Saturday, 11 May 2013

204. Prague Spring

10th May 2013. We're back home in the Pays Basque after a week in Prague and southern Bohemia. As it was a French holiday, the final leg of our journey - the drive from Paris to Bayonne - took us 10½hrs with long queues on the roads leaving the capital.

Unlike rivers in some other cities, the Vltava is the core element of Prague.
Prague was a revelation to me - it was Old Europe set in aspic. A Europe that had developed in isolation from us in the west and, as it had been largely untouched during WWII, there were innumerable examples of ornate baroque architecture - overlaid with some monstrous examples of Mother Russia's brutal ferro-concrete buildings erected during its 40 year tenure of Czechoslovakia.
The city centre was awash with groups of craggy-faced tourists mainly from middle and eastern Europe roving to and fro, all trying to follow their own guide through the masses. Each guide was holding up easily seen symbols such as umbrellas, inflatable lips and other imaginative markers. Throughout all this, smaller groups were gliding through silently on Segways..

Here are some photos we took.. (I found the images for the first 01:22 from the internet as the weather was grey and shadowless for the most part - but we're to blame for the rest!). That's Smetana's "Ma Vlast" in the background.  

While the cobbled streets of Prague were admittedly hard on the feet, I'm not sure I could have submitted my feet to this Thai foot treatment I saw in several shop windows there:

Some sections of the Czech population appeared to be doing well since independence: the streets were alive with the sound of large 4x4s pattering over the cobbles - Range Rovers, Mercs, BMWs, Audis and there were more than several Porsche Panameras and Aston Martins (Nature's way of telling you that you have too much money!). I spotted one sole surviving Trabant (below) - that stuttering 4 wheeled anachronism that, in case you needed reminding, tells you all you need to know about socialism in practice.   

On one memorable evening, we had a cruise on the fabled Vltava..  

The programme noted that there was a "John Lennon" wall - and I was curious to see what that was all about. Apparently, during the Communist régime, a student had painted a stylised image of John's head  on a wall opposite the French Embassy - much to the annoyance of Gustav Husak - and it became a focus for expressing youth opposition to the Communist régime as can be seen here:
John would have been delighted!

We also saw the place in Wenceslas Square where that modern day martyr Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire on 16th January 1969 in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia 5 months earlier. He succumbed to his 85% burns 3 days later. Was it really 44 years ago..? Did he choose that method of protest to draw a parallel with Jan Hus?

We encountered a group of Asian tourists one day - and I'm afraid I find it just as impossible to tell where they were from (Japan, China, Korea, Viet Nam?) as any group of Caucasians. Anyway, I was having a coffee outside a café near to lunchtime and a family of four sat at the next table. The waitress came and handed them each a menu which they looked at blankly. The menu was written in Czech, German and Russian and there were no photographs of the food to give them a hint. I often wonder what they ended up having for lunch. I found the Czech language completely unpenetrable - and knowledge of any other European languages is of no help whatsoever in trying to decipher it.

We visited Marienbad one day. If you're of a certain age the name will trigger a distant memory of a 60s cult film - "Last Year in Marienbad". I remember watching this at a film society back then and being totally confused and unsure what it was all about. I don't think I was the only one! It's a far cry from this to "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids"!

There was one drink that seemed to be omnipresent and that was Becherovka.. After seeing it all over the country I bought a bottle and I think I'll be saving it for those winter nights.

So "Na zdravi!"..

While we're talking about drinks, I tried Pilsner Urquell - the beer that the Czech Republic is rightly famous for.. I seldom drink beer but this was one that would hit the spot on a warm day.

Changing the subject a tad, doesn't this look like an exhilarating way of going home from the office after a long day..? I'd love to try that.☺ Stay with it right to the end..

