Celebrating ethnic diversity at Nations of River Dyje festival


In this week's Panorama, we visit the South Moravian town of Mikulov, which from July 27th - 29th hosted the eighth annual Nations of the River Dyje Festival, a unique celebration of ethnic and cultural diversity.

The festival began with a performance by former dissident, folk singer and evangelical priest Svatopluk Karasek at Mikulov's beautifully restored synagogue. The synagogue was once the focal point of Mikulov's flourishing Jewish community, but with the Second World War that community vanished, along with the city's large Sudeten German population.

That left Mikulov seriously under-populated. Indeed it's never recovered its pre-war population, and most of the town's present-day inhabitants are themselves migrants, mostly from elsewhere in the Czech Republic but also from further a field. The festival is about celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity both past and present, reminding people that most of us are from 'somewhere else'. And what better way to do that than through music...and food...

Mikulov town's main square was turned into one big sizzling kitchen, with stalls offering national dishes from all over Europe, including Serbia, Hungary and Italy. Somewhat closer to home was the Austrian food stall, where Jitka Plesz was serving up mouth-watering platefuls of Vienna's most famous culinary export...

"My name is Jitka Plesz. I used to live in Wien, and Mikulov is my second home."

And what is the secret to the real, authentic, echte Wienerschnitzel?

"The secret is that it has to be made from veal and you have to have potato salad, but without mayonnaise. But what really makes a real Wienerschnitzel is the size of it - it has to be very big."

The Nations of the River Dyje Festival's been going for eight years, and has become a firm fixture on the Mikulov cultural calendar. It draws people in from far and wide, and is also very popular with the locals....

"I think it's a really great idea, and I think it's the best festival in Mikulov. I'm really thankful that the group came up with the idea. It's great because there's a real combination of great weather, great food, wine, beer and excellent music. I really enjoy it."

"The nice thing also is that it's a festival within a festival, because all summer there's another arts festival in Mikulov, so this is a nice part of it. A lot of different people come here, people from the area, people from the arts. And the nicest thing is that every year, friends come back here."

A number of bands took turns entertained the crowd on the town square, including the Moravian dulcimer band Kasava, with a very special guest vocalist - the well-known Czech writer Ludvik Vaculik, making his stage debut at the age of 81.Vaculik is a native of the Moravian region of Wallachia, where folk songs are an important part of the region's cultural heritage.

But the music came from all over. One duo were originally from Armenia, and no, there aren't many Armenians living in Moravia, but those there are were clearly very popular in Mikulov, not only for their music but also for their wonderful grilled peppers and strips of lamb.

The same went for the music and the cuisine of everyone living within a stone's throw of Moravia's Dyje River - local Slovaks, Romanies, Austrians, Carpathians, Moravians, Mongolians...and...er, the English...Daniela Wornell was manning a stall offering English tea and scones:

"We have an English hotel, and we have some English food on the menu, and when they started to do this festival we were interested in taking part. It's now six years we are here, and it's always a success."

Do you have English blood in your family?

"Yes - my husband is English."

So he taught you how to make scones?

"Well, I visited England many, many times, and his mother-in-law taught me a lot about English cuisine so that's why we're doing it. Scones are so rare. They have muffins here, which I think is more American. But scones, I've never seen anywhere."

So these are possibly the only scones in the Czech Republic today.

"Could be, could be, yes. Definitely."

The festival was the brainchild of Premysl Janyr, a former dissident who emigrated to Austria in the 1970s. His daughter Veronika Cervinka Janyrova is one of the organisers:

"We have counted about twelve or thirteen ethnic minorities here in Mikulov, and the idea behind the festival is that everybody came after the Second World War. There is no really original population here, so the Czechs and the other minorities who came here have the same rights to live here. The Czech population here came after the Second World War and they were migrants like everybody else. So the general idea is - either everybody is a migrant, or nobody."

How far the festival was able to achieve its goals is difficult to measure, but people from all different backgrounds - Slovaks and Hungarians, Serbs and Croats, Czechs and Romanies, Armenians and Carpathians and at least one Englishman - mingled happily in the July sunshine. Mikulov's heady pre-war ethnic mix, where Germans and Jews made up the vast majority of the population, can never be recreated, but last weekend was a reminder at least that the Czech Republic is not as homogenous as you might think.