Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Water Spirit

The Vodnik is the Czech water spirit. Similar to the Germanic Nix the Vodnik lives in the water (usually ponds and rivers in Czech folklore) and is someone you do not want to upset. He has a malicious streak - prone to drowning people and keeping their souls in a ceramic pot. If you meet him you will see a man covered with slime and sometimes scales, wearing a coat of tatters and a hat, another give away can be his hands and feet which are sometimes webbed. He often carries a fish, the porcelain pot and a pipe - as he is known to enjoy a quick smoke and so Czech fishermen make him an offering before they fish.

Our family has a particular fondness for the Vodnik despite his unfriendly ways. Our son was given a large book of European fairystories, when he was young, and his favourite story in the book was about the Vodnik or Nix. The book was one of those lovely fairytale books from the former Czechoslovakia and published in the UK by Hamlyn. Its illustrations were by a Czech artist Jan Cerny (about whom I know nothing, not helped that his name translated is John Black and so very common) and are wonderfully Czech with a quirky humour and dark undertones. Our son has grown up into an artist and film maker and we are often struck by how his work seems to have something of that Czech illustrative style. The Vodnik in our son's book is a friendly one who helps the hero get his girl and somewhat out of character with most Czech Vodniks. Our son's imagination was taken by the Vodnik, whom he sees as a sad character looking longingly through the weed at the world beyond water.

The Czechs too have an affection for the Vodnik - you will find him in stories, in music (Dvorak wrote a symphonic poem on the subject and includes him in the opera Rusalka) or hanging up for sale in puppet shops. A few years back I found this Vodnik for sale in a confectioners in Trebon. He is made of marzipan - the Czechs make all sorts of marzipan animals and figures, which make ideal gifts. I couldn't resist him, bought him and gave him as a present for my son. My son's affection for the Vodnik did not extend to refraining from eating his gift, but not before I took this photo.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

More on the Castle Gardens

Many visitors to Cesky Krumlov Castle never make it into the Gardens. If they do they very seldom get beyond the formal gardens nearest the Castle. In so doing they are missing out on one of my favourite haunts. The formal gardens are very fine with formal flower beds, terraces, sculptures and fountain, but beyond these are more informal areas.

It is here that you will find both the summerhouse and the revolving auditorium featured in my last post. As you will have gathered the summerhouse is a rare rococo gem and well worth viewing, although many walk past it without a glance. Below is a photo of the summer house from outside the gardens, which show the level of decoration.

Beyond that crouched in the trees is a little pavilion - its ceiling decorated with 18th century frescos. These frescos, shown below, like the masquerade hall in the castle, betray a sense of fun and amusement so in keeping with the time in which they were created. The gardens are for walking in and giving pleasure. The walks are treelined to proffer shade in the summer leading to a pond. You will not find many tourists here, but you will find the locals - walking with their children to feed the ducks and squirrels, sitting on the grass engrossed in a book or lying asleep among the wild flowers. It is place to visit in all seasons - in spring when the first flowers appear, in summer to escape the sun's glare or in autumn when the leaves are falling. Sadly in Winter it is closed to visitors.

And as you walk you can feel the shades of the castle's former residents walking and laughing too. This is a garden of pleasure and mystery. In these modern days we have lost the ability to read the puzzles of garden design that so amused our 18th century forebears, with their references to classical mythology, masonic and alchemical symbols. What we enjoy is a shadow, but a very fine shadow at that.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The rotating theatre

Regular readers of my blog will know my views of the need for UNESCO to protect the important historic buildings of Cesky Krumlov against the pressures of commercialism. I welcomed their call for an audit of historical buildings.

One of the conditions of World Heritage site listing was the removal of the rotating auditorium from its current site in the Castle Gardens next to the Bellarie Summerhouse, which was built in the rococo style in the mid 1700's. The summerhouse is a remarkable and beautiful building and the UNESCO argument is that it should be seen in its natural setting without the intrusion of a modern open-air theatre auditorium. As someone who has specialised in rococo gardens - I formally ran a heritage centre in Vauxhall, which was built on the site of Vauxhall Spring Gardens, the most famous of all rococo gardens - I am acutely aware of the rareness of such gems.

