Thursday, 30 April 2009

Beachcombing on the Vltava

By way of making amends for not blogging for a week, here is the second post in 24 hours.

On arriving back in Cesky Krumlov I went for a favourite walk of mine along the banks of the Vltava River through the town. Already preparations are underway for the so-called improvements to the river – barriers have been put up ready to exclude people from the worksites, large concrete pavements are being laid to carry the heavy machinery. Then of course there are the sad stumps of the trees which had shaded and softened the walk in happier times.

I decided that I would take the opportunity to beachcomb one more time. Along the river there are small beaches covered with all sorts of treasures. In a matter of 15 minutes I had collected shards of pottery (some of it old), pieces of old tile, slag from some metal working and granite pebbles. In this medieval town you can find your own piece of history and put it in your pocket. The supplies are constantly renewed, as the river rises and falls with the seasons. On the riverbed, I gather, there are more treasures – people who have dived near the castle say there are cannonballs in there and larger rubble. Of course all this will be destroyed with the “improvements”. Have they done an archaeological survey? I doubt it.

Driving to the Czech Republic

I apologize for not blogging recently. This is because I have been travelling. At long last I had decided to make the journey from Britain to my Czech home by car. Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually travel by plane and train. It always seemed an awful long way to come by car, especially on my own, and I never had the time to spend doing the journey in a leisurely fashion. But this time I decided to change that – there were four large boxes of books to bring over, pictures, embroideries and puppets, some clothes I had stockpiled in England and various foodstuffs impossible to get in the Czech Republic. I could hardly fit them all into the car.

I took the ferry to Dunkerque and from thence drove across Belgium to stop overnight in Aachen or Aix La Chapelle. This was a town I had visited as a teenager and then I had studied the architecture of its cathedral at university. I arrived in time to visit the Dom (shown here) – Charlemagne's great masterpiece, the first domed building north of the Alps and decorated by fabulous mosaics. In the morning I rose early and took to the streets before the town stirred. This enabled me to explore the town, medieval mingled with Art Deco and I found myself taking photographs of decorations that took my fancy on the shops, banks, the Rathaus, and even the railway station which looked like it had been decorated by someone who was stoned. I then returned to the hotel for breakfast and my departure.

I crossed Germany. This is a country which I know very little, but from the autobahn my appetite for it was whetted. I was passing through some wonderful landscapes - there was the hilly area along the Rhine with ruined castles perched on their peaks, the forests of Bavaria, twice I crossed the Donau (Danube), until I came to my second overnight's stop at Regensburg. Regensburg is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, a medieval and Renaissance city in near perfect condition. I had planned to spend a good half day there exploring, but realised there would not be enough time to do it justice and secondly that I wanted to do so in the company of my husband. So, as Regensburg is only 2.5 hrs from our Czech home I decided it would wait for either a long daytrip or an overnight stay.

In the morning I set off again – along the autobahn into the Bohmerwald National Park (the German part of the Sumava) and then turned off towards the Czech border. This last leg of my journey was the most beautiful of all. Many of the forest trees were in blossom, everything looked newly washed. The weather was warm, but in some of the dips winter snow still lay where the sun had not got to them. The landscape became familiar – I was nearing home, following the northern shore of Lake Lipno and then the few miles north to Horice. I pulled up at the gate – I was home. Would I do it again? Possibly, but with someone with whom to share the journey.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Czech Roma

Recent news has been very depressing. There was a march by 500 far-right demonstrators through the predominantly Roma (gypsy) area of Prirov early this month, followed by others in other towns. Then a Roma family had their house firebombed, both mother and father were badly burnt but the worst injuries were incurred by their daughter of 22 months who has 80% wounds.

These incidents reveal a dark side to the country that I love. The racism against the Roma minority (they make up less than 3% of the population) is widespread. It came as a great shock to hear middle-class educated Czechs talk about the Roma in a way that would be unacceptable among similar people in multi-cultural Britain. Indeed the comments and anti-Roma jokes were similar to those that I heard in my youth in the 1970s Britain and even then were considered dodgy. Then there is the presence of the far-right, something I realised when a local proudly showed me a fascist tattoo on his arm. It is the acceptance of racism at all levels of society that allows such attitudes to thrive.

