Myths, Wine, Hiking and Dramatic Industrial Wastelands: Why the Czech Republic’s East Beats Prague’s Tourist Crowds

Brno centre | © James Hendicott

THERE’S A LONG-standing joke in the Czech Republic’s second city Brno. “We know wine,” they say. “We keep the best wine for ourselves. The mediocre stuff we sell to tourists, and the really bad stuff we send to Prague.”

It’s fair to say the Czech Republic’s two main cities have quite a rivalry. A few years ago, Brno’s mayor spent a small fortune on building a modern-version of Prague’s spectacular clock in the city’s main square. It’s a phallic, towering, slowly-twisting statue that almost nobody can use to tell the time, and once a day it omits a strange glass marble, because… nobody seems to be quite sure. It’s odd, largely because the city doesn’t need to compete.

If Bohemian Prague is home to the dark history and literary pretensions, laid back Brno has a fast-growing collection of its own unique lures. A once impenetrable walled city, it’s main attractions are in a compact hub, a spot that’s become pleasantly alternative in the way it presents itself.

Trams chug through the pretty, classical streets. Local bars consist of shacks selling hefty glasses from Moravian vineyards, served in the open air around bubbling fountains. Cocktail bars like the magical ‘Bar That Does Not Exist’ (Ktery Neexistuje in the local lingo) have a menu of thousands of fiery, fruity concoctions made from a mind-boggling selection of boozy bottles.

In fact, the general off-the-wall vibe to Brno is probably its main allure. An architect, for example, once got irritated by negotiations over compensation for his construction of the soaring Church of St James, and so adorned a window ledge with a fornicating, nude-bummed symbol who still rests there today.

Then there’s the Brno dragon, adorning a tunnel in the city hall, said once to have plagued the city (his modern incarnation looks suspiciously like an alligator). St James’ church relatively recently discovered ossuary is a creepy, claustrophobic series of underground tunnels home to wall-to-wall heaps of skulls and bones, while bunker 10-Z – a former secret Soviet underground bunker close the city’s heart – might have jokingly plastered pictures of atom bombs on its walls today, but the other relics remind us of its deadly serious practical applications.

While Brno tends to align itself culturally with Vienna (another snub to capital Prague, we suspect), Ostrava, near the Polish border, is a totally different a more rugged beast.

Quick Travel Lowdown: Reykjavik (and surrounds)

I spent a weekend in Iceland recently, something I’d had pinned near the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Here’s what I made of it:

The city

The second largest ‘city’ in Iceland apparently has a population of less than 20,000, so to say everything is run from Reykjavik is one massive understatement. It’s an interesting place, quite sparse even in the centre, and seemingly based largely around small, localised businesses and an engaging social scene.

The whole thing’s towered over by the angular Hallgrimskirkja, which sits at the top of the hill in the city centre, while the main streets are lively and artsy, with lots of murals and a lodge-like architecture to the place (aside from Harpa, on the harbour, which is a stunning modern venue).

There’s a house down by the harbour that’s supposed to be located where the city was originally settled, and while the place is inundated with tourists, it does seem to keep largely local leaning in its outlook (if you can ignore the restaurants advertising puffin and whale meals, and a couple of overpriced souvenir shops, at least).

I was particularly taken with spots like the harbour-side Flea Market and the little city square (which I’d previously seen in pictures of Iceland celebrating their Euro 2016 win over England last summer), as well as the record stores and abundant coffee shops.

I can imagine it being the kind of place that’s quite intimate, in the sense that the population naturally limits what’s on offer, but given the Icelandic music scene is centred here and (in my opinion, at least), rivals that of places far, far bigger, I can imagine a longer stay being a lot of fun. That and the possibility of running into Bjork on a night out.

One last shot of Iceland. A truly awesome weekend

A post shared by James Hendicott (@jameshendicott) on

The tours

I played the proper tourist for a few days, though having my own ‘local guide’ certainly helped to see a few things that I might not otherwise have spotted (a few worth mentioning: the flea market, student bars, some of the street art and a really cool record shop called 12 Tonar).

