Saturday, 22 April 2017

The Two Towers. April 2017
  Hope that doesn't offend Tolkieners.
It's that time of year again when I forsake my wife and the gadgies and head off to the small town of Bilina in Bohemia, part of the Czech Republic and a place I have now been visiting since 1992.
I left Newcastle at 2.30pm on April 10th, arrived at Vaclav Havel airport two hours later and was whisked away by Peter who is a policeman and carries a gun. Helena, my host was with him. More exciting he has one of those Kojak style flashing lights that sticks to the top of his car, but he won't use it for me. When we arrived in Bilina I was taken first to Bezovka, my "hotel"  for the next three nights and now renamed in my mind as the Fawlty Towers of Czechia. Having booked in we went to Helena's house for supper with her husband Pavel and after traditional ham and dumplings and Pilsner Urquel I returned to Fawlty Towers.

                                               Bezovka, room and non working TV
Bezovka, outside and in. It is a b and b with a restaurant and a bar and two lanes for ten pin bowling.
The young man who runs it is very friendly, we converse in a mixture of simple German and English. He is, unfortunately, rather forgetful, it is necessary to keep reminding him that yes, you would be here for breakfast and scrambled eggs would be fine thank you. The place is currently suffering from renovations too, bits and pieces all over the place.
Regardless, I slept well.

April 11th; Prague from a different point of view.
After the scrambled eggs and chleb (a type of rye bread, really nice and chewy)) I walked to Bilina station to meet Pavel and Helena and the three of us caught a direct train to Prague, a journey along river valleys of about two hours. (Bilina, Laben {Elbe} and Vlatava I think. Proof of my Geography teachers dictum that railways follow rivers).
                          Bilina station, very Soviet
 Bilina is a mining town with a huge open cast pit, washing plant and power station.

                 It is also a very old town dating back 1000 years. A tiny fraction of the walls remain

                                           Prague bound train.
I have been to Prague  a dozen times at least, and tell all my friends they should visit. Over the years I have seen all the tourist spots like the beautiful Charles Bridge, the castle, the cathedral and the famous clock in the town square. This visit was a little different,  from the main station we took an underground train a few stops before catching a tram to see the Prague Park Tower or  Zizkov as it is called. This TV tower, built between 1985 and 1992 is 216 metres high (707 feet). Part of the way up it has observation platforms and at a mere 66metres (207 feet) there is a restaurant which we visited.
Spectacular views over the city, as you would expect, and a close up of one of the babies that decorate the outside of the tower.
                                  Prague Park TV tower
                                             Some of the babies

                            The city
                             and a close up of a faceless baby.

Visit over we took a tram back to the city centre and had lunch at "Finger Foods", pick what you want from the buffet and pay by weight. Sadly two of the tines on my plastic fork broke off and had Pavel not warned me I could have suffered the modern equivalent of a fish bone.
The next move was to the Strahov Kloster, a working monastery not too far from the castle. Last year it had been closed to ordinary people, a term I despise, because the President of China was visiting.

               Pavel and Helena and Prague Castle
We walked round the monastery and headed downhill to Mala Strana to catch a tram back across the river to Wenceslas Square.. Wandering the streets we finally came to the highlight of the day, the Pater Noster.
The Pater Noster is a type of lift, or two of them alongside each other. Both consist of a series of cages which rotate in a vertical loop, one going up and one going down and both moving continuously. To go up you need to step smartly onto the cage floor as it passes or jump and then step off at the floor you need, just as smartly. To come down you use the other lift which is going in the opposite direction. I tried it, successfully going up but opting for stairs coming down.unfortunately I didn't take a photo.
Nearby was this interesting shiny moving work of art.

                                     Street art, installation, whatever. It looked good.
After coffee and cake we caught a train back to Bilina, some supper and a night in Bezovka.

April 12th. Back in school again
Back in the Bilina Gymnasium to talk, in English to three classes about "Life in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", this year's Powerpoint Presentation  I had made. The eleven year olds were rewarded for putting up with me with a "Quality Street". Old man giving children sweets eh!
The sixth form showed some interest in Brexit, we had an interesting conversation. They are pro European and wanted the UK to stay.
For lunch I went to the school canteen for chicken, red cabbage and "Easter stuffing", very similar to our Christmas stuffing.
                     An enthusiastic audience.
In the afternoon Helena and I joined her brother and his wife for a trip to Strekov Castle, high above the Laben (Elbe) near Usti. This ancient castle guards the gateway to Bohemia and was once, apparently, inhabited by river pirates who made a living capturing vessels on the river below by stretching chains from bank to bank.

                Strekov Castle high above the river, must have taken a whole heap of peasants to build.

April 13th, Liberec
We were to catch a train to the city of Liberec, fifth largest in Czechia and getting close to the Polish border, at 8.14 so I got up early to wash and dress and walk the mile to the station. Fawlty Towers was up to scratch, there was no water in basin or shower. It transpired later that it had been cut off to allow pipes to be rearranged, somebody could have said. Remembering the supermarket Albert had a pretty good wash room I scuttled own there, washed, bought some gum to clean my teeth and got to the station.
Pavel, Helena and I set off to Liberec, changing trains in Usti nab Leben. Arriving at our destination we headed for the Pension Jasmine which had hot water and BBC World news on the TV. It can be a boring station but at least it gave me some idea of what was going on. (Actually I had the Times on my phone too, but TV is TV.)
We spent the afternoon exploring the centre of the town, new shopping centre, new cinema and trams with three rails.

