Monday, 23 April 2007

Crosses and Shrines

When you start to explore the area around Cesky Krumlov, one of the things that strikes you as a protestant Brit is the number of wayside shrines and crosses. Although you will find them in the centre of villages, these crosses are not just in the places you would expect but also in the middle of fields and on footpaths through forests. They mark old trails and processional routes. They are a sign of the country's devout Catholic past, but in some places, as in England , these crosses are sited on older pre-Christian religious sites. If you are interested in identifying the sites of such shrines, you can find them on the large-scale maps.

But there are not as many shrines and crosses as there once were. Under the Communists many crosses were desecrated and destroyed. Some Czechs sought to save the crosses from destruction, removing the metal Christ figures and putting them into storage. Some friends invited us to a mill they have near Cesky Krumlov - there in the yard was a pile of Christ figures (above). The vision was like one of those photos of naked dead bodies at concentration camps, brutal and strange.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


Where we live near Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia the ghosts of the area's former German residents are everywhere. Prior to 1945 you were most likely to hear German spoken on the streets of Krumlov (German: Krummau). You will find remnants of this on walls and signs, such as the one above.

The area is close to the German and Austrian borders. Until 1918 the whole of the Czechoslovakia was part of the Austrian Empire, but after defeat in World War 1 and the collapse of the Empire, the new independent state of Czechoslovakia was formed. In 1938 Hitler's troops occupied the Sudetenland, claiming to be liberating the Sudetenland Germans from Czech tyranny; this was followed by the conquest of the rest of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs, betrayed by the British at Munich, entered fifty years of oppression.

Many of the Sudetenland Germans welcomed the Nazis - after all over half a million joined the Nazi party and so it was not a surprise that in 1945 a massive backlash took place. It was not a surprise but that does not disguise its savageness. German property was confiscated and the German population was forced out of the country. To give you some idea of the scale of this forced movement - at the time of the 1921 Census there were over 3 million Germans in the country; by 2001 there were just 40,000.

The house we own was once owned by Germans. It is typical of the area with its courtyard and orchard. The German farmers were proud of their homes and loved the land. Under the Czechs and the Communists the house fell into decline and disrepair. An old neighbour remembered the German family - "If they came back now they would be in tears," he said, "to see the house now." Others, whose homes lay nearer the border, would find nothing at all if they came back. The Sumava became the frontline in the Cold War. The Iron Curtain ran straight through it and so whole areas and villages were cleared to remove any cover for asylum seekers trying to cross to the West. All that remains are the metal crosses and wayside shrines and silent orchards and gardens gone wild.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Easter in the Czech Republic

My first visit to the Czech Republic was just before Easter 1990 and I have enjoyed a fair few Czech Easters since. In fact I try to ensure that I am there for Easter, it is such a special time in the Republic.

Many visitors to Czecho return home with a box or two of brightly decorated easter eggs (above) - they make a lovely and light momento of your visit. On my first visit I too brought back some eggs, but I had little idea what their significance was. Nor did I know that of the switches of woven willow wands and decorated with ribbons, which I saw on sale in Wenceslas Square.

Over the years I have learnt more about these Easter traditions, but then a few years ago I was let into some of the secrets. I was invited into a small kitchen on Easter Monday where the lady of the house was preparing the eggs. She was going to show us the local tradition of egg decoration. She had blown several dozen of them - the family was going to be eating a lot of omelettes over the next few days! She needed a lot as the matriarch of a large family and as a brilliant egg decorator her eggs were going to be in great demand.

Now there are different forms of decoration I believe in different parts of the country and different traditions are passed down from mother to daughter, so the traditional decoration I was shown would not be found every where. It involved dyes, beeswax melted on the stove and a pin stuck into the end of a pencil. The process was a sort of batik on egg, with the pin used to apply the wax on the egg in a pattern. Our hostess made it look easy, it wasn't - the wax would stick to the pin or come off in a blob and my attempt looked very primitive when set against hers. Once the wax is set the egg is dyed, the wax is then removed with a warm cloth to reveal the colour beneath. This process can be repeated to create patterns in different colours. The pattern that I was shown was a traditional one of various fertility symbols - the ear of corn, a woman in traditional dress etc.

