Veselý Vánoce a Šťaštný Nový Rok!

IMG_5254

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

2018 is quickly drawing to a close and this is likely the last post at Beyond Prague before 2019.

It’s been a good year for the blog with some areas of the country which are new to me featured as well as existing posts on previously visited areas getting updates.

As always at this time of year, I extend my thanks for the continued readership of long term followers and thank newcomers for joining on.

May your holiday period be joyous and peaceful and may 2019 bring you prosperity and fresh horizons.

 

Advertisements

Plasy Monastery – Worship on Water

Baroque Pearl of Bohemia 

IMG_4372
Looking across the convent courtyard.

Plasy is a small town in West Bohemia that sits roughly in the centre of a triangle formed by the cities of Karlovy Vary, Plzeň and Prague.

The centrepiece of the town is the expansive former Cistercian monastery that sits near the Střela river that runs through the town. This monastery is considered to be one of the best preserved Baroque style structures in the Bohemian regions.

While the current look and layout of the monastery  dates largely to the 18th century, the monastery at Plasy was originally established in 1144.  Misfortune befell the monastery and Plasy during the Hussite Wars when the monastery was burned to the ground in 1421.

The monastery and surrounding community didn’t really begin to recover until after the end of the Thirty Years’ War. A constant program of rebuilding and expansion began in 1661 and lasted until the monastery’s abolition in 1785.

IMG_4407
Monastery clock tower.

The former monastery was taken into private hands in 1826 when Austrian Empire Chancellor Klement Václav Lothar Metternich purchased it in order to expand his existing land holdings in the region. Under Metternich’s ownership, the monsatery’s prelature building was converted to a chateau for he and his family to live when they were there.

Several of the other former monastery buildings were also repurposed and converted during Metternich’s tenure there. This period of the monastery’s history ended in 1945, when it was seized and taken under state control.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the buildings were further altered and repurposed. Work on restoration of the monstery would not begin until the 1970s.

In 1995, the monastery was declared a National Cultural Monument.

Today, the monastery is still very much a work in progress as far as restoration is concerned. However, much has been accomplished and some buildings in the structure are open to the public for tours.

An Unconventional Convent 

IMG_4373
Looking down a convent corridor.

Of the eight buildings that comprise the monastery site, the convent is really the heart of the place and the subject of the main tour when you visit.

The convent was constructed between 1711 and 1740, many prominent Czech artists and craftsmen of the day were contracted to create the convent’s structure and decorations.

Notable among the people involved with bringing the convent into reality was Jan Blažej Santini Aichel (1677-1723). A Czech architect of Italian ancestry, he holds a special place in the nation’s architectural history for his flexibility and inventiveness within the Baroque Gothic style. A number of his works went against ideas of the time, yet still retained key hallmarks of the style.

The first problem Santini had to overcome when designing the convent was how to support the massive structure’s weight on the marshy soil of the Střela river’s floodplain. His solution was to give the building a deep foundation on a system of wood pilings.

IMG_4367
One of the water testing pools visible on the tour.

Approximately 5,100 oak pilings were driven into the soil and topped with an oak beam grate. To this day, the weight of the convent is supported on that system. While the pilings and grate are kept completely submerged and can’t be seen, there are two water testing pools in the convent that you can see on the tour. Water quality is tested a number of times per day at these pools.

Sanitin Aichel also created a series of underground canals and a water pressure system to ensure that the wood foundation would stay completely submerged to protect it from rotting. The same system also provided some protection to the monastery from flooding.

Santini Aichel also contributed a complex series of self supporting staircases and an intricate spiral staircase to the convent’s structure.

Santini Aichel died before the convent was completed and his work was seen to completion by Kilián Ignác Dientzenhoffer (1689-1751), who spent some time studying under Santini Aichel, in 1740.

Paintings and Plasy Powder 

IMG_4379
Fresco of Saint Bernard in the chapel that bears his name.

Beyond the architectural qualities of the convent, the more artistic and academic aspects are also well covered on the tour.

The convent contains a number of fresco paintings on the ceilings of the corridors and in two chapels. a number of notable local painters of the day were contracted to do these frescoes. Among these painters were Petr Brandl (1668-1735) and Jakub Antonín Pink (1690-1748).

