Another Wonderful Czech Adventure: Prague and Kuřivody

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On with the shoe!

Back in May I visited my good friend Jana in the Czech Republic. Some of you might remember that I met Jana when I taught English in the Czech town of Liberec in 2005. She introduced me to her photography club, and the rest, as they say, is history. A photo exhibit and a few members of the club came to Florida for an art exhibit in 2007 at the gallery I directed at the time.

Jana now lives in Prague in a wonderful renovated apartment in the middle of Prague’s many sights. Here is a photo I took from her window in the middle of the night. Yes, that IS a Kentucky Fried Chicken!

What I want to tell you about is the Saturday of this particular May weekend. Simon Pikous, a professional photographer and artist in Liberec who founded the aforementioned photo club and still leads it today, had organized an outing for the group based at his wife’s family country cottage.

Early that morning we picked up a young man named David in Prague and set out for the cottage. David was taking part in the outing, but none of us knew him before this. His ride was organized by Simon with Jana. Jana said she hoped he wasn’t a murderer or something. I’m happy to report he wasn’t!

We arrived at the cottage after several really funny mobile phone calls with confusing directions. Jana told me she was counting on me to find the cottage since I had been there SIX YEARS BEFORE! Seriously, it’s out in the middle of nowhere past a village named something like Osečná — I don’t know I don’t speak Czech. FYI, there are actually TWO villages by that name: Upper and Lower Osečná, or Old and New Osečná or whatever.

However, we finally arrived at the cottage:

After a few minutes of greeting old friends and meeting new ones, we all piled into cars and headed out for a town called

Don’t ask me to pronounce it. More on my attempts to do so later…

On the way to Kuřivody, I “invented” a new photo series called “Photos from
Behind My Head.” Ok, I was just playing around with my camera and the Czechs though the idea was great. I uploaded some of the photos to my Facebook page. Here’s the gallery so far – I’ve added a few shots since that day.

I still had no idea really of what we were going to photograph. The phrase “an old house” kept coming up. I’ve learned that, with my Czech friends, just go with it. I may be often surprised, but I am never disappointed. This was no exception.

The “old house” turned out to be one of the richest sources of photographs I had ever seen all in one place! I kept asking the club members for information about this building. The most I could get from them was that it was built in the Middle Ages, was presently owned by an old woman who let a group of artists use it

We arrived at a middle-of-nowhere parking lot next to a roadside snack bar. We hauled our photo equipment out of trunks and stalked through the woods a short ways to a huge stone structure, looking every bit the medieval fortress indeed.

Here’s a shot of the crumbling gate that was part of the remnants of a stone wall surrounding the lot. I took it from inside the wall with my back to the house.

Here’s a couple of detail shots from the front of the house. You can tell how old it must be from the erosion:

 

 

David’s role in all this was soon apparent. He sped his way through our milling ranks and unlocked the padlock on the iron door barring the front archway of the building. Turns out he was part of the group of artists who use this place.

My first glance inside was of the tiny courtyard that was made tinier by all the piles upon piles of junk. In fact, the pile on the left toward the back wall actually has a whole car underneath!

Here’s a couple of shots of the stonework on the arched entranceway from inside the courtyard:

 

And some detail on the walls:

 

And a shot of the paving stones underneath:

There was a little waiting time while some of the junk was moved around so we could access the inside of the building. Meanwhile, we photographers did our work:

Some courtyard items included an old mailbox:

A suitcase with an assortment of items in it:

Even Rosebud’s Czech cousin was there:

Here’s David rushing to find candlesticks to illuminate up the darker rooms on the ground floor. Note that most of the candlesticks are actually menorahs:

 

 

The entire building, which was four stories high, was simply jam packed with every item you could possibly imagine. Lots of it was just trash but much of it was very interesting artifacts.

Here’s my first shot from inside:

Most of the rooms had more or less related items. One was a bedroom that contained an antique Czech bed much like the one I slept in at another cottage back in 2005 during my first weekend with the photo club:

Some rooms were just crumbling away. While photographing the bird in the photograph below, I scared up a whole covey of them that strafed me and scared me nearly half to death!

Other rooms had collections of old scientific equipment, taxidermy, books, suitcases, kitchen stuff, you name it. Here are but a few examples:

 

 

 

 

 

One of my favorite shots:

 

Who goes there?

Here’s Pepa in one of the rooms, starring in a video that Jana was shooting just out of frame. He was a superb silent movie actor: he even “drank” from that empty beer bottle, having the presence of mind to wipe his sleeve across his mouth without any direction at all. Genius.

These few photos don’t begin to scratch the surface of the millions of things that were there to photograph, but I didn’t want to fill up my blog space quota. Suffice it to say that it was a satisfying place for the photographer in me.

I’m still not clear on why the artist group uses the place or how all this stuff got inside. There is apparently no electricity and certainly no running water or toilet facilities. I was told the artist group spends weekends there and there was a binder with photos staged in the rooms. Since it was all in Czech, I couldn’t tell you what the written explanation said.

