It wasn’t a promising beginning. The schedule looked punishing:
- 09:00 leave hotel for tour of castle
- 10:00 arrive Vitkov to tour school
- 12:30 reception at Town Hall
- 13:45 lunch
- 15:00 art exhibition
- 16:30 concert
- 18:15 dinner
- 21:00 arrive back at hotel
With no obvious ‘free’ time within that schedule. So we were all a bit low this morning. Even the breakfast (which was indeed much better than our previous breakfasts) couldn’t entirely dispel the gloom.
And the tour of the castle was very, very long; and we weren’t allowed to sit on the seats; and everything the guide said had to be translated for us; and it was mostly about a German family who had moved here and then rebuilt the castle whenever a new fashion came in. I should just say, incidentally, that when I first stood there looking at the gatehouse, I said ‘It really does remind me of Wokingham Town Hall’; and it turned out to be of the same vintage. It also reminded me of the castle at Lancre (although there was no Jason on duty). And we found a secret passage. Well, I say ‘we’ – it was Mr Armstrong, really. And I say ‘secret passage’ – it was just a panel with a hinge and a door that wouldn’t open. They probably already know what’s behind it.
After the tour was finished – after 11am, so we were already running late – we had 20 minutes in which to look at the grounds, or have a coffee in the sun. Those of use who felt we had seen the grounds adequately through the windows took this second option. A coffee and some nicotine later, we felt much cheered. After all, at least we weren’t being whisked on to the next item on the agenda too quickly.
We travelled to Vitkov in a coach. On the outskirts of the town we passed a Tesco Expres (only one ‘s’) – but I am getting quite used to seeing Tesco here now. The school itself had a big Comenius project display, and photographs of all its orchestras. It is a specialist arts school, so it has several. Pupils come only in the afternoons, after they have finished the normal school day (which ends at 12.30 for most children); their parents make a financial contribution to the maintenance of the buildings, but the teachers’ salaries are paid by government. So it is an unusual arrangement – not one we really have in the UK, although I supposed the Saturday music schools and County Youth music and drama groups come close. They don’t do drama at the Vitkov school – but they do do music, dancing, and fine arts, and upstairs we saw an art studio, with potter’s wheel, kiln, printing press, paints and pictures.
After a welcoming drink and some nibbles we walked over to the Town Hall, and Salvador (Spain) and I bought some tobacco. We had to use a lot of miming but we were eventually successful; all I needed now was to find a cashpoint, and I could start to relax. However, we had the Civic Reception to get through first. The Council chamber was very impressive – large and light and airy, with lots of gold leaf and rococo scrolling (I am getting the hang of this architectural styles lark). The Mayor and Deputy Mayor welcomed us and gave us each a small gift, and then we had The Group Photo. This was David and Dave’s first experience of the Comenius group photo, but they realised quite quickly that it was actually going to be photos in the plural, on about 10 different cameras. Dave also took a photo of David shaking hands with the Mayor.
From the Mayor we learnt that Vitkov is a town of about 6,500 people, so it is not ‘too large’, but it is an important centre of activity in the area. We remain hazy about what its occupants actually do; ‘Nature’ was the description we were given, and that would certainly cover forestry, reservoiring, and agriculture, but I can’t believe it employs 6,500 people (well, actually, I know it doesn’t, because the unemployment rate is about 12%; but you get my drift).
After the reception I had the chance to visit the cashpoint. It had an option for instructions in English (yay!) and after withdrawing my cash I felt like a millionaire, as roughly £60 equates to 4,ooo CZK. Equipped with tobacco and cash, and with the sun shining in the sky, it seemed the day could hardly get better.
But it did. Firstly, I wisely chose not to have the soup or the cabbage with our meal at the primary school (the roast chicken and gravy with rice was very nice on its own). Secondly, the tour of the primary school was fascinating. Like the school in Abraham, it takes pupils from 6 to 15, and has small class sizes (although at 21, much bigger than Abraham’s). There are 15 classes and 21 teachers, which means at any given moment 6 teachers are likely to be ‘floating’; there is also an on-site educational psychologist, and on-site out-of-school wraparound care. The ICT suite was much more modern than in the Slovakian schools we visited, and we even saw a smart board (the school has three).
The school day runs from 8 am to 12.30 (sometimes 13:30 for older children), with lessons of 45 minutes, and a 10 or 15 minute break between each lesson. I thought this sounded a good idea, and even more so when we heard a gentle chiming followed by some music – this, apparently, is how the school signals such breaks, rather than with a harsh buzzer.
The biology classroom had four enormous stuffed birds at the back (they included an eagle and a vulture, just to give you an idea) and it was quite hard to focus away from these and onto the other displays in the room. In the chemistry room (and there was no evidence of scope for practical work – sinks or gas taps, for example – but we didn’t see all the rooms) there was the periodic table on the wall, so I photographed it for Kit before remembering that probably it’s exactly the same here. Oh well. In the out-of-school club room I found the Czech version of Scrabble, so I also took a photo of that.
All around the school there were lots of pot plants and displays and it was really a good place to be.
From the primary school we walked to the Kultury Dom (Culture Centre – I cannot for the life of me think what we’d call this in a town, but in a village it would be the village hall). At the Kultury Dom there was a fine art exhibition by ‘3 x 75′ (three friends born in 1975), and we were there for the opening. There was an interesting array of arty photographs, pastel portraits, paintings and patchwork, and I did actually take some photos here – mainly because during the opening speeches I realised how much better the pictures looked from a distance than they did close up. There was also singing by a girls’ choir; their reportoire included ‘You raise me up’, so it managed to bring a tear to my eye (but this was good preparation for later). And we saw the Mayor again.
After several speeches, all translated by Leos, who must have been worn out by all this, we had some free time. For most of us, this meant a trip to the town centre for a look at the mighty shop of tat (just like the ones in England) and a drink; for some of us, a trip to the drogerie to buy plasters for our disgusting insect bites, which are ruining all my trousers. And for Bea and Salvador, the job of buying the group’s thank-you gift for Leos.
Using the usual formula, but translated into Czech crowns, Bea had collected something ludicrous like 4,000 of them to spend on a present. Bear in mind that this was what I had just withdrawn from the cashpoint, with every expectation that it will buy all my meals, drinks, entrance fees, train fares, and souvenirs, in the time up to when I board my sleeper at Prague on Sunday afternoon, and with some left over for tobacco. Things are cheap here. So Bea had twenty minutes in which to spend a massive amount of money, in a country where things are cheap, on a special gift for somebody she doesn’t know terribly well, in a town with almost no shops.
Bea seems quite a relaxed person but she found this 20 minutes quite stressful (although she did later agree that at least circumstances had limited the stress to just this period of time). However, she was successful. And then it was time to return to the Arts School for the concert.