Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Wow - powder snow on empty pistes

What, now, after Easter? Well, Winter obviously got re- surrected so we couldn't resist the snow, and drove down to Sternstein in Austria (40 mins South of Krumlov). There must have been all of ten skiers altogether on the beautifully prepared slopes today, and the conditions were truly fantastic - nice and fast on the piste, and fluffy through the trees. Wow.
Sternstein is a nicely old-fashioned, little gem of a resort, just right for a quick dash to the slopes - not somewhere you'd want to spend a week at, as all it consists of are two runs of 1.5 kilometers each, one red, one blue. But just right to enjoy a day out,
together with its neat, truly Austrian, restaurant serving strudels and goulash and other typical delights.

What a wonderful day, and what a gift by the weather angels :-)

(BTW for more challenging skiing, one would have to go a bit further (about an hour's drive in all), to Hochficht, which has many more runs of all standards (well, maybe not the black equivalent of the Wall at Avoriaz, but who cares when it's practically round the corner). We'll report from there too when we next go with a camera)

Saturday, 22 March 2008

A truly 'white' Saturday at the Lake House

(continuing from 'The Weather and the Ruin'
'Ice or not ice')
Went to visit our beloved ruin (still awaiting its much needed reconstruction) at the Olsina lake today. Well, while Krumlov is a bit grey on this Easter Saturday, what a surprise when the car climbed those 150 or so altitude-meters higher: everything was white and I had a job getting the car through the snow. Good job we've forgotten to change the Winter tyres for the Summer ones!
So where has the Spring gone? We've done the Spring rituals (see blog below), the flowering bulbs have all come out,
the forsythia is in full bloom!
But I only look at the bright side: it was simply beautiful there, and now we'll have a bonus time skiing!
What a lovely Easter we are having.

Easter customs 2 - Saturday, Sunday, Monday

This is 'White Saturday', apparently called thus because on this day you should whitewash the house. It is also the last day of the Easter fast, so traditionally women spend the day in the kitchen, making ready for the feast tomorrow. Perhaps the most important task is to bake a 'mazanec' (a big fluffy bun in the shape of a bread-loaf, made from sweet yeast dough) that most people will eat for their Sunday breakfast - but for the observing Catholics the 'mazanec' is to be taken to the Mass on Sunday morning to be blessed, because traditionally this blessed 'bread' would then be divided between neighbours and the needy, and pieces of it, together with wine and eggs, would also be given to the fields, the well, and the fruit trees, to insure good harvest, plenty of water and sufficient fruit for the coming year.
On Monday, the feast truly starts. But apart from eating, for the Czechs this is the day when boys and men go from house to house with their specially platted switches (pomlazka) to symbolically whip the girls and women so they would be rejuvenated and fertile, and the women reward this by giving away their decorated eggs. So should you be in Czecho on Monday, you'll hear much joyful screaming and laughter as the boys tease the girls and as the girls enjoy teasing them back, pretending to be hiding from them, only to be 'discovered' and 'whipped'. You can read more about the eggs and the switches in my previous post, 'Easter preparations', of the 8th March.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Easter customs and traditions

Happy Easter to all that may read this over the Easter holidays :-)

Yesterday, on 'Green Thursday' as the Czechs call it, I breakfasted the traditional 'Judas' pastry. It's a sweet bun made from yeast dough - a little like the British Hot cross bun, except for the cross, as this one tends to be plain brown and platted, to symbolise the rope by which Judas hanged himself (you can also see a nice photo on which I can't publish for copyright reasons). Alas, to my shame I didn't do anything else that's required of a good householder on this day: one should get up really early, before sunrise, and sweep all ills out of the house, then wash with morning dew (or snow as the case may be) and take any sweepings to the crossroads, so as to avoid fleas in the year to come! One should then throw a piece of the Judas pastry spread with honey into the well to insure plenty of water. Good Christians would then ritually wash eachothers' feet and go to morning mass, and again to mass in the evening. This is the last time the bells are rung because the tradition has it bells fly off to Rome on the Thursday night. That's why a custom of rattling special wooden rattles has developed, an extremely noisy custom enjoyed mainly by young boys and men, which persists throughout the Easter weekend, during which all bells must remain silent. (by the way these rattles are similar to the ones football-fans use nowadays!) In some areas, people would also beat mortars with pestles, or rattle coins in their pockets, to ensure wealth in the coming year.

