Magazine article History Today

Turrets and Tourists in Bohemia

Magazine article History Today

Turrets and Tourists in Bohemia

Article excerpt

Established in 1918, the Czechoslovakian Republic was barely twenty years old when the Nazis carved it up. Having survived this, and the following Communist occupation, there is now a new threat to its remarkable architectural heritage. More accessible today than at any time since the 1930s, the Czech and Slovak Republics represent virgin territory for many visitors.

Millions of Western tourists now flock year round to see a country they perceive as having been lost in time. The custodians of Czech castles are finally in a position to take action to reverse the neglect suffered under the Communist regime and to re-write their history free from political dogma. However, those in charge of the country's historic properties are also facing a monumental balancing act; juggling unprecedented mass tourism with the development of a free-market economy, very little money and sites damaged and neglected under the previous political system.

Last summer I joined the crowds, indulging in a little curiosity of my own; to evaluate the threat tourism poses to the stunning castles of Bohemia, and to see what action, if any, is being taken to reconcile the interests of tourism and conservation. I spoke with custodians, guides and visitors at fourteen castles in Central and Southern Bohemia, as well as members of the National and Regional Institutes for Monument Care. These institutes, sponsored by the Czech Ministry of Culture, have the daunting task of maintaining the historical properties neglected, misinterpreted or vandalised under Communist rule.

The castles of the Czech Republic are shrouded in myths, some ancient, some modern. One such misconceived idea is that `time has stood still' for the Republic's architecture as if it has been magically preserved since the turn of the century. Indeed much of it has escaped relatively unscathed from two world wars. The absence of commercial development under the Communists has given a nostalgic air to the urban form, but their deliberate neglect and at times intentional destruction of many of the castles is often overlooked by outsiders. Today the regalia of the Communist military uniform still parades the streets of Prague in the form of `red star badges', `hammer and sickle watches', and `fake fur Rusky hats'. These latest invaders are not necessarily any more welcome in their forgetful satire than the last. Soaring prices mean that the average Czech can no longer reasonably afford even a cup of coffee at the Republic's primary cultural monument, Prazsky hrad (Prague Castle). Others are being forced from central areas to the suburbs by inflated rent prices.

Of about 2,000 castles which were forcibly taken into state possession by the Communists, only 150 were opened to the public. Of those that were closed some remained empty and fell into decay, while others were occupied by state farms or the army. Dr Eva Lukasova of the State Institute for Monument Care recalls her horror at visiting a favourite chateau where the once-noted baroque wall paintings has been used as a backdrop for target practice by the Communist army. At those sites which were opened to the public, preservation was often better, yet the presentation was dominated by Communist propaganda. I spoke to many guides who recalled being scared of telling visitors about the lives of the previous owners of the castles - for the history of the bourgeoisie had been replaced with exhibitions such as those at Jemniste on `Czechoslovak Soviet Friendship' and `Lenin Is Alive In Our Work'.

Seven years later the statues of Lenin are to be seen dismembered and mutilated in municipal museums mementos of a real people's victory. Yet the fall of Communism and the establishment of the free market economy has been a mixed blessing for the historic sites in the Republic. Although the political changes have opened the doorway to potential improvements in heritage conservation and management, they have simultaneously added the new problems of commercial development and mass tourism. …

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