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Retro retreats

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Going to the cottage is an experience shared by most Czechs who live in cities. Many urbanites either have their own places in the country or have been to their friends’ weekend retreats. They know what it takes to get the family out for the weekend: shopping and packing, suffering through the city traffic, finally arriving at the cottage, and unpacking. Then the chores: fix the roof, cut the wood, weed the garden. As soon as Sunday lunch is over, they pack up again to go home and back to work. A trip to a recreational area on the Berounka river shows that many are becoming less enthusiastic about spending their weekends this way.

The tradition of going to the countryside for the weekend has its roots in the tramping movement that developed in the 1920s, the sociologist Jana Duffková writes in her study of the Czech cottage tradition. Inspired by Jack London and Karl May stories, so-called tramps – city residents who wanted to experience the wilderness – began setting up their own communities in nature during the period between the world wars. Rustic cabins from that time can still be seen in river valleys outside of Prague, but most of the settlements have been rebuilt or destroyed by the authorities during communism, which found activity in the camps difficult to regulate.

Ironically, the biggest boom of cottage ownership was under communism. In the 1940s, Czechs took over the empty houses of expelled Germans in the border areas, Duffková writes, and, later, they claimed the remote settlements that had been abandoned as the result of urbanisation and centralised agricultural production. In the 1950s, state-supported recreational areas began to emerge. One of these is Zbečno, located about 30km west of Kladno.

‘Happier when they leave’
At the age of 81, Mirek Žďárský is still able to do a good deal of work around the cottage, one of the first you see when you arrive in Zbečno. The wooden house is decorated with flowers, and the garden is well-tended. Žďárský has been going to his cottage for 55 years now and is one of the oldest part-time residents in the area.

Some 460 cottages were built on this hillside above the Berounka river near the village of Zbečno between 1950 and 1953 as a residential area for the employees of the Poldi steel factory in Kladno. Žďárský worked for the Tuchlovice mine there. He is nearly deaf from working with heavy machinery in the mine, but he looks after his cottage with a little help from his girlfriend and his neighbours. His family does not come to visit often. “The young ones have different opinions about life,” he says. “I did a lot of tramping as a kid, but they grew up in a flat. We are happy when they come and happier when they leave.”

Josef Souček is another old-time cottage owner here. He built his house in 1959. Like many of the older generation here, Souček stays the entire summer season from April to October and returns home to Kladno for the winter. He worked for Poldi as a crane operator for 45 years. His arms are covered with old tattoos. The walls of his cottage are decorated with antlers and stuffed forest animals given to him by his hunter friends. In the middle of the wall is an old photo of him in a cowboy hat from his more footloose days. “I got into tramping when I was 10,” he says. Even now, at the age of 79, Souček sometimes meets friends in Medník, a popular tramping area on the Sázava river, for a chat around the campfire. “I have a few old fellows in Kladno, but they are too lazy to walk,” he says. “And I like being active.”

The times, they are a changin’
Under communism, having a cottage was basically the only way a Czech could claim a piece of land; private ownership was otherwise abolished. People became deeply devoted to gardening and keeping up their houses to substitute for the lack of opportunities for creativity at their jobs, Duffková writes. Maintaining a cottage and garden is a lot of work. In the communist times, people typically did not work too hard during the week, which allowed them to devote themselves more to their cottages on the weekends. But the situation has since changed.

“People are working hard on careers and jobs, and they don’t feel like doing work on the cottage or garden when the weekend comes,” says Alan W. Thomas, an American who settled in the Czech Republic in the early 1990s. He remembers rustic adventures in primitive shelters, usually without running water, toilets or electricity. People sat around drinking, playing guitars and cooking sausages over a fire. “We also did more camping in those days, and nobody seemed to care if it was dirty or wet,” Thomas says.

Ward and his Czech wife now go regularly to her family’s cottage, which has indoor plumbing, a sauna, a widescreen TV and internet. There is still drinking and guitar playing and cooking out (on a Weber grill), but they also sometimes watch DVDs. Ward says that it is now harder to get people to go out to the cottage. “They think they are going to miss something if they are not in Prague,” he says. “But when they get out there, they tend to enjoy it.”

