Letter from České Velenice-Gmünd
České Velenice is one of those places that you look at on a map and wonder how such an oddity can even exist. A small town, tucked away in a south-eastern corner of Bohemia, České Velenice is boxed-in on three sides by the Austrian border. Not only that, but it is also situated right next to the far larger Austrian town of Gmünd.
Velenice is built as a series of long grid-like roads. A thick line of train tracks block off one side of the border. On the other side are number of apartment blocks. The centre of this former industrial town is basically a long road that runs along the river border. In the middle of this road lies a shiny new footbridge that can be crossed to get from one town – and country – to the other. The centre of Gmünd is a good fifteen minutes walk away. I found the contrast between the two sides to be rather disquieting for the year 2015. České Velenice serves as a potent reminder that a border town in this part of the country carries with it considerable emotional baggage. For one, there is the Sudeten past – the Czech residents were expelled following the 1938 Munich Agreement. Then the German-speaking ones were expelled following the end of the Second World War. For 40 years, České Velenice was sealed off from its neighbour by the Iron Curtain.
A local lady told me how border guards were stationed in the forests all around, meaning locals couldn’t even take their dogs for a walk. Of course, sometimes, she added, once they got to know you, exceptions could be made. Czechs from the rest of the country would require a permit to even come here. And so, far from serving as a cultural interchange, this part of the country (as with much of the Czech western border areas) atrophied economically, culturally – as a backwater on the edge of nowhere.
Just for fun, I crossed back into what suddenly felt like the “wild east” Czech Republic not over the footbridge but across a field on the edges of both towns. I tried to find some trace of where the barbed wire might have been, but that was long gone. As I walked back to the České Velenice train station, I tried my hardest to shake off any sense of infectious fatalism about the Czech Republic: “It’s getting better,” I told myself over and over again, “It just takes time, but gradually it is getting better.” Later on, I looked at the České Velenice website, which featured countless local activities, and even boasted of a Czech-Austrian business park – and yes, even little porcelain bells and fridge magnets on offer at the town’s information centre emblazoned with an image of České Velenice! The Czech-Austrian Fenix Community Centre also has its own website. It features a rich schedule of concerts, film clubs, children’s craft centres; one regular event it highlights is called “Tvoření s Ivkou” – a course for adults run by a Czech lady on how to make decorations from recycled items. Fatalism is too easy. It really is getting better...