Friday, August 7, 2009

From drab to fab

Brno is a city of huge contrasts. There is the stunning old town with the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, Špilberk Castle - the feared prison of the Habsburg dynasty, then in total contrast there is the modern architectural building - Tugendhat Villa. There is the busy commercial centre and the nearby old industrial area on the edge of which we stayed and where there is a surprising amount of residences. There is the antiquated tram system that, when we drove in to the City we could see was being replaced. There is the local supermarket - cheap by any western standard, and yet selling limited fresh fruit and vegetables (but packet biscuits are as cheap as) and then there are the designer boutiques in the City centre. Yes, the two extremes - the wealthy business class and the much poorer balance of the population.

Brno makes it almost impossible to see the sights as a short stay tourist. The roads are a mess, and those which are driveable? (yep there is a good deal of question about that statement!) you need to share with trams and trolley buses. We try to get to the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul, the road up the long, steep hill is closed off - we try to come around from another area - the police stop me, and with no English (and us, no Czech) the young policewoman firmly but politely shows me a sign on her little rule book that says no cars or motorbikes - despite us following a line of traffic in, and the many parked cars around. So we give in - there ain't no way we can get close to the Cathedral and it will take me too long to crawl up! I ignore Kate's pleadings and just drive through the inner city for a look. It's tired and drab and dirty. And yet there are many buildings that in their hey day would have absolutely beautiful. We end up at the main rail /tram /bus terminus and there the true story of the city is told! The square is ringed with little kiosks that sell all sorts of food - takeaway from one window.

From here we program Kate for the Tugendhat Villa. At first she delivers us to the wrong end of the street, but after a little tap, directs us around another route, up the hill (which I knew was right as it sits on a hill overlooking the City) and into a residential area. Again, I thought she had it wrong, but wait, no. There it is. For an architectural masterpiece, this is a very sad building. Concrete cancer is eating chunks off and there are cracks very visible. Oh well, maybe the interior is in better condition. Ha ha - like that would be possible. Despite nothing on their website, or the local tourist information brochures, the young lass guarding the gate tells us that you can only visit with a tour - for which reservations must be made in advance! There are no vacancies for today and she has just turned away two other groups as we waited - hmmm.

As we leave Brno we see the answer to that age old question - where do old rockers go when they fade from glory? Why, they come to eastern Europe of course! This sign is near a fairly new suburban development on the fringes of Brno - apartment block after coloured apartment block that seem to stretch forever. And with separate packing garages all lined up in rows. Too bad if it is pouring with rain when you bring the groceries home here!

OK, so out of Brno into the countryside to see if we can find the Karst Caves. Only 14 kms, but no luck there either - there are no signposts for anything that looks like whats in our brochure. Once we get to Ochoz we know we have gone too far. And the car thinks so too as the highway through town is cobbled! Mind you there are a lot of renovations being done here in town - new money by the look of it. Maybe there are some people who are sick of Brno and are willing to commute! Something tells me that we should have just headed for Český Krumlov early this morning.

So off we go. The highway is amazingly bad. There are many times that we are actually driving in a rut between raised tar at the side of the road and where the centre line is - I mean, to cross it would be like driving up over a high gutter! And the corrugations in the outer lane are terrible - and it seems that they are deliberate, in the laying of the concrete (the inner lane is nowhere near as bad). Maybe it is to discourage trucks from speeding - unlike the one we travelled behind as we left Brno - a petrol tanker with a bogey on that was dancing all over the road as he sped away faster than the surrounding traffic. And we know where Citröen and Renault heaven is - in Slovakia and the Czech Republic (and Poland also I suspect!) In fact, there is obviously no car industry here - nor by the number of very old cars on the road, has the government instituted similar reforms as is Germany and the UK where a cash amount is paid as a deduction on the price of a new car if you trade a car more than 10 years old for crushing.

Over the last week we have been passing these giant chupa chups - large balls on very high columns that seem to serve no purpose than as advertising opportunities. We thought that they might have been water or even oil reservoirs, but when we saw a damaged one, it apears that they are hollow rather fagile structures. We first saw them in Slovakia where they were in every vista. You see them above buildings, above forests, above just about eveything. And today we saw the first couple here. They are not new and remind me of something very seventies.

We are now in the region of Bohemia, part of the area once known as Moravia. Kate, choosing the fastest route takes us cross country, down the back country roads, through open fields and through dark, cool forests. We pass people walking the family - right on the side of the highway! Babes in prams included! And every once in a while there is this amazing stench that hits you - and you know you are near to a poo-shooting farmer, spraying cow dung as fertilizer! And then there is the town named Dvorce!