Since the early 1990s, cottages have had to compete with a growing range of free time activities. And, with real estate prices soaring, young families are often not able to buy a country retreat if there isn’t one in the family already. Nowadays most cottages are the domains of the older generation, whose adult children only come out to drop off their parents’ pensions or to fix the lawnmower. As Thomas points out, the children of the revolution are now around 30 years old, with children of their own and careers, which makes it harder for them to get out of town.

Zdeněk and Hana Lonthans hope that their grandchildren will one day take over the family cottage. “My parents bought it in 1971,” Zdeněk says in front of his nicely renovated country home. “When they died, I wanted to sell it, but then I got into it.”

“It’s better when it’s all yours and you can have it your way,” Hana adds. They come from Roudnice nad Labem and visit at weekends. Besides working on the house, they spend time hunting mushrooms, swimming in the river or the nearby quarry and going to the local pub with friends. “We go to the one in the village,” Hana says. “It’s a downhill walk.”

The Lonthans say it is no longer a matter of prestige to own a cottage as it once was under communism. People are looking to sell their cottages. “Look at this one,” Zdeněk says, pointing to a small cabin behind the fence. “The old man die,d and his son doesn’t want it. It’s all overgrown, and nobody wants it. I was hoping you came here to look at it.”

Built for the past – not to last
Real estate agents say that potential buyers are mainly middle-aged folks who want a place where they can relax. The typical shopper is looking for a small, renovated and fully furnished house. A cottage is a good investment for those who can afford to buy one and fix it up. Owners who don’t use their cottages themselves can lease them to others. Duffková notes that more and more Czechs are giving up their flats in the city and moving to renovated country homes.

“Going to the cottage is no longer a phenomenon,” says cottage owner Hana Šubrtová, of Kladno. “It doesn’t get busy over the holiday. Our neighbours come here once a year for two weeks. And the young people won’t be coming here. The cottages will collapse one day.”

Šubrtová says that many cottages were poorly built and their elderly owners don’t have the money for renovations. Her husband can’t walk well, and her son, who has a small baby, finds it difficult to climb the steep and narrow stairway that leads into the house. Šubrtová sometimes thinks of getting rid of her cottage, but says she would then have nowhere to escape from the city. She visited Italy and Spain with her husband after the Velvet Revolution, but says that going to the seaside doesn’t attract them anymore.
“You can’t spend two months by the sea,” says Šubrtová’s neighbour Eva Lohová, who is working outside of her own cabin. “This place is good,” the 36-year-old accountant from Prague says. “I enjoy it here even though it takes work.” Lohová is trying to fix things up before her 9-year-old son returns from camp. “But you’ve got to feel the place,” she says, “enjoy the smell of the river, the forest.”

Nearby, three college-age boys are helping to cut a tree branch hanging over the river. They agree that one week at the sea is enough. “We get water right in front of our house. Sure, it’s not a sea, but we like it this way,” says Matěj Kos, whose brother adds that he recently caught two pike in the river. The water looks clean, and, on a hot and sunny day, a dip is tempting.

Living close to the river has a downside. Some locals remember the disastrous floods of 2002, which washed away some cottages. The community is now troubled by a campground on the opposite bank that is a popular overnight stop for people floating the river. “Every night they make noise,” says Marta Řeháková, a former steel analyst from Kladno whose cottage sits on the other side of the river from the campground. “Canoeing is fashionable. A lot of people are into it, and they don’t follow any rules.” She has already filed a complaint with the environment protection authority.

Although many of the young generation are less willing to maintain their parents’ weekend houses, there are some who can scarcely imagine going elsewhere. “It’s the best place in the world,” says Tibor Lenčeš, who came with his girlfriend to the riverbank to throw pieces of bread to the fish. The young couple – he, a future aircraft mechanic, and she, a pet shop assistant – say that they would spend the whole summer at the cottage if they didn’t have to go to work. The lack of a shower in the cabin poses no problem, they say; the river is good enough.

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