Monday, 30 June 2014

Trains, a coach and planes..........June 18th

  On Friday June 20th the gadgie walk was centred in Buttermere, one of Cumbrias smaller, prettier lakes and home of the The Maid, mentioned by Wordsworth and the subject of a novel by Melvyn Lord Southbank Bragg.
 However I was not there to record the happy walk because on Wednesday June 18th I made my annual visit to the Czech Republic, or Czechia for short. For reasons there is no need to go into I flew from Manchester instead of the local airport, Newcastle. The journey did not get off to the best of starts, as my train pulled into York where I had to change the PA system announced the cancellation of the next two trains to Manchester Airport with an apology for any inconvenience but not a lot of information on what passengers should do. Those of us travelling to the airport found our way to a train heading for Manchester Piccadilly where, a very young policeman told us, we would find a good service to the airport. He was right, I arrived with plenty of time, watched the young lady on the check in twiddle her hair for fifteen minutes before finally deciding to open her desk.
 I arrived at Prague airport and was met by Helena and her son in law Marian who took me off to their town of Bilina in North Bohemia, a town I have now been visiting for twenty years. I was taken to the small hotel where I was to stay a couple of nights, it was about 10pm, they gave me supper and beer and I turned in as the TV set had only fifteen channels, approximately half in Czech and the rest in German. Thank Apple for ipods.

                                     The Pension Bezovka, hotel, restaurant, bar and bowling alley.                                                                                    And very friendly staff, if forgetful.
Thursday June 19th
  I turned up at the Bilina Gymnasium as requested about 9.30 am and talked to two classes about life in the United Kingdom, illustrated with my Powerpoint display "Me and Mine". The classes consisted of younger students and they possibly found it difficult to follow although one asked me if I liked Dr Who  and most of them recognised She Loves You!
Work over we went to the school canteen for lunch; soup, stew with rice and peas and slightly flavoured water. Not a chip or chicken nugget in sight.
                                           School canteen on a quiet day.
After lunch Helena and I went for a walk before going to a cafe in the square to meet one of her ex students, George, and his Scottish girlfriend Laura. George had gone to Aberdeen University to study graphics and had stayed in Britain working for an IT company. His English was immaculate with only a hint of a Scottish accent. His young lady is studying Life Sciences at Aberdeen and was on holiday with George in Czechia, meeting parents and so on. A lovely couple, but I had to ask how she was going to vote in the Independence Referendum. She said she hadn't made her mind up. She should be a diplomat!
After cake and coffee Helena and I went back to her flat where I relaxed in their secret garden below the castle walls:
                                                       Patkovi pet number one
                                                    My shoes and their garden
                                                          Patkovi cat number two.
  That evening we went back to my small hotel and made full use of the ten pin bowling alley with Helena's brother Merek and his wife Hannah, Merka the head teacher, Marian, Helena and her husband Pavel, Zdena and me. Pavel won, I lost.
                                 Zdena and Merek prepare  for a spare.
Retired to my ipod. Never knew the history of the Constitutional Convention for the young and not really united states of America could be so interesting.

Friday June 20th.
As the gadgies headed for Buttermere I returned to the classroom for two more talks with the older students of Bilina Gymnasium. They giggled at the photographs of British school children in their uniforms, I didn't go into the details my sisters got when they started grammar school!
                                                       Bilina Gymnasium
                                              My class, supporting Scotland?
In the afternoon Merka the head teacher took Helena Pavel and me on a trip to the town of Liboviche which had a very interesting looking "country house" with formal gardens rather like an English one. After walking round this imposing building we went for coffee and cakes and then returned to Bilina.
                                                Strutting peacocks at Libochovice
                                                     and their house
That evening Pavel, Helena and I joined their daughter Blanka and her husband Marian for a barbecue in their garden. Barbecued trout, very tasty, salad excellent, beer brilliant.
                                                     Supper with Marian, Pavel and Blanka.
Went back to the hotel and retired early as I had to get up very early next morning. The proprietor promised to leave me a packed breakfast outside my door and said I could leave a bag of things I didn't need for the next few days and they would look after it.

Saturday June 21st
I got up about 5,30 and packed ready for the next few days. I looked for the promised breakfast but there was nothing there. I left a small bag of temporarily unwanted items outside the door and slipped out of the hotel by the side door as agreed, leaving my key and hoping the belongings I left behind would be safe.
I met Pavel and Helena on Bilina station and started out on our 250km journey with a short ride on the train to Most.
From Most, a mining town with the movable church (See" a gadgie man abroad Feb 2012") we caught a train to Pilsen second largest city in Czechia, home of Pilsner Urquell beer and a heavy engineering plant belonging to the Skoda company.
                                                 Pilsen Railway Station.

