Sunday, 12 April 2015

Five Days in Paradise.... A Czech Sandwich
If you have read the blogs "Trains, a coach and planes" or "Bohemian Rhapsody" you know that once a year I desert the gadgies and visit the mining town of Bilina in the north of the Czech Republic, between the towns of Most and Teplice, close to the German border. I have visited the town for nearly twenty years and for the last five or so have been invited to go to the local grammar school to talk to the students about life in the north east of England, my family and other animals. I make use of a Powerpoint presentation, including this year a new feature, video clips! Never too old to learn I have inserted film of the Millenium Bridge opening and a popular group of musicians.
This year I  left Newcastle on March 29th, arriving in my humble pension Bezovka and after supper, washed own with Czech Lager and a chat with my friend Helena Patkova, I retired to think about returning to the classroom. The plan was for three days in school, five days away in an area called Bohemian raj, or  Bohemian Paradise, two more days in school, a trip to Prague and home again.
A quick trip round Bilina (White River):
                                   The town Hall. The newly  elected regional president is a
                                      communist! I met him some twenty years ago, a very nice man.

The town square,

Another view of the town hall, river in the foreground
         Bezovka Pension, restaurant and bowling alley. Friendly staff, we managed in a mixture of German and English
The town ice hockey stadium. Ice hockey's world cup  is to be held in the Czech Republic this year.
The castle, now owned by an Austrian lawyer. Once the property of the Lobcowicz family, about whom more later.
                                                         The town square and church
Arthur Miller should have written a play about the Death of a Brewery, a tragedy in three acts
                                                 Yes it is!
A light frosting of snow seen from my room at Bezovka
The town is dominated by Boden, a huge lump of Basalt that forced its way through the rocks.
The power station in Bilina, the air gets cleaner every year even though 22 million tons of coal are extracted and burned to supply the region with electricity.
The school:
For several years I have been going into the school with my Powerpoint presentation and talking to the students. It is a small school, approximately 200 students, most have some English, certainly more than my Czech and they are all friendly and appear to be quite keen to learn about the area I live in, the city, the country, the industry and my life style. I have one presentation and this year I gave it to 11 classes in total, children ranging in age from 13 to 18, and one group of older students training to be Social Workers. (Don't get me started) 
The staff are lovely too. I met the head teacher and the language staff plus the man who is in overall charge of the Gymnasiums in Bilina and Most. He was wearing jeans and no tie!
Three days in school to start with and two more at the end of my stay. These days are the bread, the filling of the sandwich is the trip in the middle.
                                   Bilina Gymnasium, bright and cheery
                                                          Social workers to be
                                                        No tie for the teacher, hurrah!
                                                    Yes it is John Lennon
                                                    It's only half a class

The dining hall. Children from  several local schools eat here. Aged from 6 to 18, they seem to enjoy dinners without chips and turkey twizzlers. Soup, meat and vegetables and fruit seem to be the regular meals.
One evening three of us went to the next town, Teplice to see a film in the new multi screen cinema. For technical reasons  the cinema was unable to show Russell Crowe's "Water Diviner" so instead we watched a British film about four young men from Liverpool who formed a beat group. They sang some terrific songs and had the amusing name "The Beatles". The film was called "A Hard Day's Night". Watch out for them they should do well, especially if they get a hair cut.
The filling:
On Green Thursday (Maundy Thursday) Helena, Pavel her husband and I caught the 7.32 am train to Usti nad Leben (Usti on Leben, like Newcastle upon Tyne). At Usti we changed to another train that took us east to a town called Vsetaty where we changed again and caught a train to Zelezny Brod, a small town in the Bohemian Paradise. Once a ford across the river Jizera and a centre for iron ore mining the name means Iron Ford.
The main bridge over the river had been knocked down and replaced temporarily by what looked like a Bailey Bridge. This meant we had to walk about a mile through slushy snow until we reached the Hotel Mala Mlyn (Old Mill), home for the next few days. After lunch we walked round the town, most of which seemed to be closed. The old town had some interesting houses, timber built with cement between the beams, the new houses had that familiar Soviet style look to blocks of flats, just like Manchester.
We had coffee and cake in a small cafe and eventually wandered back for an evening meal and relaxation.
                                                  Zelezny Brod, new style

                                                My room, double bed, single duvet.

