Písek: small city with big history


Písek, a South Bohemian town of around 30,000 inhabitants, was an important town in the Middle Ages and has a well-preserved medieval centre with six churches and a partly preserved Gothic castle, rebuilt into the town hall and a brewery. Known as a centre of education, it also is home to a number of important schools.

Where is Czechia’s oldest bridge? You might be tempted to think it’s Charles Bridge in Prague – but you would be wrong. The oldest surviving bridge in what is now Czechia is actually located in the South Bohemian town of Písek, as Jaroslav Jiřík from the Prácheň Museum in Písek proudly tells me.

Statue of Saint John of Nepomuk in Písek | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

“We have here the oldest stone bridge in the Czech Republic. It’s older than Charles Bridge in Prague. It was founded in the 13th century and Charles Bridge was built by Emperor Charles IV, so only in the middle or late 14th century.”

The Písek Stone Bridge, one of the oldest preserved bridges in Europe, was the site of some colourful local traditions, says Jan Kouba, also from the Prácheň Museum.

“A procession was always held on the bridge in May on the feast day of Saint John of Nepomuk. His statue on the bridge would be beautifully decorated and the people of Písek would form a large procession and head down from the church to the bridge. The tradition died out at some point, but it has since been revived.”

Nowadays, the people of Písek are very proud of their stone bridge, but that wasn’t always the case, Kouba adds.

Jan Kouba | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

“Nowadays, the locals love nothing more than their stone bridge – in 2002, when there were the huge floods and the whole bridge was underwater, the people of Písek stood on the banks of the river and prayed for the bridge to be saved. But paradoxically, 100 years ago they couldn’t have cared less – they would have happily blown it up and replaced it with a new, modern one. It was the only bridge in town and it was small, narrow, and badly paved, and the locals desperately wanted a big, wide, modern bridge. A new bridge was eventually built in 1940, but in a different location, and only after that did the people of Písek start to appreciate the old bridge a little more.”

A City of Firsts

Písek also has a few other records to its name – it was the first place in the country to get permanent electric public street lighting. On June 23, 1887, the Czech inventor and electrical engineer František Křižík electrified the city centre and the town councillors were so impressed that they bought the invention from him.

František Křižík | Photo: archive of Czech Radio

It was also the first place where the independent Czechoslovak Republic was proclaimed on October 14, 1918 – two weeks earlier than in the rest of the country. Jan Kouba explains how it happened.

“Somehow the rumour started spreading in Písek on October 14 that independence was already here, that we were free from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. People went out into the streets and started tearing down Austrian symbols and flags and cursing the emperor. Then in the evening the news came that it had all just been a rumour and that there was no independent republic yet, so the people all crawled back into their homes in fear of punishment and reprisals from the emperor. And indeed, the Austrian authorities did send soldiers to punish those responsible for disrespecting the empire, but before the troops arrived, Czechoslovakia was declared an independent country.”

Gold Rush

‘Písek’ means ‘sand’ in Czech – and you might wonder why, since, like the rest of Czechia, it is pretty far from any beaches. But it has to do with the river Otava, which flows through it, says Jaroslav Jiřík.

“It’s quite unusual, but you have to look at the name from the perspective of the location of the town on the river Otava. The river used to – and still does – contain gold; in fact, that was the reason why the settlement was founded here. And the gold that was found was washed from the sand in the river.”

Gold ore mill muzeum in Písek | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International

Jan Kouba elucidates further.

“No other Czech river had so much gold in it as the Otava. It got its name from the Celts, and in their language, Atava meant bountiful river. The biggest gold rush, when panning for gold in the Otava was at its peak, was in the Middle Ages. The gold deposits were found in the fine sand in the meanders of the river, and people would throw the sand behind them as they searched for gold. So there were always these big piles of sand all around the river, and that's why the town got the name Písek, because was so much of it everywhere along the river.”

Even to this day, you can still find gold in the Otava, both Jiřík and Kouba tell me.

“Yes, yes – in the nearby village of Kestřany, you can join an annual event where you can try your luck!”

“The gold panning competition in Kestřany takes place every year in early August, and really, the best people manage to find several dozen pieces of gold in the river!”

And you can also still find sand around Písek – since 2007, there has been a summer tradition of creating and exhibiting giant sand sculptures on the waterfront of the Otava, with a different theme chosen for the sculptures each year.

Rich in more than gold

Aside from gold, the Otava River also used to be rich in something else – fish. Especially one particular type of fish, which, unlike gold, can no longer be found in the river nowadays – salmon. Jan Kouba continues.

Otava river  | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

“Millions and millions of salmon used to come every year from the sea near Hamburg down the Elbe and Vltava rivers, before finally ending up in the Otava, where they purposefully came to breed in the clean Šumava waters. Everyone knew when the salmon came, and all the millers would cover their dams with nets and traps. They caught hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. Nowadays, salmon is a delicacy, but Karel Klostermann, a 19th-century writer from Šumava, wrote that when there was nothing to eat, people went to the cellar and cut themselves off a piece of marinated salmon – back then, it was so commonplace that it was simply the food of the poor.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given this history, the reason salmon can’t be found in the Otava nowadays is not due to overfishing, but rather because a dam was built near Ústí nad Labem in 1902. Although salmon can jump two metres high, the dam was too large for them to scale, and since then, according to Kouba, not a single salmon has been seen in the river.

A city of schools and students

Písek’s Golden Age was certainly in the Middle Ages, when Czech kings such as Přemysl Ottokar II and even Emperor Karel IV stayed there. But the town was essentially completely destroyed in 1620 at the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, and according to Kouba, Písek took a long time to recover.

Charles IV,  the King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor | Photo: National Gallery Prague,  public domain

“But then came Písek’s second Golden Age, or its Renaissance, you might say, in the second half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Písek became the centre of Czech culture, the Czech language, and Czech education.”

Písek was a key city in the Czech National Revival, with scores of Czech cultural institutions and associations created and Czech being spoken at the town hall. It also gained the reputation of being a kind of Mecca for education – indeed, even nowadays Písek is sometimes referred to in Czech as the “South Bohemian Athens” or the “city of schools and students” due to its high density of schools and universities.

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