Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sorbians in Bautzen - Then and Now

Having recently had the golden opportunity to be shown around the local Sorbian Grammar School and sit in a couple of lessons (not a word of which I understood), I thought it would be interesting to post about the unique and little-known Sorbian culture in this corner of the world.

Okay, so here is a little background info:

Once upon a time, over a thousand years past, a Slavic people settled in a faraway land known as Lusatia, an enchanted place that lies in the east of what is now called Germany. Legend had it that these folk had originated from somewhere north of the Sea of Blackness over 2,000 years before, but all we know for sure is that these people spoke a magical language. At first you might mistake it for Czech, or Polish, maybe even Russian, but alas - you'd be wrong. Very wrong. This magical tongue was in fact called Sorbian. 

These Sorbs lived happily and harmoniously in their land. And life was good. "How happy we are", said they (in Sorbian of course) as they grazed their cattle and gathered their wheat. But this idyll was not to last forever....

About three hundred years later, in the 9th and 10th centuries, their lives were destined to change forever; the Germanic peoples crept further and further east until one fateful day these two cultures were to clash, never again to be set asunder. Was there bloodshed, you ask? Oh yes, much. And who was defeated, I hear you ask again? The Sorbians, I reply sadly. In 932 they were defeated by the Duke of Saxony. Subjugation and assimilation followed, leading to the decline of their culture and this magical Sorbian tongue. Alas, today all that remains of this once great people is a mere 60,000 individuals and a language on the brink of extinction.

Bautzen town was actually founded by these Slavs in 1002 and is the Sorbian centre, with most here speaking Upper Sorbian (as opposed to Lower Sorbian, which is spoken mainly in Lower Lusatia). With these people having been oppressed and discriminated against historically, they have become a village folk culture and have over the years gone from being monoglots to a bilingual people. Forced 'Germanisation' during the Third Reich unfortunately led to a decline in the already small number of Sorbs with Sorbian as their mother-tongue; speaking the language was banned in 1937, meaning it could not be passed on to the younger generation. This law was overturned of course, but not until a few years later, by which time there were already many small Sorbian children whose only language was German.

Sorbians luckily had the support of the GDR on their side and after 1949 their right to maintain their native language and culture was legally recognised, and even heavily financially subsidised, and so they have not disappeared completely.

Bautzen now reflects its bi-cultural heritage, with bilingual signs (one example pictured above), a museum dedicated to the history of the Sorbs, Sorbian schools, and even a German-Sorbian Folk Theatre (which is Germany's only bilingual theatre).

Sorbian traditions are also kept alive here- I mentioned in a previous post that I attended a 'Vogelhochzeit' (Bird Wedding) show at the Folk Theatre. The 'Vogelhochzeit' is an old folk tradition that celebrates the end of winter: the night before Jan 25th, a dish of crumbs is left outside for the birds and overnight the 'birds' fill the dish with gifts for the children as a 'thankyou' for having kept them fed all winter. The next day is then filled with children performing and singing whilst dressed up as bride and groom 'birds'. It's a very sweet tradition.

I am also looking forward to the upcoming traditional Easter Sunday 'Procession of the Easter Riders', in which Sorbian men dress up in their traditional gear and sing whilst riding through the towns and villages on horseback. I am led to believe the Bautzen procession is quite large.
What a spectacle!

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Two weeks in after the holidays and I've spent about 50% of my time adorned in sunnies and t-shirts and the other 50% dressed as though I'm embarking on a trip to the North Pole. However, despite the yo-yo weather and the stressful mornings that go with it (not wanting to spend the upcoming 12 hours either sweating like a pig or risking meeting a cold and miserable end), it's been one of the best fortnights so far.

The first week was spent planning my weekend in the South-West of France, where I attended my grandmother's surprise 80th birthday party. As a punishment for being tucked away in some unknown place in the depths of Germany, it took me a while to get over the shock of how long and expensive the journey was going to be. I think I have been spoilt by the plethora of regular and cheap flights it is possible to get from London at any one time - I'm learning the hard way that travel isn't always so simple.

