Friday, 31 December 2010

Winter peace

One of the reasons why I love living here is the utter peace one experiences whenever getting out of town - you don't need to go far to find vast swathes of nature where you won't meet a soul, indeed where you won't see a house or any other overt signs of human habitation.

So you can wander quietly for hours just enjoying the signs of animal life, and when you get up to the higher levels, there are vistas to die for - as we are surrounded by mountains everywhere you look.
And when the bright Winter sun gets low and begins to set, it offers spectacular beauty that reminds of old religious paintings - you kind of expect an angel or two to descend, instead of the white trails of the high-flying passing aeroplanes.

 And then, being Winter, there is Silence: the snow buffers any sound, and the windless stillness adds to the magic of it all.

Well, the photos can't quite show it, but here are a few to share at least a pale reflection of the real experience.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Happy Christmas!

Every year on the 23rd December, the Krumlov residents organize themselves to perform a Nativity at the main Square. I have blogged about them before, but this year - joy! - Pushkin and I have been asked to join in, which we took to be a real privilege as it means we are now accepted by the townsfolk as one of their own.

So instead of watching from the crowd, this time we borrowed costumes from the theatre, rehearsed yesterday, and had a whale of a time being part of this ritual occasion - both irreverent and solemn.

As I said in my previous blogs, what is so wonderful about this 'show' is that it is totally non commercial,  rehearsed but still spontaneous, and there is not a Santa in sight because people here love their traditions. 

And it is humbling to see how everyone - both the performers and the huge crowd in the square know all the words and melodies of their many many carols, and how generations join together to celebrate their Christmas as a community.

I couldn't take many photos today for obvious reasons, and I regret not having had the opportunity to show you some of the more 'Czech' solutions to missing props or cast, such as a dog with a sheep's skin fastened on its back to represent the shepherds' sheep, or a horse with silly felt humps to stand in for one of the King's camels - but here are just a few pictures to bring you closer to the fun. The Nativity, just as the St Nicholas Eve party, are true highlights for me here - I enjoy these even more than the traditional Summer Festival of the Five petalled rose, which is great but a little more organized. And, as usual, my very favourite characters here are the angels of all different shapes and sizes. Hallelujah :-)

Wishing all our blog readers a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

St Nicholas comes to Cesky Krumlov

 It's the Eve of St Nicholas: traditionally the night when this proto-Santa comes to town - not just to Cesky Krumlov but to every town, indeed into every household with children. I wrote two long blogs with many photos about this occassion last year, so this time I shall be brief - still, I couldn't help popping to the Town Square to witness this joyful, old-fashioned party, enjoyed by all the locals.
Despite the freezing cold (-8C) the families all crunched here through the snow with their well-wrapped children because, well, because it just wouldn't do to miss St Nicholas' arrival.
 And so each year the Town square comes alive with music and market stalls selling hot grog, mulled wine, mead, beer and of course sausages, and the hundreds of assembled children's faces range from eager anticipation to dread - because St Nicholas comes not alone, but accompanied by an angel and a devil. The Czech idea of devils is one of patronage: a devil is seen as something inferior to humans, basically a stupid, laughable being who has been stripped of all power by the Czechs' irreverent attitude to it. Nevertheless, as an aid to parenting, the devil has its use: as in 'wait till St Nicholas comes, the devil will show you'.... but as the children grow, they begin to love the silly devils and they dress up as them as eagerly as their parents do. When you walk about the square, you will find many more devils than angels - the angel being the preferred costume for beer-bellied dads, mostly.
The underlying reason for St Nicholas' retinue is sound: the devil and the angel represent the two sides of human nature to which St Nicholas acts as a mediator, a balance. He understands that we all have our darker side and so in dishing out his presents, he usually gives a piece of coal as well. No-one's perfect.

St Nicholas visits not only large gatherings such as this one - the real St Nicholas Eve happens in the home: dad, uncle or a total stranger (there are many groups of St Nicholases, devils and angels roaming the streets on this night, whom you can hire for a shot of slivowitz) dress as the saint, sundry relatives as the retinue, and the ritual visit involves much ringing of small bells, rattling of chains, and the child or children having to admit to all their good and bad deeds, then to sing a song or recite a poem, upon which they get their reward. There are no big presents - the commerce hasn't yet caught up here. It's the ritual that counts.

And when the children have gone to bed, the grown-up party begins. Why waste a good disguise? So the sundry Nicholases, devils and angels of all descriptions get out into the night streets and aim for the warm pubs. This is the bit I love the best - the bizarre spectacle of the Nicholases loosening their beards as well as their dignity, the devils taking liberties with the opposite sex (all allowed with a tolerant smile), the angels knocking back big jars of beer with earthly abandon. And of course there's music.

