There are foxes living in London

And almost no stray cats. Think these might be related? I certainly do!

Every morning for the last 14 days, I’ve been walking from my daughter’s flat to the Arch where Crown & Queue is based – and almost every morning I’ve seen at least one fox.

And these aren’t the shy, hard to spot foxes that I’m used to seeing in Vermont. These very smart, very fast, very agile animals think they rule their spaces – and they show off their ownership of their domain by running directly across the road right in front of my eyes.

A quick google search reveals that I’m not alone in noticing the foxes – according to a British Research Group at the University of Bristol – the Mammal Research Unit – there are about 35,000 foxes that call London home. Also according to them – these foxes leave a brief but exciting life – their only enemies are cars of course – but cars and trucks definitely shorten their average life span.

But how did London become a city of foxes?

My guess is that as the city expanded – the outlying areas that had been fox habitat became part of the city – and the foxes adapted to their new neighbors – much the way raccoons have become part of the landscape in Canadian cities.

In any case – there are few stray cats – and lots of foxes.

I did find an article on the topic if you’d like to read more –
but the point of this blog is just to say – early morning walks in London are perfect for fox spotting – just walk quietly – and keep your eyes open.

Signing off
The Soup Lady

Going to the Dogs – or The Dog Days of London

There are few, if any, stray cats in London – the foxes (read my blog later this week) seem to be keeping the cat population well under control – but there are tons and tons of dogs.

When you spend hour after hour standing in a market stall – both at an urban market like Fenchurch Station, and at a neighborhood market like Alexander Palance – you see a lot of people with their constant companions – their dogs!

There are big ones, little ones – ones with jackets – one in a bling covered suit – and one in a full wool sweater, including sleeves on all 4 legs. There are Whippets that look as if they have been rung in the washer for way too long – their fur is soft, but matted to their skin as if it weighs too much to every stand up.

There are tiny little dogs – all of whom seem to sport jackets and coats – and trust me – by Montreal standards – it’s not that cold – even for a small dog. There are long haired and short haired Dachounds – mostly minitures but very cute. I’ve seen countless Jack Russels – and tons of Pugs. What’s interesting about the Pugs are they are huge. Much bigger than the Pugs I’ve spotted in North America – and literally the size of my stuffed Pug that I carry when I’m playing the role of Lady Bertrum from Mansfield Park.

I’ve seen big dogs too – nothing as large as a Newfoundland – but German Sheperds and various kinds of Sheep Dogs abound. There was just one Greyhound – a rescue dog was what I was told. There was even a dog on the train!

Only one stall in the market was selling dog treats – but I’d guess that “going to the dogs” in London is probably not a bad plan if your goal is to make money!

One other observation – most if not all the dogs were leashed. Not the casual leashing of American and Canadian Dog lovers – but a proper harness with a proper leash. And there are rubbish bins clearly marked for dog waste on most corners. In fact often it was easier to find a rubbish bin for doggy-do then for your paper cup of coffee.

Back to the breed identification list – yes I’ve seen the Queen’s dogs – Welsh Corgies, all breed from the one she was given when she was 18. Sounds a bit like in-breeding to me. According to Jan, since she doesn’t want them to miss her when she dies – she’s no longer getting new ones. Now that’s an odd British fact if ever I heard one.

Just one more doggie comment – the gal that was in charge of one of the markets we attended very proudly showed me pictures of her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. So having a ‘bred’ dog is not as classed based as I had assumed – it must be a British Tradition.

Signing off to look up dog breeds – in case looking turns to buying
The Soup Lady

All Hail the Christmas Jumper

That’s a sweater to you in North America. And the Brits adore them. They even have a National – Everyone wear your Christmas Jumper to work – Day.

Trust me on this – I was in the market stall at Fenchurch Station on the last Friday before Christmas – and everyone was wearing a Christmas Jumper!

The designs were amazing. My favorites included a roaring fireplace on one man’s chest – and in another case – an image of Santa Claus and Jesus hugging – Jesus with a glass of wine, Santa sporting a mug of beer.

Another popular motif – look like you have on a different body! Elf bodies are the most popular – generally done so that the collar ends the body, allowing the head of the wearer to appear to have on the body of the Elf. Sometimes the bodies include the legs and shoes – sometimes it’s just the outfit from the waist up!

I’ve also seen Santa sweaters, ballerina sweaters, and very occasionally – snow man bodies on sweaters.

There are Star War motif sweaters – generally worn by a geekier – younger crowd. I even saw a ‘Minon’ Christmas Jumper – one eye, round yellow body – Christmas hat!

I’ve only seen the same jumper once – and that was on two guys who were clearly together!

Not all the Christmas Jumpers are so over the top – some have more simple images – maybe Christmas 2015 – or a simple saying – “Merry Christmas”, or an image of a Reindeer or two.

There are almost no ‘rude’ sweaters – at least not on view at Fenchurch. I’m surrounded by offices – I guess those don’t cut the mustard for business casual.

