** CZECH REPUBLIC 2009 - Weeks 5~7 **
2009 - Northern Moravia and East Bohemia:|
We had varying reports of Zlín: one view described it as a grim industrial city, another spoke of its fascinating contribution to Czech industrial and social history as the home of Bat'a shoes, whose factories were once the world's largest producer of footwear. While its functionalist architecture would not appeal to everyone's aesthetics tastes, Zlín would at least present an entirely different urban landscape from that seen so far. So we had to go to see for ourselves.
The 20th century garden city of Zlín had been the inspiration of one man, Tomaš Bat'a (pronounced Batya). Son of a local cobbler, Bat'a worked his way up from nothing to become Czechoslovakia's most famous millionaire. When he founded his shoe factory in 1894, Zlín's population was just 3,000; now with its straggling suburbs, it's about 90,000. Bat'a made his fortune supplying boots for the Austro-Hungarian army in WW1. Between the wars, his Zlín-produced shoes had outlets world-wide. He engaged the leading architects of the day to design his dream of the ultimate in garden cities where his workers would be provided with good standards of housing, schooling, leisure and health facilities and a fair wage. 'Work collectively, live individually' was his favourite aphorism. Bat'a was killed in air crash in 1932 at the peak of his powers, and the company's success was continued by his son Tomaš junior. Forced to flee the 1938 German annexation, Tomaš re-established the family firm in Canada, expanding it into the vast multi-national company it is today, albeit with production moved to low-cost Asia. Tomaš junior returned to Zlín after the fall of Communism in 1989, but was unable to reclaim the Zlín factories through restitution. Shoes are now no longer manufactured in Zlín, but Bat'a shoe shops are still to be seen in every town across the country, including the flag-ship shop in Wenceslas Square, Prague.
Communist period failed industrialisation and economic stagnation have left only a hint of the model garden city that was Bat'a's dream for Zlín in the form of the surviving distinctive functionalist architecture of the former shoe factory, box-like buildings of concrete frame, brick infill and plate glass. The 16 storey former Bat'a HQ building called Mrakodrap (Skyscraper), so advanced in its day and now used as Zlín's city council offices, still has displays on the Bat'a story. And in one corner you can still see Tomaš senior's office. But true to his avant-garde image, this was no ordinary office; instead it was a huge air-conditioned glass encased lift fitted with all the technological trappings of the day, by which 'the Boss' could ascend to every floor of his open plan offices. The rooftop café-terrace gave a fascinating panorama over Zlín's city-scape. Three iconic features stood out: the hillside estates of standardised red brick shoe-box houses that Bat'a built for his employees (Photo 1 - Former Bat'a shoe factory and workers' houses at Zlín), the surviving buildings of his former shoe factory, and the shoddy featureless paneláky (tower blocks) of the Communist period which stand row upon row around the city (Photo 2 - Communist era paneláky (tower blocks) at Zlín).
The only token shoe presence in Zlín for today's visitors are those on display in the city's Shoe Museum which includes displays devoted to Bat'a products and a bust of the Old Man himself. Zlín was a visit with a difference. Although the shoe factories are long gone, the characteristic architecture is still there, a tribute to Bat'a's entrepreneurial vision, far-sightedness and business acumen, far more worthy and lasting than the sad and decaying legacy of Communist era mismanagement.
