Disaster! Our dreams have come true!!! A report on one town’s transformation

Milan Marko

(* 1955) is a lawyer and economist who works as a freelance tax advisor. He lived in Český Krumlov from birth until 2012. As the director of the Český Krumlov Development Fund in 1992–1993, he contributed significantly to converting the municipal brewery into a modern art gallery and thus to establishing the Egon Schiele Art Centrum

July 1958. Český Krumlov is a sleepy and forgotten nothing of a town in the Czechoslovak border region roughly 30 km from the Iron Curtain – practically at “the end of the world.” It is of no touristic significance and almost entire unknown abroad. Only a few people realize that it is a diamond in the rough. The city is home to perhaps 8,000 people, a large number of whom live in the historical city center. The facades have at least fifty shades of gray and are often cracked and water-logged because nobody has cleaned the gutters of the nationalized houses taken from the expelled German population since the war. There are even birch trees growing in some of the gutters. The town resembles the castle from Sleeping Beauty, a place where time has stood still.

The Vltava River flowing through town is a dead and putrid sewer, much of its surface covered in giant tufts of pink and purple foam from a paper factory five kilometers upstream. For river-runners in canoes, the beauty of the canyon below town is no match for the revolting stench of the water. Most visitors to town are amazed that locals can permanently live with such a horrible smell since they can barely stand it after just a few hours. Summertime visitors are also lucky that they’re not here during the heating season: From October to April, the air is contaminated with acrid, sulfurous smoke coming from the chimneys of the local houses, because only the occasional strong wind blows it out of the narrow valley. Most people heat their homes with coal, which most households also use in their kitchen stoves since there are no gas mains and the 110 V electricity is not enough for electric boilers. Since local residents have to heat their hot water in various kettles or cauldrons, they usually do so just once a week.

But many people avoid the city not just because of the stench from the river. Český Krumlov is also a nightmare for drivers, since there is no way around the historic center. Drivers are forced to make their way through the narrow streets, some of which are closed for pedestrians because a car and a pedestrian wouldn’t fit next to each other. The brewery delivers its barrels of beer using a horse-drawn carriage, and on many streets there is no way of passing it, so drivers have no choice but to “keep pace” with it. The fact that driving through town is beyond the abilities of many a driver is evidenced by the colorful scrapes left by various automobiles on the building facades. On the small square measuring just 50 x 55 meters, there is a three-way intersection and a bus terminal. Most buses seat 45 passengers and pull a trailer with room for an additional 20 people. These vehicles are joined by logging trucks going in both directions on narrow Radniční Street, which, seen from either end, looks like it is barely wide enough for motorcycles. But there is no other way! The city’s connection with the rest of the world is via six trains daily and roughly the same number of buses to České Budějovice. Nobody even dreams of any long-distance transport.

Almost the entire life of the city’s inhabitants takes place in the historic center, where there is everything they need: shops, services, and public offices. The only things outside the center are the train station and the hospital. There are grocery stores, butcher shops, dairy stores, drugstores, pubs, restaurants, a buffet-style diner, a bakery, a toy store, a hardware store, clothing stores, a fishmonger, and shops selling appliances, bicycles, clocks, jewelry, textiles and leather, shoes, glass and porcelain, home goods, and many other products. Locals refer to shops and pubs not by their location but by the surname of the current manager, or in rare cases by the name of the former owner. People don’t go to the hardware store or the grocery store below the square, they go to Kleček’s or Vrážek’s.

July 1998. Within tourist circles, Český Krumlov is known throughout the world as the historical pearl of southern Bohemia. In the five years since being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, it has become an internationally renowned destination, and travel agencies bring more and more visitors every year. Among other things, it is an ideal place for an overnight stay when traveling from Prague to Vienna or Salzburg. At town hall, people say: “Every year at least one king or a president!” When visiting the Czech Republic, the one place other than Prague that almost all heads of state and other politicians go to is Český Krumlov. They almost literally bump into each other in passing.   

