Off the Beaten Track in the Czech Republic

After doing most of the prescribed tourist sights of the Czech Republic – Kutna Hora, Plzen, Česky Krumlov, Karlstejn – during my first year here it’s time to start looking away from the beaten track and finding more obscure places to visit. In this respect, the students that I teach are a goldmine. They can tell me if somewhere I find on google is an area of outstanding natural beauty or actually an industrial complex with low levels of gamma radiation and a cleverly-worded website. The last two weeks has seen two pretty warm weekends and two Bank Holidays so there’s been plenty of time to get out and about.

The first weekend, following a tip-off, we decided on the horrendously-named Telč (Telch – a place that sounds like you’ve just stood in something). Telč (I should watch where I’m walking) is a small town again in the middle of nowhere somewhere below Prague and it was sold to us as a ‘smaller Česky Krumlov’. With a large square bordered by multi-coloured houses and a series of town-centre lakes, it offered some excellent photo opportunities and was generally lovely – the kind of place your Grandma would love if only it wasn’t full of foreigners and strange food. The day took a welcome turn for the slightly odd as we arrived during a classic car fair which saw the square (more of a kite-shape) fill up with pretty cool classic Skodas and motorbikes, and more unusually military vehicles and tractors. Then there were dogfights between enemy aircraft over the town, jazz bands and kids’ pie eating contest which gave the place a bit of longevity and a great small-town-big-event atmosphere.

Next was Česky Sternberk – a 13th century Bohemian castle that I’d never heard of until that week and one that was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. A three hour train journey – anywhere, no matter how close to Prague, seems to take three hours – got us to our destination in the most picturesque way possible. The scenic train journey snaked along the Sazava river, through forests and past colourful meadows before eventually dropping us off at a tiny shed in the shadow of the Česky Sternberk castle.

The castle was pretty nice and fairly standard as castles go – nice views, lots of stone and an expensive, relatively uninteresting interior – so we spent a good hour looking around up top before deciding enough was enough and coming down the hill for the highlight of the day. Unashamedly, this was lounging for hours, slowly baking in the blazing sun, on a terrace drinking cheap beer facing the castle with the Sazava in front of us and nature all around. One of those times where walking around seems pointless but sitting around with a cold beverage fulfills every need.

As well as the fun of exploring a country more in-depth, getting away from Prague also gives you the chance to experience a slightly more open side to the Czechs in public. Most of my students are really nice, warm and friendly people but there’s no getting away from the face that the service industry is full of people that outwardly seem to hate you. Furthermore, the prices outside of Prague are always a lovely surprise as you get unbridled joy out of the smallest difference. Beer in Prague, for example, is gloriously cheap compared to Western Europe, but then you come out to the countryside and you can get a beer in the middle of a castle or on a sunny square for lessthan in Prague’s dingiest pubs. In British terms, the discount is pretty miniscule (discounts range from 10-15 pence) but it’s the disproportionate sense of happiness and satisfaction that counts. The tourist attractions are also cheaper as we got impressive panoramic views of Telc and the surroundings of Cesky Sternberk for not much more than an average Prague toilet entrance fee.

Neither destination is worth doing if you are in the Czech Republic for a few days and in a rush but both places are excellent if it’s a sunny day (everyone knows that the sun could make a landfill site look homely) and you’ve got plenty of time on your hands for exploring.

6 Reviews from the Febiofest Film Festival

Febiofest is a medium-sized film festival that takes place in Prague every March and showcases many independent films and snapshots of World Cinema. I can’t give a review of the whole thing because I wasn’t at a lot of it – it was the first warm week for six months and my pasty legs were not going to miss that – but I did see some worthy (and a few dodgy) movies that would be great to catch if they make an appearance at a film festival or even cinema near you.

Play (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)

What’s it about?

This low-budget Swedish effort is a dramatisation of the complex strategies used by one set of real-life bullies in the Gothenburg area over a three year period. What made these bullies so special were the intricate psychological games that they played that seemed way beyond their years. They were played the bad cop/good cop routines, amongst other tactics, and got the goods without the use of violence.

Worth hunting down?

It certainly is. The film is much more interesting and important than the premise may suggest. Watching these subtle, psychological games unfold really keep you glued to your seat and there’s always a feeling of tension that makes you squirm. The characters – much different to the usual clichéd Hollywood types – are all excellent and acted with subtlety and believability by a young cast and Ruben Östlund keeps the viewer detached with plenty of shots taken from a distance. The only downside to this admirable movie is the slightly ridiculous climax.

Rating: 8/10

Full review

As If I Am Not There (Ireland)

What’s it about?