We moved north-east into the Beskydy Hills to camp at the small Bystřička campsite now run by an ex-pat Dutch family who in warmly welcoming manner, provided us with a hospitable base for four days. Autumn had now really arrived for real: the days were warm and sunny but the evenings now were dark, dank and chill. After a very cold night, the sun once risen above the high wooded valley sides spread a welcome warmth across our camp. The local town of Valašské Meziříčí provided us with provisions and 15 kms to the east, we reached Rožnov pod Radhoštĕm set under the highest hill of the densely wooded Beskydy range. This hilly region had been the traditional home of the Wallachians, semi-nomadic sheep farmers who had settled the area from the 15th century spreading from Poland and Ukraine. Ethnically and linguistically they had retained the distinctiveness from the surrounding Slavic Czechs in this remote region. Today their distinctive culture survives only in the typical Wallachian wooden folk-architecture of the region. Rožnov was once a town entirely of wooden buildings, but these have now been gathered into the country's largest skansen at the edge of town. The Valašská dĕdína (Wallachian village), a collection of wooden rural buildings relocated across the hillside, attempts to recreate the impression of a typical Wallachian highland sheep-farming settlement (Photo 3 - Wallachian farmstead at Rožnov pod Radhoštĕm skansen). In the centre of the skansen, a wooden 17th century Catholic church has been relocated from Vĕtřkovice (Photo 4 - Wallachian wooden church from Vĕtřkovice), and for those with long memories, the Czech long distance runner and gold medallist at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, Emil Zátapek, is buried in the churchyard. Next door, a wood-built hostinec (pub) served Budweiser-Budvar and 'typical Wallachian lunch', which suggested a reason for the Wallachian cultural demise: a constant diet of goats meat, potatoes, sauerkraut and dumplings and living in draughty ill-heated log cabins had caused the surviving Wallachs all to move into comfortable centrally-heated paneláky in town, nourished by Vietnamese take-aways. Well, that's the way it seemed to us after the skansen lunch.
The following day, warmed by golden autumn sunshine, we ventured further into the glorious Beskydy Hills to visit the village of Hodslavice with its 16th century wooden church. The village was the birthplace of the 19th century Czech nationalist politician and historian František Palacký whose statue stands in the square. On from here, we reached Štramberk, perched precariously on the hillside with the round tower of its ruined castle towering above. The village's wooden cottages continue to be lived in although the yuppie 4-tracks parked outside suggest that the occupants are no longer nomadic shepherds! But at least the dark-stained wooden rural architecture here was more real-world than the sanitised museum pieces of the skansen (Photo 5 - Traditional wooden rural architecture at Štramberk).
Kopřivnice is an unattractive industrial town surrounded by paneláky, but a reason to visit is the Tatra car museum devoted to the cars and trucks produced at the assembly plant in the town. Unlike Škoda whose cars were aimed at the mass market, Tatra had been producing luxury cars since 1897. Their silently running, powerful black limousine, the President, was the model of choice for the Communist elite from 1948, the ultimate symbol of power and Party privilege. Other lesser comrades, if they had the money, could choose a Tatra of any colour but black which was reserved for senior Party functionaries. In the leaner economic times since the fall of Communism in 1989, Tatra have concentrated on their heavy Tonka-toy trucks, seen earth-moving throughout the country. Even if transport is not your thing, the Tatra Technical Museum at Kopřivnice presents another fascinating piece of Czech social and industrial history and a chance to see at close hand the cars which symbolised the Communists' hold on power for 40 sordid years (Photo 6 - Tatra car for Communist elite at Kopřivnice museum).
The nearby village of Hukvaldy was the birthplace of the Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854~1928), a snippet of whose Glagolitic Mass accompanies this edition. Family poverty forced him to move to Brno at age 11 where he became a chorister and later organist at Mendel's abbey church. To our regret, we arrived too late to visit his cottage which now forms a museum to his life and work. His modernistic music may not be to everyone's taste but it is still characteristically Czech. What was ironic however was that in every CD shop, enquiries about a souvenir copy of Janáček's music evoked blank looks as if they had never heard of their country's renowned composer.
