Monday, 30 March 2009

Flood Control and Willows

The Town Council is arguing that the way to control floods in Cesky Krumlov is to cut down the willows and to remove the natural banks on which they stand with concrete walls. There are several arguments against their plans - a) the aesthetic one, most of the time the river is low and the concrete will look awful, especially in this UNESCO heritage site, b) the heritage one, they are destroying an island which has been around for centuries, c) wildlife - the island is home to nesting birds and even occasionally plays host to otters. But I for one am not convinced that what they are proposing is the best way to control flooding either.

The key thing to note is that flooding is not common in Cesky Krumlov - in fact they are planning for a 100 year flood event. How can such a rare event justify such vandalism? Now as it happens flooding is common in Gloucestershire (my English home), indeed it is pretty common in Britain fullstop. In the UK we have rather moved away from constantly resorting to concrete walls, preferring to "focus on ways that work with nature, not against it" (in the words of the UK Government). Part of that strategy is the use of willows and other riverside trees to bind the river banks. There has been some fascinating approaches which create riverwalls from living woven willow (example shown above).

Equally important is to address the cause of the flooding rather than the flood. Locally the general view is that the last big flood was caused by someone opening the sluices on Lake Lipno and releasing a huge amount of water into the River Vltava, which swept down and flooded the towns, such as Cesky Krumlov, along its banks. The simple answer would then appear to be, don't open the sluice gates like that!

For an account of the open meeting of the Krumlov Town Council, visit

If you want to help the protest you can do two things - 1/email the Town Hall (addressed to the Mayor, Ing. Luboš Jedlička) c/o adding your name in support of the petition of March 2009 that asks for the retaining of the small island under Lazebnicky bridge
2/ write to UNESCO and ask whether they are aware of this situation, the citizens' protests, and the extent of damage the projected works may cause. The name and contact details

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

More on Town Planning & Cesky Krumlov

As I mentioned in my previous blog, we have seen a sad decline in community shops and other usage in Cesky Krumlov. One such loss is that of the ironmongers which sat on Latran among the hotels and hostels. The doorway was always framed with spades, metal buckets and other 'mongery. When you went in you were faced with an assortment of tools and kitchenware. You could buy individual screws and hooks in all sizes and designs, metal brushes, scythes for the orchard, coal skuttles, clothes airers, a pronged tool to gather forest berries, things familiar and things whose purpose was a mystery to me. The shop had that very special smell that took me back to the ironmongers that I had visited with my father in my childhood, of polish and firelighters. The owner spoke not a word of English and very little German and so I communicated by pointing, miming and when all else failed drawing the object of my purchase. Then one day it was gone and the town is the lesser for it.

Another shop that has disappeared is the old hunting shop a few doors down from the ironmongers. The window was always full of the green huntsman jackets, hats, knives of various types, and shotglasses decorated with painted hunting scenes. I would go there to buy mushroom knives, such as the one shown here with a useful brush at one end for removing the dirt from one's finds. Now I cannot find anywhere that sells them in Cesky Krumlov, and, given the ease with which one can lose knives when mushrooming, I miss it. Now the shop sells trendy snow and skateboarding clothes.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Town Planning and Cesky Krumlov

The ongoing saga of the ducks and the island has reminded me that I have been meaning to blog about town planning in Cesky Krumlov. Regular readers of this blog will know of my concerns about the commercial exploitation of the town at the expense of its heritage and community - if you haven't do check out my post on the Alchemist's house and UNESCO or Not.

Some of you may even know that I work in community development and planning. I am fascinated by the way towns work both practically and spiritually. In my profession I am amazed by how little is taught to town planners on how to study the historical geography of place. Towns do not simply appear, they evolve, they respond to the dynamics of their community and the physical geography of the landscape. The town gains a memory, a grain in the wood, and planners play with that at their peril.

If you look at Cesky Krumlov you will be struck by a number of things. Firstly there is the oxbowing river with two bends so acute that they nearly touch and create an island. This river brings trade and money, its control means power. And so on one side there is the castle built on to a cliff, the second largest in the Czech Republic, its owners richer than the Holy Roman Emperor himself. And spilling down the hill from the river are houses and shops, in the foothills of the castle so to speak, serving the castle.

Across the river there is another force in play – the New Town with its many elaborate merchant houses focusing on the town square. Just as the Castle had its tower as a prominent statement of power, so in the New Town the tower and spire of St Vitus church speak of the power of the church. A dialogue is taking place between earthly and heavenly powers (of castle and church). While around their feet the process of trade and transaction gives the town its life blood.

Water forms boundaries – the river a natural moat and highway. Water also is at the centre of things, as both in the castle's courtyard and in the new town square there are wells and fountains. And under all is the granite rock that forms the cliff on which the castle sits and the building stone for church, castle and merchant home alike. But look close and you will see that the granite cliffs are riddled with holes, where mines have been dug to extract graphite and where water springs from the rocks.

