Saturday, 2 April 2016

Where the river bends and taking the waters. March  (Czechia)

  I have forsaken the Friday walk with the gadgies for a couple of weeks and have gone on what has become an annual trip to the coal town of Bilina in Bohemia, Czech republic, arriving on the evening of Sunday March 20th, having supper with Helena and Pavel and settling in to my room in the Bezovka Pension, the town's answer to Fawlty Towers. This years room had two single beds and three coat hooks, but no cupboard or wardrobe. I carefully arranged my clean shirts and socks on the spare bed.
Home for a few days, note the neat pile of shirts

Bezovka, bar, restaurant, pension and two lane bowling alley

                                              The road to Bezovka.
   My visit, this must be about the tenth, is a game of two halves. Part of the time I spend in the local "Gymnasium" or grammar school, talking to the pupils about life in the UK and the rest of the time I am taken off to some interesting part of the region by my hosts Helena and Pavel Patkove.
  The school bit;
This year I spent five days in school. They were the bread, this years trip to Loket, was the filling.
On the Monday Tuesday and Wednesday of the first week I talked to 9 classes, ranging in age from 11 to 19, and they all study English, plus two classes of adults who were on a Social Services course.  I do not know why they do English but they do.
 I have a wonderful power point presentation which has improved over the years. Mostly for young people but with some additional information for adults. (Copies available on request; SAE plus £10)
 The pupils were great. Their English varied but who am I to criticise. The older ones, sixth formers, were interested to know what I thought about the coming British referendum on the EU. In return for my views they made it clear they were very much in favour of being in the EU but had reservations about the Euro. (The country uses Czech Crowns; approx 33 to the £)
The adults were more interested in British working conditions, pensions, average wages and so on.
In the second week I went to school on the Tuesday and Thursday to talk to more classes. In one, a group of eleven year olds, the English was of a very high standard. A girl told me that "Last Wednesday I made a cake for my friend. He wanted it in the shape of a fire chief's truck"
I took French at school but could not have come out with a sentence like that at the age of eleven. She got out her phone and showed me a picture of the cake. It was brilliant.
                                           Social Services students. The two men are soldiers
                                     Bilina Gymnasium
 They would all be better students wearing a uniform, and the teacher should have a tie on.
  I have written about Bilina before but to save you trawling through past blogs:
Bilina is a town of about 16000 souls near Teplice in North Bohemia, and not too far from the German border. Its main industry is coal mining. The mine is opencast, has an amazing number of machines for extracting the coal, sending it to be washed and feeding it into the power station.
The town has an attractive square, used as a car park, an early 20th century town hall and an interesting looking church. The town is dominated by a lump of rock called Boden which is visible from just about everywhere and is a pleasant climb. There is a factory that bottles the local spa water, an ice hockey stadium and a sports area complete with pool.
The blot on the townscape. The old brewery with 1695 over the door. Apparently listed so it can't be demolished.

                                      Church and Boden. The mountain is volcanic but not in the sense of Etna or Popacatepetl. It is a basalt extrusion forced through the rock some millions of years ago.
                                              Bilina Castle and town square car park

                                                       Town Hall
                       Spa building, renovated and awaiting an occupier
                                           Ice Hockey stadium.
                                                  The power station, taken from the same spot I use every year
                        You can not escape Boden.
After school on Tuesday the head teacher, Mirka, took Helena, Pavel and me on a trip. First we visited the small town of Budyn which has a small castle, unfortunately it was closed but the little gallery in it was open. The best part was a display of hand painted Easter eggs, mostly done by children. The designs were intricate and if you know your eggs you can tell by the design which part of the Czech Republic they are from.

 Decorated Easter eggs in Budyn. The two bottom ones are by a 12 year old on the left and a 13 year old on the right. Far too nice to eat.
                                                 Budyn Castle.
We then went on to the town of Trebenice which specialises in garnet jewellery but also has one of the best cafes in the world.  Not only tea or coffee, but the ultimate in chocolate experience. We each had a small bowl of warm, melted chocolate and a selection of spices. A spoonful of chocolate and a dash of chilli powder was wonderful, I could have stayed for hours.

                                                  Trebenice high street.

                                 Chocolate heaven, don't look so worried.
                                Add this to your list of places to visit.
 It was Easter weekend. On Thursday Helena, Pavel and I caught a train to Chobov and changed to a single diesel carriage that took us to Loket.
Loket is built rather like Durham Castle and Cathedral on a peninsula almost surrounded by the River Ochre. It has a large castle high above the river and a very pretty main street and square. The town was frequently visited by Charles IV (1316-78) the first ruler of Bohemia to become Holy Roman Emperor.   The word loket means "elbow" and the town was given this name because of the bend in the river. (oh that's why!) An armoured elbow is on the coat of arms which fluttered proudly on several flags that marked the 700th year since Charles was born.
                                                               Loket arms
We stayed in the Pension Ulrika, named after a young lady who caught the eye of Goethe who gave his name to the pension next door. Signing in was different, not just a quick look at your passport but a detailed form, name and address, date of birth and other things.
                          Loket main street. Ulrika is on the right by the statue.
We walked round the town and along the river bank. The Hotel Franz Ferdinand had a fine beer garden with some proverbs painted on the wall;
"One swallow is enough to tell you it is good beer, but it is better to check..........."
"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy"
Some may remember Ben Franklin for flying kites in thunderstorms and, in spite of his admiration of Britain, being one of the founding fathers. One of my favourite Americans.
Next day we caught the single diesel coach to Nove Sedlo and a train to Cheb. (Pronounced XKEB I think)
This seemed to be a town of two halves, the new by the railway station and the old a short walk away. Another beautiful square with medieval buildings carefully restored after a WW2 bombing raid. The old church was closed, the art gallery was open and interesting, the museum has a varied collection of exhibits, the oldest dated bell in the Czech Republic, baroque rifles, statues and a beautifully embroidered ancient altar cloth. It also had an Easter trail of bunnies for children to follow!
                      Cheb square The Block. We had lunch in the restaurant in the building on the left. It was the biggest dinner I have seen for a long time but I didn't want to let the UK down and ate the lot.
                                      Helena measures the alley between the two buildings.
Next day we toured the castle in Loket.  For older Britons it looks a bit like Colditz. The highlight for me was the torture chambers, much more gruesome than the London Dungeon. A fine display of a rack, an iron maiden, stocks, water boarding and a lovely device that slowly lowered the victim onto a chair with a seat laced with nasty looking and upward pointing spikes.
The rest of the castle is well worth a visit too!
                         Panoramic view of Loket
                                   Loket Castle at night

