“Prague Drinks Wine,” and Then Some More Wine. May I Show You Around?

This post does not have pictures of people and wines.  Instead I will have to rely on  words.  Prepare yourself for paragraphs of unrelenting, interrupted text!

On June 6 & 7, 2015, The second, annual, “Prague Drinks Wine,” event will be held at the Troja Château in – dat-da-da-daaa – Prague.UYIH Chateau

Last year’s PDW was the best public wine event I’ve ever been to.  That statement includes many “Fetes des villages” in the Rhone, Burgundy, and Bordeaux.  Prague Drinks Wine even tops a highly memorable tasting in Montepulciano, Italy involving Vino Nobile, Brunello, and laughing modern dancers from Australia.

Why? It is the most educational wine event I’ve ever visited, well-organized but relaxed. And it had crachoirs ( wine spittoons), something often lacked by even large Czech wine festivals.

A  man named Bogdan Trojak, owner of the Prague near-biodynamic wine bar Veltlin, is the figure behind the curtain.  While I’ve seen the man, I’ve never taken the chance to speak with him, he slipping out of the cafe as I slip into a glass of Porta Bohemica Muller Thurgau.  The bar is imaginative, calmly ambitious, and tasteful; a mural rends homage to the delicacies and histories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.UYIH Bogdan

Prague Drinks Wine is simply an expansion of that esthetic.  Housed in high-arched, red-brick cellars of the regal Troja Zamek, the tasting brings together over 40 producers (Mostly coming from the former lands of the Hapsburg Empire) of quality red, white, orange, and rosé wines.  The chambers provides adequate space and plenty of airflow for the vintners and tasters alike.  Anthony Hwang, owner of the Tokaji domain, Kiralyudvar, and the French Domaine Huet remarked “This is probably the most beautiful location we have ever presented at, but…”  (The rest of that quote comes later)

Besides Mr. Hwang, the producers were less well-known, and the regions they represent are mysteries to most outside of Central and Eastern Europe.  Far outside the spotlight, these farmers seemed happy to meet with excited, soon-to-be fans tasting their wines for the first time, and many of the conversations regarding the vino simultaneously became very personal.  I think this was why Prague Drinks Wine was massively educational: Impassioned, small producers from unknown – but often historically important – regions opened up about their lands, histories, vineyards, and even themselves.

“… The people…”  finished Mr. Hwang.  He did not seem impressed.  The majority of the participants seemed new to the PDW’s “Wine-as-high-craft” idea  that demanded a clear head and un-numbed palate.  The impression was most Czechs “don’t spit.” To “Taste wine,” means “Drink wine.”  So they got pretty funny and sometimes really drunk.     I expect Mr. Hwang was used to the polished tedium of professionals and investors sipping concertedly and spitting carefully, effusing superlatives at his latest vintage.  But if a sober newbie slurped back a generous pour of sublime Late-Harvest Tokaji named after Mr. Hwang’s wife “Ilona,”  and that newbie came back drunk a few hours later and asked for some of that “Good stuff,” well, I can understand Anthony Hwang’s displeasure.  (But at least, Mr. Hwang, the newbie did remember that it was your wine that distinguished itself in his tannin-denatured maw).

In the end, the relative coarseness of the tasters was a merit, not a detriment.  The untrained drinkers were having a good time and behaved well, keeping the atmosphere cheery and fun.  The aficionados and professionals were spitting and having an amazing time exploring all these wonderful biodynamic wines.

Oops!  Shoot, I didn’t want to tell you,  Prague Drinks Wine was and is a festival of biodynamic and natural wines.  The makers featured at PDW are proving that biodynamic wines (and wines produced without the use of herbicides, pesticides and “corrective” chemicals in the cellar) can create more interesting wines, more fun wines, with a better effect on their vineyards’ environments than conventionally-farmed vines – and that the results don’t have to be “oxidized,” “hippie,” and “funky.”  They can be clean, elegant, and polished.  In any case, they are always characterful.UYIH Biodynamic

As a final note, if this article piqued your interest, and you are interested in drinking wine in Prague or in Central Europe, this writer here would be happy to guide you.  Feel free to contact me here, or request my services at my employers, Pathways.   There is a whole world of forgotten vinous treasures over here, I’ll be happy to show you.

Past Posts of the Future and other Miscellania…

P1050157I picked this magazine up in the Czech Republic recently – strange to see a page of Americana stuck in the corner of a post-Communist room.  The story of this paper’s arrival to the CZ might interest a reader, but it involves the private lives of friends, so no story.  What I can write is that it involves traveling for work, shared housing, and uncancelled subscriptions – scintillating!

More striking is the page two advertisement.

P1050158Cleaner energy seems to be most profitable as a carrot and stick.

Meanwhile a temporary drop in gas prices has more people buying SUVs and heavy trucks in the USA…  With a true respect to the personhood of anyone doing this, and admitting that I do not know everyone’s situation that may or may not justify buying these machines, my fiscally conservative reaction is, “Asinine,unaware, and shortsighted.”