                                           Slightly snowy Zelezny Brod from my room
                                                         The Old Mill hotel
                                         Zelezny Brod town hall
                                                              Museum in Zelezny Brod
                                                   The Old Mill, the owner kept some of the machinery

Snow again, from my room

 Good Friday, known in Czech Republic as Black Friday;
After a pancake and coffee breakfast we caught a train to Tanvald, a small town near the Polish border. I had hoped to walk into Poland because being an island dweller I find it weird being able to walk across borders. I have done it a few times, Austria to Italy, Canada to the US for example. It's strange.
However we caught a train south to Turnov, a town that used to be a textile centre, but like the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire it has lost out to Asia. We didn't stay long but caught a train to the village of Dolanky to visit a small farm museum, a bit like Beamish but only for agriculture. This was the highlight of the trip for me. The farm had displays of life and occupations as they were well into the 19th century. Baking, weaving, carpenters, coopers, charcoal burning and more. We were shown round by an enthusiastic guide, at the end he offered me a glass of slivovitch which certainly kept the cold out.
                                             If I were a carpenter..............
                                               Ceramic stoves appear in cottages and palaces
                                                   Beautiful furniture if fussy
                                                            Treadle lathe
                                                Weaving is in my blood
                                                  The cooperage, for wine not beer
                                                               A wooden bath
                                                        Horse drawn mower, looks familiar from my childhood
                                                Seed drill
                                                       An early hay baler
                                                 Winter transport
                                                On some Czech trains you can stand on the 
                                              platform of the last coach and watch for 
                                                 Indians or bandits.
We had lunch in another mill converted to a restaurant and caught the train back to ZB
Next day, being Saturday, I had scrambled eggs for breakfast and the three of us set off by train to Mala Scala, or Little Rock (CZ not ARK)
In the morning we walked up a short but steep hill to the Pantheon. From a distance I thought it was a church but it turned out to be a small but ancient castle. A nineteenth century owner had renovated it and built a chapel of the three emperors, Tsar Alexander I, Franz Joseph and Fredrich Wilhelm, although they never visited. The castle was built on sandstone and several caves had been hollowed out for storage. Sadly only the ground floor of the castle was open, I felt cheated.
                                                        The Pantheon
                                                           It does look like a chapel
                                                   Three emperors chapel
                     Some of the staircases were very narrow. but I squeezed through.
After lunch we walked over snowy fields and tracks to see the rocks at Such. This area must be a geologists paradise, sandstone here, basalt there, slate beds over there. The rocks are well weathered but unfortunately time was getting on and we returned to catch the train to ZB.
                                                               Suche scala
Easter Sunday
We spent the day in Zelezny Brod as the Glass museum was now open.Some amazing pieces of glass, old and new.The town has a school for glass makers, a local industry going back several hundred years. Glass beads, cups, statues, ornaments and pictures.

                                                             The glass museum
We then visited the older part of ZB to see the local architectural style and visit another folk museum
                                                             Old style Zelezny Brod
                                                      The museum
                                                The old town hall clock. Notice the IIII
                                One of the old houses in ZB
At lunch time Helena and Pavel's daughter and son in law arrived and having eaten we drove to Kosakov and climbed 120 steps up a TV/radio tower. It was a cold day, I had no gloves and the the tower was built of steel.................
 Good views though!

