Eastern European Excursions

22 08 2012

One of the things that excited me about moving to Europe was the rich history of the continent. The place is filled with fascinating architecture and a wide array of facts about how a particular city, region or country has changed over hundreds of years. This year I have had the opportunity to explore a little bit of the history of this wonderful continent and it has really rejuvenated my passion for history and for teaching. Every time I visit a country in Europe I find myself wanting to go to several others to learn more about the history and to actually see the places I spent so much time learning about at the University of Guelph. During my time in the Czech Republic I was fortunate enough to be included on two excursions as part of the International Conference of Historical Geographers. These excursions offered some striking insights into the the history of the Czech Republic and allowed me to see a lot of the country.

As you can see in the pictures below, many of the towns we visited are still dominated by buildings erected during specific eras in the past. Standing in the square of Telc or Cesky Krumlov, or in the UNESCO heritage village of Holasovice, it is easy to believe that these places have changed very little in hundreds of years. Old buildings, stunning architecture and few signs of recent change suggest that one has walked into a living museum or stepped back in time. But what these landscapes don’t reveal, at least to the first glance or the typical tourist (fixated on the astronomical clock I mentioned in the last post) is the political and military turmoil that had occurred in this territory through the last century.

On our first excursion we went north west, to an area formerly know as the Sudetenland, to have a look at some of the border towns along the Czechia/German border. Guided by a young, knowledgeable Czech couple, our first stop was Prisecnice, a town that once had a population of 2,500 but was now located at the bottom of a resevoir, destroyed because it was never repopulated after the Second World War. We quickly discovered this would be a common theme of our trip as the repopulation of the Czech Germans resulted in the loss of approximately 3 million permanent inhabitants and in the depopulation of a large portion of mountainous and agriculturally unfavourable areas. Prisecnice was one example of more than 1000 villages that have disappeared since the Second World War.

As we continued on our excursion we discovered that some of these towns had made efforts to reinvent themselves. Located in the Czech mountains Bozi Dar had transformed from a 19th Century mining town to becoming almost uninhabited in the post World War II era, only to be redeveloped in the 1970s as a winter sports centre. While this has allowed the town to survive, the number of year round inhabitants has dropped significantly to only 200 as of 2011.

Another example is the town of Jachymov, where large deposits of silver were discovered in the beginning of the 16th Century. This became the second largest town in Bohemia through the 16th and 17th Century but because of the political and military strife of the 20th Century the population has rapidly declined. During the 1950s Jachymov survived as a location for labour camps for political prisoners of the Communist regime and became a closed town. Although almost 65,000 people passed through these camps during their exsistence the towns population continued to decline and now the town of 3,000 people has reinvented itself as a spa town.

Perhaps the most interesting example we saw of the impact of Czech German relocation occurred in Valec, a small Baroque town rich with beautiful statues and a gorgeous park. The statues and historical buildings in this town were in the process of being kept up with European Union money, but the interesting juxtapostion in this town was the condition of the houses. As you can see in a couple of the pictures below, the monuments and the chateau were upkept beautifully while the houses appeared to be on their last legs. We got the chance to meet the mayor of this town (who looked much more like an old Czech hockey player than a politician, with his flowing mullet and fu manchu) and he explained to us the difficulties of trying to rejuvenate a town on the Czech German borderlands.

Our second excursion, a three day journey around the wonders of Southern Bohemia, gave us a bit of a different perspective on Czechia and the development of towns around the south west portion of the country. The most intriguing part about towns such as Pisek, Jindrichuv Hradec, and Ceske Budejovice was despite the fact they are still densely populated towns the architecture does not reflect the changes in the Czech lifestyle throughout the last century. These towns, along with the others we visited (mentioned above), were typically European in the sense they were all connected to the Vltava river and centred around a square but were also designed in a specific period of time and have remained that way through all the turmoil of the 20th Century. Baroque and Renaissance architecture are prominent throughout Southern Bohemia, and these towns have been kept up in this fashion.

The one exception to this was the town of Tabor, located about 90km south of Prague. This was the home town of Michal, the younger of our two tour guides on the second excursion. As we walked into the centre of this town I mention to Dad that this was easily the most livable town I had seen on our excursion. Although there were some Baroque and Renaissance style buildings the town had buildings from every era right up to the current, post Communism, time period. Throughout the trip Dad and I had noticed a significant difference in attitude between Michal, and Marek, the older tour guide. Marek was brought up in the Communist era and it was very clear he preferred not to discuss things such as the Prague Spring or the Velvet Revolution. He mentioned to the tour group that this was quite common even today in the education system. Teachers, who lived through the communist regime, had a tough time teaching it and often overlook that era when teaching the history of their nation. Michal was much more open about his life growing up and we noticed that his english was also much more fluent than his older colleague. While Marek did a wonderful job on the tour, it was clear he had not learned english at a young age as Michal had and he struggled with a few terms.

While Czechia is a place filled with a history of political and military animosity it would be very difficult to tell that if you were unaware of the history. The architecture has been restored rather than rebuilt and the towns really do feel like something out of the 15th, 16th or 17th Century. The irony of course is that while there is all this history in Czechia a lot of it is only just being uncovered in the last 20 years. Tourism is rampant in all of Czechia (Prague in particular) because it has only recently become accessible to the world outside of the Iron Curtain. As we get further removed from the communist era I predict much more will be uncovered about the history of the country and the architecture will move forward rather than standing still. It would be very interesting to do a similar tour in 30 years and see just how much has changed throughout Czechia.

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