Thursday, 30 December 2010

Hussite Video/Slideshow

The Hussites were followers of the teachings of theologian Jan Hus (John Huss) who was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Their one-eyed general Jan Zizka turned his followers from inexperienced peasant farmers into a formidable fighting force. The music is one of their hymns - "Warriors of God".

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Real Good King Wenceslas

There are many myths and few facts about the original Good King Wenceslas.

Let's start with the facts. Wenceslas was Vaclav I Duke of Bohemia from 921 - 935 AD. He was born into the house of the Přemyslids, the first rulers of Bohemia, at a time when Christianity was only just beginning to take hold among the Slavs. His grandfather Borivoj was converted by St Cyril and St Methodius (the Apostles to the Slavs) and Wenceslas was brought up a Christian by his father Vratislav. When Vratislav died Wenceslas was only 13 and his care passed to his saintly grandmother Ludmila. But a power struggle ensued over control of the young king and his kingdom between Ludmila and Wenceslas' mother Drahomira, which resulted in Ludmila's death by strangulation. In 924 or 925 Wenceslas had his mother exiled and took control of his dukedom.

Under his rule Christianity was promoted in Bohemia and the chronicles attribute to Wenceslas great acts of piety. In 929 the army of  the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler, attacked Prague and Wenceslas sued for peace and pledged allegiance to the German Duke. This action together with Wenceslas' support of the Christian church angered many Bohemian nobles who turned to Wenceslas brother Boleslav as an alternative duke. At some point later Boleslav invited Wenceslas to a religious feast and when Wenceslas was on his way to church Boleslav and his allies murdered him

So Wenceslas was actually Vaclav; he wasn't a king but a duke and we can't even be sure of the dates - he may have died in 929 or alternatively 935. History is also unclear about his enemies. Was Drahomira a pagan - the chronicles can't make up their minds. Was Boleslav - well he didn't exactly stop the growth of christianity after Wenceslas' death. What we have here is a pretty typical example of realpolitik in the Dark Ages, with the usual fratricide, invading armies, conspiracies and a dose of religion to boot.  After which we get the postumous and highly unreliable hagiographic royal biographies.

Now for some of the myths -
  • The story of the old man seeking fuel appeared in 1853 - a piece of Victorian whimsy by John Mason Neale. The tune however is older - it's a medieval spring carol.
  • Wenceslas is said to be sleeping with an army of knights under Mount Blanik waiting to ride out to save the Czech nation - though why you would want a leader who failed to defeat the Germans in his lifetime escapes me. 
  • In an extension to the last myth Wenceslas will take the magical sword of Bruncvik from a stone in Charles Bridge, and with the sword he will defeat the country's enemies. Myths it seems are the same the world over.
Well there you go - the real Good King Wenceslas stays as illusive as ever.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


I was waiting for a bus a fortnight ago in Cesky Krumlov. There was quite a crowd of people at the bus stop, but none of them were queuing. That includes me - a Brit! We all milled around chatting, I and a number of others sat on a bench. The bus appeared and still no queue materialised, instead everyone moved towards the bus door and formed a disordered huddle. It was a very polite huddle, but a huddle nonetheless. The only friction arose when some schoolchildren pushed in front of an elderly lady, but they soon were put in their place by a stern word.

Then a few days ago I waited for a bus in Cheltenham. Of course there was a queue. There would have been a queue, regardless of how many people were waiting. In fact the Brits will form a queue of one - I do. There's an empty bus stop, what do I do? I stand next to the sign looking in the direction of the bus. Arrivals at the bus stop then form a queue behind me. If anyone pushes into the queue they are subjected to stares and even the muttered comment "Some people have no manners, really!" But they are unlikely to be challenged.

Such queuing behaviour is relatively easy to read for non-Brits, what is more difficult is the virtual queue. What do I mean by that? Well, a good example is in a pub. In my youth I worked as a barmaid and so had an opportunity to observe it closely. You do not form a queue when you want to buy a beer, but there is a virtual queue. The barman serves people in the order in which they arrived at the bar. To register your presence with the barman you catch his eye, often with a jerk of the head backwards. He will nod to acknowledge you and then you wait your turn. This can be problematic in a very crowded bar, but as a barmaid I soon learned that the skill of remembering the order of the virtual queue is essential.

Once a snooty customer said to me ""When are you going to serve me, I'm an undergraduate of Oxford University?" There was a stunned silence in the bar, fellow students tried to hide and the locals clenched their teeth. Every rule of English behaviour had been broken.

In such a circumstance the barmaid is entitled to lose her British reserve. "And I'm a graduate," I replied, "And you'll bloody well wait your turn."  General cheers. 

I've heard the argument that the British queuing habit is due to rationing. But I think that is complete tosh. Rationing was over 50 years ago and still we are doing it. Plus I rather suspect that under the Nazis and then under the Communists the Czech too would have been used to queuing, indeed Czech bureaucracy still requires it. They just don't do it all the time.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Visit to Volary

My posts about the history of this part of the Czech Republic don't usually look at the more recent past, but there is plenty of it around here. A few weeks ago, before the snow, I drove over to Volary. I had been through it many times on my way to the Sumava, but never stopped. This time I did.

