I wanted to go on a Czech bead tour for more than a year before the dream became a reality. In that time, I had plenty of planning opportunity and it paid off. I found several companies that offered Czech beading tours online. Bananas4Beading, a Czech company operated by a British expat and his Czech wife, seemed the most flexible and best suited for my interests and timeline.
But before I could book, I needed a travelling companion. I called my youngest sister Robin. She and I started designs2c in 2006, when she still lived in the States. Robin came up with the name, designs2c. The name spoke to our work but also to our being two Cathcart sisters. She and her family moved to Edinburgh, Scotland just one year later, but I elected to carry on with the business and the name. It seemed natural to invite her, and she jumped at the opportunity to visit Prague and do the tour with me. We agreed two days in Prague followed by three days on the bead tour in early March. March might seem like a strange time to go on a European holiday. But the airfares from Pittsburgh to Scotland were super inexpensive. Besides, it was off season for my business, and Robin’s kids were in school. Perfect.
I contacted Keith Dudman of Bananas4Beading with the dates we wanted to visit and he quickly got back to confirm them and to learn what kinds of beads we were interested in. He would customize the tour and make appointments with the factories that suited us. None of what follows would have been possible without Keith. He understands the history and process of Czech glass production and loves it. Keith has an extremely good relationship with the range of bead manufacturers. He was the only reason that we could visit such a range of places and learn so much. He was our driver, translator and teacher.
After two lovely days in Prague, Keith collected Robin and me from our hotel early on March 2. Jablonec nad Nisou, our base for the next 2 nights and three days, is an hour and a half drive outside Prague in the Jizera Mountains. It was the perfect day for a drive through the Czech countryside which is a mix of small farms and villages in rolling hills until we approached the Jizera Mountains. Most noteworthy along the way was the massive Skoda car factory that straddled both sides of the highway.
Communities in Northern Bohemia and the Sudetenland first began producing costume jewelry in the 18th century and by the 19th century the region was well known for its glass and bead industries, that continue today. As we entered the area immediately around Jablonec he pointed out the distinctive beading houses that dotted the countryside. (More on this part of our trip in my next blog about the bead making process. Several of the shops we visited are attached to factories and we were allowed to visit and film their production.)
The drive served as the perfect orientation for the coming tour. We began to learn a bit the region and about Keith who moved to the Czech Republic more than 20 years ago. He started doing bead tours because his mom was an avid beader. His knowledge of the country and understanding of the language made him perfect. He told us that over the next three days we would visit Czech bead shops and factories, all with different styles of beads, and a glass museum. Keith pulled out some catalogs for a few of the places we would visit that day, and he asked some more questions about the types of beads we found interesting.
This was when it got hard. How was I supposed explain what I wanted to see when I hadn’t seen it and didn’t know how the first place would differ from the next and the one after that? How was I supposed to decide? It was going to get even harder.
Our first stop was the Rutkovsky factory. The two brothers who run the business met us in their small showroom and offered us cappuccinos. In their early to mid thirties, they looked very alike and reminded us of teddy bears. Coffee in hand they led us to their warehouse area. OMG!!! It was an overload of a awesomeness. I knew that I was exclaiming a lot even before Robin said, “Paula, you should NEVER play poker.” The room was new and modern, like their building, with rows of shelves stocked with countless packages of beads. Bead Heaven! There was so much I didn’t know where to begin. It was so overwhelming. Still, I had to start somewhere and ultimately I came away with some lovely and unusual beads.
The next stop was an early lunch in a small, family run, community restaurant, built in a valley along a small river, with goats in the yard next door. There warmed by a wood burning stove, Robin and I enjoyed our first taste bowl of garlic soup. Following lunch we visited an “antique” shop straight out of American Pickers and another bead shop down a muddy country lane. I came away with unique things from both places.
It was about three o’clock and Keith drove us back to Jablonec and the family run, Hotel Na Baste. There we made a quick stop in a supermarket for snack and cash. Many of the bead shops only accepted cash and this was the first of several trips to an ATM. We had a couple of hours before we were supposed to meet Keith in the hotel dining room, so despite the intermittent snow flurries/wet rain, Robin and I set off to explore town. We quickly saw how prosperous glass had made the community in the previous centuries. The neighborhood was full of large homes. Some were converted to businesses and even a police station, but others were obviously still homes. Mixed into the outskirts were large towers of flats, some left over the communism, with newer construction beginning to pop up.
