Sunday, 6 November 2016

Prague Transport Buses

By High Contrast (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons.

As a visitor to Prague you probably won't need to use many buses, as they mostly operate in the outskirts of the city. But if you do, they operate much as the trams do. You validate your ticket, which you have already bought, as soon as you get on the bus (if you haven't validated it earlier in your trip). You don't buy the ticket from the driver with one exception.

The main buslines tourists will use are:

Number 100 which runs from the end of the B (yellow) metro line at Zličín to the airport. Exit the Metro Station and you will find yourself in a bus station, turn right and follow the path round to a series of bus stops. The Number 100 runs from one halfway up the rank.You have to buy a special ticket for 16 Czk for luggage over 25x45x70cm (ie hold luggage not hand luggage). A one-day or three-day season ticket includes one item of hold luggage.

Number 119 which runs from the Nasrazi Veleslavin Metro Station  to the airport. Follow the signs to the airport bus from the metro concourse. The extra charge for large luggage applies.

The AE (Airport Express) bus is the exception to the rule about not buying the ticket from the driver. The ticket costs 60 Czk, but luggage is free. It runs from the Main Train Station (Hlavní nádraží) to the airport. Follow signs to the bus station which is upstairs from the platforms. It runs every 30 minutes.

Number 112 runs from Nádraží Holešovice Metro station (line C) to the Zoo and Troja Palace.

You can see some lovely old Prague buses at the Prague Public Transport Museum in Prague-Střešovice.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Mr Bata's Amazing Lifts



My husband writes and gives talks about the history of buildings. His English Buildings Blog has just won the AMARA award for best architecture blog for the second year in a row. But despite the English focus of the blog Phil's interest is international and I love organizing trips to the many architectural gems of the Czech Republic for him. One such gem is Zlin.

Zlin is an amazing city for anyone interested in the history of modern architecture. It is hard to credit, when you see the city's functionalist buildings, that it was mostly built in the first four decades of the 20th century, it looks so modern. Zlin is/was very much the corporate town of the Bata Shoe Factory. Tomas Bata and his successor Jan Bata, the company's owners, commissioned not only factory buildings, but office blocks, workers' housing, schools, hospital and other community buildings.


At the heart of the city is the office building Number 12, the earliest skyscraper in Central Europe. You can take the paternoster lift to the cafe at the top and get a bird's-eye view of the city. A paternoster lift does not stop at each floor for passengers, instead alarmingly you have to step in as it moves past. There used to be a lot of these lifts in Central Europe, but now for health and safety reasons only a few remain.



There is another old lift in the building - on the corner of the skyscraper, but you are not allowed in. This was Jan Bata's personal lift and it was also his office, allowing him to go to whichever floor he wished and supervise his employees there. The office can be viewed now as part of the ground floor exhibition area. Technically it is remarkable. It is not simply a large lift with a desk and chair in it, but a fully functioning office with telephone, basin with hot and cold running water, air-conditioning, alarm system, automatic fire detector and door lock control.


Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Don't you just love Czech graphics!





I found this bag for the disposing of dog poo (it comes with a cardboard scoop inside) hanging on a post in Vimperk. Of course I had to have a copy for my dog-owning sister. The graphic's humour  is so very Czech.

As an added bonus on the reverse of the bag are instructions and this the company's logo:



Tuesday, 4 October 2016

About Czech Hotels

For my business I stayed in hotels around the Czech Republic and I put customers into hotels. And I tried to stay in the hotels before recommending them to my customers (it was a hard job but someone had to do it). The reason I did this is that the standard of Czech hotels tends to vary and it is not always clear without visiting and indeed staying in them which are good and which not. I have learned a lot over the years and I thought I would pass some of that experience on to you.

Star-rating
The star-rating you see on websites can be misleading. There is a formal Czech body classifying hotels, but most Czech hotels have not chosen to go that route. The star-listing you see most of the time is the one the hotel has chosen for itself. I often find that a 4* hotel is closer to a 3* one in my reckoning but sometimes the reverse is the case. So look carefully at the facilities and the photographs on the hotel's website before booking.

Old or New
Many Czech hotels and pensions are in old buildings, which were designed for a different age. That is one of their charms - you might find yourself sleeping in a room with carved beams, an arched ceiling or pillars. You might eat your breakfast in a vaulted cellar. But with this antiquity comes a price. These hotels were not designed for modern conveniences, such as air-conditioning or under-floor heating. What is more, the buildings may be subject to planning controls that limit structural changes. The absence of air-conditioning is a frequent complaint on hotel review sites, usually from Americans as we Europeans regard air-con as an exception. If you want all mod-cons stay in a modern hotel. But if you do so, check where the hotel is in relation to the historic town centre.

Facilities
Czech hotels and pensions in the major cities usually come with en-suite facilities - often in the form of a shower. But in the less touristy areas and in the cheaper accommodation it is worth checking before booking. Sound-proofing in Czech hotels can vary. So it is a good idea not to go for the room with the picturesque view across the town square, unless you are happy to hear people enjoying themselves at night. Increasingly Czech hotels provide free WiFi for their guests. However, the thick walls of some of the older buildings can interfere with reception. If this is important to you, it is worth saying so when booking, as some rooms will have better reception than others.

