The koláč is, without doubt, a very well known example of the sweeter side of Czech cuisine. In fact, many who have visited or been raised in the areas of America with a high degree of Czech ancestry in the local population will most certainly be familiar with a variation of the treat.
Czech immigrants to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought the koláč with them and their descendants have proudly kept the tradition alive to the present and added a few touches to it that make it their own.
Having spoken to a number of Czechs who have tried koláč types in America and Americans who have tried traditional variants of the treat in the Czech lands, opinions are quite variable on how close present American types are to traditional Czech ones.
Most Czechs I’ve met who have tried American koláčes tend to say the pastry part of it isn’t quite right. This is a perfectly understandable reaction if the maker of the koláč used the ubiquitous “all-purpose” flour available in North American supermarkets. Anyone who has found themselves navigating the flour minefield that exists in Czech supermarkets, knows that “all-purpose” is just not a flour type that exists here and one must chose between three or four different grades of flour depending on what they are planning to make.
The koláč is part of a very large category of round cakes, very often connected to wedding celebrations, that can be found throughout the Slavonic influenced areas of Europe. Their forms are as various as the countries they come from.
Czech Koláč Varieties
Generally speaking, the Czech koláč exists in three main types. All feature a semi-sweet pastry base with farmer’s cheese, known as tvaroh in Czech, as a filling or a bed for sweet fillings like fruit or poppy seed or walnut paste.
The wedding koláč (svatební koláče) is the smallest of the Czech varieties and, as the name suggests, is closely associated with weddings and often used as part of a wedding invitation.
They are finger food sized and usually made in large numbers to satisfy large groups of people. A Czech wedding really isn’t complete without a steady flow of these. However, one does not need to attend a wedding to indulge in this type of koláč as they are also often made for other family events where a large number of people are expected.
The standard koláč (koláč) is the most common member of the Czech group and is available in all bakeries across the country.
These are about the size of the palm of your hand and good for snacking or desert.
Care should be taken when shopping for this type of koláč as their quality is as variable as that of the bakeries you can buy them from.
Smaller independent bakeries are your best bet for finding a good quality koláč as most chain bakeries use off-site mass production methods.
The third major type of Czech koláč is the Wallachian frgál (Valašské frgále) and it’s the giant of the family coming in at the size of a small pizza. Originating in the Moravian Wallachia region in the far east of the country, the frgál is not as frequently seen as other Czech koláč varieties.
It’s not unusual to see stands selling frgál at festive markets in the east of the country.
Owing to their size, they are typically sold as whole pieces, halves and sometimes even quarters. Usually, they are wrapped in plastic film not only to keep them fresh but also because, unless you’re buying a quarter, they are usually the sort of thing you take home to eat later. A whole or half frgál, in my experience, is rather too rich and heavy to eat on the spot as a snack.
Make Your Own Koláč
If you’re not in the Czech lands or in the vicinity of a bakery with Czech specialties on sale, the following links will take you to some recipes that will get you quite close to a traditional Czech koláč experience:
Three wheel automobiles are nothing new or unique; the world’s first practical motor vehicle, designed by Karl Benz in the 1880s, was a three wheeler.
Since the very beginnings of automotive production, many companies from around the world have been developing three wheel vehicles alongside four wheel ones. Some companies have even specialised in three wheeler types.
The Czech contribution to three wheel motoring was the diminutive and simple Velorex. Even among other three wheel designs, the Velorex is a distinctive shape: A durable plasticised textile cover stretched over a tube steel frame puttering along the road at modest speed under the power of a small motorcycle engine, the Velorex seems more a tent on wheels than any sort of credible automobile.
Such deceptive appearances belie a machine that was ingenious in simplicity and wildly successful in the early post WWII economies and in several European nations that came under Socialist governments soon after.
In a production run that lasted from 1945 to 1971, over 15,000 Velorex three wheelers were built with nearly a full half of the production being exported to other Socialist European countries.
