Jičín – Gateway to Paradise

Eastern Escape 

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Overlooking Valdštejn square; it’s arcaded facades echoing the city’s Baroque influenced past.

Jičín, in the East Bohemia region of the country, is a small city and one of a small group of towns considered symbolic gates to the popular Český ráj region and its picturesque rock formations.

However, Jičín is more than just an entry point to the region. The city and the immediate surrounding area have their own deep history tied to old nobility. One man in particular, Duke Albrecht of Valdštejn (1583-1634), was instrumental in not only shaping the contemporary face of the city but also significant tracts of the Czech nation’s history.

Valdštejn was one of the most influential noblemen in his time and had grand visions for landscaping Jičín and adjoining localities into a large, continuous garden. While his vision was left incomplete following his assassination, much of what was accomplished remains intact to be explored by visitors.

If you decide to make Jičín your entry point to Český ráj, do make sure to set aside at least a day for for the city itself.

Valdštejn’s Garden 

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The 1.7 kilometre long Linden tree alley which leads from the centre of Jičín to Valdštejn holdings on the outskirts.

Valdštejn’s influence over Jičín and vicinity began shortly after the Battle of White Mountain, in 1620. White Mountain was an early and pivotal battle of the Thirty Years’ War and Valdštejn was an infantry commander on the victorious side of it. He received the title of Duke for his part in the battle and chose Jičín as his seat. He began the remodelling of the city in 1624.

Much of the landscaping work happend along a straight line running from Veliš, south west of the city, to Valdice, just on the city’s north east outskirts. The line bisects Valdštejn square, in the heart of Jičín, and touches seven important former Valdštejn holdings along its length.

At the south west terminus of the line is the ruin of Veliš castle. The castle dates to at least the early 1300s. While it successfully withstood seige by Swedish forces during the Thirty Years’ War, it was destroyed by imperial order in 1658.

Further along the line takes you to Jičín’s main square where you’ll see the Valdice gate tower, Valdštejn palace and the Church of Saint Jacob. Valdice gate is the last remaining tower from the city’s old fortification walls and a climb up to the top will reward you with a good view over the city and surrounding areas.

Valdštejn palace is the predominant structure on the square. The building existed before Valdštejn took possession of the city and he chose it as his palace; its current appearance is largely his doing. Today, the building is home to the Regional Museum and Gallery.

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Looking toward Valdice gate tower with Valdštejn palace on the right.

The Church of Saint Jacob was ordered built as a cathedral by Valdštejn in anticipation of establishing a diocese in Jičín. However, a diocese never was established and work on the building was halted after Valdštejn’s death. It was eventually completed as a church and consecrated in 1701.

Further along the line takes you to the 1.7 kilometre long Linden tree alley which leads fro the centre of the city to the Valdštejn loggia, summer house and associated park. The Linden tree alley was established in the early 1630s and is said to predate the gardens at the Versailles, in France, by around 60 years.

Finally, at the north east terminus of the line, is the former Carthusian monastery in Valdice. Valdštejn had it built with the intent that it would serve as a final resting place for himself and his closest family. Valdštejn’s plan, however, did not come to pass. His remains moved several times before coming to their final resting place in Mnichovo Hradiště, 32 kilometres to the west of Jičín. The monastery itself was closed in 1782 and eventually converted to a prison in 1857. It still serves as a prison today.

From an architectural standpoint, the buildings Valdštejn ordered show high degrees of early Baroque as well as Italian Mannerist and Classicism stylings. This is largely thanks to Valdštejn contracting the work out to prominent Italian architects of the day.

Meet Rumcajs and Family 

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Rumcajs, along with his wife, Manka, and their son, Cipísek.

On a much more contemporary timescale than Valdštejn, is Rumcajs and his family. They are central characters to a series of animated television tales set in the fictional Řáholec forest, near Jičín, and  you won’t avoid seeing them when you visit the city.

