Friday, 21 May 2010


In the shops of South Bohemia you can buy jewellery made from the local gem moldavite. This bottle-green substance is to be found in a limited number of sites in the Czech Republic. It appears that moldavite was created when a meteor hit the earth - probably forming the Nordlinger Reis Crater. The resulting explosion led to a process of fusion which created the moldavite.

Moldavite mining has been a cottage industry in South Bohemia for decades, with local people going to collecting sites and searching the fields after heavy rain. Others dig shallow mines in the forest. Some, including one I know, have been so successful that they made a living from it. But it can be dangerous, the ground is sandy and pits have on occasion collapsed on the diggers.

The Czech Government is increasingly controlling the digging for moldavite. Now the pits can only be a metre deep and old pits are being monitored. For safety reasons this makes sense, but the Government also has a vested interest in protecting this rare (rarer than diamonds) and finite resource.

Moldavite comes in two grades - ordinary and museum. The latter is very expensive and very beautiful. But the fascination of moldavite isn't just about their value. With a typically Czech twist moldavite is highly prized in new age circles - considered to be the Grail stone, with healing powers. Just Google "moldavite" and you will find dozens of new age sites selling you it and its fantastic powers.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Yummy Snails

My Czech friend keeps urging me to grow vegetables. I always resist. For one thing it sounds like hard work, and then my regular trips to the UK mean that I am not always around to water the plants when they need it. But there is another very good reason why I think it would not be worth attempting - our local population of snails. After a rainstorm you can hardly fail to step on one - crunch, crunch, crunch is the soundtrack to a walk in the garden.

There are snails of all sizes and colours including some very pretty yellow and brown striped ones. But easily the most impressive are the monsters like the one shown above. These are the edible snails or the french escargot - helix pomatia. They occur naturally in the Czech Republic, as in many other parts of continental Europe. In Britain however they are rare and a protected species. In England they are to be found only of chalk or limestone soil and usually near old Roman sites, as they were introduced by the Romans as a delicacy and, having got into the wild, have not made it very far in the two millennia since their escape.

A week ago I was walking with my Czech friend in the English countryside near Chedworth in Gloucestershire and had just put a basket half full of St George's mushrooms into the car, when we were hailed by the local landowner. "What have you there?"

I showed him the basket and he relaxed. He explained that they have been having trouble with gangs of Poles harvesting the Roman snails, which get good money in the London restaurants, and that the Poles were also stripping the woods of wild fungi and causing damage in doing so. Of course both fungi and snails are common in the Poles' homeland.

It is legal to collect fungi for personal use in the UK but not commercially. And it is illegal to harvest a protected species like helix pomatia. The farmer was quite within his rights to challenge, especially as, unlike in Central Europe, the woods around Chedworth are private and visitors must keep to the footpaths. The Poles hadn't helped their argument by turning up mob-handed and in cars and vans with London registration plates, nor did they help themselves by pretending to be unable to speak English when challenged. As a result the farmer was challenging anyone who appeared with a basket in their hand. After he had left, my Czech friend commented on how wonderful it was that British farmers saw themselves of guardians of the countryside, unlike Czech ones. "If only that were true of all British farmers," I thought, but did not say.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Shopping With A Czech

One of my Czech friends is currently staying with us in England. It is fascinating to see my homeland through her eyes. Amongst other things it highlights the differences between our two countries.

On Wednesday we went to our local Morrison's supermarket, she wanted to buy some English foodstuffs to take home. She was awestruck by the variety on display there. "You have five different types of pear!" she exclaimed. The sheer variety and quality of fruit and vegetable were cause for comment. My experience of buying vegetables in Krumlov Tesco's is that you need to look hard at what you are buying - at least one potato in the pack will be going off.

Then we came to the fresh fish counter, this was a revelation for her. Of course the Czechs do not have access to fresh sea fish, being so far from any sea, and so most of the fish on the counter were new to her. We bought a bag of live mussels, which she had never tried before.