That said there are many fans for the auditorium in its current position. I would recommend that visitors to Cesky Krumlov make a point of experiencing the magic of a performance in the gardens, before we lose the auditorium from its current site. Throughout the summer there are operas and plays staged in the gardens and whilst the performers can be of varying quality the theatre works wonderfully in the setting. You sit on the raked seating under the stars (or rain if you are unlucky) and the performance takes place around you - in the gardens and on the terrace of the summer house. The 360-degree rotation of the auditorium allows this action to take place anywhere within sight of the audience and anywhere that suits the drama. We watched Dvorak's opera Rusalka and the scene moved from the court to the lake home of the water sprite heroine and back again easily with the turn of the auditorium.

If, as they must to meet UNESCO demands, the Cesky Krumlov authorities do move the auditorium, it is hard to see where it can go and have the same magic. I do think the auditorium is in the way of seeing the summerhouse properly in its setting, although sitting in the empty auditorium does give you a great view. I also think far more could be made of the summerhouse to enable visitors to appreciate it, for starters I would love to be able to look inside. But at the end of the day I do wonder whether some compromise might not be the best solution. When I was researching the Vauxhall pleasure gardens and their rococo structures, I became aware of the theatricality of the period - rococo is nothing if not artifice. The auditorium whilst not in keeping architecturally with its historic surroundings, undoubtedly is in terms of spirit.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Landscape of South Bohemia

As I was driving our Czech visitors to Tesco's I asked them what they thought of the Cotswolds. The response surprised me - the landscape reminded them of South Bohemia. It hadn't occurred to me, that I had managed to buy a Czech property in an area similar to my British birthplace and home. But on reflection I can see why they might say that.

Certainly the area around their home town of Holubov is similarly hilly, although it is far more forested than the rather bare Cotswolds. Both areas are very beautiful. A first glance at the hills around our house (see above) could deceive one into thinking one is in a slightly wooded part of the Cotswolds - the area around Stroud perhaps. But look again at the photograph and you will see the foothills of the Sumava mountains rising behind the hills. These are the steep hills that ring Olsina lake, beyond that there are steeper summits. South Bohemia would indeed be like the Cotswolds, if the Cotswolds were next to the Lake District.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Learning Czech

I really must learn Czech - it is getting more important for me to do so. Okay I have tried, believe me I have. It is a very difficult language for someone like me who has always found that the only way to learn a language is sheer hard graft. I have a vocabulary of several hundred words, but in Czech that is not enough. Each noun has six declensions (seven if you count vocative) and each noun has a plural form which also declines. It is this more than anything else that makes busking your way through the language so difficult. Add that to the British reticence and I find it very hard to open my mouth for anything more than a familiar phrase.

But I sometimes think that my inability to learn the language is somehow more complex than simply the fact that it is so hard. I rather like the detachment that not speaking the language gives me, it is the perfect excuse to not engage, to stand back and watch. My working life is all about communication and engagement. My job has been to help people express themselves and to negotiate peace in divided communities. And yet in that world of work I never express myself, I give and I do not get back. Here in my Czech home I am under no such obligations, I have the perfect excuse I cannot speak the language. One reason for buying here has been to allow me space for myself. Ironically in this country where the language is denied me, I find myself writing and communicating as I am doing right now.

