This article was originally published in The Irish Post November 26th 2015
Before I arrived I assumed the Czech people and the Irish would have a lot in common. There was a mutual liking for cabbage for a start, a fondness for poet-presidents and a natural inclination to appreciate a good night out.
The Tyn Church in the centre of Prague
A nation of beer drinkers and brewers would probably have their own word for craic, I reasoned. If they have I never discovered it. However, despite my difficulties with the Czech language, four days was long enough for me to realise we also share a gift for stories. And the Czechs have a lot to tell.
When I stumbled out of the taxi into the cobbled Old Town Square in the centre of Prague on my first evening the sight that greeted me was the stuff of dreams. And not just my dreams. The 600 year old Tyn church in all its gothic splendour has fuelled the imagination of generations. I didn’t need a guide book to tell me Walt Disney modelled Sleeping Beauty’s palace on the 600 year old spires. Any four year old would have recognised it.
The smell of cinnamon and warm red wine spread from the cafes and street stalls across the cobbles. Sugar was in the air with a promise of pancakes, and around the corner the figure of a skeleton struck the hour on the oldest working time piece in the world. The twelve apostles have been peering out of the astronomical clock since medieval times. They look down on the crowds that gather below rather like anxious Dads at the school gate. I found a café and dithered between hot wine or hot grog (rum, sugar and water). My companion said I was being charged 30 crown (about 90p) more than a reasonable Czech citizen would expect to pay away from the tourist trail, but it was worth it. I’m not sure what magic is, but it must be a little like my first glimpse of Prague on an ordinary week day evening.
The Czech Versailles
The Archbishop’s House in Kromeriz
It was a good start to a tour organised by the Czech Tourist Board. After Prague we headed east to the region of Movaria and the historic town of Kromeriz. With its elegant squaresand houses in ice cream colours, there is a lot to draw the visitor here, but the main attraction is the Archbishop’s castle and grounds, described by the New York Times Guide to Europe as “one of the greatest sculptured landscapes in Europe”. It’s the Czech Versailles, created almost at the same time, a calligraphy of tightly clipped hedges and 20,000 flowering annuals planted every summer.
The gardens come direct to us from the era of the Hapsburgs and the Medici’s when the Archbishop was also a ruler, a position that usually went to one of the younger sons of the most powerful families in Europe. There’s precious little evidence of religion inside or outside the castle. There’s a library to wonder at and a venerable wine cellar where you’re allowed to sample the contents if you book ahead. There’s also an impressive art collection bought from Oliver Cromwell’s government containing a few gems the puritans let go cheap.
What is here is hundreds of years of money, authority and extraordinary beauty. The assembly hall is a Mozart concerto made into swirls of white and gold plaster. It is still used for national occasions, but for one brief moment in the 19th century the room was the centre of European politics when the Hapsburg monarch moved his Council here because of unrest in Vienna. There are more stories within the walls than you can absorb on one afternoon. It has the feel of a stage set, as if a world leader is about to enter from one door and a wigged gentleman in 18th frock coat is going to depart from another, and it’s not surprising many films and television shows have been shot here, including the Oscar-winning Amadeus. That’s appropriate because in real life Mozart walked these corridors and his music echoed in these halls.
1930s posters advertising the Bata shoe company
Our next stop was a visit to the uncompromising red brick towers of Zlin. When Tomáš Baťa , a cobbler from a long line of cobblers, started the family business in 1898 Zlin was a small town. By the time of his death 30 years later it was a shoe metropolis. The city had its own airport, the largest cinema in Europe and the second tallest skyscraper in the world at the time.
If Kromeriz was a mini Versailles, Zlin was proudly declared the Manchester of middle Europe thanks to Bata shoes. The company opened factories across the world – from Canada to India – and even today there’s a pretty good chance you’ve got a pair of Bata shoes in your wardrobe. Or you did have.
By the 1930s Bata ran a health service and built model housing for its workers, managing schools and crèches for their children. When the depression hit hard the company came up with a novel solution to keep its factories open. It halved the price of shoes overnight. It worked.
What the visitor can see today is a fascinating shoe exhibition I recommend; an art décor office in a lift (complete with wash hand basin which caused the engineers months of extra work) that is unmissable; cutting edge modernist architecture and an awful lot of red brick, literally unmissable.
The city’s main attractions haven’t survived by chance. A lot of history has passed through Zlin since Tom Bata rode up and down in his office. The Nazis took over – an army needs boots – as did the communists after WWII. Later the industry was run into the ground, but the new Republic has worked hard to bring it back to its former glory, although civil servants now work in the red brick towers. Zlin is as much part of the country’s story as its baroque palaces and they are determined not to lose it.
And there are hints of other stories behind the display of shoes, ancient and modern, and inspirational quotes from old Man Bata. It’s better to be a good shoemaker than an incompetent king was one of his. A notice reveals many senior members of management happened to be at a US trade fair when World War II was declared. They decided not to come home. The Bata brother who remained behind was later accused of being a collaborator and the family fought the slur for decades. In 2007 they finally proved that surviving the Nazi regime was the not the same as supporting it. The clincher was the way the Bata family had transferred their Jewish staff to overseas posts when war become certain. On the day the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Dr and Mrs Straussler fled Zlin, one of the last Bata’s Jewish employees to leave. With them was their three year old son Tomáš, who we know better as the award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard.
Not far away is another Morvarian company set up in the same year as Bata. Jelinek make slivovitz, plum brandy – a favourite Czech tipple – and if you visit Distillery Land you get a chance to sample 100 proof spirit in generous measures. Only the Star of David engraved on an ancient cash register, the bottles of kosher slivovitz in the shop and a family tree with too many deaths in the 1940s tell another story.
Anti Depressant beer
Back in Prague to catch the flight home I lunched at a microbrewery – there are hundreds in every region, each one brewing up something special. I had the chance to sample Autumn Dark, advertised as the anti-depressant beer. Brewed on September 28th , it’s available until stocks last. After that you have to wait until next year. It tastes a bit like a Murphy’s Lite if Murphy’s made such a thing. Delicious..
To accompany the pint of 6.5 mood enhancer I had Czech goulash. It was a liquid Sunday dinner served in a bread bowl that has the added benefit of saving on the washing up. Double delicious.
An ordinary bread roll turns into….
…liquid Sunday dinner
I’m going back. I’m sure the Czech do have a word for craic, but it might take a little more research. And there are many more stories to discover.
photo credit: _MG_4799_web – Prague skyline from the Powder Tower via photopin (license)