Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Medieval Wander in the Czech Republic

 A view of the Vltava river with the Cesky Krumlov castle on the right.
The town down below
The Cesky Krumlov tower rising out of the rock on the side of the river Vltava.
Restaurants line the sides of the river. 
The coat of arms of the German Schwarzenberg family. On the right quarter is the head of a Turk, having his eye put out by an offending raven.
A street in Latran, where the staff that serviced the castle once lived.


I was ready to chuck the GPS into the river in frustration.

We had driven south from Prague to the medieval town of Český Krumlov to see the Czech Republic’s second largest castle complex and the freakish bend of the river Vltava around it. We couldn’t figure out how to enter the town to get to our hotel in the medieval quarter of Latran. The GPS stubbornly kept sending us into a haphazard little car park on the side of a hill, to declare with finality, “You have arrived at your destination,” when we were nowhere near it.

Calling the hotel for directions was no good either. I simply couldn’t pronounce the name of the road we were on - “Objizdkova”. I tried twice and started giggling the third time. It was the equivalent of a foreigner in India trying to say “Thirukalukundram.”.

Finally, we flagged down a trio of Czech youngsters and literally begged them to tell us how to get to “Hotel Bellvue at the base of the Český Krumlov castle.

The group went into a little huddle discussing the possibilities. Then one of them said, “Turn around, take a left, go down the hill, then make a right, after the U-turn go left again, cross the bridge, turn right, then park your car, turn right and walk up the hill and finally turn left.”


Understanding that we had gone into shock, one of the guys simplified it for us. "Just look for signs to P2," he said, which turned out to be a parking lot just near the entrance to the town. Suddenly the fog had lifted. It was like being able to figure out a labyrinth by looking at it from above. Within minutes we were in our hotel, gasping agitatedly to the receptionist about our travails. "Car access is limited because this is a UNESCO World heritage site," he informed us. But it still didn't explain the absence of good signposts to the entrance to the town.

The following day however, we found that Český Krumlov, can generously reward those who persevere in trying to find it. The river Vltava twists and bends mischievously around town looping in the shape of three capital S’s. And, walking the network of cobblestone streets will both engage the eager window shopper and warm the historians heart.

The one must do thing in town though is to take a tour of the Český Krumlov castle which towers over the little town. It is a massive complex, opening up into one courtyard after another, extending all along the side of the bend in the river Vltava, at an elevation which gives the beholder the impression that the castle has somehow organically risen out of the rock.

The castle has belonged to three prominent Bohemian noble families over the last 8 centuries and each family has extended it to suit its needs. So the castle has grown longer and longer along the rim of the river like a train engine getting more and more coaches attached to it.

The oldest part of the castle was built by the Vitek family. Then the House of Rozmberk inherited it and owned it for the next 300 years upto 1602. Their stay in Český Krumlov, gave the town a big cultural, economic and political boost. The medieval quarter, Latran, at the base of the castle that draws tourists today, sprang up in large part, to service the needs of the castle. Servants, merchants, craftsmen all crowded down below while the lords lived it up, quite literally.

But even noble families have financial troubles and the castle had to be sold which is how it passed from the Rozmberks to the Eggenbergs. Almost as if their name was mocking them, the Eggenbergs, ran out of male heirs. Their abiding contribution to the guided tour of the castle is a massive and gauche chariot coated with 2 kilos of real gold, sent on a diplomatic mission to the Vatican, carrying gifts for the Pope. It was used but once. Such are the ways of the wealthy.

But our tour guide robbed this medieval version of “Lifestyles of the rich and famous” of all colour by speaking in a monotone that was flatter than a tava. She had also repeated the same information so many times that she had acquired robotic precision. The only time she looked remotely like a real person was when she blushed faintly while calling a noblewoman’s bedroom the dining room by mistake.

Meanwhile with noone to inherit the Český Krumlov castle, the Eggenbergs then sold it to the German Shwarzenberg family who held it till 1947 after which it was nationalized. The Schwarzenberg family had a most interesting coat of arms with the head of a poor Turk in the bottom right having his eye poked by the beak of an offending raven. “How can Turkey ever join the EU?”, I thought to myself.

The castle has a baroque theatre which every guide book promises is a feast for the senses but it was unfortunately closed when we went. So were all the rafting tour operators for trips down the twisting Vltava.

We sat down to a late lunch at the base of the castle, in one of the many restaurants that line the river and consoled ourselves. It was the price we had paid for beating the tourist traffic. And after the tourist throngs of Prague, it had been nice to walk through the Český Krumlov castle gardens as though we were a couple of Schwarzenbergs enjoying a walk in our private woods.

