Monday, 17 August 2015

Loket and Pilsen: Chest hair levels at full throttle

Loket, Czech Republic
We popped across the border from Germany to the Czech Republic and saw immediate, vast differences. 
The rural towns we passed through looked much more run down, with crumbling plaster and broken windows on abandoned buildings. The vibe was a helluva lot more Soviet as well, especially as the locals in the supermarkets sported singlets with chest hair poking out the top - women included (jk lol). With the shift to Slavic language and communist era buildings, at times it seemed as though we had taken a wrong turn and found ourselves in the Ukraine. The change from euros to korunas was not exactly an easy one, as we had been so acustomed to the value of the euro - it somehow made more sense to convert from Czech koruna to euro, as thinking of prices in New Zealand dollars was fading from necessity. 
Arriving in the town of Loket in the evening, our first objective was to find accommodation. We hastily drove away from a 'mini camping' we found, which was really just some dude's rusted back garden, and another camp ground that was already shut at 5pm. We roamed through the streets of Loket seeking a hotel, yet most seemed closed. We managed to find a 'penzion' (like a boarding house) which had only been open two weeks. When we asked the owner why nothing was open, he professed not to know, only stating that he kept his doors open until midnight to cater to the customers' needs. 
Knowing we had a roof over our heads for the night, we were finally able to enjoy the town instead of scouring it. A lowering sun lit the hilltop castle beautifully, and its reflection in the surrounding river (like a natural moat) was a striking image of the real thing.
A small herd of Cameroon goats were padding about near the castle. Some of them were adorable baby goats. Though I never got a photo of the goats themselves, I did capture this statue on film. The informative poster next to it contained some brilliant gems of Czech humour: "Practically no fencing or barrier we have introduced is a dignified obstacle for the goats. The goats are aware of their dominance and they watch our attempts to secure the impenetrability of the run with malicious looks and leers... The medieval statement that the goat is a reincarnation of the Devil undoubtedly comes from some gardener. The Board of the town of Loket is aware of the fact that the goat will ignore the Public notice on cleanliness and public order. Despite that the Board entitled these small creatures to their own monument."
Another statue (this time not to a mischievous hoofed creature) draws the eye in a tiny park. Goethe was a famous German writer who fell in love with the town's charms, and to honour him he will be forever standing in Loket. 
After nightfall the town becomes even quieter than in the daylight, with only a few locals sipping beer at  their pub of choice. It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves and retraced our steps everywhere. The baby goats were sleeping. I have to say that I agree with Goethe on the beauty of Loket. 

Pilsen, Czech Republic 
We visited Plzen to see the Velká Synagoga (Great Synogogue) which, after Jerusalem and Budapest, is the third largest in the world. 
Built in the late 1800's to accomodate increasing numbers of the Pilsen Jewish community, the synogogue is not only huge but also opulent and exudes a sense of warmth. 
It was saved from destruction in the Second World War as it was used as a storage facility by the Nazis. A temporary exhibition of photographs was on display showing the liberation of Pilsen from occupation. Photos showed the grim aftermath when a group of German snipers fired down upon Americans and civilians from a church tower, but the Americans prevailed and a joyous day dawned. A reminder of Pilsen's brutal past can be seen on the Ten Commandments - bullet holes mar the tablets. 
In a surprising twist of fate, it was Yannick who had to alter his garb to enter the synagogue and not I! Sometimes to be allowed in religious buildings, I have to cover my arms and legs for antiquated sexist reasons related to some old guys' ideas of modesty. Yet to enter the synagogue, Yannick was required to don a skullcap and I didn't have to change a thing! Hah. 

Plzen is an excellent example of the Czech psyche. You see, Czechs love their beer: Lonely Planet explained to us that you have only to sit down in a bar and silently gesture with a thumb to the barkeep and a beer will then appear (choice be damned). This town is where Pilsner originates from and thus it was necessary for Fabienne to sample the vastly popular Pilsner Urquell. While most probably unequalled, if there's anything that Czech people might love more than beer, it would have to be dogs.
They are taken along everywhere with their owners - on the tram (where it's a requirement for them to be muzzled) and into cafés and bars. If you were to pick any random Czech person off the street and guess that they liked beer and had a dog, you would probably be correct. Only a tiny percent of the population of the Czech Republic (less than 0.5%) do not like beer and own no dogs. That percentage was made up by me but is probably a correct if not generous figure.