Also in the convent, you’ll find the winter refectory, former monastery library and study hall as well as the large Capitular Hall. The Capitular Hall was where new monks were accepted into the monastery and where new abbots were elected.

In its day, the monastery at Plasy was well regarded for the quality of medical care it provided, the monastery pharmacy was particularly well reputed and produced a stomach medicine that became much sought after for its effectiveness. Known as “Plasy Powder”, the monastery kept its recipe a tightly guarded secret. As popular and lucrative as their invention was, it was certainly within the monks’ interest to protect it.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

IMG_4385
The monastery pharmacy.

As mentioned earlier, the convent is the main tour at the monastery. As with most historic sights in the country, the bulk of tours are in the Czech language though it is possible to obtain texts in other languages to help non-Czech speakers follow along. Tours in English or German can be arranged as well. The convent tour lasts around an hour.

It is also possible to tour the clock tower building though tour options for it are a bit more limited.

The monastery is not difficult to access by road or rail from Plzeň. As the Plasy townsite is also on a number of of local cycling and walking trails, it can be accessed by those means as well.

If you choose to visit the monastery during summer high season, you may want to pack snacks with you or eat before you embark on your trip. We arrived in Plasy around the noon hour and somewhat hungry to find that there are only two restaurants near the monastery and they were very popular and busy at lunch time. We had to wait a bit for seats to become available.

This link will take you to the monastery website where you can find more specific information about how to get there and tours available:
https://www.klaster-plasy.eu/en

This website about Jan Blažej Santini Aichel will tell you more about his contribution to the monastery and other buildings abound the country he was involved in the design of:
http://www.santini.cz/en/plasy

Older Posts Revisited

IMG_4664
Looking into the computer development exhibit at the Brno Technical Museum.

 

This past week, I updated three of my existing articles on the blog. Two got fresh pictures and two received updates to their text.

My article on the Brno Technical Museum received fresh pictures and text updates to properly reflect a number of changes in its selection of permanent exhibits since I initially posted the article:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/museums/brno-technical-museum-a-proud-scientific-and-industrial-heritage/

Another Brno museum article that I updated was that of the Museum of Romani Culture. I’ve given the article fresh pictures. As there have been no changes to the museum’s permanent displays, the article text has not been changed:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/moravian-regions/southern-moravia/museum-of-romani-culture/

I have also expanded the text of the “Settling In” section in the sidebar menu:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/settling-in/

Things People Grow

While taking a break between larger posts, I decided to participate in one of the various fun photo challenges that some other bloggers run.

This photo is on the theme of “Things People Grow” for the photo challenge run by Cee Neuner on her photography blog.

I took this picture in June of 2018 near the small village of Koněšín in the Vysočina region of the Czech Republic. The area has a lot of poppy farms around and this seemed to be one of the last flowers left intact in the fields when I passed by it:

IMG_4228

To see more of Cee’s blog and what other people may put up in this and other photo challenges there, follow this link:

Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Things People Grow

Plzeň – Western Crossroads

History Happens Here 

IMG_4294
The Renaissance town hall an other historic buildings on Republic Square.

Located in the western reaches of Bohemia, approximately 90 kilometres south west of Prague, lies the city of Plzeň.

This is a city that has played a significant part in not only a number of national historic events, but also several international ones. It is also the birthplace of two iconic Czech brands known worldwide: Pilsner Urquell and Škoda.

First mentioned historically in 976 and officially made a municipality in 1295, the city has served as a centre of business and trade from its earliest days and played a very important role on the trade route linking Bohemia to points in Bavaria.

Plzeň was the nerve centre of Catholic anti-Hussite activity during the Hussite Wars which lasted from 1419 to 1434. It was beseiged three times during the Thirty Years War; successfuly by German forces between 1618 and 1621 and unsuccessfully by the Swedish in 1637 and 1648.

The city saw a significant surge in industry through the latter half of the 19th century that included the establishment of the Škoda Works in 1859, a company that would grow to become the country’s largest and most powerful engineering company for a number of years.