In a use of free energy:

Tastings and December Prague 009This picture was taken from the opposite end of a pedestrian tunnel over in southern Prague.  I walked down the stairs and -WHAM! – this picture stopped me.  The artists used the space and sunlight to accentuate their work.  The gray illumination of the Prague winter made the graffiti at once energetic and serene, a confrontational love letter to the city.  I will assume others have appreciated the space too; the piece has been there since 2013 but taggers have left it almost alone.  Comparatively, some of the works I featured a few months back have already been covered.

Learning Czech:

P1050156The books above represent a challenge to most foreigners.  On the right is a Czech dictionary.  On the left is a compendium of Czech grammar.  You cannot see it, but the grammar book is slightly thicker than the dictionary.  You can notice it – the book of grammar is also a good inch longer.

Why?  Before I answer that, I would like to point out that Czech is a Slavic language. This means, anglophone readers, that our inheritance of French, Spanish, Italian, and German words is fairly worthless when learning Czech.  The Czech words come from a different branch of languages, so basic words have very different origins.  Take the word “dog.”  In German, one says, “Hund,”  which sounds like “hound.”  The Italian word, “cane” comes from the same Latin as the English “canine.”

In Czech, dog is “pes” –  no connection with English, no easy mnemonic device, unless your pet isn’t house-trained…

If one was to look at “pes,”  a Romance-language speaker might think it related to the Latin “piscis,” the source of the Zodiac symbol Pisces, the fish.  Bonne chance, mis amici!  In Czech, “fish” is “ryba.”  But “ryba” sounds like “rib.”  We often eat “uzená žebra” in the Czech Republic; this might sound like “oozing zebra,”  but the Prague zoo is one of the best in the world, ranked 7th – so please, come for our healthy ungulates, but stay for our smoked ribs.

As difficult as Czech vocabulary is, its burden is light compared with the onerous exactions of Czech grammar.  Even Czechs find their grammar difficult.  I’m not writing of, “I’m doing good,” versus, “I’m doing WELL,” peccadilloes, I’m writing that nearly every aspect of Czech grammar seems foreign enough to be extraterrestrial to an anglophone and some native speakers.  Take nouns.  Nouns are categorized into male, female, and neutral nouns.  Male nouns are further separated into animate and inanimate male nouns.  Regardless of sex, each noun has 14 declensions to be memorized, depending on if it is singular or plural and how it acts in a statement (Subject, direct object, indirect object… etc, roughly speaking)  Animate male nouns have 3 different patterns to those declensions with some permutations, and some of those permutations have permutations.  Inanimate nouns have 2 different major patterns with permutations and…  Female nouns have 3 different patterns to those 14 declensions – with permutations, ditto the neutral nouns.  Then there are some exceptions.  These sentences have been about noun grammar only.

“It can’t be that hard,” you scoff; “Justin, you are making a mountain out of a mole-hill.”  I reply, “Yes, you are right.  I am making the struggle bigger than it is;  I am making an Everest out of a Kilimanjaro.”

So why learn Czech?  Any mountaineer would understand the paraphrase:  “Because I’m there.”  I live there.  I work there. I have the time to investigate the language.  Czech is an intense challenge, but one that rewards me with new friends and new perspectives.

That’s about all for now.  In an upcoming post I will write about one of the perpetrators… uh, fathers of the Czech language.

Not Quite Alone in a Crowd

P1050145Happy New Year, and an on-going Merry Christmas to everyone!  In Prague, I brought in the New Year praying for peace with the Taize movement.  It seemed the happiest and most constructive option by which to celebrate, and the hundreds of people around me probably would have agreed.  That stated, after the service was over, I went to wish my German Riesling pusher a good Nový Rok, and enjoy a quality glass.

Twelve-o-two and fireworks abounded as I exited the church. In the large park across the street, people wielded roman candles heroically, shooting green and red flares through trees.  Other revelers had brought more ambitious gear: Rockets accelerated past windows and a medieval tower and boomed in the orange, city-night sky.  Prague is a city to live in, not a museum, and the simple insouciance of the festivities made the first moments of 2015 very human and gentle, despite the loud cracks.

Which brings me to this photo.  The wine shop rests on a busy street.  But the shop had already closed, so I strolled down an intersecting lane that is always still; it gives the pedestrian a sweet solitude.  In the half-melted snow, I came across a man and a boy celebrating:  The boy moves without sound to the man, the cellophane crinkles as the man extracts a bulbous rocket with its long wooden stick.  The boy glides to an empty sparkling wine bottle, balances the rocket in it, lights it.  A “shsh” of sparks grows to a “Shush!” as the rocket launches, hissing above 19th-century apartments before exploding with more bang than sparks.  The two look at each other, and the man extracts another rocket from the cellophane…

So like these two, for you all, I wish you some quiet moments, some intimate moments with those for whom you care, some moments of wonder.  Again, Happy 2015.

Czech Wines – A First Look, Incorporating Musical Metaphors

Well, yes, the Czech Republic is a beer country, boasting the largest consumption of it in the world.  Approximately 150 litres per year for every man woman and child (or about 423 US longneck bottles of beer).  Some Czechs are worried, because that per capita consumption is dropping.