This was shown as part of Febiofest’s Balkans section and it certainly wasn’t the first to be based on the Bosnian War of the Nineties. It was the first actually made by an Irish Director but I’m not sure if you get any points for that though. As If Am Not There is a harrowing tale of a modern schoolteacher who lived through the horrific brutality of the war after she was transported to a woman’s labour camp and sexually abused by the soldiers stationed there. It’s an unflinching tale of abuse and the struggle to live through it by any means.

Worth hunting down?

Juanita Wilson does very well to give us a balanced character to follow (excellently played by Natasa Petrovic), the right amount of horrific on-screen violence whilst not not showing so much that it ends up desensitising the viewer, and an engaging plot and substance to go with the message. Not an easy movie to watch but well worth it and an excellent alternative to Angelina Jolie’s publicity snowball Land of Blood and Honey.

Rating: 8/10

Full review

Up There (UK)

What’s it about?

Zam Salim’s film follows Martin (Gorman) who walks the earth in the afterlife after being knocked down and killed. He works as a carer, welcoming the newly deceased, and after being paired with the talkative Rash (Hamdouchi) he loses one of his charges. The pair then face a race against time to get the runner back before a big meeting that could decide Martin’s future.

Worth hunting down?

I loved this movie because it’s such a good demonstration to the world of British humour. Up There is deliciously dead-pan, sarcastic and dark, which is what the British are at their funniest. Droll humour, slapstick and the little touches – like the males using their invisibility to follow their instincts and the characters not being able to touch anything – sit comfortably side by side with a surprising amount of dramatic and poignant moments. Try to see it, if you can.

Rating: 8/10

Full review

Wuthering Heights (UK)

What’s it about?

Wuthering Heights – or Wuthering Heights Part One as it should be known – is based on a little bit of the novel by Emily Bronte. Heathcliff (Howson) is a ‘gypsy’ boy found and the streets and taken to live with the Earnshaw family in the bleak Yorkshire countryside. He falls in love with his adopted sister Cathy (Beer and Scodelario) and spends the first half pining for her before running away and then coming back years later to make trouble.

Worth hunting down?

Replacing the original gypsy character for a black man was, I suppose, an attempt to make this period piece more relevant but watching this in Prague – not the most tolerant place for the gypsy population – they actually succeeded in distancing the audience a little. At least they avoided avalanches of popcorn being aimed at the screen. One more thing that really put me off were the accents. I’m from Yorkshire – where this is set and the Bronte sisters lived – and it offended my ears. Without the visuals this could have been from a council estate anywhere in Leeds or the Jeremy Kyle show for that matter. Just my snobby opinion, that’s all. Not terrible but there are better Bronte adaptations to watch.

Rating: 5/10

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Taiwan)

What’s it about?

When the Chinese conceded Taiwan to Japan at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Japanese set about conquering the island and subjugating the tribal people. They did this with relative ease but many of the tribes were never fully dominated and in 1930 they rose up in one final, bloody rebellion.  Warriors of the Rainbow is a blow-by-blow account of the Seediq Bale clan’s heroic fight against the vastly superior numbers and technology of the Japanese occupiers and the consequent fightback.

Worth hunting down?

Warriors of the Rainbow is a fast-paced, fun war film that excellently combines the aspects of modern warfare with the traditional kind. The battle scenes are expertly done and this certainly wouldn’t look out of place in Hollywood. Te-Sheng Wei does manage to keep the Hollywood-style romanticisation of the tribes to a minimum though as we are shown the flaws and positive sides of both cultures. The problem is that it’s just too long and the final battle scene, which should be the stunning climax of the story, begins to drag as every single character seems to die in the most heroic and lengthy way possible.

Rating: 7/10

Full review

If the Seed Doesn’t Die (Serbia, Austria, Romania)

What’s it about?

If the Seed Doesn’t Die is a Balkan road movie featuring two very different journeys by fathers searching for their kids. The story of a Romanian father’s daughter who is sold into prostitution in Kosovo is told in parallel to the (comparatively) lighter tale of a Serbian father trying the find the body of a son killed in a car crash in Romania. The narrative is punctuated atmospherically throughout by a 200-year-old legend of a boat slowly being moved across great distances to a village in Romania which reminded me a lot of the style of Herzog’s early films, particularly Nosferatu.

Worth Hunting Down?

Sinisa Dragin’s dramedy is at its best when it’s being ridiculous with very amusing scenes coming thick and fast early on. The Serbia-to-Romania strand offers some very memorable characters and crazy, funny scenes whereas the father trying to find his daughter is more about the dark side to the region.  If the Seed Doesn’t Die is a little too inconsistent as we are treated to a comedy drama for most of the film only for it to get very heavy towards the end and unfortunately these are two aspects which sit uncomfortably next to each other.

Rating: 7/10