If you go the cemetary in Volary you will find a memorial just outside the main cemetary along with ninety-six graves.  When the American forces entered Volary they came upon a barracks and in it over one hundred women, starving (their average weight was 82 pounds), ill and indeed dying. These were all that remained of a group of women who had been made to make a 700 kilometre death march from concentration camps in Poland. A few days later the Americans found the mass grave of women who had died of disease or been shot by their Nazi guards. The local German inhabitants were made to exhume the bodies and dig new graves. They were then made to attend a burial service for the women. An account of the US army's arrival with photographs is to be found here 

The graveyard is incredibly powerful, set on the hillside overlooking the Sumava. The spot was so beautiful and peaceful when I visited, that it is hard to bear the knowledge of what happened here. It is a place, like too many in this country, where angels weep. The names of the graves show that the women buried there come from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the USSR, but most moving of all are those that simply bear the word "neznama" - unknown. It is a tribute to the care and work of the US Fifth Infantry Division that so many have names - this is the only cemetary to holocaust victims where there are names at all.

But the last word goes to a survivor Szewa Szeps -

We were sent on the March, some of the girls sick with a fever of 39 degrees. Every day the snow-covered roads became littered with corpses. My sister was in a very bad way. I had to support and pull her along, so that she would not be shot. We marched in the direction of Czechoslovakia and Bavaria. During the march my sister pleaded with me to leave her and continue alone. Frozen, starving and thoroughly exhausted, we managed to drag ourselves along. At night we were packed like herrings in barns or sheds. In the morning those who didn't survive were left behind. Our transport, with its skeletons in rags, caused the local residents in the area to close their windows and to run from us as if from an epidemic. Many of the unfortunate were [simply] shot along our way. 

During the night of 2-3 May, the Germans abandoned us near a forest in Volary (Wallern) in Czechoslovakia. In the morning we noticed that the guards were gone. Me and another person – the only ones who could still continue – left on the first American tank which approached.
The Americans brought us to the local hospital. My sister was in a really bad way, and three days later, on the 9th of May, 1945, she died. She was buried in Volary. On her tombstone, I requested her epitaph be taken from her diary:

“The day of our liberation should just not be a day of bitter sleep.”
But I added:

“The day of liberation, my dear sister, was for you a day of bitter sleep."

 Extract taken from
It is to the soldiers, medics and Jewish chaplain Herman Dicker of the Fifth Infantry Division that the victims buried in Volary are the only victims in any Holocaust cemetery that headstones bears the victims  name.It is to the soldiers, medics and Jewish chaplain Herman Dicker of the Fifth Infantry Division that the victims buried in Volary are the only victims in any Holocaust cemetery that headstones bears the victims  name.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Weekend Shopping

Do not go shopping on Saturday afternoon in the Czech Republic - you will find the shops closed. Never mind Sunday opening, Czech shops as a rule close at 12.00 or at best 1pm on Saturdays. The exception to this is often the modern shopping malls, but your regular town centre shops are closed. Even a city like Ceske Budejovice turns into a ghost town at noon on Saturdays, the streets empty and even many cafes and restaurants are closed. Walking across its huge central square on a Saturday afternoon can be disconcerting - it's almost as if you've walked in to a wild west movie just before the outlaws ride into town.

Cesky Krumlov at first sight bucks this trend - most shops are open. But look closer and you will see that only the tourist and vietnamese shops are open, the in-town supermarkets, chemists, shoeshops, etc are all closed. Even the little supermarket opposite the Castle is closed. And yet the weekend is when Cesky Krumlov receives most of its visitors. You can sit on the bench by the castle gate and watch as bemused Japanese tourists try the door. No matter that the supermarket is missing out on all that trade, the Czechs have always stopped work on Saturdays at lunchtime and disappeared off to their families, cottages and gardens and so that is what they will continue to do. Or they might be engaging in the latest pastime of going in their hordes to the new out-of-town shopping centres.

Monday, 29 November 2010

A visit to Trocnov

The Jan Zizka Birthplace Museum at Trocnov is a very Czech affair. The Hussite leader Jan Zizka was quite simply a military genius. When I arrived the Museum was closed, but a note said I could get the key from the cafe/pub. I walked past a couple drinking beer at a trestle table and up to the counter. A nice young lady, who seemed to double as barmaid and museum caretaker, picked up the key and opened the door for me. The museum was divided into three rooms - one about Zizka's family and family home, the second about Zizka's campaigns and the third about the cult of Zizka. Unfortunately for British visitors the bulk of the exhibition text is in Czech, but it still is interesting to see just how small Zizka's familial home was - a simple tower house, but nevertheless made of stone, which probably made it stand out among the wooden structures that surrounded it. Zizka's father is described as a member of the gentry, but  clearly not a very wealthy one. 

I found room 3 particularly interesting, showing as it did the role of Zizka as a hero first of Czech nationalism and then of communism. The displays are full of posters and prints of Zizka. I was joined in the museum by a woman and her young daughter. Every few minutes the child would let out a cry "Zizka, Zizka!" when she saw yet another picture of the man. Zizka, it would appear, still has a strong hold on Czech imagination! 

I left the museum and walked around the site. The archaeological remains were disappointing, a few low walls revealed a remarkably small footprint. I walked along a path and into a small wood. Several groups of Czechs were walking there in the afternoon sunshine, carrying baskets and collecting mushrooms. At the end of an avenue in a grove I found the stone memorial to the site of Zizka's birth. The feature that dominates the site is a giant sculpture of Zizka. A young couple were photographing each other in front of the great man's feet. Seeing me they invited me to take over and so I did. Then they left and I was alone looking up at the craggy stone features. Was this what Zizka looked like? Probably not, the look was a creation of the cult of Zizka. But as a historian I have always been interested both in getting to the historical truth and in how history is used through the ages, which is of course also true.


