Friday, 30 March 2007

Beginning - the puppeteer

A few days ago I talked about an exhibition of puppets I organised at Liverpool nearly 20 years ago and how it was one beginning to the journey that led me to Cesky Krumlov and the Czech Republic. Well, although it is true that puppets generally are something of a common theme with the Czechs, that exhibition had a special importance in my journey.

I approached quite a number of television and film puppeteers for exhibits - these were days before the arrival of emails and so the approach took the form of a letter. Any way I got a phone call in response from one puppeteer. Of course I could borrow some puppets, she even had some scenery if that would help. But she wasn't sure what I would want anything said the puppeteer with a soft, low, Czech accent. Perhaps I could come round to her flat and look at them - she lived only a few miles away from my home in London.

And so it was that I found myself climbing up the cast-iron external staircase of a large Victorian house. At the top of the stairs I rang the doorbell and waited. The door opened, I was greeted and invited in. I descended a few steps in to the reception area, on one side was a set of what I recognised as old Czech marionettes, on a table was a nutcracker in the form of a soldier. On the walls was an array of prints and paintings, and a large Mexican embroidary. I was shown into the main room and waited whilst the puppeteer disappeared to find the puppets. The room was light and airy with large windows overlooking a park. A centre piece of the room was a grand piano with sheet music, beside the door was a plant hung with hand-painted Czech easter eggs. On the bookcase was an eclectic range of books - on Jung, books of fairytales, film and a number of books in Czech.

The puppeteer came back carrying some wonderful characterful black-light theatre puppets - wasn't sure that I would want them, I wanted everything including the scenery and I told her so. She grinned and asked if I would like some tea. Two mugs of dark (very British) tea arrived and we started to talk. We have been talking and drinking tea together ever since.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007


I love the Czech springtime - in particular I love the spring flowers. As I indicated in an earlier post spring has a habit of arriving with bang, overnight even. The countryside, which is at first brown from what are usually several months of snow, starts to turn green. The first flowers appear and spring is definitely sprung.

One of my favourite spring walks is past the Castle Gardens above Cesky Krumlov and up to a little hill above the town. Here among the woods is what looks to be an old hunting lodge of the Schwarzenbergs. And all around the hunting lodge in late March you will find lovely purple buttercups (see above), which form a sheen on the forest floor. You circle around the hill and drop down to the Cesky Krumlov Castle Gardens. If the Gardens are open go in and wander in the less formal area around the revolving theatre and pond. Here you find even more spring flowers. One Easter I spent a whole afternoon lying on the grass among the flowers looking up at the tree branches just breaking into leaf. Among the flowers are Stars of Bethlehem, white anemones, and little cowslips (which my Czech friend calls primroses, but they are unlike English wild primroses). I am working on getting the walk together as a pdf for our website - will let you do when I do, so you can download it and discover the walk for yourself.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Another Beginning - Puppets 1

1988 - a street in Liverpool, the press are waiting. Then a limousine pulls up outside a rather nondescript warehouse and the press photographers start snapping the car's occupants. The occupants are Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. They smile and wave, but they do not get out of the car. They can't, they don't have any legs. They are Spitting Image puppets. Inside the warehouse I have organised an exhibition of television and film puppets and this is a publicity stunt.

Although Reagan and Gorbachev were the architects of glasnost, which a year and a bit later led to the Velvet Revolution and the opening of the Czech lands to us westerners, that is not why I consider this to be a beginning. The exhibition contained a huge range of puppets - Sooty, Parker from Thunderbirds, Postman Pat, Cosgrove Hall's "The Reluctant Dragon", Muffin the Mule, to name but a few. Before having my son earlier in the year I had worked as the manager of the Puppet Centre, the national centre for the puppeteer's art. And so I had had the pleasure of working with some of Britain's finest puppeteers.

