Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An Arresting Nesting (Or One Big Bird)

I'm a pretty big guy, and that's a pretty big nest.

I think Daisy and I discovered a pterodactyl's nest on a hike the other day.

We live in the small village of Černý Vůl, west of Prague. One of our neighboring villages is called Únětice, which connects to Černý Vůl via a lovely walking/cycling path.

Few outside its own inhabitants have ever heard of Černý Vůl, but some of you out there probably know all about Únětice. I did not know this myself until I moved out here, but Únětice is the name of a historical culture of humans dating to the Bronze Age -- around 2300 to 1600 BC.

Únětice culture is noted for its various metal objects, such as daggers and flat axes and flint arrowheads and bracelets.

Why Únětice? Well, according to the village's own multilingual website, it's attributable to the excavations, in 1879, of more than 50 graves from the late Bronze Age that were found on a barren hill overlooking what is now the village. The work was performed by a local doctor and amateur archaeologist by the name of Čeněk Rýzner.

Somewhere in this landscape is where the Bronze Age graves were discovered. The rocky outcropping that houses the nest can be seen in the upper right.

One notable feature of Únětice culture is that graves, for the first time, were set up in definite rows, just as they are today. The Únětice website notes that "Úněticians were the last people in prehistoric times to bury their dead in the fetal position in a coffin hollowed out from a single piece of wood. Unětice graves are also unusual as they often contain more than one body, these are probably family graves, very rare in prehistoric cultures."

Fascinating stuff. And to think I had once thought that all Únětice had going for it was a cozy little pub with cheap beer and good food.

Anyway, Daisy and I went on a short hike on Sunday, and decided to climb to the top of the hill where the graves were excavated. I'd been up there on my bike before, but hadn't noticed any marker or sign indicating the historic site.

We ended up climbing to the top of the rocky bluff, on a rough, steep path of loose rock and dirt. At the top, we were rewarded with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, and a nest.

A very large nest.

Situated on the outermost section of rock. Constructed of one- to two-meter length sections of straight twigs.

We saw no gargantuan birds flying nearby, and the nest, on closer inspection, revealed not a single feather or eggshells or any other signs of habitation, like droppings.

Was it a joke? A prank pulled by local teens?

I can only say that the nest looked authentic to me, and that it would have taken some serious commitment to the joke to lug all those twigs up there and arrange them into something that could pass as a real nest.

If it was real, what kind of bird would live in such a large nest? A friend says it may have been a stork's nest.

Daisy's father, Paul, an avid bird-watcher, suspects it's a raptor's nest and probably that of a falcon.

"They often nest on rocky outcroppings like the one you climbed," he says, "and don't build much of a nest structure, which also is consistent with your pictures. American kestrels are cavity nesters, so I suspect Eurasian kestrels are, too. It may have been a larger falcon, but I'm not sure whether any are likely to breed where you are. I think the nest may have been abandoned or never completed. With no feathers and droppings, it clearly was never used."

I'm fascinated by this nest, and if anyone has any thoughts about the topic, drop me a line, please.

We never did find any historical markers pointing the way to the excavation site in Únětice. But if you have an afternoon, I recommend a hike in this area. Park near the restaurant Koliba in Roztoky and take the path toward Únětice.

At the very least, check out Únětice's website. It's very cool, and in English, German, Dutch, and Czech.

The view of Únětice from the top of the rocky bluff.

This cemetery in Únětice is one of the most well-tended and colorful I've ever seen. It also proves that Úněticians continue to bury their dead in rows.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Loveliest Of Trees

by A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


One of the things I find charming about Prague is the tradition of regular folks -- usually from the country, it seems to me -- coming into the city to sell things from their gardens, often outside metro stations.

Little bouquets of wild flowers or grape hyacinth, freshly picked and daintily tied and wrapped in leaves of ivy. Bunches of daffodils. Stalks of pussy willows.

I caught up with these two friendly folks outside the metro station at Hradcanska. I bought a bunch of flowers from each to give as a gift.

I don't know their names, or where they're from, but they brightened my day, and I thank them.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Best Red Wine In Prague For $5, Part 2

The wine's not bad, but the label's awful.

