Saturday, April 30, 2011

Happy Name Day, Blahoslav! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Blahoslav.  Happy Name Day, Blahoslav!
The name Blahoslav is a Czech name of Slavonic origin and means "fame; glory".

Friday, April 29, 2011

Deep beneath the city of Prague is another city altogether, one that most people are completely unaware of, and that they'll hopefully never see

This is entirely eerie yet wildly fascinating...

 The pedestrian tunnel under Vítkov hill
Article from Radio Prague...

Deep beneath the city of Prague is another city altogether, one that most people are completely unaware of, and that they’ll hopefully never see. It is a system of hundreds upon hundreds of concrete bunkers with their own electricity, water and ventilation systems awaiting the day that you might hear the air-raid sirens wailing.

Air raid sirens are normal enough in Prague; they are heard all over the city on the first Wednesday of every month at noon when they are tested. The system of bomb shelters is in a similar state of readiness. In the event of a war, there is room beneath the city for 40% of the population. In peacetime however, the countless kilometres of tunnels are inhabited only by a few dozen workers of the town hall’s shelters administration department. Deep beneath Prague, they keep the bunker system in tip-top shape from day to day, hoping at the same time it will never be used. Mr Rostislav Guth is in charge of the department.

“In Prague there are roughly 800 permanent, pressurised bunkers. Almost all of them were built in the 1950’s, some of them in later years, until the metro was built, and then the last was the road tunnel at Strahov. They’re classed according to their resistance and how many people they can hold, from a few hundred in shelters under blocks of flats, to several thousand like the Tamovka shelter we’re standing in front of now.”

One of the larger shelters is under Vítkov Hill. At the end of an alley there is a pedestrian tunnel through the hill, and in the middle of that is an inconspicuous door that leads to a forgotten world. This bunker is a series of extremely long corridors with a long incline, about three to four metres high and painted white and pastel green, the way communist-era hospitals and prefab stairwells were. If you have ever been inside an old WWII battleship for example, the atmosphere is similar, with an omnipresent smell of grease, mould and paint. It’s not the kind of place you would want to spend a lot of time in, but then even if there were a war, you wouldn’t have to:

“These shelters were made for people to be able to survive here for 72 hours. Of course, everything ultimately depends on the type of attack we would face, but 72 hours was considered enough time for safety measures to be taken on the surface, enough time for them to be able to get to the people inside the shelter if it were buried in debris and the optimum period in terms of food stores and so on.”

Going into the Prague bunkers is a literal descent into history. Key to the general ambience are the technological relics kept in perfect working order. The machinery is almost all from the 1950s, great big objects piped into the walls with huge bakelite knobs, and needle gauges. Everything is of massive design, even the ancient telephones hanging from the walls, and of course the ventilation system, the noise of which would probably drive one mad within less than 72 hours.

“The ventilation system takes in air from outside through these filters and it creates overpressure in the shelter. The shelter is then ‘inflated’, so to speak, and weaponised gases or toxic substances wouldn’t be able to get in thanks to the overpressure created by the ventilation system and the filters.”

The hundreds of metres of empty white tunnels, fluorescent lights and grey pipes are ready to become a makeshift home for 1,250 people at any given moment. Everything is meticulously cared for – the staff was particularly pleased that I was unable to record any creaking and thudding sounds off the heavy bulkheads that divide the shelter up, because they’re so well oiled. With that kind of readiness, I half-expected to see mounds of powered milk and canned plums – but I came a few decades late for that.
"Everything would rot if there were supplies down here, it would be a waste of money, and there’s no sense in it either. If there was a threat of war everything needed would be brought down for those 72 hours. We have a 48-hour readiness period to prepare the bunkers. In that time, we’d we fitting the air filters, bringing down food stores, beds and bottled water … There are already five wells here, but that’s utility water. Originally those things were here, but they realised it was senseless. There was even canned food, they were storing cans down here that ended up getting thrown away. But that was in the 50’s, when they thought there could be a conflict any day.”

But again, sprawling though it may be, the Prague bunker system is only big enough for 40% of the population - roughly less than half-a-million people. Certainly even less than that number though is even aware of what all is under their feet. In the event of a war, I thought, few would know where to go, and if they did, there wouldn’t be room for them all.

“It depends on the so-called “running distance”, the shelters are designed to hold the population within a 15-minute running distance, and that’s established during peacetime. For example schools know which shelter to take the children to even now in peacetime. Others would have to use improvised shelters. If there were a threat to the country, cellars and underground garages would be fortified. We always check new buildings, new office buildings for example, to make sure their underground spaces can be converted into shelters with air filters and so on in the event of a war. They wouldn’t be pressure-resistant, but people would be able to wait out an air raid there.”

