Saturday, 4 May 2013

A Bohemian Rhapsody      April 21st

Because most gadgies were on holiday, visiting friends or family, there was no walk on Friday April 19th.
On Sunday April 21st I jetted off to the Czech Republic on what is becoming an annual visit.
Arriving at the recently renamed Vaclav Havel Airport outside Prague I was met by Helena and her son in law Marian and taken off to Bilina, the mining town I first visited some twenty years ago. I signed in at the Lion Hotel in the town square and went round to the Patkovi household for supper which consisted of pork, the famous Czech dumplings and sauerkraut. After a chat I returned to the hotel and went to bed.

The town square in Bilina. The Lion Hotel entrance  is below the signs on the third arch from the right.

Home for a week, or at least the best part of a week. Tiny TV and no BBC World. Does it matter? Not really. Hot water in the shower and a comfy bed, although sleep was disturbed by the pack of Tibetan Mastiffs living in the castle behind the hotel.

Monday April 22nd.
After breakfast of cereal, coffee and bread I headed for the local Gymnasium or Grammar School to give my illustrated talks on life in merry England to the students.
                  The Bilina Gymnasium, part of the Most Gymnasium. The building has been renovated and looks much better than when I first visited.

I think I can give myself 8 out of ten for lesson preparation. I had made a collection of photographs of the houses I have lived in, the school I went to, the town I live in and a selection of pictures of Newcastle and the North East of England. My new skill is to make them into a Power Point presentation, which worked well, especially as the classroom had a screen for projection and a map of the British Isles, plus flags of the home countries.
The students were either very polite or incredibly well mannered, but what strikes me most is that they do not wear uniforms. They were amused when I told them what school children in England wore, even more amused when I told them what I wore. Mostly in jeans and T shirts or sweatshirts, they are the best argument for not wearing school uniform I have seen. Certainly there did not seem to be any attempt to "out dress" each othe, one of the arguments put forward in Britain for maintaining uniform.

        Some of the pupils at Bilina Gymnasium.
When the lesson was over, and after a few questions, I repeated the whole thing with another class. Two lessons, one preparation, very sensible. And then we had lunch in the school canteen. Not a Turkey Twizzler or chip in sight. Each pupil, and member of staff, was given a bowl of vegetable soup, a plate of very mild chicken curry and a drink, weak cold tea. I was told that meals are carefully controlled for content and students seemed quite happy with the meal.
                       The canteen provides meals for several schools, including a junior school, the trays were bigger than some of the children!

In the afternoon Helena and I went to the large office block belonging to the local mine company and the mornings lessons were repeated to a small group of adults who work for the company and are keen to learn some English. For the adults, as requested, I had some additional topics, English Pubs and a series of slides on taxation in the UK,  National Insurance, National Health Service and the lot of the British pensioner. It seemed to go down well and the conclusion we all drew was that life and conditions in Britain were, in some respect better than in the Czech Republic.

                         Me and a class of miners. Jiri Brabenec is the gentleman on the left of the picture.
After dinner at Helena's house we walked along the River Bilina to a pub to meet a lady who had, for business reasons, not been able to come to the afternoon lesson. Bubbling with enthusiasm and sorry she had missed us in the afternoon, she introduced us to her husband George, asked lots of questions about my family and the UK and presented me with a company pen set, a splendid tie, matching handkerchief and cuff links and a piece of crystal. Plus two glasses of slivovitch, a spirit made from plums, colourless, potent and very good for the health. I had to wash it down with Staropramen. I slept well.
Tuesday April 23rd.
St. George's Day and the Queen's birthday I was informed when I arrived in school at 9am ready for another day's work. Four lessons on the trot with a slight hangover. Thank goodness  I had prepared so well! By the time I had impressed four classes with my talk on the North East of England I had it off to a fine art, asides aplenty. I could do this for a living. I have to say that although I have been out of the classroom for nearly six years I enjoyed it and I hope they did.
Today's lunch was a chicken leg with potatoes, fruit salad  and the daily ration of cold weak tea. Must be medicinal, doesn't taste too good. Lunch over I enjoyed another round with another group of miners, all keen to hear about English pubs and life in the UK.

