Czech region with most UNESCO heritage sites may be one you've never even heard of

Zelená hora in Vysočina region

Vysočina can proudly boast that it has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other Czech region. It is an area of peaceful rolling hills and rural idyll, so don’t come if you like big city life – its largest urban settlement is home to only 50,000 people. But its towns and villages, though small, tend to offer rich cultural programmes and tight-knit communal life, as I found out when I braved the January cold to go there.

You would be hard-pressed to find a person with deeper roots in the Vysočina region than local journalist Vít Pohanka, whom you may know as the host of Czechast. His family has lived in the area around Žďár nad Sázavou going back as far as the 15th century – but the majority of Žďár’s 20,000 or so inhabitants are actually much newer transplants, he says.

Vít Pohanka | Photo: archive of Vít Pohanka

“My family, especially on my father’s side, really came from here, for centuries. My grandfather used to say, ‘They are the new people’. By ‘new people’, he meant all the people who came after the Second World War. Maybe there was even a little bit of looking down at them, because we have been here probably since the Hussite wars in the 15th century.”

The reason for all these “new people” was a big metallurgical factory that was built near the town during the Communist period. A large influx of new residents moved in to work in the factory, significantly increasing the town’s size, says Vít.

“This town had a population of less than 5,000 in 1946. By 1969, the population was 15,000, and when I was growing up, the population was 25,000, so the city basically grew fivefold under Communism. So it was a boom town, and not many people had roots here.”

Žďár nad Sázavou | Photo: City of Žďár nad Sázavou

In Vít’s view, this is part of the reason why Žďár, and even the wider Vysočina region, doesn’t have the kind of rich folk traditions or strong sense of local identity found in some other parts of Czechia.

“Even historically, Vysočina wasn’t a region that was rich in folklore, like South Moravia, for example, or Zlín, especially the area around Uherské Hradiště, where the folk music and costume traditions are very strong. Some people do have roots here, but the sort of local patriotism that you can find perhaps in South Bohemia or South Moravia or even parts of Eastern Bohemia is not as strong here.”

Vysočina may not have a rich folk tradition, but what it does have, says Vít, is picturesque and largely undiscovered rural scenery.

“What I like very much is that there’s beautiful landscapes all around. You literally walk out of your house and you’re in forests and fields. There’s great hiking, and what’s even better – not many tourists have discovered it. Or rather, a lot of tourists come to the region of Vysočina, but they tend to visit certain small places. So if you know where to go, you can literally walk the whole day without meeting hardly anyone in the forest.”

Vysočina - one of Czechia’s most forested regions | Photo: City of Žďár nad Sázavou

Indeed, Vysočina is one of Czechia’s most forested regions, with forests covering 35% of its area. It is also Czechia’s second least-densely populated region, making chance encounters with strangers as you take a solitary hike through the woods even less likely, if that’s your thing.

An important heritage

Another notable attraction of the Vysočina region is its three UNESCO World Heritage sites – more than any other Czech region. And Vysočina can even boast that one of them, the historic centre of Telč, was one of the first three sites in then-Czechoslovakia (along with the historic centres of Prague and Český Krumlov) to be added to the prestigious list in 1992.

The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk, just on the edge of Vít’s hometown of Žďár, followed not long after, in 1994. This means that of the first four Czech sites to be given UNESCO status, two are in present-day Vysočina.

The church of Saint John of Nepomuk stands on a hill, somewhat fancifully called Zelená Hora or ‘Green Mountain’, overlooking the town of Žďár. It is an impressive sight, and one imagines it can only be all the more so from an aerial view, as the church and surrounding cloister are built in the shape of a star. Local student guide Vojtěch Kabrda previously told Radio Prague what makes it so special:

“It is unique – it doesn’t look like any other church in our country. The shapes are so unusual that you can’t help but look at it. It is all based on the symbolism of the number five, and the structure of a five-pointed star. So the first thing you notice when you look at it is that it does not look like anything you have seen before.”

The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

Although not a UNESCO site, another attraction just on the opposite bank of the large pond that lies at the foot of the ‘Green Mountain’ is the local chateau, Zámek Žďár nad Sázavou. This is owned by the Kinský family, one of the oldest and best-known Czech noble families, although this particular estate has only been administered by them since the early 20th century. Vít Pohanka says that the family played an important role in the region, and even the country, before the Second World War.

“In 1938 before the Munich agreement, when it was being decided whether Czechoslovakia should become partially occupied by the Nazi regime, the Kinský family invited Lord Runciman, a special envoy of the British government, to show him that there is a Czech aristocracy that doesn’t accept the Sudetenland being given away at all. And I think that shows that the Kinský family, they really were somebody.”

