Saturday, 27 September 2008

Octopus Sausages

When the Czechs have a barbeque they tend to do it over wood rather than charcoal. Why use charcoal when wood is so plentiful? And besides cooking over a campfire has a certain appeal. It takes me back to my time as a girl guide – there is nothing that quite beats hot chocolate cooked in a smoke-blackened pot over a real wood fire, nor sausages with that smoky flavour.

The Czechs, like their neighbours the Germans, are great ones for sausages of all sorts, shapes and sizes. But sausages cooked over burning wood are special and there is a special process to follow in cooking them. First you cut some long thin branches of hazel and sharpen the ends. These are what you will cook the sausages on. Then you take the sausage and cut each end twice to form a cross of cuts. Each visitor places their sausage on the stick and sits by the fire with the sausage in the heat. As the sausage cooks the cut ends curl back to form four arms (eight in all) like an octopus on a stick. This process ensures that the sausages are heated all the way through, although English visitors, much to Czech amusement, still manage to blacken the sausages.

The very act of cooking the sausages forms a bond with your fellow diners. There is an immediate topic of conversation – an experience shared if you like. When my sisters came to stay, they had a great time preparing and cooking their sausages – the process is as much part of the fun as the finished product. Finally to eat add Czech mustard (so lovely my son eats it alone on bread and I have to take several pots over when I fly back to England) or horseradish sauce, and a chunk of Czech bread. An additional treat is some dough wound round a stick and cooked over the fire to create a sort of bread. I remember this from my Girl Guide Handbook or something similar but until I arrived here had never tried it. I must say it's okay but not spectacular, but then I think I am missing the point, the process is the thing, not the eating. Finally wash it down with a load of Czech beer and a few songs sung by the fire under the star-laden heavens and you will have had the time of your life.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A Trip to the Zoo

As I mentioned in my fox post a few weeks ago I recently enjoyed a visit to the Zoo Ohrada at Hluboka Nad Vltavou. The Zoo is one of the oldest in the Czech Republic, it is also the smallest. The Zoo can be found next to a hunting chateau of the Schwarzenberg family and was created to complement the hunting activities of its owner. Thus it has always had a focus on European wild animals, something that continues to this day – two thirds of all the animals there are European.

You approach the zoo down a double avenue of oak trees leading up to the chateau, on your right is a vast lake, with the town and castle of Hluboka on the far shore. The castle, which will get its own blog post some day, was created in the 19th century architectural style of Tudor Gothic – think Windsor Castle in white and you get the idea and sits on a headland overlooking the town and the river Vltava. I can think of no more beautiful setting for a zoo than this one, however the size of the zoo (limited by the island on which the zoo sits) does have its limitations. The smallness makes it less tiring for families with small children, who certainly love it there, but it limits the size of the animal enclosures too.

I have very mixed feelings about zoos, I am not a ban-all-zoos purist but I do think that animals should be kept in conditions that at least approximate to their natural conditions. It seems to me that some animals seem more able to handle captivity and it is not always the obvious ones either. The other Czech zoo I have visited is the one in Prague and which I think works well, using the hilly landscape of the zoo to full effect, giving space and variety of terrain to the animals. At Hlubloka there are signs that they are trying to improve things, including creating new enclosures , but the Zoo is restricted by its size and flat landscape.

As I said above, the Zoo Ohrada specialises in European wild animals and this was one reason why I wanted to go. The display panels for Czech animals were labelled with a CZ, the background colour of which indicating the rarity/endangeredness of the animal in question – white common, red in gravest danger. There was a wide range of water birds and birds of prey, especially owls. One of the best sections was one entitled Czech Woodland, this walk-through enclosure was a miniature wood with all those birds I normally hear but never see. Even then I didn't see all of them, but I did see quite a few.

The place was heaving with children who were clearly loving it. My party was made up of a group of water colourists, who went off painting the animals, so I resorted to taking photographs, which is as far as my visual art talents go. Here are a few to give you the feel of the place.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

August 21st 1968 - Russian Invasion

This year the Czechs remembered that day forty years ago when the tanks of the USSR and their Warsaw Pact allies rolled into Prague to reverse the liberalisation of the Prague Spring. Of course the timing of the anniversary has led to comparisons with the recent invasion of Georgia by Russia. The Prague Post has had a number of interesting pieces on the subject. Another comparison also comes to my mind - that with the events of the Velvet Revolution, when the Russian tanks did not roll in, but this does not seem to be much remembered in the current climate.