After the lesson we met a friend of Helena's and drove the 10 kilometres to Teplice to see the film
Stand up Guys, an American black comedy starring Al Pacino, Christopher Walkden and Alan Arkin.
Very funny and fortunately subtitled, not dubbed.
To round off the day we had dinner in a restaurant specialising in Czech food. I opted for the pork, potatoes and salad, helped down with Staropramen black. This was a darker, sweeter beer than the usual lager
Wednesday April 24th.
Up early and on the 8.32 train to Prague  with Helena. Bilina station has that Soviet style look but the trains are on time, clean, comfortable and quite fast.
                                                         Bilina Station

                                   The train pulls in to Bilina.

 The route to Prague could make  Geography lessons for a week. To start with, the railway follows three valleys, as railways should my Geography teacher told us.  And he should have known, he was the school PE master and wore a sports jacket in the classroom. First the track follows the River Bilina to Usti Nad Labem. Labem is the Czech name for the Elbe, one of Europe's larger rivers, that flows through the Czech Republic and then through Germany to Hamburg. The railway follows the Labem until it reaches the River Vlatava  (The Maldau) and eventually arrives in Prague. On the journey from Bilina thre route lies close to the Ore Mountains and passes Chemical works and Glass works before crossing the plain to the capital city. There were cherry trees coming into blossom on the hillsides and peach trees too, plus acres of hops beginning to climb there training wires preparing to make that lovely Czech lager. Cereal crops were growing in the fields and the temperature was rising too!                                                                                                                                                  In the north there are isolated mountains, like Boren in Bilina which are basalt extrusions, thrown up in an era of volcanic activity a good few million years ago.
As the train left Usti to follow the Labem we had a good view of the romantic looking ruin of the Strekov Castle, built to defend river traffic against pirates!

                                               The ruined Strekov Castle
In Prague we took a short ride on the Metro, bright new trains, followed by a short ride on a bright new tram, until we arrived at our choice for the day, The State Technical Museum. Sounds dull, but on the inside quite fascinating.
Several large halls, each devoted to a different topic. Architecture had drawings and models, Printing had a whole history of print from the first press to the more modern linotype machines and computerised systems. The domestic hall was like visiting Beamish Museum in County Durham, articles you remembered from childhood like flat irons, hand operated mangles and strange looking vacuum cleaners. The Astronomy hall had a selection of sextants, astrolabes and telescopes, but the biggest and best was the Transport hall, filled with bicycles, motor cycles, cars, boats, steam engines and planes, including a Spitfire flown by the RAF Czechoslovakian Squadron in the Battle of Britain.
                                                    In the entrance, a "fountain" from the Brussels Expo of 1956
                                                             Part of the cars display

                                           The Transport Hall.
After lunch in the museum restaurant we walked through a park high above the Vlatava before descending, crossing the river and heading for the old town.
                                         The Tyn Church in Prague. It was closed but we looked
                                      in. Too much decoration for a good northern protestant
                                                 beautiful though it was.
                                                     Looking down on the Vlatava
                                            Helena in the city she loves.

                                           The tourist season never ends in Prague
                                             The castle and Cathedral dominate the city
                                                    Wenceslas Square, more like a rectangle,
                                               and lined with shops, including M &S!
We bought a couple of DVDs and had coffee and cake in a café in Wenceslas Square before catching a train back to Bilina. I confess to being sad to leave, Prague is a beautiful city with so much to see and do. If you haven't been, go as soon as possible.
After dinner at Helena's we walked round to see her daughter and son in law, Blanka and Marian, and their cats.
                                                    Helena and slightly over weight cat
                                                            Blanka and her other cat