Good Friday (Great Friday in Czech), though very much observed as the Christian Passion day even by otherwise religiously tepid people, also has its folk beliefs and rituals - some more or less forgotten, some still enjoyed by many. Maybe the strongest belief is that you are not to disturb the soil on this day: it is a magical day when the earth may open up to reveal hidden treasures - if you walk out into the countryside at dusk, such a place will show itself by luminescent ferns, or by nooks and caves in rocks, issuing faint light. Altogether this was always seen as a day strong in magical powers: witches and watersprites were supposed to roam about, and you were not to lend anything to anyone as it may come back to you bewitched. On this day you would get up before sunrise and wash in a running stream, and observe a fast. Women would spin special 'passion threads' that they would sew into their shirts to guard against evil eye and lightning, and men would roam about with their noisy rattles....

Nowadays, with Tescos and others open day and night through most of the weekend, and offering ready-made Easter eggs and Judas pastries and all, will commerce win over tradition? Hope not: as I walked into my neighbour's house this morning, there was a huge mound of eggs in various stages of finish strewn on the kitchen table, and although Krumlov itself seems oddly silent, and later as I went to the riding stables at the nearby village, I heard the bold rattles laughing their wooden cackle in the distance.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The story of the imprisoned Nun

Re the comment below, this is the story as it is told by the locals (short version):
There is a big monastery with an impressive church right in the middle of the Latran quarter in Krumlov. Now it is back in the Knights of the Cross' ownership, but whether they owned it in those olden times from whence this story comes, I don't know. The church itself is remarkable by its Black Madonna - but I will stick to the story of the Nun.

In her days, there was a nunnery and a monastery right next door to one another, and the nuns and the monks shared the church for the services. They were not allowed to speak or to meet of course, their lives were to be separate, except it would have been hard for the occupants of these fine institutions not to catch glimpses of the other sex out of windows, or indeed on the way to the church. And so our Nun became enamoured of a rather handsome Monk, and he, too, fell in love - but what to do? They managed to exchange glances, or pass a few written notes to one another but their feelings became unbearable, so when an opportunity arose, they took it: once in a while, the monks and the nuns all went to the nearby Kajov church for a pilgrimage - following the route marked by the shrines. The nuns started off first - the monks sufficiently later so as to not be tempted. But once in the forest, our Nun sneaked off the path and waited in the thicket, and when the monks passed by, our monk did the same. The idea was that while all the others were at the service in Kajov, they would have a passionate time together, and then wait for the procession to go back so as to join it again, and no-one would be any wiser. But their passion was so strong they forgot about time - and they were discovered by the nuns returning from the service. The rest of the story is in the post below: - she got walled into the nearest shrine, and he went and rescued her before she died of suffocation or claustrophobia inside. And then, one would like to hope, they ran off, lived happily, and so on...

So the story isn't about an anchorite - though it may have been invented centuries after the shrine was built! This 'shrine' may have well been purpose-made for an anchorite, because it is tall and narrow, and doesn't look like an ordinary shrine-design! Mind boggles :-)

Friday, 14 March 2008

dreaming shrines

Phil's contribution below has prompted me to tell you about the hundreds of little shrines and chapels that you can find by the roadsides here, but also dotted about the countryside, even hidden in the middle of forests. Potok in her own blog, and I in this, have both mentioned them already, but maybe these little gems deserve another look.
In the old days, these shrines and chapels served two main purposes:
1/ to mark the travellers' and pilgrims' paths from monastery to monastery, or 2/ to provide a circular route with the Stations of the Cross, which served the Catholic pilgrimage festivals (the most remarkable of these circular routes in this area is by the village and monastery of Římov, well worth a visit). Then there are the odd solitaires - suddenly in the middle of nowhere, you will find a cross or a small shrine seemingly out of context - but these usually mark places where someone wanted to give thanks for a fortunate meeting, or had some moment of revelation, or they mark a spring that used to be regarded as healing.
Then of course there are also the 'guardian' crucifixes or shrines, usually at some crossroads, because even in the pre-Christian, pagan, times, the crossroads were always regarded as magical places, where witches and devils might have lurked, so the shrines and the crucifixes are there for the protection of the travellers.

