Wednesday, 30 April 2008


When I was first looking for a place to buy, I looked at a derelict cottage on the edge of the lake at Olsina. The two storey ruin is still there, getting more and more derelict by the day. It turns out that the cottage is just in the militarised zone and so, as I suspected at the time, is very difficult to buy, even for a Czech. But the cottage's position is delightful – the lake laps the beach a few yards from the house and the natural amphitheatre of hills is reflected in the mirror of water. The place is so peaceful, there is no noise but the rustle of leaves and the occasional train passing. You can travel by train there, getting off at Hodnov.

The lake like so many around here is not a natural one. It is a result of the Czech love of carp flesh. Built in the 15th Century to provide fish for the Zlata Koruna monastery, the lake then passed into the possession of the Rozmberk family. Every two years the lake is emptied of water in order to harvest the fish. The lake covers some 133 hectares and is accessible only at its south eastern end. Here you will find an interesting example of a large Renaissance house built to accommodate the man charged with looking after the lake. The building is in a sorry state with a large crack in one wall, but there are signs that at long last this may be about to be remedied. A fellow Brit has bought a smaller house closeby. For more on her experiences and efforts to restore the house visit

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Walking in The Czech Republic

I love walking - not serious yomping, but leisurely strolls with frequent stops to admire the view and diversions from the path to look at flowers and pick mushrooms. The Czech Republic is a brilliant country for walkers and the area around Cesky Krumlov and in the Sumava National Park is particularly good.

The main footpaths are well waymarked - with signposts in the towns and colour-coded signs painted on trees and gates along the paths themselves. These signs consist of a coloured bar against a white background. These colours for the walks are reflected on the walking maps you can buy in the tourist information shops and bookshops for about £3. It is therefore very easy to find your way.

I have already talked about one of my favourite spring time walks in this blog. But I have many others. And over the next few months I propose to blog occasionally about others. I will start with my nearest walk. Running through our village is a red route which runs up through the woods, where I pick my mushrooms, and then down to the lake at Olsina. In so doing the walker enters the restricted military zone of Boletice, which is only accessible at weekends. One of the joys of Boletice is that, like army reserves in the UK, its status has allowed nature to flourish. The villages one walks through tend to be pretty dire, the old houses run-down and the newer the usual army issue, but the forests and lakes are unspoilt by the incursions of tourists and new cabins.

I will talk about Olsina in my next blog, as it easily deserves a post all of its own. So let us pass by without comment and follow the walk as it rises again over the hills to Hodnov - another of those villages where there is a need for investment to restore the old buildings. Then it passes across forested hills and, if you are lucky, past masses of blue lupins and down in to Horni Plana. At various points along the way you will get views across Lake Lipno and over the Sumava and in the opposite direction back to the Klet Mountain. Once in Horni Plana you can have a well-earned pint or two and then take the little train back home.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Compare and Contrast

In my last post I was responding to my Czech friend's comments about the British and finished noting the anger I felt when a civil servant tried to fob me off. It struck me that my reaction - "Who does he think he is?" was a very British one. And I wanted to explore it further.

My historical heroine Queen Elizabeth I issued an edict along the lines that a slave arriving on English soil "upon breathing English air" was immediately freed from slavery. Now, whilst acknowledging that this didn't apply to the black slaves, it is an important concept for understanding the English (and later the British) - "Britons never never never shall be slaves," sings the Proms audience. Few if any leaders of this country have understood the national psyche nor played it as well as Elizabeth. Elizabeth's edict reflects a long established belief among her people.

Her Armada speech also appeals to this belief: "Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects."

She is contrasting not only herself with the tyrant Philip of Spain, but also her free subjects with his. Her comment on her relationship with her people - they are her main source of strength and her safety - is revealing. For what would happen if the people withdrew their loyalty and good will? Only 40 years after her death England was to find out, when a civil war broke out that tested whether the King was answerable to his people in the form of Parliament. After a terrible and bloody war (recent research suggests a higher percentage of the population died in the Civil War than in either of the last century's World Wars), King Charles was tried and found guilty of high treason. The first few lines of the charge against the King read

"That the said Charles Stuart, being admitted King of England, and therein trusted with a limited power to govern by and according to the laws of the land, and not otherwise; and by his trust, oath, and office, being obliged to use the power committed to him for the good and benefit of the people, and for the preservation of their rights and liberties; yet, nevertheless, out of a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people."

