Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Burcak - dangerously gluggable.

Burcak (2) 

For a brief period in early Autumn stalls appear at the side of roads and outside supermarkets. Plastic barrels and bottles stand on market tables and beside them in a foldable chair sits a young woman (usually) studying at her mobile phone. A sign states Burčák, the alcoholic beverage created by Moravian winemakers by adding sugar to freshly crushed grapes and allowing the concoction to ferment  a bit.

If you are driving past such a stall, do stop, sample the burčák and buy a bottle. But be careful. Firstly the liquid is still fermenting and so if you drive too quickly over those Czech bumpy roads you may have a burcak explosion on your hands and the car will smell of fermenting wine for weeks. And secondly burcak tastes like grape lemonade and you will be tempted to glug it down, but it is definitely alcoholic. Normally burcak is 4% alcohol, but it can be twice as strong. And as it comes in unmarked bottles you don't know what the strength is. I have seen claims on the web that Burcak continues to ferment in your stomach, but I have my doubts.

Burcak is around only for a few weeks and I love it. So do the Czechs. In Moravia it is at the centre of festivities, where the alcoholic power of the stuff can be observed! It makes a visit to Czech Republic in September worth while.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Closing the Business


Today the last of my tours ended. The final set of customers, a group of walkers from Yorkshire, returned home. I have really enjoyed sharing my love of the Czech Republic with my customers. What is more I can honestly say that almost without exception they have been fascinating people to meet. Maybe it is something about the type of person who wants to holiday in the Czech Republic that explains this, I don't know. 

It is therefore with a certain sadness that I have decided to close down the business. I have a number of reasons for this. One being that due to family ill-health it is difficult to commit to definitely being in the Czech Republic on a certain date. I could have continued offering holidays that did not require my presence (like the walking holidays) but for the impact of Brexit. I blogged about the Referendum in June before the vote and everything I feared then has come true. The pound has plummetted, making it hard for me to make a profit. I am worried about my status as an expat and have seen and heard nothing to make me believe that the British Government has grasped what Brexit is doing to those of us with homes in Europe. 

I am not however giving up on the Czech Republic and I certainly am not giving up on this blog. Quite the opposite. My intention is to write and blog more. I can turn my experience as a specialist Czech holiday provider into guide books, such as the one on Cesky Krumlov I published earlier this year. It may be that as things settle I will return to the tourism business, although it would almost certainly be as tour guide rather than as a tour provider. On the other hand I might enjoy writing more.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Dutch hospitality in Czech Paradise


Sometimes you meet people with whom you just click. Of course that is an experience that I have had in the UK, but somehow I find it happens more frequently here. I don't know why it is like that. It is in part I suspect because being the outsider makes me less likely to give in to British reserve. Maybe I just find it easier to get on with the Czechs.

Two people I clicked with were my hosts at the pension I stayed at over last weekend in Czech Paradise. Jan and Jeanette are, like me, non-Czechs who fell in love with this country and who bought a home here. Obviously we have a lot in common to talk about: horror stories about buying and restoring ruined Czech farmhouses, the trail of serendipity that brought us here in the first place. Also staying were Harold and Will, who came first as paying visitors and have been coming back as friends ever since.

Pension Kidafo sits in a hectare of land studded with fruit trees. I commiserated with them about the endless mowing required. After I arrived we sat drinking a beer, chatting and watching butterflies sipping the juices leaking from fallen plums. I was introduced to the cats that my hosts had adopted and which were watching the butterflies with hunters' eyes.

When I went upstairs to change before we went to a local restaurant, and I found a bottle of Czech bubbly by my door! Jan and Jeanette give a bottle to the first visitor from a nationality and I was the first Brit. Of course I shared the bottle with my hosts. The warmth of their welcome reminded me of my friend Hannah, who always made visitors staying in her pension feel like old friends. It is a rare gift to be able to put people at ease like that.

Until now I have not talked on this blog about the pensions and hotels I have stayed in. This is because of my business. People pay for my knowledge of where best to stay. But by this time next week the last of my customers will be on their way home, so I am breaking with this rule.

Jan and Jeanette's pension is in a small town called Libun. The town isn't that impressive, but its location is brilliant. Libun sits on the plain below the Prachovske Rocks, one of the area's most spectacular rock towns. It also stands on the junction of two railway lines. One runs east/west from Turnov, via Jicin and on to Hradec Kralove. The other runs from the Skoda city of Mlada Boleslav, via Sobotka to Stary Paka. What this means that you can explore a large part of Czech Paradise without having to change trains and indeed having to hire a car. Perfect for walkers and those of us who support environmentally sound tourism.

You can book your room at Pension Kidafo on Booking.com and AirBnB.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

SS Cyril and Methodius - a memorial to the resistance and operation Anthropoid



As you walk up Resslova from Karlovo Namesti in Prague you pass on your left the Orthodox church of St Cyril and Methodius. Over a sealed opening into the crypt is a memorial to the paratroopers who assassinated the brutal Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and to the priest who hid seven of them in the church's crypt. The bullet holes beneath the memorial are silent witness to the ultimate sacrifice the men made for their bravery. 

The story of Operation Anthropoid as the assassination was codenamed is now the subject of a feature film (trailer below). The church now houses a museum about the operation. The first room is lined with information panels about the operation and also the terrible retribution that the Nazis inflicted on the Czech resistance and the wider Czech people. It is chilling to realise that not only were the resistance members risking their own lives but also those of their families. 

