Friday, 8 September 2017

The Extraordinary Portmoneum


I gave my Australian artist friend a tour of the more unknown treasures of the Czech Republic and Litomysl's Portmoneum had to be on the list of stops. From the outside the Portmoneum is a humble single-storey house on a back street in Litomysl, but oh boy what wonders await you inside!

The story of the Portmoneum is the story of two men: one the artist Josef Vachal and the other, Josef Portmon, a teacher and a collector of art especially Vachal's. Portmon's collecting fervour bordered on the obsessive and eventually his demands on Vachal put such a strain on the relationship that the older man wanted nothing more to do with his admirer. In the Portmoneum we benefit from that fervour, for how many collectors would invite an artist to decorate every surface of two rooms in their small house – ceiling, walls and all the furniture? Even then it was not enough for Portmon who sought to commission more, but Vachal refused.


It is quite impossible to fully describe the impact of the Portmoneum. Vachal's art is vibrant, full of strong colours, metaphor and spirituality. Created in the early 1920s Portmoneum's expressionism stems from the Art Nouveau movement, but it both looks back at the Baroque and forward to today. In this his greatest work Vachal manages to combine a sense of humour with profound psychological depth. There is so much going on in the art, which literally surrounds the viewer, that it is impossible to take it all in.

Vachal has a very contemporary appeal. However it was not always so. Obviously his spirituality did not sit easily with Communism, so it was not until the late 1960's that his reputation began to recover. Even so the Portmoneum suffering from water damage was allowed to decline until the 1990's, when at last restoration began. I have visited twice and on both occasions we found ourselves alone to enjoy Vachal's amazing work.  

If you want to own a Vachal, it is quite possible to do so, as he also produced ex libris. Here is one from my collection: 

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Stamp Collecting & President Benes

By Nelliette (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It is funny how people can be drawn to visiting a country. When I was running Czech Tours I always made a point of asking why people had chosen to come here, what had sparked their interest. In one case it was stamp collecting.

Anyone who has collected stamps as a youngster will know that Czechoslovakia produced loads of great stamps. I assume stamp production was a way to generate income from the West for the then Communist state. I no longer collect stamps, but I do collect Czech graphics and many of the artists I now collect also were hired to design stamps and first-day covers.

But it wasn't the graphical flair that had caught my customer's interest, but the story of the presidents whose faces appear on the stamps. In particular my customer was fascinated by President Benes. Now Benes has a very mixed press among Czechs. Many do not see him as the wartime leader, but as the president who failed to stop the Communists. To the Sudetenland Germans he is the man responsible for the forced expulsion from their homes and the deaths of those who fell or were slain on the route. But my customer made the pilgrimage to Benes' home near Tabor and came back enthused.


Friday, 18 August 2017

Cezeta - The Pig Flies Again


The Pig is the affectionate nickname given by the Czechs to a 1960s scooter and design icon produced by Cezeta. This is partly due to the scooter's snout and partly due to the pig as a Czech symbol of luck. Cezeta had been producing motorcycles since the 1930s, but it is the Cezeta 500 series culminating in Cezeta 505 that sticks in the collective memory.

Instantly recognizable due to its distinctive torpedo shape, the Čezeta was popular for its simplicity, reliability and durability. Due to its long wheelbase, it was originally marketed as a ‘car on wheels’ and never called a scooter. Two people could go on holiday with their bags stored in the body space, whilst the larger seat made comfortable room for lovers riding pillion. The Čezeta quickly became a symbol of freedom and adventure for young Czechs. It was also raced for fun by the company’s engineers. Following Grand Prix success in 250cc and 350cc classes, the ČZ brand became famous and because of it more than 100,000 Čezeta scooters were sold around the world, many of which have been lovingly restored and are now collectors’ items.

This year, thanks to the enthusiasm of a British ex-pat, Neil Eamonn Smith, the Cezeta 506 is being launched. Whilst keeping many of the design details that so appealed to its 1960s customers, the new scooter has been brought up to date. The 506 is a high performance sports scooter with a 0-50 km/h in 3.2 seconds, a powerful bike you can control, engineered for everyday use. It boasts new proprietary technologies including the electric drivetrain, the Sway throttle and the Dynamics torque selector.

A limited edition of just 600 bikes has been launched this year. But hopefully this will be the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the Cezeta Pig.

More  at www.cezeta.com

Sunday, 6 August 2017

A tinker's craft


I have been looking for a present for my cousin's 25th wedding anniversary. It had to be small enough and tough enough to survive going in hand luggage. And this is what I found. It combines a ceramic base with a hand-woven wire rim attached by holes drilled in the rim of the base. Isn't it beautiful!

The dish is a good example of a domestic handicraft, which traditionally was hawked around the villages by Slovak tinkers. Legend has it that after the tinkers had presented the Empress Marie Theresa with a cradle made of wire so brilliantly that it would rock forever with one push, the grateful empress granted the tinkers the right to travel all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Much of their trade would have been in repairing pots or wrapping them  in wire nets to stop breakages. Mousetraps, birdcages, whisks, coat hooks, strainers, and other household goods were also offered. All the craftsmen needed in their packs were rolls of soft flexible wire, a hammer, pincers, and a stitching awl. The wire was bent cold and so no bellows or anvil were needed.

