Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Czech Trip 2015 - Cultural Day Part 2. Telč

The most photographed view of Telč
The second and final stop of our “cultural tour” was the UNESCO World Heritage town of Telč; which was a 50 minute train journey from Slavonice. Telč seemed to have a lot more going for it than Slavonice. For a start, its population is twice that of its near neighbour, and on the walk into the own centre from the station, we passed some proper shops; rather than boutiques selling items exclusively for tourists. 

Main Square
Telč has a long and illustrious history, which I won’t attempt to recount here, but one point worthy of note is that most of the current buildings in the town date from the 16th Century, as much of medieval Telč was destroyed by a terrible fire in 1530.  A look on the town’s official websitedescribes its history and development in greater detail; from its 12th Century beginnings up to the present day.
Telč has been described as the "most perfect example of the Italian Renaissance north of the Alps”, and with one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, overlooked by multicoloured houses, it is easy to see why.

Originally created as a moated fortress, Telč today is surrounded by crystal clear fishponds and it against these lakes that some of the best and most memorable photos of the town have been taken.
Main Square

Detail on building
As in Slavonice earlier, most of our party headed for the tourist information office in order to see what the town had to offer. Afterwards, we split into small groups with just me, plus two companions, forming one of them. We followed a narrow lane which ran behind some of the houses fronting the square, down towards on of the lakes. It was here we took several photos set against the backdrop of the picturesque buildings which now house the university.

Unfortunately our visit to the town was marred slightly by the unseasonable cold wind blowing through the town. It was hard to believe that just three days earlier I had been walking around Prague wearing just a T-shirt and shorts, enjoying wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures in the mid twenties. We sought refuge from the unseasonable weather in a rather nice pub called Restaurace U Marušky. Here we enjoyed some Černá Hora beer (Ležák 4.8% ABV), and I broke my fast with a warming bowl of beef noodle soup.

Restaurace U Marušky

I could have stayed at U Marušky longer; it was my sort of pub, pleasantly old with solid wood furniture and the look which is only acquired after many years of trading. There were several groups of locals in the bar, all keeping the friendly barmaid busy with orders for both drinks and food.

My companions though were keen to move on, having noticed earlier, a small cellar bar selling Bernard beers, so we decided to give it a try. I don’t recall its name, but it seemed popular with the town’s younger and possibly student population. I tried the mixed light and dark Bernard beer, plus a smaller glass of the dark on its own. All three of us went for a pizza as well, in order to assuage hunger (in my case) and to soak up the beer in all three cases.

Afterwards, we made our way back to the railway station, from where local and regional buses also depart. We took the bus, which was more comfortable than the train, and also a lot quicker. The journey back to Jihlava took us through some of the most pleasing countryside I have seen; with rolling hills, dark forests and stretches of verdant green pasture. Numerous fish ponds dotted the landscape, providing fresh fish for the villages we passed through on the way, as we travelled along winding country roads, lined by blossom-laden apple trees. It was a fitting end to a packed and fulfilling day out.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Czech Trip 2015 - Cultural Day Part 1. Slavonice

Local train to Slavonice

First, I would like to extend a warm welcome to readers from my main blog who, maybe have not visited this site before. Paul’s Beer Travels is still essentially about beer, but with a little more information about the places I have visited in search of the perfect pint. What follows below is an account of the two “heritage towns” I visited on my recent trip to the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic. As there is plenty in both towns to interest the reader, I have written two separate posts; one about each town.

The way into town
First on our list was the town of Slavonice, a small town close to the Austrian border, which was once an important staging post on the old coach road between Prague and Vienna. Between the 14th and16th centuries, this strategic position generated enormous wealth for the town, but when the route was relocated to the north, passing through Znojmo, Slavonice’s source of income dried up.
Slavonice is therefore very much preserved in its medieval renaissance look, with buildings dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, the oldest dating to 1545. Many are decorated with Sgraffito; a type of wall decor, produced by applying layers of plaster tinted in contrasting colours to a moistened surface, and then scratching, so as to produce an outline drawing.