Saving for Sangram

IMG_2705The picture to the right shows Sangram Lama, a Nepalese hiking guide I met back in 2009, when I visited Nepal and hiked the Langtang Valley National Park in the Himalayas. He was an excellent and honest guide, who I hired independently on the streets of Kathmandu, and hiked alongside in challenging terrain for a week, during which he was never less than fun, knowledgeable and encouraging.

Part of the reason I hired Sangram as an independent was that new legislation was in the pipeline in Nepal. Shortly after I left, independent guiding was outlawed in Nepal. Instead, licensed companies would have the sole rights to guide tourists through the mountains. In theory, this was a sensible measure to cut out the use of rogue ‘experts’ in dangerous conditions. The practical reality was it made life extremely difficult for people like Sangram (who insisted I kitted myself out extensively before taking me off to the hills, and knew the route we took impeccably).

If you’ve had even one eye on the news over the last few months, you’ll know that things haven’t exactly been going smoothly in Nepal. A series of earthquakes and aftershocks hit the country, and the area where I trekked, Langtang, was hit incredibly badly. If you can stomach the extent of the problems, there are some shocking news stories on what happened, here, here and here.

Here are a few pictures from my own trip to Langtang, showing how gorgeous the place used to be. Some estimates put deaths in the area at in excess of 80% of the population. None of the buildings pictured here exist anymore.

Fortunately, Sangram was in Kathmandu at the time looking for a new client, and his family at their home village to the East of Nepal (I’ve published Sangram’s story here, in my words and his own, if you’d like to know more extensive details of what actually happened to him during and after the quake). I’m now trying to raise money to help Sangram rebuild his house. He had a stable and seriously hardworking job taken from him by the collapse of the tourism industry. 300 people – fortunately excluding any of this closest friends or family – died in just his village during the quakes and the aftershocks. His house was cracked beyond repair, and his family – Sangram, his wife and two children – are now living in a tented shelter. His contacts from his time as a guide – a job that will become viable again only as tourists return – are all he has to get by.

I’ll edit this post over the coming weeks, to show money being sent and, where possible, how Sangram is using it. I have already sent Sangram as much as I can afford to right now, and quite a few people have kindly donated some extra funds through a post on my Facebook wall, too.

I don’t want to put anyone under any pressure, but equally, one or two Euros is worth a lot more in Nepal than it is in the western world, so sending absolutely anything at all is useful. I’m running the transfers through my own account, for the simple reason that it costs €15 per time to send a transfer to Nepal from AIB (if anyone wants to donate but would prefer to absorb that cost themselves, let me know and I’ll send details). I will put up copies of transfer documents and identify donors by initials at a later date, as I’m well aware that asking for money on the internet can look dodgy. Every penny will go to Sangram and his family.

Please donate via Paypal to, and add a note if you’d prefer that your donation is totally anonymous, rather than acknowledged on this page with your initials (I will include the amount under ‘anon’)

UPDATE (26/07/2015)

Thankyou for the following donations – due to the transfer fee, I will be waiting a couple of weeks and promoting Sangram’s cause a little more before sending one bulk payment. Names shown as initials to protect anonymity, but allow those who have donated to identify themselves. I will post a transfer document as and when.

AG – €5

PC – £50

MD – $25

SB – £10

ML – $15

Thanks for any help you can give!


#100HappyDays: 41-60

I’ve quite enjoyed this photo diary thing so far. As you’ll see straight off, I’m not much of a photographer (especially when taking photos with a baby in my other arm on a mobile phone), but it’s motivational and a nice little document of everything that’s going on (which, admittedly, is a lot some days and almost nothing others). This one has a few media moments and a lot of little man – and yes, there are two day 41s, but these things happen! (the first block is here and the second here).

