I can’t believe it’s Sunday again. The time between when I created a post for last week’s Sunday Stills challenge and now has whizzed by!
As I have lots of other things to do – mostly marking university assignments – I thought I’d procrastinate a little longer and think about time for this week’s Sunday Stills challenge. Once again I’m inspired by my sister over at Deb’s World. Deb has a brand new granddaughter who is 7 weeks old already – and she thinks time is moving fast. My second eldest grandson turned 18 on Friday – boy oh boy, where has that time gone?
You might have noticed, if you’re a regular visitor here, that I take photos [that was weird … I was going to write “I’m a photographer”, but I felt a bit strange calling myself a photographer so wrote something slightly awkward … I wonder what that’s about??] … anyway, I take photos and one of the elements of photography is time.
Photographs stop time … they catch a moment that will never happen again. A moment in a baby’s life we look back on with fondness for ever after – the dimples around the knees, the chubby cheeks, the little hands balled into fists and, if we’re lucky, the firsts … first smile, first feed with Dad, first time nodding off on Grandma’s shoulder, first book, first Harry Potter dress. Those moments are cherished and we scroll through our photo album (no need to turn pages anymore because the photos are now locked away on our phones) to remind ourselves of the joy the little bundle brings to the whole family.
Over the last few weekends, Tim and I have been photographing flowers. It’s Spring after all, and there are plenty around. The flowers we photographed two weeks ago won’t be there anymore and the only way we can keep them fresh for all time is through our photographs.
Photographs capture time … they freeze it. The flower and the photograph of the flower will forever be different. One fades away while the other can live on through time.
So here are a few images of flowers frozen in time. None of them look like this anymore, but I was blessed to have been able to capture them in all their glory.
The first one is especially for Deb – who loves all things orange.
Time … it passes … so let’s make the most of it while we have it!
Deb, my blogging sister extraordinaire over at Deb’s World, just responded to a weekly photo challenge.
I don’t generally do photo challenges or get involved with the blogging community … I’m not the most social person you’ll come across … but when I saw this week’s challenge was orange, I thought … why not?
So here I am.
To be honest, I don’t really know how photo challenges work – there’s info about tagging and sharing and linked-up posts and I don’t know what any of that means … but here’s the link to the Sunday Still Photo Challenge
The theme this week is Orange.
I love photographing flowers, and some of the flowers I photograph are orange:
I also like to do the odd conceptual photo shoot like this one, using water, washing up liquid, oil and some orange cardboard.
I’ve had some uncomfortable labels stuck to me in the past, but this is right up there in the uncomfortable stakes.
Well, partly because my sister Debbie is a runner, and when Debbie does something I tend to shy away from it.
Deb has always run. As a teenager I have a clear memory of Dad teaching her to run … and of the one time I decided to give it a go.
I came away with one … no, two … clear realisations.
1). I wasn’t a runner.
2). I needed to start wearing a bra.
So I left the running to Deb, and for the next 40-odd years was more than happy as a non-runner.
The other part of the reason is, of course, that a runner is someone who runs. And I don’t run. Not really. I shuffle perhaps, but I’m not serious.
Except … it seems that now I am.
In May this year I was challenged by my personal trainer to run a 7km Sri Chinmoy race. He sent me a text: ‘Hey Sharon. How about your weekly challenge be the Sri Chinmoy this Sunday? Let me know how you go.’
Without any thought, I signed up, turned up, and … well … ran.
I got 200 metres into the run and as every other runner ran past me I thought to myself ‘this is ridiculous. Why am I doing this?’ Fair question, but for some perverse reason I kept running, despite a very big part of my brain telling me to stop and just go home: ‘Look, you’re near the car. Just walk casually over to it, get in, and drive slowly away. No one will notice.’
But I didn’t. I kept running … although if you’ve seen me run I doubt you’d describe it as ‘running’. Plodding might be a better description.
I told myself I’d run, or rather run/walk, to the 5km mark (I’d done a few 5km fun runs before and knew I could make that distance), and from there I’d walk.
In October 2017 I’d run the 5.7km run as part of the Melbourne Marathon and my trainer at the time (Josh) had run that with me. He’d heard how nervous I was before the run, and despite already having run the 10km race earlier that day, he came to find me at the start line to run with me. Every time I stopped to walk, he’d tell me ‘don’t stop running. Just run more slowly.’
