Czechs in History – Jára Cimrman

A Forgotten Genius Rediscovered 

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The self-sculpted likeness of Cimrman.

Born to mixed Czech-Austrian parentage in the latter part of the 19th century, Jára Cimrman was a true Renaissance man who spent his life in tireless pursuit of many disciplines.

Despite having worn enough occupational hats in his life to have touched the lives of many other people and be remembered by them, Cimrman spent a period of time completely absent from the collective conciousness of his countrymen. He took to extensive travelling between the two world wars and was forgotten about until his works were rediscovered in the late 1960s.

Though Cimrman left Czechs with a wealth of successes and accomplishments to reflect upon and take pride in, what he did not leave behind was a clear image of what he looked like. Today, we have only a single picture of him from his childhood and self-sculpted likeness of indistinct facial features to know his physical form by.

Little is known of his formative years except to say that until his mid teens his parents concealed the fact that he was a boy in order to dress him in is older sister’s old clothes to save money. They took this charade as far as to send him to an all girl school for his basic education. No doubt, such experiences would set the stage for Jára’s life of peculiarity that lay ahead of him at that point in time.

A Learned Man 

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Cimrman’s bicycle designed to allow the rider to take four passengers.

Professionally, Cimrman made many contributions to many vocational fields in his life. He worked in both the sciences and the arts and had uncredited roles in the creation of many inventions that society of the day came to take for granted.

His role in assisting Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the creation of the airship which bore the count’s name went unrecorded.

During his many travels, he suggested the construction of the Panama Canal to the American government. A fact which has entirely escaped the history books.

A gifted inventor in his own right, Cimrman narrowly missed having his name immortalised as the inventor of dynamite due to the fact that he was five minutes later getting to the patent office with his design for it than Alfred Nobel was.

Despite missing credit for the above mentioned items, Cimrman did have some fruits to show for his labours as an inventor; among these inventions was a bicycle designed so the rider could take four passengers along with them on a ride. He also invented a bicycle for firemen that had a fire hose integral to the design.

He also published a special pocket guide for mushroom identification that catered to the needs of nearsighted people.

During his many travels to exotic lands, he invented a set of goggles to keep mosquitoes away from the eyes.

When he wasn’t inventing or exploring, Cimrman spent time working as a playwright, teacher, philosopher, watchmaker, dentist and even an obstetrician.

Remembering the Genius 

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Pages from Cimrman’s “Pocket Guide to Mushrooms for the Nearsighted”

One would expect that a man as accomplished as Jára Cimrman was would be properly documented in school history textbooks and encyclopedia articles. However, his life has instead been documented through popular culture avenues such as radio plays and theatre.

Shortly after the discovery of his works in 1966, the painstaking job of memorialising Cimrman through the performing arts was taken on by three men: Jiří Šebánek, Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak. It was through their careful documentation and research of his life, resulting in a series of plays, that Czechs learned about Cimrman and why they should be proud of him.

Indeed, the Czechs are very proud of Cimrman. So proud in fact that in 2005, he was voted overwhelmingly as the winner of “The Greatest Czech” contest, which was conducted by Czech Television.

Unfortunately, due to the small technicality of being completely fictional, Cimrman was disqualified from the competition. His disqualification did not sit well with those who nominated  him and petitions were put forth to have him reinstated in the competition. While Czech Television did not reinstate him, they did open a special category for fictional characters in the competition.

Cimrman, the Czechs and the Rest of the World 

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Zdeněk Svěrák (left) and the late Ladislav Smoljak.

Though the Jára Cimrman character was invented as a joke and a bit of fun, many Czechs found in him a very relatable individual who reflected the underdog; something many Czechs see their nation and society to be in the context of history. In that, Cimrman has taken on a status as a modern folk hero of sorts to many Czechs.

The Cimrman plays maintain a wide popularity among Czechs and the humour within them is very reflective of the ironic and dark nature of Czech humour in general. In fact, the Cimrman plays have been recommended by many as a way for foreigners to get familiar with Czech humour.

Happily, since 2014, the Prague based Cimrman English Studio has been working on English translations of the Cimrman plays so that foreigners without a command of Czech can enjoy them. They are taking great care to ensure that the humour translates accurately not only in language but also in meaning.