Back to the sweaters (jumpers) I did see – there were those that went for the 3D look – I’ve seen tons of jumpers with orange carrot noses sticking out of chests (I’m guessing here – but I’m pretty sure the image under that was a snowman) – and several large round pom-poms that I think might have been the noses of raindeer. There are cupcakes with glowing candles, there are toasts to British beer in all flavors. Occasionally one jumper is so outrageous I have to comment. And the owner will proudly swing around to show it off.

There are also Christmas ties – some subtle – a glowing green maybe – others more in your face with Christmas trees and snowman.

I even saw one guy in a Christmas Suit Jacket. It was covered in Chritmas trees and had a tie to match. Older gent too – so I don’t think he was making fun of the tradition!

For those not keen on wearing a sweater – there are hats! Generally these include elf ears – but once I’m sure they were Reindeer Antlers. Since these are often worn with Christmas Jumpers – I think they are an attempt to complete the outfit – like getting a bag and shoes to match your dress.

A flash back to “Harry Potter” – I never really ‘got’ why the boys are always getting sweaters for Christmas from Ron’s Mom – but now I have a much better understanding. It’s a truly unique British Tradition!

Bit like having Silton for Christmas – you don’t have to love it – but you do want to respect it.

Signing off to check out the after Christmas sales on Jumpers…

The Soup Lady

There are Witches and Wizards in London

Yes – I’m sure of this. I’ve seen them. They look just like they are described in “Harry Potter”. They were seriously odd looking clothing, and seem to be on missions that don’t make a lot of sense to the rest of us.

Most of them seem to live around the Alexander Palace area – where my daughter Adrienne has one of her markets. One actually came over to taste our sausages. Her felt hat – a bright orange – was pulled down over her grey hair, and her dress was in odd layers – some higher and some parts longer – not in the cool way of hip dressers – but in a “I think this works” but in fact it doesn’t – kind of way.

And the tiny alleys like that of Diagon Alley are here as well. Easy for everyone to see – and not even as wide as a tiny car – they snake thru sections of the city as if the city planners just couldn’t figure out how to tell the owners that having a ‘road’ that a car can’t drive down is just not a great idea.

Staying in London for over two weeks – and spending every day walking for almost 2 hours – in addition to the 7 to 8 hours spend in the market stalls – give me a very unique perspective on the entire wizarding thing. You don’t spot them often in downtown, and they aren’t big on riding the buses or the tube – it’s just walking around that they will suddenly surprise you by appearing quickly – and just as quickly disappearing.

And they aren’t keen on saying hi when you greet them in the morning. For that matter – no one says hi when I smile and greet them. Is it my foreign accent? Is it that I noticed them walking early in the morning? I’m not sure – but it’s gotten to be a bit of a challenge to me. I greet everyone I pass while walking – in hopes of getting at least one smile in return.

Strange thought – maybe they think I’m the Witch?

Another curiously British observation: it is illegal to put a light switch INSIDE a bathroom. How anyone decided that was safer is beyond me, but my hosts assure me that it is the case. But imagine how awkward this turns out to be for the ignorant foreigner – like me. I’ve walked into countless bathrooms – shut the door – and been left standing in the dark. I have to open the door – and look around the outside wall to spot the light switch. And no one seems to have thought about how easy it would be to watch someone go into the toilet, wait a few seconds – then shut off the light! I’m sure Agatha Christie could make a murder mystery out of that.

Another perculiarly British thing – they seem to have confused up and down. And push and pull. Doors at home open out for easy exit during a fire. But outer door here open in. How dangerous is that? Imagine getting trapped in a burning building with some foreigner in front trying despartely to push open the pull front door.

As for up and down – To me – one flips a light ON by pushing the switch down. But not here – pushing UP is on – pushing DOWN is off.

And the Brits have gone soft metric. In Canada – we are hard metric – all measurements are metric – distance, height, etc. The only non-metric measures are weight – we still use pounds not kg for human weight – although all food sold by weight is general shown in both $/kg and $/pound measures. But in Britian things are very confused. They measure distance in miles, height in meters. So 10 miles away is a bridge with a height restriction of 5 meters. How odd. Volume is not metric – so gallons and pints. And weight is in stone they tell me – although my daughter’s bahroom scale is in kg. Food is uniformly sold by the 100g – so that’s easy enough – but I do find myself often questioning to distances from place to place. Apparently this is confusing even to the Brits – but I’m thinking any visitor would quickly be scratching their heads in bemusement.

Ok – just one more observation and I’m done for today. Doors in modern buildings have buttons you must find and push in order to open the door. And these buttons are not located near the doors. They are located 4 to 5 feet away – and while they are obvious once you find them – I’ve spent quite a bit of time searching for them when first faced with having to exit a driveway, a doorway – or a gate. On the other hand – at least in the flat my kids own – there is a web cam hooked up to the key pad at the front door. So if you buz their flat – they can see exactly who is standing at the pad – and who is behind them. The camera view is amazingly clear – and good for at least 20 feet out. No sneaking in on them.

