Monday, 30 March 2015

The Palava Hills

I first saw the Palava Hills from the road that runs from Brno to Vienna. The sun was shining and it caught the white cliffs that run along the ten-kilometre spine of the hills. The hills appeared to flash against the clear blue Moravian sky.

This is an ancient landscape. Human beings have been walking and hunting on these hills since approximately 27,000 BC. We know this because the camps, belongings and graves of these mammoth hunters have been and continue to be discovered on the Palava's slopes. A visit to the museum of the mammoth hunters at Dolni Vestonice is highly recommended and gives you a real understanding of life here millennia ago. Looking up at the hills it is not hard to imagine our forebears driving wild horses over the cliffs or trapping them in the hills' limestone folds. Later humans also left their mark on the hills in the form of three castles, now picturesque ruins . 

Several footpaths wend along and across the hills, giving excellent views and taking you through a series of nature reserves. The hills are famous for the wildflowers (if you are coming to see these, it is best to visit in Spring), the rarest of these being the Palava Lumnitzer carnation and the Spring Adonis flower. Eagle owls nest in the old quarries, while the Palava's caves are home to rare bats. To aid the visitor there are a number of trails with interpretation boards explaining the history, nature and geology of the hills. 

Given my love of walking, history and nature, you will not be surprised that the Palava is a place I love.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Czech Castles - Zvíkov

Let us start my occasional series of posts on Czech castles with the castle often referred to as the "king of Czech castles" - Zvíkov. I first went there with a tour by an archaeological society on our way up from the Šumava to Prague Airport. It was a perfect point for breaking the journey.

Few castles can have such a naturally defensible position: Zvíkov stands on a rocky promontory at the junction of the Vltava and Otava rivers accessible only along a narrow strip of land (see photo above). Also in the photograph you can see the tower which has atear-shaped footprint designed to deflect artillery. The castle's defences were so impenetrable that the Hussites were unable to take it after four months of siege. 

As you enter the castle's courtyards you discover that Zvíkov is not just an impressive fortification. The castle was a royal residence and the two-storey arcaded palace is lovely. Inside the palace you will find an absolute gem - The Chapel of St Wenceslas. Here restorers found under a coat of whitewash a series of late 15th century wall paintings. There are further paintings on the walls of the arcade and in the Wedding Hall. 

Zvíkov is less known and less visited by foreign tourists, although plenty of Czechs enjoy the castle's treasures. One reason for this is the absence of easy public transport links or tourist minibus routes. However there is a beautiful way to arrive at the castle: take the boat from Týn nad Vltavou or Orlík dam.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Spotting Czech Castles

The Czechs proudly boast that their country has more castles per square mile than any other country. Of course that is partly explained by the Czech Republic's rather violent history - there are so many castles because they were needed. 

As you drive around the country, you will frequently see signs to a hrad (castle),  or zamek (manor house or palace) or occasionally to a tvrz (translated in my dictionary as stronghold but more often in my experience it is a fortified manor). And if you follow those signs you may come to just a pile of rubble barely recognizable as a castle or you may come to a hugely impressive structure heaving with visitors. Either way this is a country for castle spotters. 

It is even a country for castle collectors, as the authorities sometimes offer dilapidated castles at cut-down prices. However such deals come with lots of strings attached - you have to get certain repairs done within a specified timescale or forfeit your ownership. One hears of poor castle owners hardly managing to get the necessary permissions before their time runs out and their castle reverts to the former owner. 

But back to castle spotting. Given the sheer number of castles in the country it is surprising that so few are visited by tourists. There are certain castles that are on the tourist's radar: Prague of course, Český Krumlov, Karlštejn, Hluboka Nad Vltavou, and Křivoklát: all castles that are visitable on a day trip from Prague. But there are hundreds more. Some of these are equally impressive, all will be less touristy, and many will give you an insight into the history of the country.

I recently looked through my previous blogposts and was surprised that I had only written posts about Sloup Castle in Czech Switzerland, the massive castle at Jindřichův Hradec and Český Krumlov castle, even though I have visited many Czech castles over the years. Over the next year or so, I intend to rectify this and write a series of occasional posts about some of my favourite castles. Watch this space.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Rock Towns of Czech Paradise

 Czech Paradise (Český ráj) is one of my favourite areas in the Czech Republic. Because I offer walking holidays there, I have the perfect excuse to visit every year - well, I have to check the walks don't I? And quite a few of those walks take me through some of the area's famous rock towns.