I have to admit to not listening to him. There were times when my breathing simply wouldn’t allow me to run any further. So I walked, and told myself that my running and walking speeds weren’t terribly different anyway. I finished that run/walk and said I’d never do another one.
But here I was, on a decidedly chilly morning in June, keeping left as every other person in the race ran past me, plodding along the banks of the Yarra hearing Josh in my head saying ‘don’t walk, just run more slowly’. I made it to the 5km mark, had a drink at the drinks station, threw my cup near the bin, and started walking the last 2 kms. Then Josh popped back into my head, so I started running again.
And as I got closer to the finish line I started to gather a bit more pace – this was exciting. People were cheering me on, someone called my name, Tim was there at the the finish line … I crossed it and stayed upright. I’d just finished a 7km run!
I felt so proud of myself for finishing … particularly for finishing by running rather than walking.
So proud, in fact that I signed up to run the 5km Run Melbourne – which I’d done in 2014 and again in 2016 – held in late July each year. I had a time to beat from 2016 – I was starting to feel a sizzle of competition. And of anxiety. What if I didn’t beat it? What if I ran more slowly?
In the end I figured that the world wouldn’t end, so just did what I could.
I beat my 2016 time by 6 minutes! That means I shaved off more than a minute per kilometre!
I felt so proud of myself for beating my previous time and setting a new PB for myself that I signed up to run the 5km De Castella run. It’s held in late August and is very (very) hilly. I had run it in 2017 and so had some inkling about how tough it was.
I was invited to go on some training runs and so at 7am in the 4C cold I met up with a group of others at the start of the course on two Sunday mornings in late July about a month out from the run.
I hadn’t ever trained before or prepared in any kind of way, but I had a time to beat. I’d done the run the year before, so not only had that time to beat, but had the Run Melbourne 5km time to beat.
Not only did I do two training runs with the group, I also did my first Park Run. I was in Canberra one weekend and thought that a 5km run around the lake at Belconnen would help my training. It was great!
I also graduated from Saturday Walk Club to Saturday Run Club – something I said I’d never do – and on my first morning at Run Club ran an 8km tempo run with Courtney, one of the trainers at the personal training studio I go to.
I was in training … I was actually getting serious about this running thing!
I’d get up early on Tuesdays morning and run for 5, 6 or 8 kms depending on how much time I had. I ran more and walked less each time. I was assured I didn’t need to run a PB each time, but I could feel myself getting faster and stronger.
In late August I completed the De Castella run. Rob De Castella ran past and I heard him telling his running companion to run more slowly rather than walk when she got tired. My time for the De Castella was a personal best for any 5km run I’d done. That was really quite amazing given how tough the course is.
I got brave and signed up for the 10km run as part of the Melbourne Marathon. The longest distance I’d run to that point was 8.5km.
The Melbourne Marathon was set for Sunday, October 14. My training was going well, Tom my new trainer put together a plan for me and I was sticking to it. I ran two-three mornings a week, did leg strengthening exercises, bought snazzy running pants … I went the whole hog.
But the pain in my lower leg wasn’t going away and so I went to see Rob, my physio. He told me to stop running for a week as I had an over-use injury. So I cycled instead – two 18km rides where I had to push myself – or in Rob’s words ‘smash it’ – to help build my leg strength. I did calf raises every time I went up the stairs, my usual strength training, and cardio to increase my fitness.
I went back to see Rob a week later and he said I could run for 1km and if it felt okay I could run for another km … I was back!
We went to Tasmania on AFL Grand Final Eve, and the next morning was glorious. Cold, it has to be said, but no wind, clear blue sky, perfect! The path around the Tamar River was fabulous, and I felt so good I decided to run into the Gorge. At the 3km mark I turned around and ran back to the hotel. I felt fabulous when I finished. My leg didn’t hurt, I finished strong, and kilometre #6 was my fastest … I felt great.
I was confident about the 10km run. I still had two weeks to go and things were looking up.
That night, on the plane on the way home to Melbourne, I became very ill and ended up in hospital for six days. On Day 4 after my discharge I still couldn’t walk more than 500 metres without needing a nap. A week after my release I could manage 2kms, but it simply wasn’t enough. My body just wasn’t going to cope with running 10kms, or even 5 for that matter, and so my plan of running my first ever 10km event had to be put on hold.