Signing off to figure out if she’s gained or lost weight… (silly scale)

The Soup Lady

Exploring the byways of Sutton Courtenay

The village of barely 3500 souls that my daughter’s in-laws call home is a place with a very ancient history. Today we ate lunch at a pub that traces it’s history back to the 18th century – and it was built on a bridge over the river Thames that dates from the 1600’s!

According to Craig – this bridge was a source of much conflict – and at one point the Abbey in Sutton Courtenay errected a Toll Bridge. The villagers retailiated by diverting the river, and building another bridge. I’m thinking “Pillars of the Earth” meets “Harry Potter”.

Speaking of meeting Harry Potter – it turns out that Bellatrix Lestrange has a house in Sutton Courtenay. At least the actress that plays her in the movies does. Her (great?) grandfather was the First Earl of Oxford – and at one point he owned a good part of the village. She still owns – and occasionally stays in – one of the larger homes bordering right on the Thames.

There are other exciting sites to see in Sutton Courtenay – it’s not just about the Thames. There’s the Medieval Abbey, the WWII pill box – built as a defense position against the Germans, the Norman period church where we sang Christmas Carols, the homes built with lumber from ships that fought in the Spanish Armada and were defeated, the old prision in process of gentrification (they are building condos – surprise, surprise) – and there are 3 pubs. Those are seriously the hightlight of the village – I loved the look of the gastro-pub called “The Fish”, but when it came to lunch we left the village and headed to the next town for lunch at “The Nag’s Head”. I opted for fish and chips – when in England – do as the English do I say! I wanted to get a beer – but picking one from the over a dozen on tap proved daunting. The first one they drew – “Goldie” was too bitter for me – as were the next 5, including a cider. I finally tried the “Tiger” – which my hosts refered to as “not a beer” – but I was happy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. After a quick – everyone grab what they want – breakfast, Craig, Charlotte, Adrienne and I opted to take the village walk. This was a wonderful public path that leads over bridges and past bits and pieces of the Thames in a loop. There were Swans and ducks in the ponds we strolled past – and a solid collection of different dogs.

We eventually wandered our way past the remains of an old mill, past a series of adorable shop fronts that are now private homes (Gentrification at work), and both the Norman Church and the Medieval Abbey. Neighbors greeted neighbors, some young girls rode by on horseback, and we saw several MG Sprites. All together it was a very British walk, in a very British village. Totally Charming.

On call for tonight is a cold dinner of left-overs (finally), a board game – and fireworks. Turns out that fireworks are only legal in Great Britian on Guy Fawes Day – and Christmas. Guess the 4th of July isn’t much of a holiday here – win some, lose some.
Signing off for now

The Soup Lady – reporting from Sutton Courtenay (If you can spell it – you can find it on a map!)

A Traditional British Christmas

My daughter married a Brit – one whose family traces their lineage back several hundred years – so when they invited me to come and spend Christmas with them – I of course said Yes.

My daughter’s inlaws live in the tiny village of Sutton Courtenay. It’s is an hours fast train ride from Paddington station – but a universe away from the hustle bustle of London.

The village is very famous – Hubert Asquith, First Earl of Oxford, and one of the British Prime Ministers from before World War I was born and is buried here – as is George Orwell – who I must say I know better! But I’m not really here to see the sights – I’m here to eat – and eat extremely well I must say.

My Daughter’s In-Laws – who to save on typing we say call Jan and Craig – (which are their names…) do not live on an estate – and there’s nary a servant to be seen in the house – but never-the-less – they have gone all out to make sure that we have an amazing Christmas.

They picked us up at the Train Station – all smiles and Christmas cheer – and we drive thru the village admiring the lovely homes, stone fences, and what I’m now realizing are traditionally tiny roads. Their lovely home has at least 5 bedrooms up stairs – and 3 bathrooms. Downstairs there’s a kitchen, a lovely dining room with wood side-boards, a prep-kitchen with the dishwasher, a sun room that is serving as a 6th bedroom – and a living room/den with the TV – Wii machine – several sofas, and a warming gas fire. The garden is truly lovely – which despite the weather is so so pretty. It’s large enough to be divided into sections – a pool/meadow area, a graveled sitting area – and for my taste – an extremely large area of raised garden for growing vegetables.

From the front – you wouldn’t expect them to have such a spacious backyard – because their neighbors are very close – but the lots must be angled – because the backyard is quite a bit wider in the back than it is nearer the house. Behind the stone wall that marks the end of their garden is a public walking path – but because it is sunk about 2′ below the level of their garden – you don’t even see the tops of people’s heads.

I’m shown to my room – not fancy by any standard – but very comfortable. I’m sharing the bathroom with Thomas – the adorable 4 year old son of my daughter’s husband’s brother. We will be 9 this Christmas – 2 under the age of 4 (both the children of Jamin’s brother), Jamin’s brother and his wife, Jan and Craig, Adrienne and Jamin – and of course me. An odd woman at the table – but fortunately they don’t feel the need to bring in an additional male to balance!

