Thursday, 17 July 2008

Another Czech obsession - canoes and rafts

Living as they are in a land-locked country, the Czechs have developed a passion for their rivers. And so every Summer the rivers become highways for masses of rafts and canoes of all description as they all 'take to water', as they call it, for a week or two. Some do it year after year, well into their middle-age, but I don't know any Czech who wouldn't have done it at least once in their lifetime, when young, as it is considered to be one of the most important rites-of-passage.
It used to be a more adventurous undertaking 'in the old days' - you'd start at the point where the river becomes navigable and then let the flow take you over calm waters as well as over the rapids, stopping here and there for a bite to eat (inevitably prepared around a campfire and using as many free ingredients such as fish you might have caught or food found in the vicinity, such as mushrooms). Sleeping was done 'under the stars' or in small primitive tents, and the whole ethos was one of being at one with Nature.
Nowadays the rite-of-passage involves more alcohol, and the sleeping happens mostly in privately owned campsites that have sprung up along the banks - this is one result of the country becoming business-minded in its post-Communist era.
But not all is lost; while the concentration of canoes can be scary in places like Krumlov and the camps, if you actually take a canoe you can find yourself drifting through breathtaking gorges and forests and not feel crowded at all. And it is still possible to find a solitary spot under a tree and sleep under the stars.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

In praise of ...wild mushrooms

I've already mentioned the Czech obsession with mushroom hunting, or foraging. But after my eulogy on wild strawberries below, I think really the Czech obsession is with anything that their forests offer. They just love them: after all they are a nation of fairy-tale tellers and no wonder. The forests here really are magically lovely, and the freedom to walk anywhere combined with the relatively well-kept state of the forest floor means you can immerse yourself there for a whole day and not meet a soul.

The beauty of mushroom hunting is that it forces you to walk extremely slowly, noticing every detail as your eyes scan for the tell-tale little mushroom head half-hidden in the moss or grass. This kind of focus gets one into an almost meditative state, because you don't actively look, just meander, and all the senses seem sharpened - in the stillness, the sounds of insects and birds, a dropped pine-cone, a nearby brook; the different scents of mosses, grass and pine-needles, the cathedral-like play of light and shade.
It's been extremely dry in the last few weeks, and very hot, so much of the forest floor is parched - but there are always areas where dew collects, or where springs start, and that's where one can find one's mushroom treasures even now.
Problem comes -as with the strawberries, raspberries and all those other treasures of the forest- when getting home, down to earth: what to do with all this bounty now??
And then come the hours of cleaning and cooking, but because one tends to always pick more than one would need for one day, also jam-making, bottling, pickling.... madness, these obsessions. That's why I often end up doing my real work at 2 in the morning.
But wouldn't miss it for the world :-) (a large anthill I met on the way...)