Friday, 30 January 2015

A Tour of The Wallachian Open-Air Museum, Roznov Pod Radhostem

I sometimes take visitors to the Wallachian Open Air Museum in Roznov Pod Radhostem. It is quite unlike anything else you will see in the Czech Republic. That is because the Wallachians have a very distinctive culture, so much so it is argued by many historians that they originally migrated here from Romania. Wherever they came from, they settled in the beautiful Moravian-Silesian Beskydy Mountains, where they made a harsh living from farming sheep.

The Museum was the creation of the two Jaronek brothers, particularly the elder, Bohumír Jaronek who said We don´t want to build a dead store of buildings and objects, we want to build a living museum with the help of practical ethnology where the traditions, which have been inherited in Wallachia, the typical breeds and dwellings of the people are kept alive by means of work, customs, dances, songs and ceremonies. 

This concept was decades in advance of its time: the museum was opened in 1925. Over the years since many buildings and other objects have been added to the museum, but as Bohumir would have wished it remains very much a living museum. As you wander around the museum you will come across people in traditional costumes demonstrating traditional crafts and other activities. The Old Townlet, which forms the centre of the museum, is made up of original Wallachian wooden buildings. And some like the pubs and the post office are still in use. Last time I visited I came upon a a group of women and men in traditional costume singing and dancing.

The largest section of the Museum is given to Wallachian country life. The Wallachian Village, as this section is called, is spread over a hillside with groups of reconstructed houses forming small hamlets, as well as individual farms and shepherds. Look out for the delightful beehives which I featured in their own post a while back. My husband was fascinated by the building techniques on display. The dominant building material is wood, which is used for everything including the gutters and their brackets.

The newest section of the museum is the Water Mill Valley. Here in a series of buildings water, fed into a series of channels (made of wood of course) from a stream and ponds, drives all sorts of machinery. Of course this being Bohumir Jaronec's museum you can see the machinery being worked by a number of craftsmen. There's a smithy/hammer mill, a mill for hammering wool to make felt, a sawmill, oil crusher and I daresay others I have forgotten.

The Museum is enormous and to do it justice you should allow a day for your visit. If you cannot afford a day, book a tour of the Mill Valley and combine that with a visit to the Townlet.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Villa Tugendhat, Brno

A visit to this modernist masterpiece is always a highlight of a stay in Brno. I first went there with my husband, who is a lover of buildings and all things architectural, so we took the longer technical tour. A large grin never left his face during the 90 minute visit.

The Villa was commissioned by Grete Loew Beer and her new husband Fritz Tugendhat in 1928. Both came from Jewish families that had become rich as a result of the huge expansion of textiles and other industries in Moravia that had in turn paid for the architectural transformation of Brno. Grete had been impressed by the work of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe when she had visited a house designed by him in Berlin and so commissioned to design the couple's dream home. He was told that money was no object. Tell that to any architect and you will make his day, tell it to a genius like Mies and you will get a masterpiece.

The villa is set on a hillside overlooking Brno. From the street it does not look as impressive or as large as it is, because you enter at the top floor. The two lower floors open on to the garden. When you enter the building you start to see why the building is so special and why it cost so much. Mies's famous motto of “Less is More” is exemplified by the lack of ornament and the emphasis on the materials used (steel, glass, marble) and the flow of walls and spaces. This extends to the fixtures and fittings, even the beautiful line of the door and window handles.

It is hard to imagine the impact this villa would have made in its day. We are used to white geometrical modernist buildings, but this was a time when most people were still thinking in terms of art deco. However, unlike in the UK where modernism took a long time getting going, the Czechs rapidly took modernism to their hearts. There are many more modernist gems to be found in Brno and elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but they deserve a separate post (or maybe more).

The story of the villa was not a happy one. The Tugendhats were able to enjoy their new home for only eight years, before they fled to Switzerland ahead of the German invasion. The villa became the property of the Nazis, used by the Gestapo, who removed the villa's fine semi-circular ebony wall which defines the dining room. And then the liberating Soviet troops treated the villa with such contempt that they used some of its living spaces as stabling for their horses. It wasn't until the 1980s that any attempt was made to restore the building. Now, thanks mostly to funds from the EU, the building is fully restored and open to visitors.

NB Entrance to the villa is restricted to groups of a maximum of 15 people and not all tours are in English. As a result it is advisable to book weeks if not months in advance. I recommend the shorter tour unless you have a particular interest. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Desk Calendar

I just had to share with you my desk calendar for 2015. It was half price in an art and stationary shop in Cesky Krumlov. At less than a £1 and featuring a photograph of a different mushroom every week I just had to have it!

I do have a worry about it though. It's okay now when there are no mushrooms to be had, but come the beginning of the mushroom season I suspect I may have to hide it, so that I am not tempted to grab my basket and disappear into the forest, leaving my work undone.

Jan Palach Day

At a time when the issues of democracy and freedom of speech are very much in mind, it was appropriate that I took time last week to walk to the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague to view the memorial to Jan Palach, the student who set fire to himself as protest in 1969. His act is often seen as a protest against the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, but he claimed to the doctor who treated him that instead "It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in." In other words it was a protest against the absence of protest over the loss of democracy.

I know this is not the first time I have blogged on this subject. You can read more about Jan Palach in a previous post here.  But it is a subject that consistently moves me, asking as it does what I would do to defend democracy in England. I am struck by how demoralized I sometimes feel about the state of British democracy and how much I feel that my voice is not heard. But how far would I go to defend it, I do not know. 

Being in the Czech Republic, with its recent history of political suppression, and speaking with Czechs who remember not only what it was to be unheard but also to know that speaking could cost them their liberty, makes me remember how lucky we English are to have had the concept of personal liberties enshrined in a charter exactly eight hundred years ago.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Mark of Three

Wander around many Czech towns at this time of year and you might notice on lintels and doors the letters K, M and B written in chalk as above. Sometimes the letters come with the year and sometimes you will see several sets of letters dating back several years. You may wonder what these stand for. Perhaps it is a sign that the electricity meter has been read, you think, or some sort of building work. Perhaps it is a sign like those one used to see in English villages - a coded message from a tramp or hobo, gypsy or fellow inhabitant of the road, that this is a house where the inhabitants are generous.

In fact of those options you would be closer to the truth with the last - it is a sign that the inhabitants have been generous. But the visitors were not down-at-heel beggers, but three kings. Twelfth Night in the Czech Republic is known as Three Kings Day, because on that day children (and adults) dress up as the three kings - Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar (in Czech Kašpar, Melichar and Baltazar) and go around the streets asking for donations to charity. When the householder has put their donation in the tin, the "Kings" write the initials K M and B above the door. What do the initials stand for? I have heard different answers - one simply that they are the initials of the kings' names and another that it stands for the words: Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ, bless this house). Of course both answers could be true.


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