However, I did some research on the building itself for this journal. Turns out it is known as the “abandoned fort” of Kuřivody. Although no sources seemed sure, the oldest part of this building dates from the 13th Century and was originally indeed a medieval fortress. It’s a square building and was formerly surrounded by a moat, part of which you can still see today though it’s overgrown with weeds and nettles.

With lots of help from Google Translator, the information I found seems to indicate that the original owner was the family Berka of Dubé. The land ceded to them by King Wenceslas of Christmas carol fame.

The oldest written reference to the castle was in 1415, having been built around 1400. The original walls are almost six feet thick and the original structure was two stories and measured about 30 by 80 feet. A north wing was added at the end of the century, and two more smaller wings added about 100 years later. Most of the rooms have barrel-vaulted ceilings. The entrance archway with a terrace on top was added in 1884.

Most of the other historical buildings in the surrounding village were destroyed during the two world wars, and the castle is the oldest remaining structure. It was occupied by armies in their turn, the latest being the Soviets until 1990. Although the reference stated that the armies did great damage, it did concede that the same armies (read ‘Soviet’) protected much of the natural forest resources in the area. It is unclear who actually owns the land and fortress these days, but it is in private hands.

Here are a couple of links where you can see pictures of the castle, although the text is in Czech.
http://www.hrady.cz/index.php?OID=1259

http://www.horydoly.cz/vypsat.php?id=4323

Whew! I’m still mentally processing the experience, if not the pictures! After that mindboggling experience, we convoyed out again to a former Soviet army installation, now abandoned. The biggest structure standing was the former movie theater, which had a surprisingly undamaged mural of Lenin on the front:

Here are a couple more shots of the surrounding area I took:

 

This friendly, though water-logged fellow provided a warning that there was an open well hole in the field:

After this we returned to the cottage for some grub and camaraderie.

Photos were perused:

Old traditional met new technological:

A campfire was built (this is Simon):

Sausages were opened (this is Jana):

Roasting sticks were cut (this is Dalin – my brother from another mother):

Drinks were consumed as stories were told:

Some of you know my fascination for the Czech method of roasting sausages over an open fire. First of all it has to be a specific kind of sausage. Then it has to be skewered onto the stick just so. Then they score the sausage in patterns that emerge only after the sausage plumps during roasting. Then you eat it with your fingers, dipping it into some really good mustard.

Each person has his own particular style of roasting sausages. Some people make animal shapes reminiscent of balloon animals. I’ll admit I’m still a novice so I won’t show you mine, but here are some of the prettier ones from the evening.

 

 

 

During the evening a discussion arose about the name of the village where the castle is located. In print it’s Kuřivody, which to me seemed like a combination of the Czech words for “chicken” and “water.” Notice that I know food names in Czech! One has to order from menus there, doesn’t one?

The topic came up around the campfire and there was a huge discussion, as is the manner of Czech campfire conversation. Some said it translated as “Chickenwater” and others disagreed. I posted the photo of the village sign on Facebook and a Russian friend even commented, “Chicken water?”

The research I did online revealed that it was indeed “Chickenwater” or more accurately, “Poultrywater.” The surrounding forests have lots of small ponds where ducks and geese frequently are hunted, thus the name.

I say all that to say this. The word is extremely hard to pronounce if you are not a native Czech speaker. The ř sound is just impossible for many, including me. I’ve tried it out many times and always get laughed at. I think that I just don’t hear it correctly. However, I took another run or 1000 at it around the fire that night, cheered on by the group. Apparently I finally got fairly close to it after a time. As Pepa remarked, “Vodka is the best language teacher.”

Travel tip: even if you suck at it, attempt the local language. The natives will love you for it and pay you back with boundless hospitality.

Later, Simon and his two beautiful sons showed up dressed alike, looking every bit the sailors. For this photo they were saying, “Yes sir yes!” I think they meant “Sir yes sir!”

The program for after dark was a slideshow. A bedsheet was rigged between two trees as a projection screen:

My good friend Roman (with the glasses in red and black) and a couple of others set up a laptop and projector:

Some of the slides shown were part of Jana’s “Tubes” (or “Trubky” in Czech) series she had done as part of her Bachelor’s diploma project. With her unique perspective, her fashion shoot assignment became an effective parody. Thus it became a running joke among us to shout out “Trubky” at any tube-like structure we saw.

I even shot some Trubky the next day in Prague.

The evening grew quite cold and we were all weary. Despite the two-hour drive, I talked Jana into driving back to Prague that night so we would wake up there the next morning. We were planning to visit Petrin Hill in Prague and I wanted to get an early start.

Unfortunately I’ve had a computer problem since May in which I managed to lose my Petrin pictures. Count yourselves lucky that I had the above photos posted on Facebook and was able to reconstruct the day!

I hope you enjoyed yet another of my adventures to the Czech Republic with my fantastic friends! Stay tuned for more adventures in Paris, Berlin and Mont St. Michel with my best friend in June!

Photo for No Apparent Reason:

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