Reflecting Shakespeare: How romance lives on in fair Verona

“Giulietta, Guilietta I’m here” holler passing groups of tourists, eyeing the balcony of Casa di Giulietta, Juliet’s House, from the marble streets of Verona’s Via Cappello early on a Saturday evening. Some stop outside, pasting tiny, heart-covered notes to a fictitious lover with chewing gum to the surrounding walls. During the day, others scribble messages across the tunnel leading to Juliet’s courtyard, emotions unveiled in rough-hewn graffiti that’s torn down every few months to present a blank canvas, and provide the most hardened of souvenir hunters with a small clump of the legend to take home.

Verona seems besotted by the ancient local fable immortalized in Shakespeare’s classic. The city also hosts Giulietta’s tomb (empty), her clothing (generic outfits of the period), Romeo’s house and the popular ‘Club di Giulietta’, whose activities include ‘delivering’ letters to the mythical teenager. There’s a daft element to it, but the lovelorn indulgence rubs off. In the central Piazza delle Erbe endless streams of couples drift hand in hand below towering statues and ivy-draped balconies. The cafes spill out across squares, their espresso and cherry-tinged Valpolicella – wine grown and blended in vineyards surrounding the city – adding to the wafts of bakeries, parmesan and chocolate that flavour the streets.

It’s not Verona’s sights that charm the most, but its atmosphere. Having visited the moderately impressive Roman Arena, explored the fading frescos of the dozens of Romansque churches and climbed the 368 steps to listen to the bells clang and examine fragile rooftops from Lamberti Tower, a pianist stops us in our tracks. He takes his place in a quiet corner, surrounds himself with cushioned hearts and closes his eyes, playing Beethoven from memory while an enraptured crowd gathers around him. A touching moment, in a city seemingly built for lovers it’s not a once-off.

Later, we duck into the tiny alleyways and fairy tale courtyards. These reclusive areas offer quiet contemplation next to the sensual buzz of a city that, in parts, seems to decay elegantly around us. On buildings that cling to their glory regardless, the flaking and fading are hard to miss, but match the unchanged aesthetic of a city that stubbornly refuses to blight its image with mismatched modernity. Around an unpromising corner, we stumble upon Ristorante Greppia, where we turn down the fried calf’s brain in favour of delicately flavoured pastas then horse meat, air-dried and served in tiny strands specked with parmesan.

Grouplove: Shiny Happy People

Good fortune and spontaneity seem necessary parts of the back-story of so many of music’s classic acts. If Lennon’s shambolic skiffle group hadn’t bumped heads with a 15-year-old Paul McCartney in late 50s Liverpool, for example, and Brian Epstein hadn’t later rather haphazardly chosen The Beatles as his play thing, modern music might have gone down an entirely different path. You can apply to many facets of life: sheer good fortune is simply a necessary part of almost any burgeoning tale. Of all the unlikely backstories, though, GROUPLOVE’s chance encounter sits alongside Girls tales of controlling cults and musical escapism as one of the most serendipitous in modern music; not so much ‘Sliding Doors’ as a random encounter of the monkeys/ typewriters kind.

It all started when prolific singer-songwriter Christian Zucconi and abstract painter Hannah Hooper met after a performance from Christian’s former band ‘Pagoda’ in New York. Hannah tells us “We pretty much fell in love at first sight. On the very next day after we met, I was invited to go to Greece for a painting residency, and I just thought, this guy Christian is too special, I’m going to ask if he can come with me. Luckily he agreed.”  The residency turned out to be a total shambles (“they told us to squat in a corner, there was one cold water shower and Sean had to sleep next to a dead cat” – Christian), but they befriended Ryan, (the son of Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin) who stumbled in from an exchange program in Prague to meet his best friend Andrew, and Sean, another musical minded resident. Christian and Hannah’s impulsive love story led to a happy summer with their new friends “We were spending hours riding around on scooters”, Hannah explains, “sitting on our own secret ivy-covered beach and writing music. It was very much a friendship thing, I started off drawing everyone and we slowly started humming and finally singing together. It was a very special experience.”