The city’s emergency services would rely on notification systems established during the Second World War. Each district has a plan for sending its citizens to the appropriate shelter. Emergency workers would be stationed around the city to help people orient themselves. The bunkers themselves would have to be not only stocked but also cleared out within 24 hours, as many are rented out as storage space. And perhaps even more difficult to imagine, the underground transportation services – the metro and tunnels – would be transformed into a living space for tens of thousands of people.

“Strahovský Tunnel is the largest makeshift shelter and it can shelter 15,000 people, if I leave aside the metro. Both have technical and medical facilities running along the sides of the tunnels, and the tunnels then would hold the people. The two ends of Strahovský Tunnel would be sealed; the metro can be closed off every two stations. You can see it when you enter the stations: big, heavy parts of the door that would seal the station off. Or at least I see them because I’m in the business, everyday citizens probably don’t notice them.”

In any case, if bombs start falling out of the sky over the Czech Republic you’ll be better off squeezing into a bunker in Prague than anywhere else in the country. While most people in the capital would find shelter somewhere, elsewhere in the country there is only room for 12% of a population of 10 million – small in comparison to other European countries of similar size.

“Switzerland has 100% coverage. Or the Swedes, they have something like 70% of the population covered. The neutral states are basically the best equipped, even in terms of the number of gas masks. When the east and west were divided, the neutral states in between were the ones who paid the most attention to it.”

It’s all so otherworldly, at the end of the day: a city under a city in a peaceful European state, ready to house its people from nuclear Armageddon or other such nastiness; Czechs in gas masks wandering up into a bombed out Prague after 72 hours in 1950’s bunkers. It’s almost as scary as the fact that it happened before, over sixty years ago, and the people who work in the bunkers have little trouble visualising it again.

“It can certainly be imagined. These bunkers are made for war, and in a time of war they will work. So we can imagine it.”

Happy Name Day, Robert! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Robert.  Happy Name Day, Robert!
The name Robert is of Old German origin, meaning "bright fame".  Robert has been a favorite name for boys since the Middle Ages.  It's especially favored by the Scots due to 14th-century King Robert the Bruce.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Staroměstský Jarmark in the Ultimate Medieval Hamlet

Imagine my surprise when I strolled into Old Town Square and saw several stands set up (I love them stands).  Now imagine my surprise when I realized that there was an Old Town Fair going on!  There is nothing better than a fair that allows you to take a step back in time...allows your imagination to run wild.  And in my imagination I was taking in the sights and sounds wearing a beautiful emerald-hued bliaut and side saddling my dark chocolate colored horse.

 I was also taking in the scents... the alluring aroma of wood-smoked meat was making me, quite frankly, drool.

 Now THIS is a pan!  


Making Langoše ... a light & fluffy fried dough topped with cheese and garlic (there are other toppings available, but cheese and garlic is my favorite)

No Old Town Fair woud be complete without licorice...

 One of my favorite Czech sweets is Trdelník - it's a sweet dough that is wrapped around either a wood or metal bar and roasted over an open flame until it becomes golden brown.  It then gets rolled in a blend of sugar, cinnamon and nuts.  Mmmmm good! 

The work of a local blacksmith is on display...
...and available for purchase

 The backdrop is magnificent...

More meat... klobásy 

 That's me!  I'm savoring Svařák (hot mulled wine).  I can't seem to ever attend a fair without Svařák in my hand!

Happy Name Day, Vlastislav! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Vlastislav.  Happy Name Day, Vlastislav!
The name Vlastislav is of Czech origin and is derived from the Slavic elements vlast "homeland" and slav "glory".

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Happy Name Day, Jaroslav! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Jaroslav.  Happy Name Day, Jaroslav!
The name Jaroslav is of Slavic origin and means "beauty of spring".

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Happy Name Day, Oto! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Oto.  Happy Name Day, Oto!
The name Oto is the Czech form of Otto, which is of Germanic origin and means "wealth; fortune".

Monday, April 25, 2011

Have you been whipped today?

Easter Monday (Pondělí velikonoční) is a day off, as well as the day of the pomlázka!  

In the morning, boys walk from door to door to spank girls on their legs with their whip.  The whipping is rather symbolic, you see.  The Easter whip, the pomlázka, comes from the word "pomladit", which means  "make younger" in English.  It's believed that the freshness, youth and strength of the twigs is passed to the women on this day.  Thus, every woman wants to be whipped in order to keep her health and beauty during the coming year.  Unvisited females may even feel offended, therefore it's almost a duty for all boyfriend and husbands to whip their loved ones with the Easter whip!