Christmas Eve begins with a fabulous Norweign Christmas Dinner. Jamin’s brother married Charlotte, a gal from Norway – and they are doing all the cooking tonight. The table is lovely – a christmas centerpiece with candles and the placemats also have a Christmas Theme. They have 2 large warming boards – so the food is carefully being kept hot while drinks and seats are organized.

The meal is stellar. I love, love, love the very traditional preperation of Pork Belly. Charlotte went to the butcher to explain the unique cut required – and the effort definitely paid off. Tons of meat – and the fat has been crisped. The dish is called “Ribbe” – and trust me – it’s yummy.

There are an assortment of other dishes as well – Broccoli, fat fresh sausages that were brought here from Norway in Charolette’s suitcase, meat pies that were similarly imported, and a divine take on cranberry jelly called “Tyttebaer”. Yummy.

After dinner, we put on our winter jackets and grab long traditional torches. There’s a torch light parade tonight – starting at the school and gathering walkers as it goes to the church. We join about 1/3 of the way – lighting our torches from the torches of other marchers. At the church, they have built a bonfire, and they are handing out sheets of Carols. We join in with the several hundred other celebrants – sing heartily – and enjoy listening to the very ampped piano player! Of course the church choir is there – and often they can be heard over the crowd doing the descants.


We walk back home – tired, full – and ready for bed. Unfortunately – it’s only 7:30! There are no street lights in Sutton Courteney – and the sun sets early so it feels quite late. We sip tea, chat, and wait for the kids to call it a night. Then the serious work of present wrapping and placing under the tree begins. There are a zillion gifts! Thomas and Craig both have late December birthdays – so this is a combination party – and the number of gifts reflects that double holiday.

Besides – 9 people, if each person bought one gift for the other 8, that’s 72 gifts.

The tree is placed strategically about 2 feet off the ground (Thomas’s younger brother is 10 months old – and he is definitely in the pulling things off if he can stage). The presents form a mound under the tree – every 4 year old’s idea of the perfect Christmas.

In preperation for the arrival of Santa – tradition says that a glass of sherry and a mince pie should be placed by the fireplace. We forego that tradition – but it might be the only one that gets skipped!

We head off for bed – little kids get up early – and Christmas Day promises to start early and last late!

I’m woken up at 7:02 AM by squeals of delight – Thomas has seen the tree and gifts – and there’s no point trying to pretend to sleep in! I hustle downstairs – but things are well in hand. He’s allowed to pick one gift – the rest must wait until everyone else is up and about.

But first he wants to examine his Christmas Stocking. Like all the other members of the family – hanging at the end of his bed this morning was a huge Christmas Stocking. And this is not a tiny thing – nor a store bought packaged delight – nope – this is a huge sock carefully decorated, and lovingly stored year after year. The contents vary – Thomas gets some toys to play with, his younger brother gets two ‘duplo’ trucks, my daughter gets the calming tea she craves. And everyone gets a clemintine and a walnut!

Breakfast isn’t fancy – the big meal will be Christmas lunch. Eventually everyone has gotten up, had coffee or orange juice as best appeals to them – and we’re ready to open the gifts. Thomas takes a great delight in picking out the order in which gifts are to be opened – a bit heavy handedly picking ones with his name of course. But soon the pile of gifts has been descimated – and we are left with gifts galore for everyone. Thomas plays with his favorites – toys featuring the Octonauts. Daniel (10 months old remember) – is thrilled with the boxes – and anything his big brother is playing with!

I’m pleased with my gifts – a book I’ve never read called ‘Magician’, a box of bath salts – and best of all – a box of Rasberry Preserves from England Perserves. They have an Arch behind my daughters – and they make the best Rasberry Preserves I’ve ever enjoyed.

Lunch is eventually annouced – and what a lovely lunch it is.

Prize of place is a roast Goose – and it is awesome. The skin wonderfully crispy, the meat juicy and rich. There’s several popper’s at each place setting – plus a large Christmas Cracker. We begin by pulling our poppers and Crackers – sending jets of bright ribbon everywhere. Food is again kept warm on the side boards – there are carrots and brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, peas, pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon), two different kinds of stuffing, and a fab gravy for the goose. Plates are heaped up for serious feasting – and the conversation is lively and laugh filled as we read the silly jokes in the crackers to each other.

After dinner there’s the traditional lounging time – which we spend playing board games, watching Thomas enjoy his toys, and racing Mario Kart on the Wii. The fire is lit – our tummys are full. It’s lovely.

There’s still another meal to go – after the kids are asleep – there are cold treats to enjoy – mince pies, fresh veggies of various kinds, nuts to crack – and some glorious cheese brought from London by my daughter. My contribution was to pay for the cheese – and to buy a loaf of fresh bread from the Little Bread Peddler who shares one of the Arches near Adriennes. There are 3 different desserts – all traditional Christmas treats. There’s a light and fluffy home-made Pavlova, a home-made Triffle, and two kinds of Mince pies. The Triffle is actually made with fruit grown in their garden last summer. My personal favorite has to be the Pavlova – but of course I had to try all three.