Ryan describes takes up the story: “It was a lot like a summer camp, basically, but with no running water, and a lot more rustic. We performed at the camp’s music festival before we left, but more as a group of friends than a band. It felt like Hannah arrived as an artist. She’s still an artist, but she also left as a musician.” Things had clearly clicked, but nevertheless, what would become GROUPLOVE headed their separate ways. That looked very much like the end, until a year later an LA reunion eventually led to a successful debut EP. “We wrote the EP on a reunion visit to Ryan’s in LA”, Christian explains. “Soon afterwards, Hannah and I sold everything we owned and moved out from New York.” The rest, as they say, is history. The way things have been going on the European festival circuit this summer, it’s threatening to be music history of quite some note.

24 square feet of nothingness

The heart doesn’t thump. It’s more like pum-POOM, falling at intervals of just over a second, and accompanied by the barely audible pressure of blood forcing its way into a ventricle. In here, it seems to beat at the volume of human speech, though it’s dramatically overpowered by the slight creek of a gentle raise of the arm in the darkness. My surroundings are such an empty nothingness that I can only tell for certain whether my eyes are open or closed by poking at the eyeball. Occasionally, without warning, an anatomical extremity collides with the invisible walls surrounding my half-naked body. It’s the gentlest of collisions, but its unpredictability sends a tsunami of shockwaves through the darkness, bouncing my floating body back into a seemingly static yet endlessly unstable state of suspension.

About 45 minutes pass, and I turn on the light switch. I’m floating in a salty bath in the blindingly dark confines of what’s essentially a blacked out, nicely heated paddling pool. It’s intimidating at first, yet the kind of blackness that descends when the lights flicker out – fused with the deathly silence aided by ear plugs and the gentle two-tone beat of the heart – quickly evaporates any concept of time. Soon afterwards, the head begins to swirl with entirely un-stimulated randomness, spinning between complete consciousness and a day-dream state. After five minutes, virtual to-do lists and ‘thinking time’ are exhausted and overwhelmed. Sheer serenity, empty space and stress relief kick in: I’m floating in a carbon fibre tub in a central Dublin basement, but I could be anywhere, or equally, nowhere.

The Mongol Rally

How two Northern Irish lads tackled three continents and over 11,000 miles in a clapped-out Citroen Berlingo.

Sponsorship. Route planning. Team bonding and fundraising events; van-cramming and graffiti-acquiring. Even the work that goes into preparing for Mongol Rally – a death-defying charity odyssey from the UK to Mongolia – is a mammoth undertaking. Buying up a scrap-heap-ready Citroen Berlingo, which the spirit of the rally dictates should be scrawled all over (read: covered in sticky-taped Tayto packets and welded shopping trolleys) was the first part. Next, Dirty Sanchez star Mike Locke (aka Pancho) was persuaded to aid in the fundraising and promotional efforts by allowing donors to staple notes directly his equally scrap-heap-ready body. This, though, was only the start of a journey that was to take to Belfast lads around almost half the globe.

The aim of the Mongol Rally, ostensibly, is to deliver used cars for auction in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and raise a lot of cash for charity along the way. However, Norn Iron duo Steve Neill and Barry Keenan (and, for a large portion of the journey, Steve’s wife Sarah), tagged on a few of their own personal aims. They live by the motto “For lust of knowing what should not be known”, a quote, appropriately, from early 20th century poet James Elroy Flecker’s ‘The Golden Journey To Samarkand’, and was determined to unveil a ludicrous number of oddities along the way. Aside from seeing far-flung corners of the globe, the team that would be come known as Team Charolastra (space cowboy in Spanish) also intended to cram their sizable van with helpful charitable donations, ingratiate themselves with the local police by handing out gifts of t-shirts from one of their main sponsors Tayto and generally get by on a wing and a prayer.