If you want to see something else than just another historical sight crowded with tourists, visit the north Bohemian town of Ceska Lipa about two hours drive from Prague to get a more genuine taste of the Czech Republic. Ceska Lipa suffered a similar fate as many other towns in the border region and reflects very well the turbulent post-war development of the country. For those who prefer nature to history, there is also plenty to see.
Local historian Ladislav Smejkal from the regional Museum and Gallery of Ceska Lipa, which is situated in one of the town's oldest buildings, the Augustinian monastery, gave me a brief outline of the town's history.
"The town of Ceska Lipa was built on the ford of the river Ploucnice at the beginning of the 14th century. It has developed thanks to a rich trade between the Czech lands and the German region of Lusatia. The city was already quite large at the end of the 14th century. Going by the size of the ramparts built at the time we estimate it had about 2000 inhabitants. The fast growth of the city was interrupted for some time by the Hussite Wars but after the battle at Bila Hora in 1620 the town became the property of Albrecht of Wallenstein and flourished in his hands."
Apart from the picturesque old square with houses ranging from the Renaissance to neo-Baroque period, you should definitely visit the "water castle", which was originally surrounded by the river Ploucnice, and which is one of the oldest historical sights in Ceska Lipa dating back to the 13th century. Allegedly it is the first stone building that was discovered in the town. As the castle's warden and inhabitant Petr Narovec explains, its construction marked the first colonizing and settlement of this region."
The radical changes that took place in Ceska Lipa (or Bohmisch Leipa in German) were brought about by the Second World War. The majority of the inhabitants of the town, situated close to the German border, were of German nationality and most of them were expelled when the war ended:
"During the German occupation, Ceska Lipa and the surrounding area were part of the German Reich. Following the year 1945, the city was fast resettled. There were 12 000 people in the 1950s and 17 000 people at the end of 1960s. From the previous number of inhabitants, which was 12 000, only 1 000 had Czech nationality and most of them came during the First Republic. Almost all of the German inhabitants were expelled, unlike in the nearby cities of Novy Bor and Kamenicky Senov, which allowed glass manufacturers to stay."
Just like in the other re-settled regions of Czechoslovakia, the newly arrived inhabitants of Ceska Lipa came in search of work and had no emotional attachment to the place. The town started to decline. But the biggest change was yet to come: in the 1970s the Czechoslovak government decided to launch uranium mining in the nearby region of Ralsko. Ladislav Smejkal again:
"In the 1970s Ceska Lipa saw huge development with the opening of uranium mines in Straz pod Ralskem. The towns of Liberec and Ceska Lipa were chosen to accommodate the new work-force that came to the region from all over the country. We can still hear people speaking all the various Czech and Slovak dialects here in Ceska Lipa. In a very short time, the number of inhabitants rose from 17,000 to almost 40,000."
To accommodate the large numbers of new-comers, vast housing estates cropped up all around the city's historical centre during the 1970s and 80s and blotted its unique view of the surrounding hills. Moreover, the development of infrastructure lagged behind and there weren't enough restaurants, shops or leisure centres. Many of the historical houses in the city's centre were pulled down at the time, a trend which continued up until the early 1990s. A large part of the water castle suffered the same fate:
"In 1957 the town hall decided to pull the building down. It was one of the first buildings to be blown up. Unfortunately that's how it ended and we are lucky that at least part of it survived, unlike other buildings, such as the two mills or the so-called Venice of Ceska Lipa - a picturesque quarter built on an island and surrounded by water. Huge shopping centres, which were called Prior and Uran at the time - were erected on the free space. But in spite of the radical changes Ceska Lipa escaped vast demolitions and preserved its historical centre as well as the beautiful Art Nouveau café and the two churches..."
Large supermarkets built in place of the historical buildings, often right in the main square, is a typical feature of communist architecture. Just like the over-sized bus station which has never been fully used and colonies of gardening cabins - the place where people from the prefab houses escaped during their week-ends.
During the past two decades, a lot has changed in Ceska Lipa. The town has undergone a radical facelift and learned to take advantage of its location in the centre of a popular tourist region. As Mr Smejkal from the local museum explains, Ceska Lipa was perhaps luckier than other industrial towns in north Bohemia.
"Unlike other north Bohemian towns, Ceska Lipa has recovered from the decline of the uranium industry and started to focus on car manufacturing instead. Thanks to that, there was no dramatic increase in unemployment. Unlike other north Bohemian towns, Ceska Lipa is really doing quite well in this respect."
Walking through Lipa on a Sunday afternoon, the town looks a bit sleepy and besides a political rally, attracting families with children, nothing much going on. But for those who want to escape the hustle of a big town and enjoy the peace and quiet charm of a provincial town surrounded by unspoiled nature, Ceska Lipa is an ideal place to stay. The castle warden Petr Narovec was born elsewhere but says Ceska Lipa is the place where he decided to settle for good.
"It's very beautiful here. I have never seen such a beautiful landscape. I still remember Ceska Lipa as a grey town but it has changed a lot. But it's not just the city, it's the surrounding landscape that I like. There are beautiful mountains and hills, limestone rocks, lakes and my favourite river Ploucnice. I also think that people are nice here. So I have no reason to leave."