We had hardly finished dying the eggs, when in through the door burst some male friends of the family carrying the willow switches. They set about playfully belabouring the legs of all the women present with the switches. In return for being "beaten" we gave the men some eggs. Then the matriarch produced some cake and plum brandy, which were consumed by her visitors with gusto. Afterwards they all disappeared in search of other female prey, eggs, cake and alcohol. The tradition is obviously a pagan fertility rite - which is very clear when one discovers that the name for the switch is pomlazka (from pomladit "to make younger") . Of course the tradition has been upbraided by American feminists to Czech bemusement.

Later we sat in the garden and listened to the gaggles of men, now quite drunk after visiting various houses, caroling along the street below. When the doorbell rang we hid, we had no more eggs to give!

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Good Friday at Rimov

Easter is a special time in the Czech Republic and it means a lot to me personally. As I said the first time I visited the country was around Easter and somehow since then I have often been in the country for the Easter celebrations.

A special place to visit at Easter is Rimov a few miles from Cesky Krumlov. The village has been a place of pilgrimage since the 17th century. The Baroque Loretto Chapel there is beautiful but my preference is to walk around the short trail (about 5 kilometres), which takes you past 25 small stations of the cross - the Rimov Passion. The stations are all very different - some are simple hand painted paintings in small wayside chapels, some are tableaux, some are more complex. My favourite is the one shown in the photo above - the statues in the Garden of Gethsemane, all life size and set naturally in the landscape. You are walking through a wood along a small stream set about with coltsfoot and early spring flowers and then on a brow of a low hill you see the first of the statues. Statues of the sleeping disciples lie prostrate, Jesus is in urgent prayer, he leans forward, his eyes fixed on an angel at the top of the slope who proffers the cross.

The trail combines gentle exercise with prayer - at Easter you will find families, couples and friends walking, talking or meditating. And if you aren't religious you can always raid the willows along the river for withies - now why would you need them?

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Prague First Impressions - Weeping Angels

The next five days were spent wandering around Prague. These were days before the arrival of the hordes of tourists, and so I was often alone as I meandered around the narrow streets of the Old Town and up to the Castle. Virtually no one spoke English - the language having been looked on with suspicion by the communist authorities - and so I got by on rudimentary German and miming.

My friend was renewing old acquaintances and exploring business opportunities and so I just took the opportunity in her absence to explore and soak in the atmosphere, and what an atmosphere it was. It is now hard to explain what it felt like back in early 1990. I had no guidebook and instead just walked, following my instinct, often going over the same ground time and again. I was completely breathless with the beauty of the place and felt the city's history - both glorious and sad - reaching out to me from alleyways and courtyards, through the railings of the Jewish quarter and from the facades of once rich buildings. Now the visitor finds the route from Charles Bridge to Town Square lined with hawkers, shops crammed with souvenirs and frankly often tat; then it was quiet and powerful. The statues on Charles Bridge stood alone and silent, without the accompanying flash of cameras and chatter of posing tourists.

On a number of occasions and at a number of places I came across small shrines of candles and flowers, set up to those who had been murdered by the oppressors. In Wenceslas Square there was a large makeshift memorial to Jan Palach - the student who had burnt himself to death in 1968 as a protest against the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring. Here there was a constant stream of people bringing flowers and lighting candles. It all felt hugely personal. I felt a voyeur watching the people's bowed heads. How could I comprehend what I was seeing? How could I share anything of the emotion that hung like incense in the air? And I was angered by other non-Czech visitors who stood around and took photos of it all.

I regularly made my way back to the lights and warmth of Cafe Slavia either to meet up with my friend or to drink black Czech coffee and eat the Cafe's rich cakes. Energy and wits refreshed, I would then venture back on to the streets. I do not know whether it was the caffeine or the intensity of emotion in Prague at that time, but I increasingly found myself unable to sleep. In that heightened state I found angels everywhere - statues, in frescos, in pictures. I sensed too a presence in the air, the angels of Prague were weeping and rejoicing.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Cafe Slavia

Cafe Slavia is to be found on the bank of the Vltava opposite the National Theatre. On the evening of my first day in Czechoslovakia nearly 20 years ago Cafe Slavia was full of people.