The late 19th century also saw an influx of Jewish families to the city which created an additional cultural influence in the city alongside residents of Czech and Germanic ethnicities.

Plzeň was geographically part of the Germanically influenced Sudetenland area. After the end of the First World War and the establishment of a free Czechoslovakia, there was a strong movement within the region to be made geographically a part of Austria rather than Czechoslovakia. Despite being made part of Czechoslovakia, Germanic influences remained and are still visible today alongside Czech and Jewish influences. In fact, perhaps the most obvious sign of retained Germanic influence can be seen by the use of the old German spelling of the city’s name “Pilsen” for international purposes.

It doesn’t take long after arriving in Plzeň to realise that it’s a city that wears its history on its sleeve.

Architectural Abundance

IMG_4305
Saint Bartholomew’s Cathedral, the city’s Gothic centrepiece.

If you’re a fan of architecture, Plzeň has much on offer for you. It is quite possible to organise your own self guided tour of various districts of the city that have notable architecture in them.

The centre of the city has been a cultural heritage preserve since 1989 and a host of different architectural styles are readily visible both in the centre and points beyond. Baroque, Classicist, Gothic, Modernist, Moorish Revival, Renaissance and other styles intermingle with each other to give Plzeň a very unique architectural face.

A very popular attraction to visit while in Plzeň is a series of restored Modernist interiors that some of the city’s wealthy industrialists from the interwar period commissioned from famed architect, Adolf Loos (1870-1933).

The Loos interiors are notable for their spaciousness, a hallmark of modernist style, and the variety of high quality materials used in their construction. Exotic woods along with high grade stone and glass figure prominently in the interiors.

IMG_4312
Looking into one of the Loos interiors.

It should be mentioned that if you wish to visit the Loos interiors, it is best to book ahead as they are popular and tours fill up quickly. Additionally, tours are not an everyday occurence.

As many of the people who commissioned Loos to create these interiors were from the city’s Jewish community, they represent more than just the Modernist architectural style; they also represent the influence of the Jewish community in Plzeň from the late 1800s until the Second World War.

Beyond the Loos interiors, the Jewish influence gave the city two other Architectural gems; one you have to look for and the other you can’t avoid: the Old Synagogue and the Great Synagogue.

IMG_4607
The Great Synagogue.

The Old Synagogue is towards the south west corner of the centre and tucked away from view in a courtyard near Smetana Park. It is possible to view the interiors of the Old Synagogue and a unique monument to victims of the Holocaust.

On the western edge of the centre, you’ll find the monumental Great Synagogue with its eye catching Moorish Reivival facade and interiors.

This is the largest synagogue in the country, the second largest in Europe and the third largest in the world.

Besides being a stunning architectural attraction, it is without a doubt the city’s most visible testament to the wealth and influence the city’s Jewish population had prior to the Second World War.

Thank You, America 

IMG_4599
The monument to American military units who liberated the city in 1945.

A short walk from the Old Synagogue will lead you to the monument to the American army units who liberated the city in May of 1945.

Plzeň continues to show gratitude for its liberation in the present through its annual Liberation Festival in May.

The festival includes a convoy of historic vehicles and many people in military uniforms of the period. If military history is your thing, a visit to the city in May could be worth looking into.

The city also has a museum dedicated to General George Patton, who led the liberation. However, the museum has been closed for renovations since May of 2018.

A Pause for Thought  

IMG_4643
The meditation garden on the city’s southern edge.

After a day of walking around and taking in Plzeň’s attractions, you might want to take some time to relax a bit.

The city has a number of parks you could use to take a breather, but one is particularly special.

On the city’s southern edge, you’ll find the meditation garden that includes a memorial to all victims of evil.

The beautifully landscaped and tranquil garden was the life’s work of Plzeň resident Luboš Hruška (1927-2007).

Hruška was a soldier who was caught while trying to escape the newly Socialist Czechoslovakia in 1949 and was sentenced to 18 years of hard labour.

He was transfered through a number of prisons and labour camps before receiving an amnesty in 1960. As a result of the cruelty he endured and saw others endure in prison, he resolved to convert a fruit orchard he had inherited from his parents into a monument to all victims of evil regimes.