As a Brit I have pondered for some time what, if anything, I can say of value on the subject. I was only 10 at the time of the invasion and have a hazy memory of the BBC news coverage at the time - of people pleading with stony-faced Russian troops and my parents' reaction of sorrow. But more importantly I am aware (as I am always aware) of the very different pasts of the country of my birth and of my adopted home.

As a Brit I am supportive of any nation' s aspiration to democracy and the shaking off of tyranny. A child in the 60s we played Nazis and Brits in the playground and I remember still being taught how to draw spitfires by the big boy in the hospital bed across from mine, when I was having my appendix out. Only 2o years after the end of the war I watched with pride as the veterans marched down our street and then I stood with head bowed in the two-minute silence at the war memorial in the town square. "They died that the world could be free", I was told. Only in 1968 the people of Czechoslovakia were not free, and we could do nothing about it.

The invasion of Georgia coming at the time of the 40th anniversary has led to the Czechs expressing their fear that their current freedom will be shortlived. This fear expresses itself in support for the siting of US radar stations in the Czech Republic and it expresses itself in opposition to them. For many Russia remains the enemy, the threat of its aggression hangs over the former members of the "evil" empire.

It will perhaps come as a surprise to my Czech readers that I understand something of the Russians' position. It seems to me that they are suffering from a trauma arising from the rapid loss of empire. The Russian Empire goes back centuries to the great Russian rulers of Peter and Catherine the Great - it was the second largest empire in modern times. And who better to understand what the Russians are going through with its loss than a scion of the largest empire. In my primary school the map on the wall still had much of the world coloured pink- the Empire (and later the Commonwealth) on which the sun never set; besotted by history I devoured the tales of Empire - of David Livingstone, Clive of India, General Wolfe, and Captain Cook. And so I learnt not just about Britain defending freedom but also taking it, and as a child I was proud of both and saw no contradiction in my position.

No, I am sorry, my Czech friends, I am a child of Empire. I cannot know what it is to have been subjected by an imperial power. But I do know what happens to a people who have lost a great empire, one that had defined their identity for centuries. We are at a loss, we hurt. We tell ourselves stories - that the Empire was the price we paid for the defeat of Hitler or that the collapse of the empire was amicable - and we are angry and hurt by those former subject states that challenge the stories. Of course none of this excuses imperialism nor the actions of post-imperialist powers, it merely goes some way to explaining it.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Update on the House

In a previous post I talked about chopping wood and going through the pile in the barn. Well I have and I did, as I feared, find dryrot in profusion in there. Most of it was in the old wood left by the previous owners, but the rot had spread and blossomed. Given that the barn is attached to the house, there was no question but that it had to go. But first I had to get to it – I gave up chopping wood, and started a bonfire instead. Whilst some (most) of it would have been uncontaminated, the fungus had spread its brown spores everywhere and the wood currently unaffected could easily turn into another source of the problem. Piles and piles of wood went on the pyre.

I was eventually left with the larger pieces – many of them the old tree trunks that had been the source of the problem in the first place. I therefore got the builders to help me and they created a huge bonfire – much larger than anything I would dare. Now all that is left are a number of smaller pieces in the barn plus the soil, which contains the debris of wood which has been consumed. These I will dispose of, probably by burning. One of the great advantages of this enforced clearance is that I am able to see more of the barn and its features. The walls dividing the cattle stalls are made of single pieces of granite with a carved knob at one end to which to tie the beast presumably. The combination of red brick vaults rising from granite walls is remarkably elegant. I was reminded again by how taken I had been with the barn when first I saw it. I even look forward to seeing what lies under the layer of decay – there may be nothing but an earth floor or there maybe more granite cobbles.

The builder explained that the early German houses were built with the animals living downstairs and the family up. In the harsh Czech winters the heat of the animals would help heat the living quarters above. This is why they were often built into hillsides. In our barn the layout seems to be different – there are chutes in the barn ceiling which appear to allow hay and feedstuffs to be thrown down from their store above to the animals below. Meanwhile in the house we have gone back to a similar arrangement to that of the old days, but without the animals. We have abandoned downstairs to allow the dryrot treatment to work and are living quite happily upstairs. The arrangement of the rooms seems to suit this - various friends have commented positively on the change. I certainly have noticed that the neighbours (with one exception) all seem to have their main living room upstairs – it feels warmer up here and I suspect we might end up adopting this approach in winter, even when we get our main room back.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Czech Butterflies

The butterflies that grace the Czech Republic are more varied and more frequent than those we get in England. Our garden is full of them dancing in the late summer sun, as I sit in my plastic chair watching. Some are quite plain – butterflies from the woods in a range of browns and subtle dappledness. Other are lighter - large and small brimstones, frittilaries, swallowtails, others are familiar like the many peacocks and tortoiseshells. I pursue them with camera in hand, but rarely get the photo I want.

