Weekend relax: It’s chata season again

Why going to the cottage is still one of the most popular pastimes for Czechs

Between the months of April and October, if you ask a Czech where he’s going to spend the weekend, chances are high that he’ll say, “Jedu na chatu,” or “I’m going to the cottage.” According to Czech authorities, 1 out of every 7 Czechs owns a cottage. This statistic doesn’t take into account all the Czechs who visit family or friends at their cottages, nor those who rent cottage accommodations. Second only to Sweden in the number of cottages per capita, the Czech Republic is home to more than 400,000 recreational dwellings, which includes any type of cottage or garden house.

Going to the cottage (i.e. chata or chalupa) is such a national pastime that the Czech language even uses the specific nouns chataření and chalupaření to describe what you do when you stay at a cottage. Typical chataření and chalupaření leisure includes activities such as: repairing or reconstructing an old cottage/farmhouse, building a new cottage, planting flowers or vegetables in the garden, cutting the grass, tending fruit trees, going for walks in the forest, cycling, mushrooming, picking berries, having outdoor barbeques, fishing and hunting. Visiting the nearest local pub is also considered a valid and vital cottage activity.

While the terms chata and chalupa are sometimes used interchangeably, most Czechs will tell you that a chata is a recreational dwelling, usually built expressly for the purpose of recreating in nature. A chata can be quite small, some garden dwellings are considered cottages for day use only. Chaty are often built in groups in “chata villages” near the woods or on the outskirts of a city. In contrast, a chalupa is a restored farmhouse or an old house in a rural village that is repurposed for outdoor recreation or seasonal living. A chalupa can often house multiple families or multiple generations of one family. A Czech who goes to the chata is a chatař while one who visits the chalupa is a chalupař. Both types of recreational dwellings are often passed down in a family through the generations.

Chata History

Although chalupy and chaty have existed for centuries across Europe, as well as in the Czech Republic, going to the cottage became a modern trend during the years of socialist rule. During Communism, most Czech citizens lived in close quarters in thin-walled panelák apartments (housing developments), surrounded by the watchful eyes of neighbors. Escaping the city on the weekend was more than just a habit – it was a means of survival. Friday afternoons meant leaving work early in order to beat the out-of-the-city rush traffic, and Sunday evenings meant waiting in lines to get back into the city.

In addition to getting away from people, relaxing in nature and having one’s own plot of land to harvest fruits, vegetables and berries, spending time at the cottage offered a break from socialist rules. Cottage culture became extremely popular during the strict “normalization” years of the 1970s and a particular style of cottage settlement called an osada evolved during this time.

Osady were wooden settlements that were often given Western-style names like “Colorado,” “Walden” or “Eldorado” to show their owner’s individuality. Tramping culture, Western campfire music and freedom of expression were values inherent in the particular osada culture of the 70s-80s. Tramping communities displayed the name of their osada on wooden plaques hung above the front door. Totem poles, American flags, Indian decorations and symbols of the Wild West could be found in osada gardens.

Chata Culture Today & Urban Community Gardens

After 1989, sociologists predicted that going to the cottage on the weekends would become an obsolete tradition, since Czechs were now free to travel the world. But, they were wrong. The cottage phenomenon continues to be a vital, growing concept in the Czech culture today.

The Czech Republic is home to more than 166,000 recreational chalupy as compared to only 25,000 in 1970. This number continues to rise as more cottages, cabins and garden houses are built each year. It has become increasingly fashionable for Czechs (both young and old) to invest in a second seasonal dwelling. Many Czechs nearing the age of retirement winterize a basic summer chata with the idea that one day they’ll retire to live in nature year-round. Young families may choose to escape a fast-paced city life by living in an inherited cottage and commuting to the city for work, instead of vice versa.

During the wintertime “off-months,” cottage owners can turn their personal summer dwelling into a business venture by renting their cottage to tourists. For a guest, the price of renting a cottage or farmhouse is usually cheaper than paying for family accommodations in a hotel or pension. It’s an attractive way for cottage owners to make extra money as well as allow guests to get a taste of cottage culture without having to commit to being an owner.

For city dwellers who don’t want to invest in a full-scale second home but would like to experience the benefits of cottage culture, particularly the garden aspect, urban community gardens are becoming a hip way for Czechs to get their green fix without a lot of hassle. Several popular community gardens exist within Prague’s city limits, including the Žižkov neighborhood’s Komunitní Zahrada Krejcárek, giving Prague dwellers a chance to experience cottage culture without leaving the city.