I loved and still love puppetry - I loved the way you can do extraordinary things with puppets. Puppetry is a place where art meets theatre meets film meets magic. Now, any visitor to Cesky Krumlov or Prague will tell you that puppetry is part of life in the Czech Republic. Somehow there is something in the Czech soul that responds to puppets and the same is true of mine. There are two puppet museums in Cesky Krumlov and puppets with various standards of execution can be bought in many of the gift shops in the town. But that is not the only reason I consider the Liverpool exhibition to be a beginning of my journey towards Czecho.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

So something about the Celts

It doesn't actually take long to notice the Czech interest in their Celtic roots and even in the British Arthurian tradition. There is even a guy in Cesky Krumlov who calls himself Merlin. You can buy a wonderful map which marks out the places of ancient power in the area - the comments are in Czech and so I am not sure of the places' significance. But you wouldn't get a map like that sold along side the Ordnance Survey in shops in England.

On two occasions I have been taken by some Czech friends to visit local standing stones. On one occasion my friend and I were taken to a place off the road between Cesky Krumlov and Horice na Sumave. We parked the car by the road, dropped down a short slope to cross a stream, passed one of the many small shrines that cover the Czech countryside and followed a path that curved up into the woods. After a while we came to an opening in the trees; the sun streamed through the trees on to a stone lying on the floor. We were told that this had long been a place of power with travellers coming here for centuries to access the forces. Individually we knelt by the horizontal stone and placed our right hands on it, as instructed. We then rose and waited. My friend having risen, found herself being compelled for no reason to walk backwards until she stopped a few yards away. Our guide was delighted - my friend had apparently stopped somewhere important. For me nothing happened.

As we walked back to the car I pondered my reactions to it all. Did I believe what had happened? I knew my friend's reaction would have been absolutely honest, and so something had moved her. But did I believe it? If I did, why did it not work for me? I had been open to anything, I thought. And for that matter I am usually very sensitive to places. As a teenager I had been as obsessed by the Celts as the Czechs, making pilgrimages to ancient places - standing stones, circles and Celtic hill forts (oppida). I had had a whole collection of clunky Celtic jewellary on leather thongs - but then so did everyone else in the early 70s. And I had bought every book I could find on the Celts.

I suppose it might just be that that particular place did not have an impact on me. Then it could have been that the rational and somewhat cynical English side of me was on top at that point - the Oxford-trained historian. You will note that I talk of it as the English side not the British. You see one thing we have in common with the Czechs is not just our Celtic roots, but that we have other roots, roots we are perhaps less fond of. The Czechs have the Slavs, the English have the Anglo Saxon. And so we seek what we see as the Celtic, - the other, the mystical side in our personalities.

Bouncingczech replies

Well I've had my first comment:

bouncingczech said...

I am glad you like the crazy Czech Fairy-psyche. But did you know that we are related? You the Brits, us the Czechs, I mean. Because we are both Celtic by origin.You should czech out (sorry, couldn't resist that) the Celtic sites around the place, in fact there are masses of them around the area you so love! Anyway, maybe some of that fairy-tale poetry romance stuff is just the thing for you to rediscover, I gather the Brits have it inside them but what with all their work-ethic, how deep is it burried? Or is it enough to scratch the surface - your musings would suggest it is :-)

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Beginnings - fairies

So why am I sitting outside a cafe in Cesky Krumlov? What was it that brought me to this place? Well, I suppose there were lots of points at which this journey started. It was like a river - a multitude of sources all coming together. I don't suppose I can identify all of them. But over the next few posts, I' ll explore some of them.

Here is the first - when I was a child I loved fairytales (podhadky in the Czech). I devoured every fairytale book in the library - the Green Fairy Book, the Blue, the Yellow. And I watched the wonderful dramatisations of fairytales that were so much part of British children's 60s tv. Well looking back they were probably pretty rubbish, but I loved them. They were usually badly dubbed and produced in what was then refered to as the Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia. I have seen some more recently, here in the Czech Republic where I am told they are rerun regularly. The Czechs love fairytales, it is part of their pysche. Grown adults will talk with seriousness about fairies and other little folk in the forest. When a house was being done up for a friend and a series of unexplained mishaps took place, the answer proffered was to put a small bowl of milk under the threshold for the fairies. And when I am here, I too find myself refering to the fairies. So when I come here, I am going back to my childhood perhaps.

