Heritage custodians
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2015 - 10:00am

CESKY KRUMLOV – Last year, 1.2 million tourists visited this tiny Czech city (population 14,000 in a land area of 22.16 square kilometers). That’s about a fourth of the Philippines’ total tourist arrivals.

The boat ride alone – more like a raft with benches and two men steering with long poles along the Vitava River – had 13,000 passengers daily from June to August this year.

With original structures dating back to the 13th century, the city has always had its charm. But until about 25 years ago, it was not a top travel destination.

Official tour guide Stanislav Jungwirth, who left a teaching job elsewhere in Southern Bohemia to move here in 1991, remembers only four restaurants in Cesky Krumlov at the time. Two, he said, opened intermittently while two others had waiters who didn’t smile.

“We are not the most smiling people in the world,” a smiling Stanislav told visitors from Asia last Friday.

He added that a study done in New York ranked Czechs 37th in the world in terms of readiness to smile. I don’t know if this story is true, but Stanislav is certainly one Czech who is quick to smile and crack jokes.

He also takes pride in the fact that in 1992, the city was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for its well preserved medieval structures dominated by a 13th century castle.

Wars have not touched Cesky Krumlov, allowing the city to preserve the castle and churches, bridges and cobbled streets. Where the attractions need enhancement, the Czechs have moved to fill the gaps. Narrow streets and paths have been paved with cobblestones similar to the ancient ones, and missing pieces in the original cobbled streets have been replaced. 

Considering the city’s roots, its World Heritage status is all the more impressive. Until a few decades ago, Cesky Krumlov was a mining town. Extracting silver, graphite and moldavite made the town quite dirty.

Residents later decided that the environmental cost of the mining operations was not worth it, and stopped the activities.

At the same time, the Vitava River was cleaned up. The Vitava, which is connected to the Elbe that flows through Germany, also used to be polluted by solid waste and effluvia from a paper mill.

Mill operations have been reduced over the years and it has adopted environment-friendly technology. The city’s sewerage system has also been upgraded. A big factor in the river cleanup, however, is the attitude of the residents themselves. They like to see their river clean so they keep it that way through proper waste disposal.

Today carp and trout can be caught in the Vitava, just like in the numerous ponds that dot Southern Bohemia.

Despite a mineral that turns the soil here a mustard yellow, I could see the riverbed in the sparkling clean water when I took the boat ride. Mallards played in the river, eating morsels tossed to them by patrons in the restaurants by the river.

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The restaurants are privately owned. Stanislaw said it was the private sector that took the lead in developing Cesky Krumlov, with the government later providing support in terms of improving infrastructure.

Tall buildings and global fast-food chains are prohibited in the Heritage Site. The narrow, winding and unevenly paved streets, several of which rise steeply, are lined with small artisanal shops that sell the specialties of the Czech Republic and Southern Bohemia, such as crystals, ceramics, wood carvings, puppets and gingerbread.

Even the dining places, a number of them with underground rooms, offer mostly traditional Czech fare. Massive slabs of pork knees are grilled on a wood fire in a brick chamber. These are served together with potatoes done in several ways, and washed down with Budweiser, brewed in the neighboring city of Budejovice, or Budweis in German, where the beer got its name. Germans who moved to the US started a Budweiser brand of beer ahead of the Czechs, but the Czechs swear their Buds are superior. For comfort food, there are the shops selling coil-shaped crunchy crepes.

Artists have also given this city its special Bohemian character. Art galleries are all over the city. There are numerous museums for activities and things such as puppetry, torture, Harley Davidsons, and the life and works of local painter Egon Schiele.

The castle has preserved its 17th century Baroque theater, where a Baroque opera is performed regularly by faux candlelight.

And while an estimated 80 percent of Czechs are atheists or agnostics, Catholic churches in this city and other parts of the country are well preserved along with Catholic statues and artwork.

The main square in this city is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is believed to have saved Cesky Krumlov from the Black Plague in the Middle Ages. Crosses and statues of saints stand on bridges and paths, like ancient sentinels.

The city may be ancient, but it has modern amenities: Wi-Fi, modern toilets. The owner of a souvenir shop surprised me by thanking me in Filipino. When I asked him where he learned to say “salamat,” he said his uncle taught him. And who is his uncle? “Uncle Google,” he said with a triumphant grin; he had checked out the word in his computer while ringing my purchase at the cash register.

The people in Cesky Krumlov have learned to smile more, and why not, when business is going well?

To make visits to the city memorable, those hired as official tourist guides are experts like Stanislav. Their love for the city and pride in their heritage are palpable. These are the best guarantees that a World Heritage Site will be properly preserved. People are the best custodians of their own heritage.


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