More conversation, more laughter – and time for bed.

Wonderful Christmas!

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Pity the Lady in the Market Stall

My daughter is a chef – after 16 years of working in kitchens and selling cheese in Toronto, Kingston, Boston, New Orleans, London – and learning to take a pig from pig to sausage in the middle of all that – she decided that London needed British style air cured sausages. High end, gloriously artisinal sausages that would uniquely reflect the heritage and personality of Great Britian!

Here is her description of herself from her website at

Our Managing Director, Pork Whisperer and Fearless Heroine is Adrienne Eiser Treeby. Guided by her commitment to good food and good ethics Adrienne has been in turns a Chef, an Apprentice and a Cheesemonger. After putting in fourteen years working behind the stoves at some of the world’s most prestigious restaurants (in three different countries, no less!), two years learning how to make cured meats at the knee of a Master Salumiere and a further two years getting to know the artisanal London food scene with Neal’s Yard Dairy, we’re pretty glad to have her at the helm.

And at the helm she most certainly is! The helm, the butcher tables, the accounting desk, AP, AR, and saleswoman. Plus she’s running market stalls at various markets around London – getting her fabulous sausages known in the world.

Or as I told one customer – making sure they all go to good homes.

So – what am I doing in a market stall? Ah – that’s an interesting story.

The Market culture in London is quite remarkable. There are markets – groups of vendors under canvas tents with portable tables and displays – all over London. They pop-up in the morning, run until around 3:00 PM on average – and then disapear without a trace by 4:00 PM. Depending on the market – they can be daily, weekly, monthly – or apparently totally at random. The unifying idea is that the vendors pay the organizers to be at the market, and folks local to that location come to buy their groceries at these markets. This is in addition to shopping at the local grocery store of course.

One immediately wonders if the abundance of grocery stores is going to impact this scene any time soon – or is the clearly thriving market scene taking business away from the grocery stores? The interesting thing – the grocery stores and even some ‘fast-food restaurants’ are moving more and more toward pre-packged, clarly labeled food items, while the market scene is completely different. There is little in the way of packaging – and labels are few and far between. At the markets – ones sells on taste.

Which brings me to my job – “Want to taste my daugher’s Sausage?” or the less rude alternative – “Want to taste the suasuage my daughter makes in South London?”
So – for the past 14 days – straight – I’ve been standing in front of a glorious display of my daughter’s suasuages – and some of the wonderful similarly artistian meats her friends have ‘cooked’ up – asking folks to take a taste. The good news – once they taste – they generally buy. The bad news – at some markets – the Fenchurch station is a great example – the regjection rate “Nope – don’t want to taste” is horridly high.

It makes for a long hard day.

I guess it’s better for them not to taste if they would never want to buy under any circumstances – but after a few hundred rejections – I’m hard put to stay smily!

But – I shoulder on.

It’s a job – someone has to do it.

“Want to taste my dauther’s sausages?”

Signing off for now – the Soup Lady.

Winners and Losers in the Czech Republic

Two Hotels, Two nights each – a world apart.

Hotel #1 – the Belcardi. Located in Brno, Czech Republic – this should have been a contender. It’s located in a Chateau that dates from 1631 – Napoleon’s sister stayed here for 2 years with her daughter, and it features – according to the guide book – fabulous gardens.

Officially – it’s completely renovated and restored – unfortunately in a graceless style that speecks to the Communist side of the Czech mentality. It more resembles an updated monestary than a fancy hotel. Its not that the place in unkempt – in fact it’s quite clean, and obviously cared for. The issue goes deeper than physical plant – it’s staff, it’s a lack of understanding the difference between clean and neat, and bare and boring. At the Belcardi – they are erring on the side of boring.

Our deluxe double room with balcony did indeed have an ensuite bathroom, a comfortable king bed, and a balcony. Albeit that the balcony was only the width of the door that open out onto it – and about 2 feet deep – still, I’ll agree, there was a balcony. And they carefully provided a desk. No electrical outlits, no lamp, no phone – but there was a desk. To plug in our cell phones we had to crawl under said desk and use a plug there.

The bathroom was remarkable for the lack of place to put anything – including towels! There was a European style heated towel rack – on the far side of the room from the shower, so if you wanted a towel for your shower – you had no choice but to hang the towel off the shower door. The shower itself was one of those stick in a corner, already built items – Basic shower facility in other words. On the good news side – it did offer seriously hot water – scaulding in fact.

The sink was one of the porcelin stand ones – no place to put your toothbrush unless you removed their soap tray – and where to put that then? Annoyingly, the toilet required 2 pushes to operate – one to get the water started, and one to stop the water.

Breakfast was easily the highlight of the place. It was free, it was ample, and there was a machine for making Latte and Expresso. If you wanted plain coffee – there was a nice thermos full on a different table. There was an assortment of pastry, cereals, yougurts, fruit, seriously delicous scrambled eggs (that’s actually hard to do in a serve-yourself orientation), a variety of different types of bread, sausages, and some cut up veggies – tomatoes, onions and red, yellow and green peppers. It was a great breakfast.

