** CZECH REPUBLIC 2009  - Weeks 1~2 **

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CZECH REPUBLIC 2009 - Western and Southern Bohemia:

Despite autobahn delays due to roadworks, peak holiday traffic and dawdling Dutch caravan convoys, we crossed the Czech border on the third morning of the 700 mile drive from Dunkerque. The former border-control buildings were still in place, but the frontier is now open Schengen-style, and with driving misty drizzle to welcome us, we drove without let or hindrance into Česka Republika, our home for the next 10 weeks.

Click on map for details of Western and Southern Bohemia

Our first stop was the small border town of Cheb, thoroughly German in its origins and architecture, founded as a free borough by 12th century early waves of German colonists. Eger, as it was known in German, grew rich from trade but with characteristic German chauvinism resisted 19th century advances in Czech nationalism. In the 1930s, Egerland/Cheb became the focus of the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party, welcoming Hitler's annexation of Czechoslovakia into the Third Reich. But 1945 brought cum-uppance for the Sudeten Germans of Cheb with the forced expulsion of all ethnic Germans from the liberated Czech state, reducing Cheb to 27% of its pre-war population. Today Germans flock back to Cheb as day trippers, some as evident kerb-crawling clientele of the obvious prostitutes perambulating the town's back-streets. The other curiosity of these small Czech towns is the presence of Vietnamese stall traders whose cheap wares spill out onto the pavements.

In leisurely fashion, we ambled around Cheb's elegantly restored central square, námĕstí krále Jiřího z Podĕbrad (does the name Jiřího z Podĕbrad remind you of a Groucho Marx character?), so reminiscent of similar German colonist towns seen last year in Slovakia. The commercial heart of Egerland/Cheb for eight centuries, with the steeply pitched roofs of its houses and the lofty spire of the nearby church of Sv Mikulás peaking over the rooftops, is now surrounded by florally decorated café-terraces. Tesco have made huge inroads in the new East European states, and our final stop in Cheb was to stock up with provisions. The pleasant surprise was that our full trolley load amounted to only 880Kč (around Ł32) but disappointment followed with the check-out lady's blank look when presented with our Tesco's Club Card. The Czech cost of living is still very reasonable: diesel prices are around 25Kč/litre (Ł0.90) and campsite charges are typically Ł10~12/night. The only real problem in early August is that campsites are crowded by the ubiquitous and intemperately noisy Dutch hoards; so if you are a Dutch caravanner reading this, show some respect for others - please moderate you noise and turn your TV down!

After a long day, we relaxed in the gathering dusk at the welcoming lakeside Dřenice Camping, with candles twinkling on the supper table; already we felt comfortably settled in Česka, ready to begin serious exploration the following day. Our first stop was the small medieval town of Loket, an attractive gem of a place clustered around its 14th century hrad (castle) set on a fortified craggy outcrop dramatically towering over the surrounding meander of the River Ohře (Photo 1 - 14th century Hrad at Loket). The town square named after T G Masaryk, first President of the new Czechoslovakia in 1918, is surrounded by magnificent Renaissance buildings and in the centre a huge plague column rears skywards (Photo 2 - Central square and plague column at Loket).

We moved on to Karlovy Vary, the most prestigious of West Bohemia's renowned spa towns. Legend has it that in 1350 Emperor Charles IV discovered Karlovy Vary's curative hot springs while out hunting, hence the German name of the town he founded, Karlsbad. By the 19th century, the spa's location at the meeting point of the Habsburg and Prussian Empires, and its much-promoted efficacious waters, made Karlovy Vary the place to be seen by the high society of the day. Anyone who was anyone came to Karlsbad for its cures: Goethe, Beethoven, Tsar Peter the Great, Chopin, Bismarck; even Karl Marx took time off from his socialistic musings to indulge in the ultra-capitalist pastime of taking the waters at Karlsbad. This most illustrious of the West Bohemian spa towns is graced with Belle Époque mansions, grand hotels and spa buildings along the winding course of the River Teplá (Photo 3 - Spa town of Karlovy Vary). Despite the post-1945 forced expulsion of the predominantly German population, tourist expansion even during the Communist era maintained the spa's prestigious position. Its international clientele is now dominated by Russian nouveaux riches; signs in Cyrillic are to be seen throughout the town and Russian was the predominant language heard spoken. The further we walked along the embankment, the more opulent and extravagantly bizarre the surroundings became; to witness this undisguised and ostentatious display of crude affluence was a grotesque experience. Souvenir shops were crammed with the small spouted beaker-cups from which to sip the hot spa waters. The spa's most renowned buildings are the colonnades which offer shady cover for those shuffling up and down while sipping the waters. The most elegant is the Market Colonnade built in the late 19th century as a temporary structure but whose delicate white-painted wooden fretwork still stands imperiously (Photo 4 - Market Colonnade (Tržní kolonáda) at Karlovy Vary spa). The most powerful of the hot spa-springs spurts forth as a geyser some 50 feet into the air within a modernistic glass rotunda; 2,500 gallons of steaming 60°C salty water every hour (Photo 5 - Geyser Colonnade at Karlovy Vary).

