Nelahozeves – I didn’t know how to pronounce it then and I still don’t now but finding these old photographs taken one moody November day in 1990 reminded me of a strange and potentially ill-advised trip into Bohemia all those years ago.
I had been working in Prague almost exactly a year after the Velvet Revolution ( see yesterday’s blog) and all around me were, as Shakespeare said, things dying and things new-born.
There were less signs of things new born when I took that trip to Nelahozeves, a remote country village in Bohemia. It was an unrepeatable chance to get a feel for rural Eastern Europe in the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union which started twenty years ago today with those ground-breaking elections in Poland .
Today, when all of Europe is voting to elect new members of the European Parliament, these pictures reinforced my feelings about what a rich and diversified continent we are and how we should take that vote today very seriously.
I had a clear afternoon on this particular filming trip to Prague and decided that I shouldn’t waste my time hanging out in bars and cafes listening to Czech zither bands – I had already done a lot of that.
I was thinking of doing a film project on the great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, known the world over for his From The New World Symphony.
I had, from my late childhood known this piece and loved it too – even now associating it with my adolescent bedroom gazing out of the window on Autumnal days in those seemingly unending days of childhood. If I play a recording of it, I often get a strange feeling of being transported physically into that room with its view of trees, oaks and elms mostly, now losing their browned and golden leaves, and our family poultry pecking around in their enclosure. I really mean transported too. I can feel the exact elevation of the first floor of that house, smell the room, and visualise many of its long forgotten contents. I disapprove in many ways with a puritanical desire to keep music pure and unencumbered with my own personal baggage. But there you go – I fail with Dvorak.
I was determined to go on a Dvorak trip, out of Prague into the Bohemian countryside where the great man grew up. We had an interpreter in Prague, a friendly young man still bright eyed with the excitement about his country’s revolution but on this particular day he was busy. I was left to cope and found very few people who could communicate in English. I could struggle with a bit of schoolboy German and a little Czech phrase book and I thought, with pioneering ignorance, that that would be enough to plan a trip to the Bohemian village, Nelahozeves, which I had found on the map – Dvorak’s birthplace.
Czech place names like the language were an almost insurmountable problem as I tried to work out my itinerary but I was soon convinced that Nelahozeves wasn’t really that far away – maybe 20 miles or so I calculated.
In an act of extravagance I decided to book a taxi to take me there. It seemed logical. The driver would drop me off and come back at an agreed time to bring me home again to Prague. No problem.
He was a friendly man but also intelligent enough to think that I was mad wanting to make the trip at all. Well that is how I interpreted his look. He spoke Czech, as he would, but nothing else so my little phrase book and map were our sole form of communication. Mostly, I had no idea what he was saying as we drove out through the Bohemian countryside misted with drizzle and barely illuminated by the glowering dark clouded sky. We agreed, I hoped, that he would drop me off in the village and return for me three hours later. I would be standing where he dropped me off by a house where the owners like every other car owner at that time owned a dirty blue Skoda car. Maybe, on recollection, not an ideal landmark in a country full of dirty blue Skodas.
And there it was – Nelahozeves. Shrouded in cloud, a bit down at heel, apparently deserted and very small.
As I watched the taxi disappear in the distance I did wonder if this was a mistake. I had read too many stories about Eastern Europe in the old Soviet days, I guess, but we were only a year away from the collapse of the Soviet system and Nelahozeves didn’t look exactly welcoming. I was heartened though when I came across some hens feeding on the road side. Hens have always been, like I said, part of my Dvorak fantasy. They seemed friendly enough too. Unlike a man in working clothes who ignored my hello and carried on walking by as if I were invisible or maybe untouchable.
Was this the right place, I wondered. Maybe the taxi driver misunderstood me or maybe I had just got the whole thing wrong. If there had been a guide book like I am sure there is now, I could have checked my facts but all I had to go on was the name, remembered from childhood and a road map. Only an idiot would get left in a remote former Soviet village deep in the countryside with such little information. Well that idiot was me. The rain didn’t help either.
The rain did, however cast it spell over the river. Misty grey, moody and romantic, the Vltava river lay there majestically in front of me – somehow even more impressive here than amongst the noble buildings of Prague. Well, I assumed it was the Vltava.
It, of course, took me back to one of those other favourite pieces of classical music from childhood – Smetana Ma Vlast (My Fatherland), a series of tone poems including the most famous one, Vltava, which describes, magnificently, the river running its course through Bohemia just as it was doing now, right in front of me.
Also running its course, and somehow making this place feel less remote, was the railway line and, yes, woops, the train station too. So that taxi was definitely a luxury but I noticed that those trains hurtling by, never seemed to stop here.
The line was built during Dvorak’s childhood and trains were one of his enduring passions. When the silence was suddenly shattered by these huge machines, I could see just how impressive they would have been to little Antonin Dvorak in the mid-19th. Century. They still capture my naive enthusiasm over one hundred and fifty years later. There is something of that boyish joy in Dvorak’s music – maybe that is part of his appeal.
The child on his bike seemed to share that too – at last some smiling faces. His mother, cycling watchfully behind him even asked, I think, if I was Russian. What other strangers, I imagine, would she think would be walking around this village on such an unpromising day. We were never going to have a profound conversation though and soon they had gone.