Well, some of the old paths have by now become major roads, some fell into disuse or were planted over by forestry. But even in the dense forests, wherever you should come upon such a forgotten shrine that seems like something out of a dream, you may be certain that the ground nearby bears a distinct groove where the ancient road would have been, and where you can imagine the hundreds of feet and horse-hooves that once trod this well-worn path. I am told that if you follow these monastery-to-monastery paths*, you are actually walking on ley-lines, as the monasteries were already built on places of such power. That's if you like to believe in these things.
The photos here are from a walk I took in the Autumn, a walk that starts with a shrine outside our house and leads into a forest not more than a mile away. This beautiful little chapel on the right (consecrated, so people still hold services there) has beautifully carved seats and a proper altar -
and further on, right in the depth of the forest, is this tall, narrow shrine with no opening at all - the legend has it a nun was walled into it as a punishment for an affair with a monk, who, in turn, came in the night to break the walls to rescue her. A long story, which would take too long to tell here, but another impulse for contemplation when one stops for a moment on one's forest walk.

Phil is right to mention the statistics about the Czechs being the most Atheistic nation in Europe, but they love their shrines (they survived, relatively, even during Communism) and even now, as you pass, you can see in almost every one of them at least a little flower, if not a candle or a picture, because you never know, they might still hold the power to grant your wishes or have your prayers answered :-)

*These paths make wonderful walking itineraries. See where you can purchase a map that clearly marks all the hundreds of chapels and shrines - Shocart, No 36

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Small but perfectly formed

According to the statistics, the Czech Republic’s population contains a high percentage of atheists. But, as is often the way with statistics, this isn’t the whole story and certainly hasn’t always been the case. The country has an impressive religious heritage. Not only was it one of the birthplaces of Protestantism, but there are hundreds of old Catholic churches dotted about the place, a lot of them delightful buildings that are well worth looking out for and looking at. I particularly like the small ones, some Gothic, some baroque, some a mixture of the two, that you find in town centres and on village greens in many places in southern Bohemia. The picture shows the one on the green at Holasovice, its colourwashed walls and baroque gable beautifully matching the houses of the village. As in England, they’re sometimes locked, but it’s always worth stopping and having a look. If you get a chance to see inside, there might be ornate plasterwork, statues of saints, or gilded cherubs fluttering around. And an atmosphere of peace in a busy world.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Out with the Winter, in with the Spring - a folk ritual

Every year at around this time, our neighbours' huge family gather with a few friends, among whom I have the privilege to be counted, to do a Czech traditional Spring ritual. It involves making an effigy of Winter, and taking it to the river, where it is burnt and thrown down stream.
And so it was yesterday, too: the family own a fabulous early-renaissance mill right outside Cesky Krumlov, which they've had for 30 years or so, but is it still in a comfortably delapidated state that makes it desperately attractive and homely (one of those 'ahh, I wish...' sort of places, of which, I am sure, I shall be writing much more as time goes by). Anyway, here they all were: old, young, toddlers, dogs, cats, goats, food and drink, musical instruments.... The effigy is a combined effort, it gets made and dressed, its face painted fearsome and ugly, and it is given a necklace of painted eggs. Then, accompanied by singing and dancing, the crowd, bearing fresh twigs with ribbons, takes it to the river, where it is ceremonially lit.

More singing, and the burning Winter is thrown into the water,
chivvied on its way downstream by 'Out out out, let the Spring come in' (except it rhymes in Czech :-) of course ) Then everyone dances back into the Mill, waving their fresh twigs, which they'll take home and put in a vase to watch their buds open in a day or two.