Maybe the Czechs are becoming health-conscious.  But the amount of smoked meats and sausages in this country make me question that statement happily.  Another cause might be that the Czechs are drinking a little more wine.  Interest in wine has increased this past decade as Shengen Zone deals facilitate trade between participating countries.

More importantly, Czechs are reclaiming and recreating their own wine culture from the communist practices of the mid-20th-century.  Simply put, communist wine-making rewarded quantity, not quality. More fruit meant more money for the grape grower; but to produce optimal grapes, a vine’s production needs to be limited.  But even if a farmer restricted yields to concentrate available nutrients into a few bunches, his or her grapes would end up in the same vat with fruit from neighbors who had no such concerns for quality – and those neighbors would earn more money.  However, farmers were allowed to have a small amount of vines by which to produce wines for private consumption [around 4 rows, 8 for a couple, if I remember correctly]. This is all part of a vinous tradition dating back to the Romans.

What that tradition will become 25 or 50 years from now is waaay too much speculation for this blog post.  Suffice to say, nowadays a lot of good and bad wine-making philosophies are fighting for a large piece of the small Czech market: Dear reader, I aim to expose you only to those philosophies that are of good quality and healthy for mind, body, and maybe even spirit.

On to the wines!  Links are to music that relates to the wines in my mind.

P1050112 Kolby Winery 2009 Ryzlink Vlašský (Welschriesling) Pozdní sběr

Pronunciation aside, those last two words are “Late harvest,”  meaning that the Ryzlink Vlašský grapes were harvested with 24-29 kilograms of naturally-occurring sugar within 100 litres of its pre-fermented juice.  During fermentation, yeast transforms the sugar into carbon dioxide and ethanol, the type of alcohol we can safely ingest.  Late harvest sugar levels provide yeast with a lot of food, so a resulting wine can have a fairly high alcohol level, around 13%, or less alcohol with some residual sugar.  The wine pictured holds about 5 grams of residual sugar, but you wouldn’t know it.  It tastes dry because it also has 6 grams of naturally-occurring malic and tartric acids.  The acids create an electric sourness that hides the sweetness of the sugar; the sugar provides roundness and prevents the acids from electrocuting your taste buds – a beautiful harmony.

Ryzlink Vlašský  has nothing to do with classic German riesling;  but it is a treasure of Central European grapes, able to create impressive and varied examples from hot Dalmatian islands to cool Czech hillsides.  Warm region versions are floral, refreshing, and breezy, but this Kolby shows a little green pepper and grass to go with some blossomy aromatics.  There’s probably some peach or apricot but my aromatic memory is awful.  Just trust me, it’s a well-made cool-weather wine.

Kolby is an interesting, quality-minded, medium-sized producer that owns one block of enviably-located vines in southern Moravian Mikulovská sub-region.  They use conventional practices, meaning some herbicides and occasional pesticides, but like most quality-conscious producers they limit the usage of these products.  There are a few wineries of similar size with bigger reputations, but I prefer Kolby right now; they make their wines to age, targeting a complexity of harmonious aromatics instead of overt intensity.



Salabka Chardonnay 2013

Salabka Winery, 2013 Chardonnay “Polosuché”

Chardonnay and the Czech Republic, like looking at a couple and thinking, “Will this last?”

Despite a high award in France this year at a Chardonnay competition, I don’t think the grape fits here.  The worst examples are green pepper and ceviche-ready acidity with a strong dash of bland.  The best examples are pleasant and zippy and…

Salabka Winery makes the latter type of Chardonnay.  The version here is a “half-dry,” basically meaning one can taste some sweetness, but here acidity prevents the wine from being cloying.  It’s a great aperitif wine, and some of those who tasted it with me marked it as their favorite.

It is obvious from the balance and mouth-feel of the wine (and their delicious Pinot Noir) that the Salabka vintners aim to make excellent bottles, but this one… it’s the wrong grape for the CZ.  However, I believe this is the first vintage from young vines, so they haven’t had much time to root down into the schistous subsoil that pervades this vineyard above the Prague zoo.  Another 5-10 years might see the vines making some very interesting wines.  But right now the wine is just made very, very well; hopefully, the grapes will catch up with the skill of the vintner.

Salabka’s vineyard has a history reaching back to the 1200s, but it recently renovated its cellars and opened an elegant gastronomic restaurant so the feel is quite modern.  The winery desires to make great wines, a challenge in the cool weather of  Prague, but I won’t be surprised if it succeeds.

Farming is conventional like Kolby, and the makers use yeast cultured from the indigenous strains from the vineyard to start fermentation.


P1050115Kolby Winery, Sauvignon Blanc 2010 Pozdní sber 

Unlike Chardonnay, I believe Sauvignon Blanc has a special place within the Czech Republic – the grassiness of a New Zealand Sauvignon, sometimes mixed with a fulsome roundness like a Loire Valley example.  In addition, in the best Czech examples, I find honey – warm, crystallized honey.  There was a little of that in this Kolby, with more than a few other aromatics I can’t name.  The wine pleasantly filled my mouth, great texture.  A very nice wine with some elegance to it, it needed about 30 minutes to really open and elaborate itself.