And we buy fruit by the side of the road at Český Budějovice. Nectarines, grapes and apricots that are so tasteless and floury that we bin them as soon as we have eaten one. This is a much larger city than what we expected to see out here in a rural area. Gosh, who are we to expect anything?? LOL - obvious that we are not beer drinkers heh! The golden amber has been brewed here since the 13th century and the local Budweiser Bier (beer from Budweis) became, along with Plzeň's Pilsener, one of the best-known lagers. Then the yanks copied it and tried to stop them using the name - huh! They still have the rights to market the beer under it's original name in much of Europe. Of course, the yanks have tried to buy the rights to the name exclusively, but as a matter of national pride the Czech government told them where they could stick that! Good on them. And to today, beer brewing remains an important local industry.

OH. MY. GOD. You should see Český Krumlov! If we ever thought Prague was special, it was only because we had not seen here yet!!!! We drive in to the City from a hill above it. Straight away you get a special feeling about this town, set on the banks of the Vltava River and on an island trapped in a meandering bend in the river. It is a town of fascinating red roof tops, of a castle and chateau and a number of churches. And as we follow the advice of the hotel (and Kate's directions) up and over the highway and through the last remaining of ten former town gates, it is like being instantly transported back in time. The streets are cobbled and they dance under the car tyres.

Where do I start? Well, firstly we were struck by the number of pedestrians walking through the streets. Driving the car was almost like playing skittles! We couldn't see the hotel when Kate had told us "you have arrived at your destination", so I pulled in and Michael jumped out and got directions and a map at the information centre. The hotel had told us that we could drive in through the pedestrian area to them, get our permits for travel through, and then park the car. So, despite the looks we are getting from those on foot, we persevere. Turns out that if we had turned one more corner and crossed yet another bridge we would have been at the hotel. The Hotel Dvořák is amazing to say the least. Not only have they given us a ground floor room - alleluia, and we have not only amazing views of the painted castle chateau tower, we also have the lovliest room - large and airy and with a huge bathroom! And at an (just) affordable €90 including breakfast, it is cheaper than Melk!

I unpack. Michael parks the car and walks back. We leave the hotel to take a walk. We wander, dazed, almost bewildered at the sights we see. Many of the buildings date back to the early 16th century - a few even before this. There are those that are built in to the rock on which the castle sits, those with buttressed walls, those with sgraffiti on their facades, those that are tiny. There are tight little alleys and narrow cobbled streets. And then there is the large open Náměstí Svornosti (town square) with the impressive facades of the burgher houses facing it and the beautiful Column of the Holy Virgin. This is truly Bohemia Rhapsody at its very best!

Time for some dinner (given that we haven't had anything really since breakfast.) We amble up the street a bit and come to the Bolero Restaurant. The menu is large and impressive. The waiter takes our drinks order then come back, we send him away (not ready yet) and comes back again! By now we have decided on:
Jinočeská česnečka (South Bohemian Garlic Soup) Michael
Grilovaný hermelín, pečivo (Baked Camembert with Bread) Maria
Táborská basta – veprová pečeně, uzená pečeně, a pečená klobása, haiskový a bramborový knedlik, zeli (Pork roast, smoked roast beef, sausae, dumplings, potato dumplings, sauerkraut) Michael
Pikantí hovězí nudličky “Bolero”s bramboráčky, obloha – novězi svíčková, klobása, paprika, česnek, chilli (Spicy beef filed slices “Bolero” with tiny potato cakes) Maria
Served with a fresh salad, the food was wonderful - nothing like the Slovakian food, this is much lighter with cleaner flavours - very very fresh and delicious!
A second round of drinks - but gee, we are too full to consider dessert. And all for €36!
That is of course until we are walking back, and just before the bridge there is this amazingly great smell. A queue tell us that they are worth waiting for! 'They' are hollow rolls of pastry - about 5 inches wide and 2 inches across. The pastry is rolled on to cylinders and then rolled over an open fire. Once cooked (about 3 mins) they are rolled in sugar with cinnamon. Standing on the bridge, listening to a live band play at one of the eateries (all the 60s and 70s favourites) under the statue of the crucified Jesus, I feel truly as if I am in heaven!

Then back to the hotel while Michael climbs up the path to the castle to take a look. Hels is online and we chat about our plans for when she is here - she has the flu - had better get rid of it before she gets here I warn!! Then I am off to update the blog - bugger that, I bring the laptop into the bar and have a champagne while I do it - a 375 ml bottle that is! So you will have to forgive me any mistakes today! (That and two coffees when Michael gets back sets us back €11.)

And so here is a sneak peak of the pics he got tonight - if there is space, I'll add another one or two tomorrow - but I'm not promising anything!

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