                                                     And by day
 Ceramic stove in Pension Ulrika dining room
                                                        And a piece of Loket art
Later that day Blanca, the Patkove's daughter, and her husband Marian arrived. In the evening we played Pelmanism, the young ones won, easily.
Easter Sunday we set off for the town of Becov nad Teplou, which has a castle. The castle contains the Reluicary of Saint Maurus, an ancient gold covered box containing, possibly, the bones of Saint Maurus. The reliquary was in the possession of the Beaufort family from Belgium who owned the castle in Becov. Apparently they collaborated with the Nazis and, not surprisingly, fled the town in 1945. Before they left they buried the treasure and it was discovered in 1985 after some research, cleaned up and put on display. The tour of the castle led through several rooms with exhibitions describing the history of the box until finally, accompanied by a recording of a male voice choir, we were led to the final room to see the reliquary itself. Remarkable work of art but I was brought up a Protestant.
                    Photography was not permitted, picture from the internet. After the crown jewels this is said to be the most important Czech historical object.
On to Marienske Lazne (Marienbad in German days). One of several Czech spa towns this one was, with Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) a favourite with the aristocracy and royal houses of Europe. A fine statue of Edward VII with Emperor Franz Ferdinand stands near the huge hotels built for the wealthy. Certainly some beautiful buildings now used partly by the state partly privately for rest and recuperation. I sampled several spa waters, one was pleasant the others contained too much sulphur for me and I doubted their restorative properties.

                                  Russian Orthodox Church in Marienske Lazne

                 Some of the spa buildings in Marienske Lazne
The following day(Easter Monday) we all headed back in Marian's car to Bilina, stopping on the way at a village called Kravlovski Porici (I think). We visited an interesting series of buildings called Statek Bernard which had started as a farm but expanded to a craft centre and little zoo with goats and sheep. Although a holiday most things were closed but on the staircase going to the restaurant was a fine display of hand meat mincers.

Meat and toast grinders

                                  Statek Bernard
The Czechs have a few Easter traditions. Decorated eggs are on display in windows and in gardens. Boys carry a willow wand decorated with ribbons. They lightly whip girls and are rewarded with a chocolate, or a drink if you are older. I saw very few boys out today, shame, it looks fun.
Back to school on Tuesday but on Wednesday we took the day off and headed for Prague by train. Walking to the station in the morning gave me the opportunity to see the artworks in Bilina:

                                      Stone carvings in Bilina
                                              The Railway Station
                                               Station decoration, a reminder of the importance of the                                                                                            local coal industry

                                                             Easter decorations
 We had planned to visit the Strakhov Monastery in Prague. So had the president of China and so it was closed to us mere mortals. It had a heavy police presence, as had the rest of the city because there was a number of protesters out, mainly demanding freedom for Tibet. I suppose if you have struggled for your own freedom you are only too pleased to help others.
                     A few of the protesters outside the monastery
Instead we walked a few hundred yards downhill and visited the Prague Loreta, another church building. The galleries exhibited paintings with a mainly religious theme. There were also a number of richly decorated processional orestories, bishops hats and crowns for statues of Mary, plus a wax impression of the right foot of St.Anne
                                                inside the Loreta
                                                  Prague Castle, mostly closed

                                        You can not visit Prague without crossing the Charle's Bridge

                           and then turning to admire the classic Prague view
                                      Wenceslas Square
          We wandered slowly round the old town, had lunch, shopped in Wenceslas Square which has one of the best book shops in the world, The Palace of Books. Mainly in Czech naturally but large sections in English, German, French, Italian and Russian.
After spending Thursday morning in school talking to some wonderful children we were taken by Helena's brother Merrek and his wife Hanka on the highlight of the week, the great Beer and Hop museum in Zatec. Unfortunately it was closed! But I got to see a large barrel and a small hop field before a pleasant walk through the grounds of Krasny Dvur(The castle was closed)
                           Useful on the next gadgie week away
                                        World's smallest hop field
                                 So that's where he went
                       Krasny Dvur  (Beautiful Fort)
Back in Bilina that evening we finished off the trip with a game of ten pin bowling in Bezovka. Last year I won, this year I was abysmal. Still it was fun.
                         Merka the head teacher strikes out
                                     Pavel prepares an off spinner
And next day I came home after another exciting, interesting time in the Czech Republic. Such lovely people.
Before I left for the republic I read a Brief History of the Czech People by Petr Cornej and Jiri Pokorny. Exactly what bit said, a brief but factual account of the life and times of the Czechs. It made me realise how lucky we are to live on our island. Nobody has invaded us successfully for a thousand years and apart from a little occasional trouble with the Scots Welsh and Irish we get on with our neighbours. No land borders (OK Routemaster spotters, there is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic) Central European countries have for centuries been carved up, ruled by different powers, lost bits of territory, gained little bits and have had whole populations uprooted. lets hope it's all sorted now.