Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Fox-hunting, Czech style

This Saturday I'll be taking part in a fox-hunt. Except here the fox is a rider in mask, as you can see. All round the countryside the local stables are organising these fun hunts, and riders come to most of them, if the dates don't clash. Which they strictly speaking should, as the hunts are in celebration of St Hubert, the patron saint of hunters. But then, if all the stables did their hunts on the Saint's name-day, we'd all lose out, so, in an appropriately Bohemian way, we just stagger the events and do it as we please.
So on Saturday it's our lovely stable Pohoda's turn. The hunt will happen in the vast, beautiful parkland grounds of Cerveny Dvur, an ex-Rozmberk hunting chateau near Cesky Krumlov which has for many years been serving as a drugs and alcohol dependency clinic. So the only rule for the riders and the onlookers is 'do not bring alcohol'. But (how else?) there'll be sausages and bonfire and hot tea, so who cares.

We've been going there on and off to practise the jumps in the past couple of weeks, so fingers crossed our stable wins!
Hope I shall get some photos from friends - if I do, I shall post them here and tell you how we did.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Fire!!! (and more on the Carp harvest)

Sharing my excitement of the recent Carp harvest experience (see the 22.10 blog below), I was told by an old local that 'these modern harvests are nothing on the old times'. But of course:-) So I was curious, and this is what he said:
From the very beginning, the harvests were considered one of the calendar's highlights. Everyone came - even from miles away; ranging from the aristocrats, coming in coaches all dressed up and hogging the best view, down to the poorest labourers huddling among the reeds. Bands would be playing ('not like those four measly amateurs', growls my local), a whole market would spring up on the banks, selling pots and lace and gingerbread and such, and (should I believe my storyteller?) even such attractions as a 'medvedar' - a wandering performer with a dancing bear might come to entertain the crowd. But the best bit (- and this went on even during the Commie times, says my old friend) was left to the end:
Once most of the fish were taken out, weighed and sorted, the Pondmaster would shout: FIRE!!! This was the signal for the poor people to rush into the mud and take the remaining carp, for free. A kind of mud-wrestling show for the amused aristocracy, no doubt, but actually a generous gesture to let those who couldn't afford to buy (or were too afraid to poach) just take as much as they could carry and a have a proper fish feast for once.
'What's the world coming to? In these money-grabbing times', says my local, 'they even got rid of this harmless tradition'... he waves his hand dismissively at the imagined 'they' and returns to his beer.
But I am remembering the old grannies with carp in their plastic bags and think, well, at a few pence a carp, they seemed happy enough - saves getting all muddy, doesn't it.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Forest house progress

I was asked by Pushkin, who is in Britain at the moment, to go and check whether his builders are on schedule - today was the day when the insulation was to be finished.
Well, it was very nearly finished when I got there this morning, so, with a bit of luck, by the end of the day they would have done it!
The builders were singing as I drove in, the sun was shining, and the house looked pretty happy in its new coat.
But of course it'll be up to Pushkin himself to judge the quality of the work. He'll get here by next Friday so fingers crossed.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The great carp harvest

Fish harvesting is a tradition that goes back to Middle ages. Being a landlocked country, Bohemia nevertheless has great and respected fisheries - vast areas of the countryside, especially in South Bohemia. These were very early on turned from marshes to fertile ponds, some intertwined by elaborate locks and channels. A whole thesis could be written about the history and the personalities involved in this form of landscape transformation and farming, but right now I'd like to stay with my beloved lake/pond Olsina, where I witnessed a harvest today.

The harvest is both a practical and a ritual occasion. It starts at dawn, when, to a fanfare of trumpeters, fishermen in huge waders, with boats, set off along the muddy bottom of the drained pond towards the area which holds remnants of water, and with it all the thousands of fish that sought refuge there while the pond was being drained - the slow draining took two weeks.

These people are called 'the beaters' - rather like pheasant beaters, they hit the water in front of them, making a racket, so as to get the alarmed fish to swim into a narrow channel and from it into an area of deep water by the shore.

Here, as the sun rises higher, the 'netters' pull the boiling mass of fish ever closer to the banks, where there are people scooping them out and into prepared tubs. Each tub is destined for a different fate: much of the fish (a mix of species) will be taken to other ponds and lakes, most carp will be taken to cages in running rivers to 'clean the flesh of the mud' - these are destined for the Christmas tables (another tradition of which I shall no doubt write nearer the date), and a select few prize specimen will go straight to the best restaurants. And what prize specimen these were! Huge, but huge! pikes, enormous catfish, a few eels, some amurs, and even the odd sturgeon whose size most fly-fishermen would only dream of, no doubt.