And so I am off now, outside again, to join the party - good night.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

First snow at Krumlov

 It's always so joyful to watch the first snow gently cover the familiar outlines of the town. And after some gloomy November days, to welcome back the blue sky that inevitably comes with the snow.
 I especially love the way the snow outlines so sharply every textural detail, the branches, the rough bits of rocks, even adding white hats to all the town statues.

The difference between here and the snow in England that I remember is that as there is so little or no wind in this country, the snow stays on the trees, even on the thinnest of branches, making a beautiful black and white contrast against the blue of the sky. Lovely.

Now I shall get my walking skis out now and go for a walk in the forest - to celebrate this gift from the heavens :-)

Sunday, 28 November 2010


Looking at the Statscounter, I realize that the time has come when hundreds of our readers search for Christmas biscuits and pastries again. So I thought to put more recipes up. If you haven't seen my posts from previous years, do have a look, there are many more delicious traditional Czech Christmas pastries and cookies recipes. Bon apetit! 

 Each of these recipes makes a fairly large quantity of biscuits – use half the ingredients if a smaller quantity is required. 

Please note all these biscuits will need to be stored for a period of time in cool temperatures (5-10C) to allow for the flavours and texture to develop fully 


INGREDIENTS 4 eggs, 6 yolks, 500g caster sugar, 550g flour, 2 tablespoons ground ginger

In a mixer or a mixing bowl, beat the whole eggs, the yolks and the sugar till fluffy. Fold in flour and ginger.
Put the mixture onto a lightly floured board and work gently into a smooth pastry. Roll out gently to about a 5mm thick – do not use much pressure or the resulting biscuits will go hard. Cut out flower (or other) shapes. Put these onto a greased baking tray, or a tray lined with baking paper. Leave to stand for several hours, or overnight.
Put your tray into a fairly hot oven, to allow the biscuits to quickly rise – but then turn the temperature down so they don't turn brown – they should be golden colour.
When totally cooled, brush them over with egg white, and (optional) use the egg white to stick a small piece of candied ginger on the top.
Store in paper shoe box or similar for 3 weeks or longer in a cool place.

for the pastry:
400g flour, 170g icing sugar, 150g unsalted butter, 2 eggs, 4-5 tablespoons soured cream, 2 sachets vanilla sugar, pinch of salt (optional)
for the topping:
160g hazelnuts - ground, 80g marzipan, 4 level tablespoons icing sugar, 2 egg yolks, 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
Mix all the pastry ingredients together to a smooth consistency, form a ball and leave it in the fridge for an hour or so.
Shred or grate the marzipan, and mix it with the yolks. Add sugar, juice and nuts.
Roll the pastry to 4-5 mm thickness, cut out star shapes, place them on a baking tray lined with baking paper, and brush with egg white. Spoon a small heap of the topping on each star. Optionally, place a whole hazelnut on top.
Bake at around 180C for 15 minutes, leave to cool and store in an airtight container in a cool place for two to three weeks.

2 cups milk, 6 tablespoons honey, 4-5 tablespoons melted butter, 200g caster sugar, 2 eggs.
600g flour, 2 sachets raising powder, 100g ground hazelnuts, 100g ground almonds, 100g ground walnuts, 100g sweet candied fruit (raisins or sultanas, orange and lemon peel, or similar mix), 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves., largish pinch of ground star-anise, 2 tablespoons cocoa, grated lemon rind to taste.
Icing: 300g icing sugar, 2 egg whites, 2 teaspoons lemon juice or rum. 
In a pan, gently melt butter, stir in milk, honey and sugar. When cooled down, mix in the eggs.
Put all the dry ingredients onto a floured board, mix through and add the honey-milk mix. Work into a pastry, adding more flour if too sticky.
Form a ball, cover in cling wrap, and leave in the fridge for a minimum of three hours – or overnight.
Next, roll the pastry to about 5mm thick, and cut out shapes. Place your shapes onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Bake in low to medium oven – check that the honey isn't caramelising or the biscuits will turn bitter.
When cooled, before removing biscuits from the tray, pour a thin layer of sugar icing over the upper part of the biscuits.
Leave in a tissue-paper lined paper box, in a cool place for two to three weeks.

300g flour, 150g icing sugar, 150g ground hazelnuts, 150g butter, 150g grated bitter chocolate, 2 eggs, 1tbsp orange peel, large pinch cinnamon.
Filling: cranberry or apricot jam – or Nutella
Topping: melted chocolate
Mix sugar and eggs, add the flour, nuts, and butter. Add lemon rind and cinnamon, turn onto a floured board and work into a smooth pastry while adding the chocolate flakes. Form a ball, wrap it in cling-film and leave in the fringe for an hour or so.
Roll the pastry out quite thin – 3mm, and cut out heart shapes. Place these onto a baking tray lined with baking paper, and bake in a moderate oven (170C approx) for about 10-15 minutes.
When cool, spread half of the hearts with the jam or nutella, put the other hearts on top like sandwich, and pour on melted chocolate.
These biscuits need to be stored in an airtight container in a cool place for a week.

