Sunday 27 January 2008

The colours of Masopust

One of my favourite Czech traditions takes place in Vortova next Saturday, 2nd of February.

The Masopust parade is performed every year about seven weeks before Easter. It’s the equivalent of Mardi Gras, Carneval or Fashing celebrations in other parts of the world, a farewell feast and celebration before people give things up for the sober 40 days of Lent.

Masopust parades take place in lots of towns and villages, even in some of the more community minded suburbs of Prague, but the one in Vortova is widely considered to be the most colourful and spectacular parade in the country. I heard about it from former Lonely Planet author Richard Nebeský once at the Ride of the Kings in Vlcnov. We got to talking about Masopust parades and “Vortova’s the one to go to” was his recommendation.

And he’s not the only one to hold it such high regard. Czechophiles will know that the definitive work on local folk customs is Lidové Zvyky by Jiřina Langhammerova (director of the Prague national folklore museum). Not only do photographs from Vortova illustrate the Masopust chapter, but of all the colourful traditions that take place through the year around the country, Vortova Masopust was chosen for the front cover.

The parade itself starts in the morning and after asking permission from the mayor begins to wind its way throughout the village, visiting each house in turn. Horses always lead the procession closely followed by the butchers, the turks and the joker and his wife. The second half of the parade is made up of the chimney sweeps, the strawmen and the travelling salesmen, and the local brass band brings up the rear.

Each character has his role in the procession and it falls to the joker and his wife to knock on each door and find out how many songs the homeowners would like performed. The band strikes up and the young Turks do most of the dancing but the other characters join in or fall out as the mood takes them. When the song and dance is over, the performers are rewarded with a share of the family feast, including donuts baked specially for the occasion and shots of a clear liquid with a high, high alcohol content, if the steadily degenerating dance moves of the Turks are any indication.

The rear of the parade is just like the back of the school bus-this is where all the mischief takes place. The chimney sweeps carry lumps of greasy black coal and put big stripes of it on everybody’s face for luck. According to old mythology, the strawmen are charged with ensuring fertility for the coming year, and the lady of each house is supposed to take a straw from the costume to ensure their animals breed well and the crops flourish over the coming year. The fertility also applies to the lady of the house herself, and if the strawman thinks he can get away with it, he might even drag her out for a tumble in the snow.

The parade doesn’t end until every house in the village has been visited, which might take several hours and include a break for lunch. In the evening almost the entire village gathers at the local pub for a dance with music from the same band that played all day. The strawmen are not likely to roll you in the snow if they don’t know you, but you can’t expect to get away without a blackened face.

And if you do happen to get rolled in the snow, then you should consider it a compliment. This is one of the things I enjoyed most about last year’s Masopust parade. I really felt like the locals went out of their way to make us feel included and that we became part of the event, rather than just spectators, like at the Ride of the Kings when the participants glide above the crowd or at Mikulaš which is focussed on children.

Have you been to a Masopust parade or are you going this year? If you’re a traveller, is a festival like this something you would go out of your way to see, if you knew about it in advance?

How to get there

Vortova is a village of several dozen houses about 8 kilometres south of Hlinsko and 48km from Pardubice in Eastern Bohemia. Coming from the west (Prague) it's best to take the train to Pardubice and change there for a bus to Hlinsko and another to Vortova. From the east (Olomouc, Brno or Ostrava) you’ll switch trains at Pardubice for the bus to Hlinsko.

Where to stay

There’s no hotel or pension in Vortova, but Pension Betlem in Hlinsko ( Tel 469 311770) offers double rooms with ensuite bathroom for 800Kč/night.The pension is in one of the traditional old wooden cabins in the historic part of town, as is Hospoda U Sv. Huberta, with good meals, reasonable prices and an open fire.


The official start of the parade is 8am, and it would be good not to be too late. Because Vortova is built around a crossroad, and the parade goes several kilometres in each of the four directions, it could be kind of difficult to find unless you catch them at the crossroads when they begin. If you do miss the start, ask somebody at the Hospoda (pub) to point you in the right direction.

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