Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Český Krumlov

We arrived in Český Krumlov on a mellow fall afternoon, the sky blue and cloudless, the sun warming but not scalding. Perhaps because I had not seen pictures of this remarkable town and had little idea what to expect, on first sight it stunned me.

Located on a nearly perfectly round peninsula in the River Vltava, the same river that runs through Prague, Český Krumlov is late medieval-early Renaissance village in the Southern Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. On the recommendation of a neighbour, we had stopped there on our way to a week’s visit to Prague.

Overlooking the town from the top of a low outcropping is a large castle, the second largest in the country after Prague Castle. In one of its many courtyard stands a tall tower. This is painted with elaborate designs and motifs in russet, peach, pink and jade and topped by an arcaded galley and a domed copper roof gone green with age. It was this tower standing stark against the pale fall sky that I found so startling.

It fills the skyline and rises above a tall arcaded walkway that is almost as startling. Looking at the arcade from below, you stare through a series of high arches in a white wall that, on the day of our visit, framed the intensely blue sky. People standing on the loggia looking down seemed tiny in the distance. It reminded me of a painting by Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, though not so brooding.

Virtually encircled by the river, the town is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Few cars are allowed in the city’s narrow cobbled streets and platzes; visitors park in one of three municipal car parks. (Lot 1 is the most convenient.) As we made our way from the car park through the town to our pension, our suitcases bumped behind us over the timber planks of the bridge crossing the river and then over wide, uneven cobbles, through narrow streets heaving with people.

After leaving the bags in our room, we climbed a steep narrow street and entered the broad main platz. It’s surrounded by Baroque buildings, each with its decorative façade of curves and pediments. People sat in benches in the sun watching the fountain. Others sipped coffees or beers in front of the cafes ringing the square. From an incline beyond, the steeple of St Vitus church rose above the square. The tower and large Renaissance-style castle dominated the view from the opposite side.

As a destination, Český Krumlov seems like a playground, an historic site qua theme park, filled with tourists of all types: Groups following tour guides, parents pushing strollers, families with children trailing, others with dogs on leads, middle-aged Americans in matching wind breakers and white athletic shoes, young couples holding hands, stopping to kiss each other deeply every few steps. Voices and accents revealed nationalities from all over Europe, America, Australia, Japan and China.

Narrow streets are lined with small museums, gift shops displaying carved wooden toys, amber, both honey-coloured and green, scarves and gloves, and typical souvenirs of the type found the world over. But it’s not only kitsch that’s available.

For a short time, Český Krumlov was the home of expressionist artist Egon Schiele, and a museum in his honour offers exhibitions of contemporary art and helps foster a lively cultural scene. There are galleries, too, selling original work, colourful art-glass, prints and reproductions. There’s even an English-language bookstore. (Imagine me as a kid with nose-pressed against the glass of a candy store.)

The river flows rapidly for most of its circuit around the town, but near the old mill, its waters collect in a wide placid pool before rushing over a weir. Next to the weir lies a submerged ramp, its incline sharp enough to produce shrieks from the paddlers of  canoes, inflatable rafts and kayaks as they plunge over it and splash into the brown waters below. Sometime the crafts capsize, and their passengers scramble for paddles before re-boarding and continuing downstream.

Despite their playful shouts, and despite the profusion of shops and tourists, there is a serene air about Český Krumlov, as if one has stepped away from reality to enter another world, one as nearly cut off from the quotidian world as the town is islanded by the river.

On this gold-drenched day, it was peaceful wandering its river-side lanes. The trees on the steep hillside into which the town is tucked were just beginning to burnish; gentle light flashed and sparkled on the river’s surface. As evening set in and the sky paled, then darkened, we could see from the castle overhead pin-prick flashes as people tried to capture the experience digitally. It would be a hopeless effort, we agreed; the sense of the place was ineffable.

The next morning, we followed winding streets to the castle, then stood staring over a stone parapet into its moat where, about 50 metres below, a tame bear lumbered around a shallow pool. We climbed the steps to the top of the tower and looked out at the town below us and the hills that surround it.

We toured the castle and were guided through rooms filled with period furniture and lavish decorations. Many of its walls are covered with elaborate, fanciful frescos or coats of arms. Even the plain exterior walls are covered with trompe-l'œil paintings, giving the castle the appearance of a Renaissance palace decorated with bas relief sculpture.