That said, let’s spend some time with this little Czech three wheeler that has gone from being a car to a cult:
The Right Machine at the Right Time
The work of the Stránský brothers, František (1914-1954) and Mojmír (1924-2011), design of the three wheeler that would eventually be called the Velorex started in 1936 in their bicycle repair shop in the vicinity of Česká Třebová, a small city in the north of the country.
The timing of their design could not have been better. The world was still in the throes of the Great Depression and a few short years away from the outbreak of the Second World War. As with so many nations, the industial base of Czechoslovakia would have trouble meeting public demand for many items, including automobiles in the immediate post war economy.
As with the bulk of three wheel vehicles, economics inspired the Stránský’s machine. They took primary inspiration from the designs of the Morgan Motor Company of Great Britain. Morgan had made a name for themselves in three wheel vehicle design from their foundation in 1910 through to the end of the 1930s and certainly were a good example for the Stránskýs to follow.
Following the Morgan example, the Stránský brothers designed their machine with two wheels at the front and a single one at the rear. However, unlike Morgan designs, the Stránskýs placed the engine in the rear of the vehicle. The brothers called their creation the Oskar. The Oskar prototype was built in 1943 and differed from production versions by having sheet metal covering as opposed to textile.
The Stránský’s goal was to create a machine that could fill a gap that existed between motorcycles and standard four wheel cars; a vehicle that was large enough to carry two adults at reasonable speeds while being light and small enough that it could be powered by motorcycle engines.
The brothers built an intitial batch of 12 Oskar cars in 1945 that were equiped with a variety of motorcycle engines and could be built for approximately a quarter the price of a four wheel car.
In 1950, the Stránský’s workshop was placed under the control of another small company called Velo and their manufacturing facilities were moved further north to the town of Solnice in 1951.
Produced under the name Oskar until 1956, the vehicle enjoyed a year on year increase of production from the 1951 total of 120. By 1954, the average production was 40 vehicles per month.
1954 marked a significant change as the Stránskýs were cut off from any further involvement in their creation. That year, František died in an accident while test driving a prototype for a new version of the car while Mojmír was removed from the company for refusing membership in the Communist Party which was ruling Czechoslovakia at the time.
By 1956, the vehicle’s name had been changed from Oskar to Velorex and late 1950s production was totalling around 120 per month. in the early 1960s, a second production line was opened in nearby Rychnov nad Kněžnou.
The Velorex is believed by many to be the simplest motor vehicle ever made that was still practical. Certainly the simplicity and the economy that came with it was a huge selling point in favour of it.
The simplicity of it meant that it could be produced quickly enough that buyers did not need to wait as long to have their Velorex as they would to have a standard four wheel car. The simplicity also meant that there was very little that could go wrong with a Velorex that the owner could not fix themselves with basic tools.
From a practicality standpoint, the Velorex could attain speeds that were quite adequate for driving in towns and were very useful for everyday errands and as runabouts for companies to use in business. Additionally, due to the power output of the engines used in them, the Velorex could be operated legally on a motorcycle license.
While these three wheelers were widely exported and popular in the Eastern Bloc countries, their availability in Czechoslovakia was subject to some limitations. Primarily, they were directed at people with disabilities who might have trouble operating a standard car. The government of the day offered generous purchasing subsidies to anyone who passed an examination to prove their disability and qualify them to obtain a Velorex.
Collectively, three wheelers built under the Oskar and Velorex names covered a range of four main models.
All versions were powered by engines made by either the ČZ or Jawa motocycle companies and used forced air to cool the engines. The driver started the engine via a hand lever near the steering wheel; this lever was a modification of the kick start mechanism typical to motorcycles.
The ulimate version, the Velorex 16/350, was equiped with a two cylinder engine that allowed it to cruise at a respectable 60 km/h and could push it to a maximum speed of around 85 km/h.
Life After Three Wheels
After three wheeler production ceased in 1971, Velorex made a failed attempt to enter the four wheel automobile market. By the time they made the attempt, the market was well saturated and they simply could not compete with the likes of Škoda and Trabant who were dominating that sector.
From the mid 1970s, the Velorex name became prominent on a long series of motorcycle sidecars. The earliest Velorex sidecars were built with Jawa motorcycles in mind as their companion pieces though it would not be long before they were adapted for use with a variety of motorcycle makes.
