Czechs love their cottages, but perhaps less than they used to

Under communism, when travelling was far from easy, many Czechs' main form of escape was spending time at their country cottages. In the 1990s it remained an extremely common part of life in the Czech Republic, with many families continuing to load up their cars and head to their chata every weekend. But now, it seems, this is changing.

According to a poll recently published in a daily newspaper, while in 2001 19 percent spent weekends at their cottage, in 2007 the figure has fallen to less than 8 percent. So is this the twilight of Czech cottage mania, as it was predicted by some sociologists to happen sooner or later? Incidentally, the faculty of Natural Sciences in Prague recently opened an exhibition dedicated to the phenomena of cabin and cottage-owning (chatareni and chalupareni). Its authors, Dana Fialova and Jiri Vagner, have been researching and teaching about the phenomenon of the so-called "second housing".

The first thing I wanted to know was the difference between the two trends. In technical terms, chalupa (cottage) previously served as a residential building whereas chata (cabin) was built intentionally for the purpose of recreation. But the real difference is given by historical conditions of their development:

"There are two sources of second homes. The first was common in other western European countries - the tradition of summer houses. Here, the trend originated at the end of 19th century when rich city people built second homes or spent summers at farms or village houses of friends."

The second trend described by Jiri Vagner began in the inter-war period. It is also related to tramping (travelling around the country with a love for nature, with a rucksack and guitar.)

"The second trend is very specific: It is connected with scouting, tramping and woodcraft movements. After World War I, repatriates from battlefields across Siberia, the United States and Canada returned to Europe. They brought inspiration from silent films and literature, for example books by Jack London. Unlike the first trend, tramping was popular among less educated, working class youth, who thought scouting was too organised and who wanted to experience freedom and wilderness. Large cities, such as Prague, provided such space. Just twenty or thirty kilometres south of Prague there were beautiful, practically untouched valleys of the river Vltava."

The tradition of spending free time at cottages started to develop later and was mainly triggered by political changes after the Second World War:

"Cottage-going developed mainly at the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, when people resettled houses emptied by expelled Germans. The state tried to domesticate the area, but it was not successful. People bought cottages, farms, mills or glass-factories for a symbolic price and reconstructed them. So we can actually say that cottagers saved the original structure of village settlements. The biggest boom was in the northern border area - in the Sudetenland, along the border with former Eastern Germany and Poland. Settlement in South Bohemia was not that strong, because of the Iron Curtain."

As I found out at the exhibition, twenty percent of all domestic buildings in the Czech Republic are cabins and cottages which are used as a second home. Altogether there are more than half a million of such buildings. Yet, the Czech Republic falls behind for instance Scandinavian countries in this regard; in fact it is ranked fifth as far as number of cottages per person is concerned. So is this, after all, a specific Czech tradition? Dana Fialova explains there is more to this trend than numbers.

"There is extreme emotional attachment. We have asked people in a questionnaire whether they would be willing to sell their property and most of them wouldn't. Most of them wouldn't be willing even to rent it. They don't want to let strangers in their private property, unless they are forced to for financial reasons. Ownership is rooted deep inside. People don't have a relationship only to the cottage but to the surroundings as well.

Traditional leisure activities, such as mushroom picking or fishing, typically Czech activities, all this is connected to chatareni. And in the 50s, sports such as canoeing or nohejbal, Czech popular sport, all that originated at weekend-houses colonies."

I decided to ask some Prague-based cottage-owners to tell me how they feel about their property and about time they spend in their second homes. They confirmed that having a cottage is a matter of emotional bond as well as pretty hard work.

Eagle Mountains
Michal Serf: "I have a cottage in the Eagle Mountains it's in the north-eastern part of Bohemia. I used to spend there some holidays and several weekends a year. Let's say two weeks in the winter. It's a heritage. My grandfather and grandmother bought it in 1948 or 46. It was the border region. It was after Second World War when Germans were expelled from this territory."

"Unfortunately, in the last years I spent there more time working and trying to save this quite primitive and simple cottage, because it's maybe 150 years old. It's very much damaged so now it's under a sort of reconstruction and it's my main task."

Have you ever considered selling it?

"From time to time but this cottage it's part of my life. I spent there my childhood and I have friends there and I was living there with my grandparents so it's a warm attitude."

Martina Franklova: "My grandma has a cottage near Podebrady and we have been going there since I was little kid."

Have you been going there recently?

"From time to time I go there, especially because of my grandmother. Me and my mother go there quite often. I like the place and I like the free space there although it is quite a lot of work there so it is not as relaxing as I would like it to be. Now I am pregnant so I think I would like to go there with my kid as well."

The true boom of cottage mania arrived in the 1970s, when communism had firmly established itself in the country. The evidence of that is the large number of film and television productions set in cottages that were made at the time and of course the popular TV programme for DIY-lovers, gardeners and cottage-owners, which filled most Czech homes every Sunday at 12 a.m. The popular programme has changed its producer and title, but more than thirty years later, it is still broadcast every week.

With the fall of communism, sociologists predicted that the trend of cottage-going would drop due to political and economic changes. It seems, though, that the tradition is rooted deep in Czech hearts and no external circumstances can change it:

"There was a decline at the beginning of the 1990s. Caused by the fact that the older generation, people in their fifties and sixties, at the beginning of the 1990s wanted to experience what they couldn't experience when they were young: that means to travel. They invested much more time in travelling abroad. Now they are starting coming back. The present generation of people who are fifty or sixty-something have already had the possibility to travel so we can see a return. Of course there are buildings that remain deserted but at the same time, new cottages are being built and there is demand on the real-estate market."

Dana Fialova and Jiri Vagner have developed a catchphrase that summarizes Czech attitude to cottages in one sentence:

"Ac daleko je k Europlatu, spravny Cech vlastni chalupu ci chatu!"

In other words: even though European wages are still a long way off, a genuine Czech owns a cabin or cottage. I guess I don't have to emphasize that Dana Fialova and Jiri Vagner are cottage-owners and regular cottage-goers themselves. If you want to learn more about the trend and see photos of some bizarre garden cottages and cabins by sculptor and photographer Veronika Zapletalova, you can visit the Science Faculty building at Prague's Albertov. The exhibition is on display until mid-October.