As my old history teacher would say, let us compare and contrast with what is happening over the water in the Czech Republic (then Bohemia) at much the same time. There the Estates (made up of Protestant Bohemian nobility) had also taken on the power of their Hapsburg monarch Ferdinand II. But the outcome had been very different. At the Battle of White Mountain the army of the Estates was routed by the forces of the king. Thus began the period which the Czechs have called doba temna - time of darkness. The battle was a disaster for the semi independent nation.

Ferdinand set about forcibly converting the country back to Catholicism assisted by the shock troops of the counter reformation, the Jesuits. The persecutions and land seizures that followed the defeat resulted in the emigration of some 150,000 cultural and social leaders of the Czech nation including 85 noble families, as well as burgers, leading scholars and ministers. If you visit the Old Town Square in Prague you can see crosses for the 27 leaders of the rebellion who were executed in the year following the battle. Perhaps worst of all the Czechs lost their sovereignty - prior to the battle the monarch was elected by the estates, now for a period of 300 years the Czechs would be ruled through inheritance by a Hapsburg.

What contrasting fortunes! The Czechs always had one major disadvantage - they were at the centre of Europe. Their action was unlikely to be without international consequences. Their revolt was against a king with other kingdoms, able to call on armies from across the continent. As the Thirty Years War rolled on, it rolled over the Czech lands time and time again. England, protected by the sea and on the edge of the Europe, was able to have its civil war to itself. And prior to that when England was threatened by the powerful Hapsburg family - by Philip II and his armadas - the English were saved by storms in the Channel. Thus the destinies of nations are set.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Follow up on Centre of Europe 1 (and Effortless Superiority)

Following on from my post on the Czech's pride at being at the centre of Europe, I got an email from a Czech friend: “I am so chuffed to read this. You are right, we DO desperately care. Perhaps we have a chip on our shoulder, missing the British 'effortless superiority'. Well, I suppose we always had to defend our place against (or whilst) being absorbed into imperial blocks. But I am glad you brought it to attention. As a Brit would say, you are a brick, old girl.” Such a comment merits a number of responses, well at least two.

Let us start with British effortless superiority. This is not the first time my friend has talked about this British attribute. I have to say I have never been entirely sure about it, but clearly it has some validity. Of course there is all that stuff about the Empire, and the effortless superiority that the imperialists had beaten into them at boarding school. But I don't think that is what my friend is talking about; she talks about it as if it is current, and as if it is broader than the privileged few. I certainly don't think I feel superior to anyone, unless this attribute is so inbuilt I am unaware of it.

However there was at least one occasion when my Czech friend saw it in me and commented on it. About fifteen years ago my friend was tasked by a Czech magazine to write an article on the proposed transfer of Hong Kong to China. She complained to me that she was having problems getting enough information and comment for the piece. “Why don't you ring the Foreign Office?” I suggested. Oh she couldn't possibly do that! “Why not?” I said, “I can't possibly.” “Oh, all right I'll do it, tell me what you want to know.” And so I found myself interviewing a civil servant about Hong Kong. He very rapidly started to annoy me, trying to avoid my questions, whilst talking down to me. I, in response, firmly made it clear that he was going to answer my questions. By the end of the phone call I had got the information I wanted and he was offering to send me more.

I put the phone down and looked up at my friend. Her look was one of shock - “How could you do that?” “What?” “Talk to a civil servant like that?” “He was coming it, I just put him in his place. Anyway, who does he think he is?” “But a civil servant...” “Exactly a public servant, I pay his wages, he's there to serve us. Besides he probably went to the same university as me, I learned all the same tricks as him.” It was at this point that I first heard my friend refer to effortless superiority.