I found a little church, surrounded by trees which were shedding their leaves as I looked – I assumed it was St. Andrews, where the young Dvorak sang and played the organ. Well, if this was where he lived it would have been, I thought. I tried to look inside but the door was locked and there was an indecipherable notice on the door.
I wandered on and came across a large imposing but shabby looking building with a plaque by the door. There, excitingly and reassuringly, I saw the word Dvorak. This was not how I had imagined his childhood home, it was much too large and impressive. Maybe, I thought, Dvorak is just a common Czech name and this was the home of Mr. Dvorak the chiropodist. I had two hours still before the taxi returned and I wasn’t going to leave without trying to get in to this sad, abandoned-looking house.
It would have been if I hadn’t taken the plunge and knocked loudly on the door.
An old woman answered my call. No smile, not even a word, just a hostile stare. I had worked out enough words from my phrasebook to say “Dvorak’s House?” and I was brave enough to smile at this forbidding woman. She closed the door in my face.
I was about to give up when I heard her open the gate and indicate that I should come in. She pointed at my camera and waggled a finger before taking me into the house which smelt strongly of cooking meat.
She said “Russian?” I said “No.” She said”German?” I said “No. English.” She shrugged and guided me through various downstairs rooms furnished in unassumingly elegant 19th. Century furniture. As far as I could tell, there was nothing here that might not have belonged to that chiropodist. For a moment, I thought that a pedicure might have been as good a way as any of spending the rest of my afternoon in Nelahozeves.
It was the composer’s birthplace alright because when I was shown back to the street, some five minutes later, there was the statue of the great man, baton in hand, ready to conduct that symphony that had attached itself to my subconscious.
Hello Dvorak, I said in my recently learnt Czech. It really had been good to meet him.
I was later to find out that this large house had been the Inn that Dvorak’s father had run and that, far from being a spacious home, the family shared the building with several others and were confined to a small apartment on the first floor.
If I thought the Dvorak house was an impressive building, it was nothing compared to the large palace that I could see from the main road. I walked up to it, I knew just about enough about architecture to place its design in the 16th. Century and if anyone had been around to tell them that it was modeled on the most stylish Italian buildings of that period. Like the Dvorak House though, it had that look of having belonged to a time before such vulgarity and wealth was held in official disdain.
Inevitably, of course, it was all locked up with an explanation in Czech which I couldn’t read. I walked back down now wet and cold and decided that I would try to find an inn to pass the rest of my sojourn in Nelahozeves.
Later I was to find out that this was the Lobkowicz Palace. Before it was confiscated by the Soviet authorities, it was owned by one of those great wealthy Czech families who had so many second homes that I suspect they forgot that half of them existed. Their main residence was in another Lobkowicz Palace, attractively situated, as the estate agents say, right in the middle of Vienna. It was there that a civilized Prince Lobkowicz sponsored Beethoven to write his Eroica Symphony. I suspect, though, that he didn’t spend many November weekends in Nelahozeves.
Now the palace has been returned to wealthy descendants of that great, and bloody lucky, family. Once again its walls are hung with paintings from their private collection; works by Velasquez, Canaletto, Bruegel and Rubens.
Looking Nelahozeves up on the internet, it is obvious that things are now looking up for the little village. The Dvorak House and the Lobkowicz Palace now host an annual Dvorak Festival and the buildings themselves have been restored to a shiny brightness that is unrecognisable from the Soviet neglect that I came across that day. I couldn’t help thinking though that it was a pity places such as the Lobkowicz Palace have to be in private hands.
I headed off down a side street towards what looked like that inn of my dreams. The rain had got worse and had begun to see why tourist attractions are usually populated by hot dog stands, icecream stalls and fish and chip shops.
It was indeed a small inn. I took a deep breath, thinking the landlord could hardly being any less welcoming than the custodian of the Dvorak House. and walked in.
Three or four, I can’t remember now, men in working clothes sat at a table. They nodded and stared. A woman said what I now recognised as hello. I sat at another table and ordered, the first phrase we learn in any language:”A beer please.”
“Russian? one of the men asked. “No.” “German?” No, English. The men smiled and went back to their conversation.
I repeated my beer order just to perfect my accent and soon the time had passed and I was due back by the house with the old blue Skoda. As I stood there, waiting in the rain, I noticed the little house opposite me. Now there was a more welcoming hearth I thought. The little single story building was the cheeriest I had seen all day. That November evening was brightened up by the flowers in its garden. They were painted on the walls, its window boxes were bursting with colour from a nursery book row of plastic flowers and all round its little garden were brightly coloured plastic teddy bears disconcertingly impaled on stakes.
To complete this journey back into my childhood subconscious, I was now in front of the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. Fortunately, before she came out with a tempting piece of confectionery, a welcome sight appeared on the horizon. The taxi driver really had come back for me.
It would be interesting to visit Nelahozeves again one day but until then, at least, whenever I hear Dvorak’s most famous symphony, I will think of that moody day by the Vltava river just as much as I will remember my childhood bedroom.
I will think of it too as I go to vote in today’s European elections – hoping that, in spite of the recession our wonderfully varied continent will hold itself together – come rain or shine.