1st day in Brno, Leos Janacek country




When I left the amazing converted palace I’m staying at, early this afternoon, it felt strange to be staying somewhere that looks so glamorous and yet costs less than a soulless UK hotel chain with shipping containers for rooms.

The first shock was traffic: even hard men stand cautiously waiting for the green man to cross the road, and you see instantly why. An incomprehensible criss-cross of tramlines and rights of way on a non-aligned crossroads outside the hotel offer four directions, each of them forking again within sight.
I cross and go down the big road, since I can’t pronounce the names and don’t have a map. I tell myself, it’s behind you. When you turn it will be ‘that’ way.
This holds for a good while as I meander down side alleys and back to the big road, squinting at Czech signs and building names.
I realise that this dual carriageway between fabulous ornate stone structures is the art school district and the list of venerable looking institutions for graphic, visual, plastic arts and design grows endlessly as I stare and photograph columns and roof gargoyles, wandering aimlessly.
The ‘big road’ leads to a square with even crazier criss-cross of trams and traffic, demarcated not by kerbs but by patterns on the cobbled roads.
The square is an enormous irregular polygonal piazza with another old palace, (that of the former governor), one of three buildings housing the regional museum of art.
It appears shut but I approach, to photograph the sad fretting statue kings, then see a person enter a side door and follow, expecting to pay or to see someone, but no one is there. Cordons bear the universal ‘no-entry’ symbol straight in front and the cloister is being refurbished with modern cafes under construction.
Some men and women smoke and chat in the courtyard, between cars that I cannot work out how they could have got in. In the cloister are some potted trees and a ladder. At the end is a montage of old pop music posters.

I return and find a staircase from a
particularly dark fairy tale and climb curiously. The ceiling vaulting is striking and the sight of a piano brings first excitement that I can play then dismay to consider the resonant, broadcast acoustic. It would have to be soft single notes a minute apart. Not really my bag. Plus I anticipate the habitual piano-related ejection, so give up the idea.
Approaching the instrument yields a surprise: prepared piano as art exhibit. Further along is a seal, in stone. 

Around the corner is a very resonant cast bronze lady who I tap for a while to obtain a few samples. I wonder if I will be discovered and equated to a pervert by an angry Czech security guard but none arrives and I record some great percussive sounds in the echoing hall on my trusty Zoom H1.
There turns out to be nothing else available to see. 
The icons and the map of the world just visible beyond locked glass doors tantalise with elements of the vast permanent exhibition of art from the gothic to the 19th century but I cannot find any printed material on it and leave after a strange half hour, confused but happy with the random nature of my finds.
This building and many others were clearly palaces, as though what is now a city was once a large village of stately homes with just fifty or a hundred yards separating them. 
A statue of a man a bit like Janacek stands tall in a nearby triangle of park containing one of many modern fountains. But with the moustache and garb I realise – what do I know? Janacek or Any Czech?
I pass him and find an alley under another old palace, through to a square I had walked past but missed before.
I photograph the stone ornaments and their graffiti, pass through, turn wander, photograph, wander, sit. 
The Janacek Music Academy appears, bearing the best caryatids of all I’ve seen around the city. What a joyful discovery that he is at least duly celebrated and renowned in the land of this birth!
Then I realise I am lost. I also cannot remember the hotel’s name or its street. I do not know the size of the city or which direction I should walk in.
It had been flat and is now hilly. The architecture is a confusing mixture of baroque fantasy and brutalist functionality with modern statuary and fountains, interweaving tramlines and people in bright coloured clothing speaking an impenetrable language.
Day 1 anywhere I am shy, even if I can understand a word. This is like being young, excited and helpless in a foreign city but in the body of a grumpy tired bastard who wants a beer but isn’t sure how to ask for one. No, it is not likethat: it just was, a bit annoying suddenly.
I decide to give up bothering about where I am and to just continue walking without undue concern, finding the signs for an incredible sounding concert, on the walls of another baroque masterpiece of geometric stonework that also looks entirely comfortable, grand and inspiring to be in. (I can’t help thinking that we have entirely lost a sense of how to build structures that can at once open and inspire the imaginations of visitors and yet maintain stolid gravitas, authority).
Then I realise I had passed the Philharmonic Hall earlier, and this is it from the other side and I must therefore soon be ‘home’. As I walk back up ‘big road’, noticing an enormous green hill above a stone retaining wall that seemed not to have been there a couple of hours earlier, I wonder what to do about supper.
It would be too easy to go back to the hotel and choose from an English language menu, probably alone, under a fifty foot ceiling.
I find a café terrace and order a beer (“Pivo Prosim”. I’d learnt that through necessity 25 years ago. Still can’t remember “Thank you” after a few attempts). What warmth and happy idleness creep up my exhausted legs to meet the sinking cold beer, as I watch the men and women pass in yet another idyllic looking triangular square.
The kebab shop next door (“Kebap”) receives a visit from a fat and a thin man. The thin man looks like he has black belt in Angry. The fat man hitches himself up a lot and waits for nods. They park their BMW with a flourish of rage and walk across to assess the performance of the young men running the kebab (“kebap”) shop. Then they come to the next table from me and sit in threatening silence, smoking the last pack of fags in the world before it disappears.
I enter and pay at the bar, aware that this is uncool but keen to keep moving. Two pints come to slightly less than two quid. 
Another surprise I had had this morning was remembering that there had been no point at all withdrawing Euros at the airport, since Czechs don’t want them any more than we do. An easy bit of casual English ignorance, to have unthinkingly got ‘mainland money’, which didn’t help matters when being done the favour of paying with them and getting mildly questionable change in Czech koruna.
But then with about 24.5 CZK to the euro and about 34.5 to the pound (it is just less than 3p for one Czech crown), the arithmetic is more exhausting than crossing the road or reading street signs. Lucky it’s a quid a pint I guess. Jeeeez.
It had to be supper time so I moved on and looked around, finding a cellar bar quite soon, where although the World Cup was on, only about eight blokes were watching and they were eating tapas and chatting, which isn’t what you might expect to find in a Southampton or London pub at a similar moment.
The menu card was entirely (of course) in Czech. I apologised for the hundredth time to the barman and asked if he spoke English. He gave me an English menu and I was delighted on quick surreptitious tally to note that prices were the same for each item. 
The goulash came with a basket of bread, all pepper and beef stock and earthy fire. Magnificent. A large glass of fat local red was a happy accompaniment. Bill: 157 CZK. A fiver to you, princess.
The enormous happy barman was delighted I was so delighted by the goulash and continually shook my hand as I said goodbye. 
Germany beat Portugal 4-0 in an indisputable demonstration of the greater efficacy of a plan of action, solid team work and playing by the rules over a bunch of narcissistic spornosexuals performing solo mating ritual displays with the ball before losing it and falling over crying. 
An embarrassment but entirely just, from what little I took in of the action. The Portuguese at least gave some semblance of trying to score even unto the last, although they could have just carried on doing little dances for each other and lost no worse.
I returned towards my hotel, turning to look back at where I had been before leaving the street. Approaching the cellar bar as I had, from underneath the walls that rose from it, I hadn’t realised it was the substructure of yet another palace.
Brno is astonishing.

