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Maria & Brett's HUGE Trip 06-07-08-09-? ok, so the Socceroos lost in 'that' penalty against Italy; Adriatic summers aren't long enough (bliss!); and we found that you should never use the term "Eastern Bloc" when talking to a Czech (Central Europe, please).

A Whippin' Good Czech Easter

CZECH REPUBLIC | Sunday, 15 April 2007 | Views [4366]

Easter - or 'Velikonoce' - in the centre of Prague. Painted eggs everywhere, even the trees were sprouting them.

Easter - or 'Velikonoce' - in the centre of Prague. Painted eggs everywhere, even the trees were sprouting them.

What do horse-hoofed devils, crossbows, medieval feasts and the whipping of women have to do with Easter? Everything - in the Czech Republic anyway. With a predominantly atheist/agnostic population and no overriding influence by any religion, Easter, or Velikonoce, is more a celebration of Spring and the life that springs from it.

All around us during the week before Easter, as we hunted down a reliable car to travel to the far reaches of the Republic, painted eggs could be seen on just about every street corner; the trees and flower gardens couldn't contain their excitement, and defiantly burst open their buds in a united explosion of hypercoloured life: Spring is here (not that the european winter really came this year - it felt more like a balmy Sydney one!).

The Plan - drive out of Prague for the long weekend and track down some traditional velikonoce celebrations. The downfall of living in a non-religious state is that Good Friday isn't recognised, so Friday was another crazy workday for the Czechs, and gave 70,000 tourists from neighbouring states a headstart on their descent into Prague. The Result - "Get Out If You Can!", most Praguers told us. This weekend would be no different for many Praguers, as most leave town on Friday afternoons anyway, heading to their weekend cottages, or chalupas, to escape the city cluttered with its soviet-style apartments, or panelaks.

As we signed away a dodgy looking car from a woman who looked like she eats kids for breakfast we should've known we'd have some trouble when we returned again on Monday evening. The fact that the tank was only half full didn't seem too strange, nor the fact that the car was pretty filthy - afterall, the Republic had recently been blanketed by a dusty hangover of a dust storm in Africa - or even the fact that the rental depot was actually based in the second-floor apartment of an elderly couple, with peeling prints of famous Czech castles stuck all over the place with some kind of predecessor to Blu Tac.

It was perhaps the fact that one of the waiting room chairs would be held above our heads by the same crazed woman in three days' time, in a fit of toothless spit-firing ranting, that should've told us to go back to Nymburk. But how could we have foreseen such a moment in time?

Blissfully ignorant of our sealed fate we pointed our half-full tank of a car into the crazy Prague traffic and began to negotiate the Friday afternoon frenzy on the roads, weaving in and out of trams on our way out of town...

... to the beautiful Krivoklat Castle. Ahh, take us back in time, please!

Just outside of Prague there is a castle which transports you back into medieval times. Here you will find performances, craftsmen, bakers, blacksmiths and pubs all with a medieval twist. A team of locals who are keen on keeping the ways of the past alive…or it could just be driven by the tourist dollar! Hey, it works. (There have also been a number of films that have been shot here.)

As we made our way through the square past the gypsy performer, past the sheep being cut up by the shearer (I’ve never seen so many nicks in our life!), past the kids firing real crossbows in an open area (not even going to go there), past the devils wearing cow’s hooves (not going there either) Brett was quick to notice a little door which lead to a little room and in the room stood a little man at work. No we were not in the Shire (LOTR), but in a place where men were free to whip or pour water over women in exchange for eggs, alcohol and presumably sex. The little man was making a pomlazka which is a whip made from willow reeds. This whip is used on Easter Monday by men to perpetuate a pagan tradition that looks never to disappear (ask any woman what they think of it and they shrug their shoulders in indifference or resignation; ask any man and his eyes will light up!). The look on Brett’s face was as if he was a little boy in a candy shop. How unfortunate that he is with a girl from the western world who would rather crack a raw egg on his forehead than give a colourfully painted one as a gift.

After Brett’s purchase of the biggest pomlazka you could buy we roamed back into the courtyard where the smell of lunch was in the air. We decided on pig’s leg-off-the-spit garnished with pickled peppers, mustard and a slice of Šumava bread. With satisfied bellies we had had our fill of medieval times so it was off to our next rendezvous with renaissance.

Telč is a UNESCO-listed town in the south of the Czech Republic and it’s easy to see why. The town square is surrounded on all sides by quaint buildings with pastel coloured facades. The buildings house cafes, pubs, bakeries, boutiques and about four Vietnamese-run stores that sell anything and everything. Yep, the cheap and nasty $2 stores have made their way to bum-f@#$ nowhere! Walking around the square you are in awe of just how adorable the town is, that is until you catch a glimpse in your peripheral vision of the fluorescent workers vests that are hanging out the front of the two-dollar shops.

Thought: why anyone would travel to unassuming Telč for a reflector vest is beyond our reasoning. We couldn’t work it out, but then again nothing surprises us anymore.

Stepping out of the square you find yourself wandering the little cobble-stoned alley-ways which lead you to the grounds of Telč Castle. A beautiful park and pond surrounding the castle that I’m sure would be a good representation of how the Garden of Eden would look like. The great thing was that there were no people around so we really got to enjoy our own version of the Castle’s ‘serenity’ (there could be an Aussie flick in that!). That was until we started to hear what sounded like the Bee Gees, Czech style. Curiosity got the better of us and as we got closer to the music we realised that it wasn’t the Bee Gees singing Stayin’ Alive but a Czech translation, tight pants and all. As we looked around we found that we had stepped into an 80’s white trailer trash fair. We felt like we were back in Nymburk so it was time to go. Telč is too gorgeous to have the memory tarnished by the Bee Gees, reflector vests and trailer trash.