P1050117

Jakub Novák Ryzlink Rýnský (Riesling) 2012

This is where things get weird, like a Steve Reich piece in the middle of a Mozart concert.

The wine is light gold.  The smell is a lot of warm honey and bright and fresh, and you KNOW it is going to be sweet.

Which it isn’t.  There is a tang in the mouth, a bone-dry nuttiness, and a broad minerality to match a rich mouth-feel.  This wine has so much character.  At the same time, its idiosyncrasies aren’t domineering.  It expects to be noticed, but doesn’t scream, “look at me!”

The maker is 26-year-old Jakub Novák from the Znojmská sub-region.  He biodynamically [Correction: He works traditionally, without herbicides or pesticides in the vineyard – JW 2/4/15] works a few hectares of vines, on sandy loam soils over a granite base for the Ryzlink here.   I can write that Novák doesn’t use any artificial sprays in the vineyard  ( well, maybe a little copper sulfate?), and chemical products in the wine are limited to a little SO2 (Sulphur-dioxide, a chemical used since antiquity).

While the grapes for the previous whites were pressed and then only their juice fermented, the Ryzlink’s juice saw 30 hours on skins, giving the resulting wine a little more color as well as tannins.  And while the above whites were raised and stored in stainless steel tanks before bottling, this one saw 16 months in acacia-wood barrels, further developing aromas and deepening the color.

I don’t have enough experience with Novák’s vintages to know if these wines will endure in the bottle.  I just don’t know, but can equally imagine the wine breaking down, or opening a bottle and watching a unicorn jump out.


P1050113

Salabka Winery, Pinot Noir 2011, suché

Pinot Noir has a place in the Czech Republic.  The Pinots here don’t get as much body or elegance as in Burgundy, nor quite the same complexity – because of the northerliness of the vineyards, there is often a bit of methoxypyrazine, that green flavor.

What you get in return is an earthy spiceness to go along with some berry fruit aromatics.  Most importantly, the best examples, like the Salabka above, quickly develop aromatics like old Burgundies – YUM.  For example, the Salabka above has notes of leather and  autumn’s forest floor to go with the earth and spice.  Good Burgundies take around a decade or more to develop these aromatics; this Salabka has it after 3 years.  Altogether it’s about 85 to 90 % of a good, old Burgundy, at about a fifth of the price.  While waiting for your Cote d’Or Premiers Crus to age, stoke your imagination with this Salabka, Or drink it while you reminisce; it’s a very pleasurable bottle.


P1050114

Petr Kočařík, Pinot Noir 2011

Another Pinot.  This one from Southern Moravia from a town called Čejkovice.  A few degrees warmer, a little more sun, calcium-rich loess under the vines – one can taste the difference.  You have more fruit in Kočařík’s example, a denser body. You can also taste that he uses some oak barrique-aging (19 months in one of each of two-, three-, and four-year-old barrels).  It’s a wine that evolves as you drink it, provoking discussion.

Petr Kočařík was one of the first vinař to go biodynamic in the Czech Republic, a godfather of the movement in this country.  He doesn’t preach when one meets him, he just opens bottles and watches one’s reaction.  He grows 7 varieties on 1.8 hectares of vines, about 4 acres, doing so in the same town as one of the big volume makers.  While they are spraying, adding yeasts and enzymes, he adds nothing to the wines, no SO2, no chemical sprays on the vines, nothing.

In my experience all his wines are well above average.  Occasionally his wines are superlative: his Hibernal is a revelation, as well as his Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé.  I feel some of his wines are a bit “hot,” meaning the alcohol shows a little bit.  There was a tiny bit of heat on this Pinot Noir, but on a complex and living wine like this I won’t complain.


Milan Nestarec 2011 Frankovka

Milan Nestarec Antika Frankovka (Blaufrankish) 2011

The final wine.  When I poured it, the people I was with said, “Wow!”  We had been drinking ruby Pinots, and then this purple-red beast hit their glass.

Nestarec’s Frankova is a funky wine, a mixture of haute-couture vine yields, a “live-and-let-ferment” philosophy, and extreme  grape skin contact.  He reduced yields to .3 to .5 kilograms per vine, about 1/3 to 1/4 of what many other Czech quality makers use.  He then allowed the must (grape skins and liquid) to sit on the skins and seeds for 6 months before resting 24 months in oak barrels (50% new, 25% each 2nd and 3rd year).  Most wines get at most a month of skin contact.  No SO2 is used in this wine.

That’s a fair share of risky practices there, and the result?  So much fun.  This is Czech red with the dial turned well to the right.  Lots of red fruits, some savory notes, very full in the mouth.  But it’s no Rhone Clone or California Creeper, this proper Central European wine from a proper Central European grape, Frankovka, retains a wonderful freshness to compliment the richness.   There is a little ethyl acetate, this aromatic of nail polish remover, that comes when ethanol combines with acetic acid.  It’s a sign of a lot of oxygen contact post-fermentation.  One may call this a fault, but it’s a fault like a boxer’s broken nose, or an idiosyncratic laugh: It adds character.