The boys accompany the whipping with a special Easter carol, usually asking for an egg or two.  The girls "reward" them with an Easter egg or tie a ribbon on their whip.  The more eggs or ribbons a boy has, the better.

For older boys or men, instead of eggs the "reward" is a shot of alcohol, mostly homemade brandy.  And of course, the point is to visit quite possibly all of the girls in town!  So around noon, groups of happy men can be seen in the streets singing Easter carols and chasing girls. 

But don't think the girls don't get to have any fun!  In the afternoon, they get their revenge by pouring a bucket of ice cold water on any male they wish!

This tradition is mainly practiced in villages and small towns, not so much in Prague.  But everyone in Prague celebrates Easter...girls decorate eggs and bake a special Easter cake in the shape of a lamb, and boys whip their female friends with store-brought whips.  

The moral to the story is this...
If you're a man, don't forget to whip all of the women around you, otherwise their beauty will fade away.  And trust me, no woman wants that!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Veselé Velikonoce!

Happy Easter!! 
And a very special Easter hug goes out to my family ...I love you!

I have to tell you about the strangest, yet funniest, Easter tradition that we have! ...
The "pomlázka" is a traditional whip braided out of pussywillows (or other springtime branches) that men and boys of all ages plait on Easter Sunday (or they buy them at almost any shop around this time of the year). The pomlázka can be any length and braided from three to twelve branches.  The origin of the pomlázka tradition (pomlázka meaning both the whip and the tradition itself) dates back to pagan times.  Its original purpose and symbolic meaning is to chase away illness and bad spirits and bring health and youth for the rest of the year to everyone who is whipped.  In the past, pomlázka was not only used by boys to whip girls (um, I should clarify...they whip them on the dirty thoughts!!!), but also by the farmer's wife to whip the livestock, as well as everyone in the household, including men and children. 
Boys would whip girls lightly on the legs and possibly douse them with water, which had a similar symbolic meaning.  An Easter carol, usually asking for an egg or two, would be recited by the boy while whipping.  The girl would then reward the boy with a painted egg or candy and tie a ribbon around his pomlázka.  As the boys progressed through the village, their bags filled up with eggs and their pomlázkas were adorned with more and more colorful ribbons.
Although it may have lost its symbolism and romance and is now performed mainly for fun, this tradition is still largely upheld, especially in villages and small towns.  Some boys and men seem to have forgotten that the whipping is supposed to be only symbolic and girls don't always like that.  The reward has also changed - money and shots of plum brandy (Slivovice) are often given instead of, or in addition to, painted eggs and candy.  As you can imagine, by early afternoon groups of happy men can be seen staggering along the roads!  All that aside, Easter still remains one of the most joyful and fun holidays on the Czech calendar.

The Color Red
Red and other bright colors symbolize health, joy, happiness and new life that comes with the spring.  So paint those Easter eggs red!

All in all, Easter is a time of high spirits and happy celebrations in small villages.  I wish you all a joyful day and a very Happy Easter! 

Veselé Velikonoce!

Happy Name Day, Jiří! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Jiří.  Happy Namer Day, Jiří!
The name Jiří is the Czech form of George, which is of Greek origin and means "farmer".  St. George was a 3rd- century Roman soldier from Palestine who was martyred during the persecutions of emperor Diocletian.  Later legends describe his defeat of a dragon, with which he was often depicted in medieval art.

Painting by Gustave Moreau depicting Saint George slaying the dragon

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Happy Bílá sobota (White Saturday)

Today is White Saturday (Bílá sobota), a day when boys walk through the village with rattles on until residents at each house give them money (hmmm, if only it were so easy!)

There's so much more to White Saturday though.  It is regarded, along with Zelený čtvrtek (Green Thursday), as a lucky day for sowing. The farmers place ashes on their fields to ensure a good crop, and shake the trees, so that they'll yield a lot of fruit.

White Saturday used to be a day of peace and quiet.  Daytime church services were not held at all, and services were held instead either in the after-evening hours after the sun went down, or after midnight.  Only blessed candles and lights were used in the church during these night-time services.  Because of the Virgin Mary's faith in His promise to rise again from the dead, the day is consecrated to her.

Easter picture by Josef Lada

They say that if it rains on Bílá sobota, it will rain often during the coming year.  Well, it's sunny and warm where I am... yay!!!