For British guests it is worth pointing out that there are often no tea-making facilities in the room. If having a cuppa before you go to bed matters, bring a kettle. Even where there is a kettle and packets of tea or coffee, check whether you will be charged for consumption of a packet. I was really shocked by this the first time I saw it and now I check. By the way, the tea provided will not be as strong as we Brits are used to: bring your own or use two bags if you prefer a strong cup. You may need to buy some milk as that is not always provided. You can nearly always drink the tap water, unless told not to.

Czech beds
The beds in Czech hotels are usually quite hard; which is something that I like. It is common practice for a double bed to have two single mattresses rather than one double one. Not all Czech hotel receptionists understand the difference between a double and a twin room, so it is better to ask specifically for a room with two beds rather than for a twin.

Breakfast
Most Czech hotel bookings are for bed and breakfast. Breakfast is usually a continental buffet one, although often you will have the choice of scrambled eggs, sausages and even bacon. Some but not all hotels have restaurants. Apartment hotels do not include breakfast in the price, as you have the facility to make it in your apartment, although you may find that they also offer a breakfast for an additional fee.

When you arrive
When you arrive at a Czech hotel you will be asked to show your passport, which may be photocopied or the details entered into a form. This is because Czech hotels are legally required to get this information.

Enjoy your stay.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

What are the Roots of the Golem Legend?


The Golem legend, although it refers to the real historical figure Rabbi Loew, didn’t really appear until the 19th century. It seems to draw on or at least play to two separate traditions - the Jewish golem tradition and the Slavic folk story of the clay child. In the latter a childless couple make a child out of clay which, like the gingerbread man, outgrows its creators and becomes a destructive force. This last story is of course a universal myth - human beings losing control of the being they have created. It appears in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and can be read as a warning against hubris.


But the story is more than that: as Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote, the golem myth “is based on a faith almost as old as the human species namely, that dead matter is not really dead but can be brought to life. I am not exaggerating when I say that the golem story appears less obsolete today than it seemed one hundred years ago. What are the computers and robots of our time if not golems?”


The Golem is born of mud and to mud he is returned - earth to earth, ashes to ashes. But the Golem can rise again.


The most famous book about the Prague Golem is that by Gustav Meyrink. Meyrink deserves an entire post on this blog dedicated to his extraordinary life and works and he will get it some day. Here let us just look at Meyrink's portrayal of the Golem. Although his book is titled The Golem, the Golem is not the central character. He is an elusive figure appearing every thirty-three years in the Jewish ghetto, terrifying those who meet him. He is in some ways the embodiment of the Jewish community’s collective suffering, coming to life in a room without a door. But he is also the reflection of the individual he meets. When the central character meets the Golem, he finds with horror that the creature has his own face. 

If Meyrink wrote the definitive novel, then in 1920 Paul Wegener created the definitive movie: The Golem, how he came into the world.  It is an amazing production and still powerful after all these decades. See image above. 


It seems to me that one of the most important reasons for our ongoing fascination with the Prague Golem is that he does indeed reflect deep aspects in our psyche. As I said in my earlier posts, we are all golems. When we look in the Golem's face we see our own, stripped of intellect and language, containing a natural and unnatural power, driven by the need to protect but at the same time capable of extreme acts of destruction. He is in Jungian terms a Shadow. In the story of the Prague Golem, he is presumably Rabbi Loew’s Shadow. 

When a woman looks at the Golem, she sees more. He is male to her female, the elemental man made of mud combined with the elements of fire, water and air, supremely strong and, let us remember, sexual (in the legend it is his love for a woman that proves his downfall). Or is that just me fantasizing?

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Burcak - dangerously gluggable.

Burcak (2) 

For a brief period in early Autumn stalls appear at the side of roads and outside supermarkets. Plastic barrels and bottles stand on market tables and beside them in a foldable chair sits a young woman (usually) studying at her mobile phone. A sign states Burčák, the alcoholic beverage created by Moravian winemakers by adding sugar to freshly crushed grapes and allowing the concoction to ferment  a bit.

If you are driving past such a stall, do stop, sample the burčák and buy a bottle. But be careful. Firstly the liquid is still fermenting and so if you drive too quickly over those Czech bumpy roads you may have a burcak explosion on your hands and the car will smell of fermenting wine for weeks. And secondly burcak tastes like grape lemonade and you will be tempted to glug it down, but it is definitely alcoholic. Normally burcak is 4% alcohol, but it can be twice as strong. And as it comes in unmarked bottles you don't know what the strength is. I have seen claims on the web that Burcak continues to ferment in your stomach, but I have my doubts.

Burcak is around only for a few weeks and I love it. So do the Czechs. In Moravia it is at the centre of festivities, where the alcoholic power of the stuff can be observed! It makes a visit to Czech Republic in September worth while.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Closing the Business


Today the last of my tours ended. The final set of customers, a group of walkers from Yorkshire, returned home. I have really enjoyed sharing my love of the Czech Republic with my customers. What is more I can honestly say that almost without exception they have been fascinating people to meet. Maybe it is something about the type of person who wants to holiday in the Czech Republic that explains this, I don't know. 

It is therefore with a certain sadness that I have decided to close down the business. I have a number of reasons for this. One being that due to family ill-health it is difficult to commit to definitely being in the Czech Republic on a certain date. I could have continued offering holidays that did not require my presence (like the walking holidays) but for the impact of Brexit. I blogged about the Referendum in June before the vote and everything I feared then has come true. The pound has plummetted, making it hard for me to make a profit. I am worried about my status as an expat and have seen and heard nothing to make me believe that the British Government has grasped what Brexit is doing to those of us with homes in Europe. 