Phew!  I hope you find this post interesting and informative.  I do apologize for the blurriness of some of these photos.  If you have any questions about the wines mentioned here, feel free to comment and ask me, I will answer the best that I can.  And if you are interested in visiting the vineyards and makers, I’d be happy to help.  You can contact the company I work for, Pathways.

Cheers! Or as they say in Czech, “Na Zdraví!”

The Father of Modern Czechs

Every country has their grandiose monuments and memorials. Some are internationally famous like the Statue of Liberty in New York City, or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The few like these come to symbolize their country as a whole, however incomplete or inadequately.

Many monuments fail to remain relevant. The Lion’s Mound at Waterloo probably fails to evoke awe from its visitors for its original purpose – to commemorate the Prince of Orange being shot in the shoulder and falling from his horse during the Battle of Waterloo. Condensing history, I can write he eventually got up; his dad built him that monument, and he became King of the Netherlands.

Did anyone’s pulse rate rise after reading that paragraph?  Many monuments fail to remain relevant.

But most monuments end up being more or less attractive clues to more or less relevant histories.  They reveal the values of their creators, evince those of the viewer, and maybe even inspire reflection about the present day. This is often the case in my small host country of the Czech Republic where many of the memorials don’t make any sense until I do a little research and ask a few questions. Then the stone and metal statues shudder a bit with story and life. Maybe the figures never had a palpable effect upon me growing up American, but I can understand why the country commemorates them.

And so, enter this guy: Father of the Nation, František Palacký.

P1050008  close up

Dour, stiff  – what did he do, and why should I care?

Short History Lesson

Palacký assembled the most comprehensive histories, in some centuries, of the Czech Lands. He did so at a time (early- to mid-19th century) when the Lands (Bohemia, Moravia, and a little of Silesia) were contemplating their identity within Europe, and imagining an existence independent of the Habsburg Empire. His histories celebrated the dominant eras of the Czechs, and ended in 1526, just a few years after Bohemia had capitulated to the Habsburgs and ceased to be an independent kingdom. They did not extend beyond 1526 because, in Palacký’s words, he, “would have to lie.” The period between 1526 and the late 18th-century also saw the decline of Czech influence in greater Europe and a withering of the Czech language, reduced to being the uneducated tongue of peasants.

"To Him, Revivalist and Leader of a Resurrected Nation"

“To Him, Revivalist and Leader of the Resurrected Nation”

By celebrating more influential and independent eras and the Czechs’ Slavic roots, Palacký, with other compatriots, was able to advance a revitalization of Czech national identity. (Ironically, he achieved much of this with German. He wrote in German initially, later in Czech, but spoke German at home). But this identity became a threat to the Habsburg Empire, whose Germanic seat was experiencing unrest from other national awakenings in Hungary, Italy, and Croatia. To protect and represent the Czechs, the historian had to become a politician.

"'Mluvim Česky v Čechách...' I said "I speak Czech in Bohemia.'"

“‘Mluvim Česky!’ I said “I speak Czech…  What?  I speak some English, yes.””

 

As a politician he was effective. On bringing about an independent or federal state from/of Austria, he failed; but on bringing about a land that was proud to speak and write about its own history in its own language – creating a national identity – he was a great success. His most celebrated quote verbalizes a laconic, upstart quality, an attitude I feel reflected by many Czechs today; Palacký was refusing an invitation to the Frankfurt Parliament of the German Empire in 1848 and wrote to it, “I am not a German, at least I don’t feel like one…”

P1050012

“So you’re not coming to Frankfurt?”

 

The above quote finishes, “… I am a Czech of Slavonic stock.” This phrase summarized much activity of his remaining 20-plus years. While continuing to edit Czech journals and write articles from Prague, his political career took him to Austria and a panslavic congress in Russia. He died in 1876.

So that’s what Palacký did. But why should I care? Well, I live here. He did more than any other to weave the strong web upon which Czech identity stands, and with which I interact every day.  Even if some guy on the street can’t recite Palacký’s bio, he speaks the language the historian encouraged.  A Czech in the East CZ and one in the West have common cultural touchstones, formed in a large part by Palacký’s histories. His great actions trickle down, influencing citizens in countless ways. The beautiful smile that comes when some Czech women sing a folk song, that might be a bit of Palacký’s doing too.P1050005

 

The Monument

Palacký was well respected.  Given the burgeoning nationalism, a monument to him was inevitable.  In 1901, respected sculptor Satinslav Suchard started the monument, finally finishing it in 1912. close to the Benedictine abbey of Emmaus.  While Palacký is seated, hewn from the granite around him, various bronze entities and spirits swirl about him.  The ugly, two-headed figure (seen above) crushing a person beneath it to Palacký’s right symbolizes the oppression suffered by the Czech people.

"From Fainting Oppression"

“From Fainting Oppression”

 

Above and around him the voices of the (I will say) Czech past and people call to him and to the viewer.  particularly evocative is the  old woman in her kroj, a traditional dress.

