Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sleeping in a Wine Barrel

Looking back over 2015 one of my more unusual experiences was the night I spent in a converted wine barrel in a vineyard in the Palava hills near Mikulov. As I approached the barrel (above) I felt I was in a Tolkien-like world. The barrel was just big enough to take a small double bed and a bench seat and was very suited to a hobbit.

As I lay on my bed I took in the view through the semi-circular window of rows of vines laden with grapes and the small fig tree complete with fruit directly in front of my barrel. If I rolled over and drew back the curtains of the little rear window I could see the steep slope to the ridge of  Palava on which was lodged a ruined castle.

The lady from the vineyard appeared carrying a basket of goodies, including a bottle of wine, corkscrew, towel and various snacks. My inner Peregrin Took was delighted. She invited me to the cellar and I of course agreed. After an hour or so tasting the various wines on offer, I walked slightly unsteadily the 100 yards back to my barrel, carrying several bottles including some Palava. Palava is a grape variety unique to these hills which produces my favourite Czech wine.

After I had sobered up enough, I wandered into the village and to an excellent restaurant that had been recommended to me. I was in heaven. The sun set while I was eating and as I made my way back to the barrel I was glad of the torch which I had found in the basket. I lay on the bed once more, listening to the crickets as I drifted into sleep.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Photo Post - Czech embroidery

I am still having problems with RSI in my wrist, which makes typing for any length of time a problem. It has resulted in delays in writing that book for visitors to Cesky Krumlov, which I had planned to publish in October. It also makes typing blogposts a problem. So I have decided I will give you a photo post or two instead.

This post features photographs of Czech embroidery and costumes which I gathered as part of the work I did for the Textile tour I did in June. I am running a modified version of the tour next June. If you are interested in coming - here's the link http://www.czechtours.co.uk/ride-of-the-kings


These embroideries are an important part of Czech traditional costumes. These can be seen in a number of museums in the Czech Republic and on certain holidays and in certain towns and areas you can see them being worn. The most famous event is the Ride of the Kings in Moravia, which takes place every year in Vlcnov and which I will be visiting next year with the tour - more of that in a future post.

My time with the ladies of the Textile Society this summer has given me an increased interest into Czech textiles, with the result that I bought a lovely embroidered table cloth in an antique centre. Here is a close-up:

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Magic Realism: A Kingdom of Souls by Daniela Hodrová

I reviewed this novel over on my magic realism blog. It is a fascinating and poetic evocation of Prague and the events there in the last century.

Magic Realism: A Kingdom of Souls by Daniela Hodrová: Through playful poetic prose, imaginatively blending historical and cultural motifs with autobiographical moments, Daniela Hodrová shares...

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Czech Few

This week a number of ceremonies are taking place to celebrate the contribution of the 2500 Czechs who flew with the RAF against the Nazis. A fifth of these men made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of Europe and their homeland. Those who came back were first greeted as heroes, but then as enemies when the Communists took control. Independently-minded defenders of freedom had no place in the Communist future.  Some fled the country once more. The former pilots that remained were imprisoned. After prison their lives continued to be ruined by their spell in the RAF - they remained under suspicion and supervision and they and their families were persecuted, denied access to good jobs and education.

Last year this memorial to their bravery and sacrifice was erected on a small park opposite the Malostranska Metro Station. The statue was funded by contributions from the British community in the Czech and Slovak Republics. A formal memorial was unveiled this week at Prague's castle. Sadly only one former Czech RAF pilot survived long enough to attend the event.

Monday, 12 October 2015

The Destruction of the Golem

 Statue of Rabbi Loew, Prague

In a previous post I told of the Golem's creation, but the story does not end there.