Then there was the aisle dedicated to tea and coffee - of course being British there were loads and the sheer size of many of the packs of tea (i.e. 240 teabags) caused comment. She added two packs to the trolley to pack in her suitcase - having realised that English tea is unlike (stronger and better) that sold in the Czech Republic, even those teas pretending to be 'English' tea. And so it went on... aisle after aisle packed with a much wider variety of goods than in the Czech supermarkets.

She came to the conclusion (as indeed had I) that English food is often cheaper than in the Czech Republic, especially food essentials, with the exception of alcohol and cigarettes. I then explained that in Britain food is not taxed, nor are books, children's clothes and medicines, but that the duty on alcohol and cigarettes is very high indeed and constantly rising. This was considered by my Czech friend to be very just and sensible. I am sure all those avid Czech beer drinkers would not agree with her, but I think I do. In fact I feel strongly that the British system of not taxing foodstuffs and discounting basic foods is very fair and I feel for all those Czechs struggling on much lower wages and facing above British prices.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Golden Czech Hands

"Zlaté české ruce" (Czech golden hands) is a phrase you will hear in the Czech Republic. It refers to the national belief that the Czechs are great craftsmen and engineers. Whilst it is true that the Czechs do indeed have some very fine craftsmen, it is also true that many old skills are in decline.

More annoyingly it is often applied by Czech men to themselves regardless of skill level. As this is linked to the national identity a non-Czech needs to tread with care when challenging it. Under the Communist era a high level of DIY self help was required - if you wanted something, often the only way to get it was to make it with whatever materials you could get your hands on. This led to some fine examples of ingenuity and inventiveness, but it also led to some wonderful examples of Heath Robinson construction.

I came across a good example of this on the northern shores of Lake Lipno. Look closely at these fishing punts and you will see that some zlaté české ruce have nailed plastic garden chairs to the boats to create more comfortable seating. Another boat owner further along the shore had even used a swivelling office chair to afford 360 degree fishing.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


On Witches' Night we experienced Czech music in all its infinite variety. First we attended the maypole erection in the Eggenberg Brewery Gardens (Cesky Krumlov). There we were treated to traditional folk music - with bagpipes, horns and violins, pleasant enough but rather oompahish (the German influence showing methinks) - and then to a rock band called sandvic (sandwich) , made up of some very serious local secondary school kids. The band was too much noise for my taste and so we fled.

Later we made our way to the Gypsy Tavern (Cikanska Jizba) where the local gypsy band was playing. The video above is of the same band in the same tavern - sadly not my creation it is from youtube, thanks to pashkapushka for uploading. Just click on the arrow to play the video. Here was wonderful music with rhythm and soul, so much so that it was hardly possible to stay still in one's seat. The Friday night gig at the Tavern is undoubtedly the best in town. I recommend it.

Sadly we had the late night bus to catch and so had to leave before the end of the set. In Horice Na Sumave the villagers were celebrating the night around the bonfire, having erected a maypole at least twice the size of Krumlov's. Music was playing - more oompah. Then as we walked up the unlit hill the music got totally surreal, as the local oompah band took on first the Birdy Song and then Zorba's Dance.

Monday, 3 May 2010


Although May 1st is the official bank holiday, the real day for celebrations in the Czech Republic is Witches Night the day before. This is the night when all over the Czech Republic villages raise their maypoles, when bonfires are lit, witches burnt (well images anyway) and women jump over the flames to improve their fertility. This is the celtic festival of Beltane in fact and so much more preferable to Mayday itself with all its communist connotations.

Here in Cesky Krumlov the maypole was erected in the Eggenberg Brewery Gardens. The maypole was a tall fir tree stripped of all but its topmost branches and decorated by paper streamers - added by local maidens in traditional clothes assisted by many small children. The final touch was, in true Czech style, a bottle of slivovice. This was very much a Czech and local occasion, hardly any tourists made their way to the site. The gardens were full of Czech families, enjoying local bands on the main stage, drinking beer, cooking sausages on the bonfire, and looking at the stalls set up by local community groups.

As I took the late bus home to Horice Na Sumave surrounded by happy Czechs, I could not help thinking what a good idea it was to have a state bank holiday on the day after Witches Night, we were all going to need a lie-in to recover from the festivities.


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