Of all them, this beauty is my favourite and not just because it posed so obligingly. It is large (much larger than butterflies I see in my Cotswold garden) its wings are dark brown, edged with cream, and decorated with a line of turquoise flecks so intense they glow in the sunshine. Its beauty is subtle not flashy, an classy gem of a butterfly. The book says it's a Camberwell Beauty – well, I lived and worked in South East London and I never saw this butterfly anywhere there and certainly not in Camberwell.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Meetings with Foxes

On Saturday I took a taxi home, as driving having drunk alcohol of any quantity is forbidden in the Czech Republic. On the road we came across a fox – the taxi slowed to a crawl and the fox disappeared from the headlights' fierce glare into the verge. “Liska,” said the taxi driver smiling. Strangely this was my first encounter with a wild fox (liska) in the Czech Republic, although I see them regularly in England on the hills around my home. The only previous meeting had been with a sad fox at a nearby zoo, which paced up and down in its concrete cell.

My Czech home is built into the slope of a small hill, the downstairs rooms at the back being literally scraped out of the rock and earth. The hill is called Lisci Dira - Fox Hole in Czech. The following day I set off for the woods to walk and collect mushrooms. After the intense heat of the day before, the sky was cloudy and threatened rain. We had not had rain for several weeks and even then it had not been enough - the wood's floor was tinder-dry. I was just about to turn for home, when I spotted a clump of chanterelle mushrooms. I had looked in all my usual spots for chanterelles without success and had come to the conclusion that the drought had put paid to them. But there they were hiding in the moss. The Czech name for the chanterelle is Liska Obecna – common fox.

I had just picked the last of them, when a drop of rain fell on my arm. By the time I was out of the woods, across the field and into the narrow track that runs down to the village, I was soaked. As I came to the end of the trees that lined the track, I was stopped short by an extraordinary sight. There in broad daylight – it was 3pm and so mid afternoon – was a fox standing in the middle of the lane. It contemplated the scene for a while and then trotted off into the fields. Now I have seen foxes in daylight in London, indeed we had a whole family of them living in our back garden, but they were urban foxes used to people and had no cause to fear us, so unlike their country cousins. I walked on musing on this strange meeting. It is apparent to me that the fox allowed me to get that close. In my haste to get home and out of the rain I had made no attempt to walk softly and a fox's big red ears can hear a mouse squeak at 100 metres, I had stood watching him for a good minute or two before he chose to move off. Now he had chosen to stand in my path.

I am told that to the Czechs this was a lucky occurrence, that the fox is an animal spirit associated with witches and his appearance to me (not once but twice) was a sign of good fortune. I certainly felt lucky to have met with "bold Renardine".

Friday, 5 September 2008

Plague Column Under Wraps

In a previous blog I wrote about the plague column to be found in the town square in Cesky Krumlov. I walked past it today and as ever it was surrounded by tourists oblivious to its presence. I however was not. In fact I find I am always aware of it and what it signifies. I find history is constantly impinging on my consciousness in this place – a bane of being a historian by training perhaps. But then. Cesky Krumlov is like that anyway – history is ever present.

A few days ago as I crossed the square I saw that the fountain at its base and the statues surrounding it were covered with scaffolding as restoration takes place. I saw too that the statues had been wrapped in protective polythene and tarpaulin. Somehow this arrangement made the statues all the more disturbing, especially the one trussed up in a tarpaulin like a man on the gallows. .I took these photos and quickly moved on.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Old Lady & The Caterpillar

On the last leg of my walk along the Schwarzenberg Canal, as I started the approach into Nova Pec, I passed an avenue of silver birch trees. On one side two horses browsed the grass in a paddock and a lone lupin caught my eye. The lupin season is over here, with the tall spikes now covered with seedpods, but in some instances there is a brief late summer flush when a few flowers bloom again. I paused and took a photo and then returned to my trek. There in the road was a large red caterpillar – this one in fact. I could only think that it had fallen out of one of the trees, perhaps in preparation for the creation of its chrysalis. After having taken its photo, I helped it onto the verge away from the passing car wheels.