As the story goes, Rumcajs was working an honest life as a cobbler in Jičín when he was put out of business by the mayor.

The mayor was quite proud of his large feet and went to Rumcajs to have shoes made. When he asked if Rumcajs had ever seen feet so big, the mayor took it as a deep insult when the cobbler said he had seen bigger feet on someone in the nearby city of Hradec Králové. In response, the mayor promptly shut down the cobbler’s business “For insulting the mayoral feet” and banished Rumcajs and his family from the city.

To support his family, Rumcajs became a highwayman in Řáholec forest.

In the context of Czech popular culture, the Rumcajs stories were originally televised from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, with a total of 39 episodes being made. The stories remain popular and can be seen with some regularity on Czech television today.

A Feel for the Place 

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Sunset on Valdštejn square.

In the main, Jičín is not a particularly touristy place beyond the Valdštejn related attractions. However, with the wonders of Český ráj on its doorstep, it doesn’t need to be touristy.

It’s the sort of place that serves well as a base for your travels further into the region. It’s well conected by rail and bus to a number of tourist attractions in Český ráj and will give you a quieter place to come back to and unwind after a day at busier places.

However, the city is clearly proud of its past and if you go there at the right time you’ll see costumed actors taking on the roles of Albrecht of Valdštejn or Rumcajs.

Jičín clearly exists for its own residents before anything else, so there isn’t really a nightlife and most places in the centre seem to close around 19:30 and 20:00 on weeknights.

It does offer a respectable selection of accomodation and amenities for visitors of a variety of travel styles. Several hotels, bed and breakfasts and  holiday rentals are available and the city has two good sized supermarkets near the centre for the self catering type travellers to stock up on supplies.

Visiting and Learning More

As it is a gateway to a major tourist region, Jičín is not a particularly difficult place to access by road or rail.

A visit to the city’s webpage will give you a fuller picture of what the city offers the visitor in not only sightseeing, but also other holiday themes:

http://www.jicin.org/en/

Czech Beer 2 – The Suds of Change

Back to the Taps 

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Czech lager in a rather anonymous mug, what could go wrong?

I wrote an article about Czech beer on this blog a couple of years ago. Primarily, that article was an examination of the hype that surrounds Czech beer and if Czech beer lives up to it. The conclusion was that who makes the beer was often less important than who serves it. Basically, a great beer can be ruined by careless handling on the part of the pub or restaurant selling it.

After doing the requisite research to compile this new article, it is a conclusion that I still stand by today.

In this follow up article, I’ll be examining changes on the Czech beer landscape and the Czech relationship with beer that have taken place over the past few years. There have been quite a few changes to say the least.

Veteran brands than many nostalgic Czech beer drinkers lament as being mere shadows of their former selves due to foreign ownership and EU legislation are still with us, though their makers have had to come up with strategies to stay competitive.

Well established brands that are still Czech owned and often treated as preferable by Czech lager drinkers to the foreign owned veteran brands are still strong.

The microbrewery sector and their craft beers have made a huge impact in the last few years on the Czech beer scene and have had a profound effect on how Czechs drink beer these days.

I’ll take a look at each of these aspects in turn, plus a few other topics in this article:

Selling off the Big Names 

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Pilsner Urquell, first introduced in 1842, is a true icon among Czech beers

Almost immediately after the fall of socialism, some of the big names in Czech brewing were sold off to foreign owners. The Prague based Staropramen brewery has been passed from one foreign owner to another since 2000 and has been owned by American based Molson Coors since 2012.

Other examples of well known Czech breweries that are in fact foreign owned include Krušovice and Starobrno; both of which are owned by Dutch giant, Heineken.

Gambrinus, Kozel, Plzeňský Prazdroj and Radegast all came under ownership of Asahi Breweries of Japan in the 2016-2017 period.

Happily, not all the big names in Czech beer were sold to owners abroad. Budějovický Budvar, creator of the original recipe Budweiser beer, remains Czech owned.

