Thursday, 24 January 2013

There`s Beer, and Then There`s Beer

There`s Beer, and Then There`s Beer

Flying from Stansted two days after Boxing Day I landed at the little rural airport of Brno in the southern part of the Czech Republic. It was my first time back in six months. The first thing I noticed as I stepped out of the plane on to the staircase outside was that the sun was shining. It was a crisp, frosty, Christmassy day with traces of week-old snow. I had flown back to England on 2nd July and since then it seemed to have been raining incessantly out of endless cloud cover. As I breathed in the crisp, pine-tinged air, I remembered how much I missed being in a place with four real seasons. Cross-country skiing in the forests in winter, apple and cherry trees burgeoning with blossom in the spring, the heady scent of linden trees, canoeing and drinking beer chilled in the river during the summer, fermenting wine and walnut picking in the autumn.

Helena, my sister-in-law, picked me up from the airport and took me back to her house, just a five-minute drive away. I had Christmas presents for all the family, but had been instructed to unwrap them all from their gift wrap to take them through security at the airport. That rather took the edge off the belated Christmas celebration, but I tried to make the best of it by putting things in little gift bags that I had bought at the last minute.

“What would you like to drink?” Helena asked me. “We`ve got tea, coffee, wine, spirits...”

“Have you got any beer?” I asked, looking up at her with a glint in my eye. “Of course!” she said, and poured me a glass of Pilsner Urquell, the King of Beers. Pilsner is the original lager brewed in the city of Pilsen, in Western Bohemia, and the only beer brewed with alkaline water, which means it is medicinal. So medicinal, in fact, that it is prescribed by doctors for flushing out the kidneys and restoring the appetite after surgery involving general anaesthetic.

I can`t describe that first taste of beer as I washed it down. There are other beers I like, many of them brewed in the Czech Republic, but there is nothing to match the perfect balance of Pilsner Urquell`s bitter, but not too bitter hops, its clear golden colour and fresh flavour. It`s as if there is a special thirst only for this beer. Nothing else will do.

There`s a zone you can be in, where something feels and tastes right. The potatoes taste of potatoes, the wine tastes like wine, the colours hit the eye just right.  And the odd thing is, more of it isn`t actually better. It`s right partly because it`s enough, and no more. I had other glasses of Pilsner in the five days that followed, and they were good glasses of beer, some even Pilsner, but none of them tasted as good as that first taste the day I landed.


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The Peace of Fontilles

The Peace of Fontilles

There are places, and monuments, that have such a remarkable effect on you they stay with you until you die. For me, they will always include Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Academia at Florence, the city of Prague and the Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul. Since recently they will also include for me a little known village called Fontilles in the Costa Blanca region of Spain.

Tucked away in the hills only a few kilometres inland from the popular resort of Denia, the turnoff to Fontilles is easy to miss, in fact you pretty much have to know it`s there to find it at all.

As you drive through the arid, stony landscape, you may catch occasional glimpses of a stone wall running high up along a ridge. Finally, you turn down into a scented, wooded valley and realise that the wall you were just now outside of, you are now inside.

The buildings are of varying sizes and designs, some elegant and imposing, if unpretentious, rather reminiscent of European spa complexes. Indeed they do date from much the same era. Others, as if resting against the steep, wooded hillsides, are smaller, more like small villas or even bungalows.

The three of us arrived by car during the siesta, so that for half an hour or so we were the only people there, giving the place the air of being somehow suspended in time. There was a strong sense of people around, but no sound, apart from a gentle, fragrant breeze through the pines. Parking, we walked slowly along the pathways, which were lovingly dotted with statues and grottos with little fountains and watering places. The whole place seemed to have been planned for the purpose of peace.

I had often thought of peace before as being an absence of discord or conflict, or of noise, but this was something different. The stillness at Fontilles was so pervasive you could not have spoken in a loud voice if you had wanted to. It was difficult to speak at all. This was a place for listening to the quiet. Even, as the afternoon wore on, other people appeared in small quiet groups, our greetings to one another were wordless smiles.

Bathing in the silence, we walked slowly back to a monument near the information office, still closed for the siesta, and read the inscription. Founded in 1902 and opened in 1909, run by the Jesuits, Fontilles is one of the last two leper colonies in Europe. The other is at Tichilesti on the Danube delta in Romania. When the Fontilles colony was first opened, the local people were so outraged and horrified that they built a wall round it to protect themselves from the lepers. Lepers are still today in some ways the ultimate symbol of the outsider. Outside the wall are fear, outrage and indignation. But inside the wall are healing and peace
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