Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Sad Story of the Alchemist's House

If you walk down the Siroka - the market street in Cesky Krumlov in which you will find the Egon Schiele Art Centrum - you will see the Alchemist's House. This wonderful renaissance house is the most perfect example of burgher home in the town and indeed anywhere. Its association with the alchemist Anton Michael of Ebbersbach, a former resident, gives the house its local name and this in turn gave a group of local people the idea for a use for the building - the creation of an alchemy museum.

The museum would have covered the history of alchemy both in Krumlov and further afield, and it would have looked at alchemy's legacy - to science (the alchemists developed many of the early scientific methods) and to literature. It was a perfect idea for Cesky Krumlov, commercially attractive and appropriate. It also would have meant the restoration of the building - sensitive restoration because the people involved in developing the project cared and still do care about the building. The building was owned by the "Cesky Krumlov Development Fund". You can find out what it claims to be doing on the web - that it was protecting the heritage and developing the town for the benefit of local people and future generations. Let us decide from its behaviour over the Alchemist's House whether this is the case.

The proposers of the Alchemy Museum concept were encouraged to work up their business plans and to look for funding. If they did this, they were told, they would get the house. So they set about doing just that. Then they heard that the house had been sold behind their backs to a hotel developer. It is obvious that a hotel conversion of this building is inappropriate. As I indicated in my previous post hotels require changes to the internal fabric of the building incompatible with heritage conservation concerns. Criticism of the hotel proposals has come from national and regional conservation bodies. Does the Development Fund listen? Well it hasn't yet.

Anton Michael of Ebbersbach was an unethical charlatan, who had claimed to be able to grow gold coins by watering them. The Development Fund has found another way to grow gold!

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

UNESCO or not

Those of you who have read my other posts will know my love of Cesky Krumlov. It is a wonderful Czech town in South Bohemia. As you arrive from Prague you come down the hill and in front of you you see a Renaissance castle, set on cliffs, almost Gormenghast-like in its proportions and aspect. It takes your breath away and you realise you are arriving somewhere very special. And you are - the heart of the Cesky Krumlov is a perfectly preserved medieval/renaissance town. In recognition of this the town was made a UNESCO world heritage site. The UNESCO status is meant to help protect its wonderful and unique collection of buildings and in some ways it does. But UNESCO status is a double-edged sword, it brings with it other dangers.

Being a UNESCO World Heritage site means that inevitably the town gets on to the tourism map. There is nothing wrong with that if the tourism is managed in an appropriate sustainable way, but it isn't. It would appear that those who "manage" tourism in Cesky Krumlov and too many that invest in it worship at the shrine of the filthy lucre, of the god of the fast buck. The tourists that are coming tend to be day-trippers, often on a day-trip from Prague. Now it takes about 3 hours to get from Prague to Cesky Krumlov , so as you can see a day-trip to Cesky Krumlov actually means that the visitors have only 2 - 3 hours in the town, not long enough to spend enough money to justify the damage they are doing to the town.

In the 1970's under the Communists there were a small band of people in the Krumlov, who set about saving the town and its heritage from the ravages of communist planning. They went in and saved old medieval doors and other features when the houses were being "improved". Over the decades these same people have faithfully restored frescos, chimneys and other features. If you want to understand more of this, visit the small museum of architecture (you can bet the day-trippers won't). This museum is an example of the sort of visitor offering that the town should have been providing, one in keeping with the setting and which enables the visitor to understand the heritage of Cesky Krumlov. Of course the town did not provide it, it was the initiative of one dedicated individual. The town didn't even provide the building in which this remarkable collection is housed.

The band rejoiced when the town got UNESCO status, now they feel that the status has done harm. It would seem that the greed of capitalism has combined with the centralist legacy of communism to exploit the status for financial benefit, not of the people of Krumlov nor of the fabric of the town, but of a few individuals and often external companies. Historic houses held in trust by the local historical fund have been sold off for inappropriate use. Restaurants, hotels and the like may keep the facades, but inside these uses inevitably result in major changes in the fabric of the houses - visitors expect ensuite bathrooms, these in turn need pipes to be punched through medieval walls. The so-called "protectors" of Cesky Krumlov are creating a disney-world, a facade beautifully restored but a facade nonetheless. A year ago I laughed when my friend told me that some of the Japanese visitors thought that the town was folded up and put away for winter. It is too near the truth now for me to laugh.

