Sunday, 31 May 2009

An Encounter with Eagles

My husband and I were playing the tourists last week. We decided that we would make the one and a half hour drive to Jindrichuv Hradec to see the town and its castle. I will blog about the visit shortly, but this post is about an incredible experience we had on our way home. We had come out of Jindrichuv Hradec on a minor road and were making our way through the countryside towards Trebon.

We were approaching a medium-sized lake – a fishpond for which the area is famous – when I suddenly noticed three large birds circling above it. At first I thought them storks given the size of them. But then as we came nearer, it was apparent that this was not the case. Two were far larger than storks (which are large birds by British standards), they had a wingspan the length of a bedstead.

My husband had to draw my attention to a bend in the road, I was so preoccupied in watching them. Some trees shielded them from the view from the road and then we saw them again. Now ready I pulled over to observe them more closely. There appeared to be two adults and one juvenile silhouetted against the sky, which made it hard to discern colouring. At the ends of their wings the feathers were spread out like the fingers on a hand, this and their bodyshape and size confirmed that these were large (very large) birds of prey – larger than the buzzards we see near our home. This and the fact that they were patrolling a lake with wildfowl on at approximately the level of the tree crowns gave away their identity. We were watching white-tailed eagles, the largest raptor in northern Europe and one which I had read could be found patrolling the extensive system of ponds around Trebon.

I had been planning a birdwatching foray to Trebon, but had had little expectation of seeing anything so spectacular. Now here, unlooked for, were these princes of the air. We sat a little and watched with open mouths.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Spring Flowers 2009

Knowing from your response to previous posts about Czech flowers how much you like looking at photos of the flowers that I see on my many walks in the woods and fields of South Bohemia, here is another set for you.

Some will be familiar (violets,) to my British readers, some known only as garden flowers (grape hyacinths)

and some completely unknown such as the purple Phyteuma nigrum which grows in great numbers here.

I will blog again at the end of next month about the flowers of early summer, so watch this space.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

UNESCO Acts, Let Us Hope In Time

We have heard that UNESCO has asked Cesky Krumlov Town Council a series of questions about the riverworks , to which it requires answers by Monday. All of us who have been expressing our fears about the environmental and heritage impact of the works are incredibly grateful to UNESCO for this. Only UNESCO has the power to (at least temporarily) halt the damage and only then I believe if there have been procedural faults in the approval process. We need UNESCO to ensure that the response it receives is full and verifiable - we have been unable to do so ourselves. And we need UNESCO if it finds faults to act on them. Our main desire is to stop and repair (where possible) the damage. We certainly do not want the World Heritage Site status removed, it is our main hope of protecting this precious town.

To elaborate:

a) there is a need for speed in any action that is taken, given the rate with which the damage is being done and continues to be done. Is there any way UNESCO could ask for the works to be paused while they consider the report?

The authorities have only been working on the area under Cesky Krumlov Castle for a week but look what has happened in that time. A temporary island has been formed consisting of material which has been dredged up from the riverbed by the diggers. The transformation can be seen by comparing my photos above with the panorama show on the Council's own website

I was able to identify within the rubble a number of stones which appear to have been elements of man-made structures. A number more are lying on the shore (see photos below), including a date stone showing MDCXXV.

b) The second issue is this: inside the Town Hall UNESCO's request will have been met with alarm, especially as the Town Hall (unlike with UNESCO's previous report) has so little time to respond. If the Town Hall has the answers to UNESCO's questions then they should have no problem. But given their inability to answer the questions of objectors, including requests for detailed plans, one suspects that this is not the case. The onerous task of responding will have fallen on the local Branch of The National Institute for th Protection and Conservation Of Monuments and Sites. The officers involved are employed by the Town Council.

There appear to have been several procedural faults. It appears there are no minutes of any committee that approved this project. It is my understanding that, in order for the outline permission to be given, the conservation officers' agreement would be needed, but that for the later detailed plans and changes to the outline that officers 'views might not have been sought. Clearly some permission was given but on the basis of what? What important changes and additions were there in the final plans (if they exist)? Did they for example include the removal of the island? What permission was given at this stage and again on the basis of what?

The officers involved are dedicated professionals, who are between a rock and a hard place. I know from personal experience the pressure that one comes under from politicians and other officers in such circumstances, and that was in the UK where there is a long tradition of an independent civil service which exists to serve the people not its political masters. Any report written in such circumstances needs to be considered very carefully, in the end it's only verifiable evidence that can be believed.

