I’m on a bus winding my way up the hill towards Potůčky, which is a little village on the Czech-German border. It’s in the north west of the Czech Republic, and is apparently a favourite spot for German tourists. So, we’re going to see if that is at all the case, and whether life has changed for inhabitants on both the Czech and the German side of the border three months after the Czech Republic’s entry into the Schengen zone.
Vlastimil Ondra is the deputy mayor of Potůčky. He explains to me just quite how popular his town is with its German neighbours:
“On average 2000 German visitors come to Potůčky daily. In the winter and at this time of year, maybe the numbers are slightly lower, but in the summer we can have days where up to 15,000 Germans come to visit the town. One of the main attractions for tourists is the market which is run by the Vietnamese people living in this town. The market has brought Potůčky a reputation not only in the Czech Republic but also in Germany.”
I meet a shopkeeper with a rather permanent-looking stall in the centre of Potůčky. He talks me through his best-selling products. Traditional Czech spa wafers, spirits like Becherovka and cigarettes, he says, all bring in the most money. Business might not be booming this March morning, but then that’s normal for this time of year. In fact, he says, he’s noticed no change in the make-up of his clientele, nor in visitor numbers, since the Czech Republic entered into the Schengen zone three months ago.
In a nearby restaurant sits one of his customers:
Can you tell me your name?
And whereabouts are you from?
“I am from Greiz in Thuringia, and we are here on a school trip to Johanngeorgenstadt.”
“We’re here to buy cigarettes and get something to eat, because it is cheaper.”
And is this your first visit to the Czech Republic?
“No, I’ve been here with my parents to buy food in the supermarket, and I have been here on holiday before too.”
The Czech Republic entered the Schengen zone in December, is it easier for you to come here now - is it any different traveling from one country to the other?
“Yes, you don’t need your passport to cross the border any more, but the prices of things here have shot up.”
Potůčky got its name from the babbling brooks which run through the village. The settlement is tucked away in a valley and surrounded by forest and sky. But locals are worried that Potůčky’s natural beauty could be threatened by all of the traffic now able to pass through the town unhindered, as this man attending one of the town’s several gargantuan car parks explains:
“The only problem with Schengen has been the increased amount of traffic. Because the border crossing point for vehicles has been done away with. And now they are thinking of extending the motorway from Chemnitz and Zwickau right the way through to Karlovy Vary, which would be terrible. The pollution is becoming terrible, and you can see for yourself, just look at the amount of traffic!”
A lot of the traffic in Potůčky is just passing through. But the village is also a destination for German motorists wanting to stock up on cheaper petrol across the border. Since the Czech Republic entered the Schengen zone, a new gas station has been built in the town. I talked to one of its customers:
Can I ask you what you are doing here and why you are here?
“Because of the cheaper petrol.”
“Not by so much, a few years ago it was much cheaper, but the price has gone up.”
And do you live quite close to the border, or have you had to drive quite a way?
“I live ten kilometers away.”
How often do you come and fill up on petrol?
“Two times a month.”
And has the Czech Republic’s entrance into the Schengen zone made any difference?
“Well, this petrol station is new.”
But back to the town hall. When the Czech Republic joined its neighbour Germany in the Schengen zone last December, did this spark big changes for Vlastimil Ondra and his colleagues in the local authorities?
“I wouldn’t say that entry into the Schengen zone has really proved to be a defining moment for us. The border crossing between here and Germany was opened in 1991, and it was that which really sparked the boom in tourism. The only thing to have changed is that we no longer check people’s passports at the border. The Germans who used to come shopping here still do, there has been no real change, I’d say.”
But, says Mr Ondra, there is still some need for those on the German side of the border to adapt, and that will take time:
“I think that the only problems are on the German side of the border. Germans are just used to speaking their mother tongue, even with foreigners. Just try and find a restaurant in Johanngeorgenstadt which has a Czech menu, whereas all of the restaurants here have staff who are fluent in German as well as Czech. I think it will take generations for that to change.”
During my visit to the town hall in Potůčky, the mayor of the neighbouring German town Johanngeorgenstadt popped over to talk about how people on the German side of the border had reacted to Czechs entering into the Schengen zone. In mayor Holger Hascheck’s view, Germans were skeptical, but three months on, these fears are abating:
“There was a lot of fear about the difference in prices and the difference in wages. People were worried that Czechs would come in and take lower wage jobs in Johanngeorgenstadt, because they could earn slightly more there than they could back at home. But that didn’t end up being the case.”
With that my whistle-stop tour of Potůčky came to an end. It seems that the Czech Republic’s entry into the Schengen zone has had little effect on the day to day life of Potůčky’s inhabitants. But it also seems that with increased cross-border communication, attitudes held by those in Potůčky towards their German neighbours, and vice-versa, are changing slowly, and for the better.
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