Modern Krumlov is moving away from the old dynamics. The community life that was the life blood of the town is being forced out, evicted by commercial pressures, to the outskirts of the town and in its place come hotels, shops and restaurants catering exclusively for the tourists. Schools, banks and foodshops are being displaced. I understand that some Japanese tourists have been under the mistaken belief that the frontages of the town's buildings are folded away for winter. If this carries on, they might as well might be. But it is even more profound than that – Cesky Krumlov is a place of great power. It has an ability to knock people sideways in a way only a few special places do. I believe that is because of the forces at work in its geography. These forces are more than playthings for people to abuse for self gain. In circumstances such as this I have faith that this extraordinary town will get its own way and it will gather around it and within it people who will ensure that it does.

Which brings me back to the current campaign about the destruction of the island. Both of the photos I have chosen to illustrate the historical dynamics were taken when there were trees on the island. The trees have been lost but there appears to be some hope. In the light of public anger about the issue, the Town Council is holding a special meeting to discuss a compromise. For the latest visit So let us hope that the power of community action is beginning to be felt in Cesky Krumlov.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Ducks Fight Back in Cesky Krumlov

The people of Cesky Krumlov watched in horror as 21 trees were chopped down on the island in the middle of Vltava River, which has for so long formed a green backdrop to photographs of the ancient centre of the town. The reason given for this savagery has been "some flood prevention" works, but how this justifies the destruction of mature trees (mostly willows) whose roots bind together the soil and resisted the flood of 2002 is hard to see. Local sentiment sees a more sinister and mercenary motive - ie there's money to be made somehow. How did this get through planning without anyone realising what was proposed? Answer: the planning application had not mentioned the trees' destruction. Very quickly a petition was gathered with hundreds of signatures, but it was too late to save the trees, but could it save the island?

In addition to the trees the island was also something of a nature reserve with a colony of wild ducks, which were often the subject of tourist photos, and also the home of grey wagtails. Now the island is churned earth, which will be eroded away by the next winter flood. But overnight the ducks started to fight back. A metre high duck appeared together with a placard saying "Ducks against diggers." and "Don't take our island away." With mutant ducks on the case in this country with a taste for the surreal 'the powers that be' should quaking (or should that be quacking) in their boots.

For more on this story do visit and for a historic pictures of the island visit

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Latest on the Central Heating

I hope those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I hate those whinging ex-pat blogs that are too frequent. They make you want to ask, "If you dislike the country and its people so much why did you move here?" I also dislike those ex-pat blogs, which seem to think it necessary to justify their move by attacking their motherland. So it is with caution and regret that I have decided to blog about the painful experience I have had with dealing with Czech contractors, but I think it is only fair on anyone else who is starting out on the path of restoring a house here.

Following on my post on the central heating a month or so ago, my electrician eventually turned up. He managed to botch together a solution to the hot water problem (he needed to bring a new switch so for a while the existing switch had to be held together with a piece of paper). In so doing he broke the seal that electricity supplier had put on the electric meter setting. Of course he says all the problems are electricity supplier's fault, but because he broke the seal we can't prove it! As for the central heating, well he couldn't help me there, I had to get the central heating company in. As the electrician had been the project manager for all the first stage of work – including the central heating – this should have surprised me, but after three years here it didn't.

The date arranged for the visit of the central heating engineer came and went, another no-show. Then on the Wednesday, miracle of miracles, both the heating engineer and electrician turned up together. It turns out that the central heating is to the wrong spec and could never heat the house in these conditions. Add to that the clock in the electric box is faulty, with the result that such heating as there is isn't charging properly. It has taken three years of complaining about the heating and sky-high bills to get this far, but at least (I hope) the problems have been identified and we might just have agreed the steps towards getting them fixed, perhaps not completely but enough.

So what have I learnt (the hard way) about employing Czech builders?
1 Well for starters they will tell you what they think you want to hear (see my post on When Yes Means No) rather than the truth.
2 If you don't ask for something, the Czech craftsmen won't do it for you and they won't suggest it either. No matter that they are the experts, you are still meant to know. No matter too that it is a task so obvious one would think it unnecessary to ask, it won't to get done – eg if you ask them to fit a sink, ensure they also fit a waste pipe!
3 Czech tradesmen never seem to finish anything properly, and certainly don't do the necessary checks when they finish (see my August post about the dryrot in the kitchen).
4 Get everything in writing.
5 Even when you employ someone as a project manager – don't assume they will take responsibility if things go wrong.
6 Ensure that the builders include the cost of cleaning up after the job otherwise you will be left with piles of rubble.
7 Get a Brit to do it (only joking, well maybe not).

