The Broumov region is a rugged, mountainous pocket of land which juts out from the Czech Republic's north-east border into neighbouring Poland. A good two and half hours from Prague on winding minor roads, the region is well off the tourist trail for both Czech and foreign tourists and receives little in the way of investment or attention from the media. But a group of local inhabitants are determined to put the Broumov region - home to a collection of unique 18th century churches and a wild, poetic landscape - back on the map.
The region of Broumov is both underdeveloped and under-populated - a casualty of Czechoslovakia's painful 20th century history. Before the Second World War, the region was home to a large German-speaking community, who toiled in the surrounding fields and worshipped in the local churches. After the war, however, they were expelled from Czechoslovakia, part of the two and a half million Sudeten Germans who were 'relocated' to Germany and Austria after 1945. One of them is Erich Ahnsorge, now a sprightly 75-year-old, who was born in the little village of Krinice:
"I was born here, I went to school here, and I lived here until I had to join the army when the war started. I've lost contact with my school friends from the village who I knew before the war - I'm 75 years old - but I still like to come back and I know lots of young people in the village. I live in Bavaria now, but my heart is still here, in Krinice."
I met Mr Ahnsorge as he was waiting for the arrival of President Vaclav Havel, visiting Krinice as part of a recent trip to the Broumov region. Mr Havel is a firm believer in reconciliation between the Czech people and the Sudeten Germans, and Mr Ahnsorge was there to receive a special award from President Havel for his contribution to that process of reconciliation. The ethnic mix of the village was completely transformed after the war, with people coming from all corners of Czechoslovakia to occupy the deserted farms and houses. And as I found out, some of them even came from beyond Czechoslovakia's borders:
"I'm a Volhynia Czech - I was born in the village of Sofiovka, in the Volhynia region of the Ukraine. My mother was Polish, my father was Czech. Father fought in the war, with the Russians. He was injured at Dukla and captured by the Germans, and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Germany. And as a reward for his services, he was allowed to come here, to Broumovsko. We came in'47, in the third transport."
Petr Bergmann is from Centrum Broumov, one of the groups involved in a campaign called the Broumov Region Renewal project, which organised President Havel's visit. He says Broumov suffered heavily with the deportation of the German-speaking community:
"The region had double as much inhabitants when the original inhabitants - the German inhabitants - were living here. Now a lot of these buildings are destroyed, and even whole parts - even one village - have disappeared."
One of the most visible effects of depopulation is the state of the local village churches. The original German-speaking inhabitants were devout Catholics, and the region was once an important centre of religious and cultural activity. It was administered for seven centuries by Benedictine monks, who in the 18th century ordered the construction of some ten unique village churches, designed and built by the famous Dientzenhofer father-and-son team of architects. But with the departure of the German community the churches were neglected and gradually fell into disrepair, and that damage was compounded by the Communist persecution of the Church. The Broumov Region Renewal Project is concentrating on raising money to restore the churches, but also on finding new ways to fill their empty pews - some of them have been given new leases of life as galleries and concert venues.
But the Dientzenhofers' finest work was undoubtedly the magnificent monastery in the town of Broumov itself. The monastery was first established in the 14th century, and became the new home of the Benedictine order in 1420 after Prague's Brevnov Monastery was attacked during the Hussite Wars. I was given a tour of the building by Broumov Monastery guide, Josef Voralek.
With the help of organisations such as the Broumov Region Renewal project, both the monastery and the Dientzenhofer churches are now slowly being renovated. But Petr Bergmann says the region's spiritual and cultural identity has also suffered heavily:
"I'm not that worried about religion in particular, but more about the spiritual and cultural damage which was done in this region. And the tradition which was here, a very strong spiritual and cultural tradition, is just missing. So to build a new cultural society here is very difficult because we are starting from zero."
Starting from zero, maybe, but Petr Bergmann is optimistic that with the help of non-profit organisations such as his and high-profile support from people such as Vaclav Havel, life can be breathed back into the Broumov region.
And for more about Broumov and the famous Dientzenhofer churches, see the Broumov Region website - www.broumovsko.ecn.cz.
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