Cafe Slavia had long been the favourite watering hole of Prague's intelligensia - Kafka and Kundera have been among its customers. And it was also a favourite of the former Czech dissident leader and now president Vaclav Havel. Cafe Slavia then in early 1990 was a centre for those who were planning and executing the transformation of the newly democratised country. The cafe's Art Deco leather bank seating, cherrywood and onyx had been allowed to tarnish under the communists and yet the place shone with an energy that was almost palpable.

My puppeteer friend and I joined a group of her friends sitting in animated conversation, into which she soon was drawn. I sat, watched and listened to the flurry of a language I did not understand. I drank a cup of dark, thick Czech coffee and soon was intoxicated. Without language I was thrown back on my other senses, all of which seemed heightened by the apparent absence of the one.

Language is very important to me, but it exists on three levels. The first is that of conversation, the run-of-the-day exchange, and I am good at that, good at making people feel at ease, good at communicating what I wish and hiding the rest. The second is that of academic exactitude and arguing the case; three years at Oxford had honed this side of my language to a dagger point. And the last is something deeper. My parents tell me that as a small child even before I could read or write I composed poetry. This last level of language has a habit of tripping me up, starting as it does not in words but in rhythm. It is powerful and heady and something I resist until I can resist no longer. But most of the time it is drowned out by the hubbub of daily life. Here in the Cafe Slavia, drunk with the electricity in the air, I found that the conversation around me, stripped of meaningful words but full of exciting rhythyms and cadences, rang deep in that third level. It resonated inside me and something flexed like a Golem still unformed in Vltava mud.

Afterwards as we walked along the river to catch a tram to where I was staying I asked my friend about the one word I had made out in the multitude of others that evening. It had seemed to appear in every sentence, been the answer to every question. She smiled "Possibly," she said, "It means possibly." On that cold night in the early days following the Velvet Revolution everything was possible.

First Impressions - the train

As is the case for most people my first impressions of the Czech Republic were of Prague. Well, actually no, my first impressions were from a train window as I entered the country on a slow train from Germany. It was a few months after the Velvet Revolution, just before Easter, and the number of planes flying to Prague had not yet increased to take account of the number of people wanting to fly there. And so I flew to Frankfurt, took the train to Nurenburg, changed on to a smaller train and so on to Prague. It was a wonderful way to arrive, in that it gave me time to watch the changes, to feel the transformation.

Even now I recommend to anyone coming to Cesky Krumlov that they make the journey from Prague to Cesky Krumlov by train rather than hire a car and come down in a hermetically sealed pod. You will meet Czechs that way and you will see some wonderful countryside. The last part of the journey, after you climb on the little train at Ceske Budejovice, is particularly magical as the train winds its way through the forests of the Blanksy Les past a series of small villages.

But back to my first journey into Czecho. The train was full of Germans - a bunch of Bavarians with a large hamper of food and beer who talked very loudly and were on their way to flash the mighty deutschmark in Prague and a Prussian couple who talked to me in English. At the border our papers were checked first by the German border guards, then the train moved a few yards and the Czech guards arrived. Although it was about three months after the collapse of communism, many of its structures, mentality and behaviours were alive and strong, and these included those of the border guards. They arrived grim-faced, together with rifles, inspected the passports and papers as if certain we were enemies of the state, and slowly made their way through the train.

I was relieved when the jolt of the train indicated we were moving again and so we entered Czechoslovakia. My first impressions were not entirely favourable. As the night was drawing in I could not see much beyond the immediate environment of the railway line, but here everywhere looked run-down - the station buildings in need of repairs, long trains with coal, timber and other goods trundled past. The only countryside I could see was where the forest dark and mysterious pressed in. I felt a frisson down my spine. The fairytales of my childhood came to mind, somewhere out there were the woodcutter and hunter, bears, foxes and big, bad wolves.

At last we arrived in Prague Station. There standing on the platform was my puppeteer friend. She was buzzing with excitement, glad to be back in her homeland after 20 years, glad to have renewed acquaintances with ex-student friends now bigshots in the brave new world of post Velvet Revolution Prague. "Come," she said, "We have time for a coffee to Cafe Slavia."


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