Friday, 26 November 2010

Lost in Translation

I thought I might share with you more  about what was discussed at the Lost in Translation exhibition opening, which featured the work of Czech artists and writers who live in the UK and the work of British artists and writers who live in the Czech Republic. 

The picture above is by Katia Lom who said;

I have found refuge and my own way to come to terms with this industrious city through its pockets of nature. I have come to realise that there is peace to be found amongst this bustling city and that, even within its urbanised landscape, heavens of trees and animals can be found, from an animal farm in Hackney, to the great leafy neighbourhoods of North London. These discoveries have enabled me to start feeling more settled as I have found a common ground in nature and animals.

It struck me that this attachment especially to trees is very Czech. The forest is very powerful in the Czech psyche, equivalent perhaps in its significance as the sea is to the Brits.

A number of the pictures referenced another profound influence on the Czech psyche - fairytales. In Hana Vojackova's artwork (above) the Little Red Riding Hood's forest becomes London's East End. She writes:

One feels that Little Red Riding Hood is fascinated and worried by wandering around in a scary and dangerous place; for her the scary place was the woods, for me it was the inner city at night. Both situations engender a tension between irrational fascination and the rational fear of what is new or undiscovered to us. It is a tension familiar to everybody, and one that is immortalized in the childrens story.

More pictures from the exhibition together with the artists' thoughts can currently be found in a  Facebook web album.

I have always admired the way the Czechs are able to accept the truth of fairytales. Many Brits would be embarrassed to talk about such "childish" things, we have put them away. But they are still there, hidden and hiding inside us and they still are "true". The reason Czech art is so strong is that it can see the world through them. We Brits have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010


A pair of swans have taken up residence on our local swimming pond. As swans are birds of habit and mate for life, they are probably the same pair that I watched this time last year. The pond, which in the summer was full of local families swimming and laughing, now only has my two swans floating serenely across its surface, breaking the reflections of the trees. But Winter is coming, the first snow has fallen, the pond will soon ice over and they will be gone again. I do not know where and would welcome thoughts on the matter.

I do so adore watching them. They bring back a very early memory from my childhood, of when we lived in the mill flat beside a pond. In the morning I would eat my toast, but leave the crusts, so that my mother and I could feed them to the two swans that lived on the millpond. I would have been aged about two at the time. There is something about my village and South Bohemia more generally that has the effect of triggering old memories, nearly always good ones. When I first came here to look at the house, it was not the house that resonated so strongly with me but the children's den in the trees and the hopscotch squares chalked on the tarmac outside the gate. It was like stepping back fifty years.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Who is Reading This?

Over the years that I have been writing this blog I have come to know some of my readers, through the comments they leave, emails they send me or from the profiles of those that follow the blog. They come from all over the world. Some, such as fellow blogger Karen of Empty Nest Blog, I now consider friends.

When I started this blog I had no idea really who would read it. As I say in my profile (right) I hope it introduces the Czechs to the British and vice versa. But I presumed my primary audience would, if only for language reasons, be British. I recently was interested to see in my Blogger stats that Britain only comes third in the list of countries sending me readers, the US is second and top of the list is the Czech Republic, which given the language barrier is remarkable. I am so pleased.

I attended the launch event for the Lost in Translation exhibition on Sunday (yes, I know the exhibition is almost over) and found myself chatting to some delightful young Czech expats and comparing notes. It was fascinating to hear from them about the things they like and dislike about living in the UK. Consistently they spoke about being straight-talking in a country where people hide what they mean. I gave them the reference for Kate Fox's excellent book Watching the English. They confessed to having secret stores of piskoty (a type of biscuit) and kofola (the Czech cola and infinitely superior), I confessed to carrying over to Czecho supplies of teabags and marmite. I was intrigued to hear their feelings and experiences and comparing them with my own. It helped me understand why so many Czechs are reading this.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Knowledge of Czech History

The other day I was browsing in a local antikvariat (second-hand bookshop) and working my way through a pile of mostly uninspiring old prints. I was about to abandon my hunt (I did not know what I was looking for anyway), when I came across some prints by a local artist, who worked in Ceske Budejovice about 40 years ago. The prints were from a larger series about a dramatic and traumatic period in Czech history – the time of the Hussite rebellions in the 15th century.

The prints were very much of their time (probably 1950s/60s), when the Communists adopted the Hussites as heroic members of the Czech proletariat taking on a German aristocracy, conveniently forgetting that the Hussites were motivated by religion (a.k.a. the opiate of the people). At 50 kc each (under £2) how could I resist? I chose six of the best prints and wandered over to the shop's owner.

I asked about the artist (Karel Stech by the way) and whether the owner had any prints which showed the one-eyed general of the Hussites - Jan Zizka. The owner looked at me with surprise: “You are English?”

I nodded.

“And yet you know about Czech history!” he said in amazement.

I explained that the English were indeed interested in the Hussites (well the historians of the Archaeological Society certainly were), because they like military history and there was the English link with the Lollards.

“Of course, John Wycliff,” he said and nodded.