Main square, Slavonice
We travelled by train; a journey which took around two hours. On the way we passed through some quite varied, but very pleasant countryside, with our train stopping at numerous rural halts. From the station it was a short walk into the town, via an old cinder track which led us past a cemetery, before emerging into the main town square.

The rain of the day before was replaced by grey skies, with the occasional glimpse of sunshine; but the main problem was the cold wind, which didn’t abate all day. Our first stop in Slavonice was the tourist information centre, then after that we split up either into small groups, or in many cases went off as individuals for a look around. Before going our separate ways we agreed to meet up for lunch at the town’s largest pub, which directly overlooked the square.
I must admit it didn’t take me long to look around. I took a few photos, but I think it’s only now, when I look at them again and see the attractive facades of the houses over-looking the square, that I appreciate the real appeal of Slavonice. The unseasonably cold weather was not conducive to sight-seeing, and to be fair there was very little happening in the town; with few people about and hardly any traffic.

Colourful houses overlooking the square
Reading through a pamphlet I picked up at the tourist office made me aware of the troubled history between the mainly German speaking inhabitants of the town, and their Czech counterparts, which began with the rise to power of a certain Austrian corporal in neighbouring Germany, and culminated with the expulsion of ethnic Germans at the end of the Second World War. The expulsions, which were often unnecessarily brutal in nature, left the town devoid of inhabitants, and whilst Czechs were moved in to fill the void, the communists, who seized power in 1947, were wary of the town’s position relative to the nearby border with Austria. 

 The border of course, was soon sealed with barbed-wire fences, watch-towers and armed guards, but some border villages were completely removed, and the town entered a period of stagnation from which it doesn’t seem to have recovered. No one was allowed to move this close to the border – unless, of course, you were a loyal card-carrying party member, which is why today, little exists outside of the square. There are a couple streets past the town’s thick late-medieval walls, then the town just stops. There are no dreary communist-era concrete block apartment buildings, and none of the more modern houses one would expect to find elsewhere in the country.

It is not surprising then that I soon found my way back to the hotel-like pub. I rather foolishly didn’t take a note of its name, but I remember entering through a large doorway and then ascending the stairs to the upstairs bar and dining room. I found several of my colleagues already there and it wasn’t that long before we were joined by the rest of the group.

One of these buildings was where we had lunch
The majority of the party wanted to eat, so we were moved into the substantial front room, overlooking the main square. This place had obviously been Slavonice’s main hotel at one point, and it had a certain faded grandeur about it which harped back to the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Our waitress though was quick and efficient and kept the group supplied with ample looking plates of food, plus plenty of beer. I had decided leave eating until later, and so just stuck to the beer- nothing unusual; just some good and well-kept Pilsner Urquell.

 Suitably fed and watered, we made our way back to the station, for the next stop on our “cultural tour”, the UNESCO World Heritage town of Telč.

Friday, 23 January 2015

A Day in Helsinki

I've been meaning to post an article about the brief visit I made to Helsinki, ever since I got back from Tallinn at the end of February. However, lots of other things intervened and somehow I never quite got round to it. Now at the height of summer and on what has probably been the warmest day of the year so far, it seems appropriate to write about walking the streets of the Finnish capital in sub-zero temperatures with snow on the ground!

I only decided to make the trip to Helsinki on a whim. Before going to Tallinn I had looked into the possibility of making the trip, but all the travel sites I looked at said that summer was the best time to make the crossing from Estonia, when I fast hydrofoil completes the journey in just 90 minutes. These craft cannot operate during the winter months, as they run the risk of running into ice flows with potentially disastrous results! I looked on the Viking Lines website and saw that conventional ferries take 3 hours to make the crossing, with a return ticket costing around £20. I decided to forget this idea, but before abandoning it completely, looked at a couple of websites describing the beer scene in Helsinki.

