Kolín - more than just a railway junction

St Bartholomew's Cathedral

Surrounded by railway sidings and industrial estates, it's easy to get the impression that Kolín is simply a town travellers pass through on the way from the Czech capital to the nearby tourist-friendly Kutná Hora. Nevertheless, anyone who gets off the train in Kolín and takes the trouble to walk the short distance past the factories and business parks to the city centre will find that it is a place worth visiting.

St Bartholomew's Cathedral
One of the town's highlights is St Bartholomew's Cathedral near Kolín's pretty main square. This exquisite 14th-century Gothic cathedral was designed by the renowned architect Petr Parléř who was also responsible for the Charles Bridge and St Vitus' Cathedral in Prague.

Kolín also has a number of other architecturally important buildings, including the imposing Renaissance town hall on the square and an elegant baroque Jewish synagogue from the seventeenth century.

The latter building bears witness to the fact that the town was home to one of the earliest Jewish communities in this country. Jaroslav Pejsa works for the district archive in Kolín:

"It was one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in the Czech Lands. The first mention of the Jewish settlement in Kolín dates back to the middle of the 14th century and the first mention of a Jewish street in Kolín comes from the 1370s, which means that there must have already been an extensive Jewish community in the town by that time. Of course, Kolín also has a very old Jewish graveyard. The oldest graves date back to the end of the fifteenth century, which makes it one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Bohemia along with the one in Prague."

Jewish cemetery in Kolín,  photo: Pajast,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Although the quaint buildings of the Jewish quarter are still very much part of the fabric of Kolín, the people who built them have all but disappeared from the town. Like so many places in Europe, Kolín's vibrant Jewish community was all but wiped out by the ravages of the Second World War. Jaroslav Pejsa again:

"Even by the time the Second World War started there was still a Jewish community of around 500 people in the town. Unfortunately, very few of them - perhaps around 50 people - managed to return after the events of the war. They managed for a short while to revive the official Jewish religious community in the town, but this disbanded in 1953. A synagogue congregation managed to keep going for a few more years, but this had also disappeared by the 1970s. Sadly, today there is no active Jewish community in the town and only a handful of the original Jewish population remain."

Synagogue,  photo: Ben Skála,  CC BY-SA 2.5 Generic
The Jewish community in Kolín played an important role in the town's development and during the centuries in which they lived there they undoubtedly helped it become an important business centre situated on the crossroads of three ancient trade routes.

Despite Kolín's relative wealth and prestige, however, it has traditionally been eclipsed by the nearby towns of Prague and Kutná Hora who have always enjoyed more fame and prestige.

The only time the town really emerged from the shadows of its more illustrious neighbours was during the 18th century, when historical forces conspired to ensure that on June 18, 1757, the eyes of the world focused on Kolín.

As Prussia and Austria vied for domination of Central Europe in the 18th century, the rivalry between the two states culminated in a momentous encounter at Kolín during the Seven Years War. Jaroslav Pejsa says the Battle of Kolín is an event that still resonates in the town to this day:

Battle of Kolín
"The battle involved a clash between the Austrian forces of the Empress Marie Theresa and those of the Prussian monarch Frederick the Great. It was one of the most important clashes of the Seven Years War, and unfortunately also one of the bloodiest. The Austrians won it and thereby managed to maintain the territorial integrity of their empire at that time. This battle is still remembered in the Kolín region to this day and there are a number of monuments commemorating it."

In checking Prussian expansionism in the 18th-century, Jaroslav Pejsa says the Battle of Kolín had far-reaching consequences, not only in terms of the future development of Europe, but also because it played a pivotal role in ensuring that the historical kingdom of Bohemia remained territorially intact. As Mr Pejsa suggests, if this battle had gone the other way, the Czech Republic might look very different today:

Kolín | Photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International
"The battle more or less limited the expansion of Prussia under Frederick the Great. It also indirectly helped preserve the integrity of Bohemia within the framework of the Habsburg Empire. At that time, Frederick's forces had been trying very hard to lay siege to Prague. There was a real danger that the Prussians could have occupied Bohemia and this would have led to the annexation of a significant part of the Czech lands that then belonged to the Austrian monarchy."

After the Battle of Kolín, the town continued to develop and Jaroslav Pejsa says it became something of a manufacturing powerhouse after the advent of the industrial revolution:

"Kolín's industrial prowess began to come into its own in the middle of the nineteenth century. The main reason for this development was probably the construction of a railway line through the town in the years 1843 to 1845, which linked Prague to [the Moravian city of] Olomouc. The first big industries in the town began to emerge in the 1860s and 70s. Kolín really started to become a big manufacturing town with many major industries, which began to be established here at the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century."

Automobile factory TPCA,  photo: Miloš Turek
Kolín continues to be an important railway junction and a major centre of industry to this day. Besides its traditional chemical and engineering plants, the town is now also home to a massive 1.5 billion-euro automobile factory, which makes cars for Toyota and Peugeot.

In addition to its industrial strength, Kolín also enjoys a rich cultural life with several active artistic institutions and a theatre. It also hosts a number of important cultural festivals, including one dedicated to the inventor of modern pantomime Jean-Gaspard Debarau (Jan Kašpar Dvořák), who was born in the town.

Other luminaries who hail from the city include the photographer Josef Sudek and the writer Otakar Fischer.

But when it comes to talking about famous sons and daughters of Kolín, the name of František Kmoch looms large above all others.

This composer and musician, who was born in the nearby village of Zasmuky, spent most of his life in Kolín and is strongly associated with the town.

Kmoch was a key figure in the Czech national revival and his modern adaptations of traditional melodies helped foster a sense of Czech national identity. His innovative approach to marches and polkas also helped revolutionise brass-band music.

When he died in 1922, František Kmoch left behind a massive body of work (around 500 compositions) whose influence is still felt to this day:

Ludmila Bila is chairwoman of the Fellowship of František Kmoch in Kolín.

"For decades now, everyone who writes or plays brass-band music has acknowledged the legacy of František Kmoch. His work is still very much alive today and you don't feel like he's some composer who's been dead for years. His legacy still endures to this day. I'm chairwoman of the Fellowship of František Kmoch and I'm also involved with a majorette club. We tour all over the Czech Republic and Europe. When our group performs in places like France and Germany and they play marches by František Kmoch, it immediately causes a big stir. It really makes us hear this Czech music differently to the way we perceive it when it is played at home."

Ludmila Bila's Fellowship of František Kmoch organises a festival, which is the annual highlight Kolín's cultural calendar. Every summer thousands of brass-band enthusiasts from as far afield as Iceland and the United States come to Kolín for the annual "Kmochův Kolín" festival in honour of this famous composer.

For three days, Kolín transforms into a cacophony of brass-band concerts and various festival happenings. Even if you're not particularly fond of brass-band music, it's certainly an event worth seeing and is probably as good a time as any to pay an overdue visit to an often-neglected town that is just a forty-minute train-ride east of Prague.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on October 31, 2007.