The days of the itinerant tinkers are over. But in Slovakia and the Czech Republic some craftsmen are keeping the tinkers' craft alive, adapting it to modern markets and I was lucky enough to meet one yesterday at a stall on Ceske Budejovice's main square.


Thursday, 27 July 2017

Prague - The Other City


I have just finished reading The Other City by Michal Ajvaz.

In this strange and lovely hymn to Prague, Michal Ajvaz repopulates the city of Kafka with ghosts, eccentrics, talking animals, and impossible statues, all lurking on the peripheries of a town so familiar to tourists. The Other City is a guidebook to this invisible, "other Prague," overlapping the workaday world: a place where libraries can turn into jungles, secret passages yawn beneath our feet, and waves lap at our bedspreads. Heir to the tradition and obsessions of Jorge Luis Borges, as well as the long and  distinguished line of Czech  fantasists, Ajvaz's Other City—his first novel to be translated into English—is the emblem of all the worlds we are blind to, being caught in our own ways of seeing.

It is one of several books I have read which portray an alternative Prague existing alongside the "real" Prague. I have reviewed some of them on my Magic Realism Books blog: including A Kingdom of Souls  by Daniela Hodrova,  Keeping Bedlam at Bay in The Prague Cafe by M Henderson Ellis, Gustav Meyrink's works including of course The Golem and of course Kafka's The Metamorphosis.  And there are more such books on my to-be-read list.

I am not surprised that Prague has almost spawned a sub-genre of place-based magic realism. During my first visit to the city, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, I was acutely aware of the magical or spiritual energy that seemed to flow out of Prague's ancient stones, rippling across the Vltava and climbing the steps to the castle and Emperor Rudolf's alchemical workshops. That magical echo is less audible now beneath the footsteps of eager tourists and the kerching of cash registers, but it is still there.


The Other City is set in a Czech winter, a time of year when I have always felt the Prague magic most acutely. Maybe it is because of the way the snow deadens sound and redraws the familier outlines of buildings, smudging the boundaries between water, land and sky.  Ajvaz's Other City also emerges at night, something that is hard to imagine in the real city busy 24/7.

The alternative Prague that Ajvaz creates is too fantastical for my liking, closer to surrealism than magic realism. The author obviously had great fun inventing an amazing alternative world and mixing it in with the real Prague - "Customers at Cafe Slavia are seldom assaulted by sharks". I particularly loved the idea of the bases of the statues on Charles Bridge being used as stalls for tiny elks, but at times the weirdness just went on too long. I am perhaps too Anglo Saxon to appreciate this very Czech absurdism. By the way there are some great jokes about the Czech language in the book; "Case endings were originally invocations of demons." For this failed student of Czech, they still are!

It is hard at times, as the novel's central character pursues the Other City and is at times pursued by it's inhabitants, to see where the novel is going. But there is a resolution - a philosophical one, which comes to the central character in the last chapter.  Ajvaz is a researcher at the Prague Centre for Theoretical Studies and has published not only a book on Borges but also one called Jungle of Light: Meditations on Seeing and in many ways this book is also a meditation on seeing. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the book for you.




Saturday, 22 July 2017

Limonade


On a hot day there is nothing better than to order a carafe of domaci limonade and sit at a terrace table under a parasol. This is not lemonade in the fizzy artificial sense. It is in fact a home-made fruit or herb squash. Domaci means home-made and is a useful word to look for on menus in all sorts of contexts.


Of course being home-made the flavours are only as limited as the ingredients available to its maker. Limonade may not even include lemons among its ingredients. Other common flavours are raspberry, mint, and ginger.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Walking the Bear Trail


I have been meaning to blog about walking the oldest nature trail in the Czech Republic for some time now. I actually walked the trail a year ago, but never got round to blog about it. 
The Bear Trail (Medvedi Stezka) gets its name from a stone three quarters of the way along the trail, which marks where the last brown bear in the country was shot in the 19th century. Now the only bear you will come across is on the signsposts and information boards for the trail, which feature a bear on a yellow and black background. 


Set in the spectacular scenery of the Sumava National Park. the trail links the two former lumberjack settlements of Ovesna and Cerny Kriz, both are on the train line from Cesky Krumlov. Although the trail is only 8.7 miles long, you should allow a day for the walk, as you will need to coincide your walk with the train timetable and you will want to stop for a drink and food at Jezerni Vrch.

Cow Head Rock

The first section of the walk between Ovesna and Jezerni is probably the most spectacular, as you climb the forested slopes of Mt Pernik - the trail rises from 736m above sea level to 1037m before dropping down to Jezerni. Walking in the forest can be a bit tedious, but not so on the Bear Trail, because all the way up are a number of rock formations with descriptive names: including Pernikova Skala (Gingerbread Rocks), Goticky Portal (Gothic door), Hrib (Mushroom), Obri Kostky (Giant's Dice), Draci tlama (Dragon's Mouth) and Soutezka lapku (The Highwaymen's Gorge). In places the forest parts to afford spectacular views across the river valley to the ancient forested hill of Boubin.




At Jezerni Vrch you will find the Schwarzenberg Wood Canal and places to eat and drink. After refreshments you continue along the trail past the Bear Stone and on to Cerny Kriz and the train back home.

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