Tuesday, 28 July 2015

In the Footsteps of Franz Kafka

This post is a contribution towards the Magic Realism Bloghop 2015 I am organizing on Magic Realism Book Blog. About twenty blogs are taking part and you can find a list of these at the bottom of this post. 

Last weekend I was travelling back from my home in South Bohemia to my other home in England, when I stopped in Prague overnight. Prague - the city of Kafka's birth and life - is very different now from the one he knew, loved and hated. And yet it is possible to retrace his steps in the city and perhaps get a feel for what made the young Kafka one of the world's greatest magic realist writers. 

My first stop was the Franz Kafka Museum in Mala Strana on the west bank of the Vltava. The place was very busy and it was hard at times to concentrate on the exhibits. I suggest you go on a weekday. To be honest there is not much of Kafka to see there, except his writings, photographs of Kafka, his family and sweethearts, and photographs and videos of Prague at the time. The exhibition text and images are reprinted in the short book The City of K: Franz Kafka and Prague which you can buy in the museum shop. But the book and the exhibition set the scene well and helped inform my subsequent explorations. 

Kafka's childhood was restricted to a small area in the Old Town of Prague across the river from Mala Strana. He was born at what is now Namesti Franze Kafky 3, on the edge of the old Jewish ghetto. Only the doorway remains of the original house. The majority of his childhood years were spent at Dum U Minuty, a late Gothic house with Renaissance frescoes on the Old Town Square. He recounts the dread he felt in his journey from his home across the square, through Tynska Street to Masna Street and the German elementary school there. The little boy would cling to shop doorways and pillars on the way, with the family's Czech cook threatening him and abusing him. In 1893 a ten-year old Franz Kafka graduated to the Grammar School which was located in the Kinsky Palace on the Old Town Square - it is now part of the National Gallery. 

Other buildings in the Old Town Square featured in Kafka's life. His father had a haberdashery shop there. At number 16 Kafka had one of his first jobs, whilst next door was home of the Fanta family, which hosted intellectual gatherings that Kafka attended. Then there are a number of sites in the vicinity of the Square: on Ovocny trh Kafka studied law from 1901 to 1906 and he stayed for nine years in an apartment in Celetna 3 (U Tri Kealu) - it was there that he first experimented with writing. 

Kafka's Prague had three distinct ethnic groups - the Czechs, the Germans and the Jews. Kafka was a German-speaking Jew. The old ghetto may have been torn down and replaced with new impressive Art Nouveau buildings, but as Kafka said, "In us all it [the old Jewish ghetto] still lives - the dark corners, the secret alleys, shuttered windows, squalid courtyards, rowdy pubs, and sinister inns... The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us. With our eyes open we walk through a dream: ourselves only a ghost of a vanished age." (Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch). For a while Kafka lived in the area at Parizska 26, sadly now demolished, and it was there that he wrote The Metamorphosis. Close by on the junction of Dusni and Vezenska Streets, you will find the 2003 sculpture (shown above) by Jaroslav Rona.The small Kafka on the shoulders of a headless giant is an image from the story Description of a Struggle but the giant is walking on a cobble mosaic depicting a beetle or cockroach. Also on Vezenska (no. 11) you will find the former Cafe Savoy, where Kafka attended the performances of Yiddish theatre that were very influentual on his writing, most notably on The Metamorphosis. 

For other influences you can walk to 19 Wenceslas Square (the offices of Assicurazioni Generali) or Na Porici 7 (Workers' Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia) in Mala Strana to see the buildings where Kafka worked as a bureaucrat and lawyer. He wrote in a letter: "Writing and the office cannot be reconciled" and yet he could not escape the den of bureaucrats. His work at Workers' Accident took a particular toll but fed into his writings - he saw at first hand the consequences of dehumanizing mechanization and bureaucracy in the terrible industrial accidents that proliferated at this time.