I’ve been told there are plenty of other runs … and that I’ll be back into running in no time.
Tim messages me late on Thursday afternoon: We can get to Tassie for $750. Will I book it?
I thought for a nanosecond and despite not having been to Tasmania so far this year, and despite my usual ‘nothing will keep me away from Tasmania when I have a few days off’, this time something was different. I simply didn’t want to go.
Tassie is known and familiar and I wanted, desperately needed, intuitively knew I needed to be somewhere unknown and unfamiliar. And somewhere a long way away. As far as it was possible to go in the six days we had available to us. Somewhere we hadn’t been before. Somewhere where all the people were strangers and all the roads new.
I wanted to go to Broken Hill.
Tim turns to me late on Thursday night: So. What are we doing over Easter?
It’s 9pm. I mention Broken Hill for the first time. Tim doesn’t blink an eye. It’s no wonder I love this man!
By 11pm our trip is organised, accommodation booked, distances calculated.
By 9am we are on the road, bags packed, keep cups full of tea/coffee, water bottles full, lunches tucked into the cooler bag along with a rudimentary first aid kit, snacks, tea bags and a tea towel – just in case!
I drive out of Melbourne – our usual arrangement – and then over the next six days keep driving.
Driving means I’m present, aware of ‘now’, focussing only on the road not on writing rubrics, determining how to publish the children’s stories I’ve written and had illustrated, responding to online discussion threads, reporting on how many law academics I’ve worked with, drafting journal articles and performance objectives, organising photo shoots, exercising, keeping up with social media …
… all left behind, all fading into the increasingly hazy distance as the road unwinds ahead of us.
Importantly we have a bag of CDs, all compilations we put together for my radio shows over 10 years ago. It’s only on day 6 we have to replay a CD. We have music for every part of our journey, even if it means pressing pause on Damien Rice’s Eskimo until we’re out of Wentworth because it’s a song that deserves space and the open road.
I drive and am present, focussed on this moment, on seeing new landscapes, new combinations of colours, new horizons, new destinations.
I drive and keep my eyes looking forward, into the distance, into the immediate future. I shed the city like a skin by the second day and there’s only the road and the wide-open spaces to contain me. I can feel myself expanding under the warmth and width of the bluest of blue skies.
The ribbons of road shimmering into the distance are my favourite – endless horizons full of possibilities and discovery, full of newness and unfamiliarity. Roads without curves, one line on the map, taking us to the edge of the outback.
The road stretches out before us. The compass says west and then north and they’re the only directions I want to head.
Warmth, colour, distance, the unfamiliarity of the landscape … the only place I want to be.
Away … so far away … into the desert where the hills gently whisper, and where, right before sunset the silence is audible. The desert where the horizon sits in some distant space way, way over yonder and where time and space mean different things. The desert where my grief for Dad pales against the vastness of the landscape, and I can drop it here, knowing threads of it will return to the city with me but also knowing that it’s safe out here in the warmth and almost limitless space between the far horizons.
It’s a hard reset on a hard start to the year – a chance to stay in the ‘now’, to not think beyond the next bend in an arrow-straight road, to simply be.
Away … so far away … and then home.
A few days after we came home, we made a book about our journey and published it on Blurb. You can see a preview here if you’re interested. I wrote the blog post above for the book, which also features essays Tim wrote and a selection of our photos from the trip.
It was one of the most significant and important trips I’ve ever taken.
I started this post a few months ago … and have added a sentence here and there in the time between now and then, but for some reason it’s been difficult to put together.
I’m not quite sure why, but I’m beginning to think it’s because it’s intensely personal and I’m not sure I want to share it.
It’s also more than that. I want to skate across the top and just describe our weekend, rather than deal with what lies underneath – and I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s okay. I don’t have to deal with the underneath here, in these posts that others (some familiar, some unknown to me) may read.
And there’s more still: I feel others’ judgements – the questions and voices I can hear from some of those unknown and some of the familiar: “Why blog about something so personal?”, “Why put this out there for others to read?” – questions and voices that I can choose to ignore, particularly as they’re in my head and therefore not real, and they’re stopping me from finishing this post.
So, here I am, on a sunny Saturday morning, finishing what I started months ago.
“The forecast is for rain all weekend”, my Queensland-based students reliably informed me during a web conference in early March.
