Monday, May 31, 2010

Ride of the Kings

On the last Sunday of May, the village of Vlčnov plays host to Jízda králů (Ride of the Kings). This festival has been held every year for over 200 years. It even took place during WWII.

Vlčnov is in south eastern Moravia, near the Slovak border, at the base of the White Carpathian Mountains. It’s about two hours from Brno. You have to take a bus or a train to Úherský Brod. Then it’s another 7 km by bus or taxi to get to Vlčnov. It's a village so no trams, trolleys or metro.

A young boy from the town is selected to be the king. He’s dressed as a girl, with a rose in his mouth, and rides a white horse. The king is guarded by two 18-year old guys with drawn swords. Other guys on horses solicit donations while calling out “Na krála, na krála!” (For the king!)

This year the king was 12-year old Roman Hruboš.

The custom used to be observed throughout most of Moravia. But now it is only held in Vlčnov. UNESCO is going to mark the Ride of the Kings as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.

Jízda králů comes from the days of the Bohemian-Hungarian War. In 1469, Jiří of Poděbrady , the King of Bohemia, defeated Matthias Corvinus, his son-in-law & the King of Hungary. It must have been one heck of a family feud. The story goes that in order not to be recognized, Corvinus dressed up as a woman, covered his face with ribbons and headed home. His guards collected money from serfs along the way to feed him.

The "parade" lasted about an hour and ended in the center of town. There was also traditional costumes and folk music.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Brno Death March

Sunday, May 30th was the 65th anniversary of the Brno Death March. On this night, in 1945, 20,000 German inhabitants were kicked out and sent to Austria. This happened after the war was over.

The 1945 Beneš Decrees claimed collective responsibility for WW2 by Germans and Hungarians living in Czechoslovakia.  From 1945 – 1946, 2.5 million ethnic Germans and 40,000 Hungarians lost all rights & property and were expelled from the country. And it's not like these people had just moved there. Ethnic Germans and Hungarians had lived there for centuries.

Those expelled from Brno, mostly the elderly, women and children, had to march 30 km to the border. However, that part of Austria was under Soviet control and the people were rejected so they then had to walk back to a concentration camp in Pohořelice. The total march was 56 km (~35 miles) long.

Sixty-five years later and historians are still debating the fatalities. Some Czech historians claim that only a few people died on the march due to old age and some German sources claim as many as 8,000 people died due to Czechs and Soviets taking revenge for the war. The academic consensus puts the death count at 700. The decrees were never rescinded so, technically, they are still in force.

Radio Praha has an interview with Marie Ranzenhoferová – a survivor of the Brno Death March. Here's the link to it.

2010 Parliamentary Elections

This was a big election weekend here. Czechs voted on Friday and Saturday for the 200 seats in the Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies – the lower house. Yeah, they get two days to vote. But from what I understand, they really don’t have the option of absentee ballots.

There is a party-list proportional representation election system here and deputies are elected to four-year terms. But if a party doesn’t get at least 5% of the vote then they don’t get a seat.

Voter turnout was at 61% and this was the second lowest voter turnout since the communist government fell in 1989. This was also the first time since the fall of communism that the communist party didn’t finish in the top 3. That's progress! Especially, since its only been 21 years since the Velvet Revolution.

Even though the ČSSD (Social Democrats) won the most seats with 56, they probably won't be in charge. It's expected that a coalition government will be formed between the ODS (Civic Democratic Party), TOP 09 (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09), and VV (Public Affairs) parties.

Here's a quick guide to the parties here.

ČSSD is the Czech Social Democratic Party, left-wing

ODS (Civic Democratic Party) = “liberal conservatives”, right-wing

TOP 09 = pro-European conservatives. Founded in June 2009 as a right-wing split from the KDU–ČSL.

VV (Věci veřejné) is a center-right party.

KSČM is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. It’s interesting that they haven’t dropped the communist title from its name. Every other party in former Iron Curtain countries got rid of the word “communist”. Way left-wing.