This article was published in The Indian Express on 18th April 2010.

You cannot fly directly into Český Krumlov. You could either fly to Vienna or to Prague to get to Český Krumlov since the Schengen visa is valid in both Austria and the Czech Republic.

Aeroflot offers the cheapest rates into Prague via Moscow starting at Rs. 33,000 appx.

Air India operates a direct flight to Vienna from New Delhi starting at Rs. 36,000.

Don’t drive to Český Krumlov like we did. Just go by bus. It is cheaper than going by train and there are several operators who can bus you in. A popular option is the  ‘Student Agency’ service which operates many trips during the day from Prague. Tickets can be booked at http://www.studentagencybus.com/.

You can travel from Vienna to Cesky Krumlov in a shuttle bus service. Tickets can be booked at http://www.shuttlebus.cz/.

A lot of restaurants and shops in the Czech Republic don’t take cards. So best to carry Czech Koruna. Best months to go to Cesky Krumlov are May through August when there are lots of activities planned in town, including an International Music festival. It is best to book ahead for the rafts if you’re interested in taking to the waters of the Vltava. To book try the following website http://en.malecek.cz/Boat_rental/Kontakt/.

Hotel: We stayed at Hotel Bellvue which is very close to the Cesky Krumlov castle. It has small rooms but serves a really good breakfast to give the energy boost you will need to walk the length of the castle.

And whatever you do, don’t take heels. Only a pair of good walking shoes will see off the challenge from the cobblestones. Its not a medieval town for nothing.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Can An 8-Year Old Be a "Failure"?

My experience in secondary school in India makes me particularly sympathetic to victims of torture and arbitrary detention. I was in Rosary Matriculation School, on Santhome High Road, in Chennai, from UKG to 4th standard and even if someone had launched a national search for the ‘Most Miserable Child’ in the land, they’d have been hard-pressed to find one worse-off than me.

In the post below, I will rant about the humiliation heaped upon my 8 year old self and if such a thing still happens, it’s got to stop.

Like most Indian schools Rosary loved ranks to grade kids at the end of exam results. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and on and on it went reaching the bottom of the class to about 58th. Least fun way to practice numbers. However, there was a category worse than those bottom ranks. If you didn’t get the requisite 40 marks to pass, you were, rather too easily in my opinion, labeled a “Failure”. You have to love the lack of nuance.

I was in 4th standard and my fear of numbers had just set in. In the high-speed rush to go through the syllabus the teachers only kept pace with the sharpest kids in class. If you stumbled you’d be trod on by a fast-moving little regiment of nerds who like the teacher had little patience. Basically, you could get left quite far behind, dazed and confused, which is precisely what happened to me.

So far behind that for the first time in my life, at the wee little age of 8, I failed Maths. FAILED.

And immediately, I was pushed into the category of “Failures” with the speed of Alice going down the rabbit-hole.

But that wasn’t all. As if the semantics weren’t bad enough, this whole business of ‘failing’ was visually represented as well.

Rosary had a tradition where the school Principal, invariably a stern nun, went to every classroom to individually hand over each student’s report card to them. It was always a tense interaction where the class teacher nervously shifted her weight from one foot to the other and the Principal smiled a pained smile to the pupil while handing her the report card. To make this affair orderly, we had to sit along the benches according to rank with the highest rank holders starting from the first bench and flowing downward from there.

The last rows were reserved for the “failures”. With feet that weighed a million tones, I dragged my little self to the back and arranged me in the midst of the ‘Failed’. I now recall that many of the girls at the back were invariably from less privileged backgrounds – their blue uniforms having faded and shrunk, streaked with lines of white - a remnant of excess starching because their uniforms were long past their sell-by date. It was a sad, little lot.

Sister Teresita, a goggle-eyed terror, was the Principal that year. It has just occurred to me that she should have spelt her name “Terrorsita”. Hyuk Hyuk. Anyway, she came in and distributed the report cards, while maintaining a stiff smile throughout. I may now be imagining this, but I thought I received the cold stare of a dead cod. Nehru would have cried.

For this humiliation and also simply because I wasn’t as good as the other kids, I went through all my years in school setting the bar very low. I only wanted to pass Maths. I didn’t want to sit at the back again and I didn’t want nosey uncles and aunties asking me how much I had got in “Max”. I just wanted to pass. So I took the focus away from wanting to do well to figuring out how I could pass.

Improving the school system will require an overhaul of gargantuan proportions. But we can begin by getting rid of labels such as "Failure" and other discriminatory practices which sometimes parade as discipline. If this nonsense is still on at Rosary, its got to stop.