“The forecast is for a hot weekend”, my Melbourne-based husband reliably informed me the next day.
I felt torn, but my ticket to Queensland was booked. I would just have to deal with the rain. At least it wouldn’t be cold, I thought.
I was wrong.
It was freezing!
I flew into Coolangatta on a Friday morning after an early start. Mum, Debbie and I talked and ate and talked at our favourite cafe – Mervyn Roy’s at Bilinga – then after a quick detour to Robina for some shopping, we headed into the hinterland.
We found our accommodation at the end of a tiny road, surrounded by giant trees being whipped furiously by the wind.
We are not known for letting a little bit of wind (read lots of wind) deter us, so we dressed for the cold and headed out. Dressing for the cold for me meant putting on all the clothes I’d packed. Luckily one of those things was a jacket. Also luckily, it did up even though I was wearing all my other clothes. As you can see, my footwear left a little to be desired. When I got to the (very) muddy track, it become patently clear that my footwear left a lot to be desired!
Importantly, I was wearing beautiful earrings!!
We clambered (elegantly, it has to be said) down a short but very steep embankment and found our way to the proper track. It was getting dark, the wind was still whipping the trees, and it had started to rain. Undaunted, we soldiered on. We had a goal: find Purling Brook Falls before dark.
We had ten minutes before the sun set – although, to be honest, the sun wasn’t exactly on show – and nine minutes before hyperthermia set in. We dawdled as fast as we could – Mum really does need one of those hiking sticks – except Deb didn’t dawdle quite as slowly as Mum and I. You can just see her charging ahead in her red rainproof coat. I actually think the lack of rainproof coats was slowing Mum and I down.
A quick snap of the falls and we were back to the house and the roaring fire (thanks to Bernie for lighting it for us).
The rain continued to pelt the roof all through the night. I admit to not hearing it despite being upstairs, but Deb let me know the next morning as she’d slept in the sleep-out with its alsynite roof, not known for muffling any sound let alone the sound of continuous and heavy rain.
Despite her lack of sleep, she was up bright and early making pancakes and bacon for breakfast. Thusly fortified, we headed out into the rain and wind for another look at the falls.
We quickly realised the falls we’d seen the night before were not in fact the main attraction. We also quickly realised that we were no better prepared for the conditions than we’d been yesterday. Plus the rain was heavier.
We found the rockpools we’d bathed in many (many) years ago on a summer camping trip – and were reminded of the ‘soap incident’. When I say ‘bathed’ I mean just that. The rockpool was our bath – and so we’d taken soap and towels and worn our bathers (decorum is important in the bush, particularly when you’re 14) and gone to wash in the pools. What we hadn’t counted on was the water’s flow – it washed our soap over the edge, never to be seen (by us at least) again. I can still hear Dad yelling, “don’t follow it! Let it go.” Sound advice which I distinctly remember following.
We walked through one continuous downpour, neither Mum nor I were adequately prepared (as you can see if you watch the video).
We eventually found our way to a lovely (warm and dry) cafe, where moments later our brother Warren appeared.
Finally, we were all together.
We were all together to spend the weekend as a family celebrating what would have been Dad’s 80th birthday. It was a weekend of quiet contemplation, of reminiscing, of doing things that were slightly uncomfortable (walking on muddy tracks in the rain and cold is not something we generally do for fun) because we could hear Dad encouraging us to get out into the outdoors and enjoy them, no matter what condition the outdoors threw at us.
We spend more time in the rain – I had to take my glasses off as they were so wet I couldn’t see through them – walking through the bush, taking photos as we went so we can look back in years to come and remember how daggy we were (and how okay we are with that), how important and comforting it was to be together and how we could enjoy each other’s company even though we were all grieving. As hard as it was to acknowledge, it’s true that life really does go on.
The last time Warren and I had been to PurlingBrook Falls was a number of years ago when we were both visiting Mum and Dad over the summer – Warren from out west and me from Tasmania. For about five or six summers we’d gather at Mum and Dad’s with kids in tow and spend time in shopping centres and McDonald’s playgrounds because they were the coolest places we could find … and of course, much more time at Currumbin Creek estuary, a quick walk from where Mum and Dad lived at the time.