Francesco Kinský dal Borgo with Vít Pohanka | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

The Kinskys were kicked out of the chateau first by the Nazis in 1939, then having had it returned to them after the Second World War, again in 1948 when the Communists seized power. The family spent the next 40 years in exile in other parts of Europe – but after the Velvet Revolution some members came back.

Constantin Kinsky, born in France in 1961, has been managing the family estate with his wife Marie, herself a descendant of an old aristocratic family, since the 1990s, and in Vít’s opinion, they have done a lot for Žďár and the wider Vysočina region.

Constantin Kinský | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Radio Prague International

“Since then, they’ve been really crucial for putting this town on the cultural map. Constantin Kinsky and his wife have organised dance and food festivals at the chateau, there’s a great museum, and they are really vital for revitalising cultural life in the city. They get together with the mayor and local businesses and they are trying to do something with the town’s cultural and political life in a positive sense. They really brought a uniting element to the town – even now in the 21st century, I think communal life is still very important.”

Telč and Třebíč

However, despite these two jewels on the edge of town, the centre of Žďár itself is not very picturesque, says Vít.

“As I like to call it, it’s the ugly town with beautiful landscape around it. Right now, we are coming to the main square, which I remember as a little boy. Until I was about 10 I think, there were some older houses here – they weren’t very well-kept, it wasn’t a nice historical square like in Telč, but it had its charm. But we had this Communist mayor in the 1970s and he just decided to bulldoze it. They completely destroyed it and built this example of socialist realism in its place. So it’s not your typical picturesque square.”

Zachary of Hradec Square in Telč | Photo: Klára Stejskalová,  Radio Prague International

Two places you can go to for that typical picturesque square, however, are Telč, as Vít just mentioned, and Třebíč, both of which have parts of their town centres inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The historic centre of Telč was given UNESCO status in 1992, and Třebíč has two parts to its heritage site – the early 13th century St. Procopius Basilica and the Jewish Quarter, one of the best-preserved medieval Jewish ghettos in Europe. Třebíč’s Jewish Quarter, located on the northern bank of the Jihlava River, encompasses an area of narrow cobbled streets, passages and alleyways lined with period houses. Local tour guide Leona Saláková tells us more.

The Basilica of St. Procopius  | Photo: Michal Malý,  Czech Radio

“The Jewish Quarter is made up of two main streets – the upper street and the lower street. The upper street is where you’ll find the New Synagogue, and the lower street, which is bigger, is where you’ll find most of the interesting houses and alleyways.”

The neighbourhood has a long history as a Jewish ghetto – like in many towns and cities in medieval Europe, Jewish residents in Třebíč were forced by various decrees and orders to settle only in specific areas of the town and weren’t allowed to live anywhere else.

“The Jewish Quarter dates back to the early Middle Ages, when a monastery was built next to the Jihlava River in 1101, which caused a marketplace to spring up next to it. So merchants came to the town to trade, including Jewish merchants. The first records of the Jewish Quarter are from the 14th century and the synagogue was built in the first half of the 17th century. With the social exclusion of the Jewish minority, when they were forced to live only in the ghetto, a lot of people moved in here.”

Synagogue in Třebíč | Photo: Michal Malý,  Czech Radio

Their suffering did not end there – the local Jewish population was later decimated during the Holocaust. However, although the district’s former inhabitants suffered the same fate as their fellow Jews all over Europe during the Second World War, the neighbourhood, at least, has survived all these centuries of existence intact – unlike, for example, the Jewish ghetto in Prague, which was liquidated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It could easily have been otherwise – Třebíč’s Jewish Quarter was almost demolished in the 1980s by the communist authorities for sanitation reasons. But it escaped that would-be fate, and has since become the only Jewish cultural heritage site outside of Israel to be added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage list.

What’s in a name

The Vysočina region is something of an outlier among Czechia’s provinces. The alert among you may have noticed that Czechia’s administrative regions tend to be named either after their capital city (e.g. Olomouc region, Zlín region) or bear the name of a historical political precedent (South Moravia region, Moravia-Silesia region). But Vysočina fits into neither of these categories. The region was created the way it was largely for pragmatic rather than historical reasons, says Vít Pohanka.

“Vysočina is a kind of conglomeration of districts that used to be, in very recent history, in different regions. If you wanted to go to the regional centre before the administrative system was organised like this, you had to go to České Budějovice from Pelhřimov. From Havličkův Brod you had to go to Hradec Králové. From Žďár, Jihlava and Třebíč, you had to go to Brno. So they kind of put us together and made Jihlava the regional centre.”

