Aš is a town in the far north-west of the Czech Republic, and is part of the so-called Ašský výběžek – or Aš panhandle – a protrusion of land surrounded by Germany on three sides. The panhandle extends from the city of Cheb in the south all the way up to the town of Hranice at the northernmost tip. Located in the middle of the panhandle, Aš is situated just one kilometre from the Bavarian border to the west, and about five kilometres from the German state of Saxony to the east.
During the communist era ordinary Czechs had no chance of even getting to Aš without special time-restricted “pohraniční pásmo” permits. Endless controls en route by border guards were par for the course; locals, too, were expected to report any unusual face appearing in the area to the secret police. From a pre-War population of about 23,000, by the 1960s, the depopulated Aš was down to around 10,000. Vacated buildings began to be demolished in order to prevent squalor. Add to that more demolitions during the 1970s to make way for concrete apartment blocs.
Now for the upside! Aš does have a tourist centre, tucked away on one of its streets, opened seven days a week. There’s also a museum, which delves into the ancient history of the town, and also includes a historic chateaux charting Aš’s history as an 18th century centre of textile production.
And just a little further south of that is a monument marking the spot where future Czech president Edvard Beneš crossed over into Germany on his way to France in 1915 as part of his first exile – fighting against the Austro-Hungarians in favour of an independent Czechoslovak state.
Only at the end of 2015 was a historic train route connecting Aš and the nearby Bavarian town of Selb finally revived. While on this line, one can spare a thought for a famous event which occurred here in 1951. A so-called “train of freedom” containing 110 passengers smashed its way through the Iron Curtain, roaring past Aš and into neighbouring Selb. The event caused such embarrassment that Stalin himself reportedly pushed the Czechoslovak regime to ensure something similar could never happen again.
The journey east of Aš also offers some interesting sights, including a landscape dotted by giant modern wind turbines. Not far off is the German spa town of Bad Brambach.
Yes, Aš itself is still far off – very far off – from fully recovering from the turmoil of the 20th century. But with a knowledge of the town’s history, it’s certainly a fascinating place to visit, and a great launch pad from which to explore the wider area.