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The Visegrad Four or V4 is an alliance, dating back to 1991, between Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia for socio-economic cooperation. The union was formed at a summit meeting held in the Hungarian castle town of Visegrád, thus its eponymous name. Historically, the four Central European countries have always been part of the same civilization. Today, despite speaking four different languages and having diverse traditions there is a thread of similarity running through them.
I found my visit to the Visegrad Four culturally enriching. With history and art sharing prime space, walking the streets felt akin to being in a museum. The high-end craft here was exquisite and I learnt this was one the regions of Europe where artists created masterpieces and pampered the lavish lifestyle of aristocracy and royalty from around the world, the Maharajas of Mysore and Patiala included. Here's a pick from the scintillating spread.
Almost everyone who goes to Poland comes back with a bit of amber. Considered as precious as gemstones, amber actually is hard, translucent resin found on fossilised coniferous trees. Its colour ranges from white to its most common hue: dark brownish-orange; recall the amber on traffic signals.
Once upon a time amber used to be as cheap as pebbles, no longer though, with Baltic supplies diminishing. But Poland remains synonymous with the resin and visitors throng retail outlets, loving looking at lampshades, trinket boxes, cutlery and jewellery all hand-crafted with amber. I was visiting the historic city of Krakow, southern Poland, and found the quaint Sukiennice, in the Main Market Square, a delightful spot to browse around. As the supply of raw amber shrinks, amber artisans in Poland have turned sophisticated with their designs. Gone are the days when huge amber chunks were worn as jewellery or used in decorations. Today's fare incorporates a lot more sterling silver than amber but the craftsmanship and quality of product is classy.
And just in case you thought the insect embedded in the amber pendant your friend had on was a reject, be aware that it's considered unique and a symbol of being the real thing.
In the town of Modra, about 25 km from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, you can see shop-windows dressed with prettily-designed ceramic ware. This is no ordinary product but one of the most well-known symbols of Slovakian culture.
Created in typical shades of royal blue or bright yellow on a creamy-white base, the pottery has an appealing rustic tone about it and can be found in almost every Slovakian home. Popularly known as Modra ceramic and dating back to the 14th century, hand-painted floral patterns is its distinguishing element. Other motifs include cups, decanters, grapevines or the Christian Cross, and these were meant to depict various trades. A decanter made for a vineyard owner, for example, would have a grapevine.
The most common and much-sought after shape is the wall-plate (some of these are available with gently-latticed borders), besides which vases, jugs, bells, baskets and tableware items are other fast-movers. The town of Modra has painstakingly preserved the tradition of hand-painted ceramic, making it one of its kind in Slovakia.
This indeed is dishware fit for the kings. The Windsor Castle orders from here and so does the Spanish royal family. Presidents as Kennedy and Regan have sipped tea in it and so have stars like Celine Dion and Harrison Ford. It's called Hungarian 'white gold' and the reason is simple: only the finest porcelain goes into its manufacturing, pure gold is used to dress it up, and most exclusively, each item available on its shelf is hand-painted. Founded in 1826, Herend Porcelain ranks among the largest hand-painted ceramic manufacturers in the world. Situated in the town of Herend in Veszperm county, its on-site Porcelain Museum has a brilliant display of designs down the ages. The complete process of creating the pieces of art can also be viewed. The museum tour ends with a cup of tea or coffee served in signature Herned ware, making the beverage more special.
Herend patterns have been known for their elegance. One of its classic designs is the 'Victoria pattern', with Oriental-style flowers and butterflies, and legend goes that it was named after Queen Victoria who in 1851 ordered a dinner-set bearing this award-winning motif. Recently, to commemorate the birth of Prince George, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, Herend has produced a limited edition table-set comprising a bowl, plate, cup, fairy tooth box and a shoe. The set is adorned with a tweaked version of the Victoria pattern in shades of lilac, and is all set to become the next best-seller.
If exquisiteness needed an illustration, Herend is that example. It's almost within reach of you and me, provided we are ready to spend close to Rs 10,000 for a cup-saucer. It's an indulgence and, yes, worth it.
Bohemia crystal and glass
The Bohemia region in present day Czech Republic has always been known for its cutting edge glass manufacturing. Its history goes back to the 13th century when glassmakers stumbled upon a formula that made glass stronger than that being produced elsewhere. Connoisseurs hailed it and Bohemia glass and crystal firmly arrived on the global map never to look back. Prague is ranked among art capitals of Europe and the glass industry is one of its crown jewels. A variety of techniques are involved in creating fine glassware and highly skilled artists work round the year to produce some of the best vases, chandeliers, crockery etc that hold pride of place in homes around the globe. Glass and crystal with cut-work, enamel, litho prints of popular artists and reverse glass painting are Czech areas of expertise.
Moser is a leading name in Czech glass manufacturing, known for its lead-free products and one-of-its-kind coloured glassware. I would recommend a visit to its signature store, housed in a lovely old building, in Pargue.
But how do you distinguish between glass and crystal glass? The basic test: Hold up the object to light. If its glass behaves as a prism and shows you rainbow colours it’s crystal glass. If not, you’re holding plain glass! And did you know, if you run a wet finger on the rim of a crystal glass it produces a musical tone. Test it, get it.
Published Nov 2013