I walked out of the shop with a package under my arm, feeling slightly guilty. I couldn't quite bring myself to say that most English know nothing about the history of this country, but then I consoled myself that most English don't know who John Wycliff and the Lollards were either.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


Above is a notice advertising the museum in Jindrichuv Hradec. Come and see “the biggest mechanical creche in the world.”*

One of the things that has struck us as we wander around the Czech Republic is this obsession with comparisons. “Cesky Krumlov is the second largest castle complex in the Czech Republic”, “Jindrichuv Hradec Castle is the second largest castle in South Bohemia” (after Krumlov of course), Vyssi Brod Abbey has the “third largest library in the Czech Republic” and so on. Once you start looking, you'll see such comparisons all over the place. It's not something we see very much in England. Why is that?

A friend once said to me that it was probably to do with the Czechs needing to assert themselves and their legacy in the face of wider apathy, which may be true to some extent, whereas we have a confidence born of several centuries of being a major world player. But I suspect it is more to do with our English sensibilities. After all the Czechs are just promoting what they have to offer. The Hungarian emigre and humourist George Mikes wrote that “All advertisements... are utterly and hopelessly unEnglish. They are too outspoken, too definite, too boastful.” My wincing at Czech claims is therefore my problem, not theirs.

* BTW By creche they mean a carved nativity scene. Not only do you get the stable, but a huge automated tableau of life in the surrounding countryside and towns, which takes up three sides of a room. Some guy spent a lifetime making this - you can imagine what his wife had to say on the subject!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Update to Harvesting The Forest

Radio Prague has just reported:

Sumava National Park director resigns

The director of the Sumava National Park, Frantisek Krejci, has tendered his resignation to the Minister of the Environment, Pavel Drobil. A ministry spokesperson told the press that Mr Krejci had
resigned in order to facilitate the new conception for the park promoted by the ministry. Frantisek Krejci was appointed by the Green Party in 2007 when it controlled the environment ministry in order to fulfil a policy of non-intervention against the bark beetle infestation that has devastated parts of the forest. Environmental organisations say the resignation was forced by the new ministry, which want to take a head on approach to the problem.

As I said in the previous post a lot of people are very cynical about the Government, suggesting that it is using the bark beetle as an excuse to justify wholesale removal of trees in the forest. This news seems to confirm this.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Lost in Translation

A few months ago a reader of this blog (Eva) emailed me to say I should think about submitting Adventures in the Czech Republic for inclusion in an exhibition which will be opening at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London tomorrow. I thought about and decided I would and lo and behold Adventures in the Czech Republic was accepted!

To quote the publicity:
LOST IN TRANSLATION is an exhibition exploring what it is like to live in another country through the works of British and Czech artists with experience of living in the opposite countries. Each works tell a different story about coping with the change of the environment, but what unites them is that it’s impossible for an artist not to be influenced by it in their work. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are from until you move elsewhere, because that’s when you really start to see who you are; to the point of surprising yourself with unexpected yearning for the national identity. The language barrier especially is something that even those resumed to visual communication can find staggering. Settling into another culture is an emotional and adventurous process. The wonderment of things being different - cars on the other side of the road, learning to talk at great length about the weather and the tube announcements in an alien language. You take it all in with all your heightened senses, initially feeling displaced and uprooted, but gradually beginning to grasp your environment and redefining your identify. You are never going to be the same. Curated by UK-based Czech curator, Michaela Freeman.

And there is a special event on the 14th November at 4.15, with the screening of a documentary Czechin London and a moderated open discussion. If you come, you'll meet Potok in person.

For more info visit

Friday, 29 October 2010

Harvesting the Forest

I am spending a lot of my leisure time up in the forest at the moment. There are still mushrooms for the collecting. My love of mushrooming has always been accompanied by a love of being in nature. The Czechs have both of these loves – but for me there is the added attraction of novelty.

It is for these reasons I am hurt by what I see on my silvan jaunts – the wholesale destruction of tracts of my beloved Mytsky Les. These Czech forests are not natural, but the legacy of generations of foresters, who have carefully harvested and restocked the forest. Trees were cut down when their time came and not before, treecover was maintained to ensure that the forest floor did not become scrubland and suited to the flora and fungi, that also supplied the contents of their wives' store cupboards. No longer – instead I arrive at some of my favourite mushroom collecting sites to find devastation, whole areas stripped bare, unwanted branches and stumps strewn over the ground, my paths are rucked up by the monster machines used by the tree harvesters. After a year or two the open space thus created is covered by impenetrable brambles.

Why is this? The forests have survived communism only to fall foul of capitalism and privatisation. These new "tree harvesters" are interested only in short term profit, they harvest but they do not farm. The large machinery is easier and quicker. If all this wood was for domestic consumption I might be less annoyed, but I regularly nearly get run off the road by large timber lorries taking the best of the Czech forest to Germany and Austria. I am not alone in my alarm at developments. They are a regular topic of conversation with my Czech friends - one said recently that the Sumava Forest will be destroyed in ten years. Most are of the opinion that the excuse that some of the clearance is needed to fight the bark beetle is simply a ploy to justify the pillaging of the forests, indeed that the beetle scurge is a consequence of profit-driven monoculture.

The news from the UK that the British Government is proposing to sell off half our national forests fills me with horror. I have seen at first hand what that means and I urge British readers of this blog to sign the following online petition
or better still write to your mp, for details on how to do this see

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Carp Harvest at Olsina

Two years ago my husband and I watched the carp harvest at Lake Olsina near our house. This time I came with Salamander and stayed at her house by the lake, this meant we could be up before dawn.