I am not however giving up on the Czech Republic and I certainly am not giving up on this blog. Quite the opposite. My intention is to write and blog more. I can turn my experience as a specialist Czech holiday provider into guide books, such as the one on Cesky Krumlov I published earlier this year. It may be that as things settle I will return to the tourism business, although it would almost certainly be as tour guide rather than as a tour provider. On the other hand I might enjoy writing more.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Dutch hospitality in Czech Paradise


Sometimes you meet people with whom you just click. Of course that is an experience that I have had in the UK, but somehow I find it happens more frequently here. I don't know why it is like that. It is in part I suspect because being the outsider makes me less likely to give in to British reserve. Maybe I just find it easier to get on with the Czechs.

Two people I clicked with were my hosts at the pension I stayed at over last weekend in Czech Paradise. Jan and Jeanette are, like me, non-Czechs who fell in love with this country and who bought a home here. Obviously we have a lot in common to talk about: horror stories about buying and restoring ruined Czech farmhouses, the trail of serendipity that brought us here in the first place. Also staying were Harold and Will, who came first as paying visitors and have been coming back as friends ever since.

Pension Kidafo sits in a hectare of land studded with fruit trees. I commiserated with them about the endless mowing required. After I arrived we sat drinking a beer, chatting and watching butterflies sipping the juices leaking from fallen plums. I was introduced to the cats that my hosts had adopted and which were watching the butterflies with hunters' eyes.

When I went upstairs to change before we went to a local restaurant, and I found a bottle of Czech bubbly by my door! Jan and Jeanette give a bottle to the first visitor from a nationality and I was the first Brit. Of course I shared the bottle with my hosts. The warmth of their welcome reminded me of my friend Hannah, who always made visitors staying in her pension feel like old friends. It is a rare gift to be able to put people at ease like that.

Until now I have not talked on this blog about the pensions and hotels I have stayed in. This is because of my business. People pay for my knowledge of where best to stay. But by this time next week the last of my customers will be on their way home, so I am breaking with this rule.

Jan and Jeanette's pension is in a small town called Libun. The town isn't that impressive, but its location is brilliant. Libun sits on the plain below the Prachovske Rocks, one of the area's most spectacular rock towns. It also stands on the junction of two railway lines. One runs east/west from Turnov, via Jicin and on to Hradec Kralove. The other runs from the Skoda city of Mlada Boleslav, via Sobotka to Stary Paka. What this means that you can explore a large part of Czech Paradise without having to change trains and indeed having to hire a car. Perfect for walkers and those of us who support environmentally sound tourism.

You can book your room at Pension Kidafo on Booking.com and AirBnB.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

SS Cyril and Methodius - a memorial to the resistance and operation Anthropoid



As you walk up Resslova from Karlovo Namesti in Prague you pass on your left the Orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodius. Over a sealed opening into the crypt is a memorial to the paratroopers who assassinated the brutal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and to the priest who hid seven of them in the church's crypt. The bullet holes beneath the memorial are silent witness to the ultimate sacrifice the men made for their bravery. 

The story of Operation Anthropoid as the assassination was codenamed is now the subject of a feature film (trailer below). The church now houses a museum about the operation. The first room is lined with information panels about the operation and also the terrible retribution that the Nazis inflicted on the Czech resistance and the wider Czech people. It is chilling to realise that not only were the resistance members risking their own lives but also those of their families. 

To get to the second room in the museum you pass through a door shaped like a cross-section of a spitfire's wing. You press on the door and it swings open to reveal the crypt itself. The air in the crypt is chill and damp. There are busts of the men, candles and bouquets of flowers. It is hard to comprehend what they must have felt confined in the crypt, waiting whilst outside the Nazis tortured their accomplices in order to find the hiding place. These were men of action and yet they had to wait and do nothing, reliant on others and one suspects increasingly afraid that there was no way out. Only a few hours before they were due to be transferred to another hiding place, the crypt was stormed by 750 Gestapo and SS. Despite the odds the battle lasted two hours until the Germans flooded the crypt and the parachutists ran out of ammunition. The four parachutists still alive committed suicide rather than be taken alive. 

As you turn to leave the crypt you are confronted once more by the door. This time it does not swing easily open at a mere touch. For a few seconds the sense of being trapped induces a sense of panic, until you regain your composure and realise that the opening is counter intuitive.



Sunday, 4 September 2016

How to grow giant blackberries



I have been gathering a bumper crop of enormous backberries in my garden over the last week. My British readers may be saying "So what!" In the UK blackberries are something of a problem, springing up in any patch of untended ground (and indeed in tended ground such as garden borders and hedges), but here in the Czech Republic I have observed that you are more likely to see wild raspberries than blackberries in the hedgerow.

I have an affection for blackberries that goes beyond my liking for backberry crumble. My affection for them is rooted in happy childhood memories of late summer afternoons harvesting blackberries with my mother. As I grew older, my mother stopped coming with me and instead handed me a plastic container and sent me off into the fields. Even now, with my mother in her late eighties I make a point every year of bringing her a tupperware box full of gleaming black fruit.

I learnt as a child that the best place to get bumper blackberries is where they are in the open but have their roots in a ditch, as they need both sunshine and water to thrive. Maybe this need for water is one reason why they are less frequent here in Czecho, as here the summers tend to be dryer.

