Jilemnice - the cradle of Czech skiing

Jilemnice, photo: CzechTourism

It is early on a Friday morning, the air is freezing and there is no sign of the sun in the sky. Yet, the creaky old Karosa bus heading towards Krkonoše or Giant Mountains is almost full when I arrive at the bus station. Many people from Prague have taken their day off in order to enjoy some snow. Unlike most of my fellow travellers, I am not heading towards the ski slopes and racing tracks. My destination is the little town of Jilemnice, crouching at the foothills of the Giant Mountains in north Bohemia. Jilemnice was one of the very first skiing centres in the country and it proudly calls itself the Cradle of Czech skiing. Petra Pohůnkova from the local Town Hall has promised to give me a tour through the town. We meet on the central square, right in front of the Town Hall building:

“Probably the most interesting and the most visible building is the Town Hall, which was built in the 18th century in the period when the Harrach dynasty came to Jilemnice. It used to be smaller; it didn’t have this tower and it didn’t have the clock that you can see today. Some years later they rebuilt the Town Hall and they added the tower and the clock. The clock is one of the most interesting of its kind in central Europe. It’s because of the number of strikes, which is 1020 a day.”

Jilemnice,  photo: CzechTourism
“The brick buildings replaced the former wooden ones. They were rebuilt after the fires. There were many fires in Jilemnice. One of the greatest was in 1883 when the timber buildings were completely burned down. People had to rebuild their town and because they knew what timber was like, they used bricks and stone.”

Not everybody could offer bricks, though, and you can still find some lovely wooden houses in Jilemnice. The most beautiful street, consisting almost entirely of traditional log cabins, is called Zvědavá, or Curious Street. I wonder where its name came from:

Zvědavá or 'Curious' Street,  photo: Jiří Erben,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“It’s probably because of the shape of the street or because of the way the houses are placed on their plots. On the right side, if you look up the hill, you can see one window from each of the buildings. So people from each house could see in the direction of the centre.”

We walk through the tiny street and up the hill, towards the local cemetery, which is overlooking the entire town:

We are now at a cemetery. It’s very windy here and the snow started falling. We are standing by a grave of one of the most famous people from Jilemnice, Bohumil Hanč:

“Bohumil Hanč was not born in Jilemnice, he was born in Benecko, but he lived here. It was one of the best known skiers in the whole country in those times. He became famous because of his death, if I can say it like this. He died during a ski competition for 50 kilometres, which was held at Krkonoše Mountains. He died because of a very bad weather and snowstorm. He died with his best friend Vrbata, who tried to help him and gave him his jacket. People who were looking for Hanč didn’t know that Vrbata was there as well. But even if they did, it was too late to save his life.”

Numb with cold, I hurry to the local museum – the Krkonošské Muzeum – which is devoted to the history of the region and to the origins of skiing. As I slowly thaw out over a cup of tea, the museum’s director and historian Jan Luštinec tells me about the town’s history:

“Jilemnice is the gateway to the western part of the Giant Mountains. It was founded as a centre of the vast domain of the Wallensteins, who owned the whole of the west Giant Mountains and their foothills.”

Jilemnice saw one its greatest periods during the 18th century under the rule of the earls of Harrach, when the linen industry expanded. A second significant period was the second half of the 19th century, when there was an expansion of the tourist industry.

“That was due to Earl Jan Harrach who brought skis to his woodsmen, and later started manufacturing skis himself. The skis were soon passed from his employees to the local townsmen and Jilemnice soon became the most significant skiing centre. The very first ski club was founded here in 1895.”

One of the darkest periods in the history of Jilemnice was the Thirty Years’ War, when most of the town was burned to the ground. In 1938 Nazi Germany annexed the borderland and the final blow came with the post-war establishment of the communist regime which abolished most of the local industries.

The Krkonošské Muzeum,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
After he tells me all about the town’s history, Mr Luštinec takes me around the museum. There are some fine examples of glass and linen work and an exhibition devoted to skiing. You can see ancient skis made from old wooden barrel planks as well as some finer pieces, manufactured according to a Norwegian model. The most valuable objects, however, are kept under lock and key:

“Here we have some examples of our ancestors’ mastery. This is a sample of a yarn from the beginning of the 19th century. It’s more than 200 years old. It’s a little technical miracle - 296 metres of this yarn weighs only one gram. It was handmade without the use of a spinning wheel. It is the finest flax yarn in the world.”

What immediately caught my eye in the small treasury was not the finest yarn but the colourful nativity scene in the corner of the room. It was made by local teacher Jáchym Metelka in 1913 and it took him more than twenty years to complete:

The nativity scene was made by Jáchym Metelka in 1913,  photo: ČT24
“The nativity scene is not large, but it is interesting because of the figures and because of its technical aspect. There are altogether 142 figures performing 350 different movements. All the movements are managed by one single mechanism, which is operated by one weight:”

The clock strikes midnight, the time when Jesus was born. The watch blows the horn. Angels in the sky start playing local Christmas carols and everything is set in motion. Metelka deliberately added local figures to the scene. There is a man processing flax, there are sheep grazing, a woman walks by with a child on her back and there is cuckoo sitting on a palm.

The mechanism in the nativity scene is too fragile to withstand being moved. So, if you want to see is it with your own eyes, you have one good reason to come to the little town of Jilemnice and enjoy its many other charms.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on January 9, 2008.