Sunday, 15 December 2013

Czech Republic – Skiing and sliding in Spindler

December 14-15

Hello everyone!

If I were to say ‘winter’ and ‘Europe’, most people would conjure up a vivid image of mulled wine, wooden markets and dustings of snow on famous, historical buildings in their imaginations. However, others may enter a more active world of whizzing down jagged, hellish mountains before suffering an inevitable bone-crunching fall. The crooked smirk on the faces of such people when they are dreaming of winter sports is a primary sign of madness within their souls.

Such is my view of all things cold, wintry and beginning with S – skiing, snowboarding and skating. As usual, I feel this way because I didn’t learn to master any of the aforementioned sports as a child, and consequently can’t do any of them with a remote degree of fluency. An infamous attempt to ski in Austria five years ago, where mountain rescue were almost called due to my inability to get down a slope without falling every five seconds and only just making the last bus back to Salzburg, hardened my opinion that skiing and snowboarding are for those with a large vacancy in the space where their brain should be. They seemed unsafe, expensive and, more than anything, cold.

Forgive me for the shoddy pun you are about to read, but of late I have warmed to the notion of being able to propel myself accurately down a large, snow-licked mountain. Having a skiing lesson in Kazakhstan not only made me accept the humiliating fact that children will get from top to bottom far quicker and more elegantly than I could, it also brought a realisation that it will take more than one hour of learning to actually get from top to bottom. In one piece, at least.

Skiing is a popular winter activity in many continental countries, and the Czech Republic is no different. There are resorts scattered around the country but the primary resort is in a town called Spindler in the northeast of the country, close to the Polish border. It is a two-hour drive or two-and-a-half hour bus journey from Prague, depending on the transport available to you. It’s a quiet village geared solely to the pursuit of enjoyment outdoors.

We arrived on a Saturday lunchtime, feeling jaded after a Christmas party the night before. Being the opening weekend of the season, it actually seemed quite quiet – people were perhaps waiting for an increase in snowfall before hitting the slopes. Mercifully, this meant that there was less traffic for amateurs such as myself to negotiate. I thus spent the afternoon honing my technique and getting increasingly arrogant with each attempt to go a little bit quicker down half of the bunny slope. My final attempt, which resulted in what could have been my audition for Total Wipeout, was the only time I face-planted into the soft, white powder.

We were in Spindler for two days, and had managed to acquire a lesson on the Sunday morning. It’s always good to discover that the skills you were honing the previous day were in fact what not to do on the slopes. The lesson, led by a young man who started learning when he was two years old, resulted in me being able to turn in both directions, which is always a good skill to have on the slopes. The 2 hour session flew by.

It was a flippant comment from the instructor which led to this day going downhill – sorry, I couldn’t resist. As we were finishing, he stated that, with one more lesson, I would be able to negotiate a ‘blue’ – the easiest of the slopes emanating from the peak. Having just had a good lesson, I naturally took this to mean something slightly different: you can do a ‘blue’. I thus had a quick drink (why you are allowed, nay encouraged, to drink and ski is still a complete mystery to me) and popped onto the chairlift going all the way up to the top.

On the way up I started chatting to an older man who was with his son. He explained to me, with great authority in his voice, that the slope recommended by my friends was ‘a bit too icy and dangerous’ for a beginner, and suggested a better alternative. I followed him off the chairlift down a gentle, well-protected and quiet slope. Bliss.

Approximately 200 metres down the track, the man stopped at a junction ahead of us and started conversing with a couple of men positioned at the fork in the snowy road. Straight ahead was a continuation of this path, which seemed potentially even gentler than what we had glided down thus far. To the left was…well, I couldn’t see anything, which suggested a steeper drop. The man skied back to us and stated that the straight path was closed. You know where this is going.

I edged nervously towards the precipice. Though nothing in comparison to the picture above, what I saw almost gave me a heart attack. Hannah instantly took off her skis and decided to walk down the slope. Hindsight will say that this was the sensible option. I have never been known for being particularly sensible, however, so gulped and stared down the steep, bobbly, bumpy slope in front of me.

Starting as tentatively as possible, I attempted to go across the slope to kill my speed. Unfortunately, this didn’t work, and then I made a fatal mistake of trying to turn without sufficient conviction. Almost instantaneously I was hurtling down the mountain, as if a cannonball just unleashed from a battleship. Cannon fodder.

I managed to make myself fall before my speed accelerated to dangerous levels. It was at this point, I learnt later, that the man turned to Hannah and said, “I think your boyfriend is going too fast.” Being aware of this is one thing: doing something about it, quite another. A few more tumbles got me close to the bottom of the slope, from which I was able to put my learning into practice and actually ski comfortably.

A slight aside; one of these falls resulted in me visiting the doctor when I returned back to the UK for Christmas, complaining of an issue with my jaw. His prognosis?
“You’re a rubbish skier.”
Cheers, Doc.

Did the man lie to us? Not really. At the bottom of this slope was a slope definitely designed for beginners, on which we slowly meandered down and grabbed the pole lifts back up a few times to rebuild fragile confidence. The only problem was that this slope was on the other side of the mountain to the town, and there was no way of getting back to Spindler itself in time for the bus back to Prague. We thus had to get all the way back up to the top and decide whether to ski down the original slope deemed ‘too hard’ for us, or to swallow pride and take the chairlift all the way down. We did the latter.

It was an eventful weekend; bruising physically and mentally, yet also incredibly enjoyable and exciting. Skiing is not an easy skill to master, but with each lesson, session and ungraceful fall I am becoming more competent. The joy of sites such as Spindler being relatively easy to reach means that there will be plenty of opportunity to ski and eventually tackle death slopes such as the one we inadvertently tried at the end of our weekend.