Beyond Frenštát, we turned off to the impossibly unpronounceable village of Kunčice pod Ondřejnikem searching for another wooden church. At the far end of the village, we reached this trip's easternmost point; it was homeward from here. We headed west to the upper Morava valley to the delightful Moravian town of Olomouc. Once past the industrial suburbs, we edged uncertainly into the centre dodging the trams. Olomouc, set on the Morava crossing of the lucrative Krakov trade route, had been a prosperous city until the destructive Thirty Years War. The city's trade wealth kept it alive, and 19th century industrialisation brought expansion to the 100,000 population of today. But unlike other North Moravian cities such as Ostrava which suffered such damaging pollution from the unrestrained heavy industry of the Communist period, Olomouc managed to retain its attractive Staré Mĕsto (old town) with its cobbled squares, medieval churches and Baroque fountains. The main square of Horní námĕstí is dominated by the radnice (town hall); the original Renaissance masterpiece of the astronomical clock was destroyed in WW2, its less worthy successor remodelled by the Communists in proletarian form with mosaics of cloth-capped worker spanner in hand and white-coated scientist. The square's northern side contains a monumental Holy Trinity Column, so large that its interior contains a chapel with resident nun to tell stories of the many saints portrayed on the column. What particularly distinguishes Olomouc are its fountains which grace the squares and street corners; most are Baroque incorporating gods and heroes, but a modern one dedicated to Arion with several turtles and a naked youth doing uncertain things with a dolphin stands near the Plague Column (Photo 7 - Fountains and Plague column in Olomouc Horní námĕstí>). People from Olomouc are noted for their friendliness towards visitors: a local lady seeing our interest in the fountains, proudly told us that, whereas Brno only had two fountains, Olomouc had six. We were duly impressed. In contrast with the elegance of Horní and Dolní námĕstí, a nearby side street is lined with a permanent reminder of scornfully philistine Communist planning; a concrete fronted supermarket intrudes tastelessly into the narrow street obscuring the vista of the Plague Column. But aesthetic sense is restored by the panorama of the square from the tower of Sv Mořic church and by the Gothic splendour of Olomouc's Cathedral. That evening we camped at the small and friendly Šternberk campsite with its classic circle of chaty (huts), a throw-back to workers' holidays during the Communist period, and still very much used today as cheap accommodation.
Across the Morava plain, we headed north beyond Šumperk into the Jeseníky Hills. A long series of hair-pins climbed endlessly up through the pine forests to the col at Červená horské sedlo; here we parked by the closed ski resort to follow a clear path up into the hills. Here for the first time we witnessed the obvious damage caused by acid rain from the air pollution of 40 years of irresponsible over-industrialisation during the Communist period. The now dead pine trees stripped bare of foliage stood as lifeless stumps across the hillside. New growth of young trees was beginning to become established since post-Communist governments had started seriously to tackle acid rain pollution, closing down lignite-burning power stations and enforcing filtration on factory smoke emissions. The contrast here in the hills between dead areas of tree stumps and more recent new growth of young trees was stark (Photo 8 - Acid rain damaged trees and new growth in Jeseníky Hills). This large scale lasting damage to the northern Czech forests is one of the most damning indictments of the 40 years of Communists mismanagement. We camped that night on the northern side of the hills close to the Polish border; autumn was now gathering pace and the leaves were falling.
Returning south over the hills, we passed from Northern Moravia into Eastern Bohemia, to visit Svitavy. The only reason for coming to this insignificant little town was that it happened to be the birthplace of Oskar Schindler whose story is told in the book Schindler's Ark, made into a film by Spielberg as Schindler's List. Born in 1908 in Svitavy of a Sudeten German family, Schindler was known as a hard-drinking womaniser who joined the Nazi party at a young age. In WW2 he used his party contacts to establish a enamel-ware factory in German-occupied Krakov using Jewish slave labour to make cooking pots for the German army and a fortune for himself. It was here that with ambiguous motivation, Schindler began sheltering Jews to save them from certain death in the camps, and by the war's end, he had rescued some 1,200 Jews. He died in Germany in 1974 and his remains were buried in Israel as a mark of gratitude. The Schindler film was given its Czech premier in Svitavy and came as an embarrassing revelation to the town's modern residents who had been brought up to believe that he had been head of a local concentration camp. Local opposition delayed a memorial to Schindler in his home town until 2003 when a small monument was erected in a park looking across to the house where he was born. The plaque in Czech and German reads Oskar Schindler - the unforgotten saviour of 1,200 persecuted Jews (Photo 9 - Oskar Schindler Memorial at Svitavy).