The blackberry with its rich sweet smell and sweeter taste is so important to me in marking the seasons that I missed them when I came to this country. I therefore decided to plant some in my garden. My garden has the sun, but is even dryer and stony than most Czech gardens. How could I avoid growing hard seedy fruit? Answer: I took advice from an old Czech gardener and planted the blackberry bush downhill from the septic tank! 


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Walking in Cesky Raj

I apologize for not posting for a few weeks. My elderly father has been in hospital. He came out today, just three days before I fly back to the Czech Republic from England. I have some clients coming into the country on walking holidays, including a group of walkers from Yorkshire.

I have devised a pack of walks for them in the beautiful and spectacular landscape of Czech Paradise or Cesky Raj. They will be based in my favourite town in the region - Jicin. Close to the town are two major rock towns. These "towns" are complexes of huge pillars of sandstone carved by the weather over thousands of years.

The nearest rock town to Jicin is the Prachovske Skaly (above), indeed it is so close that the Yorkshire walkers will be walking through the rock town and back to Jicin. In addition to the trail that goes through the rocks, there are also two circular routes which climb up and down through the pillars. 


But walking in Czech Paradise isn't all about rock towns. There are less dramatic walks through verdant countryside past traditional wooden cottages like this one above. 

Of course I have to check out the walks, which is one reason I will be driving to Jicin in a fortnight's time. It's hard work, but somebody's got to do it!

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Magic Realism of the Czech Republic


This blog is taking part in the Magic Realism Bloghop again this year. Last year I blogged about Franz Kafka's Prague. This year I want to talk about my experience as a British writer in the Czech Republic.

On the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group a few months ago someone asked how many of the members had connections with another country than that of their birth and many magic realism writers and readers replied that they had at least a foot in another country and culture. It seems I am not alone in being an expat writer - I do all my writing when I am in my Czech home and none when I am in England.

I suppose it should not come as a surprise that so many magic realists have a dual national or cross-cultural experience. One of the key characteristics of magic realism is that it often deals with a cultural duality, usually (but not exclusively) where an indigenous culture exists alongside a more dominant Western one.

How does that work in the context of Czech magic realism? It is obviously the case with Franz Kafka, who was Jewish in a then German-speaking Prague. But it is also the case with Czech culture too.

For three centuries after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620's Czech culture was marginalized and oppressed. The ruling Hapsburgs operated a policy of Germanization in the country. Books in the Czech language were burned, and the language banished from schools and public administration. After a while only peasants spoke Czech, as anyone who wanted to get on had to speak German. When the Czech national revival began in the 19th century, nationalist writers looked not to the German-dominated towns and cities, but to the villages and farms of the countryside. Here they found the Czech language, storytelling and folklore still alive. One of the most famous of the folktale collectors was the woman whose portrait appears on the 500 czk note: Bozena Nemcova.

Nemcova's novel Grandmother (published in 1855) is set in one such small Bohemian village and the grandmother in the story is the fount of a lot of country lore and traditional wisdom. The book is considered a classic of Czech literature and was hugely influential on the burgeoning Czech national identity. Of course it has elements of magic realism. And it follows that so too does the Czech identity.

The Czechs are well known as being the most atheist people in Europe. But as I have discussed in previous posts they also have a liking for folktales and magic. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. The Czech rejection of the Catholic Church is partly a rejection of the Church in its role as a tool of Austrian cultural repression; for example Jesuit Antonin Konias is said to have burnt 30,000 Czech language books. Czech enthusiasm for the Slavic and Celtic water, tree and house spirits is part of national identity.

No wonder as a writer of magic realism I love it here.



Sunday, 12 June 2016

EU Referendum

I have been pondering whether to post about the British EU Referendum for several weeks. And now I have finally put fingers to keyboard. We bought our Czech house in 2004, so we are approaching the twelfth year of our Czech adventure. During those years I have continued to live in both countries, moving freely between the two. In 2007 I started this blog with the stated aim to help the British understand the Czechs and vice versa. So I would be failing if I did not post about the possible Brexit

What has triggered this post was a load of comments on a YouGov survey. One commentator said that the Remainers had to decide whether they were British or European, a view supported by other Brexiteers. My answer is I do not have to decide any such thing. One of the things I have learned over the last twelve years is that you can be both. Indeed you can have many identities. I am British and European, I even consider myself to be a little Czech. I am also English and British. When I spend time with my Australian friend, as I did last week, I am conscious we share a common heritage and Commonwealth identity. Even if we do leave the EU, I will still be European and proud of it. Because Europe is also about shared culture, history and view of the world, something my time with Czechs has made very aware of. In truth we have far more alike than different.

Here in the Czech Republic I am the outsider, the foreigner who might be accused of taking away an affordable home from young Czechs. I even have failed miserably to master the Czech language. And yet the Czechs have welcomed me and made me feel at home. The leaders of Brexit say that EU citizens don't have to worry about being forced out. But I have no doubt that if the roles were reversed and I encountered from Czechs the levels of xenophobia and hostility expressed in those comments and in the press and media, I would seriously be thinking of selling up and leaving. I am sure the same is true of Czechs in the UK now. Even if the UK opts to Remain, I fear we have already done a lot of damage to the trust between our peoples.