One year, Dad had the ‘good’ idea of taking the kids bushwalking. It’ll be fun, he said enthusiastically, but their faces remained sceptical. We headed to Purling Brook Falls and tackled the track from right of the falls to left, heading down the steep track (which is now closed for repair) one side, under the waterfall at the bottom, then up the other side. It’s a steep walk up and Emma, my youngest who was about 8 at the time, and Carly, Warren’s eldest, who was 7, complained the whole way! None of grandad’s enthusiasm or stories of the beasties lurking in the bush made an impact on their determination to hate it.
Despite the complaints, it was a lovely walk and I was sorry (kind of) that the track wasn’t open this time around, because I’m sure we’d have done the walk again. Although, really, we were being considerate of Mum – we didn’t want her struggling through the mud and rain – she’s getting on you know! 🙂
On Sunday, before heading home, we venture to the Best of All Lookout which generally has the most gorgeous views over the Tweed Valley and out to Byron Bay. Not this day though!
We take the obligatory selfie, just to mark the occasion, and as there isn’t anything to see, we head back to the warmth of the car.
Even though we could barely see our hands in front of our faces let alone Mt Warning or Byron Bay, the Best of All lookout has more than views.
It also has a stand of antarctic beech trees. As soon as I walk into this short forest walk, I feel immediately at peace. It is these trees that provide me with the sense of consolation to which the title of this post refers. Each time I’ve been here, I’ve felt that same sense of consolation – the stresses of the outside world seem to slip away just a touch, my hands uncurl, my shoulders drop, and some of the tension I hadn’t known I was carrying in my body eases away.
It’s the same today. I can feel my grief loosening just a little, easing back on the tension I barely knew I was feeling.
We drive back to Mum’s the scenic way and she whips up a batch of scones for lunch in the way mothers have done for millenia: a no nonsense pragmatic approach to feeding her family. Jam, with spoons, cream, tea, a hodge-podge of plates, and the comfort of familiarity and togetherness.
We sit, as we always do, outside in the warmth and looking around I realise I’m not yet ready for Dad not to be there. I keep this in, and am convinced the others are holding their grief too, even though this weekend has been important and significant for us all. We each have our private grief, as well as the grief we share, and right now it’s still too soon to speak of it.
I know, deeply and intuitively, that while the consolation of trees soothes me, this time I need something more … this time I need wide open spaces, far-away horizons, warmth and unfamiliarity.
It was an important weekend for us all, spent in a place so rich in memory and remembrance, honouring Dad in our own way, mostly by being together.
My family’s good like that!
You can read my sister Debbie’s blog post about the weekend here.
Flicking through Instagram on Sunday morning, I came across a quote attributed to Winnie the Pooh.
There was something about the simplicity of that little sentence that touched me deeply and at that point my morning dissolved into tears.
When I remembered it was Tim’s father’s birthday, the tears threatened to overwhelm me.
You see, it’s my father’s birthday in a few weeks and it’ll be the first birthday he won’t be with us. Oh, there were birthdays when he was away – but he was always within reach of a card and after the Navy years he was always reachable by phone.
But not this year.
It’s one of those firsts I’ve been warned about but haven’t fully understood, in the way you just don’t until you actually experience it.
After big and comforting hugs, we headed into the forest to the north-east of Melbourne, into the consolation of trees.
As an added bonus, there was water.
Never underestimate the consoling power of trees … and a waterfall at the end of the path.
Dad lies completely still apart from the rise and fall of his chest, his breathing regular though shallow: a quick breath in, a just-as-quick breath out, count to four, another breath in. On the odd occasion his body misses a breath my heart races and I watch closely for the rise and fall of his chest.
Music wafts gently around the room Dad’s called home for the past 18 months and despite the scurry of nurses outside in the corridor there’s a sense of peace and calm here in this room.
I never imagined keeping watch over my dying father, but here I am, sitting on the hospital bed the nurses brought in and placed next to his, thinking about what I know and who I am because Noel Pittaway has been my Dad.
I know the importance of spit-clean shoes – polished and buffed till they shine. People notice shoes, Sharon, he’d say as I’d present them to him for inspection. Make sure they’re clean.
I know how to spell by breaking words into pieces and sounding them out.
I know that it annoys Mum when we do that (you’re just like your father, she says in that tone she has that indicates she thinks we’re clever but a bit show-offy.)
I know to eat my vegetables first before even touching anything else on my plate.