To get to the second room in the museum you pass through a door shaped like a cross-section of a spitfire's wing. You press on the door and it swings open to reveal the crypt itself. The air in the crypt is chill and damp. There are busts of the men, candles and bouquets of flowers. It is hard to comprehend what they must have felt confined in the crypt, waiting whilst outside the Nazis tortured their accomplices in order to find the hiding place. These were men of action and yet they had to wait and do nothing, reliant on others and one suspects increasingly afraid that there was no way out. Only a few hours before they were due to be transferred to another hiding place, the crypt was stormed by 750 Gestapo and SS. Despite the odds the battle lasted two hours until the Germans flooded the crypt and the parachutists ran out of ammunition. The four parachutists still alive committed suicide rather than be taken alive. 

As you turn to leave the crypt you are confronted once more by the door. This time it does not swing easily open at a mere touch. For a few seconds the sense of being trapped induces a sense of panic, until you regain your composure and realise that the opening is counter intuitive.



Sunday, 4 September 2016

How to grow giant blackberries



I have been gathering a bumper crop of enormous backberries in my garden over the last week. My British readers may be saying "So what!" In the UK blackberries are something of a problem, springing up in any patch of untended ground (and indeed in tended ground such as garden borders and hedges), but here in the Czech Republic I have observed that you are more likely to see wild raspberries than blackberries in the hedgerow.

I have an affection for blackberries that goes beyond my liking for backberry crumble. My affection for them is rooted in happy childhood memories of late summer afternoons harvesting blackberries with my mother. As I grew older, my mother stopped coming with me and instead handed me a plastic container and sent me off into the fields. Even now, with my mother in her late eighties I make a point every year of bringing her a tupperware box full of gleaming black fruit.

I learnt as a child that the best place to get bumper blackberries is where they are in the open but have their roots in a ditch, as they need both sunshine and water to thrive. Maybe this need for water is one reason why they are less frequent here in Czecho, as here the summers tend to be dryer.

The blackberry with its rich sweet smell and sweeter taste is so important to me in marking the seasons that I missed them when I came to this country. I therefore decided to plant some in my garden. My garden has the sun, but is even dryer and stony than most Czech gardens. How could I avoid growing hard seedy fruit? Answer: I took advice from an old Czech gardener and planted the blackberry bush downhill from the septic tank! 


Sunday, 28 August 2016

Walking in Cesky Raj

I apologize for not posting for a few weeks. My elderly father has been in hospital. He came out today, just three days before I fly back to the Czech Republic from England. I have some clients coming into the country on walking holidays, including a group of walkers from Yorkshire.

I have devised a pack of walks for them in the beautiful and spectacular landscape of Czech Paradise or Cesky Raj. They will be based in my favourite town in the region - Jicin. Close to the town are two major rock towns. These "towns" are complexes of huge pillars of sandstone carved by the weather over thousands of years.

The nearest rock town to Jicin is the Prachovske Skaly (above), indeed it is so close that the Yorkshire walkers will be walking through the rock town and back to Jicin. In addition to the trail that goes through the rocks, there are also two circular routes which climb up and down through the pillars. 


But walking in Czech Paradise isn't all about rock towns. There are less dramatic walks through verdant countryside past traditional wooden cottages like this one above. 

Of course I have to check out the walks, which is one reason I will be driving to Jicin in a fortnight's time. It's hard work, but somebody's got to do it!

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Magic Realism of the Czech Republic


This blog is taking part in the Magic Realism Bloghop again this year. Last year I blogged about Franz Kafka's Prague. This year I want to talk about my experience as a British writer in the Czech Republic.

On the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group a few months ago someone asked how many of the members had connections with another country than that of their birth and many magic realism writers and readers replied that they had at least a foot in another country and culture. It seems I am not alone in being an expat writer - I do all my writing when I am in my Czech home and none when I am in England.

I suppose it should not come as a surprise that so many magic realists have a dual national or cross-cultural experience. One of the key characteristics of magic realism is that it often deals with a cultural duality, usually (but not exclusively) where an indigenous culture exists alongside a more dominant Western one.

How does that work in the context of Czech magic realism? It is obviously the case with Franz Kafka, who was Jewish in a then German-speaking Prague. But it is also the case with Czech culture too.

For three centuries after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620's Czech culture was marginalized and oppressed. The ruling Hapsburgs operated a policy of Germanization in the country. Books in the Czech language were burned, and the language banished from schools and public administration. After a while only peasants spoke Czech, as anyone who wanted to get on had to speak German. When the Czech national revival began in the 19th century, nationalist writers looked not to the German-dominated towns and cities, but to the villages and farms of the countryside. Here they found the Czech language, storytelling and folklore still alive. One of the most famous of the folktale collectors was the woman whose portrait appears on the 500 czk note: Bozena Nemcova.

Nemcova's novel Grandmother (published in 1855) is set in one such small Bohemian village and the grandmother in the story is the fount of a lot of country lore and traditional wisdom. The book is considered a classic of Czech literature and was hugely influential on the burgeoning Czech national identity. Of course it has elements of magic realism. And it follows that so too does the Czech identity.

The Czechs are well known as being the most atheist people in Europe. But as I have discussed in previous posts they also have a liking for folktales and magic. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. The Czech rejection of the Catholic Church is partly a rejection of the Church in its role as a tool of Austrian cultural repression; for example Jesuit Antonin Konias is said to have burnt 30,000 Czech language books. Czech enthusiasm for the Slavic and Celtic water, tree and house spirits is part of national identity.

No wonder as a writer of magic realism I love it here.



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