The upside of foreign ownership is a much heightened brand awareness at the international level and larger budgets for advertising to maximise brand visibility. That’s why these brands are typically the ones you see sponsoring large events in the Czech lands and abroad and it’s their logos you most often see emblazoned on disposable plastic cups at such events

The downside is a percieved decline in quality owing to greater levels of bureaucracy and governmental regulation that have often forced unwelcome alteration to time honoured and proven recipes.

An additional downside is that through a combination of foreign ownership and sheer size, you don’t get a lot of variety out of the big names beyond their set standard line of beers. Most don’t experiment much at all beyond some dark beers and wheat beers and that makes them boring after a while.

Still Proudly Czech 

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Polička is one of a number of well established names that have remained Czech.

In this section, I’ll be looking at some very well established smaller and medium sized breweries that have managed to evade foreign ownership. The ones I mention here are an example of the ones which have nationwide, or nearly so, distribution.

These names are reflective of the fact that so many smaller Czech towns have their own breweries and those breweries have their own ways of doing things. It’s through these operators that you can experience how varied Czech beer really can be, even if you only stick to traditional lagers.

The family owned Bernard brewery as well as the Dalešice and Poutník breweries are from the Vysočina highlands region.

In the north-central regions, you’ll find the Polička brewery in the Pardubice region and the Primátor brewery in Náchod, near the border with Poland. A bit east of those, in the Olomouc region, you’ll find the Litovel brewery.

To the north-west, in the Liberec region, is the Svijany brewery. Svijany is a special case as Czech beer goes. Not only is it one of the oldest still functioning Czech breweries, it also has the distinction of having returned to Czech ownership in 2010 after a number of years of foreign ownership.

The plus of these breweries is that their traditional recipies have remained largely intact over the generations and will give you something much more authentic in the way of a traditional Czech lager experience.

Breweries in this category are in a position where they are big enough that they can challenge the big names in the lager game and yet small enough that they can, to some degree, also challenge the burgeoning microbrewery and craft beer movement with regards to ales and other specialty beers.

Beyond lagers, these small to medium operators usually carry wheat beers in their ranges and some of them have developed ales and seasonal special beers.

The Microbrew Invasion 

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Clock is one example of the many microbreweries that have emerged on the Czech beer scene in recent years

In the last decade or so, the world has seen an ever increasing number of microbreweries with their craft beers establishing themselves and gaining strength against traditional beer producers. The Czech lands have not been immune to this movement.

The growing popularity of microbrewing in the Czech Republic is understandable from a couple of points of view:

Firstly, in spite of all the stories about all the different kinds of Czech beer there are, lager still reigns supreme and more than 90% of Czech beer falls into that category. Some microbrewries make lagers, but most try to focus on other beer types. For those desiring a change from lager, the microbreweries offer that alternative. APA and IPA beer types as well as traditional ales and stouts are quite popular subjects of Czech microbrewery output these days.

Secondly, and this is by my own observation, younger Czechs in their 20s and 30s seem to have a rather different attitude to drinking beer than the generation before them does. Many younger Czechs seem to be taking a quality-over-quantity approach to their beer intake and often seem to prefer slowly drinking one or two glasses of a stronger beer type on a night as opposed to more quickly downing five or six pints of standard lager.

One of the big plusses of Microbreweries is that they have been something of a wake up call for the long established players of the Czech beer industry. Some who had been complacently resting on their laurels quickly adjusted their product lines to compete or came up with different strategies.

The two edged sword of microbrewries is their penchant for experimentation and pushing boundaries. Sometimes the experimentation feels as if there was a sincere effort to create something great while at other times it just feels as if the brewmaster is showing off with no regard for the customer’s subsequent drinking experience. I’ve experienced craft beers with flavour combinations that were truly vile and alcohol levels high enough that you could barely call them beer anymore.