Amnesty International has just released a report on the plight of European Roma and highlighted the educational discrimination against Roma children, who despite it being unconstitutional are sometimes sent to special schools for children with mental difficulties. This really goes to the heart of the problem. While Roma children are segregated and educationally deprived, then there is little hope of improving the situation .

Saturday, 18 April 2009

The well in the cellar

Our house has three cellars, two are on the ground floor at the back built into the hillside on which the house sits. The other cellar is underneath the house and it is probably older than the house itself. When first we bought the house, we couldn't get into it. The former owners had treated it as a rubbish tip and the steps were covered with piles of empty beer bottles and other detritus. We paid a couple of guys to remove the rubbish to see what was down there. What a job! What we found was a low rectangular room with a concrete floor, granite walls and barrel ceiling.

The next job was to remove the concrete floor - underneath it was a floor made of granite cobbles and a spring, which soon started flowing into the cellar. The concrete had blocked the spring, but the water had had to go somewhere and so had risen up our walls to create rising damp problems in the ground floor walls. A pool formed in the cellar, it was an improvement but not an answer, particularly as it soon became a breeding pond for mosquitoes. On the upside this attracted bats – I opened the door one day and nearly got a bat in the face. So we had our builders dig a well and fix up a pump to keep the well from overflowing. The granite cobbles were relaid and everything was looking good.

Or it did until we had this year's cold winter, which froze the water in the pipe as it fed into the septic tank. The spring flaw and several kettles of hot water and the water can flow again but the pump still isn't pumping . Oh well! Why does that not surprise me?

We have had the water tested and it is pure spring water. So now we are rethinking what we do with our personalised spring water. Our water currently comes from a spring at the farm above the house. We have no control over it and a few months ago the farmer decided to turn off the supply (to us and the rest of the village) for four days. When it came back on, it blasted the pipe supplying our central heating boiler off the wall and flooded the ground floor cellars. So now we are looking at creating tanks in the basement, which may not replace the farm water but would provide a useful backup. I will keep you informed of progress.

We have had the house for over three years. When I started on its restoration, I thought I would be finished by now. Now I just don't believe that day will ever come. I read Salamander's posts on the Krumlov ExPats blogsite about her latest purchase (she has two properties on the go at the same time) and I am in awe.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Planting an Aronia

On Easter Monday I planted an aronia plant in the garden. In the UK aronia is barely known as a garden plant. If it is known, it is known as a shrub which has lovely white spring flowers, bright autumn foliage and decorative black berries. In the Czech Republic you will find aronia bushes in many gardens and it is grown less for its appearance as for the benefits of its edible berries.

Aronia is a plant native to the Eastern and Northern forests of America. Its therapeutic qualities were valued by the Native Americans, but its use went into decline and the berries were primarily used for dying fabrics. Meanwhile behind the Iron Curtain Aronia was being presented as a super berry, created through the scientific advances of socialism. Now we Brits are discovering aronia's qualities. Marks and Spencers announced last year that it was going to be stocking aronia berries and at the same time launched something of an awareness campaign in the British press. The coverage also indicated that one reason for M&S's decision was demand from Britain's growing Polish community.

So why am I planting it? Well, it is relatively easy to grow, although it likes acid to neutral soil, and is small enough to grow in a medium sized garden. Any plant in my garden has to earn its place visually, ideally (as with aronia) in a number of seasons. But perhaps most importantly the more I read about the medical benefits, the more I realise its potential value. It has the highest level of antioxidants of any fruit, as well as anti-inflammatories and chemicals that help cardiovascular problems. Oh and the Native Americans believed that aronia is an aphrodisiac! All I need now is to keep the pigeons off the berries.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

What to buy when visiting the Czech Republic

I just had to show you these - they are some oven gloves I bought in the little supermarket opposite Cesky Krumlov castle. They are just so Czech! For starters they are dressed in national costume, but it is more the quirky humour that strikes me as Czech.

