Thursday, 17 November 2011

Grandmother's Valley

"It was long, long ago, when last I gazed on that dear face, kissed those pale, wrinkled cheeks, and tried to fathom the depths of those blue eyes, in which were hidden so much goodness and love."

The author of this simple lament for her deceased grandmother was one of Czech literature's most highly regarded figures, Božena Němcová. Her image graces the five hundred crown banknote, and the cool, green valley of the Úpa river around the Ratibořice chateau is called Grandmother's valley after her most beloved character. Grandmother is an iconic story in Romantic Czech literature and if you think of the regard for stories like Huckleberry Finn or the Adventures of Robin Hood you’ll have an idea of the tale's place in the national consciousness.

For anyone who has read Grandmother and wants to find out more, the gentle, leafy stretch of the Úpa river valley from Havlovice to Česká Skalice is a good place to start. Božena's father worked as a stablehand at the Ratibořice chateau for most of her childhood and it along with the other prominent buildings of the valley provide the setting for her stories.

The Ratibořice chateau sits on the side of a low hill surrounded by dense gardens. As you crossed the Úpa River and follow the road across its open floodplain, the trees of the forest provide an almost theatrical backdrop. As you draw close to the chateau around the gentle right hand bend, the huge carpark and the jumble of souvenir and refreshment stands will make immediately clear just how popular this place is among individuals and school groups.

A little further along the same road is the old water mill. The narrow channel that runs alongside still turns the huge wooden waterwheels, but the roguish miller and his family are long gone. Further up the valley again near a weir is the wide flat plain called bělidlo, which come from the word běla or bíla meaning white. Usually translated into English as the Bleachery, it was the place that the peasants of the valley gathered to wash their linen and clothes and spread them out on the even grass to dry in the sunshine. The wooden cottage there was Božena's childhood home.

When you've explored the chateau, the mill and the cottage at the old bleachery, there's also a very pretty 3km path along which young Božena walked from Ratibořice to attend school in Česká Skalice. The path is marked with signs describing the history but they’re only in Czech. The Božena Němcová museum in Česká Skalice's old wooden schoolhouse has translations for the exhibits.

Even if you won't make it to Grandmothers valley, take a look at Božena's portrait on the five hundred crown banknote and keep an eye out for statues of her or streets named in her honour. She's an important and respected figure in modern Czech history and if you're spending much time in the Czech Republic it's good to be aware of at least a couple of those.

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