I attended a performance of their first translated play, “The Stand-in” when it was performed in Brno and enjoyed it emensely.

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the Jára Cimrman phenomenon and it shows no sign of slowing down or losing popularity.

The following link will take you to a news article and interview discussing the translation of the Cimrman plays to English:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/in-focus/english-stands-in-for-czech-in-first-translation-of-cimrman-classic

This link with take you to an article giving a general overview of Cimrman and what he means to Czech culture:

http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/czech-culture/jara-cimrman/

Love Locks in Brno – Please Don’t!

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Love locks in the vicinity of Brno’s Špilberk fortress. A very unwelcome sight.

This afternoon, we visitied Špilberk fortress; one of the main tourist attractions in Brno’s city centre. In addition to the exhibition we had gone there to see, there was also something I had not before seen in Brno and had been very much hoping I would never see here: love locks.

Being home to an increasing number of foreign workers and students, the city has seen a corresponding increase in toursim over the past few years. As a resident of Brno, I can say it’s great to see people interested in the city and I like sharing it with visitors. However, I don’t visit other cities to see love locks hanging on their historic monuments and I trust most visitors don’t come to Brno to see love locks hanging off of our attractions.

By all means, visit Brno; take in the sights, enjoy the cafes and pubs, take lots of pictures and buy souvenirs. However you choose to enjoy Brno, please help keep the city as free as possible of love locks.

For a fuller idea of the destructive potential of love locks, please take a look at my page on the subject in the main menu at the top of the blog page.

Autumn in Brno

Today was the first truly nice day in Brno since Autumn arrived. Up until now, the skies have been as grey as concrete and the air has been cold and wet. This afternoon, the sun came out, the skies were blue and it was opportunity that my camera and I were not about to squander….

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The photographic expedition started on Petrov Hill, in the vicinity of the city’s cathedral.

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From Petrov, we moved towards Špilberk fortress and the park that surrounds it.

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From Špilberk, we moved to Obilní trh park in the Veveří district.
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The former home of famed Czech composer Leoš Janáček can also be found in Veveří.
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From Veveří, we moved to Sady Osvobození. This park makes up the north east side of the city centre and includes the Janáček theatre. Pavillon restaurant and the city’s modern art gallery within it’s borders.

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Chessnuts in the park.

Burčák – Young and Spirited

An Aperitif for Autumn 

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Burčák, ready to be savoured…or is it?

Autumn in the Czech Republic, particularly the south east, is a time of wine festivals and celebrating the grape harvest. Many localities, large and small, host wine festivals where you can sample a range of locally produced wines and immerse yourself in the merriment and atmosphere. Beyond the festivals, you can also visit many wine cellars directly to sample their wares at the source.

Alongside the finished wines, you will also encounter burčák; a popular, cloudy concoction that is a fixture of the season. While there is no direct translation of the word “burčák”, it is most often referred to as “young wine” in English.

Burčák is, quite simply, juice from partially fermented grapes and is collected and sold while the yeast is still in suspension. Once the yeast is added, fermentation happens quickly and burčák only exists in a small window of time every year.

Generally, burčák can be found available anywhere from late August to the end of November. However, the last week of September and first two weeks of October are generally considered the best time to enjoy the drink.

If you find yourself in the Czech Republic and near the wine regions at this time of year, I certainly recommend you have at least one glass of burčák to get into the spirit of things.

Getting the Best from Burčák 

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Consistant yellow colour, no yeast sediment at the bottom and no residue in the empty sections of the cup. This is what good burčák should look like.

Buying burčák is far from a foolproof thing. It is typically sold by the cup or in anonymous PET plastic bottles; this gives less than honest types out to make a quick profit off the uninformed a wide margin to sell substandard or even fake burčák. Here, I present a few guidelines to help you avoid some of the traps that the uninitiated often fall into with this beverage:

Consider your location:

Burčák is a delicate thing and does not store or travel well at all. The further you are from the Moravian wine growing regions of the country’s south east, the lower your chances of getting good, authentic burčák become.

