In 1993 I was invited to take a party of sixth formers on an exchange visit to the mining town of Bilina, some 50 miles North West of Prague in the Czech Republic or Czechia as I prefer. Trusted with a dozen teenagers!
I made friends with one of my counterparts in Czechia, Helena Patkova and over the past twenty years we have visited each other on about eight occasions. For the last three years I have gone to Bilina in February and in exchange for some hospitality have talked to children in Helena's school, the Bilina Gymnasium, and to her classes of miners who wish to learn English. As a retired sums teacher I do my best. So instead of going out with the gadgies here is a brief account of what I did.
Flew from Newcastle to Prague with Jet2.com, nice flight even if the plane had a henparty determined to drink the capital dry. The Czechs welcome our money but have reservations when it comes to the behaviour of some of our citizens.
I was met by Helena and her son in law Marian and taken to Bilina, a town I have come to like. I do not stay with the Patkovs as they only have a one bedroomed flat so I checked in as usual to The Lion Hotel. The rooms are clean the water in the shower is hot and the TV set shows Czech and German programmes.
The view from my hotel window. The castle in Bilina. More like a mansion or chateau.
After dinner at Helena's house I was invited to join her at choir practice. If you have read my Gadgie Ramble blog you will know I do not like to sing but I went anyway. I recognised some of the tunes the choir sang and, as it was one member's birthday, was invited to drink some wine and eat some home made cakes. Perhaps I should have joined a choir, too late now.
I returned to my hotel room quite early, noticed MASH was still being shown on TV, in German. The ipod is one of the world's great inventions, far more useful than the wheel.
Friday February 17th.
Helena's teaching day began at 7am, mine at 9. I presented myself at the local gymnasium (grammar school) and was introduced to my first class.
They listened politely as I talked about life in North East England, illustrated with a carefully prepared Powerpoint presentation, the first I had ever done!
The children seemed quite pleased that I had bought, and praised, a Skoda car, although I expect that given the chance they would opt for a BMW or Mercedes.
Schools in England usually have uniforms, some heads become quite obsessive about it and the usual arguement is that uniform is a great leveller, without it children would attempt to outdo each other with stylish clothes. The students in Bilina, presumably in other Czech schools too, are not required to wear a uniform. Jeans and sweat shirts seemed to be the order of the day, they looked smart too and I saw no evidence of competition in style.
Me at work in the Bilina Gymnasium.
Two lessons later I was invited to join staff at the school canteen for lunch. A fixed menu, soup, risotto with sauerkraut fruit juice and an apple. Not a chip or burger in sight, and nobody complained, not an overweight child in sight either!
After school I joined Helena on a shopping trip to the local Spar Supermarket. Not an enthusiastic shopper, nevertheless I looked at prices, as requested by my wife. With the exception of beer* and bread, prices seemed similar to ours, sadly wages are not. I also noticed petrol was pretty much as expensive as it is in the UK.
In the evening, with two of Helena's friends we drove to the Jazz Club in Teplice, a town about 8 miles away. A folk/rock group from Prague were performing and although they sang in Czech I recognised the Everly Brothers ballad of teenage agony Crying in the Rain, Procul Harum's Whiter shade of Pale and a song by Elton John. The patter between songs went over my head but I enjoyed the evening and retired to watch an episode of MASH in German
February 18th, Saturday
Milesovka, the highest peak in Central Bohemia. On the summit is a meteorological station - and a small cafe.
Quickly donning my leather patched jacket I can tell you that this mountain was formed by volcanic action below the surface of the earth, causing an extrusion of basalt. There are a number of hills such as this in the area. Geologists may well want to correct me. Back to the gym in my tracksuit.
Although the mountain looks steep the path zig zagged gently upwards through the snow, never more than about a 20 degree slope and as the path was well worn and had markers the walk was quite easy. On the summit we had lunch and coffee in the small cafe, decorated mostly with an assortment of firearms.
Milesovka cafe, Helena on the left, Marcela on the right, dog under the table.