Once sorted, the fish are then weighed and tipped into a rusty scoop that lifts and tips them into a row of water-containers on top of a lorry. The poor stressed creatures gasp in the air, and one's heart sinks at the rough handling of them, but all this needs to be done fast, precisely so they don't stay out of water for too long.

The spectacle is keenly watched by a crowd of locals, who get their reward for getting up early by being able to buy fresh fish there and then. Some take the unfortunate creatures in plastic bags where they slowly suffocate, but most come prepared with containers so they can tip their carp into a bath at home (blog about the Czechs and their creative uses of baths anon). Meanwhile there is the ever-present sausage, beer and rum stall to keep everyone happy. And below the sluice gate, the locals take a pot luck in fishing for those who got away.

When it's all over, another fanfare and the sluice gate is ceremonially shut so the lake can slowly fill up again - though it will be cleaned out of some of the mud in the meanwhile. But not too drastically - enough small-fry must be left in the lake to grow more harvest in two years time.

I didn't buy a carp. Too soft-hearted, I was both fascinated and repelled by this beautiful dawn-time theatre of cruelty. But I respect the tradition, and I should think any big fish market in the world is just as matter-of-fact about its harvest. I suppose the most precious thing about today's experience was being aware that centuries of ancestors have watched the same spectacle from the same spot, every other year in October, and that people will go on watching it long after I'm gone. The Lake house is truly delivering its treasures.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Cesky Krumlov and Forest house

Coming back to the blog I noticed that there is so little about the town of Cesky Krumlov lately. So I looked in my camera and here are two pictures just to bring it back. Every time I get annoyed about the slow progress on the Forest house I take a walk through the town and it reminds me why I am here, and it makes it all worthwhile.Re the house, endless troubles (that's why I didn't update the blog for a while). The roofers came and started well - up to the point of getting all the timbers up and half of the tongue and groove planks. I was going back to the UK so I paid their half-way through money. But as soon as I turned my back they disappeared, leaving the house badly covered - just as it started to rain. It only rained for a week, but it was badly timed! So the shoddy cover was blown off, all the tongue and groove warped, water got in and soaked the ceilings below almost to the point of no return (well at least I hope it will mend). Now I am back and so when I recovered from the shock I had to get another company (twice as expensive but at least I hope more reputable). They started last Friday, ripping the tongue and grooves off, repairing some of the affected timbers, and giving a contract with a guarantee.
Cross fingers, the next time I am back - in 3 weeks time - I hope to see the roof complete with insulation. But I shall need to stop there and wait till the Spring before purchasing tiles, to get the budget straightened up.
But I planted a couple of trees, and enjoyed the Autumn nature around the house - have to remind myself that no matter what problems arise, this is going to be my Paradise.

In praise of ... Autumn

Whilst the media resound with doom and gloom, the countryside here glows with the glory and peace of Autumn, and taking a walk in the stillness and quiet of the woods is a positive balm on the soul - let alone a good medicine to reconnect with one's real values and priorities.
We've had some two to three weeks of this now: bright days with no wind. The leaves are staying on the trees long enough to come to full colour, so the contrasts of greens, reds and yellows, and the textures and scents among the deep shadows and blinding shafts of light as you walk, hearing nothing but your own footsteps through the fallen leaves and the odd cry of magpie or jay, bring on an almost dreamlike state - a true indulgence for the senses.
But even driving on the country roads here is a sheer pleasure. Most of the roads are lined with trees so every turn brings a new combination of colours and light. I couldn't resist taking a few pictures at random to share with you - but there is nothing like the real thing. One of the things I value most about this country are its real seasons, each very true to its nature and delivering more or less on time even now when the global weather patterns are changing. So as one season ends, one can look forward to the next. And so the colours of Autumn more than make up for the loss of Summer fun, and no dread of Winter here either - now, though still wearing short sleeves in the sunshine, I can slowly start to look forward to the cosy blanket and the blinding brightness of the snow that should arrive in a month's time or so.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Autumn's loving embrace

Autumn has arrived, and the maples are particularly lovely - couldn't resist putting up this early morning pic of the entwined tree-couple that greets the last leg of the way to the Lake house. No progress on the house renovations as we have been waiting for the planning permission. I go and visit though, put the stove on and commune with the poor house, telling it the sorry tales of the bureocratic delays - the worst dealings, ironically, were with E-on: the more multi-national the companies, the more difficult is to get through to human beings, etc etc. But I am told the permission should come in by the 15th Oct. Not that we can do much in a hurry but at least I'd like to have the bathroom working before the Winter hits us. For which we do need the permission as it involves burying a waste-tank in the grounds. The old lady who lived there before us had neither running water nor a loo, save for a hut some 100 yards down the bottom of the garden. We are getting quite fond of this arrangement now we got used to it, but I wouldn't like to have to shovel my way to it through a meter of snow once it comes :-) So - fingers crossed.