I just wish the staff I ran into were as welcoming. I saw a maid just once, she ducked her head as if embarassed and hustled on her way. The only staff I saw consistently were hidden behind the large, tall, and extremely forbidding front desk. In the 2 days we stayed – going in and out at least a dozen times all told – here’s what they never did:

Offer to help us with our luggage.
Say more than ‘hi’
Respond to questions with more than a single word.
Offer any information – in any language – or even on a piece of paper. They did hand me a wonderful history of the Castle, in English – but only after I asked mutliple questions – the place is famous after all.

In summary – a Loser. Cold, forbidding, unwelcoming, unpleasant, basic needs meet – but nothing beyond. For a place this famous – some art on the walls, some signs of humanity, even an occasional throw rug would have gone a long way towards making the Hotel Belcardi a place I’d suggest to a friend.

But there was a Winner too! Dvur Hoffmeister is located about 10 minutes from the Prague Airport – and we only stayed there because we wanted to be able to sleep after travelling for 10 hours from Montreal, and didn’t want to be disturbed by the noise of the airport.

What a wonderful surprise. The Dvur Offmeister is a tiny – 7 room – Pensionne with a bar and restaurant, attached to a huge Horse training center. Huge not only in size – but in size of the horses. This Center is the one of the homes of the Czech National Jumping School – and it had 4 huge arenas, stable space for 42 horses and ponies, a Horse Washing Station – and a Horse Gym. There were outdoor fenced off paddock areas for summer use, but in winter there are 4 Stable areas for Horses and Ponies. Like all stables I’ve ever seen – there is a center hall with stalls on either side. The stalls have gates into the center for moving the horses in and out – but in the case of the Hoffmeister Stables – they have been one huge improvement. Each stall also has a window to the outside! When the weather was sunny – or there was action on the courtyard – the horses would all poke their heads out to get a peak.

What really makes the Dvur Hoffmeister a Winner though is the warmth and good feeling that radiates from the front desk, thru the halls into the rooms. There is art everywhere – apparently the Grand-father of the current owners was a Surrealistic painter – and he collected work from all his friends. There is a completely amazing amount of top drawer art work on display. The ‘surreastic’ motif extends into the lovely dinning area – a brick walled, arch coved space with wide spread tables – and almost comfortable chairs!

Our first night there we did run into a problem – and how the staff handled the problem would make a great episode on “Hotel Impossible”. First off – I arrived feeling really terrible. I hate those long flights – and for some reason the flight from Frankfurt to Prague just wiped me out. I could barely stand up.

We found the place – and the staff member on duty took one look at me and said – I’ll get you a room right now – we’ll discuss where you’ll stay later. They brought me into a gloriously huge suite – 4 poster king bed, glorious art, huge bathroom – and let me sleep. Victor – despite his protests to the contrary – also fell asleep. Several hours later – much recovered – we arose to discuss options with the host.

The problem – a fairly large – 30 person – company party was scheduled in the restuarant and the bar that night – including a DJ scheduled to play until 2:00 AM. Our glorious suite was right over the bar, and they were pretty sure we didn’t want to try to sleep there. We agreed – and chaned rooms.

They moved us into a room over one of the 3 stable areas. It too had lovely art, a huge bathroom (with a whirlpool tub), but no 4 poster bed. That said – it was quiet, and there was plenty of room for our stuff – and when re-enacting – you have stuff. So we dragged out suitcases out of the lovely suite, and up a metal staircase to our room in the stable. We were so happy.

The tiny village hosts another restuarant – but we were so impressed with how we’d been treated – we wanted to give the Dvur Hoffmeister our business – so we asked – what do we do for dinner. They offered us two choices. We could get dinner served in our room – or we could eat in the bar area – while the DJ was doing his set-up. We opted for the bar – and we had a fab meal – pleasant company – and got to see a bit of the party as it warmed up in the main dining room.

Then to bed – the next day we were travelling on to the site of the re-enactment. But breakfast first of course.

Like the Belcardi – breakfast was included – and what a difference. No machine for making coffee – nope – our lovely hostess – who had gotten to bed at 3:00 after the party ended – was there to make us expresso or Lattes with a proper expresso machine – and cook us eggs or an omlet to order. There was a small – but yummy – selection of pastries, bread, jam, sliced peppers, cucumbers – and a bit of meat to enjoy as as well. Yummy. How did it differ from the much larger spread at the Belcardi? The hostess smiled at us – welcomed us to breakfast – made us feel at home. I’m certain she’d put in a lot more hours than our sullen friend at the Belcardi – but she didn’t let on how tired she was – just greeted us and made us feel so very very welcome!

2nd night – We loved the Dvur so much – we checked out of the horrid Hotel Belcardi and drove back to the Dvur after the Sunday formal celebrations at Austerlitz. Now that’s a winner of a hotel. We even opted to stay in our room over the stables. The thought of that lovely warm bathtub was simply too thrilling.