I know it’s best to eat cauliflower and cheese sauce while it’s hot.
I know how to swim because Dad insisted I stand in the shallow end of the Nowra pool and while all the other kids got to muck around I stood there and practiced my strokes and my breathing. I was never a fast swimmer but I had a nice style (just like your father, Mum used to say in that tone she has that speaks of admiration).
I have an eclectic musical taste because Dad had an ever-expanding record collection that ranged from Rachmaninov to Ray Charles via Ravi Shankar.
I know how to be comfortable with silence; that I don’t have to fill it with words and that in the silence there’s still warmth and togetherness.
I know that reading fiction opens up worlds I would never have been able to imagine on my own. Some of those worlds were beyond the comprehension of my 11,12,13-year-old self, but I discovered that being stretched imaginatively is important and immensely beneficial to a teenager’s developing mind and spirit.
I know the thrill of the rollercoaster, big slippery dips and rides that spin and whirl and fling you upside down and inside out and the added thrill of experiencing that with your granddaughter. Again and again and again.
I know it’s wrong for a girl to swear.
I know how to snorkel. And not to be afraid of the ocean. And the delight of walking on the squeaky white sand of Jervis Bay.
I know that travel is an adventure to be indulged in whenever possible and part of that adventure is the spontaneity of a detour or an unplanned destination or heading down a one-way street the wrong way.
I know that creative expression is an important part of life, whether that expression is theatrical, literary, artistic, musical or photographic – and the importance of taking the lens cap off.
I know what love for your wife(husband) looks like because of the depth of love Dad has for Mum … and I know that romance is not dead.
I know that people are deeply complex and that an external quiet doesn’t necessarily mean an internal quiet.
I know that laugh-yourself-silly fun is contagious and being surrounded by your grandchildren and great grandchildren is joyous and delightful in ways that can’t be described in words …
and that when you’re in your 60s and you think you can still somersault off the 1 metre board at the Murbah pool and get up there only to find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, that a poolside cheer squad led by your grandchildren will push the fear down and turn you into a hero as you run along the board and somersault effortlessly into the diving pool.
I know that the rougher the sea the more you enjoy the ride. Just hang on tight and ride the swell.
And I know that while the taste of beetroot is a flavour they serve in hell, Dagwood Dogs are a tiny taste of heaven.
I know that what your dad teaches you can be hard to learn and that you can fight against it (and him) and that what you learn might not have been the intended lesson, but I also know that Dad has influenced my life enormously and I am who I am in big measure because my Dad is Noel Pittaway.
The movement of Dad’s body … the rise and fall of his chest … stops in the afternoon of Thursday 25 January … but the movement of his life and his legacy have transcended his body and spread through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren … it’s a legacy that moves invisibly yet steadily across and through the generations.
On February 14, 2016 Dad and I flew over Antarctica. It had been a life-long ambition of his. Here we are ready for our 14-hour adventure.
*Many thanks and huge appreciation to Alison Cosker for providing feedback on this post. It has been strengthened because of her input.
I’d been worried that I’d hate the cold, that I’d be so cold I wouldn’t enjoy myself, that the cold would see me reluctant to head outside, and whinge vociferously if I did.
But I actually loved it. It wasn’t so cold that I couldn’t function; Tim had bought so many winter-in-Europe appropriate clothes that I wasn’t ever very cold; my fur-lined boots meant my feet were always warm (and dry); my borrowed coat was perfect; the addition of buffs to our wardrobe was a master stroke of stylish fashion meets practical warmth; and I came to enjoy those times when it was cold and/or raining.
That’s not to say I’m now going to enjoy winter in Melbourne. Not unless we get proper heating and weather-insulating features common to European houses/apartments.
But in Europe the cold made sense to me. It fitted in a way it’s never fitted in Australia; especially at Christmas.
And, I have to say, I wouldn’t be reluctant to go back in winter.
By Prague standards it’s still early when we meet Darko outside our apartment at 10am; the air is still fresh and cold enough to fog our reintroductions, although these aren’t strictly required. Darko is every bit as welcoming and warm as we had anticipated, giving the distinct impression that he is a man very much engaged in doing what he loves: meeting people, and sharing stories and time together.