Okay, so let us analyse the actors in this little scene. First there is my Czech friend, who despite living most of her adult life in the UK and being highly intelligent and articulate was still sufficiently Czech that she had problems with dealing with authority. My observation as a community development professional is that power dynamics are set in childhood and my friend grew up at a time when “Father” Stalin stared down from every Czech schoolroom wall. Then there is our civil servant friend, whose attempt at effortless superiority failed so dismally, indeed only provoked me. Presumably it normally worked for him. And finally there is yours sincerely. Was it, as I suggested, my three years at Oxford? Not entirely. Certainly it gave me some of the tools for the job, allowed me to counter his blocking tactics, but looking back what I most remember is being annoyed. "Who did he think was? " I suspect that was the more British reaction. Maybe it only becomes effortless superiority when combined with a certain type of British education.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Centre of Europe 2

One of the things that strikes me here in South Bohemia is how differently one feels about going abroad. Here it is about 30 minutes' drive to Austria and Germany. Local people go shopping in Linz and the Austrians return the favour. This must make all sorts of differences to how one feels about one's own and other countries. Here we sit in the middle of Europe as I said, joined on every side to larger and often more powerful countries. It makes the perfect base to explore Europe from, but in order to do that one has to go through someone else's country, and that country will be another European country.

How very different to being British. It is not surprising that the Brits cannot see why the Czechs are so obsessed with being central Europeans and so commit the gaff I referred to in my previous post. We Brits are definitely not at the centre of Europe and are proudly geographically and mentally independent of the continent. Indeed our attitude towards Europe is extremely ambiguous at best. How different is our attitude to our border – in the UK if we want to go abroad we must cross the sea. When I stand on a British beach looking out, I am always aware that the world's doorstep lies lapping at my feet. Our boundary extends to every continent in the world; we need no permission to cross our neighbour's land first. The Czechs are obsessed with the embrace of the mysterious forest, a place of tales, fears and treasures, the Brits by the the expansive sea, dangerous, full of beauty and endless opportunity.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Centre of Europe

One of the biggest faux-pas a Brit can make in the Czech Republic is to talk about the country being in Eastern Europe. This offends on at least three levels. Firstly it is a legacy of the Cold War and puts the Czechs in a bracket with the Russians, Bulgarians and other countries – company that the Czechs would rather not be in and indeed forget. Secondly it is geographically wrong – a look at the atlas reveals, as the Czechs never cease to tell you, that Prague is west of Vienna. Thirdly it offends against a deep-felt notion of themselves and born of history – that their little country is at the heart of Europe. In 1583 this was even politically true when the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (shown above) moved his court to Prague.

But more importantly it was culturally and intellectually true for centuries, until the bringing down of the Iron Curtain forced Czecho into the Eastern Bloc. Under Rudolf Prague was at the centre of philisophical thought and art. Since then the Czechs have been part of some of the major movements in art (a visit to the Czech National Gallery in Prague revealed to our surprise the early development of cubism here) and music - Mozart loved the city and felt that the citizens understood his work whilst it was rejected in Vienna. And this cultural heritage matters to the generally cultured and well-educated Czechs in a way that it wouldn't to the British, something I love about them.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Iva Bittova

Back at the turn of the year I blogged about local musicians Kvinterna. So I reckon it is about time I talked about another favourite musician of mine – Iva Bittova. She is an artist that I came across on the world music website Calabash Music. I downloaded an album and was hooked.

Bittova is an artist whose every album I religiously buy. I have yet to be disappointed or bored - the great thing about this wonderful Czech artist is that each album she produces is different and totally unlike anything else you have may have heard from anyone else. Her music is fusion music at its most varied, bringing together the Movavian folk music of her childhood, jazz, the avant-garde, nursery rhymes and classical. Whilst she does get extraordinary sounds from both her voice and violin, Iva Bittova also can be melodic and sublime.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her moving and heartstopping performance in Godar's Mater – a suite on the subject of motherhood for female voice, choir and baroque string orchestra. I bought Mater shortly before Christmas 2006 and played it obsessively for a week, and with each play I found myself crying during the Stabat Mater.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Snow Melt

The Vltava River on its way through Cesky Krumlov is high with meltwater from the mountains. The river is a mass of brown gushing water lapping right up to the doorsteps of the riverside houses and restaurants. The owners hold their breath fearing more snow in the Sumava or a sudden thaw. The grass where the Two Marys and Laibon restaurants put out their tables is covered and the islands opposite submerged.

