Posts Tagged ‘Czech Republic’

3:24 am

The Day of Establishment of the Independent Czechoslovak Republic

Today is the 90th anniversary of the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia. The official website of the Czech Republic has this to say about the holiday:

Exactly one month later (than September 28’s "Day of Czech Statehood"), October 28, perhaps the most important day is remembered, which is associated with the existence of the Czechoslovak Republic itself. In 1918, after several decades of effort of Czechs and Slovaks for recognition of their national rights and the end of the World War I, the independent Czechoslovakia was established, one of the succession states of Austria-Hungary, consisting of Bohemia, Moravia, part of Silesia, Slovakia and Under-Carpathian Russia. On this day each year, the president of the republic, together with eminent state officers, places bunches of flowers on the grave of the first president and the leader of foreign revolt at the time of the World War I, Tomáš G. Masaryk, at the castle in Lány, and also at the monument in Vítkov. In the evening of this day, the president honors eminent personalities of cultural and social life.

Because of the Tuesday holiday, the schools are closed through at least Wednesday (some are closed all week, I’m told), so a lot of people are enjoying long weekends right now.

This doesn’t, alas, apply to English teachers, although we are off today.

Aside from it being a day off, there apparently isn’t much by way of traditions for celebrating this anniversary, although several of the concert halls and theaters are featuring particularly patriotic programs. Municipal House, for example, is playing Smetana’s Má Vlast (My Country) this evening, and his Libuše (an opera about the legendary princess who prophesied glory for the Czech nation) is being sung at Národní Divadlo this afternoon. And so I am off to the opera today.

6:49 am

Playing Tourist: Sunday at Konopiste

Last Sunday was not quite as grand as Saturday had been: it was a little hazy, but still bright and crisp. So I took advantage of the fine weather to visit another of the local castles, Konopiště.

The inner courtyard:

Konopiště’s main claim to fame is that it was home to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire whose assassination in Sarajevo set off World War I. Franz Ferdinand was an avid hunter and so the grounds attached to the castle are extensive and quite lovely:

Perhaps because it’s fairly late in the tourist season, only one of the three tours of the castle was available in English, which was a pity, as I would have liked to have seen the private flat. The castle brochure has this to say about the tour that was available in English:

Unforgettable hunting corridor with almost 900 trophies proves Ferdinand’s hunting passion. Throughout his life Francis Ferdinand killed almost 300,000 animals. As for representative salons situated on the 1st floor in the southern wing of the chateau, most significants guests such as the German emperor Wiliams II were accommodated there.

The hunting corridor in particular was really unnerving. Just getting up to it required climbing stairs panelled with hunting trophies before being confronted with hundreds more trophies, each with a little plaque detailing when and where the animal in question had been killed. The sight of all these trophies prompted me to observe that Franz Ferdinand had not been killed by Serb separatists, but rather by a PETA precursor!

The tour guide even pointed out the trophy for a kill attributed to Franz Ferdinand’s daughter Sophie when she was 2 years old! (Apparently, her daddy helped her.)

Franz Ferdinand was also an enthusiastic collector of guns, stamps, and St. George images. There is even a "Museum of Saint George" at the castle. Besides the expected figures, paintings, and tapestries featuring St. George, there are also belt buckles, medallions, beer steins and goblets, a bed, and several items whose function I couldn’t begin to guess. According to the castle brochure, 900 different pieces are on display.

Statue on the southern terrace:

There’s a bear named Kazimír in the moat:

Kazimír is 20 years old and is a long-eared bear (ursus thibetanus).

The park has some fine statuary, although I don’t know the significance of this piece:

An urn, for no real reason that I could tell:

The Neptune fountain:

This time of year, the Rose Garden is rather bleak:

It must be lovely in the summer:

The autumn colors helped to make up for it, though:

As at Wallenstein Palace, peafowl roam the gardens with no fear of or interest in the human visitors:

Konopiště was seized by the Czechoslovakian government in 1921 as a Hapsburg property. However, one of the conditions of Franz Ferdinand’s marriage to Sophie Chotek was that their children would not be allowed to inherit the throne. As a result, one of Franz Ferdinand’s descendants has recently filed suit to get it returned on the grounds that it wasn’t Hapsburg property.

Getting There

Supposedly, there is a bus that runs from the Florenc station directly to Konopiště, but I couldn’t turn it up on a search. Instead, I took the train to Benešov and then walked to Konopiště. I’ve noticed this before when using search, though, that direct routes that I later find out existed were not displayed. I speculated to one of my students that perhaps my problem is that I use the English-language version of the search and maybe if I were to stay with the Czech version, I’d get more complete results. Seriously, there must be some trick to getting better results; I just can’t figure out what it is.

