Monday, 30 March 2009

Protest update

While the ducks struggle to nest on their denuded island and the now treeless banks, the protesters are still fighting an uphill battle. Last Thursday there was a regular monthly council meeting at the town hall which is open to public. The flood-prevention issue was one of the points on the agenda, as the result of the pressure that the protest caused. A time limit was allocated. One 'expert' after another spoke at length using powerpoint and much engineering jargon to explain how their 'taming' of the river will prosper the town*. All their calculations were based on a projected 'potential 100year flood' event - not the normal levels which are very low most Summers. Flood may or may not happen again (and it is common assertion, of course denied by the authorities, that the last big flood was caused by mismanagement of the dam upstream) but the damage to the natural environment would be permanent, and the aesthetic damage to this UNESCO monument is incalculable - after all, what is it that brings a million tourists into the town every year? The gentle organic banks with their greenery and trees were in beautiful harmony with the higgledy piggledy architecture of the town. Imagine what will be seen (after all, most of the time there's no flood and the water is low): a neat, straight, computer-calculated concrete and stone embankment with narrow stream of water. Possibly with mud and rubbish alongside it.
But the authorities' 'piece de resistance' came when they said that this whole effort is in response to an open letter from 2002, by the residents in Parkan street - the embankment - who specifically asked for flood prevention works to be done. Apparently this included the complete removal of the island and the chopping of the trees. The councillors didn't have the document on hand, but spoke with much fervour about it, using it to embarass one of the chief protesters, who apparently signed it then, and now wants the opposite! Much sarcasm and laughter in the audience, especially at the top table. What tactics! The poor man was totally lost: he knew that neither he nor any other residents signed any such thing. There was an open letter, it is true, straight after the huge flood but it was asking for a removal of a concrete barrier lower downstream, and a deepening of the existing riverbed. So now our friend has to go and prove it (I will report on this as we go along).
Anyway, our side spoke for 4 minutes and there was no more time allowed after the 45 minutes have elapsed. We waited for two hours for the end of the council session for the 'any other business' window. By which time everyone wanted to go home. But we did manage to bring up a couple of points, and there were some councillors who were on our side, asking for an alternative project to be commissioned. But they were more or less laughed out of the court by the pro-works side: now? Why didn't they ask for it earlier? The project is ready, the works should commence, planning permissions are in place... 'our' side argued that all the documentation was too vague - deliberately?- for them to realise the projected extent of the damage. OK. Maybe mistakes and oversights were made. But at least what they achieved for now is that there will be more discussions on the theme this coming week.

Whatever happened to bring this on, the issue still remains - the uglification of this beautiful town, and the damage to its nature. So if you want to help the councillors who are on our side, you can do two things -
1/email the Town Hall (addressed to the Mayor, Ing. Luboš Jedlička) c/o adding your name in support of the petition of March 2009 that asks for the retaining of the small island under Lazebnicky bridge
2/ write to UNESCO and ask whether they are aware of this situation, the citizens' protests, and the extent of damage the projected works may cause. The name and contact details

*We cannot argue the engineering side of things as we have no supporting documentation or qualifications. The experts' presentations neatly showed how removing the island, deepening the riverbed and strengthening the banks with a mix of stone and concrete at a 26degree angle would reduce the flood levels by up to 60 cms. None of it made real sense to us, as according to even their own calculations, removing the island alone would only make a small difference, maybe 5-10cms, and anyway by the time the water level reached the level of what is now the top of the island, it would spill out over the new barrier. And we believe that to calculate a true behaviour of a flood would need chaos theory anyway, as water cannot behave according to tables and one'd need to take into account all sorts of factors such as the amount of debris flowing, etc. But all that's perhaps not the point. The point is that these experts didn't once mention any other water levels except the highly unlikely '100year flood event' or indeed any cultural and environmental aspects.

Out with Winter, welcome Spring

Yesterday we went to the Mill on what by now is our 5th yearly Spring ritual of saying Goodbye to Winter. 31st for the host family! The weather was foul, so there were fewer people than last year but it was still fun, and, as always, we appreciated the genuinness of the occasion. Young and old gathered together with music and dancing, keeping alive the folk tradition and the songs that go with it, and passing it down the generations Last year's post describes the ritual in detail - in brief, what happens is that an effigy of Winter is dressed, taken to a river with much merriment, and then set on fire and thrown into the water, to be taken away and to make room for Spring to arrive. Here just a few photos.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

progress on the Protest????

