Cottage tradition changing as line between first and second homes blurs, says Dr. Jiří Vágner

Chalupa, foto: Miloš Turek

This summer, hundreds of thousands of Czechs have spent regular weekends and longer vacations at their chata (cabin) or chalupa (cottage) in the country. Such second homes are a deeply embedded aspect of Czech life. But what are the roots of the tradition? And how has Czechs’ relationship to their country house changed since the fall of communism? I discussed these questions and more with a leading expert in the field, Dr. Jiří Vágner of the Geography of Leisure Research Centre at the Faculty of Science at Prague’s Charles University.

Jiří Vágner,  photo: archive of Charles University
“The historical roots are two. The major one, since the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, is similar to Western societies: luxury villas and weekend houses of rich people from urban zones.

“But the other one is very specific to our conditions and it’s the so-called tramping movement, coming from the 19th century. It was inspired by re-immigrants coming from the States and Canada and started with the lower classes of society: young workers who spent Saturday evenings and Sundays ambling in the surroundings of cities.

“They then started pitching tents, building the first wooden cabins and gathering together.

“So there are two roots, pre-war roots. After WWII there were other origins of the second movement of second homes: chalupaření [cottage owning]. The first, tramping, was the source of chataření [cabin owning].

“But chalupaření arose mostly because of abandoned houses in peripheral border areas after the expulsion of Germans after WWII.

“And since the 1960s and 1970s, due to socialist industrialisation and urbanisation, many young people moved to the cities. Therefore there were abandoned houses, or just the houses of their grannies, left in the villages and people started to use them as recreational houses.”

You were telling me earlier that many of these villages would simply have died without the cottagers, the weekend people.

“Yes, that’s right. Not only the houses that are used and maintained by the cottage owners, but whole villages in peripheral areas.

“We have some villages where 89, 90 percent of the dwellers are second home owners. Without them it would be completely impossible to survive in the village.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“They restart the social life. They organise sports events and culture events with the residents and also cooperate with the local authorities.”

The Czech Republic has an unusually dense railway network. Has that also contributed to the popularity of cottages?

“It contributed a lot in the first era, in the 1920s. Especially for the tramping movement, because it was a cheap and dense railway structure.

“Tens of thousands of people in big cities were able in an hour or half an hour to get away from rushed, dirty cities to very nice nature conditions.

“There they could play at being cowboys, Indians and trappers in romantic valleys, which were tied together to the railway connections.”

I was interested to read that until the early 1970s Saturday was a working day here. So I can’t really understand how people were going to the cottage and still being in the city until Saturday afternoon. How did that work? Were they going for one night only?

“Yes, firstly, until the end of the 1960s, it was just one night. Saturday evening and night.

“But later on hundreds of thousands of people were escaping from the city. In fact, it was an escape from the totalitarian regime. Because the stress from the regime was not so big in the countryside.

“I think it was clever of the communist regime to tolerate, if not support, the second home movement. People were spread in the countryside.

“They lived their own personal lives at their second homes. They left for the city late on Sunday night or early on Monday morning, but their feelings were much more in their cottages.”

And also their energy – I believe a lot of people went to work and didn’t do anything but then at the weekend would be working on and improving their homes.

“Yes. We should realise that it was the only possibility to own something: a personal car and a cottage or cabin. Of course, in the villages you were allowed to have a family house. But you were not allowed to own an apartment in the city.

Photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International
“So in fact people realised themselves and their feelings much more freely at their cottages.

“Of course, it was not possible to travel abroad so easily. Also the system of commercial tourist facilities was not developed so much.

“So cottages were the one of the only ways of relieving the stress of the regime.”

Typically how do people who live permanently in these places view those who come only for the weekend or for a couple of weeks in the summer?

“We should divide two types of localities. At dense chata localities there are some problems, some barriers, between the residents and the weekend-comers. There are also big environmental loads.

“But we conducted quite a lot of research in peripheral areas, in border areas, where the cottage owners really contribute to the social life.

“And it seems that in those localities where the cottagers have been commuting for many years, the dual society doesn’t exist so much. People cooperate together in organising the social life.”

Many foreigners who come here get the impression that city life in the Czech Republic is quite atomised, that people don’t socialise so much. Is it different in the country at these villages and other place where there are cottages?

“Well in history especially I think that was one of the main reasons to escape from the cities – not only the political pressure, but the possibility for people to gather quite freely at their cottages, sitting at the campfire, playing guitar. Or also, of course, planting vegetables and fruit because of the shortages on the market.

“Nowadays I think it’s also a big chance for youngsters, for young groups to get away from the busy cities and do lots of sports activities – I don’t mean just maintaining the cottage.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“For example, mountain biking is very popular, or playing some group games. We should also realise that some typical games, such as volleyball, nohejbal or tennis, in fact started to be played at tramping communes.”

When I first came here in the 1990s I was often amazed at how quiet Prague was at the weekends. I used to live in Vršovice and there was a pub that closed at the weekend because people were going away so much. I often thought that it negatively impacted Prague and made it kind of dead.

“I think with the boom of foreign tourists coming to our country, Saturday and Sunday life in Prague is quite busy too.

“But it is true that maybe several hundred thousand Czechs leave big cities, and Prague especially, for their cottages [at weekends].

“We have around half a million second homes in our country. That means each fifth house, each fifth dwelling, is a second home used just for leisure and recreation.

“But with new technologies and telemobility second homes don’t serve only for recreation now. There is a change toward so-called multiple dwellings.

“People can in fact transfer their office activities to their cottages, with internet and mobile phones. So they spend more time there, even on working days.

“So it’s quite difficult now to differentiate between primary home and second home. It’s also a trend in Western countries.”

Otherwise how have chataření and chalupaření changed since the fall of communism?

“Our research started after the fall of communism and there were some ideas that there would be big changes in this movement.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“There were, just after the collapse of the communist regime. People got the chance to travel abroad, to get to know foreign countries.

“But especially the young generations, after having their own babies, after getting married, they could see that having the chance to stay not far from your residence in nice nature conditions, and to live family life in nice, healthy conditions makes sense. So it seems that it’s coming back.”

But I presume that people have less time and less energy for their cottages than they used to?

“They probably don’t commute frequently and don’t stay for such a long time – not for two or three weeks during the summer.

“But with heavy automobilisation and the possibility of commuting to almost all places in Czechia in two or three hours, you can go to your cottage for just two, three days.

“I mentioned telemobility. You can also work at your cottage. You can do other activities than just recreation.”

Tell us finally, what is your own relationship to chataření or chalupaření?

“Well, my family has never had its own second home. But after I got married I had the chance to commute to both types of second homes.

“One was a very simple wooden log cabin on the Berounka River, in a very romantic setting, without any electricity and without any water supply.

“The other was my father in law’s cottage in a typical farming region 90 kilometres easterly of Prague. So now, having my own family, it’s the perfect possibility to change the place for bringing up my children and be together with my family.”

Which do you prefer? The place with no electricity or the nicer cottage?

Photo: Martina Stejskalová
“Recently, having no babies or no flat of our own, it was a great chance for so-called weekend marriages with my future wife. So that very romantic cabin was excellent.

“But when you have babies more infrastructure, more facilities are needed. So I think the village house is perfect for us.

“This afternoon I am leaving for that cottage, to meet our grannies and to enjoy life with all our family together.”