The rock towns are the reason Czech Paradise was included in the UNESCO list of European Geoparks. But what are they? They are collections of huge sandstone towers created by erosion by rain and ice over millenia. When I say huge, I mean the height of several storey buildings. Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of them and no photo can really do them justice (although I have tried). In the photo below - the dark dot on the path is a man.

The most famous rock towns are the Prachovské Rocks (shown here) and the Hruba Skala Rocks, but there are several others. My husband and I first visited the Prachovské Rocks one early evening in September. The sun was low in the sky, turning the rocks a pinkish yellow and casting long shadows. Virtually alone, we followed the paths that wove through the area, climbing steep staircases, squeezing through cracks in the rocks, and standing on their summits to watch the setting sun.

It was a magical experience. No wonder that the rock towns are used by film production companies - for example for Disney's Narnia films and more recently for the BBC's Three Musketeers series. Nor is it a surprise that these natural labyrinths were once home to robbers.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Villa Primavesi, Olomouc

Olomouc is surprisingly absent from most tourists' must-see list. But then I suppose so are many wonderful places in the Czech Republic. Now that flights from the UK come into nearby Ostrava and Brno, let us hope that changes. For that matter, Olomouc is also relatively easy to get to from Prague.

I recently visited Olomouc as part of a holiday I had with my husband. We did it as a day trip from Brno, but next time we will stay there. As I have said before on this blog, my husband is a lover of architecture. He even has his own blog dedicated to English buildings. And so the historical centre of Olomouc with its stunning collection of historic buildings went down a storm. Whilst he wandered the streets and squares of the city, I headed off to check out a restaurant where I can take him as a surprise. The restaurant I was looking for is in a very different kind of historic building from the renaissance and baroque town houses Phil was photographing on the main square and surrounding streets.

The Primavesi Villa stands on the edge of the old town near the Italianate church of St Michal, overlooking one of the parks that circle the old town. The Villa was built by the Primavesi family, who were to be important sponsors of the Vienna Werkstätte. According to my old Rough Guide, it was in a parlous state – it is no longer. The Villa has been lovingly restored. Although the top floors are used as offices, it is possible to visit the architecturally important first floor where there is a gallery that is open Tuesdays-Saturdays; downstairs is a restaurant. The visitor can also wander through the garden, gazing up at this important secessionist building, admiring both its design and decoration.
The decoration is at its most intense in the mosaic-covered entrance porch. But as I looked around I saw decoration everywhere, from iron brackets curling like pea shoots to the curving dragon-back of the garden wall. The house was designed by the architects Franz von Krause and Josef Tokla and its interiors were designed and furnished by designer Josef Hoffmann, sculptor Anton Hanak and painter Gustav Klimt. The latter's portrait of Mäda Primavesi can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum. Sadly during the dereliction of the communist era most of the artwork and furniture was dispersed, although some non-moveable elements are still in situ. And it is possible to see furniture by Hoffmann in the Olomouc Museum of Art. 

I took a coffee at the restaurant and rejoined my husband in the town square.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Inside the Jan Hus Monument in Prague

Two weeks ago I met with Petr Husek, the organizer of the Festival which will commemorate the 600th anniversary of Jan Hus' death in July. We arranged to meet in the Cubist cafe in the House of the Black Madonna. I arrived slightly late, but he was not there. He arrived shortly after, breathless and brushing dust off his coat.

"I have been meeting a reporter inside the statue on the Old Town Square," he said.

As excuses go, that was an original one. The statue is a colosal one, which is a major feature in Prague's historical old town. It turns out that the memorial is being restored and Mr Husek was being interviewed about it and the Festival (he features at the end of the video above). The statue was erected in 1915 for the 500th anniversary. It was funded entirely by private donations. On July 6th, Jan Hus Day, it will be the centre of Prague's celebrations.

We talked about our mutual admiration for Hus's philosophy. It is interesting the way Hus has been adopted as a symbol by very different philosophies. When the statue was erected, it was a statement of national pride and suffering. This was only three years before the birth of the first Czechoslovakian Republic. Under the Communists the act of sitting under the statue was a quiet way of expressing opposition to the Communist government, but at the same time the Communists presented Hus and the Hussites as a proto socialists. Now Mr Husek and his friends want to use the festival to reclaim Hus as a spiritual (but not just a religious) inspiration for the Czech nation, offering the Czechs an alternative, more moral, way of living in contrast to the self-centred philosophy that followed the arrival of capitalism. I wish them every success. It seems to me that they are closer to the real man than their predecessors.


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