For a while the Golem performed his duty well, patrolling the Jewish ghetto and protecting its inhabitants from attack. And then something changed - the different versions of the story vary as to why Rabbi Loew destroyed his creation. 
In one version it is said that the Golem ran amok because of unrequited love. In another the Rabbi fails or forgets to neutralize the Golem on the Sabbath as instructed. Or simply the danger was passed and that the Golem was no longer required. But the time had come for the Rabbi to undo what he had made. There are two ways of disabling a golem - the first is to remove the paper from the golem's mouth, thus taking away the gift of the true name of God, and the second is to change the word that is written in the clay of the golem's forehead, “emet” truth, deleting the first letter to form the hebrew word for death, “met”.

It is said that the Golem lies in the attic of Prague's Old New Synagogue, waiting a time when another holy man will place the true name of God into his mouth. At such a time he will rise and become once more the protector of the oppressed. There is even an Indiana Jones-style tale that Nazi soldiers broke into the attic and were destroyed. But therein lies the true sadness of the story. When the Jewish community of Prague faced its greatest danger, the Golem did not rise.

I have no doubt that the Golem has a similar appeal to the Czech psyche. For any nation that has been oppressed as the Czechs have been, the legend of a superhuman being rising to defeat your enemies is bound to appeal. The Golem has the added value of being a superhuman underdog. The Golem is there alongside King Wenceslas waiting in a hollow hill with his sleeping knights or the drum made of Jan Zizka's skin. All three are symbols of the Czech nation’s hope for freedom.

Thursday, 1 October 2015


I was talking to a customer the other day, who told me how the family of a friend of hers had been unlucky enough to have experienced the dubious attention of Prague's pickepockets not once but three times! And it reminded me that I had drafted but never posted this, partly because I like to be positive about this country.

Prague is a relatively safe city to visit, but there is a problem with pickpockets. They tend to target tourists and so it is a good idea not to look like one. If you're visiting the city,  I'd advise you to leave most of your money in the hotel safe and bury what you do take into your bags. Choose a bag that allows you to make it impossible for a thief to get things in one go. Keep your hand on top of your handbag if you are a woman and don't leave your wallet in your back pocket if you are a man. Or vice versa.

I  have had someone attempt to steal from me three times. The first time I was on the metro to the airport and someone managed to open the pockets on the outside of my bag. But I don't put valuables in the exterior pockets, instead burying them in my bag, so all they would have got was a pair of dirty knickers! The second time I was trying to get some leaflets from a rack in the Anděl Transport Information Centre. There was a couple supposedly embracing in the middle of the room, and I was forced to to squeeze past them. This time they tried to get into my handbag, but again anything of value was well hidden.

The third time (actually chronologically it was the first time but that would rather spoil the build-up) they succeeded. It was my first visit to Prague in 1990 and I was very naive. Not only were westerners flooding into the newly opened city, but so were crooks from all over the former Soviet bloc. I was buying some coffees and turned with the cups in both hands to find my way barred by a group of Romanian gypsies who had appeared out of nowhere. I fought my way back to the table, managing to not spill any coffee but losing my purse in the process.

I was furious with myself. As a Londoner I was no stranger to the wiles of pickpockets and had broken my normal security rules. I was staying in the house of a lovely couple, old collegues of my friend, and they were mortified by what had happened to me.  Of course the sum of money I lost seemed relatively modest to me and enormous to them. They would not accept my assurances that it was okay. It was a matter of national honour. They fussed over me and presented me that evening with a supper of cold meats, which my friend told me were the product of the former family pig and a great honour. I felt fully recompensed and resolved to learn from the experience.

I hope by sharing this post with you, you can learn from my experience too.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015


You can find sgraffito on the walls of old buildings throughout the Czech Republic. It is a form of wall decoration created by applying two layers of plaster with different consistencies and colour and then the careful scraping away (the word comes from the Italian verb to scratch) of some of the top layer to reveal the other thus creating a design. The designs can be simple but effective, as in the video above, creating the impression of stonework and sometimes depth. My husband and I came upon these two men restoring a building next to the Romanesque church in Trebic and I took this short video so I would be able to answer the questions I always get from customers on my trips.

But sgraffito can also be used to create complex pictures. Here are some from Litomysl and Prachatice:

In some cases colour is added, as here on a building in Prachatice. 


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