Just a quick update, things are looking promising but we are still treading gently before any celebrating may begin: the Town council has called a special meeting for this coming Monday to discuss possible 'compromise regarding the flood-prevention works including the retaining of the island'.
Obviously, the pressure from the public - and our 'duck' protest was only one of many (people were writing to the Town hall directly, publishing pamphlets, signing web-petitions etc) - must be ringing alarm bells. A thorough investigation of how these works came to be commissioned is obviously something the authorities wouldn't like to come about....
Well, we shall see. More on Monday

Thursday, 19 March 2009

the protest is growing in strength

Today groups of people were seen discussing the issues around the disappeared trees and the about-to-disappear island. And in just two hours, over three hundred more signatures were added to the petition. Generally, outrage is still being felt, not just by the citizens of this town but by native visitors, too (the petition is in Czech so no foreigners signed, although they, too, often stopped by and expressed their interest and support).
And the model duck on the island has attracted media interest so the issues are also being aired by journalists (very cautiously!) and on various newspaper web-forums.
Mostly, people are cross that they haven't been told in advance about the demise of the trees. Or the planned removal of the island. Well, the most often quoted defense by the town's luminaries is that 'information was given out duly, and well in advance'. So a couple of activists spent hours in libraries looking through past issues of local papers, and examining the town hall's past public notices. Yes, there were a few tiny - sort of 'by the way' - mentions of an application for grants for flood prevention back in 2007, but no mention of trees or island in particular, or of the actual extent of the works in question. The actual applications and building permissions, as well as the environment commission approval somehow happened. Quietly. More work needs to be done in this area before any meaningful action could be taken - but I am happy to report that the protest activities must be stirring the Town hall at least a little bit, as the Mayor who until a couple of days ago was always saying 'it's been approved, what can I do now?' has been quoted in a local paper saying he will see what he can do!

So keep those fingers crossed please. The trees can't come back now, but we may - just - save the island. And make sure no other damage is being quietly prepared within this 'flood-prevention project': apparently the grant given for this is 180 000 000 crowns (cca 6 million pounds) that's a lot of money to spend on the poor old river within such a tiny town area as Krumlov. The river rising has always been part of every Spring's picture, sometimes barely lapping the bank, sometimes spilling like fury. But the sturdy mediaeval houses on its banks, built with floods in mind, saw no damage except getting very wet. Unpleasant, yes - some years VERY unpleasant, but people who lived there always knew, and know now, that this may happen from time to time - and the calculations about removing the island would mean a difference of 10cm(!) in the water-height flow. Which actually means no difference at all, given how high the floods can get once in a hundred years or so. And by the way, the biggest flood, in 2002, was allegedly caused not by Nature but at least partly by mismanagement of the outflow of the dam upstream during high water, because its reservoir (Lipno lake) is a popular place with Dutch tourists whose Marina had (allegedly) a contract with the river authority about keeping the water level at a constant height. Whereas before, the lake was always let down in anticipation of Spring surge in its inlets.
But I am no engineer, so maybe I am veering onto a territory I am not qualified to touch. All I can say is that every single person asked who lives in the riverside houses (bar one) has answered to the activists' questions that they would rather suffer the occassional floods than watch the devastation of their so-far gentle and pleasant banks. Let alone the gaping damage to the UNESCO town monument's overall feel. Goodness, they'd better start printing new postcards now that the greenery has gone from the banks!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Ducks fight back

This morning, the citizens of Cesky Krumlov woke up to a strange sight: there under the bridge at the island stands a proud, three metres high Duck, with banners proclaiming: 'Ducks against diggers', and 'don't take our island away'. Whatever next???? :-)

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Barbaric? The sad demise of a jewel

A few days ago, there was a shockwave going through the town. Phones rang, people stopped eachother in the street: have you seen what's happening??? And down by the riverside, shocked groups wondered about like lost souls, shaking their heads in disbelief - one by one, 21 beautiful, mature trees were being felled in front of their eyes. Some even hundreds of years old. Huge pieces of machinery were carving deep ruts in the soft banks as their hungry teeth and jaws picked the fallen trunks, some up to 120cms in diameter, dragging them away like powerless matchsticks. 'You can't do this'! shouted those who were able to find some voice through their tears. To no avail, of course: the workmen had permission, this is all completely legal so what's the fuss? And when the trees are felled, it'll be the turn of the small narrow island that for centuries provided the so often photographed, soft, green contrast to the stone and cobble architecture of this picturesque town, and was a home to a much loved population of wild ducks - just getting ready to raise their young.

People of Cesky Krumlov (like so many others?) roughly divide into two kinds: ordinary citizens, and politicians/bureocrats. And then there are a few who occasionally try to have their words heard (some hope!). And so very quickly a petition was put together, hundreds of signatures are being collected still - but of course everyone knows it won't help because - as usual - this barbaric idea got through the planning stages as cleverly as so many others. 'There will be some flood prevention works on the embankment', we were told, but the details were subject to a 'special regime', so no mention that the ancient trees, mostly willows that ancestors planted precisely to prevent the banks from eroding during high water, would be felled, and certainly not a mention of the planned demise of the small island that was a mini-nature reserve in itself, home not just to the ducks but also to a (locally rare) bird Motacilla cinerea, a diverse population of rare species of insects, and to the occasional otter. One stroke of a bureocratic pen, and voila! all gone.