Sunday, 19th May 2013. A couple of days ago we went across the border for a spot of shopping at Dantxarinea in Spain. On the way there I noticed several vultures circling about in lazy circles. The supermarket we visit there - Venta Peio - has had its interior re-modelled and the drinks section has been significantly expanded - it now offers a staggering range (no pun intended) of various alcoholic drinks. I usually browse there while Madame prowls the aisles of the food hall. The whisky section alone is must be 15 yards long and 3-4 shelves high.. They even stock Yamazaki whisky from Japan.. Then there are all sorts of exotic apéritifs from across Europe plus some real rocket fuels. One such is Ströh 80°.. This is a spiced rum from Austria that's 80% alcohol by volume.. One glass would be sufficient to zero-ise your memory banks - a second would be enough to put you into a low earth orbit. Needless to say, I leave things like this well alone.

Before returning home, we stopped at nearby Zugarramurdi (still in Spain) where we had a spot of lunch.
Zugarramurdi is a sleepy town of around 225 people, where little has happened in the last 400 years. Prior to that it was an entirely different story. The village was home to a coven of witches and warlocks who carried out pagan rituals in the nearby caves. Then, in 1610, the Spanish Inquisition arrived (unexpectedly!☺) to arrest many villagers - 11 were burned at the stake for crimes ranging from casting spells on crops, people and animals, to shape-shifting and worshipping Satan.

It's easy to see why they chose to hold their rituals in the Witch Caves of Zugarramurdi. They are truly awe-inspiring, the largest being 12m high and 120m across. Now, every year, a festival takes place on the Saturday before San Juan and the summer solstice to mark this history - it's a day known as El Día de la Bruja or "The Day of the Witch".

During the festival, the entire town is transformed to resemble a set from a Harry Potter movie, with local women in tight bodices (steady!☺); medieval games set up in the streets for kids; and a purple tent filled with messenger owls sitting on scraggly perches. Psychics sit at folding tables, ready to sell the future, while naturopaths prepare herbs to cure coughs or break spells. Thousands of people turn up for the festival, mainly from France and Spain, eager to learn about Zugarramurdi's dark past at the Witch Caves and the Witch Museum. The town's centre square hosts presentations on natural remedies and the history of witchcraft, honouring the wisdom of the "witches" - or healers - of yesterday.

The highlight of the event takes place in the main cave at night, when a ceremony depicting the village's diabolical past is presented around a crackling bonfire with 1,000 or so onlookers. It lasts about 30 minutes and might be followed by a live concert - a real treat, due to the cave's acoustics.

There's something going on with the weather here that's started me thinking that perhaps I should be considering building an ark..! I woke up yesterday morning around 7am to find it was raining large as they say - so no rowing. It didn't stop until 12-13 hours later. Through the day we had several surges in intensity of downpour coupled with violent gusts of wind - one of which was sufficient to bring down a tree in the garden. It's raining again now..  and it's not a gentle downpour either - it's the full "car wash" treatment. This is unprecedented - normally, we've been having lunch outside on the terrace for at least a month by now. I think we've eaten outside twice so far this year.

Sunday, 26th May 2013. Today looks like being a dry day at last - with wall-to-wall blue skies. It's still only a non-seasonal 14° though.. On the news last night, they said on the same day last year it was 31°! So still a long way to go.

We went to the Quintaou market at Anglet this morning.. and amid all mouth-watering sights and smells there was a small café set up in the middle of it all. Seated at a table were two couples enjoying oysters and a bottle of rosé at 10.10am! And two tables away, another couple had just launched into a bottle of rosé. Such is life (for some) in la belle France! (but not, I hasten to add, for your correspondent)

Off to Biarritz now to walk along the sea front with the pooch and contemplate all manner of things over a petit café at the Café Bleu (above) overlooking la Grande Plage.

Monday, 27th May 2013. A few minutes ago I remembered that James Salter's latest novel All That Is is now available on Kindle. I discovered his work just a year or two ago and his novels have been a revelation to me. He has the uncanny ability of being able to capture the absolute essence of a moment, a person or a place with the barest minimum of words. In my opinion, he's the greatest writer in the English language today.

I've been looking forward to immersing myself in this latest - and no doubt, the last - book of his for some time and now that I've just downloaded All That Is, you'll have to talk among yourselves for a while.

Meanwhile, here's the great man himself:

Tuesday, 28th May 2013. Looking at the evening sky from the balcony this evening, I spotted the first 2 swallows of the year darting about the rooftops. If one swallow doesn't make a summer, do two make one? No, I don't think so either.

