Czech traditions: April 30

Today’s post will divert from the recent reviews and trip tips and go into the Czech culture a little bit. April 30th and May 1st are traditionally significant dates here in the Czech Republic…and you’re about to find out why.

So, what’s the deal with April 30th? Well, it is the night of the burning of the witches., one of the oldest Czech traditions. The closest thing you can equate it to in the English speaking world is Halloween, I guess (even though we also have a version of Halloween in the fall, go figure). But take away the kids in cute Disney masks and add witches being burned at the stake. Quite literally, although not to worry – the witches are made of hay and twigs.

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This night is an old pagan holiday that became ingrained into the Czech lifestyle. It’s the celebration of the beginning of spring (Maypoles sometimes make an appearance). The night between April 30th and May 1st has always been considered to be magical and there are many myths about it. People believed that on this night, witches would fly on their broomsticks to gather and perform rituals. And so to protect against these witches (ghosts and demons also), people would set fires on hills. Eventually, people added “witches” – the aforementioned puppets or broomsticks – on top of the fires to see the witches burn. During this night, people also took precautions to protect themselves, their fields and their cattle with special twigs and holy chalk.

Nowadays, the spiritual reasons for the holiday have long been (mostly) forgotten, save scary stories by the fire, but the tradition remains. While we no longer carry around holy items for protection, we still gather and make bonfires and “burn witches.”

IMG_8928After being gone on this day for quite a few years in a row, Pav and I decided to rediscover the holiday this year and go see a bonfire in a small Czech town. We arrived after the fire had been started (although we did see preparations earlier in the day) and watched. First of all, there were a lot more people than we anticipated. Second, it’s interesting how this night has evolved into something more resembling a music festival, rather than a pagan holiday. There were stands with beer and food, even a small stage with a folk band. It was a great gathering – what seemed like the entire town was there: little kids running around in witch costumes and with broomsticks, their parents drinking beer, teenagers pretending to be too cool to take part, yet sitting on the sidelines and the ever vigilant local firemen, watching to make sure nothing happens. Yet there were still aspects of the holiday that remained intact. And that’s what matters.

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If you watch Gilmore Girls, this event would be right out of the Stars Hollow book and I believe even Taylor would approve. So what do you think? Would you want to come and witness this?


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Himeji

My trip to Himeji was another one of my half-day trips, but this time I rode on the train for the first time! Luckily, JR (Japanese Rail) has signs in English, making the whole journey slightly easier. Google was still needed, but we managed!DSC_4308

When we got to Himeji, we took a cab from the train station to the castle. It is definitely walking distance from the station, but since we wanted to make sure we saw everything, we thought the cab would be faster.

View from Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is beautiful and huge. Very impressive, especially since it was built in the 14th century. Just be aware of the fact that when you are walking through, there are a lot of very narrow stairs. You also need to take your shoes off, so my little tip for you is: wear pretty socks 😉 At the entrance into the castle, you get a plastic bag for you to carry your shoes in and slippers . And then the climbing begins. The combination of the narrow stairs, low ceilings, and the one size fits all slippers can be deadly, so just watch out when you are there! Five flights of stairs later, you are at the top, rewarded with a view of the city. The only thing that was, in my opinion, was missing from the castle is at least one furnished room. Being from a completely different culture, I cannot imagine what the castle looked like when it was furnished and decorated, so I wish I could see that. But other than that, it’s definitely a need-to-see landmark.

If you go to Himeji castle, definitely buy the combo tickets to go to the Koko-en gardens next to the castle. Those gardens with ponds and waterfalls are truly magical, even before spring really started.  Also, there is a tea room, where you can experience a real tea ceremony. I recommend you try it out, you get the matcha tea and a Japanese sweets made from soy beans. You get a little cheat sheet for the ceremony, so you know what to do. This is important since you have to bow at the beginning, eat the sweet, pick up the tea, turn the cup, drink, turn the cup back and then set it down. At the end, you have to bow again. It was a great experience.

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When we finally found our way out of the intricate gardens, it was time for lunch. At this point we had to test out how helpful Japanese people are, because we found a restaurant online, but couldn’t find it in the real world. We found out that Japanese people are very willing to help you out, even if they don’t speak the same language. Thank god for google translate, because through it, a woman pointed us in a direction of several restaurants.

 

ShinkansenAfter lunch, we headed back to Kobe. To make the trip back more special, we took the Shinkanzen, or the bullet train. So, instead of spending almost an hour on a train, we spent 12 minutes. It is a nice train, probably very comfortable for longer rides, something that I will definitely have to try out at one point!

Himeji is a place you should visit, if you are in the Kansai region. The castle and the gardens are beautiful. You could also just walk through the city for hours, discovering new things.


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