Action is needed. Action from UNESCO and the Czech government to stop this. To stop this now before it is too late.

For an update on this post visit my September post

Friday, 18 May 2007

Beginnings - the house

I wasn't looking to buy a house. I was looking for a cottage or hut in the woods - a chata as the Czechs call them. I wasn't planning to do any work on it either. But I wasn't reckoning on the way a building can get its hooks into you in an instant or the way something deep inside of you responds to its call. So instead of a small undemanding hut I bought a large farmhouse in need of restoration.

The house is of a type common in the area around Horice na Sumave. It is the house bit of an old courtyard farm. We also own a derelict, two-storey, balconied barn that runs off at right angles to the house. Both had belonged to an old lady, who had not had the money to make any major changes or improvements to them. When she died the farm was left to her children who used it as a holiday home and again had not the money (or inclination) to do anything with it. It was therefore in need of work, but had not been spoiled by do-it-yourself zealousness.

So what attracted me? The sun pours in at dawn and the light at evening is equally stunning. The granite walls are over 2 feet thick and built onto granite bedrock - it is almost as if the house has grown out of the hillside on which it sits. Everywhere there is granite - huge granite slabs laid as a path, granite cobbles, granite walls. The barn has its original brick vaulted ceiling downstairs and upstairs a large open space with large exposed beams. The proportions and layout of the house are large and perfect. It is set in an ideal position overlooking a small village, which has not been spoiled (as so many have been) by concrete monstrosities built by the communists.

This is a village we remember fondly from our childhoods, one in which children play in the street - outside my house my neighbours' kids have chalked a hopscotch grid. And that I think was a large part of it. When I was a girl I had a friend called Paul with whom I explored the fields and woods around my Cotswold home town. We made dens and dammed streams. And on some weekends and holidays Paul's mum would borrow a cottage that nestled under Humblebee Wood overlooking the valley and I would go too. I've wanted one ever since.

That evening I rang my husband in England "Hello lovely, you know I said I was buying a hut. Well I've bought an old farmhouse." There was a pause at the other end of the line.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Home from Home

I am back in England now. It is all very strange to leave our house in Czecho, to come home from home.

It was almost as though the weather knew I was returning to England, for after two months of sun and no rain the weather broke. It was heralded by the cows calling in the fields. Usually at night in our village you are struck by the silence, perhaps you will hear the occasional dog barking or an errant blackbird heralding the dawn prematurely, but normally all things are quite silent. But that night the cows were lowing with an unnerving cry, almost as if in pain. I lay in my bed wondering what was wrong and then the rain began. I could hear it thundering on to the rusty corregated iron sheets in the yard. In the morning it continued, the sack of dehydrated whitewash in the yard was breached by the torrents and bled white over the ground.

By the afternoon the rain had stopped and the birds had started singing again. I locked the gate and walked up the lane and past the rocks to the nearby town and bus stop. From there I travelled into Cesky Krumlov, where I spent the night at my friend's house. In the morning a taxi took me to the station at Ceske Budejovice. As I sat on the train to Prague, I suffered mixed emotions. Drifts of wild lupins were breaking in to bloom along the track, deers started from pastures that edged the forests. This place had become very much a home for me, had in some strange way always felt like home and I was leaving it. But I was leaving it to go home.

In England instead of lupins there would be seas of bluebells, bluebells which were deeply embedded in my understanding of the seasons. When I was a little girl we lived in a house near a millpond in the Cotswolds. Beyond the pond, where I fed the swans my toast crusts, was the wood, here my mother would take me walking among the bluebells. I was three when I left the millflat, but the wood, the pond and the bluebells are deep in my memories together with my mother saying "Look, Zoe, can you see that flower" or "What do you think that root looks like?" "It looks like a witch, mummy. She's got a big nose." Ponds, witches and the dark wood, no wonder the Czech Republic feels like home.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Why buy a house in South Bohemia

We heard a few days ago that the airport at Ceske Budejovice has got the go-ahead to become a full-blown international airport. This is great news for us personally and for the economy of Sothern Bohemia generally.

