Sunday, August 01, 2010

Touring Central and Eastern Europe - Part 2

From Dresden we spent most of a day driving to Oświęcim, a town which is better known under the German form of its name - Auschwitz. We arrived at about 5 pm, and had already booked a room in a small modern hotel - Hotel Galicja. We walked to the old town for a brief exploration, then returned to our hotel for dinner. We ate in the hotel's Italian restaurant as the main restaurant seemed more formal, with a richer menu.

The following day we took a guided tour which visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. I am still thinking about or reasons for visiting such a place on our holiday. As much as anything it was on our route, and as we are interested in the history of places we visit, it was too important for us to ignore. 

In the morning we spent about two hours visiting the original camp which the Nazis used initially to house Polish political prisoners as well as Jews and other minorities. When that tour was over we took the bus, along with our guide, to the second camp, Birkenau, which was set up specifically as a death camp, devoted to gassing and cremating people on an industrial scale.

 The guide's narrative and the exhibits were disturbing, and the visit stirred many thoughts and emotions. The big questions I need to think of are"How did a nation get to the position where its people would allow this?" "Would I recognise what was happening if something similar started here?" and "Would I have the courage to oppose it?". 

We ended the afternoon by driving an hour or so to Krakow where we would spend two nights with a full day for sightseeing.

The full Flickr collection of pictures from the trip is here, the pictures from Auschwitz-Birkenau are here.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Touring Central and Eastern Europe - Part 1

Just before leaving Prague three years ago, Sue and I spent two weeks touring North Bohemia. We intended to visit Slovakia and the Tatra Mountains, but needed more time. This year we finally decided to remedy that and set off for a two week trip via Dresden to Poland, the Western Tatras and Slovakia. Our first day would be long, so we left home just after 6 am to drive to the tunnel and then set off on a long haul across Belgium and Germany before arriving in Dresden just after 8:30 pm. 

We parked and checked in to the hotel where the receptionist told us that there was a beer garden at a nearby park. The day had been hot and it was still a warm  evening as we walked to the park and enjoyed a refreshing Radeberger wheat beer.

We had dedicated the next day to sightseeing in Dresden and walked through the park again to the old town. Our first stop was the Neumarkt, with its rebuilt Frauenkirche, finally restored after many years of ruin. We then visited other sights in the old town before lunch at a tapas bar - Spanish food was more tempting than the local fare in 30° heat.

In the afternoon we crossed the Augustus Bridge to enter the new town where we discovered the Kunsthof, something of a counter-culture area full of quirky little brightly-painted courtyards full of craft galleries. We stopped for iced tea and admired the artwork before taking a tram back across the river. I had been intrigued by the old Yenidze tobacco factory, styled to look like a mosque, and was delighted to find that it had a rooftop beer garden.

We then walked back to the north bank of the river to admire the view of the city as captured by Canaletto. A 7-person bicycle passed us, giving a city tour with a difference. Once we crossed the river we passed the Soviet-era Culture Palace with its Socialist-Realist mural before heading back to the Old Town for dinner. We wanted an early night because tomorrow we would be driving to Poland. 

See our Dresden pictures here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Prayer for Marta

As my friends in Prague celebrate 20 years since the Velvet Revolution I thought I would contribute a few thoughts of my own.

Earlier this year the BBC broadcast short series called "The Lost World of Communism" about Eastern Europe during the Cold War. In the programme on the 1968 Prague Spring they told the story of Marta Kubišová and her song Modlitba pro Martu (Prayer for Martha).

The song, with its simple haunting melody, became a symbol both of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.

Here are the lyrics in Czech and English (not translated by me).

Modlitba pro Martu
(Prayer for Martha)
Ať mír dál zůstává s touto krajinou.

Zloba, závist, zášť, strach a svár,
ty ať pominou, ať už pominou.
Teď když tvá ztracená vláda věcí tvých zpět se k
tobě navrátí, lide, navrátí.

Z oblohy mrak zvolna odplouvá
a každý sklízí setbu svou.
Modlitba má ta ať promlouvá k srdcím,
která zloby čas nespáil
jak květy mráz, jak mráz.

Ať mír dál zůstává s touto krajinou.

Zloba, závist, zášť, strach a svár,
ty ať pominou, ať už pominou.
Teď když tvá ztracená vláda věcí tvých zpět se k
tobě navrátí, lide, navrátí.

