Just a few weeks ago it looked like winter was on the run in the Czech Republic - now it is back with a vengeance. It happens that I'm visiting, the snow - covered town of Pelhrimov, a town I've been to before, but never like this. Tires spin hopelessly as an old Skoda car tries to pull onto the road; crowds stand huddled as they wait for a morning bus, and on the town's main square: boots crunch on the snow as locals cross in front of the famous rows of Baroque Burgher's Houses, like so many mysterious figures in something of a Breugal landscape. Pelhrimov in winter is a sight to see.
The temperature drops. Pelhrimov, the south-western gate to the Czech-Moravian Highlands - has been snowed under and for an afternoon it recalls earlier times: when horse hooves sounded on the cobbles, echoing in the shadows at the town's four original gates. To this day two surviving towers mark the town's majestic past - the 16th century Jihlava Gatehouse Tower and the Rynarec Gate, overlooking the historic centre. It is not hard to understand why Pelhrimov was given royal status in 1596. Incidentally, at that point the town had already stood for 307 years. It was founded in 1289.
On the square, the statue of Saint Jacob, the patron saint of pilgrims, stands above his fountain abandoned in an eddy of swirling snowflakes. In the winter light the famous Burghers' Houses stand out, representing all manners of architectural styles: the Renaissance and Baroque are predominant - after fires destroyed many original Gothic facades in 1766, many of the houses were redone with the typical Baroque swirls that remind the viewer of sweet sugary wafers. The impression is reinforced by the buildings' freshly painted facades, soft pastel colours ranging from light pink to white to blue. None, however, are overdone - the tones are just bright and just muted enough. Also visually exciting is House No. 17 featuring Renaissance "envelope" graffiti; the building was designed by Jan Broum of Chomotovice. Finally, yet another building of note on the square is the town's Art Nouveau Hotel Slavie, with its charming restaurant an inviting get-away on a day like today. All in all a very pretty view, one that local representatives have worked hard to restore, says Pelhrimov Deputy Mayor Ludek Brezina.
"In Pelhrimov we really do pay attention to detail. For the historic town to be best preserved we have a commission that oversees heritage sites, as well as cultural sites, technical facilities and crews that take care to keep everything tip top as well as donation funds. When you consider the appearance of the almost completely restored main square you see how much has been done."
Pelhrimov is of course also a city of many chapels and churches, some on the historic centre's periphery, some a little bit away, like the avenue to the Calvary Church, perched dramatically on the hillside under even taller trees. The oldest and former parish church is Saint Vitus', built in the mid 13 century. But, for me the most beautiful church in the town is the Dean's Church of St Bartholomew -one of the most dominant structures just off the main square. It too features restored Renaissance graffiti as well as images of Christ from the Stations of the Cross. Inside a famous altar by sculptor Frantisek Bilek has just about been restored.
After visiting St Bartholomew's you may want to step into the nearby Dean's Garden, which features a small building that was once used by Monseignor Frantisek Bernard Vanek, a patriotic priest who died in Dachau in 1944. The truly peaceful garden in white this day - and amazingly in the distance there is a set of small animal cages, where, inside, sheltered from the storm parrots and budgies sit waiting for the spring and a reconstructed and permanent mini-zoo. In the last cage apart I am astounded when I peer through a gap in the thick sheltering plastic to see a racoon's den. A single racoon stares at me from a little abode where he lies hidden in the hay. I look back at the town, where the white spires rise up.
Pelhrimov is of course an historic town as we have described but it is also more. Even the town's modern sections are tastefully designed, featuring elegant row houses and even some attractive pre-fab apartment buildings on the outskirts one rarely sees in the Czech Republic. In the spring and summer months there are also many cultural events on offer, from annual concerts including a Fireman's Ball on the square with polka music and fireman competitions, to travelling performances at the majestic local theatre. There is a general atmosphere of playfulness and innovation.
Which is perhaps one of the reasons why one of the most successful venues in Pelhrimov continues to be the local Museum of Records and Curiosities, founded in the famous tradition of the Guinness Book. The museum itself is located on the five floors of the Jihlava Tower and it was there that I awaited one of the museum founders Miroslav Marek as the snow continued to fall. He was kind enough to show me around, explaining what had inspired him to found the museum in the first place. It turned out the former cultural activities school councillor was a record-holder himself.
"It was the first world record ever set in Pelhrimov, back in 1990. Twelve of us got together to form what is a called a 'Russian Wheel' where you join hands and don't let go. You do a summersault motion and by holding on to each other all of you move like a tank tread or a chain. We travelled this way from the highest hill in the region, Kremesnik, all the way to Pelhrimov's main square. The whole tour lasted 8 hours and fifteen minutes and we covered a distance of 12 kilometres. We did a total of 10, 680 somersaults and by the end of the trip each of us had lost 5 kilos. That record is in the Czech version of the Guinness Book of World Records and still stands today. The event was the impulse for going on to found our museum here in Jihlava Tower."
Because we were there off hours the inside of the tower is cold. Still, that didn't stop Mr Marek from commenting some of the most curious displays.
"Among our exhibits we have the biggest lollipop in the Czech Republic, weighing 12 kilos. Or a motorcycle just 28 centimetres tall that goes 50 kilometres an hour. It's owner can ride it and when he does he looks like a man moving through the countryside while seated on air. Then we have a fully-functional bicycle made entirely from wood - even the chain. Or we have the tiniest jug to ever come off a potter's wheel. It's just 2 and half millimetres high. We like to say it has a volume of one third of a drop."
Whether pulling a truck with one's bare hands, or building the world's biggest spoon: it's a drive like any other says Miroslav Marek - that secret drive that inspires us to try and be better at something than anybody else. To create something that doesn't necessarily take itself too seriously but is nonetheless unique.
Pelhrimov - Gate to the Czech-Moravian Highlands. It's almost time to
depart on a packed bus for Prague. As the snow continues to fall and I
board and we began to drive away I contemplate a summer return: in my
mind's eye I see a mountain bike and travelling through the area's many
hilly and deeply forested areas, with many ponds for swimming and
tree-lined roads. Vysocina - the High Lands - in the summer we'll be back.
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