The nearest airport to Cesky Krumlov at the moment is over the border in Linz just over an hour's drive away. Otherwise it is fly to Prague and travel by either car or train down. The Prague journey is pretty easy and goes through some great countryside. And it is getting quicker with major track and road improvements happening as I write, but it does currently take about 3 hrs. An airport at Ceske Budejovice would change all that, especially one served by one of the British budget airlines. Suddenly the whole of Southern Bohemia could open up. We have been in the vanguard of Brits investing down here, but this news could mean that we will be followed by many more.

Why would one invest here (well why did we):
  • this has to be one of the most beautiful parts of Europe - lakes, mountains and forests, and some great historic towns, of which Cesky Krumlov is the most famous
  • there is skiing in the winter and walking, biking, climbing and canoeing in the summer
  • you can buy a large run-down old farmhouse for about 25,000 pounds and still have change out 80,000 when you have done it up or you can get a cottage for less
  • cost of living is cheap - you can buy the real Budweiser/Budwar (made in Ceske Budejovice) for about 25p in the local Tesco's
  • you are right in the middle of Europe - under 5 hrs drive from Italy, less than one from Austria and Germany and 6 hours from the Med
  • and of course you could do what we did, which is fall in love with this wonderful country.

On second thoughts - forget everything I have said. I think I'll just keep it the way it is - don't want everyone knowing about it. It can be our secret.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

More on Maypoles (& Witches)

In my previous post I talked briefly about the maypoles that are the centre feature of many village greens in this part of the world. It doesn't take much scratching of the Czech modern veneer to find the ancient and pagan beneath. Maypoles may have become a thing of the past in England or at least a quaint custom with school children dancing rather tweely, but here in the Czech Republic the tradition is alive and strong. Today I took the train from Prague to Cesky Krumlov and it gave me a good vantage point to spot the maypoles in the villages and towns along the route. It is clearly a matter of pride to erect (and protect) the largest maypole, created from a very tall and straight fir. The maypole stays at the centre of the village for the year's length until the new replaces it, by then of course the brightly coloured ribbons at the poles tip have faded at best or been whipped away by a winter wind, but with the dawn of the new summer a new maypole springs erect.

On the last night of April in some places the custom of burning the witch takes place. We have yet to see the ceremony although we caught sight of her on her broomstick in the town square at Prachatice. This year we were invited to a party. The wine flowed, meat was barbecued, a witch turned up together with cat on her shoulder and was welcomed into the group and our friends sat around a log fire singing Czech folksongs to the accompaniment of the local priest on accordion and a herbalist on a guitar. As it grew dark and the turn of the season approached we women jumped over the bonfire to ward off evil spirits and then we all danced in a circle around the flames. Clearly these were Beltane celebrations - a throwback to our common ancestors the Celts. But there was something wonderfully makeshift about them, things just happened as someone in the party took a mind to it, but it felt all the more the genuine for that.

The arrival of Summer

A couple of days ago we were sat on the terrace outside our house drinking tea in the warm Czech sunshine. A breeze came up and suddenly the air was full of the petals of the cherry tree in the orchard. My husband commented that it was like being married once again only with cherry blossom instead of paper confetti.

All over the countryside the trees are full of blossom: in the forests and on the apple trees that line the roads and give the traveller sustenance as well as shade. The cliff that forms one roadside on the route out of Cesky Krumlov to Ceske Budejovice is covered with the purple of wild lilacs. All the pastures are bright yellow with dandelions and the water meadow beside the lane to our small village is full of marsh marigolds. Summer is arriving with a flourish and as if to confirm its presence a cuckoo is calling in the woods above the house. To honour the change of the seasons in villages across Southern Bohemia huge maypoles have been erected and bedecked with ribbons of many colours.


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