5:34 am

Little Brother’s Visit, Day 5: Plzen


It had pretty much always been a given that Little Brother and I would visit Plzeň, primarily so that LB could check out the Pilsner Urquell Brewery. Admittedly, after LB discovered Budvar Super Strong, we were toying with České Budějovice to visit the Budvar brewery instead, but Plzeň is only an hour away, while České Budějovice is three hours, so…

We arrived in Plzeň at just about noon and promptly proceeded to get lost looking for the tourist information office. Turns out the tourist information office at the train station is tucked in the back under the stairs going up to the train platforms.

After getting our maps at tourist information, we headed for the historic center of town to take in the sights. There was the West Bohemian Museum:

And there’s the cathedral of St. Bartholomew, which boasts the tallest tower in the Czech Republic:

I believe that this is the entrance to the old Franciscan monastery:

The Renaissance city hall:

And the Marian plague column

LB admiring the buildings:

And taking in the sights in the main square:

According to our little guide brochure, the Big Synagogue is the third largest synagogue in the world and also serves as a concert and exhibition hall:

The Old Synagogue, down the street and around the corner, is hard to find, tucked in an alleyway as it is. It has fallen into disrepair but is being restored. Alongside the synagogue is the Monument to the Disappeared:

A cobblestone marked with the name and date of birth remembers each of the Jewish citizens who “disappeared” during the War:

It appears that they go through periodically and refresh the names and birthdates, since the writing on the stones in some sections of this rock garden appear fresh, while others are virtually illegible:

The Josef Kajetán Tyl Theater is another of the highlighted sights:

And there’s a pretty little park, Smetanovy sady, that runs down from the back of the theater:

"Daddy" Spejbl and his son Hurvinek were the creation of a Plzeň theater professor named Skupa and are here as reminders of Plzeň’s puppeteering tradition:

The Brewery

All this was largely by way of killing time before the 2:15 English tour of the brewery of course.

When we got to the visitor information center for the brewery, we found that, in addition to the fee for the tour, there’s an additional charge if you want to take pictures. That seems very odd to me. I could understand not allowing pictures at all, if they were concerned about industrial espionage, say (though that seems pretty implausible). But allowing picture-taking only on payment of a fee (I think it was 150 CZK) seems pretty stingy. On the other hand, some people (including LB) were willing to pay it, so I guess it makes good business sense for them. The following pictures were taken by LB, since I declined to pay for the privilege of taking pictures.

The complex is a large one. Not only is Pilsner Urquell brewed and bottled there, but it shares its bottling facilities with several other beers owned by the same parent company. We were taken to see the facility where the bottles are filled (there are separate facilities for filling kegs and cans). We also got to see where the beer is brewed, in their vast copper vats:

While the beer is aged these days in stainless steel silos, once upon a time, it was aged in wooden kegs, and they still keep these to show the tourists:

They do in fact still age some of their beer this way, but it’s strictly for consumption by visitors taking the tour!

LB also liked their railway car:

And their old delivery truck:


The daughter of a friend had told LB, most emphatically in fact, that he had to try absinth while he was here. I tried to discourage him: Czech absinth is little more that grain alcohol with green food coloring, I told him. But after dinner that night, we saw absinth on the drink menu, and he insisted on trying it.

The waiter appeared with a pack of matches and two glasses: one glass with the shot of absinth and the other with a couple of envelopes of sugar (one white sugar, the other brown) and a spoon. We looked at this ensemble for a minute (I know the French way of serving absinthe, with the slotted spoon, sugar cube and water, but I’ve never paid any mind to the Czech approach), and called the waiter back. He emptied the packet of white sugar into the spoon, set the absinth on fire, and held the spoon over the flaming absinth to caramelize the sugar. Needless to say, we attracted a great deal of interest from the neighboring diners. We also got a couple of other waiters appearing at our table to watch the show. After a few minutes, he emptied the sugar into the absinth, covered the glass with a coaster to extinguish the flame, and urged LB to drink up. Of course, after having been filled with flaming absinth, the glass was too hot to the touch, so LB poured the absinth into the other glass. After a tentative sip, which didn’t appear to be much to his liking, he tossed the whole thing back, which prompted a coughing fit. A glass of water and 20 minutes later, though, and he was good as new.

I had a very nice sipping rum instead. No coughing fit; no need for a glass of water.