KDU–ČSL is the Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party. They lost membership to the new TOP 09 party. In 2006, they had 7.2% and 13 seats. Now they dropped to 4.4% and lost all of their seats because they don’t have the minimum 5%.

Strana zelených (Green Party) lost their seats due to the 5% minimum rule.

There has been major campaigning going on for the last several months. Not that ignorance is bliss or anything, but I have to admit that it was kind of nice to have an election going on and not have to hear (understand) all of the rhetoric. I know that I should care more about Czech politics since I live here but it's not like I can vote or anything. At least I can still vote in the USA via absentee ballots and I don't have to listen to endless mudslinging.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Bone Church

The Bone Church is what everyone goes to Kutná Hora for. The ossuary is actually in Sedlec, a suburb of Kutná Hora, but that’s not important.

The place is pretty macabre. The small, Baroque, 14th century, Roman Catholic chapel is located on a cemetery. It is decorated entirely with human bones. Did I mention that it was macabre?

In 1511, a half-blind monk arranged human bones into pyramids. Later on in 1870, a woodcarver made very unique decorations. They then became a chandelier, crosses, goblets, monstrance and even a coat of arms. In addition, there is a bell-shaped stack of bones in each of the four corners. The artist even signed his name on the wall by the entrance. Of course, he did it in bones. It’s estimated that there are remains from over 40,000 people. All of the bones were disinfected before use.

The chandelier contains at least one of every bone in the human body.

In 1278, the Sedlec abbot was on a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem. When he left, he took a handful of earth from the Holy Land which he sprinkled over the cemetery in Sedlec. It became famous throughout central Europe and lots of wealthy people wanted to be buried here. The place was expanded during the Plague in the 14th century and during Hussite wars in the 15th century. So it’s not like people were killed just in order to decorate the church.

The purpose of the Bone Church is to remind all of us that human life is transient and that death is inevitable.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Kutná Hora is a popular day trip destination for Prague tourists. It’s only 80 km (~50 miles) from Prague and about two hours from Brno. With only 22,000 inhabitants, it’s a very quiet village with some nifty sights.

The town was founded in 1142. In the 13th century, silver was discovered here and Kutná Hora became the second most important city in the Kingdom of Bohemia, competing with Prague economically, politically and culturally. In 1995, the city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Gothic Church of St. Barbara was started in 1388 and, more than 500 years later, it was completed in 1905. This is the country’s second largest cathedral, after St. Vitus. It is named after the patron saint of miners. Very important for a mining town. There are some outstanding late Gothic and Renaissance murals inside that date back to the 15th century.

The Baroque Jesuit College is right next to St. Barbara’s. Kind of neat to have Baroque and Gothic right next to each other. It was built between 1667 – 1703. In front of the college is a low wall with 13 sculptures of saints. It was designed to resemble the Charles Bridge in Prague.

Formerly known as the “Golden Comb House”, the Tyl House is the birthplace of Josef Kajetán Tyl. He was a writer and dramatist. He also wrote the words to the Czech national anthem. The house is now the Czech Museum of Silver.

Water was a tough commodity in Kutná Hora. The Late Gothic stone fountain was built in 1497. The second digit that looks like half of an "8", is how they used to write "4".

Across from the fountain is the Knights' House. This house is different from others in town because it was reconstructed in 1824 in the Classicist style.

The tower of St. James’ Church can be seen from almost everywhere in town. The original plans called for two towers but during construction it was discovered that the church’s base could only support a single tower.

Most major cities in Central Europe have a Plague Column. This one was built from 1713 – 1715 for the +6,000 people who died here. Since this was a mining town, the column contains sculptures of miners.

Most people take the trip to visit The Bone Church. I’ll post about that later.
I know this will sound crazy but one of the day’s highlights was visiting the café at Kozím Plácku. I had the best cup of coffee I’ve had in a year!! There are only two places in the entire country where you can get a vacuum pot, here and in Prague. I must find out where in Prague for when I’m back there in July. Basically, you pick the kind of coffee you want, Brazilian for me, and they put it in a contraption that looks like it came straight out of chemistry class. The hot water in the bottom part rises up to the top part and then the coffee settles back down. It was soooo good. Yes, the espressos are good here but this was real coffee.