Velorex did very well in the sidecar business and developed a worldwide reputation for products that were affordable and of good quality.
Velorex Today and Learning More
While the historical Velorex company did not survive the fall of Socialism, their legacy is kept alive today by the Velorexport company and the Velorex name is still a fixture on motorcycle sidecars today as a result.
In spite of all practical reasons for owning a Velorex three wheeler being long in the past, a very strong fan base has kept the vehicle type alive over the years. Many have been restored, dedicated clubs have been set up for them around the world, Velorex rallies and meets are organised and a huge spare parts market exists to support them.
If you come to the Czech lands, several museums have three wheelers in their collections to view and restored running examples are not particularly rare to see.
Given the worldwide popularity the type has developed, there might just be one near you.
The following links will take you to sites with further information on the Velorex three wheeler:
One goal I have for Beyond Prague in 2017 is to update as many older posts as I’m able while still making sure new posts are made. A big part of that is updating the sections connected to Brno. This post will show you what I’ve accomplished towards that goal from January up to now.
The general page for Brno has been given fresh photographs and a slight text revision:
One does not need to be in Brno for very long or to have a particularly deep interest in architecture in order to take note of the city’s varied array of building styles. Everything from medieval Gothic to examples of contemporary Deconstructivism and Eco-architectural styles can be found within the city limits.
Particularly notable in Brno’s architectural landscape are the numerous examples of early 20th century Modernism that have survived to the present. From family homes to offices and the city’s sprawling exhibition centre, Modernist structures dot the city. Such prominence of that specific movement is quite fitting as Brno played a major role in the development of it; many practitioners of Modernist design spent some time working in Brno in the early 20th century.
The best known Modernist structure in Brno is the UNESCO listed Villa Tugendhat in the city’s Černá Pole district. Designed by the legendary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), it is considered to be an outstanding example of the priciples of Modernist style at the international level.
The Minds Behind the Monument
While the villa’s commission and start of construction took place in 1928, the seed for it was planted in the early 1920s.
Greta Tugendhat (1903-1970) was still married to her first husband in the early 1920s and spend much of that time living in Germany. It was during her time in Germany that she became particularly taken with the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Modernist style in general. It was Greta’s wish to have a modern, uncluttered house to call her home.
After her first marriage fell apart, she married Fritz Tugendhat (1895-1958) and they settled in Brno. The Tugendhats were prominent members of Brno’s Jewish community and Greta’s family, who had been in Moravia since the 17th century, had built a fortune over generations in the textile and sugar industries. The land on which Villa Tugendhat stands was a gift to Greta from her father upon her marriage to Fritz.
With land to build on, Greta was able to make contact with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe through mutual acquaintences and invite him to Brno and commission him to design the modern home she had dreamed of.
Mies was impressed with the plot of land to build on as well as the quality of workmanship in Brno’s existing buildings and had no qualms in hiring a local construction company, Mořic and Artur Eisler, to carry out the construction.
With wide freedom of design given to him by Greta and her father financing the construction, Mies was set to create a structure that would at once embody Greta’s dream home and his own “Less is more” design philosophy to the fullest.
From Vision to Reality
The basic philosophy of Modernism is that the aesthetic and appeal of a building should come from the structures and materials used in making it rather than any extra decoration. Additionally, spaces should flow into each other and work seamlessly with the human activity inside as well as the natural world outside.
Staying faithful to such ideals, Mies and his partners in the project exercised a great deal of care in both structural design and selection of materials when creating the villa, associated fixtures and furniture to ensure that everything worked together perfectly including how the villa was designed to work harmoniously with the slope of the land it was built upon. The construction of the villa lasted from 1928 to 1930.
Part of the villa’s uniqueness lies in the use of a structural steel framework, it was the first detached residential building in the world to be built as such. Sections of the steel framework are on full view throughout the villa and those sections which run through living areas are covered in chromed cladding.
Another notable aspect of the villa interior includes a translucent onyx wall which separates the livng room from the study and gives a warm glow to the rooms when the sun is low in the sky.