A disadvantage, if arguably so, is that in some quarters craft beers have bred a level of snobbishness in their drinkers that is normally connected with stereotypes of wine aficionados. This, to me anyway, is at odds with the image of beer as an unpretentious beverage.

Battle of the Beers 

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Tank pubs, like Lokal, are a Czech beer culture tradition and one way the big names are staying competitive

Of course, on such a competitive playing field, the players need strategies.

In recent years, the big players have been exporting the idea of the traditional Czech “tankovna” or tank pub across Europe and it’s been a hit for them.

While long established in the Czech Republic, the tank pub is new elsewhere. The principle of the tankovna is that rather than shipping beer to pubs in smaller kegs, the beer is shipped in a tanker vehicle and transfered to copper holding tanks in the pub that are connected directly to the beer taps. This ensures freshness as the beer in tanks is replaced regularly while beer in kegs could have been sitting around in a warehouse for months before delivery to pubs.

So far, Czech style tank pubs have made major inroads in Austria, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Sweden.

Closer to home, several big name breweries have opened “own-brand” pubs and restaurants to offer a slightly more upscale feel from the average pub. Staropramen was the pioneer in this, having established their Potrefená Husa chain of restaurants at the end of the 1990s.

As mentioned earlier, the main strategy of the small to medium sized breweries seems to be one of adding more specialized items to their product lines that will compete with some of the microbrewery output. APA and IPA type beers are very common from the microbreweries and I have noticed several of the small to medium sized breweries have at least added an IPA or two to their product lines in recent years.

Microbreweries operate largely on the strategy of simply being different in both their products and their marketing. However, many of them are savvy enough to have a lager or two in their catalogues for safety.

Beer Alternatives 

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Kingswood cider, a product of Plzeňský Prazdroj and one of many ciders on the Czech market currently

So, what happens when a person is bored of traditional lagers but the microbrewery products just aren’t doing anything for them? Pubs surely must have alternatives in place for such people.

Not so very long ago, commercially made ciders started showing up in Czech pubs and shops. Initially, they were imported from Ireland or the UK before Czech producers started making their own.

One of the more widely available Czech made ciders is Kingswood, made by Plzeňský Prazdroj. Initially it wasn’t particularly good, but they have been working on the recipe and it has improved since being introduced.

Another beer alternative you can find, particularly in the summer months, are radler type beers. These citrus juice infused beers came across the border from Austria and Germany. While they are still available, their popularity has diminished somewhat over the past couple of years. the introduuction of cider may have had something to do with that.

Cider is experiencing an upswing in popularity and it’s not really a surprize when you consider the long history Czechs have with producing their own alcohol at home. Cider is one of those beverages you can make at home and many Czechs have taken to doing just that.

Beer Tourism 

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Dalešice beer, fresh at the source

Tourism based on beer is nothing new in the Czech Republic and it’s as strong as ever.

Breweries of all sizes and categories typically have restaurants on site where you can drink their beer at maximum freshness. A large number of these breweries also offer tours of their beer making facilities and may have displays of both contemporary and historic brewing equipment and processes on display.

Typically these tours are only for groups and most breweries will have a set minimum and maximum number of people for group size. You shouldn’t worry if you’re alone though, you may be able to get yourself a free spot on a tour if there is one.

While there are a multitude of companies who you can pay to take you in a group to a brewery for a tour, most breweries who offer tours have information about them directly on their websites. This can allow you to save some money by going directly to the brewery youself and bypassing the tour companies.

Learning More

With as interesting as the past few years have been in Czech beer, certainly the next few will be equally so and I’ll likely be writing a follow up to this article in a year or two.

These two recent news articles talk about recent changes to how Czechs drink beer and the exportation of the tank pub concept around Europe:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/business/czech-beer-habits-evolving

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/business/czech-tank-beer-taking-europe-by-storm

This link will take you to my first article on Czech beer from a few years ago:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/czechs-and-czech-culture/food-drink/czech-beer-up-to-the-hype/

This link is to an article I wrote about visiting the Dalešice brewery. It will give you an idea of what a tour at a smaller brewery can be like:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/vysocina-region/dalesice-brewery-hops-and-history/

Bramboráky – At Home and on the Street

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Bramboráky sizzling away at a festival market stall.