The next morning we were off early to Matura Beads, home of Matubo. The Matura family has generations of glass bead experience. A great grandfather invented the automatic bead press. The family lost their company to the communists after WWII but bought it back before the fall of communism. If they had waited until after the fall, they would have had it freely returned to them by the government, like other nationalized companies. While this timeline meant they paid for something they could have had for free, it also meant they were able to get a jumpstart in the modern Czech bead business. We are all the better for it. Today, they are leaders in the business and home to superduo, rullo and superuno beads. They are also ramping up their production of seed beads. Here in the States, it is easy to find their larger beads, 6/0 and 8/0 beads, but 11/0 seed beads are still rare. And they haven’t yet made the super small 15/0 beads. They use a laser to cut their seed beads to consistent, precise sizes not achieved by even Toho.
In fact, until the trip I hadn’t know about their seed bead production and certainly hadn’t used them. Knowing my style of work, Keith realized a stop at Matura was a must. I went absolutely gaga over the range of super duos. They showed us into a room of shelves stocked up with red bins full of superduos! I saw hundreds of colors and finishes, many, many of which I had never before seen! They gave me a little scoop and bags to fill. Robin proved the most worthy of sisters and assistants and held the bags while I scooped and marvelled. While the women working didn’t speak English, they certainly understood my sighs of appreciation. Price was determined by kilo, and I bought 6.5KG of superduos, more than 14 pounds!
I have one REALLY big regret about this stop on the tour though. As I mentioned, I had never heard about or used the Matubo 11/0 beads. I didn’t want to invest a lot of money on an untested product, so I bought just 4 smallish bags of different colors. Well, I have used them now and know that I can never go back. I’m trying desperately to source more in a range of colors. Matura has a couple of US distributors but the selection of 11/0s is pitiful compared to the selection at the factory. I messaged the company but haven’t heard back. I’ll keep you posted as this develops.
Later that day we popped into a small lampwork shop gallery for Robin and headed back over the hills to Jablonec to visit its Museum of Glass and Jewelry. This place alone would make a visit to Jablonec worthwhile. The first floor was devoted to the history and production of beads, jewelry and buttons. On the second we explored the history of Czech glass and saw fabulous modern examples of functional and art glass. Among other things, I learned that the Czech company Lasvit manufactures the Tour de France trophies.
Our final visit on our final day was one of my favorite stops, Czech Beads. Their name may not be fancy but their beads speak for themselves. At this point I had run out of space in my luggage as well as Robin’s. I paid for my order with them to be shipped. I’ll share that when it arrives. This family run business gave us one of the best insights into the history and manufacture of Czech beads. More on that in Adventures in Glass Country (Part 3).
There are some experiences that change you forever. My bead tour to the Czech Republic in early March was one such experience. I began making and selling jewelry with my youngest sister Robin more than 12 years ago. So, it was fitting that I shared this adventure in beads with her.
Robin and I parted ways in the jewelry business when she had her first child and relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland for her husband’s job twelve years ago. She and Simon, a professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, have called Scotland home since then. My trip began in Scotland catching up with her family of four and recovering from a “wee bit” of jetlag. Then the Cathcart sisters hit the road.
We decided to spend two days in Prague before beginning the business part of our visit. I’d done my research and booked us into Hotel Residence Agnes, TripAdvisor’s #1 hotel in Prague. The reviews were amazing and the prices reasonable. Everything said about the hotel was true and then some. We arrived very late Saturday evening at Vaclav Havel Airport where we were picked up by the hotel’s van. At the hotel, the greeting was exceptional warm and friendly with an immediate offer of a glass of wine to refresh us. Wine in hand, we sat down with the receptionist who confirmed our guided tour for the next day, arranged by the hotel, and oriented us to the city on a map. He gave advice on sights, music events and restaurants and offered to make reservations for whatever we chose. Wine finished and orientation done, we followed him to our pleasant, comfortable, quiet room where we fell immediately fell asleep.
The next morning’s tour of the city began early so we were up and eating by 8. Breakfast at Hotel Agnes was a mostly European style buffet with meat and cheese, fruit, bread, yogurt and fixings, and a selection of breakfast pastries. The warming dishes also offered selection of cooked eggs, sausages and beans (for the Brits). Three attendants were on hand to offer custom omelets and to prepare and serve beverages. Like the receptionist the night before, they were warm and friendly, asking what our plans were, etc.
After a several emails with the hotel prior to our stay, I agreed with their recommendation of a city tour guide who they booked for us. The cost was the same as the larger tours found on line. We lucked out. Robin and I were the only people on the tour that Sunday when Renata picked us up in the lobby. After the hotel staff ensured we had bottles of water for the road, their shuttle drove us up to the castle to begin the tour.