Monday, May 24, 2010

2010 Hockey World Championships

This weekend concluded the 2010 World Championships for ice hockey. Hockey is a big deal over here. The Czechs won the title in 1996, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2005. They also won another six titles as part of Czechoslovakia.

On Saturday afternoon, the Czechs beat Sweden 3-2, to make it to the finals against Russia. Sweden went on to beat Germany for the bronze medal. The Russians won the title in 2008 and 2009.

Well the Czechs pulled it out and beat Russia 2-1. It's pretty cool because Russia had some big name players and the Czech team was mainly guys who play here. I guess this helps make up for not getting a medal in Vancouver. Plus, the Czechs seem to enjoy it whenever they can stick it to Russia.
Everyone went crazy when the Czechs beat Russia. Lots of shouting, singing, and horn blowing. I'm sure that the bars were lively on Sunday night. I was happy that the Czechs won but I was over it a few hours later when I needed to sleep and I could still hear the horns at 2:30 AM.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bratislava Pride 2010

Today was Bratislava's 1st ever gay pride parade. Or at least it was supposed to be. The event seemed pretty well-organized and several foreign diplomats had even confirmed their attendance. I heard that between 500-1,000 people showed up.

Then about +80 neo-Nazis showed up to put an end to the festivities. According to the news, fascists threw rocks, eggs and a tear gas canister in to the crowd. And two people carring the rainbow flag were assulted and hit in the face. There were 200 police officers on duty and 29 people were arrested, many belonging to the ultra-right wing nationalist Slovenská Pospolitos party. Hasn't this part of the world already had enough of fascism?

In the lead up to Saturday, 17 different embassies, including the American Embassy, issued a joint statement supporting Bratislava's Gay Pride event.

Since the police were unable to guarantee everyone's safety, the parade was cancelled. Given that the pride parade had been planned out months in advance, and that foreign diplomats were going to be there, then it seems to me like the police should have planned things a little better. I wonder what it's going to be like when Brno has its pride festival next month?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Ingnis Brunensis 2010

Ingnis Brunensis started tonight. It's a festival that runs from May 21st - June 4th and the biggest attraction is the international fireworks competition. "Ingnis" is the Latin word for 'fire'.
This is the 13th year for the competition and companies from ČR, Slovakia, Germany and France will be competiting over the next couple of weeks. There will be six shows, all accompanied by music, and the best part is that they are all for free.

Tonight's kick-off was out at the Olympia shopping mall. The competition will be held at the Brno dam. I bet the reflection of the fireworks from the water will look pretty cool. The finale is going to be at Denis Gardens.

Other parts of the festival include hot air balloons, a children's day, an historical tram exhibition, a classic car show and a folk fest up at Špilberk castle. This festival is the largest event here in the ČR. Each year it attracts +1,000,000 people. Here's some video of tonight's prelude.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Government Business Hours

Czech government offices have the craziest business hours. Úřední hodiny are the hours open to the public and it makes me wonder, at times, how anything gets done around here.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, government offices are normally open from 8 AM - 5 PM. And if you're lucky then also until Noon on Fridays. But don't forget that the office will be closed for an hour during lunch time. So much for trying to run out and get something done during your lunch break.

Therefore, if you have to go to the foreign police, the land registry, the business registry, the tax office, the unemployment office, etc., then you need to do it on specific days.

I wonder if the bureaucracy is a hold over from communism? But it's been 20 years since the Velvet Revolution. I mean, seriously, what do the bureaucrats do during the rest of the week? None of my Czech friends have been able to tell me. They seem to wonder the exact same thing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Frankfurt am Main, Germany

There is a small city called Frankfurt in eastern Germany. But when people say “Frankfurt” they are talking about the western city of Frankfurt am Main. It means Frankfurt on the Main (pronounced “Mine”) river.

