Thursday, 7 December 2017

Letters to the Baby Jesus

If you are thinking about sending a letter to Baby Jesus you better get a move on.  The special Baby Jesus post box opened on the 3rd and will close on the 10th, when the White Lady will be visiting the town to take your letters to the Baby.

In the Czech Republic tradition it is not Santa Claus who brings the children their presents on Christmas Eve but the Baby Jesus (Ježíšek). It is therefore Baby Jesus to whom children address their letters.

The tradition of Baby Jesus goes back at least 400 years and has survived Nazism and Communism, but since the Velvet Revolution Czech children have come under a cultural and commercial onslaught from the West. Is it any surprise that the Baby Jesus is under threat from the American Santa Klaus? Part of the problem is that no one knows what Baby Jesus looks like, unlike the highly branded Santa. Is the Baby a baby? No one knows.

In response to the Santaization of Christmas the Czechs have fought back - there are organisations set up to save the Baby Jesus. As one website states "We fight for traditional Czech Christmas and practices. We want the Baby Jesus to be saved from the invasion of the red fat man and his reindeer underlings." But it is going to be a hard fight.

If you are wondering where to send your letter, please note Baby Jesus does not live in Lapland or at the North Pole, but like a true Czech he lives in the small town of Boží Dar in the Czech Mountains.

Monday, 4 December 2017

St Barbara and the Miners

I was in Cesky Krumlov two years ago today and thought I was just there for the Christmas market. Nothing was due to happen until the day after (5th December) when St Nicholas, accompanied by angels and devils would arrive. I was wrong.  

In the distance came the sound of a brass band and into the town square marched men in uniform carrying standards and flaming torches. These were not soldiers or firemen, but miners from all over the country. They had gathered in Cesky Krumlov for two reasons.

First this was St Barbara's Day. St Barbara is the patron saint of miners, which was why the great church at Kutna Hora by the gold miners of that city is St Barbara's church. In a profession as dangerous as mining it was important to have a saint interceding for you. In one version of the story Barbara fled the ire of her father into a mine where the miners gave her refuge and she has been returning the favour ever since.

Secondly Cesky Krumlov was also a mining town and has its own guild of miners. Gold and silver were to be found in the hills around the town. The other metal, which continued to be mined when gold and silver ran out, was graphite. As you walk along the river path at the foot of the castle you can see the boarded up entrances to small mines and you can even go down the graphite mine on the Chvalsinska Road.

In this old picture of Cesky Krumlov miners you can see most of them are wearing the smart black uniforms that appear on the banner image (above) and that I was seeing in the square. If you look closely the miner behind the truck coming out of the mine is in his work clothes.

After the marching, the music and the speeches, the miners got down to enjoying themselves with their families. And posing for photos!

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Honouring the Czech airmen

Three Wellington Mk ICs of No. 311 (Czechoslovak) Squadron RAF based at East Wretham, Norfolk, March 1941. CH2265
Wellingtons from the RAF 311 (Czechoslovak) squadron.

Having just passed through the security check for my flight from Prague, I sat down to wait the opening of the gate. As I often do I started talking to the lady on the seat next to me. 

"How long have you been here," I asked.
"Only two days," she replied.
"Not long enough," I said
"No, but I have been here many times. I just came to attend a ceremony for the families of Czech RAF airmen of the Second World War."

We talked and she showed me a picture of her father's name on the plaque just unveiled on the flying lion monument opposite Malastranska Metro station. I was honoured to sit next to the daughter of such a brave man and asked her about him. Here is his story:

He and his cousin left the country in order to fight the Nazis, first they went to Poland to fight, then to North Africa to join the Foreign Legion, before going to France and from there to England. During the war he piloted Lancasters and Wellingtons, until a serious accident put an end to his active service and he moved to training pilots instead. After the war the Czechoslovak squadrons were transfered to the reformed Czech airforce and he returned to his homeland. 

When the Communists came to power and started to purge the airforce, he flew a business man and the man's plane to freedom in the west and came back to Britain. His cousin stayed behind with his family and suffered under the Communists. After all that adventure her father's story should have ended happy ever in England, but it didn't. Still eager to continue flying, he went to Canada. There his luck ran out, his plane experienced mechanical failure and crashed in the vastness of the Canadian wilderness. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

For Those Who Gave

In the hills around my Czech home you can come across many memorials. Often they are wayside shrines to people who died on the roads. But a few remember those who died in the battle to free the country from the Nazis. In this part of the battle zone it was the American army and air force that were fighting.

On the 17th April 1945 a squadron of US fighters led by Captain Reuter had been strafing German airbases at Klatovy and Eisendorf, when Reuter and Lieutenant Preddy both in P-51 Mustangs spotted two German Me-262 jet fighters and commenced pursuit, The faster German planes led them to Ceske Budejovice airport, then a German base, where the Americans undertook another strafing run. It was to be their last.


