September 2011

The craftsmanship here is clear to see

Harrachov is to glass what Blackpool is to rock. Tom Mangold made the short trip from Prague to see Europe's oldest glassworks glass maker

The wine glass has an ephemeral quality; its body is gossamer thin; it has a long slender stem that looks unable to support the weight of its content, and oval-shaped teardrops cling like translucent blue limpets to its fragile base. I'm in Harrachov, in the Czech Republic, and I'm in glass heaven.

harrachov town

This tiny town of 1,700 souls is to glass what Montélimar is to nougat or Blackpool to rock. It also happens to be a famous winter-sports resort, set in the Krkonose mountain range in the north of the republic. Delay Prague for a few days; it's a friendly and history-driven capital city, an absolute must to visit. First, hire a car at the airport and drive the 135km to Harrachov.

The start of the journey is dull, then abruptly you are climbing into the mountains, past tumbling waterfalls, through pine forests, until you arrive at the resort. Harrachov, with air like champagne, looks, feels and smells like a Swiss tourist resort - but without the rudeness and the silly prices. Most visitors here are Poles from across the border or local Czechs.

The village has a mining museum, a ski museum, beautiful walks and endless cycle trails. But I had come to tour Novosad, the oldest working glassworks in Europe and probably the world. Founded in 1630 and famous for the quality of its stunning stemware glasses and chandeliers, it is currently facing hard times. The glass business is murderously competitive and quality is less in demand by a recession-hit world than cheap repro.

Petr Novosad, the 34-year-old son of the boss, is gloomy. "Frankly, we survive on day-tourists," he says, "about 500 a day, mostly from Poland. But we have our own modest little hotel here [£15 a night!], a good restaurant, and we own the attached brewery, too."

Only one of the two furnaces remains open. What I found there would keep British health and safety inspectors on overtime for a year. Small eightman teams of trained workers surround the gas-lit furnace, which burns at 1,750C, blowing glass, cutting, moulding, swinging molten glass around each other in a precision-timed work ballet, in nothing but shorts and open sandals - no gloves, no headgear, no eye protectors and, get this, they drink beer and smoke on the job.

"It is their wish to work like this," says a hapless Petr. "We employ them for life. They are like family. We don't order them to enforce normal safety rules."

The glassworks is currently working on an order for thousands of wine glasses for the American Crate and Barrel houseware chain, which will be sold for some $ 3.90 each. For Novosad, with its distinguished history and skills, it's a demeaning but life-supporting contract.

On I went, into the heat polishing and cutting room. Where once 40 men sat by wheel grinders and used only eye and rock-steady hand to carve the decorations into vases, glasses and chandeliers, today just one craftsman sits at his wheel (which is still powered by water turbine).

The works were compulsorily purchased by the Nazis after they occupied the former Czechoslovakia. As a precaution, the owners took their most precious glassware - the products, models and showcase pieces of nearly 300 years of glass-making - and hid them in a secret loft space, which they bricked up. The haul was never found.

Then, just when it seemed to be safe to unbrick the treasure trove, the Communists took over and the state seized the works. They found the secret space, but, in their ignorance, never appreciated the value of the glass, and merely gave a few score pieces away to friends and relatives.

Today, some 1,500 pieces remain in locked storage. There is no space to display them, but Petr, armed with the keys, took me on a privileged visit to his stash of beautiful old glass. Scores of wonderful pieces stand dust-covered and neglected. "When we have the money," he promised, "all this will be cleaned, restored and put on public display."

Until then, visitors to the site will have to content themselves with a side trip around the Novosad Brewery, which contains what must be one of the very few beer saunas in the world. Let me quote from its brochure: "Our original curative beer therapy will grant you a pleasant experience and rejuvenescent effects ... great for your cardiovascular system as well as skin nutrition." Well, why not?

There are six single saunas, two "Lovestory" double saunas and one "Lovestory" private sauna (don't ask) to choose from. They dunk you in a bath mixed with Czech spring water, five litres of light lager, milled hops and five litres of dark lager. You then wallow (not swallow) in this alcoholic brew for half an hour. Afterwards, you receive a massage. The effect, they allege, is to detoxify you (my GP's eyebrows hit the roof at this claim); it apparently "helps cure" acne and cellulite, while offering "total relaxation". After a beery dunk here, you might want to wait a while before getting back behind the wheel of your car to return to Prague.


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