400g skinned ground almonds, 160g icing sugar, 80g melted white chocolate, 40g powdered milk, 2 egg-whites, 4-5 drops of almond essence, icing.
Mix the sugar with the egg-whites, add almonds, powdered milk, melted chocolate and almond essence. Put the mixture between two greaseproof paper sheets or foil, and roll to about 3mm thick.
Gently peel off the top paper and cut shapes from the rolled-out pastry. Leave these to dry for at least three hours.
When dry, use your imagination in decorating – white icing with coloured balls, or just plain roasted almond flakes...

300g ground almonds, 200g ground walnuts, 160g icing sugar, 150g ground butter biscuits, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 6 tablespoons brandy or rum, optional pinch cinnamon.
Icing: melted dark chocolate, half a date for each biscuit
In a mixing bowl mix all the pastry ingredients. Roll out between two sheets of greaseproof paper or foil., to about 3mm thick.
Gently peel off the top paper, cut out diamond shapes and leave them to dry out till the next day.
Decorate with a date covered with melted dark chocolate.
Leave in an airtight container for a week or so.
500g dates, 200g marzipan, 80g cooking chocolate, tablespoon butter.
Cut each date lengthwise, remove stone and replace with a piece of marzipan. Dip into melted chocolate and leave on a wire-mash stand to harden. Store in fridge.
500g mixed peel, 500g mixed nuts, 500g sugar (or less if peel is very sweet), 600g flour, 1/2l whipping cream
Melted dark chocolate as icing.
Chop the candied fruit and nuts and mix them with the sugar and the flour. Bring the cream to boil and remove from heat straight away. Pour the cream into the mix, and let it stand to cool.
moroccan grillage
Place small heaps of the mixture onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper, and bake in a cool oven (max 150C) till orange-brown. As soon as the colour changes, remove from the oven and tray while still on the paper, and leave to cool. Then pour melted chocolate on the top.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

History of ponds and pond-making

To finish off the pond-making strand, just a few additions.
First I want to go back very briefly to the time before Jakub Krcin and his contemporaries - see blog below - to the time of the Husite wars (largely peasant Protestants versus establishment Catholics, in the 15th century). The Husite's main centre was the South Bohemian town Tabor, and many of their campaigns were therefore fought in South Bohemia. The fact that they knew the landscape and understood its characteristics aided their strategy many times over. So for example the battle by the Sudomerice pond is famous because the Husites, dressed in peasant clothes and with light weapons, lured the heavy, suit-of-armour clad opposing army into the adjoining marshes, where the metal knights, even their horses, stuck in deep mud and so the Husites practically massacred the lot.

But back to pond-building itself. Thed Golden Age of pond-building and carp-farming ended by the 30 year war (17thC) when many ponds were turned over to farming, mainly for sugar beet and for sheep grazing. It was essential to farm more sheep apparently, because much wool was needed for soldiers' uniforms, and the decline continued well into the 19th century with the Industrial revolution, and so by 1886 an official count lists only 51 000 hectares of ponds. But the decline continued even beyond that, especially during the Communist times when large-scale, Soviet type agricultural methods were quite unsuitably used here: small fields were joined into vast, combine-harvester- friendly tracts of monocultures, which involved further drying out of peatlands and marshes, and diverting natural brooks and streams for underground amelioration. This helped produce more grain and sweetcorn, but changed the natural aesthetics and ecology of the region. Now, after many centuries, there are moves to restore some of the worst excesses of this agricultural method, some ponds are being re-filled, some amelioration has naturally stopped working and brooks are finding their way up onto the surface again. But we have no equivalent of the enlightened aristocrats of the Middle ages and Renaissance with their largesse and their long-term vision of carefully managed estates - after Communism came Market capitalism, and so much of the lanscape is being robbed of its produce without much thought to replenishment and the continuity of generations - be it forests, ponds or decisions as to what to best farm in this particular climate or conditions. Some hope for continuity rests on the regional Agricultural college whose Fisheries faculty is now joined with a research institute for ecology and countryside management. We hope they can have at least some good influence, this beautiful countryside deserves it.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Pond building history 2 - Jakub Krčín