I am on a quest to find the best bottle of red wine in Prague for the equivalent of $5 (around 80 CZK) or less.

In my first post on this topic, I singled out the Merlot or the Cabernet Sauvignon from Brise de France, which can be found in Prague shops for anywhere from 70 to 80 CZK per bottle.

As I said in my previous post, "it's a pleasing wine, pouring a dark, deep, rich red. For the price, it's got a nice little bit of spiciness, with hints of black cherry."

On my new Wino-Meter, which takes into consideration taste, color, bouquet (or what I like to call smell) and price, Brise de France gets an 8 out of 10.

Since then, I've drunk a number of wines all costing 80 CZK or less (in one case, much less) and have had a number of reader recommendations. Let's start with the reader tips.

One gusto reader said the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Los Reyes, Cosecha, Chile, sells for under 40 CZK at Norma supermarkets in Prague. At one point, apparently, even selling for 30 CZK. I'd never heard of Norma, but have since discovered it's a German discount chain, which has recently been taken over by a German retail chain, a move that may spell its demise in the Czech Republic. Or has already spelled its demise, since I haven't seen one anywhere.

Can anyone help out with this intriguing mystery? Where the heck is Norma?

Roll Out The Barrels

Another reader wrote to plug the barrel wines available from the wine shops around town, "especially the Chilean Merlot or Argentine Malbec for 55 CZK a liter." There's a wine kiosk in the village of Suchdol, near where I live, and I've enjoyed some drinkable wines from there in the past. I'll have to go back and drink a few more for the purposes of this search.

My only complaint with these wines-by-the-barrel is that the wine is served up in the 1.5-liter plastic bottles usually used for soda, sealed by a plastic top. Their shelf life is thus very limited. Basically, you've got to drink that baby right away (not that that's usually a problem).

'Now That's A Bargain!'

One reader wrote to pass along the "wine tip of the week," saying Tesco is selling the "excellent Rosemount Estate Shiraz for 189.90 CZK -- now that's a bargain!!!" I will definitely have to check that out, but at the equivalent of $12 a bottle, it's way out of the range of this post.

Hollywood & Wine

Speaking of Tesco, however, my good friend Stewart brought over a bottle of California Red Wine from Tesco, which he said cost 54 CZK per bottle, or $3.40.

The label (which sports a drawing of the Hollywood sign) looks pretty crappy, actually. They could have sunk a few more pounds into a more sophisticated design. As for the wine, it's totally drinkable, if forgettable. There's absolutely no finish to it, and it barely makes its presence known to your tongue. It's a decent screw-cap table wine, and for the price a pretty good deal.

On the Wino-Meter, I'm giving it a 6 out of 10.

'Nice, Drinkable' Italian
Another anonymous reader put in a plug for the Merlot 2006 IGT, Cielo family, from Veneto, Italy, selling at Interspar for 67-79 CZK per bottle. "It is nice, drinkable, I think in this category," the anonymous reader said, going on to say: "Czech red wines are terrible if cheaper than 120-150 CZK, especially those you can buy in supermarkets. And they are often only bottled here, but made of low quality grapes from Italy and Hungary anyway. (It is written by very small letters on the rear side of bottle.) Almost only chance to find good and cheap red wine is to visit winemakers and their wine cellars directly, but even in that case they will be offering a lot more of white wines."

The Cielo brand is widely available in Prague, and is definitely a good bargain bet. Again, very drinkable, if unmemorable.

I just finished a bottle of Cielo Cabernet Sauvignon, which I bought for 69 CZK ($4.36). Not bad. The taste was very grape-y, almost like grape-flavored Kool-Aid or something.

I finished the bottle, nonetheless.

The Cielo Cabernet Sauvignon gets a 6 out of 10 on the Wino-Meter.

Crapola de Espana
One bottle I actually couldn't finish was of Sol de Espana from the well-respected vintner United Brands, a Spanish table wine that was for sale at a Vietnamese market I frequent near Hradcanska metro for around 34 CZK ($2.15). It was absolutely undrinkable -- vinegary and just plain awful.