Despite all the pretentious air of affluent exclusivity about Karlovy Vary, taking the waters is in fact a most pluralist and democratic affair. Scattered along the shady walkways of the colonnades, simple fonts pour forth the scalding hot mineral water springs into marble basins for all and sundry to fill their little beaker-cups for free and to sip the healing waters which have been the spa's source of wealth for the last 300 years. And sure enough, everyone was at it, filling their little beakers: Japanese tourists doing it very self-consciously and Russian grandes dames doing it with aristocratic aplomb (Photo 6 - Russian lady taking the waters). Not wanting to miss out, we even took a little ourselves, but scalding salty water was not to our taste! It seemed a curious irony that in a place designed to relieve the idle rich of their wealth, access to all the spa-springs was free and open. Slightly disbelieving of the novelty, curiosity and unrestrained ostentation that was Karlovy Vary, we camped that night amid the pine forests further up the valley by the huts of Camping Břzova Haj, a real retro-glimpse into the Czech past, its straightforwardness a million miles from the pretension of the spa town just 3 kms away.

On a gloriously sunny morning, we drove further into Western Bohemia to the industrial city of Plzeň (Pilsen). The city had expanded rapidly following the establishment of an iron works in 1859. The works was taken over by the Czech capitalist Emil Škoda, better known for his later foundation of the Škoda car-making plant. His Pilsen works developed into a vast steel, armaments and heavy engineering complex which is still the city's major employer. But our reason for coming to Pilsen was the city's other major industry - brewing. The Pilsen Brewery is home to the renowned Pilsner Urquell beer (Plzeňsky Prazdroj), which has given its name to similar crisp, amber, foaming-headed lager-beers throughout the world. But of course there is only one Pilsner Urquell, meaning 'the original', distinguished from its lesser rivals by its unique quality and taste. For any true lover of beer, a pilgrimage to the Pilsen Brewery is a must.

Pilsen's old centre is focused around the main square, námĕstí Republiky which is dominated by the squat bulk and lofty spire of Sv Bartolomĕj and surrounded by a grand parade of Renaissance and Art Nouveau buildings. Nearby stands Pilsen's restored 1888 Great Synagogue with its onion-domed towers topped by gilded Stars of David. Its 3,500 seating once accommodated the city's entire pre-war Jewish population, now reduced to a mere handful by the Holocaust and post-war emigration (Photo 7 - Great Synagogue at Plzeň). It was here that we learnt an essential Czech word důchodci, meaning 'pensioner'; most buildings offer reduced admission for over-60s. We also noticed again the unsmiling, begrudging and ill-gracious response of those paid to offer service eg TICs, so typical of the Slavic countries. But as a conclusion to our first afternoon in Pilsen's old centre, we sat at a bar-terrace in warm sunshine enjoying the chilled, crisp local Pilsner Urquell pivo (beer), at 30Kč a half-litre (Ł1/pint) as the trams trundled around the square. This was a worthy prelude to tomorrow's brewery visit.

The following day began with a little relevant history. Tucked away in the back streets behind the cathedral, Pilsen's Brewery Museum traces the history of brewing in the city and the development of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. From medieval times, the right to malt barley and to brew beer was limited to a set number of city burghers. By 1839 however concerns about declining standards of Pilsen beer caused the city's brewers to band together and form a joint venture. The Bavarian Josef Groll was retained as brew-master; he re-designed the brewing process and produced the first bottom-fermented, golden crisply refreshing beer we know today as Pilsen, emulated but never bettered by lesser brewers. Through mergers, takeovers, wars and Communism, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery has grown into the mammoth brewing concern of today, whose products are of world-wide renown.