One of the tragedies of this is the loss of benefits the Czech and other EU migrants bring to our country. I am not just talking about the lovely carer who comes every morning to help my frail elderly mother or my excellent Polish NHS dentist, but about the fact that mutual understanding is the best driver of trade and commerce. My business promotes the Czech Republic and I know of plenty of Czechs who have returned to their homeland and continue to do business which is favourable to the UK.

As a historian I was struck by the total nonsense some of the commentators came out with. Over and over they kept talking about how we needed to make Britain great again, how we were better going it on our own, with (I could hardly believe it) lots of references to Dunkirk and our finest hour. This is all based on historical myth. There is no historic precedent for what is proposed. We have been in some sort of supra-national alliance – be it Empire, Commonwealth, or European Union for over three centuries. We were not alone after Dunkirk. Indeed Churchill's finest hour belongs not to the British but to the citizens of the British Empire and Commonwealth, and moreover he talks about the Czech, Polish, French and other nationals, who had come to Britain to fight. This myth of Britain standing alone does a disservice for all those who fought by our side in those dark hours and especially those that died. I have been researching the Czech RAF pilots for my next book and my admiration and gratitude to them is enormous.

When I first read those comments, I was angry – angry on behalf of the Czechs and on behalf of my son and the young people of his generation, who would be denied the chance to enjoy as I have done the freedom to live, travel and work anywhere in Europe. Now in retrospect I am sorry for the commentator and his narrow, backward-looking world views. I am sorry too to all those young Czechs living in the UK who find themselves subjected to those views.

A note about bias
I am sure if those commentators were to see this post, they would sneeringly dismiss me as being biased, of having a self interest in the result of the Referendum. And it is true that I am worried about my business and therefore my income being damaged by a Leave Vote. My currency broker tells me the £ will collapse in the event of a Leave vote and I believe him (after all he will make money either way). I am so worried that I am considering closing down my business in October. I am also worried that the cost of living in the Czech Republic will rise to an extent that I will not be able afford to be here and really will have to choose between the UK and the Czech Republic. But that said, I was thinking about retiring anyway, I have lots of friends here who would invite me to stay, and the change in the exchange rate would mean I would get more £s for the sale of my Czech house. So my self interest works both ways.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Ride of the Kings, Vlcnov



I have been meaning to make the journey to South Moravia to see the Ride of the Kings for several years. Until this year it clashed with work obligations elsewhere in the Czech Republic. This year I was determined to go and had even structured a tour to include the Ride. When that tour was cancelled, I decided I would go anyway and took my friend Maggie Porter of Wanderweg Holidays.



I really didn't have much idea what to expect. I knew the Ride of the Kings was a traditional celebration which had received UNESCO listing. A number of villages in the area have a Ride of the Kings, but the most famous and the only one that happens every year is Vlcnov. I presumed the village would be packed with visitors, much as Cesky Krumlov is for the Festival of the 5-Petalled Rose.
 


What I found was a genuinely local celebration with few tourists. In fact the locals seemed delighted that a Brit and an Australian had come to see their festival. The King is a 10-year old boy, dressed in women's clothing with a paper rose between his teeth, who rides through the village accompanied on either side by two aides in similar attire. In addition there are the riders - young men who recite verses in praise of their King and encouraging by flattery and insult the watchers into donating money. Their horses are decorated with ribbons and over 1000 crepe paper roses.


After the ride there is another procession featuring the women and men of the local villages in traditional folk costumes. Each village has its own costume. In the open-air amphitheatre in the centre of the village we watched local groups perform traditional dances and songs, whilst in one of the houses we met with two ladies who showed us how to make crepe-paper roses and fed us the local cake.

It was a quite extraordinary day and we loved every bit of it. Sadly my camera battery died half way through the day, but that gives me the excuse to go back another year.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

A Wedding at Hluboka


Hluboka Castle is one of the Czech Republic's most popular tourist attractions. It is a 19th Century white wedding cake of a castle, the sort of castle Walt Disney would dream up. Inside the then chatelaine, Eleanor Schwarzenberg, spared no expense in decorating the interiors, as she too lived out her dream.

You have to join one of the frequent tours of the castle if you want to look inside and even then the sheer number of visitors may mean that you will not be able to see it as well as you would like. Or you could live out your childhood fantasy and get married in a castle. I came across this oriental couple having their photos taken in the garden, when I visited the other day.


My contact at Castle Stekl, which is part of the complex of castle buildings, tells me that weddings are very popular with their Japanese visitors and other nationalities. It seems strange to me that you would want a Czech civic wedding when you are from the other side of the world and a totally different culture. But the idea of a wedding in a castle is not so strange. My husband and I got married in the chapel of our local castle in England and I can vouch for the experience.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Czechia?


You may have noticed on the news that the Czech Republic (urged on by President Zeman) is trying to rebrand itself as Czechia. This is meant to be the new official short English version of the country's name. The longer version still remains the "Czech Republic". On the other hand you may well not have noticed, which shows just what a task the Czechs have set themselves.

There isn't even universal support for the name change in the Czech Republic. I was listening to a Czech radio station the day the change was announced and the general hilarity of the commentators required no translation. One Czech friend said to me, "They are changing it because Czechia is easier to print on ice-hockey shirts." Another said it was to keep the president from meddling in more important matters.

You will find the arguments for the new name here:  http://www.go-czechia.com/ And ironically you will also find there some of the counter arguments, as the 16 myths the site tries to debunk on its main page are actually arguments against the new name.