Let peace remain with this country.

Malice, envy, hate, fear and contention,
Let these pass away, quickly pass away.
Now, when lost governance over your own
Affairs returns to you, people, returns.

The clouds are slowly rolling away
And everyone harvests what he has sown.
Let my prayer speak to the hearts,
Which times of malice have not burned,
Like frost burns the flowers, like frost.

Let peace remain with this country.

Malice, envy, hate, fear and contention,
Let these pass away, quickly pass away.
Now, when lost governance over your own
Affairs returns to you, people, returns.

The classic recording of the song is here and the song is used as backing on this video which commemorates the Czech uprisings of May 1945, Spring 1968 and November 1989.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Balance of Terror

This year will mark 20 years since the Berlin Wall came down and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe regained their liberty. I remember the 80's being a time when many of us felt nervous as the two superpower blocs introduced new weapons and new threats against each other.

There was a dangerous escalation in 1981 when "The Tweets" released their cheesy Europop disco hit "The Birdy Song". The tension was raised further in 1984 when Black Lace released "Agadoo". Until recently I was unaware of the Warsaw Pact response to these musical weapons of mass terror. Now it can be revealed that Czechoslovakia countered the Imperialist threat with Michal David's "Poupatka" which was unveiled at the 1985 Spartakiada in Prague.

Let us all be grateful for the arrival of Gorbachev and the end to this frightening escalation.

Apologies to my Czech friends for any unpleasant memories this blog post may stir. Especially if you were dressed in a leotard in the Strahov stadium in 1985.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Yesterday was a public holiday in the UK so I took the opportunity to have a long weekend in Prague. The weather was excellent, Friday afternoon's rain had finished when I landed and the rest of the time was warm, even hot, and sunny.

I managed to meet up with some old friends and make some new ones. The Prague beer festival was on at Letnany, so I made a pilgrimage there. The beers were good and the company was great but the festival hasn't got the 'buzz' I was expecting. I would give it another try in future, but probably not next year.

When I left Prague I kept up my Czech bank account, which still had a reasonable amount of money in it. Since then I have used that account for our food, drink, transport and mobile phone credit on all of our trips to the Czech Republic. The debit card expires later this year so I decided that the simplest thing to do would be to withdraw my money and close the account on this trip.  

This was a simple task, but one which reminded me how bureaucratic things can be in the Czech Republic. 

On Monday morning I left my friend's flat and went to the nearest branch of the bank armed with my debit card, passport and most recent statement. I took a ticket and queued for a while before seeing a clerk. He looked at the statement, tapped into his computer, stared at the screen and said "you need to go to your home branch to close the account." I had spent 20 minutes and achieved nothing.

The home branch for my account was a 30 minute journey by Metro and tram. I walked in and waited for a clerk to become free. She didn't speak any English, and my Czech is nowhere near good enough to deal with bureaucracy, I can just manage to buy food and beer. The one clerk who spoke English was busy, so I had another 20 minute wait.

Eventually I told the clerk what I wanted. He entered the details into the computer,gave me some forms to sign and said "the account will be closed in 35 days". We had a brief discussion about my options for getting the money and he said the easiest and cheapest solution was to draw out as much money as I could via the ATM, leaving Kc 150 to cover the remaining charges.

If I made a deposit of Kc 63 I could draw Kc 2000, leaving the statutory 150 crowns in the account. I looked at the queue for the deposits and figured this would take another 30 minutes.
Fortunately Czech ATMs will issue small notes, so I was able to draw 1900 crowns.

I handed the debit card to the clerk and he cut it up. I have closure, and in 35 working days the account will also have closure. The whole process was over in just over 90 minutes.

When the account closes there will still be 37 crowns in it, with no realistic way of transferring it to me. I suspect someone in the bank will be maddened by the fact that there will be 37 crowns which has no home. I'm sure it will cost more than 37 crowns worth of an accountant's salary even to think about how they could deal with this homeless money. 

Note: 37 crowns is £1.22, more than enough for a beer in Prague, nowhere enough in England.
My 1900 crowns will probably be enough to cover food and drink for one more weekend.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I was at a loose end again today so I decided to have an 'anorak day' where I go off and do something self-indulgently geeky. I have never been to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich so I set off for London late this morning.