Widespread and Wonderful

Potato pancakes are a well known and savoured dish throughout Europe and further points around the world. The presence of the potato pancake in eastern European cuisine likely dates back to the early 19th century, once the potato had become an established crop in the eastern reaches of the continent after being brought to Europe from South America in the 16th century.

With as common a crop as the potato is, it’s no surprise that a myriad of potato pancake variations, based on national or personal tastes, have come into being over the centuries.

The Czech variation, the bramborák, reflects Czech culinary traditions by incorporating a high degree of garlic into the mix. Other standard ingredients of the Czech bramborák include marjoram and caraway.

Some regional variations of the bramborák incorporate saurkraut or smoked meat into the recipe.

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A bramborák ready to be savoured.

Enjoying the Czech Bramborák

The Czech spin on the potato pancake is a simple affair designed to be served up hot, straight from cooking with no further embelishment. This fact makes it a very good example of street food in the Czech lands as every festival that features food stands will have at least one stall selling bramboráky with an abundance of the snacks in various stages of frying or draining.

Potato pancakes in the Czech style are also something you can do at home without a great deal of fuss.

These two links will take you to two Czech style recipes to try yourself:

http://czechmatediary.com/2007/11/07/another-classic-czech-recipe-bramboraks-potato-pancakes-bramboraky/

http://czechgastronomy.com/potato-pancakes/

For something a bit different, this link will take you to a recipe for Slovak style potato pancakes:

http://www.slovakcooking.com/2009/recipes/potato-pancakes/

 

Villa Stiassni – Mismatched Mansion

The House that Disagreement Built 

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Vila Stiassni seen from the front gardens.

Designed and constructed between 1927 and 1929, Villa Stiassni is one of Brno’s many and varied architectural attractions.

Tucked away in the affluent surroundings of the city’s Masaryk Quarter, Villa Stiassni is hidden from view by the many trees which fill its extensive grounds and is only accessible by a single gate on Hroznová street which runs past it.

Once inside the grounds, visitors are greeted by the massive villa, with all the straight edges and purist lines that denote the Functionalist stylings of the interwar period. However, encased in that Modernist shell is an interior more akin to a late 19th century aristocratic manor with all the trappings and status symbols of socially elite ownership.

How could such oppulent interiors find themselves wrapped in an exterior of minimalist sensibilities when they flew directly in the face of the basic tennets of Modernism?

Let’s spend some time with Villa Stiassni and find out:

An Architect and his Customers 

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The villa reception hall with rich woodwork featured on the staircase and ceiling.

The primary architect for Villa Stiassni was Slovak born Ernst Wiesner (1890-1971). Wiesner was one of the most important and influential architects in Brno’s burgeoning Modernism trend of the time. Several buildings in Brno are creditable in whole or in part to him.

The Stiassnis, Alfred (1883-1961) and Hermine (1889-1962), owned several properties in Brno with this villa being their primary residence where they lived along with their only child, Susanne (1923-2005).

Alfred was a wealthy industrialist building his fortune in Brno’s thriving textile industry of the period.

Hermine had been born to wealth, her father a prominent figure in the coal industry. She had grown up surrounded by the highly visible status symbols of her class and was determined to hold onto and flaunt them in the home she and Alfred called their own.

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Alfred Stiassni’s study

It was in Hermine’s determination to keep and display her and Alfred’s wealth that the stylistic dischord between the villa’s exteriors and interiors had its origins.

With Wiesner pushing for Modernism inside and out while Hermine outright refused to be without the comforts of her wealthy upbringing, a compromise was in order.