I am watching an old woman, frail but dignified: 'flood prevention?' she says. 'No; it's the way forests are managed, water-meadows and peat bogs are kept, that floods are prevented. It's in management of outflow from Lipno dam - not here. Casing the banks in concrete? What arrogance... how can you try to outwit Nature?' Her neighbour chipped in: 'Someone somewhere got their hands on a grant, it's that simple'.
Could it really have been that simple?
(the picture below is a reverse pov of the embankment last Summer: the trees within the marked circle are no longer here)

Thursday, 5 March 2009

the fragile layers of history

I was asked if we'd found similar stencil patterns as we did at our newly acquired house in Krumlov also at the Lake house. The answer is yes - here are a few pics (from last year) to show you.

This kind of research is always something very exciting as one peels the layers - or, indeed, as they fall off once you touch them! One imagines the generations that lived there before us, and contemplates one's own mortality. The house stood here for centuries, and will stand long after we had gone. And one day there will be someone that starts peeling the wall and finds our own thin layer that passed briefly through.
But what is the correct procedure once you find the layers? Should you strip the whole wall down to the stone or brick, and start new render from scratch? Well, some do, but we try to find a more respectful way. The conservationists here divide between two schools of thought:
1/ carefully uncover different layers in different places on the wall as best as possible, then photograph them and/or trace them. Knock off anything that is obviously about to fall off, then make good the bare bits, and cover the wall with new paint, lime based. Then make fresh stencils copying the patterns you found, and paint the whole, or parts of, the wall with them.
2/ Having uncovered different layers in different places, carefully restore them to as good as you can make it (scalpel work is required here) and then paint them with organic penetration agent to fix them. The rest of the wall can be repaired, keeping the hidden layers undisturbed wherever possible. Then paint the wall, leaving 'windows' to the past where you have prepared and fixed them.
Here is a picture of such a restoration we did in our Prague flat. But which way we go at Lake house and the riverside house in Krumlov is not yet clear. But the main thing, while making the space suitable for living, and while making sure it doesn't deteriorate further, is to try not to destroy its history more than is absolutely inevitable. Well, at least we shall try. Which way would you go?

Monday, 2 March 2009

Spring is coming?

While in Krumlov it's now Springtime, with snow practically melted and snowdrops in evidence everywhere, here at Forest House I had to literally dig a space to put a table on, to entertain my fellow Krumlov Brits for lunch. But the sun was bright and warm enough to sit out comfortably, and we all felt as if we were in some Alpine resort. Forest House never disappoints :-)

Sunday, 1 March 2009

conservation research

Not sure if anyone's really interested in the details of our search (see blog below), but I am finding it all very exciting and can't resist posting at least some observations, as the initial confusion begins to lead to at least a partial enlightenment.
Looking at the layers of decorative stencilling on the 1st floor, we get information about the age of the walls, and the approximate date of the major reconstruction(s?) that caused such an upheaval to the layout of the rooms and the ceilings. Here you can see an early 20C stencil (floral).
Under it is this gentler green design, then a couple of (pinkish) layers that won't separate but then you get two blue patterns, one on top of the other (the darker blue design is the older). The main partition wall's layers end here. It's a lovely, generous stencil in deep blue, with grey band around the floor level and a grey-blue strip below the ceiling. Our expert dates it to mid-19th C, which confirms the reconstruction having taken place at the time when ceilings had to be hidden or gotten rid of by decree. (Quite why the then builders had to chop the ceiling off at the partition is another question though - but on that later).
The outside wall's decorative layers continue deeper - the reds probably baroque, the black probably as old as the 16th C, which would date the 1st floor and above being built around that time (the ground floor is a vaulted Middle Ages space).

We racked our brains though: where is the main interior wall that would have originally supported the large ceiling? The beams that remained at their original length suggest a 25x25ft room, a heavy ceiling... but apart from the 'new' partition there is no supporting wall for the original length. We paced the place, we measured, we traipsed up and down the attic stair to compare but no matter how we tried, the direction of the imagined wall would have led right into one of the windows. Then an idea: perhaps the window wasn't there in the first place, and was added ad the same time as the reconstruction we are talking about? We looked at the plan and sure enough there are 5 windows in the facade at that level - 2 and 2 on the outsides with exact distances between them, and a middle one that isn't so exact. Just a theory this (so far) but it is possible that the classicist facade we see now is the result of someone's 'grand design' to modernise their house and bring in more light.....
I am sure we shall get the answers eventually. For now, I am on tenterhooks :-)