Point of purchase:

Only buy burčák at places where they can give you information about the provenance of what they are selling. You should be quite safe buying it directly from the producer at their cellar if it’s possible.

At officially sanctioned wine festivals, all the stalls should have some clear signage of which wine producer they represent along with business cards, brochures or other other documentation to support who they are and where their wine operations are located.

You may also be able to buy burčák at wine bars (vinárna or vinotéka) or at other establishments licensed to sell alcohol. As long as they are within the vicinity of the wine region and can tell you exactly where the burčák came from, you should feel reasonably secure buying in these places.

Never buy burčák from a stand alone vendor on the roadside or street. Wine festivals typically attract people out to make a quick profit who will set up tables on streets leading to the festival, but will not actually be part of it; avoid buying from these types.

Burčák has been a protected drink since shortly after the Czech Republic joined the European Union. True burčák can only be made from Moravian grown grapes; if the merchant selling it can’t reasonably prove that what they are selling came from there, think twice before buying from them.

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Everything good burčák is not: Brown with sediment and residue. It doesn’t get much worse than this.

Time of year:

As burčák is a protected speciality, there are several rules regulating it and the sale of it. One particular rule to keep in mind is that if you see someone selling burčák before the first of August or after the end of November, don’t buy from them. Not only are they not likely selling real burčák, they are also breaking the regulations for selling it as it is strictly against the rules to sell anything under the name “burčák” outside of the aforementioned window of time.

Take a good look:

Colour is very important in determining if burčák is fit to drink. As such, it’s best to buy from someone who serves it in clear, transparent and colourless cups or glasses. If they are serving it in any sort of opaque or coloured container, move on.

Burčák from white wine grapes should be a clear light to mid yellow colour with no hint of brown to it. If there is a brown cast, it indicates that the seller is not storing the burčák correctly or may be selling something that is not actually burčák at all. If handled properly, real burčák will not shift colour.

Good burčák will not have any yeast sediment sitting at the bottom of the container or leave any residue in the empty sections as you drink. If you see either of these things, the fermentation process has gone too far.

Burčák is also available in red and rose forms from red wine grapes. They should be of a clean red or pink colour respectively and the rules for brown colour and settled yeast I outlined for white wine burčák also apply to them.

Have a listen:

While we test finished wine by smell, burčák is best tested by sound. If you hold a freshly poured cup of it up to your ear and hear a fizzing noise, it means the fermentation process is still going. That’s very good sign.

Burčák and You 

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Examples of red and rose burčák on sale at an official wine festival. Both varieties are nice and clear in colour. You could buy these with confidence.

As with many alcoholic drinks, health benefits are ascribed to burčák. There is truth to these claims when it comes to this beverage.

The primary benefit of burčák is as a cleanser to rid the body of toxins. The traditional advice is to drink an amount of burčák equal to the amount of blood in your body. I don’t recommend taking in so much burčák at all, much less at one sitting.

Burčák is also known to be very high in vitamins, particularly of the B group.

It is a very deceptive drink that, when of very good quality, comes across as refreshingly light, sweet, crisp and leaves you wanting more. However, it goes to the head very quickly and if you make the mistake of drinking it as if it was grape soda you will certainly live to regret it.

It is also on the acid side and becomes more so as the fermentation process continues. If you have a sensitive stomach, you may want to limit your intake as you will feel it there.

Further  Reading

The following links will give you more information about burčák, how it’s made, where it fits into Czech culture and what to look for in good burčák:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/burcak-the-traditional-young-moravian-wine-in-season-again

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/the-art-of-burcak-making

https://www.expats.cz/prague/article/for-foodies/tips-for-buying-the-best-burcak-this-season/

Please also visit my existing article on Czech wine to get an idea of exactly where the Czech wine regions are and what the country offers to the wine lover:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/czechs-and-czech-culture/food-drink/czech-wine-older-than-the-country-itself/

Velký Přelet – The Great Flight

On Hand for Some History 

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At a bit past 09:15, “Nagano Express” arrives at Kunovice.

