Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/27 posted by hidden europe on

The main road drops down from the hump of the mountain in a series of sharp zigzags. Polished blue sky above, velvety green forests all around and the tacho ticking off the miles of grey tarmac below. We are on the south side on the ore-rich hills that separate eastern Germany from the Czech Republic.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

The main road drops down from the hump of the mountain in a series of sharp zigzags. Polished blue sky above, velvety green forests all around and the tacho ticking off the miles of grey tarmac below. We are on the south side on the ore-rich hills that separate eastern Germany from the Czech Republic.

Low gear, bends, a whiff of exhaust as a truck coming towards us struggles with the gradient and soon we are entering the first community of any size on the Czech side of the hills.

'Jáchymov' reads the sign at the start of the village. It says nothing to us. The sign is embellished with a retro-style model of a molecular structure. Very fifties. It reminds us of the Atomium in Brussels, centrepiece of the 1958 World Fair and designed to be an optimistic symbol of the atomic age.

It turns out that Jáchymov's miniature atomium hides a lot of history. First impressions are not positive. There is a dead crow on the steps of a long-abandoned Greek restaurant. The fake Corinthian columns are crumbling. But we stop, because we want to give Jáchymov a chance. Even the most rundown and unpromising community deserves a chance to tell its tale.

So we stay. We always do. And Jáchymov rewards us handsomely. Walking the streets, stopping off here and there to speak with people, we learn the atomic tale of this small community in the hills of northern Bohemia.

"Jáchymov is the only place you'll visit that glows in the dark," says an elderly gentleman whom we meet on the Radon Trail, a well-signed footpath that hugs the western edge of the narrow valley in which Jáchymov lies.

"Not literally of course," adds the man. "But the story of Jáchymov is radioactive."

Jáchymov, it transpires, has a long mining history. Cast back to the sixteenth century and this valley, then known under the German name Joachimsthal, was home to some of Europe's most productive silver mines. The town minted its own coins which were called Joachimsthaler — the first use of the word thaler for a unit of currency, a term which morphed in English into dollar.

Where there is silver, there are often other minerals too and by the mid-nineteenth century Jáchymov was making a mint as the world's most important source of pitchblende - a uranium-rich ore. Scientists from across Europe came to Jáchymov, keen to study the peculiar qualities of the minerals being extracted from the hills in this part of Bohemia.

Marie Sklodowska-Curie patiently analysed the pitchblende from Jáchymov and isolated the element radium. It earned her the Nobel Prize. She was the first woman to receive the accolade.

The mining industry in Jáchymov revelled in the discovery. For many years this was the world's only source of radium. Later it became a major centre for uranium mining. But at a tremendous cost to the health of the miners and the local population. Madame Curie died in 1934 from exposure to radiation. So too, over the years, did hundreds of people from Jáchymov.

In the post-war years only those who had no choice would work in the uranium mines in Jáchymov. Prisoners were sent to this valley in the hills to work in terrible conditions. Many died from the effects of radiation.

But times have changed. The mines have closed and nowadays Jáchymov is a minor star on the western Bohemian spa circuit. It attracts a loyal crowd of health-seekers keen to take advantage of the proclaimed health benefits of radon baths. This may be a nice example of radioactive quackery.

We walk hither and thither through Jáchymov. The Radon Trail is a well signposted walk that helps visitors understand how radioactivity still marks everyday life in Jáchymov. Radiation levels must be regularly measured and buildings protected from its effects.

It is, we decide, not a place to stay for ever. So we return to the car and now the tacho is once again ticking off the miles of grey tarmac as we drive south out of the hills.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors,hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.