The brewery is approached through its iconic triumphal arched gateway, built in 1892 to celebrate the beer's 50th anniversary; the arch as an emblem has figured on every bottle of authentic Pilsner Urquell ever since (Photo 8 - 50th Anniversary Arch 1892 at Pilsner Urquell Brewery). Our visit to the brewery began in the ultra-modern, computer-controlled bottling and canning plant. From the viewing gallery, we looked down onto the robotic-like 24 hour operation. Pilsen beer's three ingredients were demonstrated: malted Moravian barley, water from 100m deep wells and Žatec (Saaz) hops from West Bohemia which give the beer its characteristic bitter taste and aroma. In the brew-house, the multi-stage brewing process was explained, and we were shown the huge copper vessels used successively for mashing, boiling of hopped wort and fermenting (Photo 9 - Copper mash tuns in Pilsner Urquell brew-house). The 'young' beer is then matured for 30 days before filtration, pasteurisation and 'packaging' in containers, bottles or cans for distribution to the waiting thirsty millions. Click here for an explanation of the Pilsner Urquell brewing process. The highlight of the visit, as at any brewery, was of course the sampling cellar where the Pilsner Urquell was put fully to the test. We were thankful to have travelled into the city by bus that morning. For an impression of the Pilsner Urquell company and its products, visit their website: Pilsen Urquell Brewery

Almost as an afterthought, we visited the Memorial Museum to Pilsen's liberation in May 1945 by the US Army under General George Patton. In typical manner, Patton's tanks had forced a way through Bavaria and in the final days of WW2 had liberated Western Bohemia. Patton was reluctantly compelled to halt at Pilsen to allow the Red Army to take Prague along the demarcation line agreed by the Big Three, Truman, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta, the line which would soon become the Iron Curtain. Patton's undiplomatic but prophetic words at the time "Better to take on the Soviets when we choose than be compelled to later" earned him demotion. The Memorial Museum in Pilsen recalled this little known period at the close of WW2, events which in effect marked the beginning of the Cold War as the Communists took over Czechoslovakia.

Leaving Pilsen past the giant Škoda engineering works, we drove into SW Bohemia. Our initial experience suggested that Czech driving standards seemed commendably tolerant, respectful of speed limits and other restrictions making driving less stressful than we had recently been used to; we hoped this would continue. Our first stop was at the town of Domažlice, 15 kms from the Austrian border and one of the few frontier towns to have remained staunchly Czech resisting centuries of Germanisation. This was due to the surrounding area being a centre of the Chodové people, a Slavic ethnic group who have retained their own distinct culture, identity and dialect, having historically been retained by the Czech crown as border guards in return for freedom from serfdom. The cobbled main street of Domažlice with its medieval gateway and colourful arcaded shop frontages was delightful (Photo 10 - Medieval arcaded houses and gate-tower at Domažlice). The town's museum housed in the restored Chodský Hrad presents displays of the Chodové people, their colourful folk-costumes and traditional bagpipe instruments (dudy) (Photo 11 - Traditional Chod wedding costumes in Domažlice Chodský Hrad museum). Domažlice was a splendid town, rightly proud of its inherited Chod traditions, and did much to offer visitors an informed view of its distinctive past.

After a night's stop at Autocamp Kdyné in the Šumava foothills, we continued eastwards across rolling agricultural countryside where fleets of combine harvesters were hard at work gathering this year's ripened cereal crops. Approaching Klatovy, the magnificent towers and spires of its historic centre stood out proudly over the more mundane suburbs and the giant Tesco superstore where we once more shopped. Founded in 1260 by the Přemyslid King Otakar II, Klatovy flourished on the trading route between Bavaria and Bohemia. Its medieval affluence is still evident from the impressive array of churches, towers and grand houses which surround the main square. The Black Tower was built in the 16th century as a look-out post, and it is still possible for those with stout hearts and sound limbs to climb its 76m height for the views over the town and distant forested borderlands beyond the domed spires of the nearby Jesuit church (Photo 12 - Klatovy's spires and rooftops from the Black Tower). Having walked the town's surviving medieval walls, we returned to the square for an ice-cream, struggling to pronounce the unpronounceable word in Czech zmřzlina. The multi-accented Czech language, with its many sounds simply alien to English speakers, is proving so much more difficult than other Slavic languages we have encountered.

We headed closer into the Šumava Hills up the Otava valley to Kašperské Hory, an old gold-mining village set high in the forested hills above the Otava River. Like so many similar Czech places, the town authorities have gone to great length to provide an informative welcome to its visitors. We spent a superb afternoon following way-marked footpaths which led past remains of medieval and later gold workings. Rocky shafts and dark adits showed the extent of gold-mining around Kašperské Hory; the path traced a delightful 7 kms route around the pine-covered hills. And that night, we received an excellent welcome at one of the best campsites so far at Klásterský Mlýn set amid the pine forests of the Otava valley.

