svētdiena, 2014. gada 21. septembris

About Central and Eastern Europe

Central Europe - Has a Czech person hurt you and you want a revenge? Call them Eastern European and watch them get furious.

The thing with Central vs. Eastern Europe is:
We're taught at school that the Czech Republic is in Central Europe. And then we grow up and find ourselves being called Eastern Europeans by foreigners, much to our unpleasant surprise.
I confess to getting furious at being called Eastern European, too. Not just because it places us in the same box with Russians and Belorussians who we have very little in common with - but also simply because of geography. Look at the map of Europe - the Czech Republic is right in the centre.
And I simply relate more to Bavaria, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary than to Belarus. Austria and Hungary felt like "related" countries, while all the Belorussians and Ukrainians I've met seemed like strangers. Some of them very nice, but - different.

Not mentioning that many foreigners think Eastern Europe to include countries like Romania which we have nothing in common with at all - except the fact that some Czechs emmigrated there in the 19th century and it also had Communist regime. Really, anything you can think of - countryside, religion, language, architecture, folklore, history -  everything's different there. If you based the term "Eastern Europe" on the shared Communist history (which is just 40 years out of 2000), then you might as well claim that Cuba is in East Asia because it's Communist just like North Korea, or that USA is in Australia because it's a democratic continent.

The time period when we "shared something" with Romania and Russia was simply too short and forceful to create a cultural region.

Btw, some people seem to think we were part of the Soviet Union. We were not.

I was thinking about this a lot, and came to the conclusion that this "CzR-not-being-in-Eastern-Europe" thing isn't just my impression.

I mean, what DO we have in common with Russia, Ukraine or Belarus? 
1) The fact that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented on our territory (but we've been using the Latin alphabet instead for 1000 years now).
2) The 20 years a small part of Ukraine was part of Czechoslovakia.
3) The 40 years we had to learn Russian at school (mostly doing very poorly, I'm afraid) and the 23 years Soviet tanks were here (which wouldn't exactly be "having something in common" anyway, not mentioning that some of the soldiers were actually Uzbek, Georgian and whatnot).
4) The 80 years in the 19th century when some Czech and Slovak national revivalists were interested in Russian culture.
5) Some traits like impatience or fondness for swear words. (But Italians and Brits are known for swearing a lot, too.)
6) The shared origin of languages.
Can't think of anything more.

And even the languages aren't mutually intelligible. We're only able to understand Slovak after some practice (it's like for a British person learning to understand the English spoken in Louisiana), also Polish and Croatian to some small extent, but not Eastern Slavic languages. That's because there's been a long and heavy German influence on Czech. If you know Russian, don't expect Czech to sound anything like it - to me, the sound of Czech is more like a cross between Scottish English and Italian, rather than Russian. There are also heaps of words that look similar in Russian and Polish and Czech but mean something different, even opposite. Perhaps I'll make them into a separate article here. Just one example: I remember when I got my credit card PIN code by post in Latvia, and beneath it, it was written "Please remember this PIN code" in several languages. I thought the Russian version was telling me to forget the PIN!

And as to the Slavic heritage... I read somewhere that Czech genes are in average about 30% Celtic, 30% Slavic, 30% Germanic, and then some Jewish, Hungarian, Caucasian etc. My father's cousin had his DNA tests done, and it turned out that the person with the most similar DNA is Irish.
And as to our popular legend about Father Czech who was Southern Slavic by origin and came to this territory in search for a new home... turns out there is a mediaeval chronicle telling a story about a Father Czech - who was Celtic and came from France.