For three weeks the lake has been slowly draining, until yesterday evening I was able to walk almost to its middle. There the carp were bunched in a channel of low water, running the gauntlet of hungry gulls, herons and egrets. I woke at 6 and just had time for a cup of tea, before hunting horns announced that the harvest was about to take place.

We climbed up on to the lake dam wall just in time to see the men start dragging their flat-bottomed metal boats out along the channel. The water had fallen even lower and the carp were now restricted to the area near the sluice. A net was dropped and then the men in the boats began banging on their boats and hitting the water to herd the fish towards the shore.

The sun started to rise and the wet mud glistened. The nets tightened and the water started to boil with fish. On the shore a line of men hoisted the fish out of the water and into plastic barrels. When these were full, their flapping contents were emptied into scales and weighed. Most carp were then sent up a conveyor belt and into vast tanks on the back of a lorry. These will then be transported to holding places, from whence they will make their way to the large barrels one sees in the middle of Czech towns in the run-up to Christmas. Quite a few however did not make it that far, but went straight to the stall on the side of the road. Locals arrived in their droves (not to see the harvest as we did) but to buy carp so fresh and recently caught that it was fighting to get out of their carrier bags.

One could not help but feel sorry for these lovely creatures with their bright scales and their mouths opening and closing in the alien air-filled environment. Only a few months ago I swam with them in the warm waters of the lake. But my sorrow for them was not so great that I did not buy two bits of freshly fried carp, which I ate with my fingers from a paper plate. They were delicious. As I commented to Salamander it reminded me of eating fish and chips on a British summer holiday - it was even raining.

Salamander has been doing some interesting posts on her blog about the history of the Czech fishponds

Friday, 22 October 2010


Winter will soon be upon us. Already the first sharp frosts have turned the grass in the orchard white. The Czech winter can be long and white – with snow lasting from early December into March. The Czechs have been getting ready for it all summer. Even as I was picking redcurrants in the garden I could hear the sound of chainsaws in the village. Whatever the carol (about the Czechs' saintly king) says the Czechs like to get their firewood well before the snow is deep and thick and even.

All around me whole walls of logs have been assembled in the gardens, ready for when the logs will be split and sawn to length, then they are stocked high against the house walls, where they are protected from the weather be the overhanging eaves. Still the chopping and sawing continues. The family across the way from us have been disappearing off on an old tractor, only to reappear with a trailer piled high with old wood. As I write the head of the family and his brother are using a remarkable machine to split four foot long logs. My other neighbours came back from their weekly visit to the supermarket yesterday with a new chainsaw.

I too have my store of wood piled against the wall near to the front door. Believe me when the snow comes I would not want to have to transport it any further. I hope it is enough. Last year winter was longer than is usual, with snow first appearing (and disappearing) in October, and it caught some of my neighbours out. They have no intention of it doing so this year. I am using up my supply from last year, when we cut down some trees in the orchard and cut up some old rotten beams. But if the worst comes to the worst I have my plans – the remnants of the floor downstairs may be for the chop.

I really should be stocking up on wood for the 2011-2012 Winter, laying down cheaper unseasoned wood for the future. I know some of my neighbours are doing just that. But somehow I can't just bring myself to look at more than one cold Czech winter at a time.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Late Autumn

Okay, so I often blog about my walk home up the hill from Horice na Sumave, but there is always something new and lovely to see. And I just thought you would like to see some photos of the leaves and rosehips in the bright autumn sunshine. There was, as you can see, not a cloud in the sky.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Empties (Vratne Lahve)

As a follow-up to my previous post about recycling beer bottles in the Czech Republic, I thought I might share with you a video clip from one of my favourite Czech films - Vratne Lahve. Its English title is Empties and is a story of a 65 year old man, who having given up a job teaching literature to annoying school children, ends up in a supermarket recycling beer bottles. It is set at a time when automatic bottle machines were just appearing in Czech supermarkets, instead you handed your bottles to a man on the other side of the hatch, who would give you a receipt.

The film comes the father and son team, Zdenek and Jan Sverak, which also gave us the Oscar-winning Kolya. Zdenek wrote and starred in the film, whilst son Jan directed. The film is a gentle comedy about a man, who has problems facing the approach of old age. It is full of wonderful characters including the man's long suffering wife and the many denizens of the supermarket. In the hands of Hollywood this film and this subject matter could be mawkish and certainly would be quicker paced, but instead it is lovely and forgiving (Zdenek's character is no angel), funny and sad, and ultimately life-affirming.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


One of the things that surprised my friends on their visit to the Budweiser Budvar Brewery was the spectacle of old beer bottles being cleaned and recycled.

When I was a child in 1960's Britain we used to pay a deposit on lemonade bottles. I remember the delight of handing the empty bottle over to Mrs Evans in our local cornershop and getting back a nice coin, which if allowed I used to buy some sweets. We Brits stopped recycling bottles sometime in my childhood - a mistake I think. 

But the Czechs sensibly have retained the system of paying a deposit on beer bottles. You save your empty bottles and crate (if you paid a deposit on that too) until you decide to return them to the supermarket. There you will find a machine - with a hole into which you feed individual bottles and another for crates. The machine weighs the bottle (checking you're not trying to fiddle the system) and then a converyor takes the bottle and drops it with a clink somewhere on the other side. When you have finished, you press a button and the machine gives you a receipt, which you hand in to the checkout. It is amazing (and pleasant) how much money you get back. You certainly are motivated to recycle every beer bottle.