The family keep photos of this event that go back 30 years, and it is moving to see the patriarch in his prime, and the babies on the old photos now being women in their 30s with children of their own, yet still doing the same things, singing the same songs, year by year.
May their yearly rituals, like the changing seasons, go on forever.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Spectacular vernacular

A while back I was enthusing about the buildings of Cesky Krumlov – especially their painted facades and plasterwork like elaborate cake-icing. Well, there are delicious buildings in the Bohemian countryside too, and the sight of a group of vernacular-baroque farmhouse fronts arranged along the edge of a village green is one of the pleasures of this region. Probably the best place to see this is the village of Holasovice, where the long green with its pond and tiny church is completely lined with lovely plaster-covered houses. Most of them have the typical local courtyard-farm layout of a pair of wings on either side of a central gate. Some have simple pointed gables, some go the whole baroque hog, with curvaceous gables and all kinds of charming decorations. Quite a few bear dates from the 19th century, although I don’t know whether these dates relate to the building of the houses or are when the plasterwork took its present form. Whichever, the place is a delight, and an easy drive north from Cesky Krumlov.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Easter preparations

It's coming up to Easter, and people are busy with their preparations - they do take their Easters seriously in this country. Of course it's a major Christian holy time, but it's the pagan customs that seem to dominate the early Spring here. The houses sprung flowerpots and boxes with willow branches hung with decorated eggs and ribbons, and women are busy baking Easter lambkins (see blog entry below for the recipe) and 'mazanec' pastries, and of course, decorating eggs - the most important part of their pre-Easter activities.
The men, meanwhile, are prowling the countryside searching for the most moist and bendy willow shoots from which they'll be making their special 'whips' with which to symbolically beat their women in exchange for the eggs and the cakes, of course with some slivovi to make the cakes go down.
I will report on how this Easter goes, but for now I'll stay with the preparations. The egg decorating is a fine art, honed by generations of women who pass their know-how on, and with very defined regional variations, indeed almost every village has some particular design or particular method of egg-decorating. The techniques vary from simple painting to elaborate wax batique or scratching, some are even clad in fine lace. The designs are abstract, but very meaningful, and the women here mostly know what all the symbolism means to every detail.

Same with the whip-making, like the egg symbolism a fertility rite: there are so many ways of plaiting the whip, from simple three or four shoots strong, to a twelve-shoot, complex, design. It the duty of the elderly men in the community to teach the boys this art, and some villages even make a communal whip, competing in its length with the neighbouring groups of men. Very phallic, of course, but that's the fun of it.

Well, we've been lucky to have neighbours who are incredibly dilligent about their folk traditions so each year we get to be included, and our visitors too. So we're learning to decorate the eggs and to plait the whips, and it's been great to watch the British men struggle with the unforgiving willow, coming up with variously bent and sorry-looking creations next to the expert perfection of the old man's from next door, but it's all in good humour, because we all know that only years of practice make perfect :-)

You can go to (last year's but no matter) for Easter customs and pictures of all sorts of regional egg-decorating designs, and where you can also read about the whip-making, with instructions. Or search your Google images for 'kraslice' (decorated eggs), many different designs come up.

I'll write more on the subject as we get nearer the dates, meanwhile I shall be stocking up with eggs: only my own decorating is a bit freer than the tradition would allow! Here's my Easter bunny with three Easter Graces.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

It's snowing again......

Well, having said the Spring has arrived, this is what we've woken up to early this morning in Cesky Krumlov. I wondered why the locals tut-tutted when they saw me uncovering the Spring bulb shoots in the garden, a week or so ago, from their Winter layer of insulating leaf-mulch: 'Březen-za kamna vlezem' (March - crawl behind the stove), they muttered, quoting a folk saying. I obviously still have a lot to learn. But then, this weather has arrived in the wake of the big storm, and I am told there were snow falls even in England these days.
Anyway, now I hope it'll snow even harder: perhaps we can go and ski a few more times (always looking at the bright side)....