And what is it we share with eastern parts of Germany, Austria, Slovakia or Hungary?
1) Beer.
2) The whole history, basically. Many Czech noblemen took Bavarian or Saxon wives, part of Austria belonged to us in Middle Ages, we in turn belonged to Austria for 400 years, and Slovakia and Hungary were part of the same state (Austro-Hungarian Empire).
3) Catholic influence.
4) Music. The folk music in the western parts of CzR is similar to German, while in the eastern parts it's basically Hungarian.
5) Stress on the first syllable.
6) Looks. People in these countries simply don't look like foreigners to me.
7) Architecture.
8) Climate.
9) The kind of bureaucracy that came from Austro-Hungarian Empire (and which I very happily didn't miss while living in Latvia, where most things are arranged simply and effectively). The feeling that offices must open early in the morning, that official language must be less intelligible than the "common" language, that there must be a language board deciding what is correct and what is not. We sometimes call these things "courtesy of Mr. Emperor".
10) History of small industry. Numerous factories, but mostly small ones.
11) No sense of... largeness. "Why make something big when it can be small." Food is packed in small packages. You'll find very few skyscrapers in Prague, Vienna, Bratislava or Budapest. The motorways are only as broad as really necessary. Old houses and farms are smaller than in Northern Germany or Poland. Basically, anything that seems on too large a scale - be it long military parades, loud speech, long limousines, city parts consisting of high-rise buildings - looks unimportant to us, like "created by a megalomaniac just showing off". I think it's because the density of inhabitation has been high for quite some time now, so we're used to the fact that we can't afford to waste space or disturb other people. We tend to be loud, but not very loud.

Are you asking yourself "Why is she telling us all this?"

I actually have two points - one is that the Czech country is in the centre of Europe and therefore it's had many influences. Various tribes came and stayed, merchants and soldiers from various countries (even France or Sweden) kept crossing it, staying and/or making babies. So IMO it can't be described simply as "Slavic" or "Celtic". Nor as "Eastern European". The only term I feel describes us is "Central European" because it's based on geography, history and culture - things that constitute our identity - rather than on genetics or language or 20th century events.

The second point is that European history is long and complex and it's created many cultural regions. There are regions many non-Europeans don't know about.

Just like U.S. isn't just the East Coast, the South, the West and California, but there are regions like the Appalachians or New England; just like Canada consists of the Pacific Coast, the Maritimes, Quebec, Nunavut etc.; just like Africa is so diverse that there are countries with more than 100 languages spoken; just like there isn't one Chinese language; there isn't just Southern, Western, Northern and Eastern Europe.
If you, say, create four affiliates of your company based on this simplified four-fold division of Europe, there will always be inconsistencies and difficulties. For example, the region that I consider to be Eastern Europe (Russia, Belarus and Ukraine) isn't homogenous at all - it's divided into many smaller cultural regions, too, as Ukraine has been very proudly trying to prove these past months.

Lysice - a small / big surprise

Description: Chateau with unusual objects of daily use, unique chateau garden, in a beautiful countryside.

Themes: Chateau, chateau garden, colonnade, Renaissance, Baroque, weapons collection, chateau chapel, Chinese art, Japanese armour.

Distance from a city: About 50 km to the North-West from Brno, about 200 km to the South-East from Prague.

Transport, level of difficulty, orientation: This trip is best for situations when you want to visit a beautiful old place but aren't able to walk far, or don’t feel well, or the weather isn't very good. It doesn’t involve much walking and the orientation is simple.

You can get here by train and coach. Use to find out which train and coach to take (see the article Travelling by train here). Trains run every hour, coaches every hour or every two hours. Go by train to Skalice nad Svitavou, then use the bridge over the platforms to get outside the railway station. (If it happened that you needed to stay in this railway station for some time, the ticket office and the waiting room with vending machines are behind an inconspicuous-looking door with a "Vestibul" sign.)
The bus stop is on the opposite side of the road from the railway station, and your line number is 257. Don't be misled if the coach is very small. The transport company has started to use small vehicles for less frequented lines. Say "Lysice" to the driver (pronounced "Lissitseh") and the ticket machine will show you the price. It was 20 CZK when we went there. See what the driver does - some drivers are very particular about handing the tickets to the passengers themselves, some, on the other hand, are very particular about the passenger taking the tickets from the machines themselves. So just wait a second or two and if he doesn't give you the ticket, take it yourselves.
Your best bet is to sit on the right-hand side of the coach because then you can see the white signs saying which village you're entering. Wait for the sign "Lysice" but if the coach stops immediately after that, don't get off - there're several stops in the town and the first one (called "Lysice, škola") is too far from the chateau. The coach stops there sometimes, sometimes not. Wait for it to go downhill to what obviously is the town's centre. The name of the stop is "Lysice, pohostinství".
You can see the chateau steeple from the bus stop. Just follow the stream that runs across the town.

