Czech Siberia

Česká Sibiř, foto: ŠJů, CC BY 3.0 Unported

Several areas in the Czech Republic are named after other parts of the world. For instance in the far north of Bohemia you'll find a mountainous area named Czech Switzerland, while in the south of the country, near the border with Austria, is Czech Canada. Today, however, we're visiting Czech Siberia in central Bohemia, which is on the edge of the Bohemian-Moravian highlands. Pavel Krizek, who runs a wildlife protection centre in the town of Votice, explains the name Czech Siberia, Ceska Sibir in Czech.

Ceska Sibir, foto: ŠJů, CC BY 3.0 Unported
"The area got the name because winters here are pretty tough; we get a lot of snow and severe frosts. That's why local people use the name, though it was first used by the writer Jan Herben."

And the author knew what he was talking about. The day I visited it was 20 degrees Celsius in Prague but just 60 kilometres away in Czech Siberia there was still ice on the lakes and some snow in the fields.

The wonderfully named Miroslav Slunecko is the mayor of the nearby village of Neustupov. It is in many ways a typical Czech village, the kind of place millions of people around the Czech Republic call home. Except it's colder than most places, says the mayor.

"It's different every year, of course, but at the beginning of November - around the time of Dusicky, or All Souls' Day - it starts to get cold and sometimes it even snows. As you can see yourself, there is still some snow about."

The inhabitants of Czech Siberia aren't tougher than other people, says Mr Slunecko: for them long winters are nothing out of the ordinary.

Neustupov, foto: ŠJů, CC BY 3.0 Unported
"They're used to it, they have a relationship with the region and they wouldn't consider moving away, even though conditions for life here are really tough. People here totally dependent on agriculture but now it's on the decline. There just aren't jobs here, and if you can find a job the pay is really pitiful."

Pavel Krizek was born, bred and still lives in the town of Votice. He says the inhabitants of Czech Siberia are used to making do and getting by with what they have.

"It's an area where people are hardworking, though there is no industry here apart from agriculture. People don't make so much money but they are able to get by with what they have. Many local people are good with their hands, and you'll find many carpenters, metal goods makers and small industry of that kind...I think people are glad they live in this region."

While older people may be glad to live in Czech Siberia, young people are getting out, many of them trying their luck in the bright lights of Prague, just an hour away by car but in many ways worlds apart. Miroslav Slunecko again.

"Our young people are moving away. When I became the mayor here - in 1990, just after the revolution - the population of Neustupov was 586. Now it's 504, so you can see the fall-off in population here in a decade."

Neustupov - church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary
Pavel Krizek says, however, that even if the local population is falling off somewhat, the inhabitants of Czech Siberia will soldier on; the fighting spirit is in their blood.

"The local people here in Czech Siberia have always been rebels. For instance at the time of the Hussite Wars Zbynek Bukovec from Bukov was one of Jan Hus's four camp commanders along with Prokop Holy and Jan Zizka. And something of that Hussite spirit has remained in the area."

Czech Siberia may not have a huge number of sights, but it does have at least one unique monument, says Mr Krizek

"There's a copy of Christ's tomb here in Votice in the graveyard. A local aristocrat sent Franciscan monks to Jerusalem to measure Christ's tomb exactly and had it built here. It's the best preserved copy in the whole of Central Europe."

Moving on from history and local sights to wildlife for a moment, the real Siberia in the former Soviet Union is notorious for mosquitoes: does Czech Siberia also suffer from swarms of mosquitoes in the summer?

Wildlife protection centre in Votice
"No, mosquitoes need a wet environment, which we don't have here. But what we do have are huge anthills near the town of Milicin, which, by the way is the biggest town in Czech Siberia. They aren't small anthills - they are around a metre or a metre and a half deep."

Votice, where Mr Krizek has his wildlife protection centre, has a population of around 4,500, while Neustupov has - as we've heard - only around 500 inhabitants. I spoke to Mayor Slunecko in the Neustopov Town Hall, though the title is a bit grand: it's actually an unimposing bungalow on the main street. Around the corner is the former post office; since it was closed locals have to use a mobile post office, or take the bus to Votice. The local pub doesn't open until 5 in the evening during the winter. Getting back to the Town Hall, it's open to the public on Wednesday afternoons and - this was something I'd never seen before - on Sunday afternoons. Mr Slunecko explained why.

"The office here was open on Sundays even under the Communists and we maintained the tradition because a lot of people are busy during the week. They can come here and then go to church, or to the pub. Also a lot of people have cottages here and they're only here at the weekend."

And it's here we say goodbye to Czech Siberia, a picturesque, if relatively cold, corner of Central Bohemia.