I suppose that after the hard grind of relaxing in Greece for a couple of months, the wedding in the Czech Republic was just the tonic I needed. And what a wedding!
Most tourist will be familiar with Prague, but Olomouc is less well-known, incomparably quieter and has a beautiful centre, ringed with hideous Stalinist architecture. Everywhere there are reminders of a troubled history. The Second World War memorials carry the unfamiliar dates of 1938-45. For Czechs, the war began with the dismemberment of their country and the start of the German occupation after the Munich agreement. Then there are the remainders of the Communist past; the murals at the railway station and, above all, the clock.
The town hall has hosted an astronomical clock since the fifteenth century. It has been remodelled frequently, the last time was in the 1950's. As the defeated German army left in 1945, someone, in an act of spiteful vandalism, fired a shell at the clock leaving it wrecked. And so it was rebuilt, this time in the style of Socialist Realism, a unique piece of Stalinist kitsch. Here it is as it was before the war and today.
Every day at twelve it gives its full performance in front of a small knot of observers. There is a YouTube video of it in action here.
Elsewhere, the city is studded with extraordinary Baroque churches, as political as the clock. They were built to mark the defeat of the Reformation in the Thirty Years War and flaunt the resulting Catholic ascendancy. One monument, the Holy Trinity Column, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, stands across the square, glaring at the clock.
Walking around a city you often get the sense of its past from the neglected and the run down, rather than from the celebrated tourist highlights.
A street scene or, in this case, a simple doorway gives a sense of faded elegance that contrasts with the crumbling concrete of badly built apartment blocks from the Communist era. It made me wonder about Stalinism as an aesthetic failure as well as a political catastrophe. Catholicism in Europe was associated with reaction, illiberalism, authority and control yet still produced some magnificent art. But perhaps the sheer ugliness was just the product of the times, when public architecture became particularly joyless the world over.
Then there was the wedding itself in a spectacular church on a hill overlooking the Moravian plain. If the outside wasn't imposing enough, the interior was wildly over the top, like Liberace on speed.
As a hardened cynic, even I was blown away by such a magical scene for a wedding. I could forget my antipathy to the iconography and wallow in pure sentimentality in a church full of seriously hungover people, at least the ones from England. That certainly is a bunch who know how to party. Late nights on the town for a couple of days before the event had left their mark, but they were only training sessions. It was time for the reception.
It started impressively enough with a waiter slicing the top off a bottle of champagne with a sword and the custom of smashing a plate on the doorstep of the restaurant that the groom has to sweep up with a dustpan and brush. It then turned out to be a fifteen hour extravaganza of food, booze and dancing to an ageing Rock 'n Roll band, playing the standards sung in Czech, either side of a disco featuring naff 70's and 80's pop music. The place was bouncing when this one came on. And then there was all that gorgeous Czech beer.
I had never been to the Czech Republic before. The one thing that struck me most was how orderly the country is. Even if there is no traffic, nobody crosses the road unless the pedestrian crossing lights allow. Small groups of people stood patiently by the side of empty roads waiting for the clicking sound made by the crossings to speed up, meaning that the lights had changed to stop the non-existent cars. The museums only allowed you to pass through them in one direction and stern attendants were everywhere to ensure that you did as you were told. In restuarants and bars plates and glasses were cleared away the second you had finished. Sunday night was near silent and the city centre was deserted apart from a few tourists. Yet the clubs stayed open late and served up huge quantities of alcohol and the bars and restuarants certainly didn't bother with healthy eating options and portion control.
It had been an unforgettable weekend; noisy, rowdy and incredibly drunken, spent with people who I like immensely in a remarkably beautiful place. Yet on my return to Greece, as I sat on the bus taking me down the peninsula, just behind the driver who was talking on his mobile phone and smoking a fag out of the window as he manoeuvred round hairpin bends, I enjoyed the culture change; friendly, informal, occasionally fractious, anything but organised though it still works and somehow more comfortable, like sitting in your favourite chair. I had been away and I was coming home.