Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Finding the House 4 - The Old Man

After we left the barn we stood on the terrace and looked at the house. Through the orchard's high grass came an old man in a train guard's cap carrying a large crate of plums, which had been harvested from the hugely prolific trees. He was introduced to us as the father of the family. He enthusiastically greeted us. We asked if he had worked on the railways for long, "Oh no," we were told, "He just likes the hat!"

We were then invited up to his little cottage in the woods. I took one of the family - the daughter's husband - to go fishing on the lake at Lipno and then drove back along the main road and turned right up a barely tarmacked road and across the railway line. The old man's cottage was small and new - built, he said proudly, by his son. The son looked none too pleased by this, the old man appeared to be angling for me to employ the son to work on the house restoration and the son knew all too well just how big those repairs would be, although throughout the viewing he had assured me that there was very little to do and I believed him because I wanted to.

We sat outside next to the smoking oven and the slivovice began to flow. I was fortunate that I was driving and so had the perfect excuse for refusing the highly alcoholic home-made brew. The man in our party was not so lucky, the old man plied him with glass upon glass, and it rapidly became a matter of British masculine pride to accept and despite his partner's protestations he became happily mellow. The slivovice was accompanied by home-made Czech chocolate and courgette cakes, which sound weird but if you think about it are no weirder than carrot cake, and were very tasty.

The old man was missing a finger on one of his hands and emboldened by the alcohol our friend asked about its loss. The old man explained that he lost it in an accident when chopping firewood. We asked if he could have saved it - warming to his audience the old man explained that the finger had lain twitching on the floor and before he could grab it the cat had dashed out and disappeared off with it in his mouth. His daughter raised her eyes, clearly she had heard the story many times before and probably in a number of versions, and we all laughed.

An hour or so later we piled into the car and drove back to Cesky Krumlov. I had agreed to buy a Czech property, which was totally at variance with my wants list. The sun was shining, we were smiling after the family's hospitality, all seemed well with the world.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Looking back.

It is interesting this retrospective blogging, that I have been doing over these last few posts. It allows me to look again at my feelings and motivation for buying my Czech home, why this house, why then. So much has happened in the two and half years since I first stood in the farm's courtyard and looked up at the barn. It has distorted my view of things - the work, the times of despair and doubt, the discovery of one problem after another, and now the pleasure of the house transformed - all have in some way pulled a veil over those first emotions. I thought I knew them, but now through these blogs I find I did not.

In particular I had forgotten that it was not the house that really made my heart pace at that first encounter but the barn. It therefore strikes me as strange that whilst I have restored the house, pouring in far more money than I had calculated, the barn remains as it was then, with the exception of a new roof, which was forced on me by the heavy snow of the first winter. I am still in awe of its potential (so much more than that of the house) and it is that potential that perhaps stayed my hand. One could argue quite reasonably that I have not done work on the barn because of simple finances or lack thereof, but I am not entirely convinced by such a rational argument. I suspect, as is the case in my entire Czech property adventure, that the subconscious was playing its part too.

The truth is I still don't quite know what I am doing here. I feel like some hero in a Czech fairy story - I have followed the path into the dark forest and after some adventure have arrived in a large bright clearing. Here I rest and recover, but now I begin to make out another trail leading away and into a darker section of the forest. There things move in the shadows and I know that at some time I must leave the warm grass and go on. But now I wait for a sign - a deer or dove perhaps. In investing in the house I invested in a home, the barn however is for another purpose and I have no doubt that it is connected with my future work whatever that may be.

Friday, 20 June 2008

A first look at the barn

The most impressive building in many ways was not the house but the barn that ran at right angles to the house. It was typical of the barns of this area in South Bohemia - two storeys with a balcony. Originally the barn would have formed one side of a courtyard, but the barn that would have been opposite the house had been removed at some time. This had the effect of opening the courtyard out to the sun and offering lovely views from the house into the orchard.

The back of the barn, like the house, was built into a hillside and so the upper floor had two doors opening onto the hillside . This meant that the sheep and other animals could walk straight into the top floor. This was not an unadulterated success as we discovered when we entered the barn.

Inside the barn was a tumbledown collection of tat - much as the attic had been. But this did not disguise the fact that the barn was remarkable. The ceiling consisted of a series of brick vaults springing from the granite walls. The animal stalls were made of huge blocks of granite with carved finials to tie the beasts to. However at one point the ceiling had given way and straw hung down from upstairs. "What happened?" we asked the owners. "Oh the sheep fell through the ceiling," they replied. The urine from the animals which had overwintered in the barn had destroyed the bricks. Concerned we asked whether the sheep were hurt - "Oh no," they shrugged, "They had a soft landing." I could not help thinking that that might not have been the case for the ones that fell through first.

