Tábor - a labyrinth of antiquity


An hour and a half's journey south of Prague lies the medieval Hussite town of Tábor. On first arrival, as you step out onto a busy square from the packed train station, the place looks nothing out of the ordinary. But once you pass the bustling high street in the newer area of town, the cobbled and winding paths of the Old Town lined with their quaint houses make this a location where you can feel history at every turn. And indeed history is something of which there is no lack in Tábor.

"As the town he conquered was not encircled by walls, he chose a place near the same river, a place which was naturally protected by its location... He built walls around it and ordered his people to build houses in the same way as they used to build tents."

This is an extract from the Czech Chronicle by Eneas Silvio Piccolomini. It describes the foundation of a town called Hradiště on Mount Tábor by the famous Hussite captain Jan Žižka. In spite of its humble beginnings, this settlement was to become the modern-day town of Tábor, and indeed, true to the Chronicle's description, the town affords commanding views of the surrounding countryside, making it no great wonder that it was built on this particular site. Zdeněk Vybíral, of the Tábor Institute of Historical Research told me more about the town's foundation:

"Czech King Přemysl Otakar II founded a royal town there in the second half of the 13th century which was to function as a royal fortress. The town, however, didn't experience a great period of prosperity and so we don't know much about it. The Hussite settlement appeared at the beginning of the year 1420, when the inhabitants from the surrounding area, namely from the nearby town of Sezimovo Ústí, gathered on a tall hill, where there still stood the remains of the old royal town of the Přemysl dynasty. They decided to found a new settlement, a community of brothers and sisters, according to the teaching of Jan Hus, and so the town of Tábor or, as it was then called, Hradiště on Mount Tábor, was founded."

The newly founded settlement soon became a centre for the Hussite movement, playing a key role in the country's politics, with a strong economy, its own armed forces and even its own foreign policy. But the citizens of Tábor did not respect the authority of the Czech crown, even having been declared a royal town in 1437 by the then Czech King, Sigismund of Luxemburg. This continued until 1452, when the town was forced to surrender to the troops of George of Poděbrady, and the proud citizens of Tábor finally bowed to royal authority. This brought an end to the turmoil of previous years, as Zdeněk Vybíral told me:

"The break in military activity gave the city of Tábor an opportunity to flourish internally. The citizens of Tábor saw a long period of prosperity, and built the town in the late Gothic style, something which was very new at the time. Large stone structures began to appear, which served the whole community, including the town hall and the central church on the square. These building remain even today and are some of the most famous examples of late medieval architecture in the Czech lands."

Yet it is here, beneath the houses and shops above, where the town's most intriguing feature lies. Over 800 metres of winding tunnels, which weave their way under Žižka Square in the Old Town, are now accessible to the public, opened shortly after the Second World War. The labyrinth was originally intended for defensive purposes, as the town's citizens came up with an idea to construct a place where they could hide in case of danger.

"The basis of the labyrinth was the connection of separate cellars beneath the houses in the historical centre, around Žižka Square, the hub of the Old Town. The townsfolk who owned these houses originally simply stored goods in the cellars, but in time they endeavored to link them together by means of a network of tunnels, so that it was possible to escape in the event of attack or fire, which had often engulfed the city in previous centuries. These passageways gradually spread, and could be accessed through openings beyond the town walls, so that citizens could escape from the city in case of any threat, from enemies or otherwise. The system of passageways eventually grew even further, but today only a small section is accessible, which links several cellar areas directly beneath Žižka Square. We know that the tunnels are more extensive, but it is not possible to delve any further due to the risk of cave-ins."

But although one of the most charming features of the town, these atmospheric tunnels were not always used for honest purposes, as Zdeněk Vybíral explains:

"We also know that the tunnels and storage areas beneath Tábor were used for the preservation of certain precious items, but often this was for harboring goods which weren't entirely legal, for example stolen merchandise. And there are even references in historical records to suggest that the slaughter of animals and swine, and pig-sticking, which was very popular at the time, used to occur down there. It came to the point where a man would steal a pig or some poultry from his neighbor, and would use the labyrinth as somewhere to hide as he worked."

From its Hussite beginnings to its status in the 21st century as a popular location for tourists, Tábor has survived some turbulent times. But what is it that makes the town so popular now, over 500 years since the foundation of the first settlement? I put this question to Lenka Hořejšková, the head of Tábor's Department of Culture and Tourism:

"Especially in recent years we have seen a real revival of interest in the historical part of town. Ten years ago, for example, when I started working here there was only one restaurant and tourists barely stayed in the city longer than to look through the museum. Today, it's hard to find a table in any restaurant without a reservation. I think that Tábor is popular solely thanks to its historical traditions and the collection of monuments which is found here."

And so it seems that in some ways the past really has caught up with Tábor, and with the number of visitors to the town still increasing year by year, it's rich and curious past brings hope for continued interest in the future.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on March 8, 2006.