4:42 am

Little Brother’s Visit, Days 3 and 4: Karlstejn

Third Day: Karlštejn

For Friday, I had made reservations for the second tour at Karlštejn. Because this tour takes in the Chapel of the Holy Rood (Holy Cross), they strictly limit access and it is necessary to make advance reservations. The tour also "passes through the Marian and Great towers and offers visit to the Church of Our Lady, Chapel of St. Catharine, former Sacristy, suspension wooden bridge, museum of lapidary, castle’s picture gallery, library with exposition of the last reconstruction of the castle."

The train from Prague takes about 40 minutes. Of the former royal castles, this one is the closest to Prague (next after Prague Castle, that is), so the guidebooks warn that it is overrun by tourists. Friday midday, though, this late in the season, there were no hordes of tourists.

After the previous day’s extended walking tour, neither LB nor I was really eager to do a lot of walking. However, the castle is a 20 – 30 minute walk from the train station. I had warned LB that the castle was a bit of a hike, but the first 15 minutes or so was at no more than a gentle incline, and LB commented that this wasn’t so bad. But look where the castle is relative to where we are was my reply:

And yes, that last 10 minutes was steep!

We arrived at the castle with just a few minutes to spare before our 1:15 tour was to start. The inner courtyard is not particularly interesting:

However, the walls offer superb views of the valley below:

And peaking around the side of the castle:

Karlštejn’s main claim to fame (beyond its convenience as a day trip from Prague) is that it was built as a place for safekeeping of the royal treasures, especially Charles IV’s collection of holy relics and the coronation jewels of the Holy Roman Empire. Of course, these treasures are no longer stored at Karlštejn, and the castle itself is frankly not all that interesting. The tour guide did his best, though, to make the tour interesting.

The real reason to visit Karlštejn, and particularly to take the second tour, is to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross: it is totally amazing. The upper walls are lined with a collection of 129 panel paintings dating back to the 14th century, collection by Master Theodoric. The lower walls are encrusted with gold and precious and semiprecious stones. The altar is separated from the rest of the chapel by a screen; on the altar are replicas of the the crown, scepter and orb from the Czech crown jewels (which I had missed seeing in April). We weren’t allowed to take pictures, of course, but the virtual tour on the castle website gives something of the feel.

The chapel had fallen victim to extensive vandalism and looting when the castle was reopened to the public following the fall of Communism, so it had been closed for several years for renovation before reopening just a few years ago. But the damage done by tourists accounts for why reservations for tour 2 must be made in advance and the number of tourists for any given tour is limited to no more than 15. The tour guide was very particular about making sure that we did not stray from the carpet!

Aside from the castle, there’s nothing much to see in Karlštejn, though LB did browse the souvenir stands and picked up a few trinkets before we headed back to the train station.

Burčák and Dinner

On our return to Prague, there was a wine festival set up in Náměstí Míru, and I was able to introduce LB to burčák, Moravian new wine. It was utterly packed and was to relocate the following day to Havličkovy Sady, so we didn’t spend much time. Instead, we went on to dinner at U Básníka Pánve (which I blogged about recently). LB had the "Velvety Velvet", described on the menu as "chicken breast filled with lean English bacon strip, blue cheese, walnuts and golden pear". It was, he said, the best chicken dish he had ever had in a restaurant. (I had my favorite boar goulash.)

After dinner, we went across the street to Bar and Books (which also featured in a recent posting). Since LB is a big James Bond fan, I felt that he should have a "Vesper" (Bond’s signature martini), and I knew he would appreciate the fact that they play Bond movies (sans sound) constantly. Unfortunately, he didn’t much care for the Vesper and the Bond movie was one of the Timothy Dalton flicks.

Fourth Day

After all the walking we had been doing and with me needing to take some time to prepare for the start of teaching, we kept Saturday low key. LB went out for a walk, returning to the tank at the National Museum and wandering along Václavské Náměstí, while I stayed home, poring over course books and virtuously doing my lesson planning.

When LB returned, we went out to the wine festival at Havličkovy Sady. However, crowded as it had been at Náměstí Míru the previous day, it was even worse on Saturday. And at all the wine stands, the lines were 20 deep (and moving very slowly), so we didn’t buy anything or stay for long.

The Czechs were cheated out of another holiday from work today (and so was I!); it’s the Feast of St. Wenceslas, Václav in Czech, the prince of the Přemyslid dynasty who was killed by his brother, Boleslav. Since Václav is the symbol of Czech statehood, today is the "Day of Czech Statehood" (and it’s under that name that September 28 is a bank holiday).

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