The personality of Jakub Krčín is so legendary that it is sometimes hard to make out what is true and what has been embroidered in peoples' imagination. Perhaps it is because this brilliant builder and engineer, estate manager and regent over the vast Rozmberk empire, himself a gentleman landowner with several own fortresses and châteaux and a great number of own farms and villages, was so spread out - both in the astounding amount of work accomplished and in distances he must have travelled - that it's hard to imagine a single human being capable of such an achievement. We have the facts that are indisputable, and then we have the mysteries: the greatest mystery is connected to his grave. The grave is inside the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Obdenice, but the curious thing is that although the gravestone bears Krčín's birth date of July 1535, there is no date of death. And when in 1944 the church underwent a thorough reconstruction, the Krčín grave was found empty. Curious, given that he himself oversaw the building of his sepulchre and the making of his gravestone, and curious given that there were plenty of family around him, so they should have had the date carved into the stone. He wrote his will on the 19th January 1604 but there is no record of his death or burial. And although guesses abound as to other places where he might have been buried, to this date no academic researchers or archeologists have found his remains.
Krčín studied at Prague University and then was employed as a land manager at a monastery in Borovany where he learnt his first pond-building skills from the experienced monks. But his main career started in 1562 when he entered into the service of the Rozmberks, where apart from ponds he designed and built more efficient sheep-farms, breweries, glass-works, mills, even silver mines. And he managed the running of the Krumlov castle - we still have his hand-written accounts in the Krumlov archive. He was obviously much valued as at the age of 35 he was made Regent of the whole Rozmberk 'empire'. But, as much as he was valued by his bosses, he was hated by the people who worked under him; he had a reputation of a cruel and impatient master – apparently, for example, he employed the local executioner as workforce supervisor at the building of the Rozmberk pond! No wonder then, that legends started to burgeon in people's minds. Often his brilliant calculations and engineering ideas seemed impossible to his workforce - they believed the only way that some of his more daring designs stood the tests of reality was because Krčín had a pact with Hell. They whispered that he walks the banks of his canals with black cats on his shoulder of a night, and when he built his own Krepenice fortress in a record time, people were convinced the speed was due to devils working for him in exchange for his soul. This especially as they observed noxious smoke issuing out of Krčín's chimneys on dark nights. This was the smoke from his alchemical laboratory. Whether he wanted to make philosopher's stone or just plain gold, or an elixir that would help him father a son and heir (he produced 6 daughters) we shall never know.
 But this was a time when Alchemy was a pursuit very much in vogue – especially here in Bohemia where the Emperor Rudolf himself, a man of burning interest in Nature, philosophy, and the arts and sciences of the time, was also passionate about alchemy, gathering around him in Prague not only top natural scientists, astronomers and artists of his time, but also alchemists and magicians. And Vilem Rozmberk – a man perhaps even richer than the Crown, wasn't going to be left behind, and his South Bohemian dominion became a meeting place for alchemists: Vilem even sheltered the English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelly when they escaped Emperor Rudolf's wrath. But that's another story. Suffice to say that Krčín did labour on his own Opus. Well, who knows, perhaps he really managed to achieve the ultimate Elixir: perhaps he is still alive somewhere, hence the mystery of his empty tomb :-)
But what does make him truly immortal is his engineering genius, as all the ponds, and most of his other works have not only survived but are still in working order now.
Well, that's, in brief, the story of Krčín. I will do one more (and more sobre) blog just to finish the general history of the pond building.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Some history of pond building in Bohemia - I

Now, I am not a historian so I am sure I can't write with the kind of precision jargon others would, but I like stories, so here goes:
If you look at the map of Bohemia, especially using satellite imaging, you can see that it looks like a bowl with mountains for a rim. Legend has it that the bowl was formed by a meteorite – and indeed even in the Renaissance, the astronomers and alchemists believed this, calling Bohemia a sacred receptacle of the Hieros Gamos, where this 'Marriage of heaven and earth' left its passionately destructive mark. But this destruction was also a blessing because it formed an almost ideal environment for human habitation: moderate climate with defined seasons and little wind, and waters running from the surrounding mountains into wide, shallow valleys. The mountains were ideal for forestry and wine growing, while the broad valleys offered rich soil for arable farming. And then there were large areas of lakes and marshes: almost the whole of the Southern Bohemia lowlands – the Budejovice, Trebon and Vodnany regions, were one vast lake during the Tertiary period of pre-history, which slowly changed into marshlands over the following thousands of years.
Like I said in my previous posts, it was these marshlands that provided the basis for the wholesale landscape works that took place between (mostly) the 14th and the early 17th centuries.