Pack-ice on the approach to the Finnish coast
That was it until on my second full day in Tallinn I took a wrong turning and ended up down at the port. I watched in amazement as coachload after coachload of visitors from Finland was disgorged, with most of them just walking the short distance across the car park to the large, purpose-built shopping complex. This was to be no cultural experience for them, exploring the quaint and historic streets of the Estonian capital; no these people meant business. Stocking up on cheap booze and tobacco was the name of their game, and the port shopping complex had plenty of outlets to cater for their quest.

I walked the other way into the by now empty departure hall and made a casual enquiry at the Viking Line booking office. I was surprised to learn that I could buy a return day ticket to Helsinki for the next day sailing at a cost of just EEK200 (around £12). The only hitch was that it involved catching the first sailing of the day out of Tallinn and the last one back from Helsinki. I had originally planed to visit Tartu, Estonia's second city and the home of the A. Le Coq Brewery, but had done little to arrange this. I therefore opted for the crossing to the Finnish capital instead, paid my money and checked what time I would need to be down at the port.

Forts guarding the ice-bound approach to Helsinki harbour
Having come a bit ill-prepared, research-wise, I found an internet cafe later that afternoon and began some belated research of the Finnish beer scene. Unfortunately I was unable to access the site I normally use when researching these visit, namely Ron Pattinson's excellent European Beer Guide. I don't know why this was, but try as I might I kept getting the message that the server could not be located. I then tried Gazza Prescott's ScooperGen website, and this time had a bit more luck. For the un-initiated ScooperGen gives first hand accounts of Gazza's beer sampling activities, and as someone who has visited and drunk in most of the major European cities, as well as many places further afield, Mr Prescott's site is an impeccable source of information. I wrote down the names and addresses of all the bars close to the city centre that he had recommended in preparation for the following day.

I had an early start the following morning; I had to check in at the port by 7.15am in order to make the 8 o'clock sailing. It had snowed quite heavily during the night, but even as I made my way on foot down to the harbour, there were gangs of people out clearing snow from the pavements. The buses and trams were all running and were full of people off to work. There were numerous gritters out and about all helping to keep the roads clear. In short there was none of the travel chaos that ensues in this country whenever we get a few snowflakes!

Ferry terminal encased in ice
The large passenger and vehicle ferry "Viking Express" left on time. I went up on deck as we sailed out of Tallinn and watched the city slowly recede under a cold grey sky. I was glad to get back inside, away from the biting northerly wind. The 3 hour journey passed remarkably quickly. I had brought some rolls and some cheese with me by way of breakfast, and after eating these I took myself, and the book I had brought to help pass the time, to the large observation deck at the front of the ship. The sky slowly began to clear and eventually the sun came out. Eventually it was possible to make out the Finnish coastline on the horizon, especially a couple of the tall power station chimneys. I also saw what appeared at first sight to be extensive white sandy beaches, but as we drew nearer I realised that the whiteness wasn't sand at all, but pack-ice forming an extensive barrier between us and the coast of Finland. Our powerful, steel-hulled vessel though made short work of ploughing its way through the ice, but even so it was a good twenty minutes or so before we began the tricky approach into Helsinki harbour. For the sea to be frozen so far out from the mainland showed just how cold it was, and with all this ice around I could well understand why the hydrofoils do not operate in winter!

Helsinki Cathedral
We negotiated the approach into Helsinki, passing various forts that had been built to guard the entrance, and eventually the ship docked. I disembarked with the other passengers, and as there was no passport control was soon on dry land. I made my way towards the city centre, my boots crunching on the crisp snow. It was a beautiful morning, the sun was shining and there didn't appear to be a cloud in the sky. Despite the sun, the air was extremely cold and I was glad I had come well wrapped up, but before long I had left the port area and was soon in the centre of Helsinki.

For a capital city Helsinki is not especially large. On the contrary the city is quite compact and is easily covered on foot. Once I had left the ferry terminal it didn’t take me long to reach the centre, but on the way I paused for a while to take a look at Helsinki’s main cathedral. White-painted and built in an ornate Russian style, it was surprisingly quite plainly decorated on the inside.