How different the scene is to that in the summer when the river is full of canoes and rafts, as I described in my previous post More on Water and the Czechs, when the water is so shallow that people walk right out to the middle. No one would venture out on to the river now for a leisurely trip downstream.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Ex-pat blog

My parents aren't internet savvie and would never read this blog if it required them to go online. This is a shame because it looks as though their age and heath will prevent them from ever visiting my Czech home and seeing through their own eyes this lovely country. And so at Christmas I printed out the blog, bound it and gave it to them as a present. Every month they get an update with the latest posts. They have really enjoyed these vicarious journeys to the Czech Republic. And the readership does not stop there, the blog has been lent to various friends.

The feedback so far has been universally positive, not that my parents' friends would criticise I'm sure. One comment that has been made several times – is how much the love I have for this place and the Czechs comes through the blog. I'm glad, that was to some extent my intention. Not that love is blind, I certainly can see the flaws in my second homeland but I hope that even in this I do not judge too harshly.

I really have problems with those travel books and blogs, which treat the locals as something to laugh at or which find fault. I see it sometimes in fellow British ex-pats or visitors, complaining that you can't get marmite in the shops or criticising Czech customer service, making generalisations about things of which they have only limited experience or understanding. We are guests here in another people's country and should behave as such. It betrays a superiority based on ignorance and insularity, which I fear the British are very good at. But I do not doubt that I too am guilty of this on occasion, as I fumble my way towards an understanding of the Czechs (and perhaps of my own nation). I therefore ask those Czechs who read this blog to forgive me when I get it wrong. I rely on your ability to laugh at yourselves, a characteristic which our two nations share.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

The Czechs and ..... Slippers

In the hallway of every Czech house, or in the case of many flats outside on the landing, you will find a line of empty shoes and slippers. The same is true of our Czech home. In the Czech Republic you remove your outdoor shoes on arrival and put on a pair of slippers. This is not just the case in your home, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in houses in which you are a guest.

This custom is a practical one, preventing the trailing of mud and dust from the street (to say nothing of the by-product of those little dogs the Czechs are so fond of) into the house and the subsequent damage of the lovely softwood floors that you will find in many Czech houses. In some cases your host will wave their hand to indicate that taking off your shoes is not necessary, but it is only polite to offer. In order to facilitate this custom the Czech home will have a selection of slippers in various sizes to proffer to visitors and family.

Personally I find it a lovely custom and one I adopt in England. It is not just the practicality that appeals but of feeling at home and welcome that I like. The custom of wearing slippers indoors sometimes extends to environments other than the home, something that seems to be taking informality too far. I am told that a rule had to be passed prohibiting slipper-wearing by MPs during sessions of the Czech Parliament (or maybe the Czechs are just pulling my leg)!

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Unios - accommodation catalogue?

If you are a visitor to Cesky Krumlov and wish to find accommodation, take my advice and use the town's tourist information centre in the Town Square and not the one run by Unios in the Castle. According to Unios website their “accommodation catalogue offers a wide range of lodging in Cesky Krumlov and surrounding. We know every offered capacity and can recommend it to you with pleasure”.

My husband was standing behind an American couple in Unios' Centre the other day and overheard the following conversation:

American man: We are looking for an inexpensive hotel room for one night.

Unios receptionist: How about one of the Castle Apartments? There's one available – only kc 1200, car parking is close by for a small fee.

Now the points to note here are: the Castle Apartments are not an inexpensive hotel (as requsted by the American), they are apartments and secondly, you guessed it, they are owned by Unios. Interestingly outside on the board in the Centre's foyer were a whole range of hotels and pensions, who presumably pay Unios to advertise at the Centre, but not one of these was suggested by the receptionist. There is clearly a conflict of interest going on here. But then tourism management in Cesky Krumlov is full of such conflicts of interest and no one seems to be doing much about it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...