In the last millennium the Bohemian lands were the home of Celtic tribes to start with, but it wasn't until the Slavs arrived, sometime in the 6th century, that the water-rich region began to be deliberately used for fishing: the Slavs made dykes and small dams to provide good environment for fish to breed, but also to ensure enough water for the hot, dry Bohemian Summers. Then, around 10AD colonising Christians made inroads into this territory, and started building ponds as the monks needed a good supply of fish for their monasteries. They kept themselves, and the fish, to themselves for the following 400 years or so, until Bohemia caught up as a civilised Kingdom and part of the Holy Roman Empire. A significant Royal dynasty of the Luxemburgs brought much order and prosperity to Czech lands, especially King Charles IV (to many Czechs the beloved and respected father of Bohemia). Charles IV (14thC) was a fascinating, erudite, truly visionary ruler and a mystic of whom tomes could be written – but I must try to stick to pond building (alas). He actually ordered his subjects by a decree to build ponds in and near their villages, so as to provide food 'and freshen the air'! - so a proto-ecologist as well :-)

From then on ponds were busily being instituted all over Bohemia, and it almost seems (to me) as a period of huge competition for prestige too – which aristocrat's pond is bigger than the other's. For example William of Pernstejn (Hluboka castle) had over 300 ponds built on his estate in the 15th century. But of course this boom was also due to the realization that ponds were a more profitable business than farming on wetlands. Because ponds supported not only fish growing but also – as I mentioned in my previous post - their supporting networks of canals, so clever that (somehow – I can't quite work out how) they could even run uphill, and gave cheap and plentiful energy to run flour mills, saw-mills, glass and metal workshops, iron foundries and 'hammer mills'. The ponds themselves were reservoirs for water, supplied breweries, prevented floods, served for filling moats for defence purposes, and quenched fires. Some of this was true also for the smallest of ponds - in fact even now if you travel around South Bohemia you will find that most villages are built around a green with a pictoresque central pond which inevitably has a little fire station right by it. And so by the end of the 16th century Bohemia had over 150 000 ponds. That was the peak – now there are only around 50 000. But more of all that later.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

More on carp harvest(s)

As I have already mentioned, the carp harvest is a kind of ceremony - a marking of passage from Autumn to Winter, eagerly participated in by the Czechs at the many ponds that criss-cross the South Bohemian countryside. Why? Because it is a wonderful spectacle, and because the Czechs are particularly partial to carp, the fish that will grace their Christmas Eve tables; a fish that has over the years become one of the most enduring symbols of Christmas. To give you an idea of the harvests' popularity, on the 10th October this year 37 000 spectators came to witness the harvest at Svet - the 214 hectare carp pond at the town of Trebon. The largest pond, Rozmberk (yet to be harvested), measures 647 hectares, and there are many more ponds where Trebon comes from!

Our pond, Olsina, is at some 170 hectares smaller by comparison, but still many people come, including schools and large parties of people from a wide surrounding area. There are blow by blow accounts of the Olsina 2008 harvest in my earlier blogs , also an account of why and how Carp at Christmas, and Potok's blog where she describes yesterday' s harvest in great and lovely detail - so this time I shall instead give a little more factual information for those who might be interested:

Fish farming in artificial ponds in South Bohemia goes back to the Middle Ages. The first ponds were built in the 14th century, when large parts of otherwise useless boggy landscape were transformed into a prosperous region by retaining walls to hold water in the valleys, and a complex web of channels and canals that connected these ponds. By default, these channels also powered mills and water-driven 'hammers', and they were used to transport wood from the surrounding forested mountains, as well as provided water to farms during hot dry Summers, even drinking water for the towns along their banks. The 'golden period' for the ponds and their canals was the Renaissance: the reign of the Rozmberk family who owned large swathes of Southern Bohemia. The Czechs have much respect for the feats of engineering that went into these massive works.Why, just the Rozmberk pond has a wall 2430 meters long, that is capable of holding 50 million cubic meters of water. And the 'Golden sluice', a 47,8 km long channel built in 1505-1520 to connect, oxygenate and protect several carp-ponds, is still fully functioning now, five hundred years later.

Every Czech child when asked to name a famous pond builder will immediately give you two: Štěpánek Netolický (1460-1539) and Jakub Krčín z Jelčan (*1535). It was Netolicky who built the Golden Sluice and started on the big works around Trebon that were continued equally brilliantly by his successor, Krcin. These two personalities - knights, inventors, alchemists, true Renaissance men - are the stuff of story and legend (which I shall blog about later).
The largesse with which the Rozmberks oversaw these enormous landscape works has come to an end with the Thirty Year War (17thC) after which the whole country went into a general decline for a long time. But the ponds remained. And so did their tradition.  In fact, as I have been researching into the subject  I am smitten by so much of the material, that I am determined to blog more about it - would be nice to have some feedback to see if anyone's interested :-)