A delightful road through hilly pine woods brought us down to the small town of Vimperk, whose wealth derived from the salt trade route from Bavaria into Bohemia showing the importance of salt in the medieval economy. Here was another unassuming town which took great care to welcome visitors with informative and multi-lingual literature about local features. Beyond here, we descended to Husinec, birth village of the 15th century Reformist preacher and Czech national hero, Jan Hus (1372~1415). An admirer of John Wycliffe, Hus' attempts to reform the Catholic Church's profligacy and his opposition to the sale of indulgences to finance papal wars brought Hus into conflict with the Catholic establishment. He was condemned as a heretic and burnt at the stake in 1415, the event which triggered the Hussite Wars of religion so destructive in the Czech lands. You will find it hard to credit, but it took until 1965 before the Vatican finally expunged the sentence of heresy from Hus, 450 years after his execution, providing further evidence of obscene Catholic absurdity. It is worth visiting Hus' memorial museum in his home village to witness the crude abuse of power by the Catholic Church in medieval politics - plus ça change ....

Prachatice is on the face of it an ordinary sort of town, but its medieval wealth, again derived from the salt trade, was applied to give its historic centre a unique aesthetic quality. The façades of all the houses and public buildings surrounding the square are renowned for their sgraffito-ed decoration. The artistic style of sgraffito, popular in the 16th century and revived in the 19th, involves a foundation layer of evenly painted plaster facing; this was then scraped away to form geometric or scenic designs in the white or buff colour of the underlying plaster. The technique was brought to perfection in Prachatice with the most exquisite examples decorating the façades of the old town's buildings (Photo 13 - Sgraffito-decorated house at Prachatice).

After a night's camp at the welcoming Blanicky Mlyn set delightfully amid pine woods, we moved deeper into the Šumava Hills which form a natural border between Czech, Austria and Germany, and distinct watershed between the rivers draining south to the Danube and those flowing northwards eventually into the North Sea via the Elbe. This border became one of the most sensitive regions of the heavily guarded Iron Curtain during the Cold War, totally closed off by the military. The upper reaches of the Vltava River were dammed in the 1950s, creating the 44km long Lake Lipno, the largest artificial lake in the Czech Republic. The military have long since moved out and the tourists moved in to take advantage of the leisure activities that the lake offers. Camping Olšinách set on the shores of Lake Lipno provided a splendid if expensive base for our two day stay (Photo 14 - Shore-side camp at Lake Lipno) and in the evening, we were rewarded with a spectacular sunset across the lake (Photo 15 - Sunset over Lake Lipno).

The following day we took the opportunity to visit the 26m high Lipno dam and the HEP generating station which is driven by the reservoir waters. The power plant is now operated by the state electrical supply organisation ČEZ dubiously privatised by the 1989 post-Communist government. The dam is the first in a series of barrages down the length of the Vltava Cascades, built not only to generate HEP electrical power but also to control the destructive flooding along the Vltava River south of Prague which previously caused regular severe flood damage to farming, houses and industry. We could not actually visit the Lipno generating station which is hidden in a gigantic man-made cavern 160m below ground with water from the dam driving its two turbines. But at the visitor centre overshadowed by the dam, we were shown a film describing the complex's construction, operation, its contribution to phasing out a number of environmentally damaging coal-burning power-plants and its control of flooding further down valley. In the dam's 50 year history, the Vltava has only flooded once in 2002 whereas before, it was a serious annual natural hazard. This visit to the dam and its HEP generating station was yet another to add to our long list of learning experiences.