A couple of long journeys, a party, and a bit of sunburn later it was back to Germany to plan my upcoming trip to Prague.
Tip numero uno: when travelling, don't discount coaches! I was forced into a corner and booked one out of sheer desperation when I saw the price of the trains (ok, ok, I left it quite late in the day to book my travel), but it was the best decision I could have made. Comfy seats, hot drinks, and Zac Efron films on demand - I was in heaven.
And tip numero dos: if money is an issue, save it for doing the nice things Prague has to offer and skimp on hostels. When we booked our stay there were so many places for under £10 a night that there's really no reason to spend more. The hostel was pretty basic but clean and provided us with somewhere to sleep - the only issue I had was with the breakfast (or lack thereof), but what can you expect for £5 a night, right?

Going out on the first night we could see why it's such a popular place- the atmosphere was alive and infectious and I even made friends with a big, cuddly shark wandering the streets before we were recommended this absolute gem of a cocktail bar in the main square of the city. 'Black Angels' was the kind of place I would expect to be paying upwards of £10 per cocktail in London, but Prague being Prague we had personalised cocktails, friendly bar-staff, and a damn good night with change from a ten pound note (not that we paid in pounds, but if we had, we would have done).

The next day we umbrella-less souls braved the lashing rain to do a 4-hour tour of the city. Having no prior knowledge of the Czech Republic in the slightest, everything was fascinating to me. I discovered that:

1) Czechs are the biggest beer guzzlers in the world (even bigger than Germany).
2) There is a beautiful clock in the Old Town Square, which has chimed on the hour for about 600 years and      along with the chime comes a dancing chorus of figurines (think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-              esque).
3) The Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in the world - the reason why so many churches
     have had to be given new uses, such as restaurants, theatres, and even strip clubs!
4) There is a part of the Jewish Quarter that Hitler never wanted destroyed as he had plans to open a
     'Museum of an Extinct Race' - if you didn't think he was psychotic enough!
5) Music by a Czech composer was the first music on the moon.

After a day of learning, we then thought it was important to experience the nightlife of the city and decided to take part in an organised bar crawl. I'd highly recommend it - doing it this way, we paid 500 Koruna (about £15) and got taken to 3 different bars and then a 5 storey club, with lots of drinks included in the price. Aside from the drink per buck advantage, doing it this way instead of on our own meant we met lots of people of a similar age and doing a similar kind of thing. Oh, and we got a t-shirt of course.

The last day we went to Prague Castle (the biggest in the world) and climbed the Old Town Hall, giving us a panoramic view of the city.

The city is a place I would highly recommend to anyone, and if you do decide to go, bear these things in mind:

1) It's a reasonably cheap city, so don't worry too much if you're not rolling in it.
2) Definitely try the Goulash, which you can find EVERYWHERE (unless you are a vegetarian or don't like       beef) - it's a heavenly experience, almost like angels are dancing in your mouth!
3) If you are travelling around Europe and can't be bothered to change up money, don't worry. Everywhere
     seems to accept Euros.
4) If you ARE changing up money, ask the people running the place you are staying or a tour guide to
    recommend a place - Prague seems to have more money exchange places than people, but we were
    warned that an awful lot of them charge extortionate commission and fees - and so it's best to go
    somewhere that's been recommended.
5) Don't ever change money with someone who comes up to you in the street - apparently a surprising
    amount of tourists do this, and it's never good news.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Mountainous Adventures

Well, where to begin! These past few weeks I've packed in an awful lot, managing to see some different parts of Germany and try my hand at skiing, and also going home to England for a couple of weeks whilst school broke up.