Arrival in Brno

After 8 months on my largest project yet, Written in Water: Portrait of a Town (91 audio tracks linked via GPS across an English coastal landscape), I brought last loose ends together last week, including a 30 minute radio version of what you might hear on a hypothetical soundwalk (to be broadcast shortly, more details to follow…) [additional blog post here
So I thought a change of scene was in order, to cleanse the brain, stretch the ears, pace some new streets. A prolonged online faff about destinations and cheap getaways led me to the conclusion that package ‘deals’ are not what they’re cracked up to be and I got 50% off the cheapest city break I could find by booking the hotel and flight independently. 
A memorably insane return from Innsbruck with Nastyjet in October last year (after a wonderful trip to the 1st ESSA conference in Berlin, meeting my newborn niece in Austria and a chance meeting with the finest post-New Orleans jazz band I’ve ever heard, on a train, followed by an equally memorable and insane evening with them at Treibhaus, Innsbruck), had me forswearing budget airlines forever, even if it meant doubling the cost and multiplying the journey duration by an unknown factor.
 I succumbed again though to the budget airline ticket, this time with their Irish counterparts

(although deeply wary of their colourful CEO, a feeling increased by the erudite description of O’Leary’s entrepreneurial persona by my friend Dr Lorraine Warren.

Being an infrequent flyer, my estimate of driving in 2 hrs to Stansted for a 2 hr flight to central Europe for less than the Eurostar to Brussels
overlooked the confusion of airport parking (add an hour)
and the purgatory of labyrinthine queues at security to half undress into a tub, have your deodorant sent back for a 2nd scan then put in a sandwich bag to prevent it being used as a bomb. 

Image: Roger Taylor. Daily Telegraph: "Airport queues longer than flights"


(Really, guys? Have you made aircraft hijacking history with that one?)  (add an hour) 

And the queue by passengers for two different countries at a single gate, (add 30 minutes)…  leading to the memorable announcement on the plane that we were flying not to Billund, Denmark, the home of Lego, but to Brno, Czech Republic.

One rather short man with a round yellow head and cup-like hands confusedly got his luggage and disembarked before we taxied onto the runway.
A wonderful sleep, coiled like a slinky spring into a space for an eight-year old, then staring down through thinning clouds at star-like clusters of red-roofed villages, between irregular polygonal fields and immense woodlands strafed with thick interior lines of bare earth; an apparently thoughtful and selective use of such natural abundance.
The eight huge cooling towers of the Soviet era nuclear power station at Dokovany rise in an impassive stare above the flat greens and browns, the invitingly meandering Jihlava river, the promontories of its steep bends surmounted with angular steep roofed

Image: Luboš Motl

villages.

I learnt this from comparing the view from my seat to a scan of Google Maps, which led to the discovery (not seen from the sky) of another wonder of energy sourcing, the hydroelectric dam at Dalešice.
It is these combinations of conservation and guardianship with high technology that are one of my strongest foreign impressions of the new Czech republic.
 Brno, Czech RepublicI was here (Czechoslovakia as was) aged 18 in a youth orchestra on tour, in summer 1989, about 3 months before the dour misery of endgame Soviet Europe imploded, supplanted with a decade of wildly optimistic, often gallumphing political and economic reforms that changed the country and perhaps most of all Prague forever.
From a place of poverty and intimidation, secrecy, surveillance and suspicion, the new Czech Republic is a place of fantastic artistic, theatrical and musical innovation where tradition and cultural heritage are continually renegotiated, not simply supplanted with transatlantic commercialism. (You saw raincoated men behind newspapers in every hotel lobby – those cliches and the less funny, grotesquely corrupt and abusive police, an all-powerful state machine of censorship and control were everyday realities for a frightened and bullied people.)

My last trip here (well, to Prague) was as a removals man, six years ago, in deep snow. Today it is sunny and hot and the colourful ancient city of Brno awaits.
Although it seems a shame to put my boots back on and leave the air-conditioned cool of my home for the next few days… 
Probably an afternoon in the pool and sauna, a sausage supper and early to bed, although plans may change.
After all, I have come here also to work and some wonderful unexpected ideas arose for a one-woman web-based opera cinecast amid my crazed in-flight dreams.