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To the Father of the Nation’s left, are two young men reawakening from a deep slumber.  And the words beneath them complete the phrase started on the other side under the two-headed beast:  “From fainting oppression… to new life reawaken the people.”

"To new life reawaken the people."

“To new life reawaken the people.”

Nowadays, the statue presides over a green park to its left, and a stone plaza in front of it.  Thousands of people stroll by each day catching trams and metros, and it’s common to see people drinking at the monument’s pedestal.  Maybe the ignoble situation is that some people leave their litter there, forgetting that they owe much to the granite man, calm as the culture swirls around him.

An interesting fact by which to finish the post:  This statue represented enough national pride that the during World War II the Nazi had it taken down.  Fortunately, those that disassembled it disobeyed civilly, and hid the bronze pieces in an overgrown area.  They were then reassembled after the war ended.

First Snowfall in Prague 2014

A more visual post this one, some shots recording Prague’s first snowfall for the 2014/2015 winter.  It’s grey and greyer right now; but while one can be discouraged, the inclement weather guides people towards cafes and pubs, where the long evenings are warmed by discussions and laughter.   At the same time, a cold has been sneezely, schnozily dripping it’s way through town.  I fear even some of the Charles’ Bridge statues have been exposed.

To a beautiful city, and to your health!

Looking across the bridge from Central Prague to Malá Strana and the castle district of Hradčany. The river is called the Vltava.

Croatia to Charles Bridge 240

St. John Nepomuk is a major figure in Czech hagiography. His refusal to disclose a confession to King Wenceslaus IV ( and/or to approve King Wenceslas’ choice for an abbot) had him thrown over the Charles’ Bridge and drowned.

Croatia to Charles Bridge 242

Bird flew? Bird flu? The statue does not seem to be enjoying herself right now.

Croatia to Charles Bridge 243

Heading towards Malá Strana. The cold weather has decreased the number of tourists – but still a fair share here.

Graffiti in Prague.

Let’s say you’ve known me for years. Or months. Or even… ten minutes. If you would have to choose one word to describe me after this time, it would probably be, “Street.” “Raw,” “Tough,” and, “Hustlin’” would also come to mind. Which is why I appreciate graffiti.

P1040043

“Hard as steel, and still getting harder.”

Oh!  That’s sgraffito, a technique that uses differently-colored plasters layered upon one another.  The upper layer is scratched away to create contrasts in color and light and an image emerges.  The one above is from a small zámek (chateau) in the quiet town of Brandýs nad Labem, north of Prague.  This mid-16th-century image stared at many Habsburg emperors and even Empress Maria-Theresa as she waited for her betrothed, Francis-Stephen of the Lorraine.  Sgraffito appears on many late-Renaissance walls in the Czech lands, intricate patterns on high royal structures.

But graffiti – Intricate patterns generally on bland concrete walls…

September and Graffiti in Prague 105September and Graffiti in Prague 106

… I like graffiti.

For every elephant and frolicking-in-the-glade scene the Habsburgs etched into plaster, the communist regime saw and raised the ante with concrete.   Durable, grey, stolid concrete.  Large flat walls of it. Build.  Build.  Build.  These structures, and ones raised by democratically-elected governments since, have become perfect surfaces for the art of graffiti.

Before we go further, I will split graffiti down into down into the murals you will see on this page, and tags.  Murals are the often-intricate, intensive renditions of an artist’s street name; tags are the quick marks of the artist’s street name or symbol.  Tags appear in a lot of places that irritate municipalities, in parks and on residences.  Murals almost need tolerance on the part of authorities, because they take a long time to create.

Most people reading this blog probably take it for granted that graffiti / street-art is socially acceptable.  But if graffiti is socially acceptable on some level, it is also dangerous, which is probably why it is acceptable today.  That last sentence is not circular logic.   If one is under 50, one’s been raised with it to some degree in hippie / hip-hop / protest-ish american culture.  Or it might jive nicely with the rebellious or wishing-to-be-so part of one’s psyche.  (These are my own observations and assumptions). An example of the above ideas is this photo:

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This is a section of the Lennon Wall in the malá strana district of Prague.  Decades ago, when it was truly dangerous to do so, students started posting images and quotes of John Lennon on a wall in a quiet square, a symbol of resistance against the communists.  Czechoslovakia became maybe more “Lennonist” than “Leninist” in 1989 (not my original joke), and the years that followed have seen thousands of tourists walk by, take a picture or draw a picture, and leave.  The sticky notes show solidarity with the current election protesters in Hong Kong.  As these notes are in Prague, the personal risk of protesting election procedures on a small Chinese island is small – but they relate to a rebellion!   For some, the frisson caused by an illicit statement on an “illegal” surface is the goal and reward.  For some, it is a true act of solidarity.  As many reasons exist as sticky notes, but this protest in Prague is acceptable here, possibly encouraged, even if it is threatened with batons in Hong Kong.

