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Rural culture in the Czech Republic 

Baroque culture: not for the faint of heart.

Two years ago I impetuously joined a group of Dalhousie University history and theatre students who were travelling to a small Bohemian town in the Czech Republic to study Baroque culture. My desire to go to the Czech Republic had nothing to do with the pursuit of higher education, rather it was flimsily based on a glamorous glimpse of Prague I caught while watching Mission Impossible.

From the Prague airport we hopped onto a chartered bus headed south. My glamorous dream was quickly quashed. Fields were nearly barren with the exception of a few nuclear power plants peppered among the occasional cornfield. Hausfraus wearing babushkas and long frocks poked about the lawns of ramshackle roadside homes. I was beginning to think someone should re-hang the iron curtain.

But my heart melted when I saw the fairy tale beauty of Cesky Krumlov (pronounced CHESS-kee CRUMB-loff)

The whimsical homes and shops are pastel shades with painted-on decadence feigning real bricks and mortar. The cobblestone streets are lined with shops that subsist on the sale of wares such as marionettes and Russian dolls or Red Army paraphernalia. A colourful castle tower looms over the little town's red-tiled roofs. As for the castle’s moat, forget water! Fierce bears gambol about instead. The castle also houses the oldest working Baroque theatre in the world. Once a year, they perform an opera that is historically true to the 17th century, from the costumes to the white-wig sporting harpsichord-led orchestra; from the hand-painted scenes right down to simulated candlelight. My socks were knocked off halfway to Hungary.

I learned quickly that the Czech diet is not for the faint-of-heart as we bravely sampled the wild game restaurant first. A pint of locally-brewed sumptuous Eggenberg beer will set you back a dollar---less than a small bottle of soda water or a Coke. One town over is Cesky Budejovice, the home of the Budweiser brewing process---a far more palatable beer compared to its twisted American cousin. The meat platter will set you back about a year of good pulmonary health and I cannot attest to the amount of badger or weasel you may or may not consume, however, you could just chose to peck away at the sparse corn kernel garnish that makes its appearance on every dish.

A vegetarian in our group ordered a vegetable shish-kabob at a delightful medieval-style pub where one might expect to see Asterix and Obelix merry on mead after a long day of hunting boars. When it arrived to confusion, the waiter explained that it was rather, instead of vegetables, “beef, pork, beef, pork, beef,” the only English he could muster. But if gout and scurvy isn't your cup of tea, we did find the one vegetarian restaurant in Krumlov: Laibon, which whips up a mean Bengali Dhal.

We were there during the Festival of the Five Petalled Rose, which falls near the summer solstice in mid June. The weekend is dedicated to celebrating the town's Austro-Hungarian heritage, akin to a Renaissance fair---just as nifty but with ten times the fire. We saw fire-eaters and snake charmers, sword fighting and a jousting competition, where instead of jousting with each other, they decapitated wooden Turks, the much-loathed enemy. The whole town dresses in period costume as rowdy peasants, haughty aristocrats and royals, some even with enough chutzpa to dress as Turks. The festival is topped-off with an incandescently dangerous fire procession through the streets in the evening, with all the fire twirling and petticoats my heart desired.

Torture is a point of pride in Cesky Krumlov. Their subterranean torture museum is right smack in the town square and was proudly part of the set for Eli Roth's films *Hostel* and *Hostel II* about the bloody business of sadist tourism. Inside, you can climb into an Iron Maiden or cringe by simply looking at the Judas Chair. And nothing says you're having a delightful trip to loved ones back home like a postcard of a caged skeleton or a cheery Heretic's Fork how-to from the torture museum. If that's not enough to get you going, fear not. The traveling Czech circus rolls through town in the summer too, complete with sleepy tigers and leopards and their goading, hopeful handlers.

Mairin Prentiss is freelance writer in Halifax. She may be spotted at Bob Dylan concerts wearing a brand new leopard skin pillbox hat. If you are a Dalhousie student and wish to inquire about the Baroque theatre and history course in Cesky Krumlov contact Dr. Gregory Hanlon, gregory.hanlon@dal.ca. Otherwise, contact Cesky Krumlov's Infocentrum for tourist information at ckrumlov.info

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