Upstairs there was an open space with large exposed beams, however in places it did seem as though timbers were missing - taken perhaps to prop something up or feed the winter stoves. Crowded higgledy piggledy into the barn were chicken coups, unidentifiable structures, old beds, and even a couple of wild boar skins, discarded probably where the animal had been carved up. The roof was made of concrete tiles, which no doubt had fallen off the back of a lorry. These were far heavier than the traditional Czech ceramic tiles and were placing quite a strain on the remaining timbers. I didn't notice this in my first flush of enthusiasm for the house. Suddenly instead of a simple retreat in this lovely country, I could see potential, so much potential.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Finding the House

I am trying very hard to remember what my first impressions were of the house I now know as home. Well, for starters, it was a lot bigger property than I had ever imagined I could afford, much bigger than the Cotswold cottage we had at home in the UK. But that said it was packed to the gunnels with a hotchpotch of furniture, all of it old and rather tatty, which actually reduced my appreciation of the size of the place. On that furniture lounged various members of the owners' family.

I was shown around by the daughter and son of the old woman, whose house this had been and who had died some seven years earlier. Since her death the house had been used as a chalupa by her children and grandchildren. Nothing much had been done to maintain the place in those seven years and one suspected not much had been done for many years before. Indeed everything had that make-do-and-mend look that I had come to recognise in many Czech properties, where an absence of money and access to DIY materials under the communists had led to sometimes brilliant inventiveness and more often to some very weird contraptions. This tradition has continued as a visit to the local DIY stores will vouch. Fortunately in the case of my house this seemed to have been combined with a degree of laziness that meant that the damage was limited, with the exception of an abandoned attempt at creating a shower (on the landing of all places).

In the large front room downstairs there was a sitting area with huge television and a kitchen made of punched metal (see above). Such a kitchen in the UK would have been a collectors' item, and would probably have been at a high specification of design, this cheap Czech version merited no such interest. Next to the stove was a door into the bathroom where there were two boilers (heated by wood), as the family had installed a new one and not bothered to remove the old. At the back of the ground floor were two cellars which were built into the hill behind and the door to the lower cellar.Upstairs were five rooms, one of which was being used as another sitting room. From the landing an open stair led into an enormous loftspace, so large that it could accommodate a reasonable-sized flat, but when I saw it first was a general dumping ground for broken furniture, old carpets etc. From the roof beams hung old duvets, which thanks to mice or martins were emptying their contents on to the floor. My friend told me that traditionally in Winter the roof space was used for drying the washing - it was as if the old lady had left her bedding up there to dry and never returned. The roof beams were huge compared to British ones and there were lots of them. The roof was covered with grey tiles which were beginning to fry and I noted would need replacing.

Despite the fact that I had said I didn't want to do any work on my Czech property purchase the potential of the place really appealed. Despite the tat and clutter the house spoke to me and it said "Take care of me!" and I listened in a way I had not done in any of the other places I had looked at.

Friday, 13 June 2008

The Search for The House 2

That summer we looked at quite a number of chata (forest huts) which were on estate agents books. Most were pretty basic and in need of work, and quite rightly the prices were much influenced by the chata's situation - the Czechs put a premium on idyllic locations. The trouble with idyllic locations was that they are often very difficult to get to. One lovely little cottage we saw, with the most brilliant views of the Sumava, was an extreme example of this - it was up a winding and narrow gravel track, which eventually petered out at the brow of a hill. Rather than slide the hire car down across the grassy meadow we parked up and walked the remaining section. It was a wonderful location and the female owner was keen to point out ideally suited for mushroom picking, but the thought of negotiating the lane in the winter snow was too much for us English wimps.

Having exhausted the choice of chata to be found on the estate agent website, my friend started to use her network. The carpenter, who had been creating quirky furniture for her, took on the job of looking out for me. He found three properties - one was a derelict cottage by Lake Olsina, he wasn't sure who owned it but it was in a lovely setting. As I suspected it was owned by the Czech Army as it was in the Boletice miltary zone and so unavailable. The second he had heard of via the grapevine but couldn't find when we went out looking for it. And the third was a farmhouse on the edge of a small village near Horice na Sumave, opposite the home of one of his friends. The house looked enormous - this couldn't be it, I thought, it must be the cottage next door. He went up to the door but it was locked, the owner was not there. So convinced was I that it was the cottage next door, that I took a photo of it to send to my husband and then we went back to my friend's house. Our carpenter friend agreed to talk to the owner and arrange a visit.