September 25, 2016 saw the much anticipated arrival of the former Czech air force Tupolev Tu-154M “Nagano Express” to her new home at the Kunovice air museum in the south east of the Czech Republic.

The aircraft bears the name “Nagano Express” as it was the aircraft that the gold medal winning Czech hockey team was flown home on from the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. As a Canadian, I have very clear memories of the extremely long and hard won game between Canada and the Czech Republic which saw the Czechs advance to the gold medal game and Canada settle for bronze.

It’s been a real labour of love to get this aircraft from where it sat inactive at Prague’s Kbely airport since it was retired from service in 2007 to Kunovice today.

Work to dismantle it in Prague began in late 2014 with smaller parts brought to Kunovice when possible. The work was done at weekends when time permitted.

The Power of Crowdfunding 

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Cranes lift and the truck drives away.

Perhaps the project’s greatest success has been to show the power of crowdfunding. The museum launched a crowdfunding project with the aim of raising 16,000 US Dollars for the project but had raised more than 50,000 US Dollars after a month of crowdfunding. They had raised the required money for the road transport in less than 48 hours from when the crowdfunding was initiated.

With the extra money, the museum will be able to reassemble the aircraft with fresh fasteners and give the aircraft a fresh coat of paint among other things.

This crowdfunding project has been one of the most successful in the Czech Republic to date.

Beyond the Velký Přelet project, money raised through the crowdfunding has allowed the museum to freshen up the appearances of some of their existing exhibits and to build a new entry building for the ticket desk and souvenir shop.

History in Good Hands 

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Some well deserved flag waving.

The Czech Republic has a rich aviation history that stretches back nearly to the dawn of powered flight. If, like me, you like things with wings; the country has a number of aircraft museums large and small that you could visit. Admittedly, some are much better  than others.

The museum at Kunovice is a medium sized collection that has seen it’s fortunes take a positive turn since a change in ownership and administration a few years ago.

While it is a completely outdoor museum at the moment and all of their exhibits show greater or lesser signs of exposure to the elements, there is a plan to build a permanent structure to house several of their aircraft indoors.

Such a development could allow the museum to stay open year round and restore many of their aircraft with the knowledge that those aircraft would remain in a protected state.

If you wish to know more about the museum at Kunovice and their activities, please visit my write up of it on my aviation blog; there you will also find links to the museum’s website and Facebook pages:

https://pickledwings.wordpress.com/museums/czech-museums/kunovice-air-museum-kunovice-czech-republic/

An English language summary of the Velký Přelet project can be found on the museum’s website:

http://www.museum-kunovice.cz/great-flight-english/

Pardubice – Meet You in the Middle

In the Heart of the Heart of Europe 

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The city’s Neo-Renaissance town hall on Pernstynske Square.

Located 96 kilometres east of Prague and 66 kilometres north east of the geographic centre of the Czech lands, Pardubice is a city of both historical and modern importance in the country. A city of nobility in the past and a city of industry and commerce in the modern era, Pardubice has much to offer year round to visitors with both historical and contemporary tastes. Whether you like sightseeing, taking in festivals or active holidays; there is something for you here.

Mentioned by name as early as the 1290s, Pardubice received official status as a town in 1340. It became a city of nobility in 1491 when it was purchased by Vilém II of Pernštejn, the most powerful Czech nobleman of the period. Under his ownership, the city flourished and was given a grand appearance reflecting his own high status. The legacy of Pernštejn family influence can be seen in the present day in the city’s preserved centre, which has been listed as a protected urban conservation area since the mid 1960s, and the adjoining chateau.

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Pernstynske Square

The city’s fortunes and status stayed strong and were further enhanced by the arrival of the first train in 1845. It was the beginning of Pardubice’s rise as an important transportation hub in the country, a status it still holds to the present day as a key stop on many passenger and freight train lines running across the country. Consequently, it is a very accessible city for visitors travelling  by rail.

Pardubice is well prepared for visitors and a visit to the tourist information office in the centre will provide you with an array of maps and brochures detailing self-guided historical walking tours among other activities to indulge in during your stay.

Architectural Allure  

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The city’s Renaissance style chateau.