                                                     Blanka, Marian and Helena, wrapped up
                                                             Me, freezing

Kozakov tower.
After a light lunch we went to the castle at Hruby Rohozek, sadly it was closed.  This is no way to celebrate my birthday, in a closed castle.  So we went to Turnov and had coffee and cake. Back to ZB for dinner and a celebratory glass or two. The last time I celebrated my birthday away from home it was in Moscow, with Vodka, but I was much younger.     
Easter Monday   
The Czechs have some interesting Easter traditions. The breakfast table had a basket of prettily decorated hard boiled eggs. Trees in the area were decorated with eggs but the one I really went for was the whipping.
Young men walk the town and are allowed to whip (lightly) any maiden they find. In return they are given an alcoholic drink. Sorry but I can only imagine there would be a lot of very sober young lads in England as they looked for maidens.
We saw several disappointed looking young men walking around and several small children who are probably more successful and are rewarded with an Easter egg.
                                                     Easter whipping stick
                                                Easter tree decorations in Prague
                                                Dinner at Stary Mlyn
On the way home we stopped in the small town of Kloster for lunch in what had been a massive underground beer cellar, now an impressive restaurant.
                              Lunch in Klosters, once a Cistercian Monastery, now a brewery
                                                 The beer cellar restaurant
                                                Now that is a bar

On the way back to Bilina we drove through Mlada Boleslav, home of the Skoda car plant, so I sent greetings from my Octavia. We stopped at a shopping centre in Prague and visited Starbucks. 71 years and a day old and my first visit to the Seattle coffee company. I have no problem working my way through the menu, I only drink strong black coffee, never had a latte in my life. I was intrigued by the sign though, "You and Starbucks. More than just coffee." What on earth does that mean?
Good coffee though.
Next day I was back in school in the morning but late afternoon, to celebrate my birthday we played ten pin bowling in Bezovka. Last year I was hopeless, this year, thanks to a couple of good leg breaks, I won.
                                                 Marian goes for a strike, Zdena looks on.
                                               She had just returned from Nova Sibersk where
                                                  it was warmer than Bilina although my
                                                spies said England was basking in temperatures
                                                   as high as 20C
That evening we went to Teplice to see "The second best Marigold Hotel", not the worlds greatest film but a pleasant  couple of hours of quality English acting, and Richard Gere.
The following day we caught the 8.30 train to Prague and visited a museum on the hill next to the castle. The museum was in one of the palaces owned by the Lobkowicz family. This ancient central European family seemed to have had connections to most of the royal houses of the continent. In 1938 the head of the clan fled Czechoslovakia for London. His son was sent for safety to the USA. The Nazis cheerfully confiscated their property and its contents. In 1945 they got it back only to lose it all again when the communists took over in 1948. Sensibly they stayed in America. Come the Velvet Revolution in 1989 they were back in the Czech Republic. In 1992 they were able to claim "portable objects" like paintings and in 1995 they got their five castles back including the one in Bilina which the family sold. In this museum they had some of their works of art on display, Canalettos, Breughel, Van Dyck and cabinets full of ceramics and arms used for sport and war. Lucky family. An audio device offered explanations of many of the paintings, it was available in several languages and worked really well. Signs asked visitors not to take photographs but I did take a couple of the rooftops of Prague.
                      You can just see the Charles Bridge
To round off the day we visited the Cat Cafe in Prague. This cafe is home to at least seven little moggies, either strays or from the cat shelter. The city authorities gave a licence provided of course the animals were kept well away from the kitchen, which they were. The two I stroked were very friendly, quite at home with a changing human population.

                                                     In the cat cafe.
After a look round tourist Prague, which still had the Easter Fair in full swing we returned to Bilina.
                                        Prague Jazz band, very popular in the Czech capital
                                                     A streetcar named 8304

Easter market near the clock in Prague. The city was full of tourists. Many from England,
I don't count myself of course, I'm almost  a native.
The following day I was back in school again for the last time although I spent the afternoon in the town library with Helena,  Mirka, Peter and Zdena joining in an English lesson for grown ups. Strawberries, wine and biscuits, that's the sort of lesson I like.
Friday April 10th, I came home after another interesting experience. I always worry about the classroom bits but they seem to go well. Hope to return next year, where could we go?