But graffiti  (usually the tags) can spontaneously combust beyond our level of acceptance.  Occasionally, but rarely, in Prague, a  hastily-drawn swastika stains a pillar – revealing and encouraging old hatreds for the short time before someone covers it up.  “But I’m not like that,” one says. Probably true, but any image that threatens upheaval of a region’s current situation for noble or nefarious reasons is uncomfortable.  “Give peace a chance,”  was revolutionary on the Lennon Wall; the statement still is, if but for its ubiquity.

If it is dangerous why do city governments tolerate it?  I assume, because 1) fighting it exhaustively would be a costly and exhausting battle, 2) some of the younger councilwomen and men have elements of the attitude mentioned earlier, and 3) the concrete is grey, and often out of historical city centers.

Around Prague, a lot of great murals glimmer and shine next to bike paths heading south.  Passing under the bridge between Braník and Barrandov (With its communist-issued concrete “Y” statue above) is a stylistic, colorful study in anthropology and art.  So are the tramwalls in front of the Nestlé offices in Modřany.  You can see 20-somethings, 30- somethings, painting away in the daytime. And last time:September and Graffiti in Prague 104The boy painting is 13-years-old.  He and his friends were with a young woman, who was spraying her own picture.  I asked her why she doing this street art.  “The colors,” she said.  They were all a little wary of an adult male interested in their work blubbering semi-correct Czech, and I didn’t stay too long.

Two weeks later, I passed to see their finished products.  Both had been painted over.  Graffiti can have a display life of days, making it the urban, secular equivalent to a buddhist sand mandala.  So the images you see below, they might still be here if you come to the Czech Republic, but probably not.

Enjoy!

(Colors and Contrast have been heighten on the following photos)

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Who is Minigolf? And what does Minigolf have against Vukos?!

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Green Space in Prague (1)

Paneláks, the concrete-panel apartment buildings that cover Central European cities, are a fact of life for many Praguers. Fortunately, so are nature reserves and parks. I’ve heard it said that Central Park has kept New York human. I’d say the copious green spaces of Prague have kept its humans relaxed.

I live in a panelák that is a five-minute walk from Prokopské Údolí (Prokop Valley), a 250-acre nature reserve reaching from the periphery of Prague – a land of wheat and colza fields – to the broader center of the city. I wouldn’t trade this location for a chic apartment overlooking Old Town Square; the sight of Prokopské’s forested hills and limestone cliffs is much more heavenly than Old Town’s Astronomical Clock.

A late September afternoon was a perfect chance to enjoy the valley.  I strolled out of the paneláks’ gray canyons to the reserve’s border of grass and young trees. The sky was clear and the air was warm where sunlight shined. Autumn sunlight in the Czech Republic is a glory unto itself, a never-enduring-seemingly-eternal gold that imbues surfaces with secret tales. On my hike, the light shone on the fruits of long-tended gardens, a monument surrounded by invading forest, the overturned bed of an ancient sea, and one of the oldest volcanos in Europe.

This yellow light also meant that the main growing season was almost finished. While leaves were still green on the wild apple trees that grew among the oaks and horse chestnuts, the fruit was plump and maybe overripe; some of the fruit was succumbing to fungus. Depending on the tree, the apples were small and green, yellow, or blushing red, tasting from sweet to tart, and textures were mealy to thick-skinned and crisp.   Some of the more beautiful examples of fruit trees were behind fences, dad blast it!

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A little garden house in which to store tools and maybe spend an evening…

Fences like these didn’t delineate the preserve from the paneláks so much as frame a few garden plots that stretched from the hilltop down to a little neighborhood of older houses. Some of these gardens were hundreds of feet long, terraced, and basking in the day’s light. I imagined, after caring for rows of cabbage and late tomatoes, the aging owner could enjoy the valley from his bench, elbows on the table, fingers interlacing and straightening.   His eyes study the negotiated border in front of him, where concrete meets forest, wondering…

At various times Prokopské Údolí was not so green. Obviously, volcanic activity or eons as a sea bottom do not a pretty forest make, but during the 19th century the valley was mined for its limestone. Coal smoke and industry denuded parts of the valley as buildings and a railroad were installed. But the mines were abandoned by 1905. Only a few houses remain, and a few factory ruins; the mines have been filled or have caved in, but the small rail-line still runs along the valley’s length, serving whistle-stops well beyond Prague to the town of Rakovnik.

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“Well, hey there my friendly Paleozoic calcareous folds, what are you doing up there?

Another memory lay not far from the gardens. At the base of a squat obelisk, a two-tailed lion silently roared, mourning. Around it trees encroached, and an invasive species of Japanese bamboo grew taller and taller. A thin path wound up to the memorial from the trail, so enough people were climbing up to examine the curiosity. One would find something similar in most European cities; the monument was a tribute to the men who had died fighting in World War I. Usually these structures are in town squares, but this one looked like it had been placed above the village, maybe to remind those below about war’s cost. But now one could only see it by walking on a path in thickening forest.