                   Engineering works on the line meant that the next stage of the journey, to Nepomuk, had to be by bus. From Nepomuk we caught a train to Horazdovice and then finally completed our rail trip by a local train to Susice.
A word about Czech trains; mostly very comfortable and clean, especially the new Regional Panthers, with room for bicycles and baby buggies. But, without wishing to be rude, I did notice that nearly every conductor was unlikely to score less than 25 on the BMI scale. I wished Brian had been with me, he would have come up with something but the best I could do was;
" In Czechia you need a fat Czech to check your ticket on the train but in England you need a fat cheque to buy one." But they were all friendly.
At Susice we were picked up by the hotel car and taken the few miles into the town to the Hotel Gabreta, home for the next few days.
The town of Susice is called the Gateway to Sumava, the hilly region of South Bohemia which has national parks, hills covered with deciduous and coniferous trees and is close to the border with Austria and Germany.
We walked round the town to find what was there; like a lot of European towns Susice seems to be well equipped for sport and recreation. It has an indoor swimming pool, soccer pitches, athletics track, tennis courts and walkways in the trees! The river is clean enough for swimming and is also used for canoeing. Gabreta is the old Celtic word for the region.
Once famous for having one of the largest match factories in the world, the Solo safety match company has closed but there were displays of their former products, many came to Britain.
                                                  Hotel Gabreta, Susice.
I opted for the schnitzel for dinner, washed down with a half litre of Pilsner Urquell, I slept well, partly because the TV had fifteen channels, approximately half in Czech and the rest in German and the Constitutional Convention was going slowly.
Sunday June 22nd
After a continental breakfast we took a bus to the station and a train to the town of Zichovice and walked to Rabi castle, the largest in Czechia, first mentioned in 1380 but presumably older.

                                            Rabi castle
                                                    and an errant knight.
At lunch time we found a small cafe which specialised in potato pancakes served with a very large sausage and a chunk of bread. I fear for my weight.
In the afternoon we visited an old Jewish cemetery nearby and I left a stone on a monument as you should.
                                                        The Jewish cemetery
                                            The castle dominates the town of Rabi.
                                           The houses are in "baroque rural" style. Pretty.
We returned to Susice late in the afternoon and after dinner of pork and dumplings strolled round the town before returning to the Constitution Convention in Philadelphia.
Monday June 23rd
From Susice we walked across fields and through woods to Zamek Hradek, a chateau in a small village.  The building had at one time become quite dilapidated but after restoration was converted to a hotel, wedding centre and restaurant.

                                                     Zamek Hradek.............
                                                ..................decorated ceiling
                                                and a sundial which was correct, allowing 
                                                for summer time.
After a leisurely lunch we walked back the same way, a total distance of about eight miles or 12.5km.
After dinner we walked down the river in Susice to find a supermarket where we bought bread to feed the flotilla of mallard ducks on the water.
                                       The feeding hand appears, and having fed moves on.
The convention is over, we wait for the states to ratify it.
Tuesday June 24th.
It was market day in Susice, the square in front of the town hall was full of stalls and people, just like an English market.
But we took a bus to the town of Klatovy, some 40km away through a largely agricultural countryside, larger fields than at home, perhaps the Slav landlords never got round to enclosure like our landowners did. Hedges not the stone walls I am familiar with and fields full of ripening barley and wheat. And acres of woodland, Czechia's woodland covers 30% of the total area.
Klatovy is another pretty Czech town, large market square lined with small shops, a grand town hall and next to it a Jesuit Church and monastery which was the target for the morning. The Jesuits of Klatovy preserved their fellows and some well to do locals by a process of "natural mummification" which seemed to involve leaving the bodies of the deceased outside or in water for a couple of weeks, skin covered with fat to preserve it and internal organs being eaten away! The mummified body was then put in the crypt where a system of air vents prevented further decay. The practice ceased in the late 18th century and although many bodies were lost when the crypt was opened a fair number were saved and displayed. They didn't look too healthy.
                                                 Poor lighting and a ban on photography
                                               made it difficult.
The rest of the building was dedicated to an exposition of the good works Jesuits did in education and spreading the word. But there was a cat o' nine tails for them to do a bit of self flagellation. Not the sort of thing for me, brought up as a northern protestant!
Down the street from the church was something I found more interesting, an 18th century pharmacy complete with bottled tape worm, jar of very much alive leeches (not 18th C) and devices for making tablets and giving enemas! The young ladies who described the rooms spoke only Czech but I was given a sheet in English to follow. Even though I couldn't follow them the girls were enthusiastic and gave a great presentation to those who understood. Again no photographs, this one is taken from a leaflet.
The White Unicorn Pharmacy. The name taken from the tusk of a Narwhal mistakenly thought to 
be from a unicorn.Part of it is visible at the top of the photograph.
We lunched in a self service restaurant, looked around the shops and returned to base by train through the same beautiful countryside.
 Klatovy town hall on the left and Jesuit Church on the right, Helena's arm and Pavel's head.

