Ceska Kamenice

Ceska Kamenice, photo: Jitka Erbenová, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

The small, picturesque town of Ceska Kamenice is situated in northern Bohemia, about 105 km away from Prague. It is a late gothic town on the river Kamenice, where three protected landscapes - the Lusatian Mountains, Czech Switzerland and the Bohemian Central Highlands - meet. Despite its modest population of 5,500, the town has 34 monuments, the care of which earned it the title "Historic Town of the Year" for 2005.

Ceska Kamenice,  photo: Jitka Erbenová,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
First, a few words about the history of Ceska Kamenice. The first written records of the town date back to 1352, although it is believed that it is at least three quarters of a century older. The town was founded on a trade route in the late 13th century. Only one century later, when it was part of the estate of the Michalovci nobility, the residents enjoyed certain privileges; they were allowed to brew and sell their own beer, hold fairs, and establish town baths. One of the town's most prized possessions today is the Town Book. As historian Mirek Hlavnicka tells us, it is here where various important decisions were recorded:

"In today's world, town councils make resolutions that are then recorded and must be followed. Back then, the situation was similar and all state administration decisions, town privileges, official promotions to higher ranks, and so on, were recorded in the Town Book. The book is now preserved in the archives at the local chateau. Only a few other such books that are this old exist in the Czech Republic. It was started in 1380 and the records end in the middle of the 16th century. So, it is certainly a very interesting artefact."

Ceska Kamenice,  photo: Radek Bartoš,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
The most influential aristocratic families have been the Wartenbergs and the Kinskis, who resided in the town's chateau. Built in the 16th century, the chateau has a renaissance south wing with arcades and a baroque north wing. Its ownership is currently being disputed in court.

Ceska Kamenice,  photo: Jitka Erbenová,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
The gothic renaissance Church of St. Jacob the Elder dominates the town's rectangular square. Here a music festival dedicated to the country's famous composer Antonin Dvorak is held every year. This is also where the remains of members of the Wartenberg nobility are preserved. Mirek Hlavnicka:

"There is a crypt under the church with eight copper coffins. It is not open to the public, though. The crypt was opened last year, when anthropologists and Decin Museum researchers explored parts of the crypt. But now it is closed with a large stone lid. The church is in itself an interesting architectural monument because it still has a gothic foundation. It has three naves. The tower is connected to the château by a covered above-ground corridor. The tower now houses a permanent exhibition of the town's history. The whole building has Saxony renaissance elements with jagged gables.

Chapel of the Virgin Mary,  photo: Jitka Erbenová,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
"Another interesting gem is the Chapel of the Virgin Mary. The baroque chapel was built from 1736-39 following plans by the architect Octavio Broggia. There is a wooden Rococo altar in the centre of the chapel, with a golden statue of the Virgin Mary. The beautiful cupola is also decorated with various statues and sculptures."

Walking along the town square, which is adorned with two gabled gothic houses, a renaissance fountain and the Town Hall, you stumble across a horseshoe that is paved with flint. Livestock used to be sold at a market on this square and the horseshoe marks the point up to which the livestock was allowed to be taken.

Close to the vicarage a protected red yew tree stands. They say it is four metres in perimeter, eleven metres tall, and up to 400 years old.

Ceska Kamenice,  photo: Jitka Erbenová,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
The river Kamenice used to be full of salmon. But they disappeared, due to pollution. Now the water is clean and clear again, and the salmon are gradually returning home.

One of the most renowned Czechs of all time, Antonin Dvorak, spent much of his youth here. He used to play the local organ at the Church of St. Jacob. Besides him, a number of other interesting personalities have resided here. Historian Mirek Hlavnicka:

Kamenice river,  photo: Jitka Erbenová,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
"Of the oldest period, I would mention Professor Johann Klein, who was the director of the Mathematics Faculty in Prague's Klementinum. Besides other things, he made astronomical clocks. Another important personality was Johann Baptist Pohl, a doctor of medicine and professor of botany. Then there was Franz Preidl, who was the mayor of Kamenice for four terms. He was a very important patron, who was dedicated to the preservation and restoration of the town's monuments, especially the chapel. Last but not least, Antonin Dvorak visited the town many times and lived here for one school year. He was sent here to master German and the trade he was meant to follow - the butcher's trade."

Well, luckily for the world's classical music lovers, that school year in Ceska Kamenice made little impact on Antonin Dvorak.

Ceska Kamenice was named "Historic Town of the Year" for 2005. It earned the title for its devoted care for its historical monuments. Ceska Kamenice had fought for the title several times and, in the last five years, managed to get to the final three times...

"It worked after the third try. We gained the title and have the plaque, but also received the financial donation of one million crowns that is part of it."

...says deputy mayor Jaromir Adamcik. One million Czech crowns is a little under 45,000 US dollars.

"We've already reconstructed the town square. That cost us 20 million crowns and now we plan to work on the other square in the town. It should cost us the same. We want the town's protected historic centre to stand out."

Ceska Kamenice used to be a predominantly ethnic German town. The nearby Rabstein complex used to be a wash house. Its German owner went bankrupt and the followers of the Sudeten German leader Konrad Henlein used it in 1938 as an example of the economic suppression of the Czech government.

Rabstein - underground factory,  photo: Radek Bartoš,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
In the last year of WWII, Rabstein was turned into a concentration camp for prisoners of war. The German Army tried to turn it into an underground factory for helicopters and planes. Prisoners worked under harsh conditions - 12-hour shifts in the cold tunnels with little to eat. Some one hundred prisoners are believed to have been too weak to survive the harsh conditions and a typhoid epidemic that broke out in February 1945.

After the end of the war, captured SS officers were interned at Rabstein. Following the Benes Decrees, which sanctioned the expulsion of the ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, most of the German community in Ceska Kamenice and its surroundings were made to gather at Rabstein and then forced to leave the Czech lands.

Rabstein - underground factory,  photo: Radek Bartoš,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
After the massive expulsions, Ceska Kamenice gained new residents. Deputy Mayor Jaromir Adamcik:

"It is a problem that is hardly ever talked about. I am also pretty much a 'foreigner'. I was born close to the town of Opava and came here in 1965. The people who came here after WWII, have always considered their home to be somewhere else. They were mainly from the areas around Kutna Hora, Hradec Kralove, and the Vysocina region. It is only those who were born here who feel that Ceska Kamenice is their home and are willing and able to do something for this town, because it is really theirs."