A little further on an old lady was grubbing about in the grass and leaves under the trees. She looked a regular babushka, with beige cardigan, headscarf and matching tights, the lines on her face suggested she was probably about eighty. Behind her back one hand held a clear plastic bag. I nodded to her, as she looked up at me briefly before returning to her search. And then I realised the bag which I had thought contained old bread actually held a mass of caterpillars. I presume she was collecting them as tasty goodies for her chickens or maybe she was the owner of the ramshackle multi-storey pigeonloft, which sat behind one of the nearby homes. It is the nature of these things that most caterpillars will not make it - some will be squashed by a car tyre, some will not make it to the grass or are be taken birds, some will fall prey to a hawk-eyed babushka, but a few will turn into a chrysalis and eventually into Goat Moth. I rather hope mine is one of the lucky ones.

Monday, 1 September 2008

A Walk Along the Schwarzenberg Canal

The Schwarzenberg Timber Canal is a source of some pride to the Czechs. They talk about the engineering prowess of its creator Josef Rosenauer in designing the canal to descend from the Sumava to the River Vlatava in the Czech Republic and the Muhl River (a tributary of the Danube) in Austria. This he achieved using the contours of the land, gravity and water from Plesny Lake and local streams to bring the timber gradually to their destinations, so gradually that at times when you are walking along it you hardly notice you are going downhill.. However Manchester Ship Canal it ain't, in fact it is not a canal for boats at all. Rather it is only about 4 metres wide and about 1 metre deep. I walked over it the first time I visited, before realising that this was the "great" Schwarzenberg Canal. And yet it certainly is quite a feat, with its granite lined walls, its shutes and the functionality of its design – it did its job very efficiently for over 100 years. As the Czechs would point out big isn't always best.

The Canal makes a popular walk for Czech families (the gradual slope makes pushchair handling easy) and cyclists. Yesterday I took advantage of the last day of the summer bus timetable to take a bus from Nova Pec (which I had gone to on the little train) to Jeleny Vrchy. The little village of Jeleny is the starting point for a number of excellent waymarked trails, of which the Canal one is the easiest. Grabbing a bottle of the superior Czech version of Coke – Kofola – I proceeded to walk down the blue-waymarked path back to Nova Pec via the canal bank. I recommend this walk as an easy-on-the-legs introduction to the Sumava forests. The slopes are covered primarily with fir, interspersed with silver birch, under which are mossy banks on many colours and the occasional large granite slab. Throughout the seasons you will see a range of flowers – the rare (and protected) Alpine snowbell, the more common violet, lupin (sometimes in huge swathes), bellflower, ragged robin and fireweed.

The canal whispered beside me as I walked, dyed brown by peat, whilst from time to time came the sound and glint of forest streams. Sometimes a vista would open up to show the wooded slopes of the Sumava or a lonely farmhouse. To enlighten the walk there were information boards every mile or two, in Czech with a German translation. These fortunately also had graphics which helped my rusty German and even worse Czech. They showed how the logs were transported, the canal built, about the animals of the forest, Plesny Lake, etc. Having had my fill of the canal and its environs I took another track, waymarked yellow, and descended through the forest a little more quickly. Now instead of the canal I had a stream to accompany me, that gushed among the moss-covered rocks, forming little pools and torrents, catching the light or descending into gloom.

I was reminded that I had read that it was here in the Sumava that the Czech otter population had survived in streams like this one. And in the forest the linx once more prowled after a successful reintroduction, though no such effort had yet been made for the lost animals of the Sumava - the wolf and the brown bear, both of which were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. After a while the track flattened out and I found myself in the peaty stream valley that I had passed on the bus coming up . The trees opened up to reveal tall grasses and flowers, reeds and the occasional fir or birch.

The track crossed over the brook, which was brown and freckled in the sunshine. And I rejoined the road to Nova Pec. Even here I found much to delight me. Little lizards left their basking places on the tarmac and scuttled into the grass at the approaching thunder of my footfall. Dragonflies darted and the air was full of the sweet scent of pine resin. At last the huts and houses of Nova Pec lined the road, and I walked to the station and home.

Indispensable Tool

My builder has been busy removing the dryrot in the floorboards and plaster – I am glad to say that it does not seem to have spread too far. He arrived with a huge toolbox on wheels and various electric drills and saws, but nearly all the tasks were achieved using just one tool – a handaxe. This axe was used to lever up the floor, to break through nails in the floor, to carve sections of the floorboards which were catching, to hack the plaster off the wall and of course to chop things. I was very impressed by this hugely useful Czech tool, and told my husband all about it. I was wondering whether and where to get one - this axe, lever, wedge and chisel all in one.

The next day my builder referred to it as his indispensable tool as he was using it to break some glass. I commented by how impressed I was with it. He grinned and said wasn't it primeval – the caveman's handaxe. “I got it at Lidl's” he said, “It was cheap and the last in the shop.


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