to sign up http://eepurl.com/botLFH.

I hope you enjoy it. I will let you know how I am getting on with the book in future posts.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Freedom is hard won, but easily lost.


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

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

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

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

Watch this video to hear the story of her trial.


Friday, 19 June 2015

Czech Castles - Pernstejn



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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 29 May 2015

Salamander, salamander



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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mikulov - Home of Wine

 


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

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

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


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Prague Transport - Trams


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

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

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



Friday, 1 May 2015

Kroměříž


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

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


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

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

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


Saturday, 25 April 2015

Getting Around Prague - The Metro


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

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

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A Walk on the Palava - a photographic record


I spoke a few weeks about how lovely walking on the Palava Hills can be, especially when the Spring flowers were out. And now here is a post to prove it. I spent Saturday morning walking around the Devin Nature Trail. First I had to climb up from the plain below through woods which, as you can see above, were carpeted with wildflowers.

It's quite a steep climb. But the views from the top are spectacular.


But not as spectacular as the banks of wild dwarf irises set against yellow potentillas.




The path climbs and descends as it circuits the summit of Devin. At either end of the summit are fortifications - a medieval castle and a bronze age fort with this commanding view (below).


On the slope below the Bronze age fort I came upon a mound-shaped plant of Pheasant's Eye with its bright gold flowers. A few weeks earlier I would have seen pasque flowers in the meadows, but I felt well rewarded for the effort of climbing up Devin's slopes. 


 I am thinking of creating a walking holiday in the area. What do you think?


Friday, 17 April 2015

And she makes puppets too


My talented neighbout, Jitka, also makes classic marionettes. I have spoken before about how puppets and puppetry are an important part of Czech culture, and about how I first came to discover Czech culture through puppetry.

Jitka has a workshop downstairs in her Czech farmhouse, where she designs and carves traditional wooden puppets. Unlike the puppets you tend to see in shops in Prague, hers are all individual designs and hand carved from local fruit wood. Although she will sell her creations to collectors, she is never more delighted than when her marionettes are bought to be used, as they should be, in the theatre. I am just said that my friend Hannah isn't here to check them out.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

My Talented Neighbour


Jitka lives in the large farmhouse across the road from us. As you enter the house you are surrounded by art and craftsmanship. Both she and her partner are extremely talented artists, although both would say that they are not artists but craftsmen. I would beg to differ - in both their cases I believe the boundary between craft and art is very much blurred.

Jitka can turn her hands to many things, but she certainly excels in those very Czech arts/crafts of painted eggs and puppets. To be sure you can buy painted eggs in the shops of Cesky Krumlov, but none will be as individual and delicate as Jitka's. Each takes her at least an hour to paint. Each stroke has to be applied individually as the wax dries too quickly to allow you to do more than one. I have tried to decorate a very basic egg and I cannot tell you how difficult it is. To produce eggs like this requires years of practice and talent.

Jitka has been selling her work at crafts markets and says she found herself sitting next to a woman, who is considered the mistress of Czech egg painting. To Jitka's delight and surprise the woman recognized Jitka's talent and was delighted to see the craft passing to the next generation. Sadly, although you will find dyes for egg-decorating in the local supermarket, few people will have the patience, skill or time to practice the old art as it should be done.


Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Changes on Prague Metro


As of today Prague has four new metro stations. The Green A line has been extended to Nemocnice Motel in the east of the city. As the Green line is the main line taken by travellers going to and from the airport, it is likely initially to cause confusion. For starters all those tourist books about Prague are suddenly out-of-date.You can download a map of the Metro and Bus stops at http://www.dpp.cz/en/transport-around-prague/transit-schematics/, however the changes are shown in the picture above (click to see a larger version).

Travellers coming from the airport will still catch the 119 bus, but it now terminates at the Nadrazi Veleslavin Metro Station and not Dejvicka. There are a number of changes to the bus services in that area and the number 2 tram has been cancelled, but these are hardly likely to impact on visitors or indeed many Prague residents.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Getting Around Prague



I've been asked to write some posts about practical issues, such as how do I get around, when the only car I can use at the moment is a hire one. The answer is the excellent public transport system here, Let's start with Prague.

The first thing to say is that it makes no sense to have a car in Prague, unless possibly if you live in the outskirts. The public transport system is really good and cheap.

First there is the metro system - the equivalent if London's tube but with only three colour-coded lines - red, yellow and green. Then there are the trams - there are more of these and they have the added advantage of taking you past a load of interesting sights. I am, as you will have gathered, a fan of Prague's trams. And finally there are buses, which you tend to see in Prague suburbs. If you are a visitor to the city you may only use a bus going to the airport or Prague Zoo.

I plan to talk about each of these modes of transport in dedicated blog posts, so for this post let us focus on getting around generally on the Prague Public Transport System. The first thing to say is the system is integrated - you buy one ticket for all forms of transport. The  basic ticket currently costs 32kc and allows you up to 90 minutes travel, during which you can jump on and off trams, metro trains and buses and combinations thereof. If you only want to make a short (max 30 minute) journey you can opt for a 24kc ticket.

The key thing to note is that the timer starts when you validate your ticket at the beginning of the journey. You will find yellow validation machines as you enter the metro station or train. On one end of the ticket you will find a blank space with arrows, slide this end into the machine face up until you hear the machine stamp the ticket. You must do this or face being fined. There are plenty of ticket inspectors working Prague's public transport and they don't care that you aren't a local, quite the opposite.


So where do you buy tickets? You will find ticket vending machines in metro stations and at the main tram stops (but not all of the latter). You need coins for the machines. To buy more than one ticket press the button as many times as you want tickets. You can also buy tickets in some newsagents and at various information centres, including the one in the arrivals lounge at the airport. It is a good idea to buy multiple tickets from these centres, as you will not make yourself popular with Prague commuters if you spend ages fumbling coins into the automatic machines.

If you don't see your fellow passengers validating tickets, it is because they very sensibly have bought a season ticket. There are tourist tickets available for 24 hrs and 72 hrs (110kc and 310kc). The next ticket up is the monthly season, but at 550kc if you are staying for a week it is still worth getting.

The Prague Transport System has an excellent website - the English version is here: http://www.dpp.cz/en/

The website offers maps and other information, up-to-date news of any works and diversions and an online journey planner.
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Monday, 30 March 2015

The Palava Hills


I first saw the Palava Hills from the road that runs from Brno to Vienna. The sun was shining and it caught the white cliffs that run along the ten-kilometre spine of the hills. The hills appeared to flash against the clear blue Moravian sky.

This is an ancient landscape. Human beings have been walking and hunting on these hills since approximately 27,000 BC. We know this because the camps, belongings and graves of these mammoth hunters have been and continue to be discovered on the Palava's slopes. A visit to the museum of the mammoth hunters at Dolni Vestonice is highly recommended and gives you a real understanding of life here millennia ago. Looking up at the hills it is not hard to imagine our forebears driving wild horses over the cliffs or trapping them in the hills' limestone folds. Later humans also left their mark on the hills in the form of three castles, now picturesque ruins . 

Several footpaths wend along and across the hills, giving excellent views and taking you through a series of nature reserves. The hills are famous for the wildflowers (if you are coming to see these, it is best to visit in Spring), the rarest of these being the Palava Lumnitzer carnation and the Spring Adonis flower. Eagle owls nest in the old quarries, while the Palava's caves are home to rare bats. To aid the visitor there are a number of trails with interpretation boards explaining the history, nature and geology of the hills. 

Given my love of walking, history and nature, you will not be surprised that the Palava is a place I love.

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