Friday, 1 October 2010

When the Circus Came to Town.

A week ago my husband and I were walking into Cesky Krumlov, when we found ourselves behind two men who were wearing strange multi-coloured wigs and riding on kiddies scooters. 

"What is that all about?" asked my husband.

Later we got our answer when I pulled a flyer advertising the arrival of a circus from under our windscreen wiper. The day after we were passed by a van announcing the circus' arrival through a tannoy and towing a trailer on which was a life-size model of a crocodile. 

Going to the circus seems to be a common activity in the Czech Republic, more so than in England. The circus has been to Cesky Krumlov at least twice this year already. It is set up on a piece of ground in front of the blocks of flats near to the Lidl supermarket. This is a traditional circus with animals - there are stalls for the various animals - zebras, etc. which the locals can wander round. And there are the traditional caravans, such as the one shown here.

Traditional circuses in England have been in decline, hit by popular opposition to exploiting wild animals and increasingly replaced by non-animal based circus. Although there's a ban in the Czech Republic on the use of certain wild animals, or maybe because of it, the circus seems to be going strong here. The circus website shows performing elephants, camels, bears and zebras. As you can see we didn't go to the circus, despite the publicity.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Silver Anniversary

The reason why my blogging has been so intermittent recently is that for the last three weeks my husband and I have been celebrating our silver wedding anniversary by making a long-planned trip across Northern Europe and back. We've had a lovely time in various German and Belgian cities, but chose to spend the big  day itself in the Czech Republic - well, I can't think of anywhere more romantic.

After a lazy morning we drove to the lake district around Trebon via the lovely countryside around Novy Hrady. At Trebon we sat at a table in front of a fish restaurant on the town square and enjoyed a meal of fried carp. Carp has such a bad reputation with the Brits, who consider it at best tasteless and at worst muddy, but the Czechs love it. And cooked well, by a restaurant which knows what it is doing, it is delicious. We then walked away from the square and around the corner to a cafe, which serves some of the best Czech cakes I have ever tasted.

After lunch we decided to walk off some of the calories with a visit to the nature reserve at Cerveny Blato. A wooden boardwalk takes you for four kilometres through a forested peat bog. The place is just incredible - it's like stepping back in time to an age before Man cleared the forests and drained the swamps. You half expect to see giant dragonflies and dinosaurs appear out of the bog pine forest. You certainly get to see some rare plants, fungi, butterflies and birds. A black woodpecker twice shot up from bushes as we passed, its red head standing out against the rest of its dark plummage. We were stopping so much to ooh and ahh and take photos, that the four kilometres took two hours to complete.

After our work we returned home, where we finished our special day eating chanterelle mushrooms and Czech chocolates, washed down by Czech bubbly. Just the two of us, plus our lovely old house, and the crickets serenading us in the garden.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


The last butterflies are enjoying the warm sun of late September. As I was scything the grass and weeds in the orchard, peacock and tortoiseshell were flying over the orchard weeds. As always I left patches of nettles, which are a favourite foodstuff for caterpillars. Of course this has nothing to do with how hard scything is. In the woods when I was mushrooming, there were brimstones and dappled brown butterflies flittering in the strands of light descending through the leaves. But the nights are getting cold, soon the butterflies will be arriving in the cellar and barn looking for a place to overwinter.

My favourite is the little blue (above), which in the summer collected in huge shimmering crowds on the sand by the swimming pond. It is very special for all my family, in that when a beloved aunt died over ten years ago we noticed the little blue everywhere. It was and is forever her butterfly. Strangely enough when we moved into her house, we found that it clearly was a favourite of hers before she died, because there were pictures of it around the house.

Friday, 17 September 2010

More on Wayside Advertising

In my last post I wrote about the political posters on the sides of our roads. As two comments have pointed out, there are local and senate elections coming up that in some way account for this. But nevertheless there do seem to be a number of posters that have remained unchanged from the general election. Why is this? Are they being recycled for some reason? Or is it that nothing has replaced them?

I wrote my last post in haste - I was feeling guilty that I had not put anything for over a week. Since then I have had more time to consider my feelings on the subject and I am surprised by how strong they are. Something in my British sensibilities is reacting adversely to Czech roadside advertising. For starters I am shocked by the amount, location and size of it all – from huge posters to poles chocked full of fingerposts pointing the way to different banks, supermarkets and hotels. Signs hanging off roadbridges tell the driver that s/he is only x kilometres from their nearest Tescos/Obi/etc. Scantily clad young women advertise everything from non-stop clubs to machinery. On every side the marketing clamour presses in, even in towns as spectacularly beautiful as Cesky Krumlov. I know from my previous career in England, that in the UK this simply would not be allowed. The planning process regulates the amount and position of advertising. The local civic societies are keen to prevent visual clutter from damaging the appearance of towns and the Police and Highways Authorities will oppose signage which could confuse or distract the driver.

I think my dislike of the Czech roadside adverts is rather deeper than that. I feel the current adverts let the side down. As you will have realised from reading this blog, I have a great love and regard for the Czech graphics tradition and this extends to advertising and indeed signs. When I first visited this country I spent quite a lot of time photographing Czech signs, which I considered delightful and infinitely superior to those of my British home. I certainly wouldn’t do that now. These current signs are typical of those we see all over Europe, part of a lowest denominator mass communication.