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Treasure in the attic

Continuing from:
Second Home Adventure
More on Forest House

Had a great time clearing out the attic at the Forest house - the roofers and the builders will start arriving soon.
First the partition walls had to come down: it was a bit alarming to realise the partitions were made of unfired bricks so one good knock and the partition came down. The bricks are so soft that if you squeeze one, it crumbles to dust in your hand. Apparently these sort of bricks were being used all through the area for centuries, and I suppose they served well - if one didn't go knocking at them too hard :-) My builder tells me that the old local brickworks were squeezed out by the big boys and cement/concrete makers after 1930s, and ever since then houses can't breathe properly. Obviously my builder is one of those Czech locals who believe in using old and local materials whenever possible. But he needn't worry, I won't be putting concrete in the attic - the partitions had to go as I am planning to open the space up as much as possible. Luckily the roof beams seem 90% sound so I can keep the old structure, just clean it up a little.
Which brings me to tell you about the treasures I found when clearing up. It seems that the previous owners, who were there since the 1970s but only used the house as their occasional weekend retreat, didn't ever bother to look behind the partition walls into the dark spaces of the actual attic nooks. I found four ancient tin baths, old leather suitcases, loads of dusty bee-keeping equipment and bee-keepers' magazines from 1920s and 30s, old clothes and several wooden trunks, most of them too damaged to be reparable. But one of the chests was in good condition, and when I dusted it off and looked inside, I found a real treasure: hundreds of fine pencil drawings and watercolours, again dated between 1920s and 1930s.

Whoever lived in the house then was not only a good artist, but someone who obviously loved the countryside here and kept returning to the same trees and cottages to draw and paint them in all seasons and weathers. I wonder how many of these cottages still stand - because many were bulldozed by the communist authorities during the 'Fifties as this area was close to the border with Austria, and many villages fell simply because the authorities feared that people who might be thinking of escaping to the West might find it too easy to hide here. Or so I was told. In any case, I look forward to walking the local places and looking for any building that might be familiar from my gentle ghostly predecessor.

And when the house is restored and finished, I look forward to having his artworks framed, so they can adorn my walls and live again.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The weather and the Lake house ruin

Well, after all that Spring eulogy, I have to admit that we've had a rotten couple of days, with high winds and rain, apparently coming in from the Atlantic :-)
Without wishing to blame any British weather coming over, I was reminded of our holidays in Wales which we very much used to enjoy but never without wellies.

And so today we left Krumlov and went the 14 kilometers South to check on our Lake House - the semi-ruined 'holiday' home at Olsina lake, lovely (the pic is from late last Summer) but in dire need of a total reconstruction, for which it might need to wait a long time, since we can't, unfortunately, afford to do anything to it. But maybe we will, some time.
Well, it was a good thing we went there, as the fence - as dilapidated as the rest - was strewn all across the little road. In battering wind, we proceeded to gather up and chop its bits for burning, thanking the gods that the roof didn't come down.

But all praise to the local road-workers, as even first thing in the morning the little country roads were cleared of fallen trees that were already cut up by the roadside: quite a few trees fell due to the tremendous wind that kept us up most of the night.

Being there, though, even in the rain, is always great.
There were periods of bright sunshine, and driving back to Krumlov, almost magically, a bright rainbow stretched over the Klet mountain like a welcome banner. Rain or shine, we love it here. And the little ruin? Something to look forward to, a project which, I am sure, will be well worth taking on for the heartwarming beauty of the place, and for the peace that comes with being by a lake with no tourists anywhere.
One day, we will do it.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Skiing at Lipno lake (Kramolin) resort

Our family came to visit, with two small children - the purpose was to go skiing for their half-term holidays, as the nearest resort here is only 20 minutes drive from Cesky Krumlov. I was very nervous, as the weather has been much milder lately and most of the snow has gone, so I apologized as soon as they arrived: sorry, the snow at the resort will be no good any more.
But they insisted they wanted to go, and so it was completely touching to see their enthusiasm even at the little that there was! Having had no snow in Britain at all, they pounced on the sorry remnants of it here, and immediately started to roll in it, make little snowmen, do snowball fights and even carry large lumps of it around as if they were some fabulous treasure.

It almost wouldn't have mattered if I haven't had arranged for lessons. But they enjoyed those too, especially the older, 7yr old girl who was here for the second time. Being in Czecho, it is affordable to get private tuition, so each of the children had their own instructor with whom they quickly bonded and learned very fast. The older girl was bombing down the red runs like a pro by the end of the week, and even the younger boy was confident to ski straight down the blue at some speed.

But now they are gone, the house feels a little empty, but meanwhile the Spring has arrived and everything is starting to green up, with Spring flowers shooting out of the ground, and catkin bushes buzzing with millions of bees. I hope to take some pictures and post them up here soon.