As someone who promotes the country, I can't say I will be rushing to use the new name. I am perfectly happy with the "Czech Republic". I seldom feel the need to shorten it and only then in casual conversation. Frankly if I don't see the need for the new name, I very much doubt many other English speakers will do so.

Czechia may take hold in some official English language usage, although I suspect for the most part the BBC and other such organisations will avoid "Czechia" and continue to use "Czech Republic". I feel sorry for the poor staff of the Czech Tourism, who are already having to deal with a large proportion of the British population who still haven't stopped calling the country Czechoslovakia, and who now have an added complication.

The main argument against the name change is that it doesn't take account of how the English language and its speakers work. English is not a language of rules, it is a language of evolving usage. Registering the name doesn't mean we will use it. We will only use it if it has a function and I don't know what that function is right now

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Guess who's exhibition was on at Spilberk Castle


I have to admit that, despite having visited Brno both on my own and with customers, I hadn't made it to the city's Spilberk Castle. I don't know why; it was always on my to-visit list and it is in the city centre. This month I at last made up the short hill to the formidable building.

Spilberk Castle is home to the city's museum and an art gallery, which features local artists in a permanent exhibition and international artists in a temporary gallery. As I walked into a castle courtyard I encountered a huge blown-up soup can. Yes, Andy Warhol's amazing graphics are on display in the temporary gallery.

The gallery was busy, but as I have observed elsewhere in the Czech Republic not so much that I could not enjoy the artworks fully. I doubt that it would be the same if the exhibition had been on in Britain. I had a rather limited view of Warhol's work based on his most famous works, but this exhibition showed Warhol to be more than just a showman, to be a brilliant artist.

If you want to see a larger permanent exhibition of Warhol's work you can either go to New York or you can go to to the Warhol Museum in Medzilaborce in Eastern Slovakia. When Warhol was asked where he came from, he replied "Nowhere", suggesting that he created himself. He, of course, reinvented himself. He changed his name from Andrej Warhola to the anglicised Andrew Warhol. His parents were Czechoslovakian immigrants from a little village close to Medzilaborce. They were ethnically Ruthenian, an ethnic group related to the Ukrainians from that part of the Carpathians.

Warhol practiced his parents' Orthodox Catholic religion and towards the end of his life started to paint icons. The first artworks he would have seen as a child would have been the icons on the walls of his mother's room. Knowing that suddenly we see Warhol's prints in a different light - in some ways he was always creating icons - of Marilyn Monroe and soup cans. It turns out that Warhol didn't come from nowhere after all.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The strange obsession of Max Appeltauer


As I passed through the wine country south of Znojmo on my way to Vienna, I stopped at the village of Satov. Here I was told by my friends at the Znojmo pension was a treasure: a wine cellar decorated with folk art.

I don't know what I was expecting as I descended into the cool of the cellar. What I found was just magical and rather weird. The whole of the cellar had been decorated by its former owner, Max Appeltauer. Both walls of the main hall and the walls of the rooms that lead off it are covered with naive images of landscapes, country folk, mermaids, and dwarfs.

Every Sunday for thirty-six years Max Appeltauer would descend into the cellar to carve and paint his designs by a candlelight. Nothing could stop the obsessive Mr Appeltauer, not even losing an arm in the Second World War. What his wife and family thought about it, one can only guess.


I assume this picture is of the long-suffering Mrs Appeltauer. I also assume that she didn't make it into the most obscure room, which is adorned with images of naked ladies!

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Buttercups and Memories


Early April is a special time for me in the Czech Republic. Winter is losing its grip, warm sunny days are interspersed with cold grey ones. In the woods and fields the first flowers are appearing - the Alpine Snowbell, little cowslips, violets, and these purple buttercups. A few days ago I took a walk to the wooded hill of Ptaci Hradek (Bird Castle) which stands behind Krumlov's castle gardens. The ground was so covered with buttercups that the wood floor was in placed purple.


As I stood admiring the flowers, I was reminded of the first time I saw them on another April. It seems many years ago. I was taken there by my friend, Hannah. I suspect she knew that I would fall in love with the little flowers, as we shared a sense of awe for the little miracles of nature. I remember that as she was dying, Hannah expressed a regret that she would not see Krumlov's spring flowers that year. She died in early April. So as I followed the path we had followed  I enjoyed the flowers and thought of her walking with me through the trees.

Hannah on my first walk among the buttercups.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Cesky Krumlov Travel Guide


At last! My travel guide to Cesky Krumlov is now available on Amazon. It has been a year in the making, but I think the hard work has all been worth while. This is the first in a series of travel guides to the Czech Republic that I am planning.

You can buy it here:
For UK purchasers:   http://www.amazon.co.uk/Insiders-Travel-Krumlov-Republic-Guides-ebook/dp/B01DQ20A12
For US puchasers:  http://www.amazon.com/Insiders-Travel-Krumlov-Republic-Guides-ebook/dp/B01DQ20A12

It is also available on the Canadian, Australian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Dutch, Japanese, Brazilian and Mexican Amazon stores

If you do buy a copy and enjoy it, please leave a review on Amazon.

