Where are all the Czechs?!

You can spend a summer week in Prague without meeting a single native. Marek Tomin on why.

Czechs are today faced with the same plethora of travelling options offered by any country of the European Union.

Citizens of a land-locked nation, Czechs are easily wooed to Europe’s seaside resorts, for example. Since the end of the Yugoslav conflict, the most popular choice has been the Adriatic coast, particularly Croatia, a favored summer spot back in the communist heydays. Exotic destinations such as Thailand, Mexico and North Africa have been top of the list in recent years.

This was not always the case. Prior to the collapse of the communism, most Czechs were lucky to be granted an exit visa to any country on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

After 1989 travel-starved Czechs set out in droves to taste the fruits of previously forbidden destinations. Armed with sticks of salami, bottles of home-distilled slivovice and loaves of bread, the Czechs piled into rickety coaches that took them to package holiday resorts. Inevitably, there was a veritable profusion of travel agents during the 90’s. In the latter half of the decade, however, disaster struck several summers in a row - holidays were cancelled in mass with no refunds given. Many travel agents went bankrupt and new laws were brought in to regulate the business. Although today the Czechs are still travel-crazy, many town and city residents, particularly the older generation, have gone back to doing what they did most of the time prior to the dismantling of the Eastern Bloc. They spend the summer out in the Czech countryside pottering about the garden of their holiday home - a “chata” or a “chalupa.”

A chata tends to be a small, often prefabricated and wooden, dwelling, best likened to a bungalow or chalet. Sometimes it is little more than a garden shed. A chalupa, on the other hand, tends to be a more robust abode akin to a country cottage. The terms are interchangeable to some degree, though, and to make matters a little more confusing, the word chata can also mean a large mountain lodge, though these tend to be run as hostels and have little to do with the phenomenon of the weekend or summer house.
The Czechs are among the frontrunners in Europe in terms of holiday home ownership. The statistics are unequivocal - the Czech Republic comes in third after Switzerland and France with 5 holiday homes per sq. km. Out of every thousand, 38 Czechs own a second home. The Swedes lead with 70.1 holiday homes per 1000 inhabitants. By comparison, in Britain fewer than 4 people in every thousand own a holiday residence.

Surprisingly, this evident bounty of privately owned holiday homes is not new and has nothing to do with the wave of popular capitalism that took Czechoslovakia by storm after 1989. On the contrary, the holiday home boom actually dates back to the 60’s and 70’s of the last century. It coincided with a period of rapid population growth and urbanisation on a grand scale - most of the large high-rise housing estates that plague the Czech urban landscape date from this era.

Forced to live in cramped flats, which often accommodated three generations, people could get away from it all by going to the chata for the weekend or the summer holiday. Guesthouses and small hotels were almost entirely eradicated under communism since they were forms of small business - they were replaced by state-owned hostels. Although urban housing belonged entirely to the State, private ownership of a home out in the country was possible. Until the late eighties the Czech dream was “a nice (rented) flat, a car and a holiday home.”

“I’d say that the chata phenomenon was about escaping from the city,” says Petra, a Praguer in her early thirties. “Under communism, the chata provided people with a space that actually belonged to them, they could build on the plot of land or make alterations as they wished. It was really a form of self-realisation. You weren’t under the control of the establishment. In the city there were neighbours to look out for and informers. For a moment at least, one was outside of the official structures”. She looks back to her childhood when she spent every weekend and holiday in the family holiday home with some nostalgia.

Her partner Karel grew up in a village, only moving to the capital at the age of eighteen. “To us, people from the city seemed a little ridiculous, coming to live in the countryside for the weekend or a couple of weeks in the summer. They had a very romantic idea of village life.”

Things are changing, though. Increasingly, the chata phenomenon is going out of fashion. Owners of holiday homes now mostly belong to older Czechs. A recent study by a team of researchers led by Dana Fialová from the Social Geography Department of the Natural Sciences Faculty of Charles University shows that during the 90’s more and more Czechs have turned their weekend and holiday accommodation into permanent residences. The trend seems set to continue.

The urban landscape is changing rapidly. On the edges of the large cities, suburbia as we know it from Western Europe is developing. Many people have moved out of the city proper and have become commuters living in hypermarket-dependent satellite towns. Suburban sprawl is taking over areas where holiday homes once dominated. As a result, some bungalows are being levelled and replaced by family homes.
“Property has appreciated in value. The chata and the land around it are now valuable real estate. About thirty years ago my family bought a holiday home for 26,000 K?. It could now be sold for more than ten times that figure,” says Petra.

Not many Czechs are willing to sell their beloved chata, however. Most either built them with their own hands, or at least put in a lot of time and sweat to make them habitable. So the chata may survive for some time yet.

-Marek Tomin is doing important research at [email protected]

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