My First Cottage Experience

Over the years, I have spent many weekends with Czech friends at cottages across the country. My experiences range from extreme roughing it (in conditions more primitive than Czech campgrounds) to being pampered at a friend’s newly renovated farmhouse in the Orlické Mountains. Along the way, I’ve learned how to clean forest mushrooms, gone for cycling trips on mountain trails, gathered dandelions to make flower crowns and sampled more Czech alcohol than I care to remember.

My first cottage visit was to my friend’s father’s cabin on the Slapy Dam, a few months after I’d started dating my Czech husband. It was early summer, and Radek and I drove from Prague to Slapy. It was dark when we parked in an empty meadow. There were woods ahead of us, but I didn’t see a cottage anywhere. Radek gathered his things and started walking towards the woods. Not realizing that we’d have to hike in, I hadn’t packed lightly. I trudged along, dragging my bags and grumbling about what I’d gotten myself into.

We schlepped our things – sleeping bags, food and camping stove – half a kilometer through the woods to the rustic wooden cabin high above the river. Once there, we climbed up a rickety ladder to our room – four cots in an open attic space. There was no heat or running water, no indoor plumbing or window panes.

At Slapy, I tasted my first forest mushroom schnitzel, fried on a single-burner camping stove on the porch of the cottage. I also had my first experience swimming in a Czech lake, when we headed to cool off (and clean ourselves) at the Slapy recreational area. Once I adjusted my expectations to a more camping-like weekend, I realized that the view of the Vltava River below was well worth the walk. The sunrise through the attic window the following morning was even better.

In the years since my inaugural trip to the Slapy cottage, I’ve learned to be modest when packing clothes, but generous when bringing food to share, when visiting friends’ cottages. I’ve learned not to expect a busy weekend, but instead to enjoy taking it easy. At the cottage, I usually experience something new – whether it’s picking up a Czech saying I’ve never heard before or walking through WWII bunkers. Like my Czech friends, I enjoy the chance to get away from daily life and spend a leisurely weekend in nature. When my time at the cottage ends, however, I’m glad to go home.

What Czechs Say About Cottage Culture

Why do you have a cottage?

“To have a place to get out from an ugly panelák to enjoy sun and nature”

Jolana, a mother of four in Vysoké Mýto, CZ

“My father got the cottage, not a chata, but a chalupa in 1968, so I have been going there since I was born. It´s an old wooden house in the Šumava Mountains in the middle of the woods about 3 km from the nearest village. It´s very peaceful, relaxing, calm and secluded, away from people. There isn´t running water or electricity – only a solar panel. It´s nice for me to be able to get away and rest from time to time. That´s probably what I like about cottage culture. I don´t like “commuting” to cottages every weekend - traffic jams and places where there are lots of small cottages built close to each other so there´s no privacy. And the design of these little modern cottages is sometimes really awful.

Pavla, school-teacher Prague, CZ

“I'm from Valtice where people didn't have the habit of owning a chalupa, because the nature was always beautiful there, and most of the people lived in a house. But my husband’s parents lived in a city which had very bad toxic air during Communism, so they had to buy a chalupa as they wanted to spend some time in the fresh air with their children, who both had asthma. They bought one together with one other family. When the kids were little, they spent almost all weekends and holidays there. Now they go there only few times a year, but the other family is there more often because they live in an apartment so they enjoy the garden at the chalupa.”

Marketa, Valtice, CZ

“Because we lived in a small apartment in Hradec Králové, my parents had been trying to buy a chata/chalupa for ages. Imagine, you read an advertisement in a shop window on the street (vývěska), call the person and visit the place. Without seeing any picture or having an idea how the surroundings look. But miraculously we found a place we bought in 1991 for a ridiculous price – the prices climbed a lot in the following years. We spent weekends and parts of the summer there, repaired the interiors, kept up the garden, really enjoyed going there. There was a large meadow and a forest just next to it. We, the kids, could play really anywhere. We took over a part of the garden and made our tramp-like site. We made friends there and spent the time with them as well. 

The bad thing was that several times burglars broke into the chalupa which was always annoying and unpleasant. The last time we got burglars, they must have come with a truck and stole some of the antique furniture that my father inherited. My parents got really mad. They sold the chalupa in 1996 when they bought their house in Hlásná Třebaň, it was too much to keep both houses and live in HK.”

Kateřina, from Hradec Králové living in Prague, CZ

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