Subjects covered in the book: 
  • How to get to Cesky Krumlov from Prague and other locations
  • How to get around on public transport (trains and coaches) and private trips
  • Take a tour of the Cesky Krumlov's Castle (the Czech Republic's second largest castle)
  • Take a guided walk around the historic streets of the ancient town
  • When to come to Cesky Krumlov (weather, festivals, when to avoid the crowds)
  • Secret Krumlov – how to find the Krumlov most travellers never see
  • Children's Krumlov – how to have a great Krumlov holiday with kids
  • How to explore the lovely countryside surrounding Cesky Krumlov, including the Sumava National Park
  • How to see some of the castles, abbeys and historic villages near the town
  • How to shop for essentials and souvenirs
  • What and where to eat in Cesky Krumlov
  • How to find and choose your holiday accommodation
  • Useful Czech words and phrases
  • Useful information and websites

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Drowning Morana - the End of Winter


I always spend March in England, for a number of reasons including being with my mother on Mothering Sunday. For this reason I have never seen the Czech traditional ceremony that marks the end of winter. But my friend Hannah has and she gave me this photo of the ceremony taking place in a small village a few miles from my home.

Morana was the Slavic goddess of winter and so her ritual destruction towards the end of March every year marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The girls of the village create an effigy of Morana out of straw and branches, dress her in old clothes and drape a necklace of eggs around her neck. On the day of the drowning, she is processed through the village to the river, to the accompaniment of songs and music. There she is set on fire and hurled into the river.

It is obvious that this ceremony predates the arrival of Christianity to the Slavic lands and may at one time have involved a human sacrifice. In this country, in which winter can be very harsh and where we do not have the early wildflowers that act as harbingers of spring in England, a sacrifice might well be thought needed to secure the death of winter. Nowadays of course no other reason is needed than the excuse to have a party.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Creating an e-guidebook to Cesky Krumlov.


I am currently working on my guidebook to Cesky Krumlov, ready for publication at the end of the month (I hope). The text is written and edited, so nearly everything is done. The cover has been mocked up (see above). But I have a dilemma and I would welcome your feedback.

The book is designed as an ebook. I have observed that a lot of visitors to the town come with ipads and other electronic readers and so thought that there was a need for a downloadable guidebook.

This choice of book format offers opportunities and problems.
The opportunities are that:
  • with an ebook I can incorporate active web-links in the book, allowing the reader direct access maps, bus timetables and other resources
  • I can update the book easily
  • it does not take up space in people's luggage
  • the book is easily searchable.
The problems are that:
  • ereaders reformat the page to fit the screen, so there is an issue about the look of the page and in particular the position and size of images
  • the size and quality of images have to be limited 
  • Czech characters such as in Český do not convert easily into an ebook format.
To resolve the first two problems I will create a gallery of photos that readers can access if they want to see more images of Cesky Krumlov.

The third problem is the one I would welcome your thoughts on. It is possible to code the book to feature Czech characters using HTML, but I am not sure I am capable of doing it and more importantly I am not sure that I should. My readers will be English-speakers, readers and writers, using devices with a standard English keyboard. By using Czech characters I will probably be reducing their capacity to interact with the book. So what should I do?

Sunday, 14 February 2016

More Decorative Details from Prague's Obecni Dum

  

In a previous post I talked about my tour of Prague's Municipal House (Obecni Dum). And mostly I talked about the building in terms of Art Nouveau. Its architectural style is indeed Art Nouveau. And clearly that is also the case with the exterior decoration and much of the interior.



But it is a bit of a simplification. The building was at the forefront of architectural and decorative trends when it was built between 1905 and 1912. Indeed the Czechs often were breaking new ground in the first part of the twentieth century. As a result some of the decorative details are art deco and indeed cubist.


The decoration is everywhere. From the concert hall to the ticket office, from basement to the salons upstairs, from the lift (photograph above) to the lights (below).


As an introduction to the architecture of the early part of the 20th Century a visit to the Obecni Dum is an excellent idea.



Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Masopust at the train station






Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday and so Masopust was celebrated in the Czech Republic. I have blogged about Masopust in previous posts and so I will simply share with you this photograph of two Masopusters waiting for the train to Horni Plana in the waiting room at Cesky Krumlov station.

You can see my video of Masopust in my nearest town here: http://czechproperty.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/masopust.html

and my post about the Masopusters visit to my village here: http://czechproperty.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/masopust-in-horice-na-sumave.html

Monday, 1 February 2016

Happy 1938


When you start collecting Czech ex libris, you will also be offered PFs. These are New Year cards and usually feature the letters PF (which stands for the French greeting pour feliciter) and the year and perhaps the name of the family sending the card. The Czechs refer to these cards as peefko. Sometimes families will make their own cards and sometimes they will commission artists to produce cards for them.

Some cards are humourous and many reveal the interests of the family sending the card, which is another reason (other than their artistic value) why they are fascinating to collect. This signed card in our collection is by the well-known artist Alois Moravec. As you can see it is a happy new year card for 1938, which was to be a far from a happy year for the Czechs. The choice of subject matter for this card would seem to be indicative of the impending Nazi invasion and Czech determination to resist.

This is a picture of Jan Zizka, the one-eyed military genius who successfully resisted a series of anti-Hussite crusader armies. These invading armies were for a large part made up of the Teutonic knights - the panzer divisions of their day - and on the face of it the Czech Hussites didn't stand a chance in the face of such military superiority. But the undefeated Zizka shattered the knights' reputation and in so doing entered into the Czech nationalist pantheon. No wonder he features on this 1938 PF.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Absinthe

 

The first Czech painting I ever saw in the Czech Republic was The Absinthe Drinker by Viktor Oliva. I had just arrived in a bitterly cold Prague and my friend took me to Cafe Slavia to warm up. The Cafe, which sits opposite the National Theatre on the bank of the Vltava, had always been a meeting place for artists, writers and intellectuals and it was still. As my friend debated the future of the post-Communist Czechoslovakia with her friends, my eyes were drawn to a large painting on the wall opposite. A man sits at a table, head in hands, conversing with the green fairy of absinthe.

