Friday, 29 May 2015

Salamander, salamander

Okay, I know it's a rubbish photo, but given how secretive the fire salamander is I was delighted to see it and manage to fire off a photo before it disappeared.

Just under four weeks ago (it feels much longer, given all the things I have been up to in the meantime) I was in Czech Paradise (Cesky Raj) researching a geological tour. I woke early and, although it had been raining heavily in the night and was still mizzling, I decided to walk the Riegerova trail. The trail is a nature trail with an emphasis on geology, but the most exciting sight was not the very impressive and varied rocks but a small golden and black amphibian.

I had nearly finished the trail and was walking down a track in the direction of a restaurant by the road, when I saw something gold and black some yards in front of me. I have never seen a salamander in the wild before, although they are to be found in Czech forests, and at first I didn't realise what it was. It seemed too brightly coloured to be an animal so at first sight I thought it a bit of rubbish left by some careless walker. When I drew closer and as the salamander made a dash for the verdant verge I scrambled to get my camera out of my rucksack.

It is amazing that such a brightly coloured animal can still be so secretive. Apparently it rarely comes out of its hiding places during the daytime and only then when it is raining. It likes to hide in rotten tree trunks, which may account for the legends about it living in fire as it would appear in people's fires when the log it was hiding in started to burn. The salamander has therefore a special place in alchemy and myth.

It very soon disappeared and I had to be content with this blurry picture. But I went on my way rejoicing at my luck at seeing it at all. I thought as I walked about how I would have shared this experience with my Czech friend, had she been alive. But then I thought that maybe she had been there all along, after all hadn't her online name been Salamander?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mikulov - Home of Wine


Mikulov is one of my favourite Czech places. In some ways it is like Cesky Krumlov, but without the tourists and with wine. It is in the south of Moravia on the Austrian border.

Mikulov sits at the end of the Palava Hills, which stand out against the surrounding plain like the back of a monstrous white-backed whale. The chalky soil and Moravia's sunny climate make this a perfect area for wines. In the outskirts of the town you will find the cellars of small local vineyards and in the town centre there are some excellent wine merchants, where you can sample the wines before you buy. Do try out the wine that uses the Palava grape variety, which was created nearby. It is a fruity white wine and a favourite of mine. Czech wine is a well-kept secret that is worth exploring and Mikulov is a great place to do it.

In the castle, which stands on a hill in the centre of the town, you can visit the excellent local museum. What may surprise you is the inclusion of the Roman gallery - yes, the Romans made it this far across the Danube and they brought wine-growing with them. Having discovered this, visit the museum's excellent exhibition about the history of wine-growing.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Prague Transport - Trams

As I said in a previous post trams are my preferred form of public transport in Prague. The metro is very limited and doesn't have the advantage of taking you past the city's sights. You can also get a much better idea of the layout of the city from a tram seat. There are a lot of tramlines, but there are four that are particularly useful for visitors to Prague.  These are:

Number 9 - runs along the castle side of the river from Anděl until it crosses the river at Újezd, going past the National Theatre and Národní třída, across Wenceslas Square, and on to the Main Train station and beyond, thus offering a direct route between the Na Knicezi bus station at Andel (and the buses from Cesky Krumlov) to the Train Station
Number 17 - runs from Vyšehrad, along the eastern bank past Charles Bridge, and through the Old Town before crossing the river
Number 22 - runs through the hotel area around Náměstí Míru, past the National Theatre and then over the river and up to Malostranské náměstí; then it winds its way up to the castle and on to Bílá Hora; it is the best way to get to the castle without climbing
Number 23- runs past Karlovo náměstí, over Wenceslas Square, stopping at Náměstí Republiky for the Old Town and the Obecní dům, over the river past the steps up to Letna Park and into Holešovice, stopping outside the Veletržní palác and its modern art gallery, and on to the Exhibition Areas and Stromovka Park.

Brand new trams are being introduced on some lines. But if you want to get a feel for the past why not try the Number 91 tram. This vintage tram runs around central Prague from April to mid-November on Saturdays and Sundays. The trams start at the Public Transport Museum at  Vozovna Střešovice, then runs past  Pražský hrad,  Malostranská, Malostranské náměsti, the National Theatre, Národní třída, Wenceslas Square, Náměstí republiky, Veletržní, terminating at the Exhibition Halls (Výstaviště Holešovice) and back again.  Prague has had trams since 1875, when they were horse-drawn. Take a trip on the 91 to the Museum to find out more.

Friday, 1 May 2015


Kroměříž is a small Moravian city half way between Brno and Olomouc and it is renowned for its Baroque architecture, so renowned that UNESCO has made it giving it World Heritage Site listing because The Gardens and Castle at Kroměříž are an exceptionally complete and well-preserved example of a princely residence and its associated landscape of the 17th and 18th centuries. The ensemble, and in particular the pleasure garden, played a significant role in the development of Baroque garden and palace design in central Europe.

The best way to take in the sites is to follow the UNESCO Way. This signposted route takes you past some (but not all of the city sites). It starts at the gate to the Palace Garden, a large landscaped park with some more formal features. The next major stop is the Archbishop's Baroque Palace itself. There are several tours of the Palace complex to choose from, of the Archbishop's sumptuous state and private rooms, the Archbishop's picture gallery with paintings by Titian, Cranach,, Durer, Van Dyke and other masters, or the Palace Tower to gain a birdseye view of the city. From the Palace the Way winds through the city streets past two major churches of St John and St Maurice, before ending at what is for me the highlight of Kroměříž - The Flower Garden. This Baroque pleasure garden is a unique example of garden design and architecture of this period (1665). Take your time here to wander through the flowerbeds, through the statue-lined arcade and then climb up on to the viewing platform on the arcade's roof.

If all this sightseeing has given you a thirst, walk to the Large Square where  the Cerny Orel hotel and pub has its very own microbrewery. I tried to buy some beer to take home, but the bottle leaked all over the car boot, so now I just enjoy a glass or three when I am there.

Here's a video of some of the Baroque delights of Kroměříž:


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