Obviously I have no knowledge of the content of the report, nor do I have access to it. But then nobody else has either.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Mixed Blessings

I start with the riverworks. No photos this time, I can hardly bear to bring myself to watch, but then I don't have to - I can hear them from my desk. Huge diggers are ripping up the riverbed and banks, in their scoops are mixture of historic evidence and young fish and eels - heritage and ecology destroyed. The island had almost disappeared when last I looked, the safe haven for local wildlife destroyed in a few gulps by the monster diggers. The haven gone, the young birds will have fallen prey to the local cats.

The good news is that there is an archaeological symposium in town, let's hope they are able to say something and even be listened to. After that UNESCO arrives, but I fear it will all be too late. By the way I sent a letter to the Mayor of Cesky Krumlov, I shall be interested to see if he replies. It was a very nice letter - offering my assistance. If there is a development I will let you know.

On a brighter note I saw my first stork yesterday, carrying a branch (yes a branch not a stick) in its beak and flying towards Kajov. Let us hope it brings good fortune, we need it.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Boletice Church

Yesterday I did a circular walk from Kajov (a town with a church that merits its own post) over the hills and through the forests of the Boletice Military area. The walk which I had calculated would take me 3 hrs actually took me 4.5; I stopped so much, admiring and photographing the view. As I have said before the Boletice area is special, its military status means that it is not accessible to cars. Only determined tourists will make it there, for they must come by bike or on foot. Nature is therefore particularly rich there and the history, of which there is too little accessible or even visible, very special.

And nowhere is more special than Boletice church. The church is set apart from the modern village of Boletice (which was depopulated during Commie times and used as target practice) and sits on top of a small hill. I approached it from the forests above along a road empty of cars. The church made an impression long before I got to it. By the time I took the little lane to Boletice kostel, I already felt I was going somewhere special. The Church sits among trees, apples, cherries and plums. At its foot a trackway dotted with tank barriers reminds us of the area's current use. The church is Romanesque, the oldest in South Bohemia. I was unable to enter the building: signs warned that, despite the restoration work done so far, one should still take care. So I just walked around and then sat at a bench and contemplated this lovely building. Inside they have found wallpaintings under the graffiti left by Russian soldiers and lovely Romanesque and Gothic features. What is it, I thought to myself, that makes some people react in so brutish a way to such beauty, to such holiness. For make no mistake Boletice Church is a holy place.

This morning on my way to Cesky Krumlov I passed military vehicles going in the opposite direction, soon the peace of Boletice would be broken by the sound of guns.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Message to Cesky Krumlov Townhall

The work has begun in earnest on the riverworks in Cesky Krumlov. As you can see two large diggers have been tearing up the banks. What you will not see is any sign of supervision by heritage professionals, no archaeologist with a watching brief ready to stop the process if something important is found. Indeed given the size of the mouthfulls these monsters take it is hard to see how any such watch could be effective. On Monday the works start under the Castle.

I fear that the Town Hall may think me an interfering Brit, a busybody, who puts her nose in their business. That's if they think of me at all. What they do not know is my background and why I care so much.

My professional background (in case the Town Hall is reading this) is one of heritage and protected landscape management. More recently (for the last eight years) I have been worked in economic and social development for Oxford City Council and my work has even received recognition from the British Government: last year I was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen in recognition of my services to regeneration. And as a professional I am very worried about what is happening here and the potential for real harm to the Cesky Krumlov economy and heritage.

I know the community protest has focused on saving the island, which whilst valid might lead the Town Hall to think that that and not the heritage and economic issues are what is at stake. The two issues are intricately linked.

The UNESCO World Heritage status brings money and visitors. It is the main driver of the local economy, it has sustained a boom in property prices and it brings grants. What will happen if UNESCO were to remove that status or at least a black mark is placed against Krumlov? Was UNESCO notified of the works? It appears it was not. Has a proper archaeological survey been undertaken of the riverbanks and riverbed? Again apparently not. Has the structural impact of the change in the groundwater levels on the historic buildings been considered? Apparently not. If UNESCO had been consulted, then they could have ensured the right questions were asked and the right project chosen. Now that the works have started, it is almost too late for the Council to answer UNESCO's questions. I would be furious if I were an UNESCO official arriving here in June, that I wasn't involved in the process. But not half as furious as I would be if the works end up damaging the historic fabric of the town. Is the Town Hall confident that this will not happen and what are their grounds for such confidence?

There are other economic considerations: observing the behaviour of tourists as I have done over the three years I have lived here, I am convinced that the works will damage some of the tourism businesses in the town and with them local jobs. The riverside businesses will be badly affected, who wants to sit by a concrete channel? I know of at least one business which is losing its riverside terrace to the works and whose viability I suspect will be compromised. Then there is the income generated from the canoe and boat tourism in the town.

Let me clear, we are all trying to do what we think is best for the town and I would happily work with the Council to that end. I do believe that the people in the Town Hall are doing what they think and are advised is best. I have no doubt such works make sense in most towns, but this is not like most towns, this is a World Heritage site. Such a site is like the goose that lays the golden eggs, it is all too easy to kill it.