Beware, the entrance to the chateau can be easily missed - the front building probably used to be a stable and looks quite ordinary. Look for a broad gate with a small, but important-looking sign. If you peek through the gate and can see the chateau - well, here you are.
There are several tours possible in the chateau - the first one, as usual, is in the representation part, with all sorts of salons, a dining room, the armoury and the chapel. The second one is in the gentry's bedrooms.

Don’t go here on a Saturday! – the website says the chateau is usually booked for weddings on Saturdays.

Time required: If you go from Brno, it's an easy afternoon trip - it requires about 5-7 hours, depending on how long you want to walk in the garden. If you go from Prague, it's a one-day trip.

Suitability for handicapped people: Good. The mentally handicapped needn't go to the chateau interiors tour and still enjoy the interesting gardens; those on wheelchairs can go to the chateau interiors tour because there's a lift for wheelchairs - quite a rarity when it comes to Czech chateaus. I've heard some chateaus organize tours for the visually impaired, too, but I forgot to ask whether this is the case with Lysice.

Suitability for children: say, 40% :-) The chateau tour is shorter than in other chateaus, only 45-50 min., and the rooms are small so there's something new to look at all the time. Plus, there are some interesting objects of daily use, as I mentioned, so the tour isn't very boring. But - still, it's a chateau tour where they're supposed to be quiet and walk slowly. The garden is suitable for children, though, with its many levels and mysterious corners to explore.

Facilities: Prepare a 5 CZK coin for the toilet. (If you don't have one with you, the slot-machine that lets you in also accepts 1 and 2 CZK coins :-) ). The ticket office is spacious. If there're more people you're supposed to form a queue that goes from the right to the left (along the counter). There're benches everywhere.
There isn't a restaurant in the chateau, only a nice café where you can sip coffee and eat a cake in the chateau courtyard. There are some restaurants in the town but I can't promise they'll be open Sunday evening.
You can buy postcards and booklets in the ticket office, plus there is a souvenir shop in the entrance to the garden.

Languages: The chateau is too off-the-beaten-track to offer interiors tours in foreign languages. But it has a recorded "Audio guide" in English in every room. Arrange in the ticket office for such tour.


I’d known about the existence of Lysice for a long time from pictures in various chateaus lists, and also from a TV series (if anyone was interested, it’s the series Četnické humoresky, episode 4-Beáta). It looked like a small manor house with a long and narrow garden. I’d wanted to visit it for a long time, thinking it’d be a small, cute place. Well... I was proved wrong.

First of all, it isn’t in a village as I thought - Lysice is a town. Or rather, Lysice are a town because the word is perceived as plural form in Czech. Furthermore, the chateau is quite impressive with its tall white walls, two courtyards and four gardens. And the aristocratic families that occupied it were apparently far from being narrow-minded regional gentry. One of them founded the first children’s hospital in the eastern part of the country, another one– countess von Eschenbach – gained fame as a poet in Austria, another one was a naval officer who travelled around the world.

We were, of course, shown the chateau interiors by a guide, as is the usual practice in the CzR. My sister had the great idea that I could make notes of the most interesting things the guide told and showed us. Here’s what I scribbled down:

-          colourful, but not too striking, tasteful interiors
-          Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars
-          gold and silver ceiling
-          Eschenbach: Ode to a Cigarette (a poem written in praise of cigarettes... by a non-smoker :-) )
-          chateau theatre, burned down, the biggest collection of costumes in the area, used also by theatres in Vienna
-          Classicist salon
-          beginning of the 19th century – local landlord founded a factory for making wires, nails and screws. Went bankrupt later, turned into a lace factory, still working
-          „husband whistle“ (This requires an explanation. The lady of the manor didn’t share a bedroom with her husband – he had his own bedroom upstairs, connected with her bedroom by a staircase. This staircase was so narrow that the lady, in her broad 18th century skirts, wouldn’t fit in. So, whenever she felt like meeting her husband, she blew into a special pipe in the wall that worked similarly to an organ pipe. Her husband heard the whistle and came down the stairs. (She also had a similar pipe-whistle-whatever for calling her servant girl.) Imagine the quarrells back then? „What's the matter with you, darling? I whistled for you yesterday, but you didn’t come!“
-          Captain’s bridge in library
-          Japanese armour and sword, Chinese aquarium
-          13th century sword, Prussian helmets, sword with the blade of saw-fish