Jested TV tower, restaurant and hotel

Comparative luxury in the Jasmine,the town hall, built at the end of the 19th century and a tram
On the town Hall wall is an unusual memorial. Cut into tank tracks the names of eight people shot in the 1968 uprising, the explanation is in English.
Next at we took a tram, walked through woods and finally  took a cable car to the Jested Tower.

The Jested Tower. This mountain top has been a tourist attraction for many years. Before the present tower was built a stone tower existed for visitors. The modern one, restaurant, hotel and television transmitter was started in 1966. It was from here that Vaclav Havel made the last broadcast from free Czechoslovakia in 1968 before the Warsaw Pact armies put a stop to liberty.

Restaurant, memorial tablet, me and a view down from the cable car station.
After coffee in the restaurant and a wander round in the cold (995 metres or 3264 feet) we took the cable car back down and returned to town. After lunch we walked to the Liberec Zoo. Along with elephants, camels, zebras, deer there is a family of white tigers, some having been bred in captivity.

White tigers, through glass
In the evening we went to see "Beauty and the Beast" a Disney film and most enjoyable, plenty of British actors in the old fairy tale.
April 15th, a barrel of beer
We caught a train to the small town of Hejnice and walked to the spa at Laenske. I tried the waters which are supposed to be good for movement. Not to my taste and I suspect a few pints would cause all sorts of movements.
We walked up 350 steps and across a field to a restaurant designed as a huge beer barrel.

     It would be difficult taking this one on a gadgie gentlemen's week in Scotland.
We walked back down the 350 steps, had lunch and returned to Hejnice to look at the Church of the Annunciation. Over decorated for a good protestant boy but the unusual part is behind the altar. Looking like something from the Vatican it is a painting!

                         Church, dome and painted altar piece. The church is very popular with Polish pilgrims, I think there was some connection with the Polish pope but not sure.
Back to Liberec for supper and sleep.
April 16th, a day of culture
First we visited the Museum of North Bohemia which covered the area from ancient times through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Empire styles and modern works, plus photographs, ceramics (including Wedgewood) and some fine glasswork.
Second up was the nearby Museum of Technology, the outstanding feature being three Trabants and a Morris 8.
                                      Me in the Trabant show room. (Museum) They had some good features
After lunch we went to the Emperor Franz Joseph Bad, 1908 which once had a swimming pool and a number of baths and saunas. Now it is a top quality art gallery containing Czech, Dutch and French art together with art from "the old regime" when art had to reflect the system and modern Czech art. Well worth a visit.
Next day we returned to Bilina. Back in Fawlty Towers the electricity was off in my room. Fortunately it was only the trip which had fired so I was able to see and charge my phone. And I could watch Czech TV
April 18-20th
For the next three days I was in school, talking to the children. The Bilina Gymnasium is a sort of grammar school and educates about 200 pupils aged 11 to 18. A teaching paradise. The best lesson was with a class of thirteen year olds, one of whom asked, before I had even started, "What do you think of Brexit? Later he wanted to know if we would ever use the metric system. The others wee more interested in my views on music and Harry Potter.
 One afternoon Helena and I went to the SD mining company building to talk to some of the ladies who work there. Very interested in all things British they were setting off for a tour of the UK in a few days, by coach. They gave me two bottles of wine and a beautiful glass block etched inside by laser with one of the huge mining machines that extracts the coal here.
One afternoon the three of us went to the town of Teplice, once a spa town for the likes of the Tsar and Beethoven. For dinner we went to the Monopol Hotel. Once a sort of variety hall it is now a magnificent pub/restaurant. The waitress offered me five small glasses of beer to sample and to choose from. I chose "Little Charles" or Karlik. Lovely beer too, and the food was good.

 The Monopol Hotel, bar restaurant and micro brewery.
All good things come to an end, I came home on April 21st after another enjoyable working trip. Must admit the working side gets harder but hopefully I shall return next year.

Gallery without captions

View over Prague from the monastery garden

Pension Jasmine, Liberec, and a camera string

Art gallery in Liberec, formerly a swimming pool

Bilina town square and the basalt bump called Boten

Mining offices and basalt bump, Boren.
Like all good mountains it has its myths. Borena was the wife of a king who died. Broken hearted she wandered the country, eventually climbing a high mountain. looking down she saw her husband's spirit in the river and dived to join him.  The locals called the mountain Boren in her honour.The mountain also has a witch's cave somewhere. The wicked witch had been jilted by the king and fled to the mountain. Eventually she had her revenge; the king's daughter mistakenly gave her father a potion the witch had prepared. The king died, so did his grieving daughter. Obviously not love potion number nine. 

Bilina Gymnasium

Lion Hotel dining room

Old teachers never die, they simply lose their chalk

Easter decoration. We missed the willow wand tradition as we were travelling
Theatre in Teplice
Monopol hotel beer sampling kit.
Pavel, Blanka and Helena
Me with the head teacher

English staff at Bilina Gymnasium and guest

Kyselka mineral water bottling plant Bilina

Bilina spa, need some TLC

I always take a picture from here. A bit hazy today