I got to Waterloo at lunchtime so I popped across the road to Auberge, a Belgian-style bar/bistro I discovered a couple of months back. After a steak-frites and a glass of Leffe I headed off to Greenwich. 

The Jubilee Line was out of service due to engineering work so I decided to take the boat. The Thames Clippers are a scheduled service rather than a tourist excursion and I got a 1/3rd discount because of my travelcard.   The boat trip from by the London Eye took about 40 minutes and landed me right at Greenwich. 

After a pleasant walk through the grounds of Wren's old Naval College designed for Charles II I got to the museum. I was slightly disappointed with the display, but I'm not sure what I was expecting. The main exhibition space was closed as they were setting up for a new exhibition which opens in a week or so. 

Most of the rest of the collection consisted of  a selection of small boats, maritime art, old naval uniforms and static displays on Liners and London as a port. It was all quite interesting, but not compelling.  The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth makes for a better day out, but of course that has the whole of the rest of the Historic Dockyard to entertain you.

I suspect Greenwich's main value is its library and archive which provide an important resource for the serious historian, and there is enough to entertain the casual visitor with the Maritime Museum, the historic buildings in the park and the old Observatory  at the top of the hill.

I visited the Observatory a few years ago and found its display, on astronomy and timekeeping, very interesting;  I'll probably revisit it next time I'm in Greenwich with some time on my hands.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Small Corner of the Czech Republic

Like Brian Herman I have spent too little time blogging lately. Today I've finally done something I fancy sharing.

One of my students in Prague once told me that there is a Czech pub and restaurant in West Hampstead, London. I found its website a few weeks ago and decided I should go there sometime.

Sue is away walking with her sister and some friends this weekend so I was at a loose end this morning. Naturally this was a great opportunity to try the place out. I don't mind having disastrous excursions if I'm the only one who suffers. Sue would have approached this trip with some scepticism and I wasn't confident that the result would prove her wrong.

The Czech restaurant is part of the Czech and Slovak National House which was founded in the Second World War and moved to its present spot shortly afterwards. It is located in a large suburban house in West Hampstead. It is the sort of building that is too big and expensive for a family home and might otherwise have been converted to flats or become a dentist or lawyer's practice. 

There can't be too many Czech WW2 veterans still living in London so I would expect the customers to be mostly recent expats, although they may well have more modern and fashionable places to go to.

I arrived at the place at about 12:30 and ordered a Pilsner Urquell (on draught at £3.00 which is not too bad for London). It was a bit gassier and more acidic than I remembered, so it was a bit disappointing. I was the only person in the bar, but a TV in the corner was showing a nature programme on Czech TV - until the barman turned it over to a sports channel where I could watch the Formula 1 practice with Czech commentary.

Having finished my drink I moved from the bar to the restaurant. I was the only customer there, too. I ordered a Budvar which was lovely, smooth and creamy. This was what I was looking for.  I ordered a bramborak (potato pancake) to start followed by  vepro knedlo zelo, pork with bread dumplings and cabbage with gravy, arguably the Czech national dish. I hoped the portions weren't too big.

The potato pancake was nice, although a bit stodgy in the centre. The main course was very good. The pork was lean and of good quality, the bread dumplings were nice and fluffy, not soggy and not too dry, and the cabbage was tasty. The portions were filling but I did manage to finish everything. I really enjoyed it, and it took me back to the Pilsner Urquell restaurant in Andel. 

While I was eating, a couple came in, I guess they were in their mid to late 20s. After they had made their order I asked the man if he was Czech. He is Slovak from Bratislava and it was his first visit to the place, too. We started chatting and I told them about my year in Prague teaching English, and the great time I had had.

His girlfriend was really interested. She is from South Africa and they will be moving from London to Bratislava in June. She is taking a TEFL course and has previously taught Drama and Aerobics. I talked about my experiences and the kind of classes I had taught and we discussed how she could make use of her experience in her pitch to a language school and in her lessons

They told me that the impending moved had caused them a bit of tension as he was happy to be moving back home but she was nervous about being able to make a living and cope with a strange language. They felt happier having heard about my experience, "you are a good omen for us" was the girl's comment.

This was just another of those chance encounters that make life interesting. Some days it's not about you, you are a walk-on part in someone else's story.