The Four Corners of the Czech Republic, Pt. I: The Bohemian Forest

Photo: Martina Bílá

Borderlands are fascinating areas where cultures either meet and intermingle, or in some cases are cordoned off to coldly stare at one another. The Czech/German/Austrian tri-border has experienced both. Over the last century it went from being an imaginary line through the woods to a literal Iron Curtain and back again. What’s emerging here today is a cross-cultural region deep in the Bohemian Forest National Park.

While the Austrians and Germans refer to the park by its location, as the Bohemian or Bavarian Forest respectively, the Czechs call it “Šumava” after an old Slavonic word for dense forest that today evokes the rustling of leaves. The three countries share the woods from a point on Trojmezná hora, or “three-border mountain”, and their good cooperation in managing the area is what has kept the Bohemian Forest a national treasure on all sides of the tri-border. Michal Valenta handles international relations for the Šumava National Park.

Šumava,  photo: Martina Bílá
“We have the last remnants of Mountain Spruce forests, for example. We have a large area on the border to the German national park where we try to establish joint wilderness areas called “The Wild Heart of Europe”. The area on the southern part then where the national park borders Austria is an isolated area of mountain spruce and this area is especially important for preserving the glacial lake at Plešná. The Šumava is the largest national park in the Czech Republic and most importantly the only one where the protection of nature is possible on such a great, large area today. We have a large extent of areas which are not inhabited today due to developments after the Second World War, so there are large areas where it is possible to let nature be free, without intervention.”

Those developments after the Second World War were of course the expulsion of the ethnic German population and the building of the infamous border zone by the communist regime, a buffer of barbed-wire, lookout towers, surveillance roads and electric fences that marked the boundary the West and the so-called East for some 40 years, and made the Central European communist countries into a de facto prison. What villages remained in the no-go zone were dismantled so as to leave no cover to “escapees” and for four to ten kilometres into the Czech side of the border the country was left to nature.

“It’s a bit of a paradox, because the main reason that the national park could be established was the existence of this protective belt along the border, because a lot of areas could be preserved here in a state that was very close to nature. So the main populations of the most typical animals lived in these areas along the border.”

The Schwarzenberg timber canal,  photo:
To say the Šumava is the end of civilisation would be to overlook one deep mark of 18th century technological prowess etched into the ground here. The Schwarzenberg timber canal is a 60-km log flume constructed over the course of 33 years. One of the first of its kind, the canal crosses the Vltava hinterland to the Austrian waterways, breaking the continental divide and ultimately allowing a continuous stream of water from the Black Sea to the North Sea. In the tiny settlement of Jelení on the Schwarzenberg canal lives one Čestmír Hrbek, a general in the Czechoslovak army who bought an old gamekeeper’s lodge here 20 years ago and turned part of it into a small museum in honour of the great technical achievement.

“The end of the 18th century was the age of industrialisation, when factories were being built, people were moving from the villages to the cities for work and the cities grew tremendously, and they needed wood of all kinds. Wood for building, wood for burning, wood for furniture – in short, there was huge demand. And meanwhile, the resources in the south were running out, there were no more forests. Vienna was in the middle of a fuel crisis; another year or two and they would have all frozen to death, the Viennese. And just 100 kilometres from Vienna was the immense Bohemian wilderness, where wood was falling all over the ground and rotting in the mud. But no one knew how to get it down.”

Where there is a rich family of noblemen though, there’s a way, and who owned the Bohemian Forest but the Schwarzenbergs. One of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Europe at the time, the Schwarzenbergs certainly had the wherewithal to solve just about any problem the era could pose, but even money can’t move mountains of trees without the smarts of someone like Josef Rosenauer, the Czech engineer who put the plan into action.

“Rosenauer placed his bets on water. He decided that he would get the wood from here to the towns below by water, by rivers, via the Danube and the Vltava. And he would get it to the rivers by water as well. And since there was no natural waterway to the rivers, not even a creek, he knew they would have to build one.”

Today, people from all sides of the border come to wonder at their shared history in the mossy stone beds and beautiful neo-Renaissance tunnels of the canal. Over a lunch of fresh mountain trout in the frontier town of Nová Pec I had the good fortune of meeting Austrian artist Joachim Eckl and his wife Joanna, for whom visiting the Czech side of the border is an important custom.

Šumava,  photo:
“We try to come every other week.”

And why?

“Because we feel very linked to this land and to this area because our relatives and our family, part of it comes from Bohemia, which used to be one big culture here. And after the Iron Curtain the family was separated. We feel our roots here, and we think that the main duty for us now is to re-link again, that we find common ground again. We have to learn the language also, because our parents didn’t speak any Czech, but our grandparents - their main language was Czech.”

So have you learned some Czech?

“Only very little. But we hope that our children will connect better than we do.”

And do you have any special attraction to the Czech Republic?

“No, I like the countryside and to come here and see how they live here. It’s good that it’s open again and that we can go over and see what’s going on here and we didn’t do this 20 years ago – or even 10 years ago. It’s about discovery, and I like it.”

Are there any benefits to living close to the German border for Austrians? Do you ever go to Germany?

Šumava,  photo:
"Sure we go to Germany often, but I think the main difference is that in Germany we feel that everything is very similar to Austria. And in the Czech Republic in the 50 years of the communist government here a lot of things developed differently. And in my opinion the people here have the chance now to learn from the mistakes we have made over the last fifty years. The Czech culture... around 1900 it was the Switzerland of Europe, with the industrialisation here, the iron industry and the glass industry, this was all very highly developed here in the Czech Republic. And now we have to watch and learn from the Czechs, how they are handling the situation here now. I think it should be a positive exchange.”

Living right beneath the real Iron Curtain and experiencing the whole of the region since then inspired Mr Eckl’s to undertake an interesting project on the market square in the Austrian town of Aigen - a tangible display of regional unity among the peoples who have shared this landscape across three countries and for many, many hundreds of years.

“The Bohemian Woods cover an area in Germany, in Austria, and in Bohemia – or the Czech Republic. And I think that the connection and the relationship to the land will make us find common ground again, because we have a common origin here. So we did was, we brought 40 square metres of land from the Bohemian woods here to Austria, from those in Germany we also brought an ‘island’ of 40 square metres and also another 5 islands from the Bohemian woods in Austria, and we tried to let them grow together again. It’s a symbolic thing. It has all been based on the participation of the people here: in Germany, in Austria, and in the Czech Republic. And I think it is quite a nice symbol, a nice picture of how we can find common ground again.”