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Rain had been in surplus the past few weeks, and the woods through which I walked hid many types of mushrooms. It’s been a great season for fungi (I cannot say the same for many wine growers but that will be another post). Czechs are very fond of mushrooms; there is even a composer who listens to them and then makes their music. (Yes, “LISTENS”. Not, “ingests”.) By the time I had walked through, all the delicious varieties that I could have recognized were not there, having been snatched up earlier. What was left were varying sizes and shades of lemony-yellow (Dangerous), purple (Unknown), a wee orange one (Unknown) and a nearly complete fairy-ring of white bunches.

Walking among this mycological fiesta, I visited a few of my favorite spots in the reserve, high points on cliffs or steep hillsides that afford beautiful views of the valley. Below one such prominence the rail-line followed the path of the stream; trees obscured a playground in the valley where parents chatted and kids screamed happily. In another location, the view was a broad, grassy hillside between sections of cliffs, all crowned by woods. Joggers traversed its width; a person or two were simply sitting; hawks floated out from dead tree limbs above the green valley.

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View includes the laughter of unseen children.

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All the bread crumbs led TO this house. It feels like home!

I have often gone hiking or cycling in a Czech forest, only to find one or two houses half-hidden among the trees. Prokopské Údolí was no different; an old well-kept home, complete with the smell of wood smoke and a large garden, rested in a clearing just its size. Ivy climbed one wall, its window frames were wooden and in good condition, pottery jugs and bowls rested like still-lives behind the glass. Where three or four or five such houses would diminish the experience of the forest, just one increased the impression of the ring of mushrooms: I was walking in a fairy-tale.

The trail led down to the valley soon after, descending 30 vertical meters or so to the paved road on the valley floor. Parents were teaching their children to ride bikes; couples ran. Horse chestnut leaves covered the road in areas; blight had affected many of those trees, a virus that causes them to hasten their annual growth cycle. They were skeletal under the sky, in contrast to everything else.

Bighted Horse Chestnut trees.

Blighted Horse Chestnut trees.

Under the mossy ruins of an old bridge, the valley’s stream was surprisingly in much better shape. Urban waterways are rarely healthy, but there was plenty of fauna creeping across the undersides of stones, and even some caddisfly larva homes were there – always a good sign.

A section of old mine collapsed nearly a century ago, very close to a natural spring. The result was a quiet pond almost completely framed by tall rock walls. It is accessible by a small trail from the road. As usual, there were two swans paddling by the edge of the lake. Maybe like the owner of the forest house, the couple had found an idyllic place to live; locals come daily to feed them bread and vegetables.

This swan is quite happy with its home, a spring-fed pond.

This swan is quite happy with its home, a spring-fed pond.

Not a long walk from the pond, 30-meter, pointed cliffs overlooked the village of Hluboučepy. The two facing cliffs appeared to be granite, but between them lay crumbling red rock. These were the remains of an ancient volcano, from the cliffs’ edge I could look across to the East bank of the Vltava River and up the rail-lines that end at Smíchov Station. Below, Hluboučepy spread peacefully from the mouth of the valley.

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The half-eroded, crater edge of the volcano. If I had a mountain bike in the Czech Republic, the trail would be very, very tempting.

The red rock from the ancient volcano's mouth.

The red rock from the ancient volcano’s mouth.

On the opposing pointed cliff, I saw a man and two little girls. I walked over to ask if I could take their photo. There were no signs that said on the edge, “Warning! The City of Prague advises that playing, hiking, and possible even curiosity on cliffs can lead to serious injury or death.” Nothing like that. Nothing, in fact. Apparently, the assumption was that visitors would understand their personal reactions and responsibilities to gravity.

Arriving, at the cliff edge, I spoke with the man and his two daughters. The elder sister, 8-years-old, showed me a mushroom, a giant, edible hřib (boletus) they had found. But she wanted to leave it on the cliff’s edge for a reason I did not understand. Asking her father for paper, she then wrote out, with little help, “Prosim neprat [sic]!!! Please don’t take!!! Bitte nicht nehmen!!!”

A father teaching his children to be aware of their surroundings, and having fun.

A father teaching his children to be aware of their surroundings, and having fun.

As the sun set, it was an enjoyable conversation of language and culture with the father and daughters which went longer than either of us adults expected.  I had thought I would pass a minute with them instead of 10 or 15. The man probably wished the conversation had been about 30-seconds shorter because, as I was saying goodbye to his daughters but had not yet turned to walk away, he farted. [I don’t write that to be crude, but just to illustrate that the natural progression of life does not aspire to our poetry].

Trilingual sign from an 8-year-old Czech girl.  And one delicious mushroom...

Trilingual sign from an 8-year-old Czech girl. And one delicious mushroom…

Many if not most adventures in the Czech Republic end with alcohol (Many more begin with it). The amount doesn’t have to be much; but a winter hike might end in slivovice, an evening out with a glass of wine, and most everything ends with a beer. Prokopské Údolí is also home to one of my favorite hospody, or pubs, but that is another story. That one begins with, “With the sunlight almost gone, I left the autumn chill and entered the warm glow of the pub. Jirka poured me a jedenáct as he said hello…”

A nice finish to a beautiful walk.

A nice finish to a beautiful walk.