Another glorious dinner – this time in the dinning room – another great breakfast in the bar area – and then back to the airport.

So one winner – one loser – nice trip in total.

Signing off to go run a market stall in London (you’ll have to check the next blog to see how that goes) – The soup lady.

Formally Yours from Austerlitz

Another overcast, cold and damp day in the Czech Republic. One is again reminded of the importance of the Sun of Austerlitz – without which Napoleon and the Grande Armee would have been fighting blind.

We are scheduled to attend a cermony at the Peace Memorial in Parce – one of the dozen villages that lie scattered around the still existing battle field of Austerlitz. About 45,000 men, (9,000 of them French, 36,000 Allies) and over 15,000 horses died on these fields in December 1805. There is an extremely toucing monument to the dead horses hidden behind the Stara Posta where we’ve been eating dinner, The Peace Memorial honors the fallen men – and is one of the few that I think is completely fitting to their memories. The setting is a huge park – the top of which is crowned by a low building topped by a tall column. Under the column is a fairly large Memorial chamber, one that will be important later today. Behind the memorial is a small museum dedicated to Napoleon.

For now – we gather at the bottom of the hill in Parce, a tiny Czech village with traditional homes and narrow winding streets. We prepare to march out together to do the 2km walk up the hill to the memorial. Victor joins the ranks of the flag bearers at the head of the parade – there are the flags of 12 different regiments, proudly organized to make the march.

Unfortunately, we do not have a drummer – so the troop must chant the pace to keep us all in step. The doctors fall in behind the troops – there are 4 of us – Boris Nezbada from the Czech Republic, another aide-Major Ivana Patráková dressed like me in light blue, and a very young ‘Pharmacist’ from the Corps Medical. He looks very dashing in his knee breaches and high white socks, but I immediately think – bet he’s going to be very cold. The 4 of us form up to follow our troop up the hill to the base of the Monument.

In the park like setting of the Peace Memorial, the Elite Gendarmes have used ‘danger’ tape to creat a main section for us – and areas to the left and right for the considerable audience. There are about 500 re-enactors at the ceremoney (quite a bit down from the 2000 that participated in yeserday’s battle – but still considerable) – and the Imerial Garde’s Drum and Fife Corps, complete with a very flamboyant Drum Major.

Not surprisingly – the speeches are all in Czech – so that’s pretty boring, particularly because, the wind is picking up, it’s quite damp, and it’s gradually getting colder and colder. The most excitement we have is admiring the winter coats of the Russian Women Re-enactors. They sure know how to dress.

When the Russian Orthodox priest appears to conduct a service – I’m ready to bolt. In Russia – those services lasted for hours – but this is the Czech Republic – fortunately we got the appreviated version. Only the Russians removed their hats, and only they seemed to know when to cross themselves. I’m painfully reminded of visit to the Churches in St. Petersburg – glorious music – but why can’t we sit down!

My young friend – the Pharmacist – is starting to shiver badly – so I move closer to him to share body warmth – and give him my wool cape. He suffers thru – maintaining his position in the line until we move to march into the Memorial Chamber. At that point he dccides that Hypothermia is not a good way to end the weekend – and hands back my cape to dash off to leave with his family.

Too bad too – because the part in the Memorial Chamber is the most emotional and moving part of the entire day. Marshal Soult (Oleg Sokolov) gave a stirring speech in French – congradulating the GRANDE ARMÉE on their performance yesterday- and encouraging us to continue to perform well in honor of the Emperor!

The Fife and Drum Corps perform several pieces – wreaths are laid on the main stone, there is a moment of silence as we recall those who fell, and when we quietly leave, there’s hardly a dry eye in the place.

Great way to end a wonderful weekend.

Too bad we now have to walk down that huge hill…. At least that exercise will warm our very cold feet.

Signing off to go warm up (hot goulash soup – here I come!) – The Soup Lady.

Fighting the Battle of Auterlitz – 210 years too late!

It is always a special thrill to participate in Napoleonic European Re-enactments. Unlike their North American counterparts – they are huge affairs – with even the smallest ones being done on fields that to our standards stretch on forever. And all of the ones I’ve been fortunate enough to attend have been staged on the actual battle fields.

Which is why I found myself at dawn on Dec 5, 2015 – standing along with another 100 souls at the top of Zuran Hill, hoping to see the Sun of Austerlitz rise in the East. All the important people were there – Mark Schneider doing his usual enthusiastic version of Napoleon – encouraging us to victory, Marshall Soult (Portrayed by Oleg Sokolov) – also elicting cheer after cheer for the new Emperor.

The Czech Renenactor Grenadier Imperial Guard unit was there in force, along with a smattering of the Marins de la Garde, 10 Cavalry members (Chaseurs de la Garde) – with their horses, and the Elite Gendarmes.