The city is home to about 13,000 people, living primarily in the housing estates to the south and north of the historic center. There are only a few hundred residents left downtown, mostly those who operate some kind of business in their building. The overwhelming majority of surface area inside buildings in the old town is used for accommodations, food services, and retail. Most buildings were privatized in the past few years, and the new owners have fixed the facades, which now glow with all the colors permitted by the preservationists. The birches in the gutters, which in the intervening years had grown to impressive size, are long gone, which bothers some old-timers, who claim that the city has lost the romanticism and magic of its worn and aged face. In summer, the city center is a beehive of activity during the day, but after six in the evening it is dead and abandoned: the tourists leave, but none of the locals replace them. 

The Vltava is home not just to trout, but even to a species of fish with exceptionally high demands for clean water: the grayling. From May to September, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of river runners pass through town every day on canoes, rafts, and flat-bottomed boats. Watching the boaters run the sluice on the weir below the castle – which nearly half the time ends with the boat overturning and its crew going for an involuntary swim – is great fun especially for foreigners, who spend many long minutes filming the scene from the footbridge below Cloak Bridge. People heat with gas and electricity, so memories of the eye-watering stink of sulfurous coal dissipated long ago. Traffic has been diverted onto a bypass road, so the only cars in the center are taxis, hotel residents, deliveries, and the occasional blunderhead who doesn’t realize in time that you’re not allowed to drive in a pedestrian zone. Cars have been replaced by hordes of tourists – individuals, families, and tour groups. When the weather is too bad for going swimming or engaging in any other outdoor activities, they are joined by tourists from nearby Lipno Lake, making it even more difficult to walk down the streets, not to mention trying to pass through with a baby carriage. 

Local life takes place almost entirely outside the historical city center. The only non-tourist stores downtown are two grocery stores, one drugstore, and a shoe store. There are dozens of new restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and shops selling jewelry, glass, souvenirs, and tourist trinkets. 

April 2018. In recent years, the monastery compound was completely renovated, and it now houses a large new museum. Thus, the renovation of the entire historic center is complete. A large shopping center with five super- and hypermarkets has been growing on the edge of town. The city’s final source of shame – the bus terminal – is being renovated, and work should be done within a year. As a result, travelers arriving by hourly direct connections from Prague will be welcomed by a dignified new facility. Town hall long ago moved from downtown into offices on the edge of town. Unless they need something from the library or the registrar, local residents have no reason to go downtown at all.

The crowds of tourists show no sign of thinning. The original German and Austrian visitors were replaced first by Americans, and now by Chinese, Koreans, and Russians. But they stay for a shorter period of time. Where city tours once lasted an entire day, they shrank first to half a day and now to just two or three hours during which visitors “consume” the city: they walk down the main street, take a few selfies, maybe have lunch at a pub or eat a chimney cake on the castle stairs, buy themselves some trinkets, and leave. The city gets nothing from their visit except the duty to pick up the trash they leave behind. 

In just a few decades, Český Krumlov has changed beyond recognition. Undoubtedly for the better. The ugly duckling has grown into a beautiful swan. But the people have changed, too: not just the town’s visitors, but also – and especially – its residents. They have different needs and interests and a different relationship to the city. Previously, the town was gray, neglected, and poor – but it was theirs, and they considered it theirs. Today, it is colorful, repaired, and relatively affluent, but also alien. Locals have not accepted mass tourism as a part of the city and its life, because they see that only a relatively small group of downtown businesspeople is profiting from it, but that the costs of tourism are paid by town hall – meaning by everyone. Whether right or wrong, they believe that town hall is more interested in tourists than residents. They feel that tourists have stolen their town from them. But is that really so? Isn’t it just more proof that the worst thing that can happen to a person is for their wishes to come true? Has not the city itself surrendered its downtown to these modern hordes? The town wanted to become a tourist destination and to attract crowds of tourists, and it has succeeded! But nobody foresaw the impact.   

Could they even have? Might things have turned out differently? How to give residents back their town? How to revive and humanize the center? How to bring back permanent residents? Is that even possible? And is there any point? Would people return downtown if all the tourists disappeared? Wouldn’t it make more sense to accept today’s state of affairs? Many questions come to mind, and there exists at least one simple, logical, and completely wrong answer to each of them. Let us think about it and discuss it, because that is the first step towards finding the right answers.