I didn’t stay long and taking care to negotiate the steep, snow-covered steps leading back down to street level, I continued my journey into central Helsinki. On the way I passed some rather non-descript looking government buildings, before passing the city’s main railway station. I stopped to withdraw some Euros from an ATM, and then found a café just across from the side of the station. I popped inside for a welcome cup of coffee, and an even more welcome free refill. It was also good to be out of the cold for a while.

Black Door pub,  Helsinki
I now had a serious spot of beer-hunting to do. Without too much effort I tracked down an excellent pub called the Black Door. It had lots of bare brick inside with a fair scattering of copper and chrome. The locals seemed friendly, and surprisingly there were two hand pumps on the bar. Both turned out to be selling cider; which is obviously a popular drink in Finland, as it is in neighbouring Sweden.

I tried a couple of halves, well 25cl actually. At €3.50 each they were proof of the high price of liquor in Finland. The first beer as a dark, porter-style beer, whilst he second was a copper-red coloured Märzen. Both were good, but I decided not to stay for a third. Instead I set off to try and find the “One Pint Pub”, as mentioned in the Scoopergen article.

I trudged for what seemed like ages through thick snow and although the bright sunshine was most welcome, it couldn’t detract from the fact that it was bitterly cold. I got lost several times and took a couple of wrong turnings, but eventually found the pub in the middle of low-rise housing estate, close to the city’s commercial harbour. It was a good job the pub was open as I was bursting for a leak; the beer I’d consumed earlier combined with the arctic temperatures had proved a disastrous combination.

Interior- Black Door
The pub wasn’t really worth the effort taken, although the toilets provided some much needed relief, and I ended up just having an expensive half of Krusovice dark lager. There seemed little evidence of the exotic bottles which were supposed to be on sale, so after the one drink I upped sticks and left.

I managed to find my way back into the city centre, this time without too much effort, but thanks to the cold and my lengthy walk I was rather hungry by now. I found a hamburger joint, but again being Finland, It was rather expensive at €7.50 for a burger and chips.

Afterwards I decided to walk up to Finlandia Hall, but the way was blocked by various building works. On the way back I paused for a look at the statue of the Finnish wartime leader, Field Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who masterminded the defence of Finland following the invasion by the Soviet Union during the Winter War of 1939 – 1940.

Mannerheim was a charismatic figure who successfully managed to keep both Hitler and Stalin at arms length, thereby avoiding Finland being drawn directly into the Second World War, although the Finns did fight against the Soviets between 1941 and 1944 in a bid to recover territory lost in the earlier conflict. The statue of him on horseback, located on Helsinki's Mannerheimintie, is a fitting tribute to a skilled general and clever politician who in 2004 was voted the greatest Finnish person of all time.

Field Marshall Mannerheim
The light was already beginning to fade and the temperature starting to drop further, so in a bid to keep warm I popped inside Helsinki’s imposing department store; Stockmann. The company also have a branch in Tallinn, but the Finnish operation was on a much larger scale. More coffee followed, and by the time I left the store, it was well and truly dark.

I decided to make my way back to the ferry terminal, where I knew it would be warm. There was also a café there. Other passengers began arriving in dribs and drabs and by the time the ship had docked and was ready to board, there was quite a crowd.

The return voyage had none of the spectacular views of the outward journey. Our ship slipped out of Helsinki harbour virtually un-noticed, and soon we were back in the open waters of the Baltic. I treated myself to a meal in the restaurant on the way back, and afterwards sat in one of the comfortable chairs on the aft-deck and read my book. The sea was calm and the voyage uneventful and it wasn’t that long befog we could see the lights on the Estonian coast twinkling in the distance.

We docked at Tallinn shortly before midnight. Fortunately there was a bus waiting at the docks to take passengers back into the city centre. The driver kindly dropped me right outside my hotel and soon I was back in the warm and snuggled up in my nice warm bed.

So ended my first and so far, only trip to Finland, and its capital Helsinki. It had been a long day, but one packed with many memorable sights and pleasant memories. Next time though, I will make sure I visit in summer!