Friday, 19 January 2018

Jan Palach Day

Today is the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach. I have written about the young student in the past in this post   In protest at the Soviet invasion in 1968 Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square and died three days later. 

I wasn't going to post about him this year. But as I was going through the boxes of photos hiding under our bed, I came across a set of photos of my first visit to Prague and the Czech Republic and among them was this photograph. It was the Easter following the Velvet Revolution and the grief that had been suppressed during the Communist Era was at last allowed expression. The site of Palach's tragic protest had become a makeshift shrine, the most prominent of many scattered across the city. I was incredibly moved by it and still am.

Monday, 15 January 2018


Yet another year goes by and I have again missed the re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz, which takes place in early December every year. I keep meaning to travel to the rolling hills south of Brno where the battle took place, but because of the timing (the 2nd December) I do not make it.

The battle, which took place in 1805, will be known to fans of the recent BBC War and Peace serialization as the battle in which Prince Andrei is wounded. To military historians it is often seen as Napoleon's greatest victory when a French force of only 72,000 was pitted against a combined Austrian/Russian force of 85,000. Napoleon's victory was based on psychology and tactics, taking advantage of the foggy weather to lure his enemies from their position of strength into attacking. To reenactment fans - it is one the biggest annual reenactments anywhere with over 900 participants from all over Europe.

This film of the 2017 reenactment shows why I really should risk the cold and make it to Slavkov (the Czech name for the battle is Bitva u Slavkov) some year soon.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas to you all.

The print is a PF in my collection. It is by Czech artist Frantisek Emler.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Czech Christmas Decorations

You will find beautiful glass Christmas tree decorations in gift shops and on Christmas market stalls all over the Czech Republic. The tradition of making these dainty baubles in this country goes back to the 19th century when glass decorations first replaced apples which had been used for centuries. Now the Czech craftsmen and factories have to compete with cheap imports from China, but the quality of the Czech product is holding its own.

There is a wide range of styles to choose from. From the contemporary twist (sometimes literally) on the old designs, to ones which would not have looked out of place in a Victorian parlour. In addition to the blown balls and twisted glass, the Czechs also make decorations out of beads. I found this complex airplane in an “antik” shop on the Castle Steps in Cesky Krumlov. Most Czech antique shops will have a selection of old decorations for sale.

The majority of Czech glass decoration manufacture takes place in the mountainous north and east. This is because the mountains had the raw materials for glass manufacture: sand, water and timber for the fires. Christmas tree decorations is part of a much wider tradition of Czech glass making, which I intend to talk about in future posts.  

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Letters to the Baby Jesus

If you are thinking about sending a letter to Baby Jesus you better get a move on.  The special Baby Jesus post box opened on the 3rd and will close on the 10th, when the White Lady will be visiting the town to take your letters to the Baby.

In the Czech Republic tradition it is not Santa Claus who brings the children their presents on Christmas Eve but the Baby Jesus (Ježíšek). It is therefore Baby Jesus to whom children address their letters.

The tradition of Baby Jesus goes back at least 400 years and has survived Nazism and Communism, but since the Velvet Revolution Czech children have come under a cultural and commercial onslaught from the West. Is it any surprise that the Baby Jesus is under threat from the American Santa Klaus? Part of the problem is that no one knows what Baby Jesus looks like, unlike the highly branded Santa. Is the Baby a baby? No one knows.

In response to the Santaization of Christmas the Czechs have fought back - there are organisations set up to save the Baby Jesus. As one website states "We fight for traditional Czech Christmas and practices. We want the Baby Jesus to be saved from the invasion of the red fat man and his reindeer underlings." But it is going to be a hard fight.

If you are wondering where to send your letter, please note Baby Jesus does not live in Lapland or at the North Pole, but like a true Czech he lives in the small town of Boží Dar in the Czech Mountains.

Monday, 4 December 2017

St Barbara and the Miners

I was in Cesky Krumlov two years ago today and thought I was just there for the Christmas market. Nothing was due to happen until the day after (5th December) when St Nicholas, accompanied by angels and devils would arrive. I was wrong.  

In the distance came the sound of a brass band and into the town square marched men in uniform carrying standards and flaming torches. These were not soldiers or firemen, but miners from all over the country. They had gathered in Cesky Krumlov for two reasons.

First this was St Barbara's Day. St Barbara is the patron saint of miners, which was why the great church at Kutna Hora by the gold miners of that city is St Barbara's church. In a profession as dangerous as mining it was important to have a saint interceding for you. In one version of the story Barbara fled the ire of her father into a mine where the miners gave her refuge and she has been returning the favour ever since.

Secondly Cesky Krumlov was also a mining town and has its own guild of miners. Gold and silver were to be found in the hills around the town. The other metal, which continued to be mined when gold and silver ran out, was graphite. As you walk along the river path at the foot of the castle you can see the boarded up entrances to small mines and you can even go down the graphite mine on the Chvalsinska Road.

In this old picture of Cesky Krumlov miners you can see most of them are wearing the smart black uniforms that appear on the banner image (above) and that I was seeing in the square. If you look closely the miner behind the truck coming out of the mine is in his work clothes.

After the marching, the music and the speeches, the miners got down to enjoying themselves with their families. And posing for photos!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Honouring the Czech airmen

Three Wellington Mk ICs of No. 311 (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF based at East Wretham, Norfolk, March 1941. CH2265
Wellingtons from the RAF 311 (Czechoslovak) squadron.

Having just passed through the security check for my flight from Prague, I sat down to wait the opening of the gate. As I often do I started talking to the lady on the seat next to me. 

"How long have you been here," I asked.
"Only two days," she replied.
"Not long enough," I said
"No, but I have been here many times. I just came to attend a ceremony for the families of Czech RAF airmen of the Second World War."

We talked and she showed me a picture of her father's name on the plaque just unveiled on the flying lion monument opposite Malastranska Metro station. I was honoured to sit next to the daughter of such a brave man and asked her about him. Here is his story:

He and his cousin left the country in order to fight the Nazis, first they went to Poland to fight, then to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion, before going to France and from there to England. During the war he piloted Lancasters and Wellingtons, until a serious accident put an end to his active service and he moved to training pilots instead. After the war the Czechoslovak squadrons were transfered to the reformed Czech airforce and he returned to his homeland. 

When the Communists came to power and started to purge the airforce, he flew a business man and the man's plane to freedom in the west and came back to Britain. His cousin stayed behind with his family and suffered under the Communists. After all that adventure her father's story should have ended happy ever in England, but it didn't. Still eager to continue flying, he went to Canada. There his luck ran out, his plane experienced mechanical failure and crashed in the vastness of the Canadian wilderness. 


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