Puppetry Museum in Plzen (Pilsen)


Puppetry dates back to the second half of the 18th century in the Czech Republic. Travelling marionetteers entertained both adults and children. Often the stories had hidden political subtexts, due to the Austro-Hungarian masters strict censorship of any show of Czech nationalist sentiment.

These puppeteers were frequently in family groups. Karel Novak, his wife, and foster father teacher J N Lastovka are such an example. The Novaks arrived in Plzen in 1914 and worked there until 1927, for a time in partnership with an upcoming puppeteer, Josef Skupa.

An artist, theatre worker and teacher, Skupa started a career in puppetry first as a hobby, with often satirical content in his productions. In 1919 he designed a Dada style puppet with a round head and protuding ears, a tail coat and wearing clogs. He named him Speijl.

First a solo act, a young son was later created for Speijl, called, Hurvinek. The latter character was manipulated by Skupa’s wife, Jirina, for many years. Together the two puppets were a huge success, with a somewhat stupid father and a quick witted son. The characters went on to perform on radio and in films and are still around even today.

Plzen has a wonderful Puppet Museum in yet another beautifully restored historic house to showcase the strong tradition in this region. The town also celebrated puppetry in grand style over the weekend with a visit of giant puppets, where they performed in the packed town square to the delight of a large numbers of families.

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Pilsner Urquell Brewery Plzen (Pilsen)

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Well it had to happen. A visit to the town’s world famous brewery, Pilsner Urquell. Believe it or not but until 1839, the town produced very poor quality beer, so by municipal decree, a new brewery was founded.

The issue with the beer made to that point was it was top fermented. A Bavarian brewmaster, Josef Groll, was hired to introduce a ‘bottom fermented’ style beer for the new brewery. The first brew began in 1842 and its unique flavour and golden colour was declared a huge success.

By 1865 the brewery was the third largest in entire empire. When the railway came to Plzen the beer began to be exported to the rest of Europe, followed by the first shipments to the USA in 1873.

Originally fermented in chilly cellars across a network of 9 kilometres of tunnels, in 2004  the brewery was modernised. The beer is now fermented in gigantic metal tanks.

I join a production line of visitors touring the packaging plant where the beer is bottled and canned around the clock in mind blowing quantities.

But what we are all there for is of course the tasting. And we are well rewarded. The beer we sample is made in the traditional way in oak barrels and is delicious.

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Ethnographic Museum of Plzen (Pilsen)

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Set on the town square between two historic townhouses are the cultural clues to Plzen’s past. My patient tour guide has gestured we have no languages in common, but we get by very well.

The museum displays fragments of life across the centuries, beginning from the 15th Century. Rooms are displayed for each era, with Baroque and Art Nouveau represented. There is even an entire pharmacy recreated.

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In the folk section,  brightly coloured regional costumes are displayed including from nearby Chotesov.  How phases of life and the seasons were celebrated are also depicted. Plus, musical instruments for the important presence of folk music.

I pause by a regional costume of a woman from my distant ancestor’s tiny village below the hill-top Chotesov Cloister. Later when I review the photo I took, I notice my own reflection has been caught up in it.

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West Bohemian Museum Plzen (Pilsen)

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For the best overview of the history of the region, this should be your first stop. Its another beautiful day outside, so its just me and the ticket collectors in the building.

The pre-history section is wonderfully presented and with a background of soothing music, I am quickly absorbed in to its ancient archeological treasures.

Across the hall is the history of Plzen from the middle ages through to the 19th Century. Founded in 1295 by King Wenceslaus the second, the city celebrates its 720th birthday this year.

The city was never conquered until the 1600’s. The 30 Years War which ravaged Europe left its toll on Plzen and it took years for the town to rebuild back to what it was.

Part of the reason for the town’s early impenetrability, was strong fortifications with a double wall and a moat surrounding the city. This highly effective system was only taken down in the early 1800’s by the Burghermeister Martin Kopecky to make space for stretches of green park land circling the city, which can still be enjoyed today.

Down in the chilly basement of the museum is a huge armoury of suitably terrifying weapons. I make a break for the sun and spend the rest of the afternoon in one of the Burghermeister’s beautiful parks.