If you're in the Czech Republic on Bílá sobota, take time to stand a while in front of the church in Domaľlice, Kyjov, Blatnice, Břeclav or Vlčnov and enjoy the ceremonial costumes of the women and girls.

Happy Name Day, Vojtěch! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Vojtěch.  Happy Name Day, Vojtěch!
The name Vojtěch is the Czech form of Wojciech, which is of Polish origin and means "solace, comfort, joy".

Friday, April 22, 2011

You say Good Friday, I say Great Friday

In the Czech Republic, Great Friday (Velký pátek) is the popular name for what most call "Good Friday".  Velký pátek is a day of fasting for Roman Catholics who will not eat meat until Saturday evening after the church bells start ringing on their legendary return from Rome.

 On Velký pátek, we prepare our holiday bread (mazanec), which must not be cut or eaten until the priest says, "Christ is risen!" (Kristus vstal z mrtvých!) on Easter Sunday.  It is a universal custom to make a new loaf of bread with the sign of the cross before cutting it in order to bless it and thank God for it.  Bread baked on Velký pátek - if hardened in the oven - can be kept all year, and its presence protects the house from fire.

There are many (surprise surprise!) superstitions associated with Velký pátek.  Although Praguers have gotten away from some of the annual traditions, people in small villages still practice time-honored rituals.  These customs, dating back to at least the first century, are designed to bring health and happiness to the participants throughout the following year.

We're a superstitious bunch aren't we!?  I have to admit that I won't allow laundry to hang dry on Velký pátek, and I also won't eat meat, but these traditions are a little harder to adhere to:
  • Women carry out their quilts to air out in order to chase illnesses out of the house.
  • Some believe that water dipped before sunrise without a spoken word has healing power and will stay pure all year.
  • People get up very early on this day and hurry down to the brook (or stream... or river) where they wash themselves with cold water and then cross the brook with bare legs because they believe that this ensures good health for the entire next year.
  • People also take their daughters down to wash at the well so that they'll be pretty and well spoken for.
 It's also believed that water sprites come out onto dry land on Velký pátek.  Water Sprites are a story for another day, but if you come across this guy...

A few more interesting beliefs and superstitions are:
  • Work.  Just don't do it!!  I'm not sure if it's out of genuine respect for the religious festival, or from superstitious fears that to do it will somehow bring misfortune.  According to an old Czech saying, "Na Velký pátek zemi nehýbej", which translates to, "On Great Friday, do not move the soil."
  • Supposedly, the weather for the whole year is foretold by the weather on Velký pátek.  For instance, if it rains on Velký pátek, then the rest of the year will be dry.  Another saying is "Velký pátek deštivý dělává rok žíznivý", which means, "A rainy Great Friday makes for a thirsty year."
  • On Velký pátek, according to legend, anyone can look upon the sun without being blinded by its glare (you know I'd be trying this one if it wasn't so darn CLOUDY!)
 There are several legends associated with Velký pátek as well, and the one I find romantic yet disturbing is this one:  High up in the mountains amidst the cliffs there is a stone figure of a maiden.  She is seated and holds in her lap an unfinished shirt, also of stone.  Eash year, on Velký pátek, at the hour of the Passion, she sews a stitch:  one year, one stitch.  When the shirt is finished, the world will end.  Everything under the sun will die, and Judgement Day will be at hand. 
Let's hope she never finishes that shirt!!!

Easter Egg Hunt vs Easter Beer Hunt

Czechs will think of any reason to drink beer!  
I'd prefer it to be pink because green reminds me of St. Patrick's Day, but I can envision skipping with my Easter basket through a field of green...

Here's the article from the Prague Post Food Blog:

Breweries are just as eager to find an excuse to put out a special beer as beer lovers are to drink it. In the run-up to Easter this weekend, several breweries are capitalizing on any celebration’s penchant for drink by releasing limited-edition craft beers. So, if you’re the type who prefers liquid gold to chocolate eggs, you can pile these pints into your proverbial basket.
Green may not normally be a color associated with “Easter” let alone “beer” — unless we’re talking St. Patrick’s Day and boozy parties at Irish pubs. But there’s also the tradition of “Green Thursday,” also known as Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. Marking the Last Supper of Christ may seem an odd occasion for brewing a green-colored beer, but several breweries, such as the Velké Březno brewery, are releasing an envy-colored pint this Thursday, April 21.
Velké Březno’s zelené pivo is a special flavored beer brewed in the brewery Starobrno. According to the brewery’s press release, it combines spring water, barley malt and Moravian Saaz hops. Given an eight-day traditional fermentation using Velké Březno yeast, the brew is 13° and has a “typical taste” and “well-rounded flavor.” What they won’t divulge, however, is the “secret herbal extract” that gives the beer its tint, saying the brewers guard the secret fiercely.
Velké Březno has a catalog of equally interesting and quirky beer specials that it produces annually, including a pepper beer. It markets them quite heavily through Facebook, and websites for each specialty beer feature an alphabetical list of every single pub and restaurant (by town) in the Czech Republic serving each one — an ingenuously helpful tactic.
The list for places pouring the zelené pivo starting this Thursday is too long to recount here (the listings for Prague are even divided into districts for easy searching), and range from restaurants to pubs to dive bars. A few of the most well-known spots include: Petrínské terasyKozičkaLimonádový JoeV CípuPopoCaféPetlMerendaU SaduPivní Tramway,Mirellie and U Bilého lva.
Prague’s own Novoměstský pivovar, on Vodičkova street, pours a special Velikonoční 14° dark lager starting on Green Thursday, for 45 Kč a half-liter. The microbrewery also has a special lunch and dinner menu for the weekend.
Farther afoot, near Plzeň, the Dobranská minipivovar has two Easter specials: a 7° honey lager and a 12° nettle lager. In the same area, the Purkmistr brewery, in Plzeň’s Černice district, has a festival of beers for Easter, starting April 21 and running through the 25th. Specials include a green beer and a Velikonoční 15°, brewed using two kinds of hops. The green lager, according to Marketing Chief Petr Míč, combines “three types of herbs” for its festive flavor.
Pivovar Holba also releases an Easter special, the 13.51° Šerák, which boasts a greater proportion of hops and malt. Brewer Luděk Reichl says it has had an extraordinarily long production period in large cellars, where it has matured and fermented for up to two months. “The ideal is to drink one or two and enjoy its excellence in every sip,” says the brewer.
This Saturday, April 23, the Chodovar brewery opens “officially” for the season, celebrating both Easter and the warmer months by welcoming visitors to its grounds, for tours and festivities. The brewers will lead a traditional barrel-rolling contest in the courtyard, among other activities, as well as keeping thirst at beer with a special yeast beer.
Other breweries no doubt are offering similarly unique specials this weekend, making for a veritable Easter egg hunt for interesting brews. Seek and ye shall find!

Happy Name Day, Evženie! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Evženie.  Happy Name Day, Evženie!
The name Evženie is the Czech form of Eugenia, which is of Old Greek origin and means "well born; noble".

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's Zelený Ctvrtek...Got Greens?

Today is Holy Thursday, aka Green Thursday (Zelený čtvrtek) in the Czech Republic.  It's a day of fasting where Catholics did not eat any animal products of any kind and only consumed one meal of vegetables.  Can you guess what kind of vegetables?  Yep, green ones, such as spinach or cabbage were eaten on this day so that one would stay healthy for the entire year.

 What's in a name?
Zelený čtvrtek (Green Thursday) was perhaps derived from the green mass chausable that was used on this day and which is still used today.  The bells "departing for Rome" were heard for the last time in church on Green Thursday.  They would then fall silent until Holy Saturday.  A superstition existed (of course it did... Czechs are such a superstitious bunch) that when a bell was rung for the last time on Green Thursday, one was supposed to jingle money so that one would hold on to it. 

 Another Green Thursday custom includes the boys' game of Chasing Judas and the baking of twisted spiral buns representing serpents, the symbol of betrayal.  

In some villages there are processions led by a captive Judas in a straw suit, which is ceremonially burnt at the end of the day.  When sprinkled into a clean jug of water, the ashes of Judas were believed to have special powers including the abilities to guard against fire and protect the health of livestock for the coming year.

In the evening of Green Thursday, village boys used to equip themselves with a wooden rattle (řehtačka), which was specially made for the purpose.  They formed a group and walked through the village, rattling their rattles vigorously so that the noise could be heard from afar.  
The meaning of the rattling may have been to chase away Judas.  The same procedure would repeat on Good Friday (Velký pátek).  The last rattling day was White Saturday (Bílá sobota), when the boys didn't just walk through the village, but stopped at every house in the morning and rattled until they were given money.

Happy Name Day, Alexandra! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Alexandra.  Happy Name Day, Alexandra!
The name Alexandra is of Greek origin and means "man's defender".  It's the Latinate feminine form of Alexander.  The name Alexandra was seldom used in the English-speaking world before the 20th century.  It became very popular in Britain after the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) married the Danish Princess Alexandra in 1863.

Alexandra of Denmark