That Sunday we were back. Duvets hung from the windows of the large house airing. Our carpenter friend rang the doorbell and the gate swung open and the owner came out beaming - I was wrong it was the big house that we were to view. We went in.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The search for the house

I had been visiting the Czech Republic for some time when I decided to buy here. I am often asked what led me to make that decision. I often joke that it was my mid-life crisis - and as is so often the case with a joke there is some truth at the heart of it. I needed somewhere I could relax and allow the poet in me come to the fore, work was increasingly pressured and I was finding it hard to stop doing "stuff" even at my Cotswold home. So I decided I needed a Czech chata - a hut in the woods, somewhere beautiful to go and be amongst nature.

Looking back I recognise now that it was more complex than that. I rather suspect I wanted more even then, but did not admit it. I am pretty sure I was looking for a way out of my frantic lifestyle. There were certainly other more obvious motives, the most important of which was simply one of friendship.

And so it was that, after convincing my husband that I was serious and gaining his agreement to the purchase of a chata for a modest and affordable sum, I asked my friend to advise me how to go about buying such a thing. She sent me a link to a website which brings together properties from a variety of estate agents, less for me to find the property but more to get a feel about what was out there and at what cost. What it did tell me was that it was impossible to tell anything much from a website. This was partly because everything was in Czech, and partly because Czech estate agents have no idea how to photograph properties they are selling - it was amazingly common to find a property advertised by a rather bad photo of a badly decorated bathroom.

In the summer of 2005 I arrived in Cesky Krumlov, armed with some properties I was interested in and proceeded to look. My friend advised me rightly that often a good-looking property would be spoilt by the context in which it was sited - so many Czech villages and towns have their communist eyesore blocks of flats or factory farms which really spoil the feeling of the place. It helps therefore to have someone who knows the area and who can prevent a wasted journey. She also advised me that some of the best houses would never make it onto the estate agents' and would come via someone who knew the owner. How right she was!

If you are looking for a house or cottage to buy in the Czech Republic, may I suggest you visit Czech Property Search

Saturday, 7 June 2008


I had rather thought that this anorakish pursuit of trainspotting would be restricted to Britain or America. I was wrong. Here I am in the Czech Republic and there they are, two huge cameras with long lenses in-hand, they even have a small stepladder on which they stand to take their photos. They have clearly been delighted at the arrival of my little train (it's the one to be seen exiting the above photograph), as they are still photographing it as I walk up the path. They have just started to pack up when a train whistle from the opposite direction stops them in their tracks. Oh the joy of it! They rush towards the station in order to get photographs on the second train.

I take a photo of them and walk on. I pass their car on my home, in their excitement they have left a door open. On the dashboard is a list with the first six items crossed off, on the seat a fat timetable book. I glance back, the car has a German number plate. I cannot see the attraction of chasing around the Czech countryside to cross numbers off a list. Obsessively picking mushrooms or spotting wildflowers on the other hand make absolute sense.

Monday, 2 June 2008


If you visit Cesky Krumlov Castle grounds you might see this little fellow or some of his family. As you can see from photo he has the ear tufts of a red squirrel, which is what he is - a black mutant of the red squirrel (the American black squirrel is a mutant of the grey squirrel).

This one ran up a tree in the walk beside the castle gardens and chattered and clattered at me - very angry that I had disturbed his foraging in the flower beds. I first saw a Czech black squirrel (there are lots of them) in the park that covers the slopes of Petrin Hill in Prague. The black squirrels there were far more cautious than the Krumlov ones and certainly wouldn't have entered into the exchange this one did.

I have a soft spot for squirrels, even though the grey ones in England are little better than rats with tails. When I was a small child (under three) I lived in a flat in the mill house near to a large pond and we often had squirrels come to the bird-table in our garden. I can remember the thrill I felt when my mum pointed them out to me. There were no black squirrels, though, but there was something better than that - a white one, an albino squirrel. It was a beauty.

Then we moved to the local small town. I was very sorry to leave behind the squirrels and the swans that I fed every morning. My mother tried to console me. On my third birthday I was standing at the window of my new bedroom, when I saw them - three or four squirrels playing in the garden. I called for my mother, who told me that the squirrels had come to wish me happy birthday. I was delighted, although sad that the white squirrel hadn't come. The squirrels did not come again.


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