Český Krumlov: Maintaining identity in a globalized world
Český Krumlov is probably the most visited small town in the Czech Republic. That is, when the times are normal and there are no restrictions on tourism. The COVID-19 crisis means financial hardship for local businesses. But on the positive side: it gave the townspeople time to reflect on the identity Český Krumlov in a globalized world.
There are very few so well-preserved town centers as that of Český Krumlov. The fairy-tale-like city center on a hill overlooks a horseshoe bend of the Vltava River with a beautiful renaissance chateau on the other side. A year ago, it would be hard to move through the crowded lanes. The cobbled streets used to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists, many of them from Asia each year. But the COVID-19 pandemic put a sudden stop to the tourist industry here as elsewhere in the world.
Now the picture is different: you can still see demonstrations of traditional crafts, but there are few tourists, most of them Czechs, of course. There are many cafes and restaurants, now mostly half-empty. But before you start feeling sorry for the suffering local businesses, listen to Jana Pešková, a local artist who grew up in Krumlov in the 1960s:
“Most people are in awe of how the city was repaired. But they do not see the disappearance of the soft lime plaster walls or of various small shops. Everything is set up for the tourists. The small details and uniqueness of building facades have gone away mostly because of uninterested new owners. Today, the houses in Krumlov have about the same colors as those in any town in Austria because they were done by the same construction companies. The original Krumlovites have been forced into flats on the outskirts of town because tourists, I mean mostly Czech boaters, get too rowdy in the town centre at night. I have painfully experienced this first-hand because, unfortunately, I live on the boaters’ main route through Krumlov.”
And that is why Jana Pešková remembers fondly the way Český Krumlov looked like when she was a teenager.
“The town had a calm, sort of old-world atmosphere to it. Not many people were around, and I did not know any of the old residents. The kids that I knew from school were mostly from the outskirts or belonged to military families who lived in the large barracks in nearby Vyšné. Later, when I was 17, my dad, a local art teacher, started the art school here. That was in 1965. He received space in the old monastery, which was unrepaired but looked incredible. The walls were falling apart, and ivy was growing everywhere. I would go there in the evenings quite often to paint or make graphics.”
Ivan Studený is a radio documentarist and he is my colleague from the Czech National Public Radio. Like Jana Pešková, Ivan grew up in Český Krumlov even if a little later. And when we walk through the streets of the town, he too has stories of how the town felt different before the mass tourism arrived:
“The walk to the music lessons I took as a kid – I could have been in the first or second grade perhaps –was through the old town, which was rather dilapidated in those days. It was the home of the Roma community. The communists had moved the Roma into the centre of town, as the houses there were worse and hard to heat in the winter. I was very afraid of the dark-skinned kids who I thought were very rough and wild. When one boy asked me if I had a crown, I would always give it to him because I was scared. As time went on, I grew older and more accustomed to the city, I got to know the boy and we are now friends.”
I ask Ivan whether he would prefer the old crumbling Český Krumlov of the time when he was growing up or this shiny new town. He does not give an unequivocal answer:
“You can kind of split it up into two parts. The first is visual: when I was growing up, the town was dilapidated and falling apart. It had an almost dreadful atmosphere. Now the town is beautifully repaired and its colours are vibrant. The atmosphere is decidedly cheerful. The second part that comes to mind is the communal life that emerged here in the 90s shortly after the fall of communism. I was an adolescent back then and remember how the town sort of woke up as buildings started to get repaired and people began to organize different communal gatherings. I remember we just sat in the street playing chess in the summer with music playing in the background. Maybe I idealize those days a bit since I was young back then. But I remember the atmosphere very well, it was all very communal and spontaneous. Now that there are fewer tourists, a similar sort of gathering took place about two weeks ago and it was just like the 90s. So, the other perspective on it is that the overabundance of tourists took away our opportunity for that kind of neighbourly lifestyle. Now with Corona, that lifestyle is quickly coming back, at least for this year.”
One thing Český Krumlov seems to preserve is a unique street atmosphere. Without the dense crowds, the town center seems to breathe more freely. The spirit and atmosphere of a town like Český Krumlov can suffer for a time but will always come back:
“I think that the genius loci of Český Krumlov is indestructible come what may. Even recent events with the COVID-19 crisis show that recovery is possible and even immediate. All the changes are like water that runs through the city – many tourists come through here, but Krumlov stays the same. I have lived here for almost 42 years and have been paying attention to the city for 24. And even when this place was filled to the brim with tourists from all over the world, it was still worth it for me to take my daughter out for ice-cream on a Sunday afternoon. As I walked from the Budweiser Gate to the centre of town, it felt as if all the crowds faded away and it was just me and the city. Even though I have made that same walk over a thousand times, I am still able to absorb the atmosphere and identify with the city. Being a Krumlovite is like having a peculiar disease in that the town is a part of you. I think that everyone who was born here feels that they have traits of an architect, artist, and god in their spirit.”
Český Krumlov has seen times when it became a bit of a victim of its own success. Now, it goes through a time of reflection and perhaps re-thinking its own future. The local council already started regulating the number of coaches and other commercial vehicles entering the town even before the COVID-19 restricted the massive influx of visitors into a trickle. It seems to be on the track to develop a more sustainable way of profiting from the tourist business.