More About Sitting in Cafes - a plea for slow tourism

In my last post I talked about sitting outside a cafe in Cesky Krumlov, I was drinking a latte and eating Czech honey cake, reading a book and watching the world go by. I can do that for hours. Cesky Krumlov is a great place for slow tourism.

And as I sit I watch the other tourists and what are they doing? Rushing about - they are "doing" Cesky Krumlov. Many of the tourists are on day trips from Prague (3 hrs away). They get off the coach run round the castle, have lunch in one of the hundreds of restaurants and catch a few minutes wandering around the shops, before piling back on to the coach exhausted. Meanwhile I might have finished my latte.

Then there is the other type of tourist - the backpacker. You will find dozens of blogs from them with entries eulogising the town, its beer, its atmosphere. Often the blog entry will say stopped for a night in Cesky Krumlov on the way from Vienna to Prague, Krakow to Berlin or whatever. They are "doing" Europe. We see them in England - "doing" Oxford where I work, "doing" Stratford Upon Avon. Good for them, at least they stay longer than the daytrippers. But they haven't done anywhere, not really. It takes time to get to know a place like Cesky Krumlov or a nation as complex as the Czechs. It takes time and lots of sitting in cafes and watching. In fact it takes years and probably it takes living here, but I will come back to that. This blog is perhaps my attempt to communicate what I have learnt and to explore that - indeed to share that.

Weird Weather

Right now Cesky Krumlov is covered with snow. There is nothing weird about that - in this part of the Czech Republic the winter snow usually arrives in December and stays until March, when suddenly in a matter of days spring arrives. A white Christmas is virtually guaranteed as is skiing. If you go towards the Sumava mountains in the south and so rise 200 more metres you will find the winter snow lasts longer (starting at the end of November), which is good because there are some ski resorts there, the nearest to Cesky Krumlov being Ski Real at Kramolin.

No, what is weird is that only a week ago I was getting a suntan - sitting at a cafe table by the river and reading a book. It was that hot, well over 20 degrees. The winter snow failed to turn up for Christmas, made only a cursory appearance for New Year and then came for another too brief spell, before disappearing again. The Czechs all say they have never known a winter like it. I say it is like a British winter, and they say how lucky we are not to get snow. Of course that is not how I feel, I love the Czech winters - the diamonds in the snow, the bright winter sunshine, the crisp air - so much better than the depressing grey of England.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

And South Bohemia

One of the reasons we keep coming back here is that we just love exploring the local countryside. Cesky Krumlov is set in some of the Czech Republic's most beautiful countryside. Cesky Krumlov is only a few miles away from the Sumava National Park, the largest national park in the country. The Sumava is the Czech's equivalent of the Lake District - only the Sumava hills and mountains are covered with forests. The area is a brilliant place for walking, mountain biking, canoeing, and other adventure holiday activities. The main lake - Lipno - is man-made and offers fishing and various boating activities. For more about Lipno and Sumava - check out

Cesky Krumlov borders the Blanksy Les Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The magical Klet Mountain forms a backdrop to the town.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

An Introduction to Cesky Krumlov

Let us start this blog by a few brief introductions to the town, where we stay - Cesky Krumlov and the area in which it sits. Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO world heritage site, a few miles south of Ceske Budejovice in Southern Bohemia. It is the most incredible place - in many ways a perfect fairytale town. The town stands on two bends in the River Vltava and is dominated by the second largest castle complex in the Czech Republic, which almost seems to grow out of the rock formation on which it is built.

Monday, 19 March 2007

Welcome & Introduction

For some years now we have been enjoying trips to Southern Bohemia and especially the wonderful medieval/renaissance town of Cesky Krumlov. We now have friends there and return several times a year. We have even created a website - to introduce the town and area to others. But we also wanted a blog to just share ideas about, impressions of and updates on our Czech adventures. So here it is...


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