Museum in former customs house shows history of old Prague river district

29-08-2003

Walking downstream along the Vltava River from the Prague district of Vysehrad towards the centre of the city, you cannot miss a unique historic building, just past the railway bridge, that is very much unlike any other buildings in the area. Sunken about two metres below the surrounding ground level, the two-storey gothic building was bought in the 16th century by the New Town of Prague to serve as a customs house for timber trade. The customs house "na Vytoni" is one of a handful of historic monuments of the long-disappeared district of Podskali. It now houses an exposition dedicated to the old Podskali and the typical occupations of its inhabitants.

Vltava RiverVltava River "The exhibition is dedicated to the history of the old district of Podskali - which was a Prague quarter inhabited by rafters, timber merchants and people connected with the life on the river. The exhibition also shows the history of rafting on the Vltava and the history of passenger and freight steam navigation."

Dr. Jan Jungmann from the Museum of the City of Prague is the curator of the exposition, appropriately exhibited in the historic customs house which survived the sweeping wave of urban renewal of Prague at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

"The building survived because the city of Prague bought it in 1908 to preserve it as a monument of the distinctive life in the old district of Podskali. In 1939, the building was assigned to the Museum of the City of Prague which, after the Second World War, opened the first historical exposition there."

The district of Podskali used to be a unique quarter of Prague, closely connected with the river. Most of its inhabitants depended on it with their livelihoods. Historian Jan Jungmann.

"As I said, Podskali was a district of people working on the river. They were rafters, they traded in timber and firewood. In winter, they cut ice from the river and sold the ice cubes and they also extracted sand from the bottom of the river. At the turn of the 19th century, when Prague was expanding, the district was demolished. After the great flood of 1891 that severely damaged Prague's Charles Bridge, the decision was made that tall quaysides should be built along the river to prevent further disasters. At first, the quayside was built and the small quaint historic houses were cut off from the water. The lumbermen's enclosures were removed, the land was plotted out and modern apartment blocks were built there."

All of that you can see in photographs from that time, which are on display in the old customs house "na Vytoni". There is also a miniature model of a raft. The real rafts were tens of metres long, tied from logs that were floated all the way from South Bohemia and sometimes as far as the German port of Hamburg. The customs house also displays anchors, oars and other raftsmen's and boatsmen's gear and photographs of historic steamboats that became so popular in the 1920s.

"The exhibits you can see belong to our Museum's collections, some were lent to us by the Vltavan Club but there are also photographs and documents belonging to the Museum of Agriculture, the Archives of the City of Prague and other institutions and also from private collections."

The Vltavan Club was founded in 1871 as a co-operative society of raftsmen and all people who worked on the river. At that time it provided financial support to the needy. The members of Vltavan pledged to put in a little money every week in order to provide for other members who fell ill. If a member died, the club paid for the funeral and provided for widows and orphans. Today, Vltavan organises trips around the country and preserves some of the historic traditions and customs connected with life on the Vltava. Karel Novotny, a long-time member of Vltavan, explains more about the old customs house "na Vytoni".

"Vyton is a historical place, dating back from the Middle Ages. The house has been rebuilt many times since. Inside there is an original Renaissance log structure. The word "Vyton" comes from the Czech verb "vytinati" - to cut out or cut off. When the rafts arrived from South Bohemia, they had to stop at Vyton and a certain part of the raft was cut off as a tax. The Vltava was wider in Prague and the rafts were tied into larger boards here. The timber was then floated further all the way to Hamburg. The rafters who came from South Bohemia got off in Prague and returned home and local rafters then floated the logs from Prague onwards."

In the attic of the old customs house, the Vltavan Club stores its archives. As part of the exhibition, you can see the typical uniform of its members.

"Members of the Vltavan club wear the Czech national colours: red, blue and white on their uniform. We have red-and-white striped shirts, blue jackets and white trousers in the summer and black in the winter. We wear black hard hats with a blue ribbon. The red-and-white pole in front of the customs house is a flag mast. When there is a public holiday or a happy occasion, we fly the Czech national flag, and we put up a black flag when a member dies."

Although Vltavan no longer serves its original purpose - helping the families from the district of Podskali in times of need, its traditions live on - and not only in Prague. Karel Novotny.

"The Vltavan Club in Prague has a little over 100 members. But Vltavan Bohemia includes three other branches in villages along the Vltava River, based in Davle, in Stechovice and in Purkarec."

As part of the exhibition dedicated to the no longer existing river district of Podskali, you can also watch a video of one of the last rafts being floated down the Vltava. The video and many photographs at the exposition also show the beauties of the river which are gone forever - picturesque weirs, rocks and meanders that fell victim to the increasing need for water and electric power in the middle of the 20th century.

"Rafting on the Vltava ended after the Second World War after the cascade system of dams was built on the river. The last raft arrived in Prague probably in 1947 but we know that the very last raft on the Vltava floated to the Orlik dam which was under construction then, on the 12th of September 1960."

The customs house "na Vytoni" is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am till 6 pm. On the ground floor, there is a typical Czech pub, resembling the restaurant "U Koppu" which was opened here in the mid-19th century and until the disappearance of the Podskali district was a popular meeting place of rafters in Prague.

29-08-2003