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.

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.