The nearby attractive town of Litomyšl has no such
difficulty remembering its most famous son; the 19th century Czech nationalist
composer Bedřich Smetana was born here and his statue stands pompously in the
arcaded square, a style we had become used to in the towns of German colonial
origins. Behind the square, Litomyšl's delightfully sgraffito-ed zamek (chateau)
rises imperiously above the town, each one of the façade's decorative panels
being slightly different (Photo 10 - Renaissance sgraffito-ed
Chateau at Litomyšl).
The sun broke through to brighten our visit to Pardubice. Beautiful art nouveau buildings separate the modern town from the old centre, entered through the medieval Zelená brána whose gateway tower gave a magnificent panorama over the central square of Pernštýnovo námĕstí (Photo 12 - Pernštýnovo námĕstí at Pardubice from Zelená Gate tower). This is a delightful urban space with its Neo-Renaissance town hall, Plague Column and beautifully gabled town houses many bearing elaborately sculpted façades. A walk around the parkland of the local zamek (chateau) completed a pleasant afternoon. A seamier side of Pardubice lies however in the suburb of Semtin where the huge chemical complex is home to the most notorious of Czech exports Semtex, the plastic explosive of choice for the world's terrorists of the 1980s. The name of Semtin was removed from maps such was Semtex's ultra-embarrassing associations; selling arms and explosives is not new to the Czechs, but such sordid dealings sully the Republic's modern squeaky-clean image particularly after EU membership. However a local firm keeps the flag flying, cashing in on the name's explosive connotations by producing a high energy soft drink called of course Semtex!
Through Hradec Králove we headed north, and beyond the attractive town of Trutnov, wound our way up into the wooded hills immediately along the Polish border and into the high valley of Adršpach. Our reason for venturing into this obscurely remote corner of the country was to walk among the skalní mĕsto (rock cities) of Teplice and Adršpach. This small range of forested hills NE of Trutnov has two areas of sandstone rocky protrusions where rock towers and pinnacles crowding in on one another rise 200~300 feet above the trees. It's a rock climbing paradise and the network of paths at the foot of the rock towers provided us with two days of fascinating walking. From our camp at Bučnice, the path led through the forest into the Teplice rocks. As we advanced, the rocks closed in around us. The path wove around the footings of the pinnacles towering overhead and squeezed through darkly enclosed clefts. The rocks were weathered into fantastic shapes and the chill air of the clefts sustained flora more usually associated with high alpine conditions. The route twisted among this network of towers and crevices, squeezing through a series of clefts between rock walls eerily chill and dank. The following day we followed a similar route among the Adršpach rocks, climbing and descending steeply on stepped ladders among the soaring rock towers and narrow crevices. The highest of the pinnacles rose to over 350 feet above the valley floor, and the path rose from the foot of the towers to vista points overlooking the rocks. The climax was a narrow squeeze-cleft less than two feet wide between soaring rock walls to 'escape' into the open area of forest (Photo 13 - Close squeeze in rock cleft at Adršpach Rocks). It really was a thrilling sensation descending such a scale of narrow passage with side walls disappearing upwards into darkness. Without doubt this had been two days of thoroughly spectacular walking amid the soaring sandstone towers and eerie rock clefts.
On a gloomy wet day, we continued NW into the forested Krkonoše mountains to camp at the ski resort of Spindlerův Mlýn, a place designed for the sole purpose of relieving German tourists of their Euros. Perhaps once it would have been the idyllic mountain hamlet the name implies, but today it's a soulless scattering of hotels, car parks and 'leisure facilities'. The juvenile River Labe flows down the steep sided valley from its source in a marshy water-gathering basin high in the Krkonoše mountains below the Polish border. The river flows on to merge with the Vltava north of Prague and on through Germany as the Elbe into the North Sea at Hamburg. The Krkonoše National Park Authority bans all camping in the hills, exploiting its monopoly to charge the incomparably extortionate price of 530Kč/night at its own campsite - sheer commercial greed which deserves to be treated with contempt. Spindlerův Mlýn is a beautiful mountainous setting, but not at that price (Photo 14 - Camping Medvĕdín in Krkonoše Hills National Park).