Leaving Lake Lipno, we headed north for the exquisite town of Česky Krumlov whose gigantic castle strides along a craggy outcrop overlooking the historic centre surrounded on three sides by the meandering and fast-flowing Vlatava river. As always in approaching a town for the first time, everything seemed bewildering: heavy traffic, confusing road system, uncertain parking, as well as the bemusing old town crowded with tourists. The day was overcast with poor light for photography in the picturesque old town, but it was ideal weather for the town's other unusual feature, an underground visit to the now closed graphite mine. The Česky Krumlov Graphite Mine (Grafiový důl) had begun operating as recently as 1975, spanning the years of the Velvet Revolution and transition from Communist period to market economy which had finally dealt the mine's death knell; cheaper imports of graphite from China had caused the mine's closure in 2002. But parts of the underground workings are now open as a mining museum. Donning overalls, wellies, hard-hat and battery-lamp, - it was going to be a wet and dirty excursion - the group of visitors squeezed into the little mine train. This trundled, rattled, jolted and jarred its way at an alarming speed 1.5 kms into the adit tunnel, finally coming to a halt for us to emerge into the darkness of the mine just 18m below the surface. With water dripping from the tunnel roof, we plodged our way through the mine, pausing for the guide to explain working methods and equipment. At last we reached a working face where we could smear our fingers across the waxy black surface of the exposed graphite seam (Photo 16 - Graphite Mining Museum at Český Krumlov). This feel serves to explain the material's primary industrial application as a dry lubricant, a feature of the flat plates of the atomic structure of this form of pure carbon. So far in our travels we had chalked up mining of lignite, coal, iron-ore, silver, lead and mercury; here was something new to add to our industrial heritage experience.

The family-run Camping Petrášův Dvůr set on the banks of the swirling Polečnice stream and 3 kms south of the town provided a perfect base for our visit to Česky Krumlov. We woke to a misty morning after last evening's cool and dewy air but the sun soon burned off the mist to give a clear day for exploring Česky Krumlov's old town and castle. From the busy traffic of the modern town's main road, you seem to step through a time warp in crossing the Vltava river's wooden footbridges: entering the old town's narrow streets, you are transformed into its medieval past. The almost 360° meander of the fast-flowing Vltava river encircles the old town (Photo 17 - Český Krumlov old town and meandering River Vltava), swirling over artificial rapids which make challenging sport for the young canoeists who flock here to brave the river's foaming descent through the old town. Its all good wet fun as canoes filled with water capsized, spilling their occupants into the fast current to the cheers of the tourists lining the embankment.

The cobbled central square with its ornate plague column and elegant Gothic-Renaissance former town hall leads up into Horní past the towering Gothic splendour of St Vitus' Church to the beautifully sgraffito-ed former Jesuit College, now a luxy hotel. And just opposite, a small terrace-garden gave panoramic views over the steep roofs of the old town and bend of the river, against the backdrop of the huge castle occupying the long rocky prominence above the town (Photo 18 - Český Krumlov Castle above steep roofs of old town). Our second day in the town was spent visiting the other key attractions - the castle, the Eggenberg Brewery and sampling the brewery's produce over lunch in one of the splendid traditional pubs. The vast complex of castle buildings, developed over centuries, spreads along the length of the craggy outcrop towering above the town and river. Its magnificently painted Round Tower dominates the skyline (Photo 19 - Round Tower at Český Krumlov Castle) and shows the wealth of the succession of feudal aristocratic families who had ruled from the castle - the Eggenbergs, Rožmberks and Schwarzenbergs. The tower's parapet gave more panoramic views over the old town encircled by the river, with the steep Gothic roofs of St Vitus' Church crowning the highest point.

The Eggenberg Brewery was founded in 1560 and still claims its brewing methods have remained unchanged, malting barley in its own malt-house. Its traditional copper-capped brewing vessels proudly shown to visitors have doubtless been replaced by more modern methods, but the beer produced is excellent with distinctive taste, golden amber colour and subtle hoppy aroma. We treated ourselves to a lunch of grilled Bohemian carp (kapr na roštu), the traditional Czech Christmas meal, amid the splendid wooden decor of the Hospoda na Louži pub in the heart of Česky Krumlov's old town. The crispy grilled fish was excellent and the Eggenberg beer provided an equally excellent accompaniment to our lunch (Photo 20 - Eggenberg beer brewed in Český Krumlov - na zdravi (cheers)!).

Our first two weeks in the Czech Republic, covering Western and Southern Bohemia have provided a wealth of new experiences. The Czechs we have met so far have been welcoming, and flattered to have visitors from UK. Campsites used so far have ranged from good to excellent and very reasonably priced. We are feeling comfortably at home in this trip's host country, although Czech is proving the most difficult of Slavic languages to get our heads and tongues around with its plethora of sounds simply outside normal familiarity. We have accompanied this first edition of our travelling web from the Czech Republic with the Serenade for Strings in E by Antonín Dvořák, the 19th century Czech composer who gave the first performance of his most famous work, the Symphony No 9 (From the New World), in the town theatre at Karlovy Vary spa in 1893.

   Sheila and Paul

   Published:  24 August 2009    

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks or so


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Music this week: Antonín Dvořák
Serenade For Strings in E - moderato

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