Three intrepid climbers about to tackle Mount Milesovka, without sherpas too.
Back down the mountain, after a walk of about 5 miles according to old faithful Higear, we went to a country pub for a Czech lunch, which always includes beer. It was, of course, excellent.
Back in Bilina we said our farewells to Marcela and her dog, had a light tea and watched The Queen, starring Helen Mirren as Her Majesty. Afterwards.......MASH in German. Thank you Mr. Jobs for the ipod.
February 19th Sunday
We went to Helena's brother's house nearby in Bilina. Merek and his wife Hannah took us to Most, another mining town nearby.
Most was built near an existing village in the sixties as a centre for the mining industry. It consists mainly of blocks of apartments with a well laid out centre. Many of the blocks have been painted pastel colours since the revolution and the effect is quite pleasing. The most interesting building in Most is the church. Quite old and large it was in the way of the mine so it had its tower removed, was put on rollers and taken out of the way. On its new site, with tower replaced, it is not correctly alligned for a Christian church so I am told, and as I didn't have a compass with me I accept this. I ask scouts and guides not to tell me to point the hour hand of my watch at the sun and divide the angle between hands to find north, let me tell you it was a cloudy day. Quite close by is another church, built completely of wood and belonging to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is quite new so presumably points the right way.
We paid a visit to the towns race course, sadly there was no meeting. Unlike English courses it was perfectly oval. It was built on reclaimed mine land. Much reclaimed land has been planted with trees, in one area vines. So successful is the reclaimining that deer and wild boar have returned.
Most race course. Movable church and Boren in the background.
After lunch in another pleasant Czech pub we returned to Mereks for coffee and cake.
Lunch in the Asas bar and restaurant.
Me, Helena, Hannah and Merek.
In the evening we went, with Marcela, to the cinema in Usti to see Hugo. A very enjoyable family film with a strong English cast. Sir Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour and Jude Law.
Usti nan Lebem is at the point where the River Labem (The Elbe) is joined by the Bilina river. An industrial town with a new shopping centre and cinema complex it also has an interesting church. In World War II an American bomb missed the church but exploded nearby, causing the church tower to lean slightly, it is the building with the largest tilt north of the alps. I would print a picture but if you have read "Curry and Rice Pudding" you know that in my photograph it would be vertical.
February 20th Monday
If you have never been to Prague, make the effort and go. One of Europe's most beautiful cities, sitting astride the Vlatava it has so much to offer.I have been several times and wandered through most of the four towns that make up the city centre. Today we visited the castle to see an exhibition of artefacts lent by the Russians. "The court of the Tsar under the Romanov Dynasty". The display included gold and silver plates and bowls, horse harness and some kaftans worn by the Tsar in the early 17th century. An interesting account of choosing the Tsarina too: take 100 young, healthy and pretty maidens, whittle them down to 10 and let his majesty choose. And the Tsarevitch when he arrives ? Keep him in luxury but out of the public eye until he is about 15.
I walked round the courtyards outside St Vitus' cathedral and then we headed down to Mala Strana for lunch.
St. Vitus' Cathedral, Prague.
No visit to Prague is complete without crossing the Charle's Bridge and rubbing the statue, so we did. My friend Ian Lennox has recently published another novel, The Net,** a crime thriller with a soccer background. At one point a character in the book aattempts to shoot a Russian oligarch from the Charle's Bridge. I think I found the exact spot.
We went to the old town square in search of a T shirt with Hasek, the Good Soldier Svejk or Franz Kafka on it but there was very little choice, just the usual tourist ones. In Wenceslas Square we visited the Palace of Books which sell books in nearly every European language. Puts Waterstones to shame !
After coffee and cake in a small French cafe we caught "The Hungaria" back to Usti. It is strange for an island dweller travelling on a train that is crossing several countries. This one was going from Budapest to Berlin. Should you catch it the drinks trolley and restaurant car only take Euros.
|A distant view of the power plant.|