I must confess Lysice instantly captured my heart and made it to my TOP FIVE chateaus list. Not just because of the unusual objects listed above but also because of (in no particular order) the very nice and helpful staff, not-crowdedness, Renaissance elements (yep, Renaissance is my favourite style!) and white colour (yep again, white is my favourite colour when it comes to chateaus! :-) ). And being amazingly photogenic, and having several terrace gardens, a colonnade – the only chateau colonnade in the CzR on the top of which you can walk! I understood the garden area is unique in several ways – the colonnade, the preservation of Renaissance terrace gardens system, and the way the moat is made into a pond and incorporated into it.

svētdiena, 2014. gada 13. jūlijs

VOCABULARY of some English and Czech terms

This vocabulary is meant chiefly for people educated outside Europe because, among other things, it explains some aspects of European architecture. But anyone who's interested is welcome to read it, of course :-)

Castle x chateau - Both are residences of local aristocracy.
A castle is a stone fortress built earlier than cca. 1530. A chateau was built after 1530, using bricks. Some chateaus are rebuilt castles. Some chateaus were rebuilt in the 19th century to be made to look like castles.

There are hundreds and hundreds of castles in the Czech Republic - I heard that according to the Guiness Book of Records, the Czech Republic is the most castle-dense country in the world. But I'm not sure about that - it's quite possible that the authorities counted even castles that just consist of one wall nowadays. Honestly, most castles are in ruins.
This is an example of a castle:
The number of chateaus is much smaller - about 120. Most of them have beautiful gardens and parks.
They make for good one-day trip destinations, because it's sort of an unwritten rule in the CzR that chateaus should be made accessible to the public. That's why most of them are furnished with historical furniture and there are guided tours that tell you all about it - how the aristocracy lived, any connections with other European countries' history, and any funny or scary events that might have happened here - be they true or not :-) This way, you can learn about a 18th century mirror that makes you look younger, about a chateau painted red because there's a blood stain on the wall that wouldn't come off (from a man a local landlord murdered), and about a nobleman that was buried alive.
That's why even privately-owned chateaus - by the descendants of the original owners, who got them back from the state (after they were confiscated by the Communists) are mostly like this. If the owners live in them, they only occupy one wing and make the rest accessible to the public. Or, they make them into culture centres or hotels. Chateaus not open for the public are an anomaly here.
Here's a chateau:

Pond (or rybník in Czech) - something between a water reservoir and a natural lake. More precisely, it's a water reservoir built in the 16th, 17th or 18th century. Its purpose was to hold water and to grow fish (Czech ryby, hence the name).
They're often of rectangular shape but because they've been around for some 400 years, they have old trees growing on their banks and fit into the countryside perfectly. And so most foreign visitors mistake them for natural lakes. There are hundreds of them, while natural lakes are much less numerous - there is just a couple of them in the mountains.

Renaissance - The first style in clothing, architecture, music and art that came after Middle Ages (the last style of which was Gothic).
In my country, it was dominant roughly from 1530 to 1630.
Its key word is considered to be "harmony". No extremes. That's why it doesn't make the impression of trying to reach the sky (as the previous Gothic style does - even the clothing with its tall hats), nor to express dramatic emotions (as its successor, Baroque style, does). In architecture, it's more of a style of worldly buildings - like town houses and chateaus. Only a few churches are built in Renaissance style. Although - there are exceptions to every rule:
As to Renaissance chateaus, you'll find them in more remote and less rich areas. That's because they're the oldest ones. Wherever the region was rich, the aristocracy had the money to re-build their Renaissance residence in whatever style was popular at a later time.