Friday, 15 October 2010

preparing for the big day at the Lake house

Great excitement, it's only a few days till the next carp-harvest at the Olsina lake. As you can see, the 'lake', really a centuries old man-made pond, has been slowly draining out over the past three weeks and now it's only mud-flats with a small amount of water in the middle. The reason for this is to force the multitude of fish that have been growing there for the last two years into the smallest amount of water possible. On Wednesday next week, men with boats and nets will come and take all the carp away, ready for the Christmas markets.
This is a method that has been in use since the Middle Ages, when the monasteries and the nobles had the bright idea of using valley bogs that would have been of no use otherwise as handy receptacles for fish-farming. All you needed was a stream running through a boggy valley that was naturally formed like a bowl, and a retaining wall at one end, with a sluice to let the water out. This ensured a constant replenishment of fresh water for the fish. In a land-locked country, that meant that there was always a plentiful supply of carp - and if you look at the map of Southern Bohemia, you will see it woven through with blue, a true tapestry of lakes; especially around the town of Trebon - an amazing feat of mediaeval engineering where the massive ponds are interconnected with channels that act as conduits between them.
Olsina lake is not part of such a complex web, it is a pond on its own. But at 167 hectares, there is a lot of room for fish, and if the last harvest is anything to go by, we have much to look forward to: on Wednesday at dawn, we shall watch the fishermen use the same methods that their counterparts have been using since the 14th century - apart from the lorries that will carry the tanks with live fish away. But one can imagine the heavy carts of old, the strong horses, the large wooden tubs ... after all the fish need to be kept alive and well till Christmas!  Because the main reason for the big harvest is that carp are THE Christmas fare for the Czechs, as they have been as long as memory can reach.

Well, I shall be there to watch the spectacle, and take some photos to share the day with you.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Natural disaster

 I am breaking the Cesky Krumlov blog to go somewhere very far - to Almara in India. It's because I want to share an email sent to me by an American woman friend who has lived there - and also in the Czech republic, hence the connection.
She writes with such dreadful news - what gets me is that I listen daily both to BBC Radio 4 as well as the Czech radio, and we've heard nothing of this. Just Labour party elections, financial crises, Czech government shenanigans - it's as if natural disasters with masses of people, animals, trees and crops dying, were something that's no longer newsworthy unless we really have thousands dead. We are getting imured to what we are doing to the planet, it seems. But no more from me - here is the text of the e-mail itself:

> things have been very bad here this past week - we have had 4 days and nights of unrelenting heavy rain and that came on top of weeks of heavy monsoon. the ground had been saturated for some time. when the cloud burst came, the mountain fell down the mountain. landslides are everywhere, many many many people are dead or disappeared, whole villages are gone. 2 of my friends died and many people i know lost their homes. me too. my beautiful house was lost to the landslide day before yesterday. now i am homeless and staying at at a guest house until i figure out what to do.... and i have no money to speak of. god knows how this one will play out.... the atmosphere around here is so heavy. people are all crying or trying not to. many go out for search and rescue though there's not much rescue. i am exhausted from 2 days of heavy work trying to save my house from the mud (also tired from sleepless nights listening to every little sound that might spell disaster)until i thought i would drop dead. but then the big slides came and i had to evacuate. i am so tired but i can't even sit still for a minute. something in my nervous system can't rest after all the "high alert" stuff. and when i do sit, like everyone else who is not rushing about trying to help, i just cry. not for myself though there is that too, but in response to the heavy grief in the is very bad here. you see these feelings on disaster clips on tv, but until you are in one, you have no idea how it feels in your cells. it's like an alien force has taken you over and everyone is prey and there is no escape.
don't know if any news of this has gotten out. i just looked on the google and they report 65 dead in the state which i think is nuts. on the first day we had 30 dead in the next village and yesterday i heard there were 100 dead in almora town. there are mass cremations in the rain with corpses lined up waiting their turn... i was never in a disaster like this. i couldn't imagine....
this morning i heard one on my friend's body was recovered. he was lying on what was once his bed holding his 2week old first born. his whole family died except for one sister who is in a coma. this is an unreal state.
i think i am still in shock. i think everone is. somehow it is all just so horrible that you think you must be dreaming it....
that's all for now. i am in a safe place. please send prayers for all of us.

Monday, 27 September 2010

more on mushroom hunting

I posted several items on this Czech national obsession last year, but it is hard not to return to this topic because September is the month when mushroom-picking reaches fever pitch. The countryside roads are literally lined with parked cars as townies invade the woodlands, and the country people themselves are getting up earlier and earlier so as to get to the forest before the hordes descend. But the forest areas are vast in this country, so no matter how many people come, they all manage to find a quiet route through the woods and fill their basket. Then at the end of the day they compare their trophies, and retire happily home where they spend literally hours cleaning and sorting and cutting the mushrooms which are then eaten for dinner, pickled, dried or frozen.

I went picking with my brother in law and his family the other day, and he commented that mushrooms are the one thing that completely unites Czechs across all classes, backgrounds, political persuasions or religions: a policeman might meet a football hooligan in the forest and both their eyes, and indeed souls, will light up in unison at the sight of a perfect boletus: a moment when the world is at peace.