These political posters are some of the worst culprits. There is one which for some time really disturbed me and I could not think why – it was just some man talking to an audience. And then today I realised – it was the hand gesture. To be precise it was the Tony Blair hand gesture, which is no doubt taught in "politician school" the world over. The hand is open with palm revealed and thumb up, as if he is about to shake your hand. Don't make a fist he has been told, an open palm is non-threatening, consider you body language. Only somehow it doesn't work, he looks false.

Politicians' body language, advertising signs, - all part of a homogenization of communication across the world in which true communication is lost.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Journey & Arrival

My apologies for the slight break in postings, this is because I have been travelling. Yesterday was our 25th wedding anniversary and my husband and I decided we had to do something to celebrate. We have long planned a trip across northern Europe, but my husband is self employed and so we never could quite find the time - it was always a case that he either had work or needed to be by the phone in case work came up. But at last, with our silver wedding as the spur, we have done it.

We left England on my birthday and made our way slowly across Germany, taking in various historic towns along the way - Trier, Worms and Regensburg. We at last arrived at our home in the Czech Republic with a car filled with books, various English foodstuffs (cheddar, biscuits, marmalade and marmite) and several paintings we were bringing over for a friend. We are now relaxing and playing at being tourists here. In about a week's time we will spend six days making the return journey, stopping in Belgium as well as Germany. This time the car will be filled with a crate of Czech dark beer (for our son) and other Czech goodies. After a fortnight I will be flying back.

One thing that struck me on our return was that the election posters still line roadsides. The elections were nearly four months ago and yet there are the politicians still gurning at the public at every turn. It's bad enough having to look at them during the run up to the elections, but now.... At least the British politicians have had the decency to remove their election posters, apart from the occasional errant banner hung in some Tory farmer's field alongside a tattered poster in support of foxhunting. It strikes me that this is a rather alarming indication of the state of the Czech economy, which like the British is bouncing a long at the bottom with only slight growth. Obviously marketing expenditure has been slashed, otherwise the advertising slots which the politicians occupy would have been taken.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Posts on Czech Culture and Customs

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech Customs and Culture, click on the links above for the others.


Revised 22 August 2010


Zumberk is one of those well kept Czech secret places, so well kept that my Czech friend had not heard of it. She even corrected my pronunciation, thinking I was talking about somewhere else. And yet Zumberk was only forty minutes drive away.

I found a short reference to it in a guidebook and as I was passing I dropped in. I couldn't believe my eyes. There it was - a perfect fortified village with fairytale towers, standing above a still small lake. And there was more - in the manor house the South Bohemian Museum displayed a wonderful collection of South Bohemian painted furniture.

I have always coveted the examples of Czech painted furniture I have seen, but here was a treasure trove: the finest examples of the local styles. The exhibition highlighted the subtle and not so subtle differences between the folk art from different areas of South Bohemia. And the building was fascinating too.

Unfortunately Zumberk is not geared to the British visitor: it is where I was asked to translate by the guide, but then we were, we were told, the first English speaking group to visit. And they did have a folder of English translation they can give you as you walk round, which allows us to spend as much time as we want to gaze at the exhibits.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Vietnamese Shops

A few weeks ago I needed to buy some sandals - my old ones were rubbing. I went to my favourite Czech shoe shop - Bata - but I have wide feet and obviously Czech women don't. With a concert that evening, which merited dressing up (that for me means wearing a skirt rather than jeans), I needed to buy new sandals there and then. And so it was that I found myself in one of Cesky Krumlov's Vietnamese shops.

Everywhere in the Czech Republic you will find Vietnamese shops selling all sorts of cheap goods. If you want cheap clothes, shoes, pashminas, sunglasses, or handbags, these shops are where to go. Don't expect what you buy to be long-lasting. But these shops can be a god-send, when you are on holiday in the Czech Republic and you realise you left your raincoat in the overhead locker. The shops' owners are inclined to be over-zealous (to my British sensibilities) trying to sell you something, anything in the shop in fact. They call out to you if you walk too close in the street and if you do go in, be prepared to say "Ne, ne," very firmly.

The Czech Vietnamese community is the equivalent of Indian shopkeepers in the UK. They work long hours in family businesses and provide a useful service. They are very enterprising, which is surprising. Why? Because they first came to the country when it was communist, from their homeland of communist North Vietnam. The Iron Curtain fell and these North Vietnamese immigrants stayed and embraced capitalism bigtime. Undoubtedly their link to the East gives them some advantages - cheap Chinese imports for example. My observation is that the Vietnamese are not well integrated into the wider Czech community; they keep themselves to themselves and probably do not have time for anything but work and family. Conversations with Czechs reveal some resentment towards them, probably partly due to jealousy but also to the communist past.

I managed to find some sandals that fitted my feet and matched my clothes. But I had to endure the shopkeeper shoving pair after pair of sandals in to my hands. "Gut, gut, sehr billig," he said, on the basis that as he couldn't speak English, German would do. Normally this behaviour would have me running for the door, but I was desperate. Looking at them now, I am glad I didn't run: the shoes cost me about £8.50 and are remarkably comfortable.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Some Thoughts

I have been rereading this blog. It is quite fascinating to revisit my early posts from over three years ago. Sometimes my feelings and views regarding the Czech Republic, my second country, have remained constant and indeed grown, and sometimes those early impressions have proved wrong or in some cases circumstances in the Czech Republic have changed and made my posts out-of-date. But then a blog is basically a journal that you broadcast on the internet and as with all diaries the changes are part of the interest. But I hope and believe that the one thing that has not changed is my love of this country and its people. Maybe I see things better now, understand more, but that has not reduced my affection.