Back in the car the next morning after a breakfast attended by mostly under-two’s (or so it seemed!) our car only wanted to continue towards the south-east in the direction of Austria and the Slovak Republic. With a gorgeous sky overhead we couldn’t argue, so we switched on the radio (Stayin’ Alive again!) and took to the street. “Hang on, is it the right-hand side or left-hand side that we drive on?”….

Using our map that has lifesize images of fortresses (hrady) and castles (zamky) dotted all over it we sought out Bítov, a zamek that sits high atop a hilly peak on the bend of a meandering river that cuts through a deep valley. Not in the mood to nod for 45 minutes and pretend to understand what the guide was saying we didn’t find Bítov all that interesting except for the wind horns that sat on top of the castle in lines along the apex, giving the whole scene an eerie feel every time the wind blew – it seemed like a ghost choir was warming up in some disused back room somewhere in the bowels of the complex, but when the wind blew the sound continued unbroken for an eternity… sending spine-tingling shivers up and down the body.

Have you heard of Liechtenstein? The small provincial country nestled in between Switzerland and Austria? Well the dynasty once had a tentacle in the south of the Czech Republic where it acquired land and plonked gorgeous chateaux and gardens there.

The zamek at Lednice is a gorgeous example of absolutely stupefying wealth. Standing in front of the building, with hedged gardens and sprouting tulips all fighting for your attention you’ll notice two distinct wings staring back at you from the front: one is from the renaissance era, with squared angles and decorative motifs; while the other is neo-gothic (after the gothic period but drawing heavily on the style later on) with knobbed spires, high, narrow windows and external framework. This is not at all unusual, except the fact that you’re looking at a single building. So, split personalities occur in buildings too!

Without being tempted to wander across the park to the trained Hunting Birds exhibition, where we could have witnessed the mastery of man over his fellow creatures (why do such arcane practices still exist?) we headed out of the complex in search of a pub for lunch. Alas, the sole ATM in this sole-ATM town was out of action so it was onwards east for us…

… into the heart of South Moravia, a region in the Czech Republic whose fertile grounds produce much of the Republic’s wine – often from family-run cellars that can be seen built into the front yards of houses bunker-style. Czechs will tell you “There is Prague, and then there is the rest of the Republic”, however most Czechs who are from this area will proudly announce “I’m from Moravia” or “All good Czechs come from Moravia”.

It is a lovely part of the world indeed. Traditional dress is worn not for the tourists but out of a deep connection with cultural tradition. Traditional dancing, crafts, arts and of course wine dominate the cultural landscape, which is in turn surrounded by grapevines, chalupas, garden huts, pastel-coloured low-set row houses and yet more UNESCO-listed heritage sites.

How we arrived in Strážnice, almost on the Slovak border, we have no idea, but it’s possible that the road which flows along the banks of the Morava River lulled us into a mesmerising state of tranquillity which refused to let us escape…

… until we realised it was 7:30pm and we hadn’t found a single hotel or pension that was open and with free rooms (you know, the ones that you don’t pay for?!). With the holiday weekend in town we were dumbfounded at one hotel which was empty and had a sign on the front door which read “Closed on Saturday and Sunday for technical problems”. That’s a good one!

With no luck in Strážnice we passed through several charming but eerily ghost towns – some of them with huge yet ancient town halls, churches or breweries that had fallen into disrepair without financial investment to keep them going (there are breweries in most small towns!).

The gods of good fortune smiled upon us when we worked out their coded messages to try our luck in Uherské Hradiště to the north. We found a hotel – converted from a nightclub – but had to wait 10 minutes for owner to arrive and unlock the whole place. Except for another young couple also waiting on the doorstep we were the only ones in the whole building, which strangely still had the smell of old cigarette smoke (and those of you who have worked in a bar before would know what it’s like to arrive the next day and smell the smoke reeking out of the carpet!). A few minutes later we heard a knock at our door and the young couple – both of them from this town – introduced themselves and wondered if we’d like to hit the town with them.

Ajda and Vít were the kind of hosts you want to meet in every town you’re a stranger in. Young, energetic and citizens of the world, they took us through the immaculately clean and restored old town to possibly the best pizza we’ve ever had – and that’s a call and a half! Over a couple of drinks they told us that they’ve been together for 3 years and once a month they have “their” weekend, where they do something special together. This weekend they found themselves in a hotel room next to us. Pity!

Ajda is an ethnology student and Vít transforms from young student by day into a co-owner of a corporate branding business by night. He took us to the local business centre where he proudly showed us his suite of offices, meeting rooms and reception area which displays some modern paintings he’s tried his hand at. We put his age at about 22 and are still in awe at his determination, down-to-earthness and overall Good Guy nature. The fact that he’s got people in Prague and China working for him from their homes and offices is testament to fact that entrepreneurship is alive in this part of the world.

After a few beers in Bar Nemo (complete with a fake submarine suspended from the ceiling!) which Vít insisted on paying for, we called it a night at 1:30am and headed back to the hotel, ready for a day of pomlazka-whipping spectating. Vít told us that on this night some men spend half the night in bars before going straight out to play at 5am with their whips, going from door to door to pay visits on unsuspecting womenfolk who, quite understandably, often stay indoors all day on Easter Monday.

It was no surprise the next day that the main square was totally empty – not a woman in sight – but for a few bands of men who were wandering about cradling their pomlazkas, which ranged from decorative to downright primitive (branches that had been snapped off trees with leaves still intact!).

As we drove home towards Prague, via Brno, we glanced back at our meticulously woven pomlazka lying across the back seat of the car and wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.

Tags: On the Road

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