But this doesn't mean there is no competition: akin to fishermen, mushroomers love to tell tall tales about the sizes of their catch long after the season is over, and women compare the rows of jars with pickled mushrooms that line their pantry shelves. And in long Winter months when nothing grows, the pickled and dried mushrooms, added to nearly every dish, help the Czechs survive their withdrawal symptoms until the Spring mushrooms start growing again and the hunts can resume.
Recently I read an article in the Guardian that tried to teach the Brits how to pick. And of course I know that the more adventurous Brits in Britain have now been foraging for mushrooms for some years. But as ever the article both encouraged and scared the wits out of anyone reading it, as (it seems to me|) the British mushroom-hunters like the sense of danger associated with dark tales of poisonings. Here in Czecho a very few foolish people also die every year of fungi poisoning but you would never hear anyone tut tut when seeing a person with a basket: after all there are other literarly mortal dangers out there in the woods: ticks, vipers, or even boars if you don't know how to handle meeting them. But does anyone care? Not at all: the hunt is the thing. The beauty of a fresh mushroom sticking its perfect head out of the perfect clump of moss is beyond anything dangerous. And to a Czech, perhaps even beyond any other pleasure: I have not yet met any Czech who would mention the joys of sex or even beer with such an ecstatic, nay beatific expression as when mentioning a mushroom.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Weird and wonderful party at Nicholas Treadwell gallery

The 'United Pinkdom' just over the border (at the Austrian townlet of Aigen) came alive on Saturday with an invasion of people in PINK. And BLACK. That's because Nicholas Treadwell, the British gallerist who has made a new(ish) home for his collection in the historic Aigen jail, was holding a party and giving a show - a 'must' occassion for anyone who cares for the arts, but mainly for the wonderful man himself. As I said in my previous blog about the man and his gallery, Nicholas likes pink - he painted the jailhouse pink inside and out, he himself wears nothing but pink, even his hair is pink. And his collection - in what he calls a Superhumanism style - abounds in representations of super-realistic pink flesh, be it human or animal. Apart from other things of course, but perhaps that's for another blog, because now I want to share with you moments from the party: Nicholas himself was the star of course, playing a pink Wizard battling the forces of darkness. For his cast he assembled his artist friends; puppeteers, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians - his son was brilliant on percussion. I was privileged to be there for all the rehearsals and enjoyed those as much as the resulting show which was still pretty improvised and chaotic, but all the more electrifying for it. That's because the energy driving the show, and the whole of the occassion, is one of extreme generosity of spirit.
And it was with the same spirit that everyone in the multi-national audience came: dressed from elegant to fabulously weird creations - the 'goodies' in pink, the 'baddies' in black, as prescribed. After the main show there was much improvised music till the small hours, but what amazed me was that while the party was going on in the garden, the whole gallery - its many rooms full of valuable artefacts - was open and people were wondering around unsupervised, and later bedding down among the crucified pigs and 3 metres high fat nudes made of silicon. I myself slept under a 3 foot high lactating sow with her entrails hanging out - stuff to feed my dreams for years to come :-) - the juxtaposition of this sometimes brutal imagery with the soft largesse and kindness of Nicholas's soul being the mark of this genius gallerist's style. And should it seem to a casual observer that the collection is of extremes and eccentricity, this is not so at all: it is a serious, deeply moving testament of a lifetime's dedication to life - inner and outer - both in its beautiful and its ugly forms. Just as it is.So - Long live the United Pinkdom!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

