Monday, 23 July 2007


The first time we visited Cesky Krumlov was after the terrible floods of 2002. On our first night our friends gave us a tour of the town - it went something like this: " You see that line on the plaster of the house, that is where the flood water rose to."... "The water came down there and right up here." It was almost amusing the way the flood, "the worst in 1000 years" (although I am not sure who was measuring the water height in 1002) kept creeping into the tour of this most beautiful of towns. The floods clearly did huge damage and it has taken years to restore all the buildings. Like my friends, when giving a town tour to visitors, I find myself pointing out the flood line.

But I never really understood why the flood made such an impression on my friends, until now. In the last few days floods have torn through my beloved Gloucestershire. Even Winchcombe, the little Cotswold town of my birth, was hit by almost tidal waters as they swept off the hills and, channelled into the corner of Winchcombe's steep valley, tore through the streets and tore down dry-stone walls, flinging the stones around like pebbles. As a girl I was confirmed in the great Norman abbey of Tewkesbury, where as I write the flood waters have broken through into foundations and vaults. It was this news more than any other that brought tears to my eyes. The abbey normally stands above Tewkesbury's regular floods, its ancient builders (building yes just under 1000 years ago) had known how and where to place this holy site. Somehow therefore it is the waters' disregard for the old and the wonderful that hurts more than anything.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The walk home

Our small village is about 20 minutes walk from Horice Na Sumave and the bus stop for Cesky Krumlov. Well it is 20 minutes if you walk briskly, more like 30 if like me you dawdle and enjoy the views.

The walk takes you past the village crucifix and pond and up a short steep hill. On one side is a semi-derelict farm, from which I am always amazed to see lights burning at night, on the other a small huddle of trees where the local children have created a den. At the top of the hill you pass some tumble down walls made of the local granite. These push in at either side and on the left even seem to form some sort of circular structure. Perhaps these are all that is left of the toll gate that gave the village its name - I do not know despite checking the map in the local museum. Passing over the hill the narrow road drops down into Horice. When I first arrived the road was an overgrown track, which was impassable in the snows of 2006 (I know I tried and sank up to my waist in snow before giving up), now the road is tarmaced thanks to some funding from the EU. The view across to Horice Na Sumave is a lovely one, any time of year, but particularly in winter (see above).

Often on my walk I see the local wildlife - buzzards sweeping the air searching for rabbits, deer grazing at the field's edge under the eaves of the woods. Once I even came across an adder sunning itself on the warm tarmac, which I was relieved to see slipped away to the long grass verge as I approached. You pass under the main road to Lipno and into the town. Occasionally loud marching music abruptly breaks the silence from some loudspeakers sited on a pole as you enter the town followed by some sort of announcement. My friend tells me that this is a legacy of the communist times.

The way home at night is a very different experience. The last bus gets in about 11.00 and so the walk is done in the dark. The EU did not provide any lighting and in many ways I am glad of it. If the sky is clear, you get a wonderful panorama of stars and planets, unspoilt by light pollution. I find on such occasions the walk takes even longer as I keep stopping to look up. Once I was even rewarded with a sensational display of shooting stars. I am reminded of my childhood, when my dad and I used to go out with our dog and whilst the dog did his business in the bushes, we would try to identify the constellations. When the sky is clouded over, my walk home is a different story. The road is very dark, with only the pool of light from my torch. I lose track of where I am. But I can tell as I get towards the top of the hill, from the soft breathing of the cattle and the more alarming bellow of the bull. Once over the brow the village lights appear reassuringly beneath my feet. I can see the front of my house illuminated by a streetlamp. Within a few minutes I am home.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Czech Graffiti

I came across this wonderful piece of graffiti on a pillar of a footbridge in Cesky Krumlov. In my work in inner city Britain I have seen many a piece of graffiti, some of it quite artistic, some awful and some of it cryptic advertisements for where to buy drugs, but I have never seen anything like this. It is a very accurate portrait of the townscape of Krumlov, drawn by someone who obviously loves the town. Czechs clearly do graffiti differently.

Okay, so there is a load of rubbish graffiti too, but this example is not a one-off. In Prague I saw stencilled images of Nostrodamus and Kafka!

