Chata Life

Growing up in Australia, there are typically two destinations for every weekend or holiday getaway. “You going up the coast? Or down the coast?” Living in the Czech Republic, those two tantalising options are now distilled into one Czech analog: “Which cabin are you going to?”

The idea of a cabin getaway conjures images of log walls, smokey fireplaces and bearded men clad in plaid. For a globetrotting city slicker such as myself, it is more of an anachronistic peculiarity than an actual destination on my travel wish list.

Not to say that there isn’t any value in embarking on such trips. Of course, it’s refreshing to spend time in nature away from the endless jackhammering and grinding of cranes gifted to us by the never-ending developments in Prague. A bit of greenery never hurt anybody.

But with a Czech wife who grew up at the foot of the Radegast mountains, I find myself in constant pull to  ‘go to the nature’. For me, a stroll through Divoka Sarka once in a while is sufficient. But for her, an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city is essential for survival.

So we pack our bags and stuff the back of our faithful Fabia full of supplies for the weekend. This consists of essentially moving our entire kitchen’s contents across the dilapidated state of the infamous D1 highway to the middle of nowhere for a couple of days. With the added logistical challenge of an infant to contend with, baby necessities such as pram, travel bed, diapers, and more, we truly push our Fabia’s capacity to its limits.

Photo: Kevin Loo

On my fifth trip up and down the elevator, back and forth from the car, I cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of modern life. We work so hard to get a good job in order to afford rent in increasingly expensive cities. Yet when it comes to the weekend, it seems to me that we’re working even harder to spend time away from the city.

There is a reason why this desire to leave the city for cabin or cottage life is so deeply ingrained into Czech life. The historical reason dates back to the days of communism, when the ‘chata’ was the only true place people could be themselves without fear of the secret police or nosy neighbours informing on them.

I recall visiting a DOX exhibition on the life and times of Václav Havel. There was a display of photographs taken from his cottage. It consisted of meetings of artists and dissidents enjoying themselves, discussing politics, singing and dancing into the night. The photos were joyful and free. It was a stark contrast to the dour, sombre mood of the typical historical photos you would see from the same era.

Several decades later, no longer are we trying to escape the probing eyes of an oppressive regime. In a strange turn of fate, instead of communism, perhaps these cabins and cottages now serve as an escape from the demands of capitalism. I’m sure Havel would be amused at the poetic irony.

We pay for the privilege to be uncomfortable away from our city lives of Uber rides and takeaway flat whites. I’ve stayed in cabins or cottages that have had troubles with electricity, hot water running out, isolation from potraviny (food), or God forbid, no wifi.

While getting to these cabins, and sometimes staying there, can be a little challenging, I am yet to regret going on such trips. Always in good company with friends or family, we always learn something more about ourselves and each other when enclosed in these cabins.

And despite my penchant for concrete, steel and neon lights, the beauty of the Czech landscape is undeniable. The autumnal mountainscapes and ski slopes in the winter are quite simply breathtaking. From the top of Sněžka or Medvědín, or along the winding rivers or streams, there is a deep peace and profound feeling to be found as you meander along the centuries-old tracks.

For if there’s one thing Czechs love, it’s meandering along forest and mountain tracks. I’m beginning to think that these cabin trips serve as a pretense for endless walking. You better pack good walking shoes!

But surprisingly, these walks are always worth it too. If you’re lucky, you might even find an old WW2 bunker, a patch of wild mushrooms, a wooden carving of Tolkien’s old friend Krakonoš, or that most Czech of vistas, a wooden pub serving tank beer poured cold and paid for with cash only.

While I do miss the ocean views of my coastal upbringing, I am thankful for these cabin getaways. It’s not only an opportunity to pause from the busy-ness of modern life, but also a way to learn more about the Czech way of life. I’ve learned more about Czech history, traditions and culture on these trips than I could have from any textbook, and that’s something definitely worth a bit of discomfort or inconvenience every now and then.

Author: Kevin Loo
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