Upon his release, he set to work clearing that land and learning the fundamentals of landscaping and plant care. The garden includes a number of different plant species as well as pilgrimage path with 12 unique sandstone sculptures as well as a chapel.

The garden can be reached by public transport and some walking.

The Nation’s Beer Capital 

IMG_4588
The trademark main gate of the Pilsner Urquell brewery.

Even though I’ve written a dedicated blog post about the legendary Pilsner Urquell brewery, which is a major tourism draw in the city and I heartily recommend visiting it, there’s more to Plzeň and its beer culture than this most famous of beers.

Beyond the brewery, there is also a beer museum in the centre of the city in the old municipal brewery building.

Additionally, there is no shortage of pubs around town where you can try a wider variety of beers. Definitely have the Pilsner Urquell experience while you’re in Plzeň, but by no means limit yourself to that one brand.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

IMG_4320
Another echo of the past can be found in the Socialist Realism art prserved in the main train station.

Over all, Plzeň has a fairly relaxed atmosphere and doesn’t come across as touristy. It has a respectable range of accomodation and dining options to suit a variety of tastes and price ranges.

The main toursit information office is beside the town hall on Republic Square and is stocked with a good range of souvenir items and brochures for attractions. We found the staff friendly and helpful.

While Plzeň is well connected by both rail and bus to points of interest around it, getting to the city itself from points further away can be time consuming. Travelling by train from Brno took us roughly five and half hours each way and involved a transfer in Prague. The trip was worth it, but quite long relative to the physical distance between Brno and Plzeň. I have it on good authority that the trip takes almost as long by car.

This link will take you to the city’s official tourism information page:
http://www.pilsen.eu/tourist/visit/the-best-from-pilsen/the-best-from-pilsen.aspx

These links will help you see the city from an architectural focus. The first is for the city’s architectural manual, which includes maps for self guided touring and detailed information about the various buildings you can see. The second is the dedicated page for the Loos interiors where you can book a tour:
http://pam.plzne.cz/en/
http://www.adolfloosplzen.cz/en/

Pilsner Brewery – Behind the Beer

To the Source 

IMG_4588
The trademark gate that leads into the Pilsner Urquell brewery.

On November 11 of 1842, in the West Bohemian city of Plzeň, a watershed event took place when the first glasses of Pilsner Urquell beer were served to the public during the annual St. Martin’s Day festivities.

Prior to that date, nobody had seen beer of its clarity or tasted beer of its crispness and balance. Modern beer had arrived.

The beer was an immediate hit locally and had achieved international acclaim within a few short decades. The beer world would never be the same following the introduction of this very influential brand.

Pilsner Urquell was the world’s first pale lager and became easily the most copied beer in the world. Around two thirds of the beers the world knows today were influenced by Pilsner Urquell.

All of this renown and prestige most certainly begs the question of exactly what lies behind this legendary brew that not only enabled it to take the world by storm, but keeps it so respected in the modern age.

Happily, a trip to Plzeň will give you access to the historic Pilsner Urquell brewery. Tours of the brewery run regularly in Czech, English and German languages and give one a very good overview of what makes this beer what it is.

The New Standard 

IMG_4586
General view across the brewery area from near the gate.

Upon passing through the historic entry gate, we were struck by the mix of historic and modern buildings on the site. This is a company clearly in touch with their roots and they wear their pride on their sleeves.

Individual registration for the 100 minute long tours happens in the clearly marked visitor centre.

The tour starts with a historical overview of how Plzeň’s over 200 independent brew houses were consolidated into a single municipal brewery in the early 1840s under the watch of Bavarian brewmaster, Josef Groll (1813-1887).

This part of the tour also outlines how Groll developed and perfected the recipe for the new beer and the awards and accolades that he, his beer and the brewery had bestowed upon them following the beer’s introduction.

Starting at the Finish 

IMG_4564
The cavernous bottling hall.

From the visitor centre, our tour group was taken across the brewery area by bus to the packaging facility. Along the way, our guide pointed out the various historic buildings on the site, what they had been used for and the period they were in use for those purposes. The amount of historical preservation here is remarkable.

