The border point of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria is the confluence of two great rivers, the Dyje, from the west, and the Morava, from which the region of Moravia takes its name. Along the rivers is a natural reserve of marsh forest and a bastion of Moravian culture called Podluží, or “under the marshland”.
In the little town of Lanžhot, near the Czech, Austrian and Slovak border, the church bells ring as I watch a horse draw a cart out of town and towards the 3,000 hectares of the Podlužní Forest. All along the streets of Lanžhot are doors bearing the signature floral motifs of Moravian culture. The culture of this place stretches back far beyond the industrial era that superseded so much traditional culture in Europe, to Croatian settlers uprooted by invading Turks, and to ancient tribes of nameless Slavs who left pagan tombs and Christian churches, further back to the Celts who named the rivers, and even earlier peoples who took this route from the Baltic to the Adriatic and along the Danube river. Jaroslav Třetina is the town’s chronicler:
“The Great Moravian Empire was here, with seats at Mikulčice and Pohansko, before them the Celts. Lanžhot suffered horribly from invasions of Tatars, Hungarians and others. This town was built as a territorial lookout post on the borders of Germanic, Moravian and Hungarian domains, and that’s what the community takes its name from.”
The conversation with Mr. Třetina, turns from the town’s motley history to its local life and the subtle diversity between villages. His wife, who until now has been peeling carrots at a bucket and offering me from time to time a pastry, perks at the mention of dialect. She is from the nearby village of Kobylí and wants in on the discussion.
Třetinová - “I’m from Kobylí, and I have my own dialect too.”
Třetina - “She’s been here for forty years.”
Třetinová - “I’ve been here for 43 years and I still speak my own dialect.”
Třetina - “Her brother says she’s started speaking like us.”
Třetinová - “I speak the way my beak grew on me!”
Třetina - “And our costumes are different from village to village as well. Whether she’s someone’s wife or daughter, if she’s wearing traditional dress I recognise if she’s from Kostice or from Tvrdonice or from Hrusky...”
CF - “And how often is the traditional dress worn?”
Třetina - “Well there’s everyday traditional dress, and there are maybe 50 or 100 women who still wear it when they go to the fields. But then there’s festive dress that the musicians wear for feasts, and ceremonial dress for weddings, Corpus Christi, confirmation and so on. They’re clothes for women and single men; married men don’t wear these costumes anymore.”
It’s quite hard to express just how far removed this kind of appreciation for traditional life is from life elsewhere in the Czech Republic, to say nothing of the Czech capital. From anywhere west of Brno, especially if you know the Czech Republic as a visitor and have never been to rural Moravia, it’s almost impossible to imagine, but there are elderly neighbours of the Třetina family who wear their local dress, or “kroje” whenever they leave the house. Not only kroje, but all the celebrated elements of Moravian culture come together here: the wine, of course – you’d be hard pressed to find villages with wine bars elsewhere – the religion, the special dialects that feel so eastern and, of course, the music.
It may have little to do with the persistence of Moravian culture, but it comes as no surprise that one of the oldest Slavic settlements found in the Czech Republic was found nearby Lanžhot at “Pohansko”, which translates as “a place of pagans”. Half a century of digging around at Pohansko has yielded a trove of ancient Slavic cultural heritage, as local historian Alena Káňová describes:
“This year we are celebrating 50 years of research at Pohansko and the discoveries it’s given us. The finds here have shown us exactly the religion the first Slavic settlers had – they were pagans who converted to Christianity and converted back again – after building Christian churches they began ritually burying themselves with their horses. We know about their views of family life - they held marriages. There were richer and poorer people, tradesmen; we know what they ate, what clothes they wore and how they made them. We know how they lived – in sunken huts covered with mud, in one room along with their animals. It was a primitive way of life.”
By the late 10th century though, at the time that Prague Castle was rising to glory, the town at “the place of pagans” was falling apart. While Pohansko was being sacked and harried by invasions of Hungarians that disrupted all of Central Europe, nature herself was conspiring against it, creating the marshland after which Podluží has since been named.
“The other thing that led to the demise of Pohansko was flooding, because around the 10th century the Dyje River changed its course due to climactic conditions and the area became a floodplain. We know that only a few hundred people remained, the fort was destroyed and they probably eked out a living in the forests until Břeclav was founded in the 11th century, and we assume that it was the people from Pohansko who inhabited it.”
The Podluží’s major city, Břeclav, has kept control of an important transport line ever since the fall of Pohansko. It became the home of Germans and Jews, and even an unlikely set of immigrants that left a subtle, supplementary mark on the local Slavic culture. Alena Káňová again:
“In the 16th century when the Turks had occupied nearly the entire Balkans, a group of central Croatians were forced off of their land and took the offers of certain noblemen to come to their estates in Central Europe. So they settled in this area that is now divided among the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Hungary.”
The Moravian Croats ended up with a hard lot. The nationalistic First Republic was wary of them. The Germans were aware of the tension and forced them into the army in the Second World War. Because of that, the post-war Communist regime saw them as conspirators and dispersed their population around the country, and thus ended the 400 year history of the Moravian Croats.
“They influenced the area quite a lot in their day, because they brought a distinct culture with them: their music, dress, and of course their language, which has remained to this day in the form of certain last names. Today there are very small remnants of words and intonations in local dialects that betray a Croatian origin, and their clothing, settlements, and trades have vanished, leaving people today with only an awareness that their ancestors belonged to a national minority.”
Likewise, all that remains of the many thousands of Jews, Germans and others who shared in the making of Podluží history is a vestige here, a vestige there. With this history in mind, one wonders where Moravian custom itself will be a hundred years from now. Lanžhot mayor, František Hrnčíř.
“We’re trying to maintain the folk customs that have existed here since time immemorial, but it gets harder and harder. The young people today have more opportunities than they did under the previous regime, they finish school and don’t go straight to work, they can travel around the world, so they avail themselves of these chances.”
And indeed the young people here have a lot to do.
“The young people organise all of the festivals here, we don’t get involved, we just give them money – where else would they get it from? In January there is a traditional dance, in February the Lenten carnival with traditional dress and music, there’s a costume event for Easter, a costume excursion in June, a games feast in August that takes five days. Then the biggest event here is the Lanžhot Feast in September followed by the Republican Feast. And people wear traditional dress for all of these events. I used to wear it, my sons wore it, it goes on from generation to generation in the families here.”
The events that Mayor Hrnčíř names are just a few of the near weekly occasions when the wine, music and kroje come out in Lanžhot.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 4, 2009.