I don't think the bottle was bad. I think the wine is bad. I had a swallow and poured the rest down the drain.

The Sol de Espana came close to breaking the Wino-Meter.

And the quest continues...

As always, please share your recommendations, both good and bad. I promise to do my best to taste them all.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Most Dangerous Road In Prague

The road in question is elevated one to three meters from the surrounding farmer's fields, with no guardrails to prevent cars from plowing through the fields themselves.

I love to drive.

I'm very comfortable behind the wheel. I once drove a BMW 850i 240 kph (150 mph) on the German autobahn outside Munich. I've driven on the dizzying roundabouts of London and the chaotic city streets of Rome, on the dramatic highway that hugs the cliffs of the Amalfi coast, south of Naples, and the similarly spectacular road that twists and turns high above the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic on Croatia's Makarska Riviera.

The point is, I'm not intimidated by challenging drives.

So what I'm about to say I don't say lightly.

The scariest, most dangerous driving I've ever done may just be outside the western Prague suburb of Horoměřice.

The road in question starts in Horoměřice and passes between the villages of Nebušice and Přední Kopanina, before connecting with the highway that heads out to the Prague airport. On the map, this road doesn't really have a name, other than Do Horoměřic and, closer to Horoměřice, Hrdinů. (See map at bottom.) I'd say the whole section of road is about three kilometers or so.

What's so scary about a country road?

For one, it's elevated -- why, I don't know.

Many sections of this twisting, turning highway are raised one or two or even three meters above the farmer's fields it passes through. There's no shoulder to the road, and no guardrails, so you have the edge of the paved surface, and then ... space.

If your tire strays a few centimeters, you're flying through the air into the field.

To make matters worse, there is no center line painted onto the road, and vast stretches of the highway also do not have white lines to help drivers discern the edge of the road.

You can't take your eyes off the road long enough to blink.

And what's pretty scary during the daytime becomes absolutely terrifying at night.

Staring into the beams of oncoming headlights, keeping your car on the road and out of the way of oncoming traffic is a wild guessing game. You have no clue where the side of the road ends and the inky blackness of night begins. You're driving by instinct, and there's no room for error.

And forget about it if it's raining at night. You feel lucky to make it home in one piece.

In the rain, especially at night, keeping your car on the road becomes a guessing game. At least this particular stretch has white lines on the edges of the pavement. Hard to tell from this perspective, but that two-meter drop-off begins just on the other side of the white line.

And with no center line to keep drivers in check, oncoming cars and trucks often stray much too far into the opposite lane.

Of course, people drive much too fast on this road, and many have the temerity to pass slower cars or trucks. Czechs are among the worst, if not the worst, drivers in the world (why the aggression?), which is bad enough if you're encountering them on normal roads. Put them on this stretch of pavement and it's a disaster waiting to happen.

(As if to prove my point, this morning (April 7) -- a particularly foggy, rainy morning -- I passed an accident that had just happened. A car had plowed into the rear of a piece of slow-moving farm machinery.)

I've seen a few accidents on this highway, but not nearly as many as I would think, given the circumstances.

Incredibly, drivers also will encounter cyclists and pedestrians on this winding highway of fear. As a cyclist myself, I'd rather take my chances on the Prague-Brno highway than ride on this road.

View Larger Map

The Prague ring road is going to be built right through this area, and once that happens, this ugly stretch of pavement will likely be abandoned. That can't come soon enough for me.

In the meantime, perhaps the city of Prague or one of the surrounding villages could see fit to allocate a little money to paint some white lines on the pavement, at the very least. A guardrail would be too much to ask.

I simply can't understand why this road is allowed to exist in its current state.

A cyclist rides down the most dangerous road in Prague -- either foolhardy or unaware of what lies ahead.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Look at me, I'm clever and well-read because I have an obscure quote*

"There are but three events in a man's life: birth, life, and death. He is not conscious of being born, he dies in pain, and he forgets to live."
-- Jean de la Bruyère (1645-1696), French essayist and moralist

*all credit to DoubleFister on