The packaging hall is immense in every regard. Our group boarded a lift that our guide informed us was the largest passenger lift in the Czech Republic. Once on the upper floor, the guide rattled off some utterly astounding figures for how many bottles, cans and kegs could be filled and sealed per hour here.

From there, the group went out on a balcony that overlooks the floor of the sprawling packaging hall. While workers cleaned one bottling line, a seemingly endless line of bottles were travelling along an adjacent line to be filled.

It should be noted at this point that there is no guarantee that you will always see bottling in progress on a tour.

Fermenting the Revolution 

IMG_4570
The modern, computer controlled brewing hall equiped with classic copper vats.

Our next stop on the tour was the brewing hall. It was here that were learned exactly what makes Pilsner Urquell the unique beer that it is.

First, all of the ingredients are Czech in origin. Plzeň’s own water, known for its softness, gives a smooth texture. Special hops from Žatec, in the north west of the country, give the beer low bitterness and notable aromatic qualities.

Special strains of brewer’s yeast and Bohemian barley are also part of the recipe.

Aside of ingredients, special triple malting and cold fermentation processes also contribute to this beer being unique.

As we passed through the modern, computer controlled brewing hall, our guide drew our attention to the large copper vats that dominated the room. In spite of its high material cost as well as labour and time intensive maintenance regimes, copper is still considered the ideal material to brew beer in.

Getting Old School 

IMG_4577
Part of the brewery’s extensive and historic underground tunnel system.

After looking at the modern side of things, it was time to balance the tour with a look at the historic end of the business.

Keeping things cold is the key to good lager and prior to the advent of modern refrigeration methods, keeping things deep underground was the best way to keep them cold.

The brewery built an extensive network of underground tunnels for keeping things cold in their early days. Our tour finished by taking a look at a small fraction of this tunnel system.

Here, we were shown older brewing methods and told a great deal about the use of oak casks in the brewing process prior to the use of metal containers.

The brewery still makes small batches of their beer by these traditional methods and the tour ends with a free sample of unfiltered and unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell beer tapped straight from an oak cask.

Gifts and Grub 

IMG_4583
Cold brews and good food at the brewery restaurant.

The tour lets off at the brewery’s sizable and well stocked gift shop. Here, you can browse a wide variety of apparel and other gift items emblazoned with one form or another of the Pilsner Urquell trademark.

I would recommend first going to the brewery restaurant, Na Spilce, however.

Not only does the legwork of a 100 minute tour develop an appetite, but if you indulged in the free sample of unfiltered and unpasteurised beer at the end of the tour you might want to get a pint of the modern item for comparison while it’s still fresh on your mind and palate.

We very much enjoyed our post tour lunch at Na Spilce. The beer was as fresh as you would expect for being right at the source and the food was top notch.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

IMG_1122
Pilsner Urquell: You tried it and probably liked it. Now you understand it.

Plzeň is not the easiest of Czech cities to travel to. While there is a direct train between Prague and Munich that stops there, if you’re going to the city from anywhere else in the Czech Republic that is a significant distance away you’ll likely be in for a longish trip regardless of your mode of transport.

That said, once you’re in the city, the brewery is very easy to reach on foot from Plzeň’s historic centre.

If you go there as an individual or only two or three people, you likely won’t need to reserve a spot on a tour ahead of time. Tours run regularly and you can browse the gift shop or have a pint in the restaurant to pass the time if there’s a wait for your tour.

If you’re a beer fan and in the Plzeň area, a tour here is a must. Even if you’re not a beer fan, it’s a fascinating look into one of the most influential products to ever come out of the Czech lands.

This link will tell you all you need to know about tour schedules and prices:

http://www.prazdrojvisit.cz/en/tours/pilsner-urquell-brewery-tour/

 

Vranovsko – A Southern Sanctuary

Idylic, but Not Idle 

IMG_4108
Looking across part of the expansive Vranov reservoir, one of the main attractions in the region.

Vranovsko is a microregion of South Moravia that sits on the border with Austria and is part of the larger Znojemsko administrative district.

Nature and outdoor activities are the main draws to the Vranov region, though the area also boasts a number of historical sites that are well worth visiting.