Visitors to the Czech Republic and Cesky Krumlov so often go home with standard tourist gifts - painted Easter eggs (very appropriate today), wooden toys, amber jewelry, puppets, Bohemian glass. All are good things to buy to take home with you. But if you want something different as a memento of your trip, do check out the shops for the locals. In local supermarkets or haberdashers you might find something like this. In ironmongers you might find mushroom knives or scoops for forest berries. In florists you might find straw wreaths decorated with mushrooms, or squirrels made of straw. And the great thing about these type of presents is that you can be certain as you board the plane home you will be the only person with those gifts and that they are genuinely Czech.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Does UNESCO know?

The big question is does UNESCO know about what is happening in Cesky Krumlov.

For those of you who have not been following my posts about the destruction which is happening in the name of flood reduction. Here is a brief summary of what has happened so far:

  • 21 mature trees have been cut down from the banks of the River Vltava and the island just downstream of the Lazebnicky Bridge.
  • The island itself (a natural feature which can be seen in historic pictures of Krumlov) is under threat of removal.
  • The natural banks will be replaced with concrete ones under the proposed "flood prevention" measures.
  • The river weir at the foot of the castle will be replaced by a modern metal one.
All the above will have a major impact on the historic aesthetic of the town, particularly as the river falls considerably in the summer from its winter levels which will mean that the concrete will be particularly visible at the time when the town is most full of visitors.

The local community has reacted with horror.
  • A recent open letter to the Town Council collected over 800 signatures in a matter of a fortnight and the number continues to rise.
  • All the residents in Parkan Street, the street the Town Council claims to be protecting have all expressed their unhappiness.
  • Proper consultation clearly has not taken place - no one knew about the proposals until the bulldozers arrived.
So where does UNESCO stand on this? Were they consulted? They should have been and it seems impossible to believe that they agreed the changes. The townsfolk could do with their help.

For my previous posts on the subject visit:

Ducks Fight Back 17th March
Flood Control and Willows 30th March

On a previous campaign:

UNESCO or No 22nd May 2007
The Alchemist's House 24th May 2007
News from UNESCO 7th September 2007

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Bohemian Baroque

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a big exhibition on Baroque opening on Saturday, which gives me an excuse to blog about the Bohemian Baroque.

In my post about the Ales Gallery I wrote of my love of Bohemian Gothic religious art; I am afraid this does not extend to Bohemian Baroque. I think it must be my English background that makes me so ill at ease with the baroque style of religious decoration. Czech churches are sometimes full of it and give me the creeps - those tortured or ecstatic saints looking upwards with elaborate hand gestures, those doves of the Holy Spirit like gilded guided missiles. In fact all together too much gold, marble, wealth and power. It's the in-your-face Counter-Reformation intolerance that the Catholic Baroque symbolises, that gets to me. For that matter I am not very keen on English church baroque either.

Now, I love a good carved medieval pieta or Last Judgement wallpainting, but then they are part of my English upbringing, something that would surprise many Czechs. On my first visit to the Czech Republic I was taken to a church service in Prague. “You probably won't like it, being a protestant,” I was told. Actually there was nothing in the service that I had not seen in Anglican church services – in fact there were if anything less “bells and smells” than in the High Anglican church in which I then had an office and where you had to open all the windows to get rid of the clouds of incense after the service. I was struck by how similar the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was to the Czech Catholic service I was listening to. Indeed my host would have been shocked to hear that on Sundays all over England “protestants” were giving witness in the Credo to a belief “in the one catholic church”.

But that is the point I think – the Anglican Church is catholic (with a small c), it is designed to be open and tolerant to all sorts of beliefs. When I tried to explain that the English Church was designed as a compromise to allow Catholics and Protestants to worship together, my Czech hosts laughed. It was another example in their eyes, I fear, of a lack of principle on the part of the English. I beg to differ. Looking at the religious fundamentalism of those Baroque churches and the Counter Reformation, it seems to me that pragmatic tolerance is actually a principle worth standing up for, now as much as ever.


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