Thursday, 30th May 2013. Last night on the France 3 regional news it was revealed that the Pyrénées-Atlantiques has topped the French rainfall charts this year with 100 days of rain out of 149..  And yes, it rained today too.

Friday, 31st May 2013. Another grey day this morning - overnight, gusts of wind rattled the shutters and there was the all-too-familiar sound of rain on the roof. Still raining this morning as well. Doubt I'll be on the river tomorrow. The current weather is on the right..

Thursday, 13th June 2013. Yesterday the temperature shot up to 30°.. but today the rain was back.. In the evening I saw a few more swallows. Still not convinced though!

I was out in the garden in the evening and it sounded as though the natives were getting restless.. From not far away came the rattle of drums as a local group practised for the upcoming Fêtes de Bayonne.


POW16783 said...

Welcome home from Prague. It sounds intriguing.

I loved that last video, and the music took me back to a previous life!

a bientot.

Pipérade said...

In some ways Prague was like being dropped back into the Europe of the fifties - but with funnier T-shirts and flashier cars.. Well worth a second look. Comfy shoes a must!
The last video looks like it was filmed on Canada's west coast - maybe Vancouver Island? The stuff of fantasies..

Lesley said...

Back from short break near Sauveterre and we have dried out a bit this last weekend home, but not warmed up yet. Col d'Aubisque closed with snow, but Lac d'Estainge and trip to it pleasant. Cakes from the Miremont enjoyed. I can only hope that temps. do improve but HimIndoors is sure that we are in for Global Cooling which, along with higher and higher energy bills, is not for the fainthearted.

Pipérade said...

As you discovered, the weather here (& elsewhere in France) so far this year has been awful.
Glad you found the Miremont at Biarritz - the cakes there are something special.
My shorts have yet to see the light of day this year so the local horses are breathing easily!
Did you make it to the Hotel/Restaurant Chez Vignau at Gabas?
It's a must when in the area.☺

Lesley said...

Gabas was further south from where we were turned away from our Col d'Aubisque preferred route, so no. Due to a thunderstorm on the way back from Lac d'E. we never tried to get to Cauterets either!
Our dog did go swimming in the Lac, but this was an error as he ran over a reedy bit of water assuming it to be terra firma. All-in-all it was a wet day. Shorts are the still dry bits of long trousers that the water has only got up to the knees - so far.
Always another year!

Pipérade said...

We've just had yet another downpour..
"Chez Vignau" at Gabas should really be on your "To Do" list for next time. It doesn't look much from the outside (nor, if I'm being honest, from the inside!). The food however is the payback..☺
Hope your experience of the weather here in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques hasn't put you off for good.

Lesley said...

Re your 30th post. We had 9 of them.

Pipérade said...

You'll have to be more specific..!☺
Old Brit Iron like my P&J*? Or modern day stuff?
There's not a day goes by without me regretting that I sold it. I didn't think we'd be able to find a town house down here with a garage. The Matchless would have been perfect up in the narrow lanes and tracks that criss-cross the foothills. Sigh..!
* Pride and joy!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your latest update, long overdue I might add, but always a pleasure to catch up on your adventures.

Pipérade said...

You're welcome!
We don't want to put the pooch in kennels any more as he's almost completely blind these days so we're having to limit our trips to days-out - and as I don't want to bore you all by re-hashing further tales from the Côte Basque, the scope for writing has been narrowed a bit!

Joxe Bilbao said...

Original soundtrack inspired on the Zugarramurdi cove.

Zugarramurdi caves are located in the north of Navarra in the Basque Country, certainly, Zugarramurdi and its surroundings are a place of beauty difficult to overcome as equal their stories and myths, taking as topic these stories I have composed a original soundtrack music entitled "Zugarramurdi Caves" the music, expres from my optical the feelings of all those stories. Audio mp3, wav and others, stereo sound, instruments, piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitars, drums and other, you can hear the soundtrack on ... , you enjoy with the music.

Pipérade said...

Thanks Joxe.. You're absolutely right - the area around Zugarramurdi and Urdax is beautiful. We often find ourselves in that vicinity.
Thanks for the link!