Monday, July 30, 2012

Beautiful Towns # 6 - Slavonice, Czech Republic

Located just one kilometre from the Austrian border and surrounded by rolling green hills, Slavonice is one of the most captivating small towns in the Czech Republic. Since it is still off the radar for most international tourists, the town retains a relaxed provincial feel fused with a dose of artistic and cultural flair due to the many Czech artists who have taken up residence and opened studios and galleries in the historic buildings. Found at the point where the historical regions of Moravia, Bohemia and Austria meet, the town has traditionally been considered part of Moravia but today it is included in the region of South Bohemia.

With two squares jam-packed with ornate buildings smothered in sgraffito facades and nary a concrete building in sight, it's easy to see why Slavonice is a cut above the average Czech border town. The facades are the most impressive and extensive to be found on Czech soil, and they are among the finest anywhere in the former lands of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The town went through a prolonged period of riches and prosperity lasting from the 14th to 16th centuries with its place on the main trading route between Prague and Vienna guaranteeing a steady stream of commerce to fund the construction of grand renaissance buildings. However, the main trade route was eventually moved to the east passing through the Czech frontier town of Znojmo, and the boom times came to a close in Slavonice.

The town's population was predominantly German-speaking before World War II, but the end of the war brought the mass expulsion of the German population from the Czech lands and the population of Slavonice dropped to a fraction of its former size. During the Communist period from 1948 to 1989 Czechs were not encouraged to resettle in the houses left vacant by the former German inhabitants, so the town became a ghostly shell of its former self.

Under the Communists the frontier with Austria was a highly restricted military zone as part of the iron curtain, and as a result Slavonice was essentially cocooned and prevented from growing or developing. Today this can be considered a blessing, since it effectively protected the town from having any ugly and tasteless concrete buildings constructed in its midst by Communist planners.

Nowadays, Slavonice has developed a strong reputation as a haven for Czech artists and writers who wish to escape to a beautiful corner of the countryside for creative inspiration far from the capital. There are several studios and workshops which have set up shop, and international artists, especially from Austria, have taken notice and begun to frequent the town as well.

In the early 1990's both Slavonice and the nearby town of Telč were promoting themselves as potential UNESCO heritage site candidates, but at the last minute the town council in Slavonice decided to withdraw its bid, so only Telč was placed on the UNESCO list in 1992. I expect that the townsfolk and artists in Slavonice simply decided that they preferred to keep their town low-key and liveable, and to let Telč handle the tour buses and mainstream international attention.

Slavonice is becoming increasingly popular with cyclists, and it features prominently in organized cycling trips across the country. It is possible to walk, cycle or drive the one kilometre south to the border, and from there the Austrian village of Fratres is less than one kilometre further on. Getting to Slavonice by public transport is easiest by train coming from Jihlava (passing through Telč on the way), though buses also connect the town to Jindřichův Hradec, Jihlava and Prague. While taking the two-carriage regional train south from Jihlava it feels like you're approaching the ends of the earth, and when the train pulls into the station in Slavonice it is truly the end of the line, with the Austrian frontier within sight.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Classic Castles # 4 - Červená Lhota, Czech Republic

This picturesque Renaissance chateau stands on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a small lake in South Bohemia, about 100 kilometres south of Prague. The bright red colour of its exterior is directly reflected in the name of the castle, since the word 'červená' means 'red'. A small garden is found in front of the chateau on the island, and the lake is surrounded by a park with walking trails which provide excellent views of the castle from every angle.
The castle was first constructed in the Gothic style in the 14th century, and at that time there was no lake surrounding it, merely a river. In the 16th century a dam was constructed in the river which created the lake and left the castle perched on its island outcrop, increasing its defensive capabilities and romantic appeal.
The castle became known as Červena Lhota in the 17th century, when the facade was painted bright red and red tiles were placed on the roof. The stone bridge which connects the castle to the mainland was built in 1622, replacing the drawbridge which had been in use up to that point.
Towards the end of the 18th century the German composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf (a close friend of Mozart) lived in the castle and died there in 1799. A major renovation in the early 1900's changed the appearance of the castle to its present Neo-Renaissance style. At the end of World War II, the castle's Austrian owners were expelled and the property was confiscated by the Czechoslovak government. In 1949 the castle was opened to the public as a cultural monument.
The castle is quite difficult to reach by public transport, with limited bus connections making it possible to visit only on weekdays. Buses from Soběslav take about 30 minutes and will drop you 100 metres from the lake and the castle. Soběslav is on the main rail line between Prague and České Budějovice, with frequent train connections to both cities. The historic town of Jindřichův Hradec is found to the south-east of the castle, but there are no regular public transport connections from there to Červená Lhota.
Like most attractions outside major cities in the Czech Republic, the castle is closed from November to March and is only open on weekends in April and October. From May to September it is open daily except Mondays. Tours of the castle interior last 50 minutes and take in rooms which are brightly decorated in historical styles.
A large restaurant is located directly across the stone bridge from the castle, offering all the typical Czech traditional dishes. During the summer months renting a rowboat and going out on the lake is a relaxing way to spend an hour or two. Horse and carriage rides are also a popular attraction in the park and castle grounds.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wooden Churches # 15 - Kunčice pod Ondřejníkem, Czech Republic

This beautiful church now stands on a small hill in the village of Kunčice pod Ondřejníkem in the Beskydy region of northern Moravia. The story of its history begins far to the east in present-day Ukraine in the region of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, a territory which was part of Czechoslovakia between the two world wars in the early 20th century. It was constructed in the small Rusyn village of Hlinance at the end of the 17th century or the first years of the 18th century, and was consecrated as a Greek Catholic church dedicated to the Archangel Michael. By the early 20th century the church was in very poor condition and was replaced by a modern church in the village.
At this time the wealthy owner of a mining company in Ostrava, Eduard Šebela, approached the villagers of Hlinance and offered to buy the church and have it moved to Kunčice pod Ondřejníkem where he had his summer retreat near the Beskydy mountains. Records show that Šebela paid 24000 Czech crowns for the church, but this was likely the cost of having it dismantled and transported by rail to the site in Kunčice rather than a payment to the villagers.
Following its reconstruction in the new location in northern Moravia, the church was reconsecrated and dedicated to St. Prokop and St. Barbara, the patron saints of miners, reflecting the business interests of the new owner. The church was then used as the location for the wedding of Šebela's daughter.
By the 1980's the church was again in poor condition, but it underwent extensive renovation in the early 1990's. The interior of the church contains the original iconostasis, which was carefully restored by specialists in 1992. The church was broken into by thieves in 1994 and again in 1995, with the loss of several icons, paintings and a tabernacle.
The interior of the church can only be seen during services and other special events, but a visit to the church and its surrounding cemetery is still very worthwhile at other times. The village of Kunčice pod Ondřejníkem is reachable by train directly from Ostrava or the nearby town of Frenštát pod Radhoštěm, which has onward train connections to many parts of the Czech Republic.