As we discover on the way to Kutná Hora (it’s about an hour from Prague, or at least it’s an hour with Darko’s efficient, precise, and fast – very fast – driving style), Darko is himself an import to Prague, born in Macedonia and relocating 14 years ago, frustrated with the difficulties of trying to attract tourists into fractured countries. The Czech Republic seems to genuinely suit him, and he it, and he speaks of the Czech people with a fondness and familiarity. He’s a wonderful host; we find breakfast and water waiting for us in his comfortable and modern van, and we learn about his daughter, who is still new to skiing but can swim better than just about any other child in Prague (thanks to Mediterranean summers), his business (how he holds an ambition of one day working full-time in Kutná Hora, leaving Prague to a colleague), and some of the people he’s met. Needless to say, time passes quickly in his company, and we arrive at our first stop, the Sedlec Ossuary.
Darko tells us something of the history of the place, and how earth gathered in the middle east was scattered here, as it was believed to be the driest soil in the world and thus excellent at returning bodies to their most base materials in no time. People lined up to be buried here, and with plague and war both close to hand, it was a long line. Bodies and their component bones piled up in the ossuary for many years, until in the 19th century, a carpenter was employed to “do something” with all of the bones. He did, and what resulted is something of a unique fusion of display, respect, pomp, macabre sideshow, and religious offering. There are sculptures, piles and pyramids, threaded columns of spine, skull, and hip bones, and a chandelier containing at least one of every bone that can be found in the human body. The sculptor even signed his name on the wall. Using bones. I’m not sure how I felt about all this; I think a strange, unresolvable mixture of awe, shock, revulsion, and appreciation. Maybe that was the intention all along.
The place begins to fill up as one and then another large coach pulls in and disgorges loads of onlookers. Darko’s approach is more in tune with our own; some brief facts and points to note, and then he removes himself while we “make photos”, joining him outside for our next stop. This is the pattern across the day, and it is well-practised and orchestrated. Darko has clearly rehearsed this tour; it seems effortless as we move to our next location (the Church of the Assumption, still in Sedlec), hear some interesting points about how the church was designed somewhat too ambitiously (taking so long to finish and costing so much money that it had really outlived its necessity by the time it was completed), “make photos”, and then find Darko waiting outside with our van, ready to move to the next location.
Next is Kutná Hora itself, a fascinating and well-preserved (in fact still quite busy and fully-functioning) city that at one stage looked set to challenge Prague for the status of capital of Bohemia. There’s a sense of wealth behind the place; I’m reminded of gold rush towns in Australia, where there are giant, solid, opulent architectural examples that hint at a past that was considerably larger than the present, or indeed the future.
Kutná Hora had modest beginnings, as the site of a monastery, until one day, taking a much-needed break, one of the monks put his feet up on a rock, scuffed the side, and discovered silver. Fast forward just a little, and Kutná Hora was gripped by what Darko called “silver fever”, with tens of thousands of people both above and under ground working the mines (in dangerous conditions, almost total darkness, and caverns constantly at risk of collapse or flooding) and creating wealth and status and lives. In places, it’s a beautiful town, and Darko points out the fusion of Gothic and Baroque architecture that seems to dominate the town itself.
Much of the Gothic architecture is gone as residents decided the style looked horribly dated and so conducted ‘extreme renovations’ to update their properties to the Baroque style (Sedlec Ossuary was similarly updated in somewhat disastrous style, as the cement poured to fill in the Gothic windows has so overloaded the structure that it seems to be collapsing in on itself, putting at risk the unique treasures of the basement described above). As we stroll the streets, Darko gives us a sense of life in the town, and some of the colourful personalities and exploits of the past (we are fascinated to hear of the jeweller who specialised entirely in making jewellery for the many statues of Kutná Hora, and indeed for the wider region – the Czechs do love their statues!). We see grandiose buildings and churches constructed with ambition and prestige in mind, such as a palace constructed so that the king could relocate from Prague (he politely declined, but did make use of the palace as the royal mint so at least the place didn’t go to ruin). After our delightful walk, we have lunch in a traditional Czech restaurant, and Sharon’s meal of svickova na smetae (a kind of stew with beef, cream, and cranberries) looked extraordinary and (I’m led to believe) tasted even better.
After lunch, to “aid our digestion” we walk to the largest of the three churches in the area, St Barbora’s Cathedral.
It seems too large, too grand, too ambitious for Kutná Hora, and indeed from the information we’re given it probably was.