Love you all


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Germany – Christmas time, sausages and wine

December 7

Hello everyone!

Prague is located at the heart of Europe, meaning that there are lots of travelling opportunities on our doorstep with no planes required. Wanting to settle in Prague and get used to this latest chapter in our lives has meant that Hannah and I have stuck to travelling around the Czech Republic thus far, but the opportunity to sample some traditional German markets in the big neighbour next door was too good a chance to turn down.

Germany is famous for its Christmas markets. What makes them so special? What makes them better than markets in Manchester or Milan? It was time to find out, so a group of six of us popped on a train which took us across the border to the city of Dresden.

Our driving adventure in the summer didn’t take us anywhere near what used to be known as East Germany. The little I knew about the city revolved around its near-demolition by British air forces in 1945. Some of the buildings seemed to be more than seventy years old, but you can see elements of reconstruction and modernity as you amble from the train station to the aldstadt.

Dresden wasn’t just chosen as our destination because of its close proximity to Prague, though a two-hour train ride meant that we could visit just for the day. It also hosts one of the oldest Christmas markets around, which started in 1434. Can you do the maths? Don’t worry, being a teacher I can help you with this, and inform you that it has been running for a whopping 579 years. This market was doing a roaring trade even before Columbus set sail.

This market thus has history and prestige in its favour, yet it has much more to offer a visitor. Tradition abounds here, with all generations slowly meandering along the wooden huts hunting for a special gift for a special someone. I find it charming and nostalgic that children are still given wooden toys rather than computer games (a fact which renders me a massive hypocrite as the one inedible and undrinkable purchase I made was a robot from a department store).

In addition to the 14-in-1 robot which didn’t work, most of my euros were spent on gigantic bratwurst and heart-warming drinks. Gluhwein and hot chocolate were the order of the day. Hot chocolate with amaretto may now be my favourite Christmas drink, even ahead of Baileys.

The warm drinks were necessary in sub-zero conditions such as these. What made Dresden’s market particularly special were the large snowflakes gently dropping onto the stalls and our coats. Walking around the large Christmas tree (admittedly I didn’t think it was as pretty as Prague’s) and absorbing the atmosphere was a very pleasant experience, and the snow seemed to add an extra element of magic.

So what makes a traditional German market special? I’m not sure if there is a defining statistic or factor. Based on our experience in Dresden, they’re expensive and very crowded. Based on our experience in Dresden, they’re charming, traditional and beautiful.

Love you all


Sunday, 1 December 2013

Czech Republic – Rocking around the Christmas Tree

November 30

Hello everyone!

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Kazakhstan, yet won’t miss the morning trudge to the bus stop through howling winds in temperatures regularly dipping below -30’C. One of the reasons we moved to Prague was the more moderate climate, where winter can be enjoyed rather than endured.

That’s not to say the Czech Republic is a tropical paradise. Colleagues here are already warning us that the temperatures will dip sharply to uncomfortable levels during the next couple of months. This fact is tempered by the inevitability that the capital will look stunning wrapped in a blanket of fluffy, white snow. Indeed, on a recent risk assessment trip to the south I was introduced to the breathtaking beauty of central Europe when snowflakes decorate the region.

Though it has threatened to do so, the weather system has yet to dump significant volumes of snow onto Prague. The image of a winter wonderland is thus currently restricted to our imagination, or looking at pictures on the internet such as the one below. In spite of the lack of snow, though, the city is certainly gearing up for the magic of Christmas.

It’s just my opinion, but Christmas seems more magical in this part of the world than any other I have experienced. The atmosphere of a central European city in winter seems remarkably relaxed. The build-up to Christmas in Britain is stressful, pressurised by expectation of satisfying the commercial hunger of the general population. December in Thailand and Singapore bizarrely combines artificial snow with blazing sunshine and shorts. Koreans, and indeed I, worked and studied on Christmas Eve, resulting in no time to foster a ‘Christmas spirit’.

It may be because the old Christendom has had hundreds of years to perfect it, but places such as Prague and Dresden (see the next blog for that adventure) seem to have struck a harmonious balance between the bustle of the markets and a friendly air reflecting the fact that this is the season of goodwill. The wooden toys and trinkets are a reminder of days gone by, before Father Christmas was asked for a PSP (though I was probably guilty of such lustful commercialism when I was younger), whilst the mulled wine and cinnamon rolls called 'trdelnik' warm the masses as they peruse the stalls of local produce.

Masses is an apt word to describe the incredible number of people who turned out for the first day of the Prague markets this Saturday. It is normally something I would avoid like the plague, but any agoraphobia or fear of being pickpocketed was trumped by the desire to see the lighting of the tree in Old Town square. A mighty green conifer currently soars over the wooden stalls below; not that you would know its original colour if the lights are turned on, as they have been since the big countdown.

Ignoring the outrageous electricity bill that the tree must be racking up, it is a wondrous sight that is sure to bring a smile to the stoniest face. Bright pear drops fall lazily as snakes of lights flash white warmth across the square, with colourful baubles twirling in the breeze within them. A giant circular star sits proudly on the top.

There are three sets of markets in central Prague: Old Town square (the busiest), Wenceslas Square (the longest) and Republic Square (the cheapest mulled wine). All are worth a visit, and within a short walk of one another. All of them have a friendly, warm atmosphere that has the potential to make you tremendously excited for Christmas. It has certainly made me eager with anticipation for the holidays, even without any snow falling.

Love you all