Of the folks gathered – I found the Gendarmes the most interesting. They wear a unique uniform – and they are the Napoleonic Military Police. They stand guard at the 4 corners of the space – making sure that only the folks who should be there approach. Later on they will be enforcing the rules of the battle field– No women in women’s clothing being apparently their primary target – well that and crowd control – no kids deciding to join in the battle please, and they even direct traffic if necessary!

We wait to see the sun rise – and of course it does – but it is hidden behind the famous haze of Austerlitz. You can make out tree lines and the general topgraphy, but if there were over 150,000 soliders (Russian, Austrian, and French) camped out in the surrounding hills and valleys – you’d never know.

In 1805 – Napoleon himself stood on this hill – gazed out at exactly this country side – and we can envision him imagining how the chess pieces would fall within hours. Today we can only cheer – and agree to meet at the base of Stanton Hill for drill at 10:00.

For us as re-enactors – the morning is spent either in drill – or in walking around the camp site. The outdoor camp is small – even by North American standards – but then we’re talking early December in the Czech Republic. In 1805 – there was snow. Today there is only a light frost – which quickly melts off – making for splendid re-enacting weather – our wool uniforms were designed for just these temperatures – but as the Doctor – I’m thinking that even so – we’ll be running out of water for the troops by mid-way thru the battle.

The camp is sectioned off – the Russians have claimed about half the space – they have a large contingent – and there are Russian Cantinieres who are selling home made Russian cakes and pies. I enjoy a delicious Apple Pastry – and it looks like business is good – they have different things on offer each time I stroll past.

There are some Bashkir Archers who have set-up a practice area – and are allowing the visitng children to try their hand at using the bows. Using a Bow and Arrow may seem silly today – but in 1805 these guys were deadly! They could fire multiple arrows in the time it would take us to organize just one volley. I join the line to try my hand, but while I have good form – I miss the target all 3 times. Oh well – Doctors don’t really need archery skills.

On the other 50% of the area are meeting grounds for Austrian and French troops. Most of the Re-enactors (there are over 2000) are staying in temporary lodging – police stations, gyms, barracks of one kind and another, or at local hotels – so there are many small areas to visit, no one big encampment like there was at either Leipzig or Waterloo.

Drill, Visits, and Lunch over – it’s time for the battle.

This is the 210th anniversery of the battle of Austerlitz – so it’s being held on a fairly large part of the still existing battle field. Since it is early December, there are no crops to deal with – we’re not forcing our way through grain fields – instead the field has already been tilled for winter, leaving a medium dry mud that clings alarming to our boots – inches deep at some points – making keeping boot soles clean an impossible task. I’m going to bet that there will be few wounded today – no one is going to want to fall into this mud!

The French, of which I am of course included, take the far Western portion of the battle field – we’re on the Stanton hill – and Napoleon (Mark Schneider) and his entourage are mounted or standing behind us. Below us are row after row of French soldiers, Some Cavalry – a narrow road – and then up hill from that are the vast array of the enemy on the Pratzen Heights. There are massed Austrian and Russian Troops – their cannon firing on our positions. We can see that some of the French troops have already been engaged in the battle – but we, the Imperial Guard are being held in reserve.

Napoleon’s tactic at Austerlitz was to pretend a weakness on the right flank that baited the Allies into weakening their center in order to try and crush that side of the Grande Armee. We are doing the same – the troops fighing now are just the teaser – the real numbers will not take the field until 3:00 PM.

Conditions are not wonderful for the Cavalry – Even Napoleon is thrown from his horse when the horse loses his footing in the mud. One of the aide-de-camps is unhorsed twice – and that’s only what we can see from our position. Reports are that many riders had to dismount or were thrown. When we are attacked by the Russian Household Cavalry later in the afternoon – we can’t see the impact – they are still a formidable opponent – and we must form square to protect ourselves at least twice.

Smoke and Fire – March up hill in ranks to face the enemy – exchange of fire, and then hand to hand combat. Some folks get caught up in the moment – and there is one guy who must be restrained by his own troops when he draws sword and tried to single handedly take down the Garde. Three Russians run around our flank and make a grab for our flag – but we stand strong and push them off.

The battle ends with the Russians and Austrians abandoning their cannons, and pushed into the crowds of spectators gathered on the far eastern side of the battle field , – much to their delight. As predicted – there are few fallen – but the need for water is great – and I spend much of the battle either giving out water or helping soldiers with fouled muskets to clean and repair their weapons.

At the end – there is a huge award giving cermony – Soldiers selected for getting Medals of Honour are handed their hard won awards at the hands of Napoleon.

Among them is Victor Eiser – who Napoleon singles out to not only receive the Legion of Honor – but to be given it with special thanks and a personal greeting.

Later that night – over dinner at the Stara Posta – Napoleon comes to our table to personally emphasize that of all the medals awarded today – Victor’s Legion of Honour is the one that he personally felt was most deserving.

Nice end to a nice day.

M. Le Docteur Jean Vivant de Clairemont
reporting from the fileds of Austerlitz, Czech Republic.