Captain Reuter and Lieutenant Preddy

Both airplanes were hit by anti-aircraft fire. Captain Reuter's plane exploded on being hit and he died instantly.  Metal detectorists are still find fragments of his plane, showing the force with which it hit the ground. Lieutenant Preddy was able to get away, but with his aircraft badly damaged he was only able to get as far as the nearby village of Zaluzi, where he crashed. A local man, Jan Smejkal, took the seriously wounded Preddy by cart to a German emergency treatment centre where he received first aid only. When the Germans refused to transport Preddy to the hospital in Ceske Budejovice, Smejkal took him there in his horse-drawn cart. Preddy died in the hospital, having never regained consciousness.

You will find the above memorial to Lieutenant Preddy on a small road above Zaluzi near the crash site. The memorial to Captain Reuter is near Borsov nad Vltavou at the edge of the woods overlooking Budejovice Airport where he died.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

So what is this building?

I was researching a trip for a friend of mine when I came across this building. The area I was exploring is the Sobeslav Blat area south west of Tabor, which is famous for its folk traditions and architecture. The buildings are often ornately decorated with Bohemian Baroque plasterwork and I wanted to show this to my friend.

I had travelled through several lovely villages and this, Svinky, was the last on my list. I drove past this building and did a double take. On first appearances it was the village chapel, which indeed it is. But what was it doing with a huge arch at the back, big enough to allow a cart in?

Some online research and I discovered that the building was chapel and smithy! Two of the most important buildings in a farming village were combined in one.

Update 9th November 2017
I have been thinking about this overnight and it has occurred to me that there is something archetypal about this. The blacksmith traditionally is seen as having magical powers. The ability to master fire,so you can turn rocks into first liquid and then solid treasures, must have appeared magical. There is the famous British ballad (No. 44 Child's Ballads) - the Twa Magicians - in which one of the magicians is a magician. At Stonehenge archaeologists have discovered the grave of a smith/shaman.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Extraordinary Portmoneum

I gave my Australian artist friend a tour of the more unknown treasures of the Czech Republic and Litomysl's Portmoneum had to be on the list of stops. From the outside the Portmoneum is a humble single-storey house on a back street in Litomysl, but oh boy what wonders await you inside!

The story of the Portmoneum is the story of two men: one the artist Josef Vachal and the other, Josef Portmon, a teacher and a collector of art especially Vachal's. Portmon's collecting fervour bordered on the obsessive and eventually his demands on Vachal put such a strain on the relationship that the older man wanted nothing more to do with his admirer. In the Portmoneum we benefit from that fervour, for how many collectors would invite an artist to decorate every surface of two rooms in their small house – ceiling, walls and all the furniture? Even then it was not enough for Portmon who sought to commission more, but Vachal refused.

It is quite impossible to fully describe the impact of the Portmoneum. Vachal's art is vibrant, full of strong colours, metaphor and spirituality. Created in the early 1920s Portmoneum's expressionism stems from the Art Nouveau movement, but it both looks back at the Baroque and forward to today. In this his greatest work Vachal manages to combine a sense of humour with profound psychological depth. There is so much going on in the art, which literally surrounds the viewer, that it is impossible to take it all in.

Vachal has a very contemporary appeal. However it was not always so. Obviously his spirituality did not sit easily with Communism, so it was not until the late 1960's that his reputation began to recover. Even so the Portmoneum suffering from water damage was allowed to decline until the 1990's, when at last restoration began. I have visited twice and on both occasions we found ourselves alone to enjoy Vachal's amazing work.  

If you want to own a Vachal, it is quite possible to do so, as he also produced ex libris. Here is one from my collection: 

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Stamp Collecting & President Benes

By Nelliette (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It is funny how people can be drawn to visiting a country. When I was running Czech Tours I always made a point of asking why people had chosen to come here, what had sparked their interest. In one case it was stamp collecting.

Anyone who has collected stamps as a youngster will know that Czechoslovakia produced loads of great stamps. I assume stamp production was a way to generate income from the West for the then Communist state. I no longer collect stamps, but I do collect Czech graphics and many of the artists I now collect also were hired to design stamps and first-day covers.

But it wasn't the graphical flair that had caught my customer's interest, but the story of the presidents whose faces appear on the stamps. In particular my customer was fascinated by President Benes. Now Benes has a very mixed press among Czechs. Many do not see him as the wartime leader, but as the president who failed to stop the Communists. To the Sudetenland Germans he is the man responsible for the forced expulsion from their homes and the deaths of those who fell or were slain on the route. But my customer made the pilgrimage to Benes' home near Tabor and came back enthused.


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