Viktor Oliva was a Czech art nouveau painter and illustrator who discovered the green spirit when he lived in the Bohemian quarter of Paris. He died in Prague twenty seven years after painting the work and is buried in Olsany Cemetery.

I came across absinthe again this year. I was walking around Jindrichuv Hradec and came upon a distillery of liqueurs. In the shop window was this bottle of their own brand of absinthe. Jindrichuv Hradec is known for its liqueurs. Another local company, Fruko Schulz, is one of the largest producers of liqueurs and spirits in the Czech Republic. But Hills, the distillery I discovered on my walk, is more of a family affair and invites you in for a tour to learn about distilling and indeed a tasting. As I was driving, I took this photo and hurried on before being tempted in.

As a footnote to this post, I was in the Krumlov Tesco supermarket before Christmas and bought my son a pack of absinthe chocolate. There was also a bar of cannabis chocolate, but I didn't think I would get that through customs!

Friday, 22 January 2016

Czech Ex Libris

Signed by Mirko Hanak

For my Christmas present to my husband I made a small album of Czech bookplates. I have in the past bought exlibris and other graphics for our artist son, but a few months ago my husband and I were talking about the possibility of creating an exlibris collection. We have run out of wall space for pictures and prints in our home and so a collection of small prints which can be kept in an album appeals. Many antikvariat shops will have a box or an album on a shelf somewhere in which you can find a few or many exlibris treasures. It is a way of collecting original prints, often signed, by well-known Czech artists for as little as a £ each. I know of no other way to develop such an art collection.

Signed exlibris by Plevka

I picked up a collection of 32 bookplates on a Czech auction website and another on ebay. I emailed a gallery about a collection I missed and met with its lovely art director for a coffee in Prague and came away with nearly one hundred bookplates to add to the collection. Now everywhere I go I am on the look-out for antikvariats and pop in to ask for exlibris. Yesterday my husband and I were in Plzen (where the beer comes from) and spent a happy hour sifting through two shoeboxes.

Exlibris by Michael Florian

I have included three of my favourites in this post, but I promise to post with more in future. Watch this space as our collection grows

Monday, 18 January 2016

Back in time for winter


I returned from an English Christmas in time for a Czech Epiphany, from a country suffering from prolonged rain and horrendous floods (although not fortunately in my home town) in time for snow (I hoped). The Czech news had been full of how the temperatures in December been record-breakingly mild, seldom dipping below freezing the whole month. However the weather obligingly broke the day before I arrived, so the plane flew in over snow-covered fields.

In South Bohemia however the mild weather soon melted the scattering of white on the hills. A week or so ago all that changed overnight. I looked out of the window to see this:


It has been snowing ever since. Inside the house the stove is lit and all is warm: the perfect way to enjoy a Czech winter.

Friday, 1 January 2016

The Obecni Dum - Prague's Munipical House


 Prague's Obecni Dum (Municipal House) is often overlooked by visitors planning their stay. I have to confess that the same was true of me and my family, even though we visited Prague regularly. I suspect that the reason for this is that the building is not advertised as well as it might be. Anyway this time last year my husband and I rectified the omission.

And it was a serious omission. This building is amazing. Architecturally it is a jewel of the Art Nouveau, historically it is an amazing statement of the rise of Czech nationalism (the Declaration of Independence was signed here) and its decoration is by some of the best Czech artists of the early twentieth century.

 
You have to take a guided tour of the interiors to really get a real feel for the building. It is well worth the money, you get to see the amazing Mayor's Hall decorated by Alfons Mucha, the Riegr Room with frescoes by Max Svabinsky, the Palacky Hall with paintings by Preisler, and many other rooms and works by other artists of the day. Our guide was excellent who told us the story the building in such a way that it became a story of the Czech nation too.

After the tour we went upstairs to visit an exhibition of European and Czech Art Nouveau 1900, which finished our visit off perfectly. The exhibition, which is drawn from the collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts (the museum is currently being refurbished), features furniture, ceramics, costumes, posters and graphics and is on until the end of July 2016.


Prior to taking our tour we enjoyed a coffee and cake in the building's amazing Art Nouveau Francouzska Restaurant. The cake was lovely and not too expensive and the decorations surrounding us were divine. My husband disappeared for a while to photograph the decor, leaving me to smile at the waiter. Phil was in seventh heaven - the whole building is covered with architectural details of the highest quality from the staircase to the cloakrooms. We got a voucher for a reduced price drink in the American Bar in the buildings basement, with our tickets. But we were still so replete with cakes that we only wandered in to look at the decoration. As with every part of the building the bar is amazing - black ceramic tiles influenced by the American style of the 1910s contrasting with coloured drawings of folk scenes (originally these were by Czech artist Mikolas Ales).



If you really can't afford the 290 Korun for the tour, the restaurants and bars are open to the public without a ticket. Another way of seeing some of the building is to attend one of the many concerts which take place in the stunning Smetana hall.

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