                                        Czech storks bring babies too!
Back in Susice after dinner we walked through the town and visited the local Tesco. Prices seem similar to ours, apart from beer and bread, the staples of life.
LIDL3D, set to kilometres claimed a total of 11 pleasant kilometres for the day.
I had a change and listened to a podcast on Ivan the Terrible, he didn't bother with Congress Conventions.
Wednesday June 25th.
West of Susice is a high hill (845m or 2772 feet in English). Another lovely walk through fields and woods, the latter being the home to Woodpeckers which seemed quite common. They looked larger than their English cousins and darker. In the Sumava hills there are Lynxes, possibly wolves and deer. In the mountains bordering Poland their are bears and wolves too. We saw nothing so exciting or frightening.
At the top of the hill are three towers, bristling with radio aerials. The border with Austria and Germany is about 40km away so I expect they were built to pick up Western TV programmes. I was told that in the days of the "old regime" the border had a high fence that was electrified. People had been killed trying to cross it. I suspect it was really built to keep the Germans out and away from the cheap beer in Czechia.
One of the towers, stone built had a spiral staircase of 178 steps to an observation platform so we climbed it. Sadly it was a cloudy day because on a good day it is possible to see the Alps. Around the walls labels gave the distance to world cities but this was my favourite.


                                               Susice from the towers, hazy through glass.
                                                    Tower of Saruman

                                                           And Sauron. 
                                                  We had coffee in the cafe.
Returning to Susice we lunched on duck in a restaurant in the town square. For the first time in the week it rained but this did not prevent a walk to the Chapel of the Guardian Angel (built in 1682, rebuilt 1882) above the town. Legend has it that on this hilltop  an angel saved a young boy from a poisonous snake that was wrapped around his leg. The chapel was built and was for years a place of pilgrimage, now it is used as a church a few times a week.
After dinner the waiter presented me with three Pilsner Urquell glasses. 0.5l, 0.4l and 0.3l. Carefully wrapped in dirty shirts they mad it home to Newcastle safely.
LIDL 3D claimed a grand total of 14km for the day.
Tonights podcast; Peter the Great, shipbuilder and founder of his Window on the West.

                  Town Hall and square. The tree is a Linden, Czechia's national tree
                                             Liberated by the American Army May 1945
                                                   Riverside bus station
 The school in the background is named for Masaryk the first Czech president in 1918 when the           country was created after WWI. The memorial on the left is for those who died in  WWI when the country was part of the Austro Hungarian Empire. On the right the memorial is to those who died in WWII and the small piece in the middle is in memory of those who died or were tortured between the years 1945 and 1989 under the former Communist Regime.
                                                Viewed from the river
                                                        Ant City!!
                                           Chapel of the Guardian Angel
                                            River Otava. Years and years ago Susice was the
                                            centre of the gold panning industry.
Thursday June 26th
We repeated the journey by rail and bus back to Bilina, it took about six hours including a long wait in Pilsen which allowed me to see a small part of the city. At Horazdovice Pavel said goodbye, he was off to Pisek and would be joined by Helena when she had seen me safely back to the airport.
On the way we passed km after km (doesn't sound as good as mile after mile does it?) of fields full of this strange looking crop.
                                                Hops! enough to gladden your heart. There was other stuff too, like
                                                barley and wheat but this is the one.
                                  Coal mine near Most
In the evening Helena, Merka, Peter, Zdena and I went for a drive to a country restaurant for dinner. Gifts were handed to Helena, it was her birthday and I didn't know. I felt really stupid. After a good meal I was returned to my hotel. The proprietor apologised profusely for having forgotten the breakfast but he had kept my bag safe!
                                                       Birthday dinner party
Friday June 27th.
Back in school by 9.30 but no lessons. The students had been in since 8 am, collected their reports and gone home. The staff were about to celebrate the end of the school year with sparkling Bohemian wine and cake. Being a true gadgie I tucked in to chocolate cake, strawberry cake, cheese cake, brownies, some savouries and ice cream. Then we had lunch in the school canteen, not surprisingly I couldn't finish the lasagne I was given.
                                                      End of term cake fest

At 1pm Marian picked us up and we went to Vaclav Havel Airport outside Prague. Checked in I said my goodbyes and waited for the plane which left on time allowing me to catch the train home from Manchester to Newcastle via York again, without cancellations. And a taxi from the station.
                                                      Town square and town hall
                                           A sight to break a gadgies heart. The long defunct 
                                          Bilina Brewery which made a lager called "The
                                               Pearl of Bilina" Bet it was good.
                                                  Town square with church and Boren in
                                                  the distance.

                                                       Bilina Castle
                                                Boren the Basalt Bulge
                                                     Patkova cat
                                             and garden, with shoes
                                                        Not many have a castle next to the garden
                                               Another Patkova cat

Well, what can you say. This is about the twelfth time I have been here and it gets better every time. The people I meet are so friendly and helpful, so curious about the UK too that it is impossible not to love everything about the country. Looking forward to another trip already!