Vysočina region | Photo: State Veterinary Administration

The name “Vysočina” had been used colloquially for a long time to refer to roughly this part of the country, but it was never a political or administrative entity, he explains.

“Vysočina was never actually one region up until 2000. Prior to that, it was divided between South Bohemia – Pelhřimov was in South Bohemia, Havličkův Brod, which used to be Německý Brod or ‘German Brod’, used to be part of the East Bohemian region, and Žďár, Jihlava and Třebíč were part of the South Moravian region under the communists.”

Actually, this isn’t quite the whole truth – there was a region, in the early communist period between 1948 and 1960, that more or less corresponds to present-day Vysočina. Back then it was called the Jihlava Region. When the Czech Republic’s administrative regions were reorganised in 2000, the former Jihlava Region was resurrected, although the name was changed to Vysočina a year later, as, according to a survey of the region’s residents at the time, most of them preferred that name.

But the name itself is somewhat of a mystery – Vysočina translates to “Highlands”, so you might expect the region to contain the country’s tallest peaks. But it doesn’t take much to notice that there is nothing especially high in these Highlands, Vít jokes.

View from Javořice | Photo: Markéta Kachlíková,  Radio Prague International

“It’s kind of in the middle of the country, so it’s the highest for that area. But the highest peak is Javořice, which is 837 metres above sea level, so it’s not really that much. But it’s kind of hilly, so they call it the Highlands. When I was a kid and I started reading books about Scotland, I thought ‘Hey, they’ve got Highlands as well!’ But I can assure you, the Scottish Highlands are on a completely different level.”

Documentary Woodstock

Marek Hovorka | Photo: Radek Lněnička,  Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

Vysočina doesn’t boast any bustling cities – even its largest town and regional capital, Jihlava, has only a little more than 50,000 inhabitants. But there is one time of year when the modest-sized city gets a huge injection of vitality – the annual Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival. Marek Hovorka, the festival’s co-founder and director, says the festival usually brings in an extra 6,000 or so people to Jihlava.

“It’s really nice how it’s visible in the town – in the streets, in the bars. These people also bring a different mood to the town, because they leave their normal lives and create time for themselves during the festival.”

Photo: Karel Sýkora

In Hovorka’s opinion, this is something that makes the event special compared to other film festivals. Having the festival in a town like Jihlava brings a certain atmosphere that is very different to having it in a capital city, he says.

“Most festivals take place in capitals and people don’t travel to be there – they go to school or work and then go to watch one or two films, but then they very quickly come back to their normal lives. Going to a festival like Ji.hlava means having a few days of very exceptional life, because you can forget everything that you have to do and you can concentrate on yourself. These days, we think that we can do what we want, but in the end, we have so many things that we have to do, that we don’t have space to think about ourselves. That’s why I think the mood, the spirit, the atmosphere of the festival in Jihlava is so special. That’s why I call it ‘documentary Woodstock’.”

Jihlava | Photo: Markéta Kachlíková,  Radio Prague International

The Ji.hlava documentary festival sprang out of a desire by Hovorka and his friends to breathe some cultural life into the city. They started a theatre group when they were still in secondary school and began organising public talks and discussions with writers, actors, and directors that interested them.

“We realised that we were not the only ones who were missing something in this town – cultural life for young people, let’s say, and not only for young people – for everybody who is interested in something new. So me and my friends decided to organise a three-day film event – that was the beginning. We took it seriously, as we did the previous things, and we realised we were not alone – that there were hundreds of people who were interested in watching documentary films on the big screen with Q&As with the director after the screening. So we got feedback that maybe it would be a pity not to continue, and that’s how it started.”

Nowadays, the Ji.hlava documentary festival has grown in size to several thousand visitors watching around 330 films in ten venues. And this year will be the biggest and best yet, says Hovorka.

Marek Hovorka | Photo: Milan Kopecký,  Czech Radio

“This year, 2024, will be really exceptional, because it will be the first year that we will extend the festival from six days to ten. Because we are really suffering with accommodation and with the number of screenings we can repeat. Most hotels 20 kilometres around Jihlava are booked during the festival, so we wanted to make it longer and bring people closer to the festival venues. So we decided – and we are happy that we found support from the town of Jihlava and the region of Vysočina – to make the festival longer and create more space for people who want to come.”

So if you needed any more excuse to pack your bags and go to Vysočina, 2024 might just be the year to do it.

Author: Anna Fodor
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