I have always felt strangely at home in the Czech Republic. I think that is partly because, unlike many other expats I have chosen to live in the countryside rather than in the big cities of Brno and Prague. I am by nature and birth a country girl and the Czech countryside (as various posts attest) reminds me of the English countryside of my childhood. And in living here, I return to my childhood and some of that childish wonder, which I lost as I grew older.

What I didn't expect with creating a new home in Czecho was how it would impact on my feelings about England. I love England for all sorts of reasons and of course I am at home there too. But there is now a part of me that is, dare I say it, Czech. Not properly Czech of course, that would never happen, but part certainly. I am at home in both countries (in different ways perhaps), but it is also the case that I am not at home. When I am in England, after a while I find myself longing to get back to the Czech Republic. I long for the mists rising from the Czech forests, for the smell of mushrooms in firwoods, for the night-time silence surrounding my Czech home, for Czech sunlight, for being able to write again and for a thousand other wonders. And of course when I am in Czecho I miss England. I miss understanding the language, the banter, I miss the subtle pastel shades of the English landscape and of course the wind. Perhaps this means I appreciate both my countries more; I hope so. And whilst I can afford to retain a foot in both countries there is no problem and every advantage in my situation. I just dread the day when that is no longer the case, when I must choose.


As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech Customs and Culture, click on the links above for the others.


Wednesday, 18 August 2010


I spoke a few posts ago about the kids clubs one sees on the little train, but there is another group which one can also observe on the train at this time of year - the hikers.

These are not the typical British hikers out for a nice walk in the country. These are seriously outdoor adventurers. They are young people of both sexes in their late teens and early twenties arriving with rucksacks for a few days in the country. The idea is to get back to nature, camp under the stars or the forest canopy, sing traditional songs (which their parents would have sung before them) around a campfire, eat sausages and drink beer, before climbing back on the train to travel back to modern life.

However these are considered wimps and diletantes by the serious Czech hiker. He (and it usually is a he) often sits on his own in the corner of the train carriage ignoring the others. He is dressed in ex-army camouflage, army boots, and a bandana round his neck. Around his waist is a large leather belt together with knife in a sheath and a kharki water bottle. He may not have even a rucksack and almost certainly won't have a tent or sleeping bag - he will be sleeping on the hard ground under the stars. You can almost hear him say "Rain, what's a little rain? That's nothing; when I did my military service..." He's off to the obscurer and wilder parts of the Sumava. But like the others, one suspects, he will be back to his ordinary life and job come Monday, having fed something important in his Czech soul.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Kvinterna Again

Back in May fellow blogger Karen of the Empty Nest Blog (see Related Czech Links) came to stay and was much taken with the music of local group Kvinterna. She asked me to post about them again and so here it is. In July this year I enjoyed a concert by Kvinterna at the Minorite Monastery on Latran. I was sorry that Karen could not join me, she would have loved it.

The video above is my own creation of local frescos and the music is a song called Planka from Kvinterna's album Landscape of Sweet Sorrow - an album of Sephardi songs and Moravian folksongs (click on the arrow to play the video). The juxtaposition of the two music types works brilliantly and is typical of Kvinterna's style. In their own words they "have created the instrumental element in a highly individual way derived from the technique of Gothic painting". For more on this, visit their website . This has inspired my choice of images for the video. By the way Planka is a Moravian song about a crab apple tree.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

List of posts in Czech History and Politics

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.

The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech History and Politics, click on the links above for the others.


Saturday, 7 August 2010

Kids Clubs

Quite often at the moment I will be happily sitting in a relatively empty carriage on the the little train, when the train pulls into the station and lo I am surrounded by children and young people. The noise levels will rise dramatically as maybe twenty excited kids will occupy the carriage.

This is because many Czech children are sent on kids clubs by their parents. After the shock of their arrival, I spend the rest of my journey, or until the children disembark, observing the group, the behaviour and hierarchies. I have observed that girls are usually outnumbered in these clubs, as you can see in the photo above. There can be quite an age range in the group from quite young children to young teenagers, who often look rather embarrassed by being in the company of the little ones. There are often the cool ones (see the sunglass-wearing dude above), who ignore the others and keep to the hip set. The rest whoop and run around, flick bits of paper at each other and share sweets.

One thing that surprises me when I meet these groups, particularly ones which are obviously off to go camping in the Sumava, is the age and number of adults who are "in charge" of the groups. The leaders often seem to me hardly out of their teens, and there are far fewer than one would get in health and safety conscious Britain. But then Czech kids seem to have the sort of childhood that I remembered from my childhood, in which adults allowed us to take risks, and we ran relatively free in the countryside. Lucky them!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

List of posts about Czech Nature

As the blog gets larger I thought I might help readers interested in certain topics by creating some pages which list the blog's content by theme. I promise to update the pages as new posts are added.
The themes are: Czech Nature, Czech Customs & Culture, Places to visit in South Bohemia, Buying and Restoring a Czech House, Czech History and Politics, Day to Day Life in the Czech Republic. This post covers Czech Nature, click on the links above for the others.

Czech Nature


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