We moved on through the forested northern hills to reach Route 10, one of the main crossings from Poland. Descending steeply down-valley, we passed through a series of desperately impoverished and woe-begone towns, the industry that once had sustained them now in utter dereliction, their factories empty, decaying and covered with Na Prodej (For sale) signs. What hope was there for children born in such out-of-time places, left behind by the confidant onwards progress of the rest of the modern Czech state. What the industry along this remote valley had once been was unclear, but its factory remains now stood closed leaving the towns' inhabitants jobless and hopeless. It was the saddest sight we had witnessed in a country elsewhere pulsing with optimism. The road continued down valley to reach Železný Brod, one of a number of centres of Bohemia's famous crystal glass-making industry. The factories spread along the river and the grubby ranks of paneláky (tower blocks) on the hillside stood in stark contradiction with the well-maintained traditional wooden cottages spread up the hillside beyond the church, outstanding examples of timber folk-architecture usually only seen in more remote villages (Photo 15 - Traditional wooden houses at Železný Brod).
Continuing down the Jizera valley, we reached the delightful settlement of Malá Skála clustered along the riverbank. And here we found Camping Ostrov. Some campsites immediately on arrival instinctively give a good feel; this was one of them. Lit by the warm September afternoon sun, the setting was superb: flat, close-cropped turf along the riverbank lined with oak trees, looking directly up to the wooded hills above the village. And at 200Kč/night, a lovely welcome and magnificent setting, Camping Ostrov ranked with Jindriš as one of the trip's finest campsites. On a beautifully sunny autumn day, we spent Sheila's birthday walking the Malá Skála hills using the network of colour-flagged way-marked paths, with shafts of golden sunlight filtering down through the beech trees (Photo 16 - Walking in the wooded hills of Malá Skála). After a crystal clear and chill night, a golden sun rose above the line of hills, sparkling across the river and village for another perfect Indian Summer day of autumn weather (Photo 17 - Morning sun over our riverside camp at Malá Skála).
Through the unfortunately named town of Turnov, we reached the Český Ráj (Bohemian Paradise), an area of wooded hills with more 'rock city' towering outcrops, the Hruba Skála and Prahchorské Skalý. We spent two more challenging days following the trails among the sandstone towers and buttresses and squeezing through rock clefts (Photo 18 - Český Ráj sandstone rocks). Rock steps led up to lofty viewpoints set atop rock towers from where we could look across at the arrays of rock pinnacles and buttresses (Photo 19 - The sandstone rock towers of Český Ráj), and watch rock-climbers at work, clinging to the vertical faces or 'relaxing' precariously on the rounded-top summits after completing a climb (Photo 20 - Český Ráj rocks -a climbing paradise). The sandstone is particularly vulnerable to erosion and fracture damage; the rock's chemical composition forms a hard outer crust which once damaged, makes the more friable inner rock even more prone to erosion. All of the paths and steps were covered with sand eroded from the rocks, and the impact of tourism clearly poses a major conservation challenge in such a fragile environment.
We concluded this period of our Czech travels with a stay at yet another 'Best Campsite of the Trip', the small Camping Český Ráj set in an orchard behind a privately run pension in the village of Knĕžnice. We were welcomed with genuine hospitality by the owner, the facilities were modern and clean with washing machine and free wi-fi, the setting was delightful and the price 320Kč/night. Camp sites just don't come much better than that.
This was a
worthy conclusion to another three weeks of successful travels across Northern
Moravia and Eastern Bohemia. We have three more weeks in the Czech Republic to be
spent in Central and Northern Bohemia and in the capital city of Praha (Prague).
We learnt just in time that our planned time in Prague coincided with a visit by
the Pope, not something to contemplate with the inevitable crowds and added
security nightmare, so some serious rescheduling will be necessary. Join us
again shortly for our concluding period in Česka.