This time of year, cities in Central Europe are vying to attract tourists to their Christmas markets, New Year's Eve celebrations, and other seasonal attractions. If you are tired of large crowds and are looking for something more authentic, we might have a tip for you: leave the big cities and head for one of the small towns deep in the Czech countryside. You may get a lesson in living history and even be in for an exotic surprise!
The chateau of Žďár nad Sázavou is literally swarming with people. The main courtyard is lined with stalls, some selling typical Christmas goodies, mulled wine, ginger bread or seasonally-ornamented candles. The prices are nowhere near as high as, say, in Prague or other big cities. For here, in the heart of the Czech Highlands, they try to keep the genuine rural atmosphere and preserve the magic of Christmas, especially for the children.
Jan Lokajíček is wearing a period costume, complete with a tricorn hat. He is in his late twenties and travels around the country at weekends demonstrating what a traditional blacksmith in the 17th or 18th century might have looked like and especially how he worked.
“I don´t do this for a living. I train locksmiths at a vocational school and this is just a hobby. My wife is at work, we don’t have kids yet, so I thought why not make the trip. Plus: I was asked to be here, the chateau invited me.”
“No, this one is not for sale, it´s just a curiosity for the kids and some adults, too. What sells really well are "good luck” horseshoes. Believe it or not, people buy them like crazy. And then maybe these little iron roses, too. Especially before Christmas, friends call me and want them for their wives or sweethearts. After all, they are iron roses, so they do not fade and they smell the same all the time.”
Obviously, there is a growing demand for people with skills and expertise like Jan. Living history or the reenactment of historical events, especially battles, is becoming an increasingly popular pastime.
“People who are into living history projects need us. And not just us blacksmiths. Some of them want to wear authentic clothes, so they try to make them from original materials in the traditional way. That is very difficult and even for someone like me with an interest in history, it may be going too far. With iron and steel, it is different.
When people see, for example, an axe that is made by a blacksmith of several different kinds of steel, using the authentic centuries-old technology, they really appreciate it. Also, some museums are starting to be interested. I already made two replicas for them and they asked that I make them in the traditional way. The museum can then let visitors touch such a replica, which they, of course, cannot do with an original historical axe. People can even try what it was like to work with them.”
I thank Jan, the blacksmith for his time and spot the landlord, Mr. Constantin Kinsky. As a member of a noble family, he grew up in France. The Kinskys owned this chateau for generations before the Nazis used it as barracks and then the Communists nationalized it. The family came home in the early 1990s after getting their property restituted. Since then they have been working hard to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect and mismanagement. Constantin Kinsky and his wife have the following philosophy: a historic place like this must be kept open, not just as a commercial tourist attraction but a genuine living space for both the local community and visitors.
“This is not just another Christmas market, this is a celebration of Advent. That is why we are showing traditional trades and have special activities for children. They can learn how to make a whistle or a kind of little stand with four corners for four candles that we light on Advent Sundays. So, we try to organize this mainly as an event where people can meet and do things together in a relaxed way.”
“We try to open this place up for everyone, you can come irrespective of your religion or philosophy, enjoy the peace and beauty. You can restore your body and mind, regain your energy. We all need that: a place to recharge, to find ourselves and open up.”
I spoke to Constantin Kinsky not far from the Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Nicholas that dominates the chateau. And that was in a way symbolic. Because, just a few hours after the Christmas celebration, I saw ample proof of just how open the place is to visitors, wherever they come from. The Philippine Madrigal Singers were invited to give a number of concerts in Prague but they were also invited specifically to Žďár nad Sázavou as “cultural ambassadors” for their distant land. The choirmaster is Mark Anthony Carpio.
“We are an amateur choir, the singers come mostly from the College of Music and some other artistic schools. So far we have been in Prague, seen the historic center and outdoor markets. For us Filipinos, it is something really exotic, because, obviously, we do not have winter at Christmas time. So, it is something really special for us!”
And you may be sure that the Philippine Madrigal Singers are something special for the locals! They were brought to Žďár by the Chargé d'Affaires of the Philippine Embassy Jed Dayang. He was here a few months ago to establish a partnership with the mayor of a town with great cultural and economic potential, as he puts it. The two countries may be very far apart but they are also connected by the predominant Catholic faith of their peoples, felt especially now at Christmas time.
“This is a great way to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Philippine-Czech diplomatic relations, a great opportunity to present the Philippine Madrigal Singers. They are a multi-award winning choir, well-known not only in the Philippines but around the world. It is an honor for us to bring them to Prague and Žďár nad Sázavou.”
Christmas in Czechia has become as heavily commercialized as in most other European countries: shopping malls, those cathedrals of consumerism, are bursting at the seams, outdoor markets are crowded with people and often offer overpriced kitsch. But there are still places where you will find authentic traditions and sometimes surprising encounters with different cultures. If you are looking for that kind of experience, be sure that you can find it in rural Czechia as well as in the big cities.