Thursday April 25th
Jiri Brabenec holds quite a high position in the mining operation at Bilina. Over my last three visits he has taken us round the mine itself, the washing plant and the power station. All interesting in their different ways and all recorded on previous blogs. Jiri is completing his Ph D and not surprisingly he is studying mining, a deep subject if ever there was one. But today he is taking me to visit a porcelain factory a few miles north of Teplice in a town called Dubi.
It was "cleaning day" at the factory and so it was not fully operational but I was shown the whole process from the clay arriving to finished products leaving for world wide destinations.
The company is famous for its "Onion" designs, usually blue but also available in other colour, and expensive. The factory also produces pottery for everyday use, everything from mugs to soup bowls, plain and decorated. It was a warm day but the ovens used for baking the products reach a temperature of 700 C and for glazing the temperature hits 1400C. Interesting to see the famous onion pattern applied by transfers made in the factory and the rims being painted by hand. The job I wanted least was that of fixing handles to mugs!

Onions on display

Not to be seen in Starbucks

                                              The home of Czech Porcelain
                                                    A corner of the factory
                                                Now that's a coffee pot
                                                      Teplice outlet
                                                         Onion samples

After coffee in Teplice we returned to Bilina. I was left at the school and had lunch in the canteen with about thirty tiny children  struggling with their trays.
After lunch we met Helena's brother Mirek and his wife Hannah who took us out to a town called Jirkov near Chumotov to a castle called Zamek Cerveny Hradek, or Red Castle, so called because its exterior was originally coloured a light red.
More of a stately home than what we would call a castle it was set high up, had pleasant walks round an ornamental lake and a restaurant where we dined on Czech food of course.When in Rome.....

                                                    In 1938 Lord Runciman stayed in the castle
                                                    Part of Chamberlain's party seeking
                                                    appeasement, Runciman met Sudeten Germans.
Zamek Cerveny Hradek

                                            A nymph, made from wire
                                                    Castle Courtyard
                                                            Eating again, Helena, Hannah, Mirek
In the distance we could see a large lake, called Kamencove. First recorded in 1466 it is a dead sea, containing a solution of alum that does not support life. However the lake has developed as a spa for water sports and it is claimed the waters cure  respiratory diseases, gout, anaemia, rheumatism and even acne.
After dinner we returned to Bilina

Friday April 26th
My last day in Bilina, at least on this visit. Helena was at work so I spent part of the morning walking round the town. It has changed considerably over the twenty years since I first visited. Most important I think is the improvement in air and water quality. The river has been cleaned up considerably, the air is cleaner and there are more supermarkets, if that's an improvement. LIDL, just like the ones at home, identical content and lay out, different prices, especially the beer!

I walked along the riverside path, there were Mallard ducks on the water and nesting on the banks. Walking as far as the water bottling plant and still closed spa, then returning by a different path as far as the station before returning to the Lion to pack.


                                                      Boren, local hill and park area
                                                       Offices of mining company   (SD)
                                                              Riverside walk

                                                       The Spa, needs some work to reopen

                                                      Power plant in the distance.
                                                     Still hazy after all these years
                                                Coal train from Most
                                                  Bilina castle. The Patkovi's flat nestles
                                                                    below the building.
Packed and ready by 11am I was outside Helena's door to be picked up for the drive to a village south east of Prague where I was to spend the weekend with Pavel, Peter the policeman and seventeen women!
Mid afternoon we arrived in the pretty village of Cesky Sternberk. The second half of the name is German and means " Starhill". This is the castle which has been in the same family since the mid thirteenth century. The castle was originally built to help protect Prague against invading Mongols who, you will remember, reached into eastern Europe, knocking on the gates of Moscow before deciding to go home to bury Genghis.
My first thought when I saw the castle was, "It's Colditz*, there will be no escape for you Englander"

                                               Sternberk Castle.  Still occupied by the family who have lived there since the 13th century. During the Communist era they were not allowed to live in the building but were permitted to act as custodians and show visitors round. After the Velvet Revolution they got it back.

We were staying at the Park Hotel, a pleasant building directly opposite the castle.

