Several years ago, my wife and I took bookbinding lessons from Jan and Jarmila Sobota in Richardson, Texas. We kept in touch with them after they moved back to the Czech Republic, and we later made arrangements to visit them, take additional lessons, and see other parts of the country.
In late September, we flew to Prague, where the Sobotas met us at the airport and drove us to their home in the village of Loket, 80 miles west of Prague. Loket is a small, mediaeval town built around a castle started in the year 1234. The town is almost completely surrounded by a loop of the Ohoeme River, hence the name, Loket, which means 'elbow' in Czech. There are only about 800 people living in the old city within the river boundary and another 1,200 in the neighboring area. The Sobotas have a three-story building on a corner of the main town square next to the town hall. We rented a large room on the third floor of their next-door neighbors' building for $20/night. We shared a modern bathroom with one other room and were provided clean linens and towels every week, with the option of a daily home-cooked breakfast for $2.00 per person. Our building had the date of 1688 above the front door; the exterior and roof had just been restored to its original appearance, although the interior had been redone and modernized sometime earlier.
In the Sobota's building, the bindery and workshop are on the ground floor; the kitchen and living room are on the second floor and three bedrooms are on the third floor. Their building is older than the one we stayed in and has a stone stairway to the second floor and walls more than two feet thick throughout. Their building has also been modernized and completely rebuilt inside, with the exterior restored to its original appearance. In addition to the equipment they brought from Texas, Jan was able to find the board cutter he owned before they left Czechoslovakia in 1982 and has been able to acquire additional vintage pieces. The effect of the town and the Sobota's bindery is that you have stepped back several hundred years in time.
Our daily routine was to get up around 8:00 a.m., at which time I would go to a small bakery two doors away and have a cup of fresh coffee and a pastry for the equivalent of $.25. As I drank my coffee, various residents of the village would come in with their shopping baskets to buy pastries and cheese as well as fresh loaves of heavy, dark bread. They would then go down the block to the greengrocer's or across the square to the butchers shop. While I was having coffee, Jarmila would often come in during her daily shopping rounds. We would then go to the Sobota's about 9:15 a.m. for a breakfast of fresh bread, rolls, pastries, cheese, salami, tomatoes, green peppers, and tea. If anyone had any symptoms of a cold, we would all dose ourselves with a shot of homemade slivovitz, which is a double-distilled plum brandy.
After breakfast, we would start work in the bindery. We learned to do two variations of historic bindings with wooden board covers and metal clasps. We spent six to eight hours per day working on our books, with breaks for lunch or coffee, either at the house or at one of the local cafes or coffee shops. In addition to our classes, we took several trips around the countryside, including a three-day visit to Prague, which is one of the most interesting and beautiful cities in the world. One could easily spend a week there. We enjoyed Jan and Jarmila's favorite restaurants. In addition, we visited a book publisher friend and other bookbinders. One memorable evening was spent at the Czech Artist's Center, where we ate dinner with many of Jan and Jarmila's friends and drank more beer, slivovitz and other local brews than we needed. Another day, we went to Kadan, a mediaeval town a bit larger than Loket, to visit Jana Pribikova at her bindery. We also spent time in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), a famous spa town only a short drive from Loket.
Other activities included a visit by the Czech Premier, Vaclav Klaus, who came to see the Sobota's bindery, where Jan presented him with a specially-bound book of Czech poetry. This occurred the same weekend that a traveling carnival was set up in the town square. Families from Loket and the surrounding area came to eat, drink and let their children enjoy the rides. We loved seeing all the activity right in front of the bindery for a few days and enjoyed the beer and sausages, the music and the color that the rides and toy vendors brought to the town square. In spite of listening to the daily patter from the man trying to entice people onto the rides, our ability to speak Czech did not progress very far. We continued to rely on smiles and hand gestures throughout our stay; and we found return smiles and helpfulness wherever we were. English was very rarely spoken; German was more common; but we were delighted to find someone who knew Spanish - a Czech who had served in the Foreign Legion. Colorful town characters were many!
Traveling to and from the Czech Republic was very easy. Prague has a new, state-of-the-art airport, the only airport we have visited that serves delicious food and provides a fantastic salad bar. The cost of travel and living in the Czech Republic is less than in the US and there are a wide range of accommodations available. Out trip provided a great way to learn new bookbinding methods and to spend time in another country living with local people.
We would highly recommend this trip to anyone wanting to study with two of the most highly skilled and respected bookbinders of our time, to see a beautiful country and to live with friendly and gracious people.
By Kim B. Batcheller
What Knot Fine Bookbinding,
1114 Fearrington Post, Pittsboro, NC 27312;
tel: 919 542-4856; fax: 919 542-5043