It’s Germany’s 5th largest city and a major financial center. Sometimes it’s called “Mainhattan” because Frankfurt is home to the European Central Bank, the German Federal Bank, and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, in addition to, +300 national & international banks.

Frankfurt was heavily damaged by allied bombers in WWII. Some things were rebuilt but overall, the city feels modern. Its many skyscrapers make it look like any other American city. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights…

St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral is the city’s main church. The Gothic building was constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries. From 1356 onwards, this is where the kings of the Holy Roman Empire were elected. From 1562 – 1792 this was where the roman-German emperors were crowned.

Paulskirche, St. Paul’s Church, was established as a Protestant church in 1789. In 1848, it was the seat of the first democratically elected Parliament. The church was partially destroyed during the war but was quickly rebuilt. It is no longer used for religious services but it used for exhibitions and city events.
The old opera house was built in 1880. Until the late 1970s, it still had not been rebuilt from the war and was nicknamed “Germany’s Most Beautiful Ruin”. Due to public pressure, the opera house was finally reconstructed and reopened in 1981. The inscription says: "Dem Wahren, Schönen, Guten” – “To the true, the beautiful, the good".

On Saturdays, there is a big flea market along the Main River. Lots of Germans, Poles, Turks and Russians all out selling everything from old records to clothes and from electronics to china. You could also see rowers practicing on the river and a free concert. This weekend was also the Smart Beach Volleyball tournament in the center of town. It was a busy Saturday!

The Römer is a medieval building and one of the city’s most important landmarks. It has been the city hall for over 600 years. In the Römer Square is a memorial to where Nazi students burned books in 1933.

The European Central Bank is responsible for monetary policy over the 16 Eurozone countries. There is even a Euro gift shop. With everything going on in Greece, plus Spain and Portugal, several newspapers had headlines this weekend questioning the Euro and if perhaps Germany needed to go back to using Deutsche marks.

Westendtower was completed in 1993 and is 208 meters (682 feet) tall making it the 3rd highest skyscraper in Frankfurt. The façade is made of fine, golden granite which makes it look whiter and brighter from afar. The building’s steel crown is heated in winter so that icicles can’t form which would endanger pedestrians below.

Maintower was completed in 1999 and at 200 meters (656 feet) is the city’s 4th tallest building. 
This was the first high-rise building in Europe to have a façade made entirely of glass. 

This is the only skyscraper with a public viewing observatory. For 5€ ($7.50), you can ride the speed elevator for 20 seconds and check out the 360° view from up on the roof.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and author of the two-part drama Faust. For €5 you can visit the 17th century house where he was born. The museum was closed for renovations but the house was worth seeing.

The Frankfurt Jewish cemetery is the 2nd oldest in Germany. At the start of the 20th century there were ~7000 headstones. In 1942, the Nazis destroyed the cemetery and by the end of the war about 2/3rds of the headstones were destroyed. Only a small portion of the cemetery is still in the original condition. There are 11,134 small blocks placed on the cemetery walls, each one is engraved with the name of a Frankfurt Jew that was killed during the Holocaust. I know that there is a tablet with Anne Frank’s name but I didn’t see it.

Frankfurt even has dinosaurs out on the streets. Cool!

After a full day of sightseeing (and dinosaurs), nothing beats currywurst and ebbelwoi. Currywurst is a pork sausage, cut into slices, and seasoned with curry sauce and curry powder. Ebbelwoi is 5,5% - 7% apple wine with a tart, sour taste. It is refreshing in the summer and served hot in the winter.

The last time I was in Frankfurt was in 1992. The two obvious things I noticed were several new skyscrapers and fewer Americans than before. Frankfurt used to be the headquarters city for the U.S. Army in Germany. In addition, there were 7 air force bases (Hahn, Zweibrücken, Rhein-Main, Bitburg, Sembach, Spangdahlem and Ramstein) all within 100 km (62.5 miles). With the end of the Cold War, 4 of those bases have been closed. I had hoped to maybe find some American products while I was there but no luck. All I was able to find was a 16-piece pack of Oreo cookies. I guess it’s time to start hinting for another care package from home.