Have I just been unlucky and am making unfair generalisations? Conversations with other ex-pats and indeed with Czechs confirm that I am not alone in my experience. Is it just another example of the Czech attitude to work that I spoke about it in a previous post? Probably and if so there's no hope for us. Not that I am for one moment suggesting that one does not have bad experiences in England, just that they seem almost the norm here. Ah well, I just have to remind myself how much I love the house and the countryside around it.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

A Different Palette

On my flight back from England after Christmas I was sat next to a retired couple who were visiting the Czech Republic for the first time. As the plane began its descent into Prague Airport, the wife commented to her husband as she looked down at the countryside below “It's so brown!” This gave me pause for thought, I looked past her out of the window and noticed that yes it was brown, unlike the England we had left which was despite the winter still green. I had forgotten that this was so. The Czech winter with its cold and snow means that the grass in the pastures withers and turns a straw colour. With the exception of the dark green of the firs, the Czech landscape is many shades of brown. Of course everything is very different when the country is covered with snow - a dazzling white in the sunshine which contrasts so strongly with the other colours that they appear black or dark grey. On such days you would do well to wear sunglasses.

Both these sets of winter colours are followed by the sudden explosion of Czech springtime, often over a few days, when the world turns a wonderful green. On one of my early visits I spent a happy couple of hours in Petrin Park overlooking Prague, picking wild flowers for my sick friend.

Czech Spring is such a contrast the English one, where everything is more muted – a gradual changing with Spring edging in to the landscape over a period of months. I am currently in England where Spring is gently springing. Snowdrops, which appear in January, have been succeeded by primroses, and then by yellow catkins. Yesterday I drove to Ross on Wye and on the verges the first of the wild daffodils were opening – in a week or so one of Gloucestershire's great natural displays will happen as the woods and fields around Dymock are filled with Wordsworthian hosts. That of course is followed in April by that most British of scenes - the bluebell woods where the flowers shimmer in huge oceans. The Czech Republic has nothing to compare with the English Spring flowers, unless it is the purple buttercups of which I have written in the past.

But then the Czech Republic has other treasures. The painting medium most suited to an English landscape, no matter the season, is watercolour, with green, grey and white being the dominant colours in the palette, with the occasional blue. Oil and pastel are more suited to the Czech, the colours more intense and more contrasting – the sun and sky closer to those of the Mediterranean. Except perhaps at the turn of Winter, when washes of brown are called for.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Masopust in Cesky Krumlov

Last Tuesday, being Shrove Tuesday, Cesky Krumlov celebrated Masopust (the Czech carnival). The procession had the traditional Masopust elements that I saw in Horice Na Sumave of the tancmeisitri, the Masopust character, as well as some people in costumes of straw, a master of ceremonies, and some people with fur hats.

What was particularly lovely were the two little masopusters, whose presence suggested that the Masopust tradition has a future.

In addition there were people in masks and costumes from the more Italian Carnivale tradition, including one in a white pierrot costume who also seemed to be part of Masopust.

As happens at the Cowley Road Carnival in Oxford (which I have been involved in over the years) the local schools had been active and there were lots of children dressed in home-made masks and costumes.

Finally there were some strange street theatre elements. This time I was able to take some photos which I share with you here – a better way of giving you the feel of the event rather than through my inadequate words.

For the tale of how Masopust came to England view my post on the subject.

Posts on other Czech customs include Easter

Monday, 2 March 2009

Thaw Continued & Czech Driving Machismo

The thaw had the effect of melting the top layer of compacted snow on the roads leading to our village which then rucked up into tracks, below the snow was now ice. I therefore watched in awe as a number of Czech drivers attempted to drive up the hill to the village. It was essential to get enough speed up to keep the momentum going to the top but not too much that you lost control. Some made it, others made it half way and slid back and one drove his car into the pile of snow on the side and abandoned it.

But the prize for Czech driving machismo and bloody-mindedness had to go to the driver of the car who decided to drive to Horice Na Sumave via the little road. This road rises sharply as it goes out of the village and on this stretch is shaded by two lines of trees making the thawing influence of the sun intermittent. It is very narrow, only the width of one car. Add to this at the bottom of the hill as you exit the village there is a 90 degree turn, which means that you cannot get any momentum before you start on the hill. The final point to make is that this road only goes to Horice, which can be reached from our village via a better and easier road which goes downhill, and so any attempt to climb this hill was totally unnecssary.

But one Czech driver thought better. I watched him (I presume it was a him) make several attempts on the hill, the first time he got a third of the way before sliding backwards, the second halfway. He then disappeared for a while. Aha I thought he has realised the errors of his ways and is going the sensible route. Not a bit of it. There he was reversing (yes reversing) up the hill, again he made several attempts, but he did make it eventually. The very idea of attempting driving up that lane in those conditions was enough to make me shudder, but doing it while looking over one's shoulder hardly bears thinking about. Those mad Czech drivers!


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