For a summary of what has happened and what is proposed go to my previous posts


Monday, 11 May 2009

The Arrival of Summer Birds

The summer birds are now arriving. The most obvious are the swallows: this chap was preening himself on the electricity wire a yard or two from our lounge window. Yesterday I spent much of the evening watching their aerial acrobatics, as they swooped and soared over the village. They are much taken with our barn which with its open eaves offers good nesting sites.

The other day when I was scything the orchard (more of that anon) I saw a large bird of prey sweep across the neighbouring field. I could not see it perfectly and birds of prey are hard to identify in flight, but it too had an acrobatic flight style and I caught a short glimpse of a forked tail. This enabled me to identify it as a kite, not the red kite which one sees along the M40 motorway near Oxford but the black, a species that never makes it to the UK, is a summer visitor to this part of Europe. Of course the summer visitors we are all waiting for are the white storks, who build their nests on the tops of buildings and are supposed to bring good luck with them.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Gold, the Colour of the Czech Landscape

The colour of the Czech countryside at this time of year is (for me) always gold. It could be the lovely shades of the new leaves, but for me gold has it. Here are a couple of photos why:

The first (above) is of a watermeadow below Horice Na Sumava station. Huge clumps of marsh marigolds bedeck the meadow.

The second could be of any field around here at the moment – turned a cloth of gold by dandelions.

Sadly it doesn't last, the heat of the summer soon turns the fields white and grey with dandelion clocks and the air full of fairies. If you want to make a wish, go to the countryside near Ceske Budejovice, where the dandelions have already gone to seed.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Update Flood Measures

Above is a photo of the map put up to notify the public of the extent of the works planned on Cesky Krumlov's river. As you can see they extend through most of the historic centre.

A local resident has raised a very worrying issue about the works. As the former Chief Conservationist for the town (now retired) he brings the professional insight of not only a trained architect/engineer but also of one who knows the historic fabric of the town intimately.

He writes: "In my professional opinion (I am an architect and a conservationist) the planned deepening of the river bed – the project calculates 70cms – will cause a gradual lowering of the seepage-water level of the river. But this water, together with the deposited sand and gravel silt, in fact constitutes the foundation base for most of the inner town's houses. A permanent lowering of the seepage water level will result in drying out of the foundation material, causing damage to the historic houses due to structural stress. Directly threatened are many of the houses in the streets Dlouha and Siroka. The current presence of the seepage water can be seen for example in a forgotten mediaeval well abutting the town square. It is clear that the project that concerns itself solely with a problem of a 'hundred year water' is taking into consideration neither the aesthetic nor the structural problems of the fabric of the town that is under UNESCO patronage."

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Witches, maypoles and the unexpected

On the last day of April the Czechs set up their maypoles, light bonfires and on occasion burn a witch's effigy, oh and drink a lot of beer and eat a lot of sausages. They then have Mayday off to recover and drink some more beer. This year Mayday being on Friday this has extended into the weekend.

I have blogged in the past about a private party we went to, where we women (witches?) jumped over the bonfire for luck. But this year I decided to go a formal town event in Cesky Krumlov. The gardens of the Eggenberg Brewery was where it all happened - during the afternoon there were children's puppet shows and stalls from the various voluntary organisations in the town. I arrived before six, various young girls were wandering around in dandelion crowns (made at one of the stalls) and a gaggle of small boys were running around the puppet tent pretending to be monsters. About half a dozen witches stood around looking bored. The sausage stall and the beer tent were going great guns.

At about 6.30 the maypole was raised by local firemen, using a system of ropes and props and a lot of shouting. It was made of a moderately sized fir tree, with all but its top branches stripped off. There were ribbons tied to the crown and to a hoop that hung just below the branches. Also hanging was a bottle of slivovice or similar spirit. Then a group of traditional dancers performed in traditional costume. Why is it that folk dance is often so coy, I'm sure they weren't in the old days? A procession of lanterns was due to arrive at 7.30 when the bonfire would be lit. After that there was an evening's worth of entertainment.

My plan had been to stay for the evening but by 7ish I was feeling that something was wrong, nothing specific, just a foreboding and a desire to go home. So I walked along the river to my car and drove home. At Kajov and Horice Na Sumave the maypoles ribbons were streaming in the wind and smoke was rising from the bonfires, still I didn't stop. As I pulled at the gate, there was a slight rumble in the distance. By the time I had made a cup of tea, the sky was so black I had to put the lights on. The storm hit with great force, massive thundercracks, lightening that lit up the sky and torrents of rain that went on for ages. It would seem that the Cesky Krumlov witches were not taking this burning business lying down!


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