If you want to recognize Renaissance buildings as you walk, you can go for the top parts of them - they're usually divided into small "steps" or "waves":

or the buildings are painted with the typical sgraffiti called psaníčka (letters, envelopes):

sestdiena, 2014. gada 12. jūlijs

Konopiště - the Hemp Field, which is anything but a hemp field

Description: Castle with chateau interiors.
Residence of the last-but-one heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne - Franz Ferdinand d'Este.
He was assassinated in 1914. This event started the First World War.

Museums, weapons and hunting trophies, bird sanctuary, gardens, park, greenhouses, forest.

Themes: History (Middle Ages and late 19th - early 20th century), architecture, romance, nature, animals, roses, souvenirs from Asia, Africa and the Americas, hunting, diplomacy, Catholicism, early 20th century technology.

Distance from a city: 50 km to the south from Prague

Transport, difficulty: There are about two trains an hour from Praha hlavní nádraží and one coach an hour from Praha ÚAN Florenc. The local coach station and railway station are in the nearby town of Benešov, about 2,5 km from the castle. The walk / bike ride is mostly through a park-like forest with minimum elevation. For cars: the parking lot is just a couple of hundred metres from the castle. On the spot: There is a small electric train (20 CZK / ticket) that criss-crosses the grounds and also goes to the town and the railway station, but it only goes about 5 times per day.

Anyway, all in all, not a demanding trip. (Unless, like me, you make the mistake of trying to run uphill with asthma, drinking coffee and forgetting to drink water on a hot day, plus switching from English to Czech to Russian to Latvian every two sentences - then you might actuallly end up quite exhausted.)

Time required: If you go from Prague, the slow train (osobní vlak) takes about an hour, an express (rychlík) about 30 minutes. The coaches take 50 minutes to get here. The advantage of this place is that you can spend any amount of time here: from 1,5 hour dedicated to the castle interiors and terrace gardens to a full day spent in the castle's parks and forests, visiting the rose garden, the greenhouses, the shooting range, the birds of prey sanctuary, the St.George (Sv. Jiří) likenesses musem, the motorcycle museum, and sitting in the nice restaurant...

Suitability for children: 60%. Small children might get bored during the one-hour lecture by the guide inside the castle, but on the other hand, the interior is more interesting to children than most other Czech castles and chateaus's interiors. The castle grounds are more suitable for adults (park, statues, rose garden, museums, greenhouses), but as it is possible to find something behind every corner and there're also fountains, a live bear and peacocks, there's not much danger of the children getting desperate for an ice-cream every 20 minutes.

Facilities: Very good. This is a castle I admire for its taste in facilities. There are park benches, maps and orientation signs everywhere and all shops are situated in the castle's yard. Toilets, two small, but sufficient souvenir shops, two small cafés and a very nice (and inexpensive) restaurant. All of this made to fit the historical athmosphere. The only problem is the size of the ticket office - it's too small for a relatively famous place. If you're going here on a warm summer Saturday or Sunday, be prepared to spend about 10 minutes waiting to buy the tickets. (Perhaps this seems like a short time after all, but in most Czech chateaus and castles, you don't have to wait at all.) And send just one person to buy the tickets if you don't want the rest of the group to get lost in a 6-people-crowd.

Language: No problem communicating in English, if you keep it simple. The restaurant's menu is translated to several languages. The castle interior can be toured with a German, English, French or Russian-speaking guide. But as I haven't discovered any system in the times when the foreign language tours start, it's better to book one ahead. Or to go on a Czech tour and borrow an audio guide with earphones for 50 CZK.

Web page:

Pronunciation, meaning: Benešov is pronounced "Benneshof" and probably denoted a place that belonged to a guy called Beneš - which is an old diminutive form of Benedikt. Konopiště is pronounced "Konnopishtyeh". IMHO it used to mean "hemp field" or "place where hemp is processed" (note the similarity to the word "cannabis" :-) ) Jamaica flag owners, don't expect anything exciting here - historically, hemp was used to make ropes and ointments. Although I did meet a guy that was totally high on the way back - but that was in a DVD shop in Prague.

I'm starting this story with "So, we went by train to..." as promised!