Saturday, 14 July 2007


Twice a week I have a Czech language lesson. They say it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and as I struggle with my new language I realise that this dog is definitely getting old!

Now in most languages you often start with learning to count. Pity the poor souls who take this route when learning Czech. One is jedna, two dve, three (not so easy - it has the soft r) tři, but then you hit four - aaarghh! Four is čtyři - phonetically (or as near as I can get it) chteeeezrzree.

Okay you think, I'll give up on that - I'll try days of the week instead. Bad idea. Again you start ok: Monday - pondeli, Tuesday - utery, Wednesday - streda, and then you hit the fourth day in the week - čtvrtek. And don't even think about telling the time - not only is there čtyři to cope with but also quarter past - čtvrtek - and quarter to - tři čtvrté. The worst time of all is quarter to four - tři čtvrté na čtyři.

My secret is always to buy three apples or five and make sure my watch is telling the correct time. The old dog may not be able to do the trick, but there is more than one way to skin a cat!

Monday, 9 July 2007

Whitewashing Visitors

My sister and her family are staying in our Czech home at the moment. They have been there for a week, having spent a fortnight there last August/September. Just as last year the weather until the day they arrived was perfect - sunny and dry as is normal at this time of year. But, as has become a standing family joke, they brought English rain with them.

The advantage of that for us is they need something to do to pass the time and so last year we got a large chunk of whitewashing done for us! My sister wanted to be an art restorer when she was younger, but was denied by having done the wrong exams. So her art restoration skills were put into practice on the decorations in the house. In the old days the whitewashed walls of the houses in the area were decorated using coloured paint on rollers. The rollers produced a regular pattern on the walls similar to wallpaper. When the decoration grew old and tired, it was whitewashed over and a new pattern applied. Thus on the walls of our old house there were layers of decoration stretching back through many years and generations of house-proud German families. My sister painstakingly removed the layers and counted ten before hitting the stone wall.

The problem with these decorations is unless you know to apply a coat of stabiliser to the wall before applying the whitewash, the paint of previous decorators will appear like a ghostly signature on the wall. Not having any experience of whitewash (to those Czechs reading this, we use emulsion paint in the UK) I wasted a whole day painting a room, only to wake up the following morning to see the paint coming through. Whitewash has other disadvantages not least being the fact that it comes off on your clothes if you lean against it - so don't put coat hooks on the wall - but on the upside it does allow the old walls to breathe. What with the ghostly hand of past decorators and breathing walls this house has a life of its own.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Czech coffee (and tea?)

Czech coffee (kava) is drunk dark and strong. It is like a giant turkish coffee and with just as great a caffeine kick. A lady friend of mine has been plying me with it in her flat for several months now and so I decided to ask for a lesson on how to make it. Basically you need several spoonfuls of well-ground roasted coffee in the bottom of a mug or cup, add boiling water, stir well, add milk and sugar to taste, and stir again. Then let the coffee stand for a while until the grounds settle at the bottom. Drink at your leisure until just before you hit the mud of coffee grounds!

There is a Czech phrase "To je silná káva" - "that's rich coffee" meaning "that's rich". There is an equivalent for tea - only it's in the opposite - "that's weak tea" meaning "nothing much". As usual the Czechs are spot on - the tea here is indeed nothing much. Tea here is served horribly weak - "gnat's piss" as they say in England. Sadly the Czechs are under the illusion that the tea that we export here under the name of English Breakfast Tea is actually what the Brits drink. Well for any Czechs reading this, may I disillusion you - we do not drink Lipton's export tea in England, we drink Typhoo or PG Tips - tea which "will put hair on your chest" (another English phrase about tea). My husband and I bring large amounts of English teabags over from England in our luggage, so we can drink proper tea.

All this talk of coffee and tea reminds me of my first visit to Prague and a visit to Cafe Slavia. I arrived at the cafe one day to meet up with my puppeteer friend, to find her trying to explain to the waiter that she wanted the tea with milk and to leave the teabag in. For years she had told me how she was really Czech and there she was desperate for that most British of institutions - a proper cup of tea!

If you do come to Krumlov, don't try to find a British cuppa. Instead go to the Laibon tearooms (see the photo) run by the lovely David and try out the exotic teas they have on offer. I recommend the yogi tea.


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