Gottfried Lindauer Exhibition Plzen Czech Republic


I am in Plzen (Pilsen) for its arts and culture festival and as a New Zealander, very interested to see the exhibition of one my country’s most famous painters.

Lindauer, a struggling portrait artist, left Plzen in 1874 for New Zealand about the same time my forbears did, seeking a new life.

He made a living by painting portraits of business people and identities in the developing nation, but is most famous for his Maori portraiture.

To honour the successful career of one of Plzen’s native sons, an exhibition of his paintings of Maori curated by the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki is presented here.

The exhibition travelled first to Berlin and is now in Plzen as part of the European Cultural Capital 2015 celebration. In Plzen, further works by Lindauer held by the Naprstek Museum are added in to the display. Plus, early works he contributed to when apprenticed to Carl Hemerlein’s studio, mostly of religious subjects.

What strikes me comparing his first paintings with the ones after he emigrated is how he found his ‘voice’ or perspective in the art he produced in his new country. He is honoured in New Zealand for the accuracy and respect he gave his Maori subjects. Working often from just ‘carte de visit’ photos he documented an indigenous people in the midst of a huge cultural shift with great empathy.

I am watching the way visitors to the Plzen exhibition take their time and are reading the narrative next to each one of the paintings.  There are many images here I have grown up with and I am enormously proud of the tasteful staging of the work.

I can’t stop myself from finding an English speaking gallery worker to mention my homeland connection to the exhibition. We talk so much he eventually gets called back to his day job and I exit for my daily dose of Pilsner Urquell.



Best of Bethnal Green


Its almost time to pack up and end this cat sit stay in Bethnal Green. London was to be a short curtain raiser to a stint in Europe on this trip, but I have stayed much longer than planned.

The cat and I found our peace one afternoon early on, when I slumped on the couch working my through a packet of McVities biscuits, reading a book. She attached herself to my knee and we haven’t looked back. Although she still sicks up on the carpet occasionally, looking over her shoulder at me, as if to say, ‘get that will you?’

Caring for a cat with an eating disorder is a fair enough exchange though for the convenience of living inside zone 2, where you just need to think of something in town to see and within minutes you are there.

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In the Bethnal Green area there are also some great attractions. Insomnia had me up early and off to the Columbia St flower market last Sunday. The kick of all that colour and a good coffee from one of the cafes there, set me up for the day.

The Victoria and Albert Childhood Museum is also just a few steps from the front door.  Unlike its bigger counterpart, you can view the exhibits without a selfie stick stuck in your back and be in and out in one hour.

The permanent displays catalogue the long history of toys. As I wandered the glass cases noting the increasing sophistication of play things, I wondered if there will simply be an iPad sitting in a cabinet to mark this decade.

The best of Bethnal Green is however even closer to home. The view from the apartment’s balcony across London’s skyline is a great backdrop.  The disappearing cat is allowed out there with me now, but only under careful supervision.



The Tate – Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky


Now I have your attention. This is the name of just one collection in the magnificent Tate Modern Gallery. I am loving the huge cavernous spaces of this amazing gallery set in a former power station.  Whilst it hosts four million people through its doors every year, it doesn’t feel cramped at all.

I am here with a local. We are catching up for the first time in ages and after going through the aptly named Pop art collection which features Roy Lichenstein’s ‘Wham’ and Andy Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’s Diptych,’ we call time.

Its a travesty I know, but we have far too much to catch up on to give the rest of the gallery its due attention at this point.

We head up to the seventh floor where there has to be the best view in all of London from a cafe, but the worst tea I have ever had. However with panoramic views over the Millenium Bridge towards St Paul’s, who cares?image

We move on to the Globe Theatre around the corner next and dine at the Swan for lunch. There is a common theme arising now, of eating at cultural points of interest. There are great views across the Thames from our table and a welcome breeze on yet another sultry day.

Afterwards we cross the Millennium Bridge in soaring temperatures, then jump a bus taking us up Fleet Street, stopping off at St Paul’s Cathedral, but bypass the prospect of the 259 steps to the dome, in favour of another meal.