From the Weeklies

It is not often that a Baroque church is put up for sale, but St. Mary's needs a new owner. Expo 2000 Hanover is coming to an end, so what's going to happen to the pavilions? And, a famous Czech designer who works for the royal families of the Arab world tells Kvety what life is like behind the palace walls. Those are some of the interesting stories in this weeks magazines.

Tourists strolling through Nerudova Street in the Old Town frequently stop to admire the Baroque architecture. One of the buildings on the street is the Church of St. Mary, close to the Italian embassy. However, few are lucky enough to get to see its interior, since mass is only held there once a month and most of the time it is closed to the public. Those who stop to admire it from the outside would probably be surprised to hear that the church is, in fact, up for sale.

The Catholic Church, which owns the building, says it has no use for it since there is no point in owning an empty shrine. "We want churches that serve their purpose," says Daniel Herman, spokesman for the Czech Bishops Conference. "We need to be where believers will come to us, for instance in densely populated suburbs. But almost all our churches are in the city centre and there aren't enough churchgoers to hold mass for."

News of the planned sale soon leaked, sparking a great deal of speculation among the locals, including rumors that the Church of St. Mary was to serve as a casino. The Czech Heritage Office promptly stepped in, saying there were strict rules governing the sale of a church and ruling out the possibility that it could serve other than as a place of worship.

Although St. Mary's is in dire need of repair, the Catholic Church is not short of potential buyers. Offers have already been made by three other churches, a church music association, the Tyn School, the Diocese Museum and others. It remains to be seen who will make the best offer--and whether St. Mary's will again open its doors to the public.

The World Expo 2000 in Hanover is coming to an end, and the fate of many pavilions hangs in the balance. The grounds must be cleared by the end of February, and after investing so much money into their pavilions, many countries are hoping to at least be saved the expense of dismantling and transporting them back. The most likely answer is to sell them. But only some of them have potential buyers.

The head of the Japanese pavilion Yoshi Tersawa told newsmen he had no false hopes about the fate of the Japanese paper-and-carton creation. It will doubtless end up as toilet paper for our German friends, he told the German weekly Focus. The Vatican is donating its pavilion to a small Latvian village, where it will be used as a shrine. The Indian pavilion has been sold to a German businessman who intends to turn it into an indoor tennis court. The pavilion from Nepal has been sold for a whopping 7,5 million Deutsche marks, and will serve as a meditation centre somewhere in Bavaria. The French pavilion is to serve as a sportswear shop; the Chinese as a centre for Chinese medicine.

In order to avoid any further expense, the Czech Republic has put its pavilion up for a symbolic 1 Deutsche mark. There have been several offers, but as yet no final deal. The dilemma for potential owners is whether to buy the respective piece of land and leave the pavilion where it is or have it dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere. Both alternatives are fairly expensive.

Still, the pavilion has successfully served its purpose and the Czech Expo team is said to be pleased with the number of visitors who passed through. Three to five thousand people a day in the first weeks after the opening, eleven to twelve thousand a day since. According to Focus magazine, Expo's organizers are less happy; the exhibition had 14 million visitors altogether, 26 million less that expected.

Czech models have an excellent reputation in the fashion world, and doubtless you wouldn't be hard put to think of at least one Czech supermodel, but can you think of a world famous Czech fashion designer? The name is Blanka Matragi, originally Blanka Kyselova from the town of Svetla nad Sazvou. Although her name is not mentioned along with the likes of Versace or Dior, she is THE favourite designer of the royals, emirs and sheiks of the Persian Gulf. And anyone who has seen one of her fashion shows knows that her designs are the kind that most women would give an arm and a leg for. Only most women can't afford them. In fact very few can: Queens, princesses and a handful of others around the world.

Every dress is worth a kings ransom, but Blanka says half the pleasure of working for the royal families of the Arab world is that they give her cart blanche; they care nothing about the astronomical cost and the result is a dream of expensive cloth, intricate embroidery and precious stones. Twenty people spend weeks working on one dress. "The nightgowns I have designed for some of these princesses would cause a major stir at European social events," Blanka told Kvety magazine. "But they just wear them to bed and order a matching quilt."

Although the dresses are as beautiful, or more so, than anything one sees in the world's fashion malls, Blanka's clients only get to show them off within the palace walls. "Some of the dresses are actually very daring," she says, "but they are only seen by husbands or close family." The rules are incredibly tough, and Arab princesses lead very sheltered lives.

On the other hand, as if to make up for it, no expense is spared to keep them happy within the palace walls. They have the best money can buy in every way and are kept in unbelievable luxury. Oxford professors are paid to give them private tuition, but that is entirely for their own benefit, since their whole life is confined to the palace.

Blanka Matragi is one of the favoured few who are granted admission to the women's quarters, but she says that even after 15 years many doors remain closed and certain rituals have to be strictly observed. In any case, she has done extremely well for herself, and it is with some amusement that she recalls the day she told her Czech friends of her plans to marry a Lebanese national. "You be careful," they warned, "he'll exchange you for a camel before the year's out!"

You may still love wearing it, but gold is no longer what it used to be. Its price has dropped steadily and the Czech National Bank has been selling its gold reserves fast, no longer considering them a valuable asset. Over the past seven years, the Czech National Bank has sold 56 tons of gold. The country's gold reserves have thus dwindled to a mere 14 tons--that's less than one percent of the Czech Republic's overall reserves. The United States still has more than 50% of its overall reserves in gold, Japan less than 2% and Hungary less than one percent. Czech bankers are convinced they have made the right move.

Countries which are hanging on to their gold reserves are getting into a bind, says Radek Urban of the Czech National Bank. Its value is decreasing and they cannot afford to sell their gold, because its price would drop even further. Our assets are in hard currency, which we consider safer, and if we wanted to buy back some gold at the current price, it would not present a problem, Urban told Lidove Noviny magazine. So, that's that, but of course that's no reason not to flaunt yours!