If you’re drawn to architecture, Pardubice will certainly not dissapoint you. There is a range of buildings on view representing several styles from the medieval to the modern. You’ll see Gothic and Baroque intermingling seemlessly with Art Nouveau and Functionalist styles among others. If you arrive by rail, you’ll be immersed in the architecture immediately as the city’s main rail station is listed on the country’s register of protected historic sites and is considered a masterpiece of Modernist architecture.

Other architectural high points of the city include the landmark Renaissance style Green Gate tower which serves as the main point of entry to Pernstynske Square where a mix of well preserved Baroque, Classicist and Renaissance facades await you. Directly north of the square, you can find the city’s Renaissance style chateau.

Adjacent to Pernstynske Square, you’ll find Republic Square and the 20th century architecture it showcases. Here, the Art Nouveau style of the East bohemian Theatre sits in the company of the Functionalist facades of the Grand Shopping Centre and Food Technical School among others.

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The East Bohemian Theatre on Republic Square.

A particularly good way to see the architecture of the centre is via a pair of self guided walking tours the city has designed and provides maps to at the tourist information office.

The first of these trails is the “Vilém of Pernštéjn Trail” which guides you though the city’s Old Town district and shows you the pre 20th century architecture.

The second trail is called “Pardubice in the Footsteps of Silver A” and guides you through the 2oth century architecture of the centre with special emphasis on the events leading up to and following Operation Anthropoid in which Reinhard Heydrich, the high ranking Nazi overseer of German operations in the Czech lands during the early part of the Second World War, was attacked and mortally wounded by the Czechoslovak resistance cell “Silver A” in 1942.

Horsing Around in the Heartland 

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An Old Kladruby horse of the black variety at Slatiňany.

If you’re at all a lover of horses, Pardubice should certainly go on your itinerary when you visit the Czech Republic. The horse which graces the city’s coat of arms is more than a historical relic, it has kept a place of prominence for the city into the modern era.

On the south west corner of the city, a large purpose made arena plays host to a number of international horse related events and exhibitions through spring, summer and autumn. These events culminate in the Velká Pardubická, one of Europe’s most prestigious and demanding steeplechases. Pardubice has been host to this event since 1874.

The horse is such a large part of the city’s history that Pardubice is a member of Euro Equus, a network of five European cities with similarly deep historical and modern ties to horses.

A short distance from Pardubice, you will find Kladruby nad Labem and Slatiňany. Both localities are breeding centres for the Old Kladruby horse, a protected Czech breed of coach horse.

A Feel for the Place 

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Looking over the Christmas market in Pernstynske Square. Photo: J. Spencer

There’s more to Pardubice than Architecture and horses. It has been a university city since just after the Second World War and is very active in the chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering industries.

The city also offers a number of ways to spend free time including a network of cycling and in-line skating trails, a variety of sports facilities, a respectable range of dining and drinking establishments as well as theatre, cinema and other cultural pursuits.

Pardubice brands itself as a city of festivals and a quick look at the calendar of events on the city’s tourism website presents an array of events to satisfy a range of tastes. A number of festivals spotlighting theatre, music and visual arts take place throughout the year. Other festivals highlight food and drink, folklore, wine and games of skill.

Two larger events on the calendar are the city’s Christmas market in december and a well organized annual air show in early summer.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The legendary Spitfire fighter at the 2016 edition of the city’s air show.

Pardubice boasts accomodation options to suit a range of tastes and price ranges, so you should have no problem finding good lodgings if you visit.

The city itself will certainly keep you busy for a long weekend trip. If you factor in trips into the surrounding area, which Pardubice has good transport connections to much of, you could easily extend your visit to a full week.

The following links will provide you with more information about the city and events happening there to help you plan and time your visit to this city.

The first two links are the city’s tourism and city websites respectively:
http://www.visitpardubice.com/

http://www.pardubice.eu/en/

This is a link to the Euro Equus website which contains calendars of events for all five cities in that network:
http://www.euro-equus.eu/eng/index.html

This is the website for the city’s annual air show, it contains a running newsfeed on scheduled performers to the show as they are confirmed and photogalleries of shows past:
http://aviatickapout.cz/en/program/conception/

Český Šternberk – Stronghold on the Sázava

A Gothic Gem 

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View of Český Šternberk castle from near the Sázava river.