From there, we passed through the arcaded walkway and climbed the hill to the castle’s large formal garden. In the sunny warm morning, we wandered among its clipped hedges and disciplined flower beds, stopping at a monumental fountain poised on a series of steps looking toward the castle in the distance.

At last, though, we followed the scent of wood smoke to a small building tucked away in a corner. Through the door we entered a dark passage that led to a low-ceilinged room. Here we found a chef barbecuing steaks, chops and sausages over a large wood-fired grill. We had not planned to stop for lunch, but the sweet scent of burning logs was enticing, and we settled at a plank table where we could watch the cook work. Moving ceaselessly, he placed thick cuts of pork and beef on the grill, meticulously repositioning them as necessary, adding logs to the fire as it burned low.

The beer was good, the food wonderful and we relaxed in the cabin-like retreat, warmed by the fire, for a time far from crowds and remote from the exotic grandeur of the castle, its courtyard, tower and gardens, lying just beyond the threshold. Then we walked out into the soft September light, heading toward our car and Prague.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

In Memoriam

24 April 1920 – 8 October 2010

 Fall was just beginning to soften the air and ripen the foliage when we moved to Ireland in 2007. In those early days, as I made the adjustment to a way of living very different from that I had known, often it was my mother-in-law, Peggy, who was by my side. She was with me when I entered the grocery market on our first shopping expedition. It was the Super Valu in Clonmel’s Poppy Fields Shopping Centre, a modern supermarket not a million miles different from the supermarket chains of America. Still, on entering the door, the juxtaposition of the familiar with the foreign coalesced in a wave of emotion that struck unexpectedly, and I burst into tears.

Though she had lived independently and on her own since the illness and death of my father-in-law a few years before, Peggy did not drive. So each week one of the family drove her to Clonmel to do her shopping, stopping on the way at the post office where she collected her pension. Because we were neighbours, and because I needed to do our marketing as well, frequently it was I who drove her. In those early days, as we drove the 20 kilometres or so to Clonmel, we shared with each other our pleasure in the beauty of the fall. The berries of the cotoneasters by her entrance were bright red, and she fretted as the blackbirds ate them, striping the bush of its colour. She tapped her chest discreetly in the sign of the cross as we passed the ruin of Whitechurch with its ancient and more recent graves. The beeches lining the road in Tincurry were golden; she remarked approvingly how Michael McCarthy had, as always, so reliably cut back the thick summer’s growth of the ditches dividing his fields. (In our part of Ireland, a hedge is a ditch.) Along the ‘top road’ – the old Cork road – into Cahir, she admired the dogwoods, their stems deep burgundy. Across from Cahir Castle, large hand-shaped leaves of the horse chestnuts drooped bronze over the bog-brown River Suir. Passing the square and leaving town, we rolled along through pastureland still green and fields rich brown-black with recent ploughing. Apples hung red in the trees; sumac blazed copper-crimson along the fields. At times, the sun caught the peaks of the Galtees, revealing the lavender-tinged brown heath on their smooth summits.

We enjoyed this beauty together, but we didn’t talk a lot. Peggy had a voice so low and faint – a whisper, the breath barely exhaled – that it was difficult to make out at times what she said. I can be expansive and voluble, but at other times I find conversation a strain. But even when we passed mile after mile in silence, it was a companionable one, and there was a sense of acceptance between us, no matter what our differences. For though we came from different cultures, and were weaned on different expectations of our paths in life, there were common bonds. 

She loved reading and spent her quiet afternoon hours with good authors: D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy, Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Iris Murdoch, John McGahern, among them. She loved the garden, and even at 89 and 90 could be found pulling raspberries from the tangled canes behind the house. She filled vases and old jars with roses and shoots of flowering vines. Each spring, the pale yellow primroses appearing in the green along the ditches delighted her, taking her back to childhood. On May Day, she filled vases with flowers and set them before the blue-and-white statue of the Virgin Mary, recalling other childhood memories. Indeed, there remained always in her enthusiasm something childlike, visible in her spontaneous smile and the light suffusing her face, full of joy.

Most of my life has been spent in standardised suburban neighbourhoods California and Salt Lake City. Though I did live for 17 years in one house, there has been a transient quality about it. Though in the mid part of her life, Peggy did live in the Irish towns of Dundalk and Clonmel, for most of her 90 years, she lived in the very countryside where she was born. She knew its roads and houses, its birds and wild things, the flowers and trees, the mountains, rivers and streams.

