Going Home for a Holiday – Yorkshire

I’ve been living in Prague for fourteen months now and it’s still a bit strange to think of going back to England as a holiday. I went home at the weekend for a wedding of an old friend in the middle of nowhere in North Yorkshire. But it was also a great excuse to escape the urban sprawl of Prague and to visit some of friends and cheer myself up with some classic English countryside.

It has been over a year since I saw my country in the sunshine. The last time I ventured back I brought my American friend who had the pleasure of experiencing the overwhelming greyness of a December in the UK and visits to the future UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Riverside Stadium of Middlesbrough, the Manchester suburbs and Otley for a night out. But the sun was blazing for the whole weekend and it gave the place a glow and, for the first time ever, I left England with a tan.

To be honest, I am a massive negative Nigel when it comes to Britain and my home city of Leeds normally takes the brunt. I tell Mr Foreign that I’m from this fairly non-descript city and they either vaguely know where it is before asking me how far it is from London or a smile crosses their face and they shout “Leeds United!” That’s as far as it goes. Meeting an English person is even worse:

“Where are you from?”

“Nottingham.

“Oh right.”

“You?”

“Leeds.”

“Oh, okay.”

“…”

Where two Americans meeting each other will somehow find an extremely tenuous link that they can enthuse about for hours, we generally have nothing to say. But that’s not to say that the area where I’m from isn’t worthy of a bit of praise.

I’m not even from Leeds, that’s just the biggest google-mappable sized city to me – I’m actually from the beautiful area of Wharfedale. Basically, this part of West Yorkshire is like a giant pair of testicles – Leeds is one average ball, Bradford is the other hideously deformed ball and Wharfedale is a belt of charming suburbs at the very tip.

Wharfedale is a green belt of rolling hills and little towns marking the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. First of three nostalgic visits for me was the Cow and Calf – a formation of one big rock and one small rock – that overlooks the spa town of Ilkley. Up here there are some nice hiking trails, great views of the valley below and a perfectly situated traditional pub. It surprised me coming back here that Ilkley now even has a supped-up Tourist Information selling all kinds of Yorkshire rubbish – I purchased a Know Your Sheep book which will be very handy and not a waste of money I’m sure, and a white rose of Yorkshire flag – it’s strange what being around foreigners does to your regional pride. I cringe at the memory of chanting “Yaaaahkshire!” at a group of “Star Spangled Banner” singing Americans and feel an unstoppable compulsion to introduce every Eastern European to the genius of Yorkshire Puddings.

Next up was The Chevin. This fairly well-known area of natural beauty above the market town is more of a forested area than Ilkley but includes more of the same trails and beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Otley and The Chevin is actually pretty active in the social calendar as it hosts well-attended folk festivals and cycle races. To balance this out, during the  day the place generally reeks of death as the grey army descend and make use of the charity shop capital of the universe.

The wedding on Saturday was thirty minutes away in North Yorkshire so I drove to my romantic Bed and Breakfast (for one) in Harrogate. This spa town is a pleasant town full of attractive Georgian architecture and wide-open spaces and is certainly a place your Grandma would love. For her there’s the famous Betty’s Tearooms for a scone and overpriced tea. My tastes however are slightly more downmarket and I took the Dixy Chicken (fake KFC) at 2am option. I bowled into the grubby takeaway wearing my wedding suit to raised eyebrows from the staff and immediately confronted by one of those perpetually angry, ignorant Englishman I generally hate shouting “The Euro should f***ing burn!. Leave the f***ers to it!” at no-one in particular. Ah, home.

Food is always a very important part of going home. It’s surprising, how it’s the really little things that aren’t even necessarily English that you can miss. I spent months just wanting a deep pan pizza or a really dirty kebab. Cheese and English tea – the biggest Czech  deficiencies – are regularly smuggled over up people’s bottoms and in hollowed out prams so we can easily ignore the sub-standard Czech alternatives. My first day back home alone consisted of a warm award-winning pork pie for breakfast, fish and chips (the old national dish) for lunch and curry (the new official national dish) and cider for dinner.

I always get abuse from my students for the perceived poor state of English food. Granted, it’s simple and not that great but it’s at least as good as the stodgy, bland but filling Czech food. They base their opinions on that one time they had Fish & Chips in a pub in central London. They aren’t to know that to get fresh Fish and Chips you need to go to an actual Fish and Chip shop not get the frozen version at Wetherspoons and more importantly you must go north. Also, to get good country fare you have to make it out into the countryside to one of thousands of excellent country pubs using locally sourced produce to mix the traditional with the modern. And at least we know what a fresh vegetable is. Rant over. Screw you, Pavel!

The bottom line is that it isn’t the most spectacular place to visit – say. on a par with the coastal vistas of Croatia or the forests of Romania that I was blown away by – but it’s a damn sight better than I generally make it out to be

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.