The living room, which overlooks the villa garden, includes a large window which can be completely lowered into the floor by electric motors to create an uninterupted flow of exterior and interior space and give a panoramic view towards the city centre.
Changing Fortunes and Decline
The Tugendhats moved into the completed villa in December of 1930 and stayed there until the impending German occupation forced the family to leave the country for Switzerland in May of 1938. By early 1941, they had relocated to Caracas, Venezuela.
1938 also saw the villa’s architect leave Europe for America. He settled in Chicago, worked as a university professor, set up his own architecural firm and eventually achieved American citizenship over the years.
Under German occupation, the villa was used by the Gestapo as well as an aircraft engine manufacturer among others. It was in this period that much of the furniture was removed and extensive rebuilding of the interiors was carried out. During the period of German occupation, the onyx wall was bricked in and concealed, an action which most certainly led to it’s survival.
Spring of 1945 saw the arrival of the Soviet army to “liberate” the city. The villa suffered particularly under Soviet use. They used the living areas as stables for their horses and used much of the wood that remained in the structure for fuel.
For a period of five years, starting in August of 1945, the villa was used as a dancing school. The state took possession of the villa in October of 1950 and it was used by the city’s nearby children’s hospital as a rehabilitation facility until the late 1960s.
The late 1960s and the 1970s were a true low for the villa. Toward the end of the 1960s, local Brno architect, František Kalivoda, contacted Greta Tugendhat and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to discuss the possible restoration of the villa; both Greta and Mies were quite supportive of the idea. However, fortune would not be on their side.
1969 marked the begining of “Normalization” in the former Czechoslovakia; it was a very oppressive backlash by the Socialist government in the wake of the quashed Prague Spring demonstrations of 1968. Under this movement, any attempts at reconstruction of the villa were blockaded by the state.
Greta Tugendhat, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and František Kalivoda all died between 1969 and 1971. Their deaths marked the end of any sort of work on the villa for approximately a decade.
Reconstructions and Restoration
The ownership of the villa shifted from the state to the city of Brno in 1980.
Between 1981 and 1985, the villa received and extensive renovation and a basic restoration of functional equipment. While this did ensure that the building was kept structurally sound and accumulated structural damage was repaired, no regard was given to historical accuracy. The city saw it as a place to host important guests and political functions; they made little allowance for the research required to return the villa to it’s former glory.
In 1994, the villa came under the jurisdiction of Brno’s city museum and remains so today. In 2001, the villa was inscribed on the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site and research to restore it to historical accuracy began in earnest in the same time period.
While most of the research for restoration was carried out in the early 2000s, several delays pushed back the start of the work until 2010.
The villa reopened to the public in 2012, after two years of restorations, and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
Visiting Villa Tugendhat and Learning More
Villa Tugendhat is not difficult to access by Brno public transport and a small bit of walking.
As it is a very popular attraction and the number of visitors is limited, booking well ahead is required if you wish to see the interiors. Availability of tours, tour languages and admission prices can be found on the villa website. Tour reservations and ticket purchases can also be made at the website.
The following two websites will give you a good background of the villa’s history as well as what makes it architecturally unique.
Christmas and New Year have come and gone and we’re into 2017. Time to get back to blogging business.
Over the holidays, I set myself a few goals for things to accomplish in my blogs before adding new material. While I didn’t get everything I wanted done, I got the priorities tended to.
Here’s a short summary of what was done behind the scenes at Beyond Prague during the break:
Dead links were found and removed or replaced in all articles.
The “Blog Info” section in the main drop down menu got a complete revision. Several sections which once stood independent of each other have been condensed into the single “About Beyond Prague” section.
The “Dining out in the Czech Republic” article in the Food and Drink section recieved some text revisions and the old “Dining Smoke Free in Brno” article was incorporated into it.
The “Art and Architecture” section of the main menu was completely deleted as it was a very low traffic area.
Several existing articles have been earmarked for text and photo editing and refreshment at later points in time.
At that, take a few deep breaths and do a couple of knee bends and we’ll be off for another year of exploring the Czech lands!