                                                            The Park Hotel

                                             The Park Hotel from the castle.
 The ladies had a variety of entertainments laid on, the first being a discussion on the weekend, so we men went for a walk. I strolled along the riverside for a while and met Pavel, Helena's husband who had had a similar idea. He thought he had spotted some otters on the river bank but I couldn't see them and returned to the Park Hotel  for dinner.
After dinner we were entertained by a Czech singer and guitarist. He played an acoustic instrument and also had an electronic keyboard. Naturally I didn't understand a word! Between songs he told stories or read poems and even in my ignorance it was a pleasant experience. He was a sort of gentle Mike Harding**
  The ladies had engaged a young man who made a living as a masseur and every n ow and then one of them would disappear and return suitably refreshed, muscles loosened.

I had a chat with him. He had trained initially as a chef and had worked in the US, New Zealand, Brazil, Ireland and the UK before returning home and training as a masseur.  He was keen to know what I thought of the hotel and I said it was fine. He told me it was a typical Communist hotel and he remembered going to similar places for holidays as a child with his parents. Poor food and an organised day. Sounds like an English public school!


April 27th
Early in the morning the ladies held a Tai Chi session as we idle men folk watched and at 9.30 Helena, Pavel, Peter and I caught a train from the tiny halt in front of the hotel. The two carriages rattled their way along the river until we got off at a small town called  Zruc nad Sazavou, named for the river it stands on.

A pretty town, part quite old and part quite new we wandered the streets to the old castle and town hall where a wedding was taking place.
                                                                    Zruc nad Sazavou town Hall.

                                                           and castle ruins.

                and Helena in the park.
We returned to the hotel for lunch, chicken with rice and a salad with a dangerous looking but harmless chilly.
After lunch the whole party headed for the castle and after a short walk, mostly uphill and through a wood which was home to several woodpeckers and a dead snake we returned to the castle courtyard for a tour round the building. The main hall was decorated withfamily shields, there was a chapel dedicated to St. Sebastian, smoking rooms, a study, a bedroom and a dining room. Occasionally, but not today the owner is to be seen at his books in the library. I wish I had one!
After dinner in the castle we returned to the hotel. The ladies were having a demonstration on facial makeup or something so I went for a walk on the river and found the "otters"
They were on the river bank being fed by some children and I had my doubts about them being otters. I took photographs and on returning to the hotel it was  agreed that they were coypus.As in Britain they had been imported from South America to be bred for fur (and meat) but some had escaped. The German name for a coypu is "beaver rat", better than coypu!

                                                        The beaver rats of Sternberk.

The weather so far had been warm in Sternberk, hot actually but that night it broke. Starting with a couple of flashes we had a terrific thunderstorm which lit up the low hills, the castle and everything else. The best storm I have been in for years.


Sunday April 28th
Helena, Pavel, Peter and I went for a riverside walk while the ladies had a talk on crystals and semi precious stones.  We passed several "summer houses"
During the Communist era only the top echelons of the party were allowed to travel to the west, for the rest holidays were taken at home or in other East European countries. People were allowed to build summer houses, the dimensions were limited to 4 x 4 metres but since the end of communism many of these houses have been extended or even converted to full time homes. Nice places too.

                                                 Summer houses in Sternberk.

 I noticed that the Czechs have also gone in for making stiles so I photographed a few for my forthcoming book on "Stiles of the North of England". They will go in the appendix!

 Czech stile. The designer has obviously taken functionality and economy into consideration in the construction of this crossing system. The material is locally sourced and the simplicity of the design ensures that it can be readily modified or replaced. See A walk in Allendamp for some British equivalents.
Sadly, after lunch it was time to leave. Peter took me to Vaclav Havel Airport and after saying fond farewells I checked in my suitcase and went through security. It had been another wonderful week in a country I have really come to love and I hope I can return next year. Thank you everyone for a week to add tomy memories.
*Colditz. For younger readers Colditz was a special WWII prison camp for Allied officers who had attempted to escape. It was meant to be escape proof but wasn't. The most audacious attempt was to be by a glider built in the roof but the war ended before it could be launche. A few years ago some aeronautical engineers built a copy, and it flew. I think The Colditz Story was written by PR Reid.

** Mike Harding. Enlish folk singer, comedian, raconteur and writer on walking in the Yorkshire Dales. Started life as the Rochdale Cowboy.