While Wiesner tended to the design of the villa exteriors and the interiors of the villa’s service wing, design of the Stiassnis’ living quarters was tended to by Franz Wilfert of Vienna.

The affluence of the living quarters satisfied Hermine while the spartan minimalism of the service wing kept touch with Wiesner’s own vision for the villa.

Beyond the villa itself, Wiesner laid out the basic concepts for the surrounding gardens. True to Modernist style philosophies, the gardens were spacious and designed to work in harmony with the villa structure.

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Looking into the lower garden.

The lower, southern part of the garden was designed to afford a great deal of privacy and was planted with many trees and shrubs to accomplish the task. It is almost impossible to see into the villa property from the south. By contrast, the northern section of the garden offers some fantastic panoramic views of the areas surrounding the villa.

The Stiassnis were a very active family not only socially but also physically. The family was very involved in sports pursuits year round and evidence of their passion for fitness can be found in the tennis court and swimming pool that are included in the gardens as well as a variety of exercise equipment built into some rooms inside the villa.

Departure and Decline 

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Portraits of Alfred and Hermine Stiassni on display.

Though the villa bears their name, the Stiassnis only lived there for nine years. Their Jewish faith forced them to leave both the villa and the country in the face of impending German occupation. Initially, they escaped to Great Britain though later spent time in Brazil before ultimately settling in America. Descendants of the family still live in California today.

Ernst Wiesner fled the country in Spring of 1939 and spent the war years in Great Britain. Though he briefly returned to Brno after the war, he left again in 1948. He lived out the remainder of his life in Great Britain, mostly in Liverpool, where he died in 1971.

As with many of the properties owned by wealthy Czechs in the interwar period, Villa Stiassni was siezed and used by the Germans during the Second World War and subsequently taken into state control after the war.

From the post war nationalization until the 1990s, most residents of Brno knew the structure as the “Government Villa” as it was used by the government for ceremonial purposes and to accomodate VIP guests when they visited.

During this period, particularly through the 1970s and 1980s, the interiors of the villa were subject to a great deal of change and remodeling. Much of the remodeling rendered the villa interiors unrecognizable.

During the 1990s, the villa was privatized and used for business purposes as well as rented out for weddings and other social functions.

Since 2009, the villa has been under the jurisdiction and management of the National Monument Institute. Under this organization’s watch, the villa has been largely restored to the appearance it held while the Stiassnis called it home.

Restoration and Revival

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The staircase in the service wing of the villa, faithful to Wiesner’s vision.

In 2010, funding was received to begin restoration of the villa. Restorations lasted until 2014, when the villa was opened to the public, and included the removal of much of the remodeling that had been done through the 1970s and 80s.

Fortunately for those restoring the Villa, Hermine Stiassni had been a passionate and prolific painter and many of her paintings of the villa survived and gave researchers and workers much needed insights into some of the finer details and nuances of the living quarters that she knew so well.

The gardens were renovated at the same time as the villa, though some guesswork was required in the renovation as original plans did not survive to the present. In fact, the precise identity of the architect Wiesner hired to do the in-depth design work on the garden is a matter of speculation at present.

Also during restoration, new buildings were added on the north part of the property to serve as educational and research facilities dedicated to the restoration of modern architecture.

The villa is registered as a national cultural monument.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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Another angle on the villa exteriors.

Owing to its educational and research purposes, Villa Stiassni has more restricted public access than other attractions.

Typically the interiors are open for guided tours Friday through Sunday, a reservation is recomended for those tours. If you do not understand Czech, there are texts available in English and a few other languages to help you follow along.

The villa gardens can be visited without a guide.

The following link is the villa’s official page, where you can find out more about tour times and reservations:

https://www.vila-stiassni.cz/en

These two links will give you more information about the Villa’s early history and the life and work of Ernst Wiesner:

http://www.bam.brno.cz/en/object/c045-stiassny-villa?filter=code

http://www.bam.brno.cz/en/architect/32-ernst-wiesner?filter=code