Early Sunday, the grounds of the castle were empty and quiet, except for the bells of St. Vitas Cathedral. Renata mentioned that the Cathedral was closed on Sunday unless we were interested in attending mass. As a Catholic, I was pleased at the opportunity to attend church, and still be a tourist. The Czech mass meant we had a rare opportunity to hear the cathedral organ and it was amazing. Not many people, particularly no tourists, were in church so our visit was basically a private tour of an suburb example of gothic architecture.
Following mass Renata began a more typical tour of the castle grounds that were now teaming with tourists. After meandering through the castle and stopping to take stunning panoramic photos of Prague, we walked down the hill to area near Charles Bridge. All the while Renata kept up a stream of informative but not overwhelming commentary about the buildings, churches and museums that we passed including the history of the city. The tour included lunch at Lokal U Bile kuzelky. I enjoyed beer, potatoes and onions, and smazeny syr (fried cheese) with a side of tartar sauce, a very common and popular Czech dish. While delicious, especially the potatoes, the food was heavier than what I was used to. Still when in Prague…. Over lunch Robin, Renata and I shared family stories, talked about work, politics and culture. It was extremely interesting to talk with her about the fall of communism and the general pride the Czech people feel in being part of Nato.
After lunch, we leisurely strolled over the Charles Bridge into the area near the Astronomical Clock, which Renata advised us to see early the next morning before the square became packed with other tourists. We strolled through the Jewish Quarter and finally back to our hotel. All the while Robin and I were amazed by the architecture of the buildings. We would turn a corner to discover one building better than the last. Five hours had never passed so quickly and pleasantly.
Back at the hotel and true to form, we were warmly greeted at the desk and offered wine. They inquired about the tour and our plans for the remainder of the day. Based on their successful tour recommendation, we took them up on the offer to book tickets for that evening’s performance at the Spanish Synagogue followed by reservations for dinner across the street at V. Kolkovne. We loved having someone arrange the evening for us. The Synagogue was stunning and the acoustics perfect. The program billed the evening as Bolero, Carmina Burana but included Dvorak and pieces from Evita, Porgy and Bess and some Hebrew songs. Early in the performance, Robin, who had been a little less enthusiastic about our musical evening, leaned over and whispered, “This is really good. I’m glad we came.”
When the concert ended we headed over to V. Kolkovne another traditional Czech restaurant. Robin was super adventurous and tried the rabbit with dumplings. I stuck to something I knew, beef with a side of potatoes. Svickova na smetane is marinated sirloin in a lovely sauce made from root vegetables, topped with cranberry jelly and whipped cream. The meats were quite good but that’s it. Neither of us could stomach the dumplings and the potatoes were a disappointment after the lovely ones at lunch. We were discovering that Czech food was a bit too heavy for us to stomach. Our lack of appetite did not endear us to the surly waiter. Our hotel had warned us that the waiters were not terribly friendly, but that the food was good traditional fare. Score one on the food but the service was the worst I have ever experienced. But back in our happy place, the Hotel Agnes lobby, wine flowed upon our return and until we went to bed.
Monday was our second and last day in Prague. After another delightful breakfast in the hotel and more inquiries about our plans and offers of assistance, we headed out to see the Astronomical Clock. We decided to wander around checking out the overly abundant garnet jewelry stores and visiting antique shops until the Museum of Design opened. Renata had mentioned it the day before, and we were both keen to go. As it was Monday, the museum was closed. With no real backup plan we walked back over the Charles Bridge to find a little square with pop up market. It was close to lunch but the line for the sausage stall was too long and neither of us was very excited by the prospect of more meat. Instead, we grabbed a glass of warm honey wine. It was very tasty but it packed a punch. Back up the hill and in the castle we decided to stop in the Lobkowicz Palace and tour its museum. We discovered a gem. The Lobkowicz family recovered the building after the fall of communism and turned it into a museum to showcase their collection and family history. As one might expect of a family museum, the collection was eclectic, portraits (lots!!), weapons, ceramics, musical instruments and a smattering of furniture. The museum also had a small restaurant where we thankfully enjoyed more familiar fare, light on meat and heavy on veg.
Our last night in Prague ended like the other two, over wine in the hotel lobby. We turned in early because the next day the real adventure began. Keith Dudman of Bananas4beading was picking us up at 8:30. We were headed an hour north to the area around Jablonec nad Nisou, seat of the Czech glass industry.