Most of all, she knew its people. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of and memory for the families  with whom she had grown up, their parents and grandparents, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The eldest of a family of eight, married to a man from a family of ten, and the mother of nine, she could call up out of memory a dizzying number of aunts, uncles, first and second cousins, the names of their children and their spouses, and the parents and siblings of the spouses, each with their own web of relations, an infinite chain of connections. Moreover, she knew the people we met on the streets of Clonmel, the town where for a few years the family lived when my husband was a school boy. And there were too the customers of my father-in-law’s once extensive rose business, the people they met in markets and fairs, where, even after the time of the rose business, she sold her garden produce. I could barely get a toehold of comprehension in this vast community of friends and relations. She remembered them all.

In early weeks of my life in Ireland, during those first two and a half months until our shipment arrived, we had enough furniture to live in the house – a dining room table and a bed, a working kitchen with borrowed pans and a cheap set of dishes bought in Dunnes – but little else. There was no reliable phone service, no internet connection, and my computer and books steamed in a hold somewhere on the Atlantic. Many days I drove the five kilometres to Cahir and wandered or sat in the square watching people, and checked email at the internet café or in the library. But the hours after dinner I found hard. Evening after evening I remained at the bedroom window, drink in hand, staring into the descending darkness. Himself, away at work all day, worried aloud to his mother about my inability to settle.

He tells me she asked, quite sensibly, ‘Does she have a comfortable place to sit?’

She shared with me her home-made soups, mysterious, thick, dark soups, carefully carried through the always-open gate and across the rough patch of ground between our houses. Smiling half apologetically, she entered the house and our kitchen through the back door, holding out the cling-film-covered Pyrex pint measuring jug.

‘I made some soup. I hope you don’t mind.’

It was always delicious soup, welcomed for its warmth, its ingredients drawn from frugality borne of desperately hard times in her youth, rich with flavour discovered over the course of a long life of diverse experience, dense with vegetables, meats and spices I would not have thought to combine. Her adventurous approach taught me to disregard the recipes I had sought and plunge ahead with whatever was at hand or in the cupboard. Before long, I was carrying my soup offerings into her kitchen, proud of my efforts and conscious of just a soupçon of competitiveness.

She bore with equanimity my driving as I discovered how to negotiate the narrow roads, drivers impatient to overtake my cautiousness or, myself impatient, my own overtaking of tractors with their loads of straw and jeeps towing horse boxes. She complimented me on my bravado as I timidly steered through the narrow streets of Clonmel’s Irishtown, looking for a place to park in the crowded streets near the post office so she could collect her pension. Earning my Irish driving license was a long, difficult process, yet she never flinched as the habits acquired on California’s wide even streets and freeways gave way to the requisites of driving through roundabouts and medieval town centres. Instead, she recalled her own driving lessons of years ago, suspended abruptly after a mishap, and praised me for my courage.

As with all in-laws, of course, the relationship had its complexities. The gulf between our values and expectations was sometimes laid bare. Too frequently, I tried with incomplete success to hold my tongue over the handling of her lively but undisciplined border collie, Sally. She said nothing about my infrequent attendance at mass, my irreverence and my too-often profane tongue. I writhed at the necessity of returning home before midnight on New Year’s Eve so she could receive phone calls at the stroke of twelve from her sister and daughters abroad; she politely ignored my rude irritability on the occasion. But more often, we found within ourselves the capacity to reach across the divide and welcome our shared experience. Most especially, that included our joy in the beauty of nature.

So on this fall day in Salzburg, surrounded by trees glowing gold and crimson, I watch as leaves drift down in flurries thick as snow, and I recall those first weeks in Ireland three years ago. I think of driving through another gold-and-crimson burnished landscape with her beside me in the passenger seat remarking on the line of colour against the grey horizon. In my imagination we speed along the Clonmel bypass and delight in the yellow birch trees that line its gentle curves. Or we admire the amber beech leaves as we approach the Western road, bright against the old grey limestone school. It is still an adventure to me, strange and wonderful after California, and she is in those days my companion and guide. Tears cloud my vision again as I realise that for the first time in three years, I am homesick. And it is Ireland in the fall, and Peggy, the fulcrum of the family’s life, the centre of gravity for our experience of home, that I miss.

Friday, October 15, 2010


I have been away due to a bereavement. I hope to resume posting next week.

Thank you for your patience;