We spent the final long weekend of our October holiday in the far west of Bohemia, close to the German border, staying in the little village with the somewhat surprising name of Babylon. To get there from Slavonice, we spent a good part of Friday 8th October driving, firstly through parts of northern Austria before passing back into the Czech Republic. Our journey then took us through Šumava, a highly attractive area of mountains, forests and lakes, parallel to the German border. Having now driven through Šumava, this area has been added to my ‘must re-visit and explore more’ list of places in the Czech Republic.
Babylon is where Jack, an Irish member of our St. Clement’s congregation, has a house that dates from the first decade of the twentieth century, which he has spent the last few years, restoring to its former glory. We have visited and stayed with Jack in Babylon on a couple of previous occasions and enjoyed his hospitality. On this occasion, he gave us a wonderful meal on our arrival on the Friday evening but then set out for Prague by train on Saturday morning, leaving us alone to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of his house and the beautiful rolling hills and woods of the surrounding countryside.
Just after Jack left, we decided we should make the most of the fine, sunny autumnal weather and set out to walk, through the woods beyond the railway station, to the neighbouring village of Pasecnice. The village has a very picturesque setting with a small lake in the centre. On the hillside beyond the lake is the village Church which we were delighted to find open as an older man and two older ladies were busy sweeping the Church forecourt and arranging flowers.
The Church is quite new having only been consecrated in 2003. It is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi whose feast day is 4th October, the previous Monday. Our Czech was sufficient to be able to read the notice on the door saying that on the following day, Sunday 10th October at 11am, there would be a mass to celebrate their patronal festival. This was the obvious reason for all the cleaning and flower arranging that was going on.
The gentleman had a little German and was very pleased to show us the interior of the Church. It was decorated in typical Roman Catholic fashion with various pictures and statues of saints. As well as a statue of St. Francis, there was also one of St. James or ‘Santiago’ as the gentleman said as he pointed it out. We both then told him that we had made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and he proudly told us that he had done so too, beginning his journey at Leon.
On Sunday morning, we once more walked through the woods from Babylon to Pasecnice, in order to attend the mass and see how the village celebrated its patronal festival. We were not disappointed! The Church was already nearly full when we arrived about twenty minutes before the service was to begin. We stood at the back of the Church which continued to fill up so that by 11am, there were also many people standing outside on the Church forecourt. Fortunately, the day was fine and sunny so the Church doors could be left open.
This border area of the Czech Republic is known as the Chodsko Region and the local people, the Chods, have customs and traditions which are a blend of Bavarian and Bohemian. For this special occasion, many of the women, both old and young, wore their traditional costume with brightly coloured floral dresses and orangey-red stockings. Two of the men, including the one we had met the previous day, were also dressed in their traditional costume which includes yellow breeches and long white socks.
The parish priest, who is based in the nearby town of Domažlice, introduced the Spanish visiting preacher and celebrant for the mass, Father Antonio. As Father Antonio was a foreigner who has learned to speak Czech, he spoke Czech much more clearly and distinctly than many a native Czech speaker. As a result, Sybille and I understood far more of what he was saying than we normally do listening a native Czech speaker going at full speed!
After the mass was over, the whole congregation processed to the neighbouring nursery school which had recently been renovated and extended, for the building to be dedicated. These proceedings were accompanied by a man, dressed in traditional costume, playing the Chod dudy (bagpipes). His daughter, realising we were not native Czechs, asked if we spoke English or German to which of course we replied ‘both’! She told us that her father had been to Scotland a few years previously, to attend a festival of bagpipers which he had very much enjoyed.
Sybille also managed to speak in Spanish with Father Antonio, (much to his surprise!), to find out what a Spanish priest was doing in the West Bohemian countryside. The answer was that he is a member of the Augustinian order based in central Prague at Sv. Tomáš, where along with his colleague Father Juan, they celebrate mass in Spanish. Another of their colleagues is the American Father William Faix who celebrates mass in English and whom I know well. The Augustinians own a Church and monastery in Domažlice but no longer have a community living there. However, they maintain their connection with the parish by coming to help out in the various Churches a few times each year.
Our amazing morning had one final instalment. One of the two ladies we had met the previous day, insisted that we walk back with her to a house just the other side of the Church. There she proceeded to present us with a large cake, together four little cakes, all in a box to enable us to carry it safely back to Babylon. What we had done to deserve this gift we did not know. But her broad smile seemed to say that she just wanted to thank two foreigners who had effectively gatecrashed their village celebration!
There are many people who will tell you that Czech people are not welcoming or hospitable. This has never really been our experience and the warmth of the welcome given to us by the villagers of Pasecnice on Sunday 10th October 2010 will remain long in our memories.