We recently spent a long weekend in the area, while it certainly wasn’t enough to see the whole region, it was enough that I can give you a small taste of what’s there and what’s possible to see and do with two or three days there.

At that, let’s see a bit of Vranovsko:

Day 1 – Vranov nad Dyjí

IMG_4102
Vranov’s imposing and spectacular chateau sits on the rocks above the town site.

We took our accomodation for the weekend in Vranov nad Dyjí, the town from which the microregion takes its name.

The town sits on the Dyje river, known as the Thaya river in Austria, and is about three kilometres from the Austrian border. The town site is located inside the borders of Podyjí National Park, a transboundary park which connects to Austria’s Thayatal National Park.

On first impressions, Vranov might come across as a bit sleepy. However, it makes for a good base to visit the region, has accomodation and restarant options, a good tourist information office and attractions of its own to offer.

If you don’t have a car, Vranov can be reached by bus from points around. We reached it by a combination of a bus from Brno to Znojmo and another bus from Znojmo to the town.

Vranov’s primary tourist draws are its spectacular Baroque chateau that looks down upon the town site from the rocks above and the extensive Vranov reservoir area.

After we checked into our hotel, we walked to the chateau via a trail through a nature park. It was a lovely area to walk through, but with a significant incline to the trail. It definitely is not for anyone with mobility issues or who isn’t of a reasonable level of physical fitness; if you fall into one of those categories, you’ll want to ask at tourist information about alternate methods to reach the chateau.

As with all wooded areas of the Czech Republic, a good insect repellent specified against ticks should be going with you if you go there.

Day 2 – Znojmo 

IMG_4081
The two main landmorks of Znojmo, the town hall tower (left) and the St. Nicholas church.

On our second day, we took a day trip to Znojmo, a popular tourist city with important ties to both the historic and contemporary faces of the country.

From a historical point of view, Znojmo maintains a good degree of medieval  architecture including a castle complex that dates to the 11th century. You can also tour the city’s network of underground tunnels that date to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Other important historical sites in the town include the St. Nicholas church which dates to the 1340s and the town hall tower which dates to the 1440s.

In the Contemporary sense, Znojmo and the administrative region it’s the heart of make up the western edge of the South Moravian wine growing regions. As such, a good glass of local wine is never far away when you visit here.

Day 3 – Vranov Reservoir and Bítov Castle 

IMG_4217
Watersport opportunities abound at the Vranov reservoir.

On our third and final day in the region, we paid a visit to the scenic and extensive Vranov reservoir. Nicknamed by some as the “Adriatic of Moravia”, the reservoir is large enough to feel like an inland sea.

The reservoir is noted for the warmth and cleanliness of its water and is very popular for a wide variety of watersports, hiking and cycling trails around it and as a venue for special events of many sorts.

A system of transport boats operates to take visitors around the reservoir for both sightseeing and to visit castles, such as Bítov and Cornštejn, which overlook it.

There is a very friendly atmosphere to the reservoir. Many people keep weekend cabins there and there was no shortage of people waving and shouting greetings from the shore as our boat went past.

IMG_4144
Looking up at Bítov castle from the transport boat.

After an hour long and very enjoyable boat ride, we arrived at our destination – Bítov castle.

Dating to the 11th century, Bítov is one of the oldest and largest of Moravian castles. It’s been remodelled by various owners through its history and its current look was established in the 19th century.

There’s quite a bit to see at this castle, so you could certainly make a day trip of it. Four different tours of the interiors are on offer.

If you have mobility issues of any sort or are not of reasonably good physical fitness, you should certainly not try to access Bítov via the reservoir boats. The trail leading to the castle from the boat dock is steep and uneven.

Visiting and Learning More

IMG_4143
Passing the ruins of Cornštejn castle.

As I stated at the beginning, this blog entry was simply to give you a small taste of what one can do with a few days in the region.

Vranovsko offers much more than what I’ve covered here.

If you have a week or more and like nature, castles and wine; you may want to try out this particular nook of the Czech lands.

This link will take you to the official Vranovsko tourism website so you can see all of what’s on offer and plan your own visit there:

http://www.navstivtevranovsko.cz/en/