Perched above the Sázava river, which runs through Central Bohemia, Český Šternberk castle is an imposing presence overlooking the surrounding market town with which it shares the name.

Built in the mid 13th century, the castle is considered to be one of the Czech Republic’s best preserved examples of early Gothic architecture. While the interiors were converted to more comfortable living quarters through the late 1600s, after the castle’s defensive purposes had diminished, and remodeled to reflect Baroque tastes; the exteriors remained in Gothic style.

Unlike many castles and chateaus that one can visit in the Czech lands, Český Šternberk is not a state run facility; it remains in the hands of the original owners, the Sternberg family. It is one of two historic properties still owned by the Sternbergs in the region; the other being Jemniště chateau, a short distance to the south-west.

The Sternbergs 

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The cylindrical tower which was added to the castle during reconstrctions in the early 16th century.

In the context of Czech nobility, the Sternbergs are a truly ancient line. As they are still a living family and actively use Český Šternberk, one can’t get a full picture of this castle without a look at the family that has made it what it is.

The Sternberg name came into use in the mid 1200s when Zdeslav of Divišov, the builder of the castle, changed his surname to Sternberg to reflect the eight point star featured in his family coat of arms.

Historic Sternberg ownership of the castle lasted from the mid 1200s to 1712, when the branch of the family which owned it died out. In this period, the family briefly lost possession of the castle through a seige in the late 1400s. The castle was returned to the family in a ruined state; by the early 16th century, they had rebuilt and improved the castle as well as expanded it.

The second era of Sternberg ownership began when the surviving branch of the family purchased it in 1841. It remained in their hands until 1949, when it was seized by the Communist government and nationalised.

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An example of the Baroque influenced interiors which stand in contrast to the Gothic exteriors.

It is in this period that a very important chapter of the castle’s life took place. The owner of the castle, Jiří Sternberg, agreed to work as a steward to the building. He carefully inventoried the castle and acted as a guide to visitors. His act of creating an inventory of the castle property would ensure that when the family reclaimed the castle after the fall of Socialism, any missing items could be reliable located and recovered by the family.

Jiří died in 1965 and the Sternberk family left the Czech lands in 1968; first to Germany and then to Austria. The family returned in 1992 and reclaimed their historic properties under a set of laws put in place to return historic homes to their rightful owners when posible.

Ownership of the castle is currently in the hands of Zdeněk Sternberg, Jiří’s son.

A Living Castle 

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One of a number of birds of prey that can be seen in the castle courtyard.

The continuing relationship between the Sternbergs and this castle give it a unique quality and feel that many other castles and chateaus lack; that of having continuity.

While there is much history in the walls of this place, it does not carry the feel of a place that has been restored and approximated. Rather, it feels much more maintained and intact; more a time capsule than a museum.

Another aspect of contemporary Sternberg influence is the presence of a display of  live birds of prey in the courtyard of the castle. The birds are from a nearby wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre; for a donation which goes to pay for the feeding and care of the birds, visitors can photograph them. The presence of this display at the castle has roots in Zdeněk Sternberg’s own interest in birds of prey prior to the family leaving in 1968.

Visiting the Castle 

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The view of the Sázava river and surroundings that rewards visitors to the castle.

Getting to Český Šternberk is not particularly difficult as the townsite is easily accessible by bus, car or train. There are also nature trails in the area that will take you to the castle if you’re the trekking type.

There are several pubs and restaurants in the town, so refreshment after a tour of the castle is close at hand.

Český Šternberk is open year round for visitors though the hours are variable depending on time of year. From October to March, for example, one can only visit by prior arrangement.

This link to the castle website will give you more information about open hours and so forth:

http://www.hradceskysternberk.cz/introduction.html

This article, while a bit dated in places, is an interesting account of a journalist’s visit to the castle. It’s particularly interesting for exerpts from an interview with Zdeněk Sternberg that give first hand insight into what growing up around the castle was like:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/spotlight/the-castle-of-cesky-sternberk-persists-through-the-centuries