Dear fellow travellers
The man we meet on the train to Ceské Budejovice greets us with the words: “We're good for pencils and beer”. And pencils and beer are indeed the two staples for which the city in southern Bohemia is most well known. The town's former German name of Budweis is recalled in the name of the tasty local Budweiser beer, although an American rival contests the Czech use of the name.
We pass on the beer, opting instead for a glass of Czech wine. We sit in summer sunshine in the town's main square and reflect on just how good it is to be in central Europe. If ever you are in any doubt as to how important a good town square is, then spend a week or two travelling through the Czech Republic. From Litomerice to Horsovsky Tyn, from Prague to Ceské Budejovice, you find gorgeous town squares. True, some of them could be even better if cars could be exiled for ever from these beautiful spaces. In Ceské Budejovice, vehicles are evidently discouraged but not entirely banned and the central square, with Samson's Fountain (Samson and mandatory lion) in the middle, is a magnificent urban space.
Kings come and kings go, and even freedom goes in and out of fashion. But the appeal of the town square endures, because ultimately these are spaces that belong to the people.
Over the last 130 years the square has been renamed many times. It was Franz-Josef Platz in the Habsburg era (recalling the Austrian Emperor who was also King of Bohemia). After the First World War, it morphed into Freedom Square (Czech freedom presumably), before for a spell being named in honour of Tomás Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia. After the Nazis annexed Bohemia, Masaryk was nudged aside in favour of Adolf Hitler. Later the square was named in honour of the one-eyed Hussite leader Jan Zizka and today the town square bears the name of Premysl Otakar II, a 13th-century King of Bohemia.
Kings come and kings go, and even freedom goes in and out of fashion. But the appeal of the town square endures, because ultimately these are spaces that belong to the people. The square in Ceské Budejovice belongs to the visitors and locals who sit and drink a coffee or a beer at one of the modestly priced cafés around the square. It belongs to the kids who are playing by Samson's Fountain and it belongs to the elderly woman who chatters away to herself by the main door of the richly decorated town hall.
Ceské Budejovice's central square has attracted fervent revolutionaries and greedy capitalists. Men and women of good intent have passed through the doors of the Grand Hotel Zvon, which occupies three stunning buildings on the east side of the square. And no doubt there have been thieves and swindlers too. But ultimately the square with all its attendant assets (town hall, fountain, hotel and cafés) encompasses the very best of urban living. It is beautiful without being pretentious, welcoming rather than overwhelming, perfect despite its imperfections.
While the tower blocks of some city centres elsewhere in Europe reflect the brutal dominion of banks, property developers and consumerism, there are still many town squares across Bohemia, and more widely in central Europe, which celebrate a more human understanding of the city. Long may they survive!
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)