The final spot on any Kafka trail is in the suburb of Zizkov. It is his grave in the New Jewish Cemetery. He died on June 3 1924. The cemetery is a strange spot much removed from the bustle of central Prague where Kafka lived. The cemetery has a poignant air. As you walk to the grave, which is signposted from the entrance, you pass plaques on the wall to  those who died in the concentration camps. Among the Nazis' victims were Kafka's sisters and many of his friends. Had Kafka not died of TB he would probably have been another name on the list of writers killed in the camps on the wall a few metres from his grave. Kafka's Prague only survived him by fifteen years.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Bird Lake

As the Student Agency bus crosses Ceske Budejovice's city boundary, you probably aren't paying much attention to the glimpse of water beyond a curtain of trees. Within seconds the coach has passed by and the view changes to large out-of-town shopping centres and brightly painted blocks of flats. But the complex of five small lakes is worth a visit. The 25 minute tram ride from Ceske Budejovice's main train station takes you to a very special place.

The lakes may be within a stone's throw of human activity, but they are an amazing reserve for nature, especially but not exclusively for birds. Indeed the noise of the throngs of gulls and terns that inhabit the lakes' small islands can even drown out the sound of traffic on the main road to Pisek and Prague. Although they are the loudest inhabitants of the lake, the gulls and terns are not the rarest (gulls are common even in this country in Central Europe). In among them my husband and I spotted common pochards, the rarer red-crested pochard, little grebes, great crested grebes and black-necked grebes. A pied flycatcher flitted between the branches of the oaks that line the lake's banks. On the opposite bank of the lake farthest away from the road there was a large herony with not only grey herons but also night herons. In total 191 bird species have been seen on the lakes and I can well believe it.

It is an easy walk through the lakes – level and not too long but packed with animals and plants of interest. There are even plenty of information boards to tell us what to look for. The nature reserve is quite simply an amazing place and one for which I am seriously thinking of buying some binoculars. It is enough to make anyone a keen birdwatcher.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Trosky Castle - Walking in Czech Paradise

I took two Australian friends for a short walking tour of Czech Paradise in May and I have been meaning to blog about it ever since

Czech Paradise (Cesky Raj in Czech) is a brilliant place for walking. It's actually a brilliant place full stop one of my favourites in the Czech Republic. I arrived a few days earlier than my friends because I had some walks to check and research. The weather wasn't great until my friends brought sunshine from Australia.

We really only had two days for our walks. The first took us via Trosky castle a stunning ruin perched on the cores of two extinct volcanoes. Castles with two towers, at either end, are a familiar form in the Czech Republic, but few if any dominate the landscape the way Trosky does. Indeed the two towers are symbols of the area. Visible from all directions, they create a landmark for the traveller, be they arriving on foot, in a car or by train. The castle's position results in commanding views - it's claimed that these views extend as far as Prague and you can certainle see as far as the Giant Mountains as well as large parts of Czech Paradise and the surrounding area.

The two towers are called Baba - the crone - and Panna - the maiden. But don't be deceived by the names: both are equally old (14th century). Between the two towers is the palace area. The downside of the incredible location was the climb we had to make from the train station on the first hot day of the year. But there is a pub next to the entrance of the castle, which was a welcome sight and where I introduced my friends to the Czech soft drink Kofola.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Prachatice Bobbin Lace Museum

One memory of this summer will be the visit I made with two ladies from the Textile Society of Great Britain to the Museum of Bobbin Lace in Prachatice. I have a photograph of the two of them engaged in deep conversation with the museum's curator. I will not post it here, because like me the ladies would prefer if photographs of themselves were not seen generally.

I had established that both ladies were interested, nay extremely knowledgeable, in lace, and I knew the museum from previous visits. But it was the personal chemistry between the curator and the ladies that was so lovely and unexpected.

He told them how the museum grew from a collection of his wife's. She had come from a long line of lace makers and when the revolution happened she had expressed a desire to create a museum to share her collection. Alas his wife died, but he was carrying on with the museum, one suspects partly as a way of keeping her alive in some way. Now here were two elderly ladies who not only shared his wife's passion, but were very knowledgeable. One of them was even active in a similar museum in the UK.

It wasn't all one way of course. My two ladies clearly got a lot from listening to him and viewing the collection. Dozens of photographs were taken – no doubt much better than my amateur efforts – and will almost certainly be used in talks to other textile lovers. I was delighted.


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