I know I must learn the language now, if as I plan I will be working here. I know too that my failure to learn in the past has seemed to others, especially my friend, a denial of everything Czech, a refusal to commit. And I will learn, I promise, but I am afraid that it may change how I feel about my Czech homeland, that it will cease to be a release for the poet in me. We shall see.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Masopust at Cowley Road Carnival

In my post in February on Czech Carnival - Masopust I talked of our plans to bring a Czech masopust group to Oxford's Cowley Road Carnival. Well this weekend it happened. They arrived on Friday, having travelled across Europe in a van. We had managed to get them accommodation at St Hilda's College - a lovely Oxford University college near Magdalen Bridge. I took them for a meal at the Bodrum Kebab restaurant, which treated our Czech visitors to East Oxford's famous hospitality and a large mixed kebab each. Afterwards we went to a bar where they were welcomed by local artists and musicians. After a few beers and initial shyness Czechs and Brits were soon jamming and sharing each other's music.

On the Saturday the group explored Oxford and then travelled to the Cotswolds, ending up at my home for tea. They had asked me about typical English food at the Bodrum restaurant and I had said that English food was what people ate at home. And so we offered them a typical English tea - three types of cheese (of which Oxford Blue was a great success followed closely by Cheddar), pork pie and sausage rolls (I explained that food in pastry casings was very much an English speciality) and finally chutney. Remarkably the Czechs, who pickle everything as far as I can tell, do not know about chutney. Chutney is of course originally from India and a product of our imperial past which has evolved into something very British, so I suppose it isn't that surprising that the Czechs don't have it. Chutney was hugely successful. Afterwards we had scones with fresh cream and home-made strawberry jam - again a great success. This was all washed down with local apple juice and mugs of tea, drunk with milk in the English manner. After the meal I took them to the local Tesco's to buy ingredients for Czech Masopust doughnuts, English cheese, chutney and local ale, which they had sampled and enjoyed in a pub in Northleach.

On Sunday, with doughnuts in a basket and wearing their tall hats and rag coats, the Czechs joined the Carnival procession down the Cowley Road. It was wonderful to see them there. There were a whole range of carnival traditions - (as you can see) they were walking behind a Trindadian skeleton figure, in front of him was a giant puppet made with local artists, elsewhere there were samba bands from Brazil and a giant Bangladeshi tiger. When they saw me they dragged me into the road and danced round me - it is meant to be bring good luck, something I could do with right now. I spotted them several times through the day, walking through the crowds attracting a lot of attention with their top hats covered with flowers (they were surprised and delighted as people came up to them to talk and to ask to have their photo taken).

Towards the end of the day they came to my office and presented me with a special bottle of slivonic and a cd of Czech traditional music. They seemed very pleased with their reception and amazed by the size of our carnival. They have invited me to go to their town when they give a presentation to their fellow townsfolk about their trip to Oxford. As for East Oxford Action we have a wonderful record for the Heritage Lottery project we are doing on the traditions of Carnival and have a real tool to help us access the Czech community in our midst.

Thursday, 3 July 2008


As you will have gathered from my earlier posts I have caught the Czech mushroom collecting bug. Although you can find early boletus in the woods, my favourite at this time of year is the egg yellow chanterelle. You will find chanterelles in small troops nestled into moss on banks of dappled shade. They are good mushrooms for a beginner as they are easy to identify with their yellow cap fluted down into a yellow stem. Instead of the usual mushroom gills chanterelles have forked ridges which continue from the cap down the stem. Like all mushroom collectors of my acquaintance I have several mushroom identification books (my favourite by the way is the River Cottage Handbook No 1) and these talk about chanterelles having a scent of apricots. Well they do but only in the way that you get those white paints with a hint of apricot. Chanterelles smell of mushrooms with a hint of apricot, which you can miss if you haven't enough of them.

Today I returned home with enough of these yellow treasures to make a dinner of them for my husband and me. They have such a wonderful flavour and texture that they do not need fancy recipes, just fry them and then serve with scrambled eggs and a slice of bread (Czech rye bread if you can get it) and you will be in ecstasy. My husband was quite smitten with them.

PS Chanterelles were not the only thing harvested in the forest today, there were wild raspberries and strawberries too. However those small atom bombs of flavour somehow didn't make it to the basket. Don't tell my old man.


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