So, me, my Latvian friend and my Estonian friend got on a train in Praha hlavní nádraží and started the journey by getting... delayed. Yeah, there was a powerful electric storm yesterday and lots of railway thingamajigs got damaged, so our train had to wait for another train that was waiting for another train. That just lasted 15 minutes, though, and we weren't in a hurry, so we kept chatting happily in our four languages.

The journey by train was enjoyable especially for me because I realized that there actually are beautiful sceneries in my region - Central Bohemia. I live in a flat countryside east of Prague that basically consists of fields, poplar alleys and more fields, but once you travel south of Prague, you see hills, streams and thick forests. I'd happily forgotten that because the demon called All-Places-in-the-World-Are-Interesting-Except-Mine had gotten at me. And yet, these are the parts where Czech summer holidays are spent, the parts that continue with the picturesque Southern Bohemia rolling hills and the parts where Josef Lada, painter and children's books author, lived 100 years ago!
One of the towns we passed actually used some characters from his books in decoration of the railway station.

pirmdiena, 2014. gada 30. jūnijs

Travelling by train

Many of my posts will start with something like "So, we went by train to..."

Well, what do you expect from a daughter of a guy who studied locomotive and train car technology at university... "Thou shalt not travel by coach or drive a car" was sort of the 11th commandment in my family.

It's not as limiting as it might seem because, believe it or not, Czech Republic has the densest net of railways in relation to number of inhabitants in the world. And, believe it or not, most of them are still active.

If you talk to some Czechs, they will probably complain about the company that runs some 98% of the sevices: České dráhy, "Czech Railways". This is one of our national sports - apart from ice hockey, football and chatting in pubs. Personally, I'm just into ice hockey. Because while it's true that services used to be pretty bad in 1990's, it's also equally true that in the past few years, the Czech Railways seem to be doing a good job. So - don't be afraid to travel by train. It offers a wide range of experiences: from hyper-modern (well, it's not TGV or Shinkanzen, but who needs them, anyway - you would cross the Czech Republic in two hours in them)

moderately modern

old (some very nice, some too lacking in hydraulics to be comfortable)

to historical.

Your best bet for planning a journey - not only by train - is It can be switched to English in the lower right-hand corner, and then you just enter the name of the towns from and to which you want to go. Switch to "Trains" or "Buses" under "Timetables", or choose a combination of the two.
When the service is found, it also shows the distance in kilometres and the price. If you don't have a discount card, the first price listed is for you. Whenever you're sure you'll go back the same way on the same or the next day, ask for a return ticket because it automatically comes with a discount. It's "zpáteční lístek" in Czech. Also, two people can ask for a group ticket because it comes with a discount, too - "skupinový lístek". The more people travel together, the bigger discount they get. It's "skupinový lístek pro 2, 3, 4 osoby / pro 5, 6, 7.... osob".
If you click on the number of the train or coach in (it's on the right hand side and usually looks like "727257 205" or "Os 4722" or "EC 153" or "R 869"), a list of the stops, times of arrival and distances in kilometres appear.

Here are some abbreviations you could need explanations for:

ž(el). st. - železniční stanice - railway station
IDS JMK - Integrated Transport System of the South Moravian Region
ROPID - Integrated public transport of the Prague region
MHD - any Municipal Public Transport (=trams, buses, trolleybuses, metro)
Os - osobní vlak - a slow train, passenger train, commuter train
Sp - spěšný vlak - a train that goes faster than a passenger train and stops in fewer towns, but isn't an express
R - rychlík - an express
Ex - expres - also an express :-)
EC, IC - EuroCity, InterCity - inter-state expresses, usually with modern and comfortable interiors (the ticket price is the same)
SC - SuperCity - super-fast and super-modern trains (the ticket price is higher)

And here are some of the words you could need to understand in trains and railway stations:
Cílová stanice - destination
Přes - via
Nástupiště - platform
Kolej - track
(The timetables in railway stations usually list the platform first and the track second. Basically, only the platform number is important to know.)
Zpoždění - delay
Vlak nejede - This train isn't going today.
Náhradní doprava - substitute transport. This means that the passengers buy their tickets as usual, only they will board a bus standing in front of the railway station building. It stops at all the railway stations the train was supposed to stop at, only of course it takes the roads, not the railway tracks.