the sad story of the Island's strange resurrection

Despite petitions and protests (for details search label 'protest'), the Town council last year gave a go-ahead to brutal river-works under the label 'flood prevention'. Thus this beautiful historic town's meandering river is being given a straitjacket. And this morning, I woke up to the strangest sight -
-but before I tell you about this morning, if you haven't followed the saga of this beauty-spot's demise last year, or if you don't feel like searching the blog, perhaps I should give a short summary:
For centuries, the river Vltava with its three meanders hugged Cesky Krumlov's houses, reflected the glory of the castle above, brought wealth to the town and took away its dirt. The banks served as landing and unloading spaces, gathering places for washerwomen, as water-source for craftsmens' workshops, and as a drinking fount for animals. Though some of the banks were reinforced with stones, most shifted their shape from season to season, held only by ancient willows and alders whose roots became safe breeding spaces for fish and other river life. Every century or so a biggish flood would sweep through the town, but everyone knew this would pass and the riverside houses, built to withstand such floods, dried out and stood on.But now we have engineers, computers, and - glory of glories - European grants! What's more, now we like to think we can control Nature. So we can design nice, straight, computer-graphics and Powerpoint driven designs, and ruin what Nature shaped for centuries in one fell swoop. Just look at those straight, concrete-reinforced banks now! And so, for a year now, men in hard hats with massive earth-moving machinery have been at work like big boys in a sandpit. And one of the most gloriously romantic spots in town, its narrow island with trees and much local wildlife, was bulldozed to oblivion. When people protested, the Town Hall promised they would build a new island - a 'hydrodynamic' one, 'akin to an aircraft wing'. We thought they must have been making a very bad joke. But no.
So here we come to these last few days. Truly, a horrendous artificial island, reinforced and sterile, grew under the main bridge. And truly, it has the dimensions of a flat aircraft-wing. On it, a proud stone tablet, like some sad grave-stone, lists sponsors who supported this 'gift to the town's citizens'. Amusingly, the main sponsor is the company that owns the quarries that supplied all the stones for the straitjacket now gracing the riverbanks. Nice to know they had some cash to spare :-)And so we get to this morning: I was aghast as I saw something that looked like Christo the artist has come to town. Blokes with sheets of geo-fabric wrapping the new island, using 6 inch nails to fix it to the stony ground. 6 inch nails! - imagine what will happen when the water rises just a bit :-) - and then I watched them scratch their chins deciding how to plant a few tiny trees so they are in properly ordered straight line. Well, we'll watch this space, maybe I am biased and it'll all look wonderful in a year's time... if the willows are tough enough to root in soilless heap of stones.
As some of you know, we bought our riverside house last year, when it stood in the most romantic spot of the whole Cesky Krumlov. The romance is somewhat lessened now, as you can see, but I feel sad not for our sake only - I feel sad for the town that used to have its ancient architecture softened by the greenery of its riverside trees, by the organic way the river and the buildings fitted together. Of course I still love being here and I enjoy the river and its gifts despite the straitjacket - we all do (see my two blogs just below). But it's a pity that at a time when the rest of the civilised world is tearing down such brutal 'flood prevention' structures and reverting to organic river management, here no-one in authority - EU or UNESCO - lifted a finger to point out such new directives, no conservationist body or Green or ECO parties intervened: seems that money really does make the world go round.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Better than dreaming.

Just moments ago, I had the weirdest, most wonderful experience:
in the blog below, I waxed lyrical about the gifts of the riverside living in the midst of this busy town. And now those gifts have all combined - I went for an evening swim just here on the bank in front of the house. The night was falling, the water was fresh but pleasant, and as I drifted in the current, I floated some 100 yards downstream which happens to be by the Brewery gardens, where Jose Cura's recital was in full swing. The orchestra and the voice boomed over the silent water, one great Puccini aria after another. And in the other direction, up river, there glowed the castle, lit up in its fairytale evening garb. The combination of the three senses - the sounds, the water, and the magical light were undescribably special. I stayed in the water, still, for ages, not wishing to break the spell.
And again I thanked the gods for the gifts that one can get. You see, it has been a hot hot day, and the town was full of VIPs and limos as today is the first day of the International music festival. All these bigwigs came to crowd around and be important inside the Brewery gardens. Yet there I was, alone, experiencing the beautiful music heightened by my watery solitude.... And when I got home, I just managed, from the balcony, to take this picture of the festival opening fireworks, as the concert came to its end.Life can be truly magical sometimes.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The pleasures of Krumlov riverside

Despite of the continuing river works, life at the riverside is back to Krumlov Summer normal. And for the first Summer season we are enjoying the privileged position of being right by where it all happens - so sitting in the garden is like being in a front row of a theatre, watching the life go by as it has done for years, when Krumlov becomes both a sophisticated tourist town and a simple beach.
Hundreds of canoes pass by, their crews shouting Ahoy - canoeing and rafting being such a popular sport in this land-locked country that I know no-one who hasn't 'done the river' at least once in their lives. The canoeists usually take a week or two going from up the river as far as they can get (theoretically you could go all the way to Prague if you'd negotiate the few dams along the way), sleeping in camps or rough anywhere along the banks.
And our little street that backs onto the river also becomes a sort of beach - I meet my neighbours, young and old, in the morning and in the evenings going for a swim, or just say hello to them sunbathing by their gardens. And I watch from the window the fun everyone is having. This is the most wonderful part of living in this little town - I can be sitting outside working at my computer but I still feel I am on holiday, surrounded as I am by the relaxed, happy people who actually are.
And then after my swim, like this evening, I can dress into a formal gear and attend a concert - Krumlov is always having some festivals, from classical to jazz etc. And these are not just any old concerts, the quality is high. Next week for example Jose Cura is giving a performance here.

Going home, as evening darkens, Krumlov comes alive with many drifting sounds competing gently as they ooze from little riverside bars and restaurants - a guitar here, a piano there, gypsy music on the opposite bank...
So the daytime beach becomes a sophisticated venue by the evening, only to relax back into a kind of homely place to eat and stay up late. As I go to bed I tend to hear distant laughter from below my windows, along with the lapping of the Vltava river. Life feels so pleasant - how could I ever have thought that the only place to live is London?