Again, this was an effort to trump Prague’s efforts at communicating with and celebrating God; unfortunately the silver, and thus the money, ran out (several times) before the cathedral could be finished, and so it sat as a fixer-upper for several hundred years, only really being completed in the 20th century.
Even then, completion really involved chopping off about a third of the plans and just putting up a wall instead and calling it done.
Still, as we learnt in Venice, apparently the architects of these great cathedrals always had a ready-made excuse for any alterations and compromises in their completion, because “only God can create perfection”. We take a little time to learn about the various chapels, make a few photos, and then head out, to find Darko waiting with the van again, already running and warm inside. He’s even restocked our fruit and water supplies.
It’s later than expected when we arrive back in Prague, and we decide we’re too tired (and still full from our traditional – in both taste and size – Czech lunch) to head out in the evening. It’s an early start again tomorrow – we’ll see Darko in another 12 hours for our airport drop off!
Pražský hrad (Prague Castle) was on the agenda for today … it’s the largest castle complex in the world and took us most of the day to wander around it.
The castle complex began its development in the 9th century! That’s mind boggling to me.
I could say loads more about the Royal Palace, St Vitus Cathedral, St George’s Basilica, Golden Lane, plus the nearby Strahov Monastery … but my words could never do them justice. It’s the history of the place that amazes me … the recorded history as well as the history written in the stones, decorations, artworks, altars, weapons, torture instruments, plus the histories written in the hidden places and the public spaces.
A history full of intrigue and violence and sacrifice and conflict … of visionaries, philosophers, designers, architects, goldsmiths, jewellers, and of kings and mothers of kings, and priests and monks, and those who spent their lives building these massive structures – those who aren’t remembered, who aren’t written into the official records but who were central to these records of history.
So many years’ worth of visible, recorded, in-your-face history. It forces me to ask questions about our own history and how we engage with it when it’s not as visible; a history that’s more spiritual and engaged with the environment – a history so unlike European history it’s easy to see how the first Europeans missed it. They were looking for structures and monuments and artworks and society’s visible, tangible marks on the environment … there are questions and thoughts and inklings of ideas to ponder here, to contemplate and reflect on …
As well as exploring the history of Prague and the Czech Republic more broadly, we’ve also explored the food. We’ve discovered it’s good food. Even Tim can eat it. On our first night at a restaurant called Vinohradský Parlament, I had dessert – not something I generally do – but one of the options was one I simply couldn’t resist: Podilové taštičky: u nás dělané taštičky z bramborového těsta, plněné povidly, podávané se strouhaným tvarohem, přepuštěným máslem a moučkovým cukrem (in other words potato gnocchi with plum jam filling, grated cottage cheese, a butter sauce, and icing sugar).
As you can imagine, I just had to try it. It was fabulous!
For one meal I had goulash, which is Hungarian rather than Czech, but I was particularly interested in the dumplings. I’d said to Tim before the meal arrived ‘what if they’re circles of white bread?’ and when it arrived we saw that’s exactly what they were … but somehow more delicious than circles of white bread, or maybe that was the sauce.
I also had a much more traditional Czech dish, svíčková na smetaně, made up of beef (very tender), some kind of gravy/sauce, bread dumplings (or circlets of soft white bread) and then, on top of the beef was a dollop of whipped cream and one of cranberry sauce on a slice of lemon. Delicious.
Then there was the dessert of apricot dumplings swimming in sour cream with icing sugar sprinkled over it all, adding a touch of sweetness. Surprisingly, it too was delicious. Although I had too much and felt very sick for a while.
On the whole though the food was very good. And very cheap. Czech money is Crowns and the traditional meal I had was 195 of them. Sounds a lot, but when you work out it’s about 12 Australian dollars you realise it’s a bargain. It wasn’t unusual to have wads of 1000 crowns in our wallets!
Don’t try to pay for something costing 50 crowns with a 1000 crown note though! Not unless you want a stern talking to – it was in Czech so we couldn’t understand the actual words, but the tone was enough for us to know we were in trouble.
One more full day in the Czech Republic and then we have to face the idea of making our way home. I’m so not ready to go back yet – there’s still so much to see and do.
* Please note: As you’ve seen from some of the words in this post, there are plenty of accents in the Czech written language. Here are a few snaps I took as we wondered around the area we were staying in. I reckon you can work out the final word on this first sign.