A little less than a month ago, I paid a visit to Meissen, not far from Dresden. The timing my friends and I decided on was a little off (we went on a Sunday, forgetting that around here that means shops are closed) and so it did seem like a bit of a ghost town, but we were able to appreciate its beauty nonetheless. This was the breath-taking view we were greeted with as the train pulled into the station (sadly the weather left a lot to be desired):

Its claim to fame is its porcelain (you might have heard of Meissen porcelain) and so its main tourist attraction is the factory where these world-famous, hand-made, very expensive products are produced. Fortunately for us, this was open, and so we paid our entrance fee and did the tour.The tour was short and sweet - it only took about 30 minutes, if that, but we were shown the journey the porcelain art makes from concept to fully-finished product. We watched highly-skilled men and women create the delicate pieces on their pottery wheels and with their own hands, and then decorate and paint them. In true German style the tour was thorough and alongside the full lowdown on how the porcelain is made, we also got a very interesting history of it and the factory itself. English headsets were provided, which is good news for tourists. It's definitely worth a visit if you are in the area (and is very well signposted so you can't miss it), but maybe to be avoided if you have young children as they will be bored, or possibly even knock over a 30,000 euro bowl (and there are plenty of those there, believe me - my stress levels were high as a kite as I made my way through the displays). The displays were very impressive, but as there was so much and only so much porcelain I can stand to see in one day, I didn't see everything, but got the idea. It made me feel very poor too.

This was gorgeous - and even better in the flesh. The little logo at the bottom is the 'Meissen Porcelain' logo that features on every piece made.

The weekend after this, I ventured a little further; travelling to the deepest southernmost part of Germany; an impressive-looking, mountainous region called Garmisch-Partenkirchen, right next to the Austrian border. After the 6-hour journey, checking into the hostel, collecting all my ski-gear, and then meeting the group of people I'd be spending the weekend with, I was glad to get into bed, ready for the early start the next morning. Getting up early both days was definitely a good idea as I was only there for two days and so wanted to get the most skiing time out of my ski-pass.

A shaky start was had. I spent the first morning almost crying with frustration as I couldn't work out how to control my skis and so spent 90% of the time lying in the snow. And getting up whilst you're wearing skis is nigh on impossible! And so I had to take them off every. single. time (which was most of the time actually). However, it was soon worked out that we had started on a red slope (which is one below a black - the most advanced type of ski slope you can get) and so after a little rest and recuperation we beginners downgraded ourselves to the much easier and more enjoyable baby slope, which was one below green, the easiest.

I did, however, after a while, feel the need to stretch myself and thought I did not want to leave Garmisch without at least mastering the green slope. So up I went. All was going well until I lost control of my skis whilst waiting in the queue at the top and went straight into a group of little four-year-olds on a skiing lesson. One of the children and I ended up on our backs in the snow with our skis so intertwined we couldn't separate them - the ski instructor had to come and do that. But after that mishap I was able to spend the rest of the day going (very slowly) down the slope without hurting anyone. Below is a skiing me.

Went back to the hostel that night reasonably pleased with myself - I had managed to master a least a modicum of control as far as the skis were concerned. But I was bothered that I hadn't plucked up the courage to go very fast. So the next day I decided to set myself free. Got to the top of the green slope and this time, instead of angling my skis so I went down more slowly than a snail, I just let myself go. And it was exhilarating. I even managed to turn a few times in order to avoid people. Pumped full of courage I did it again, but this time was not so lucky. As I was flying down the slope I saw a line of children appear in front of me, walking across the slope following their ski instructor. Scared I was going to go into them, I turned my skis, but not far enough - I (luckily) managed to miss the kids but skied at great speed into their instructor, went up into the air and came down with a thud (which made me feel very glad I was wearing a helmet, although I still had a slight headache for the rest of the day), as did he. Needless to say, after that I was a little more conservative with my speed, but I'm glad I managed to go fast at least once!

We also found time that day to hop on the train and go to the top of Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. As it was such a grey, snowy day that day, we didn't see much once we got there, but we made sure the moment was immortalised:

And then, after this fun-filled day I had to make my way to Munich airport to catch my flight home. Touched down in Gatwick very late at night and once I arrived home crawled into my nice, warm bed.