Sunday, 28 October 2007

Born under a black star


Ostrava has a reputation for being the black heart of the Czech Republic, an ugly, rough coal mining and industrial city and a bastion of support for the former communist regime. While it’s the least historic (bombed heavily in WWII) of the Czech Republic’s larger cities, it’s also the greenest and has a more vibrant energy than places like Brno, Plzeň or Pardubice. It’s actually quite an interesting and pleasant place to visit and has a unique atmosphere that almost makes it seem like it’s in a country of its own. The only place I’ve ever been that gave me even a remotely similar impression is Glasgow.

It’s difficult to describe what makes Ostrava feel so distinct, but I think it has to do with a sense of isolation and of being an underdog. The isolation is easy enough to explain. The international frontier with Poland wraps around the city to the north and east and to the south and west are the Beskyd and Jeseník mountains. The pass between the mountains is so narrow that it’s known as the Moravian Gate, and as you pass through you can see the hilltop castles that once guarded the pass and extracted tolls from travellers. The sense of Ostrava and its people being underdogs is obviously much more subjective, but part of it is being so far from Prague, where all the tax money is administered and the big decisions are made. Perhaps it also stems from being a traditionally working class city in a country with a rapidly growing middle class. Or maybe I just imagined the whole thing? If you have an impression of the city that either agrees or disagrees with mine, please share it by leaving a comment.

So Ostrava’s not as bad as it’s made out to be, but what would you actually do on a visit? Let’s go back to industry for a start. If you came from the south by bus, you’d have passed through the suburb Vitkovice, which is known locally as Ostravská Hradčana (a self-effacing comparison to Prague castle and its unmistakable silhouette). The industrial Vitkovice skyline is just as unmistakable and may soon have another thing in common with the real Hradčany, if UNESCO decides to go ahead and protect the area as a site of world heritage importance. The landscape here is considered unique for its combination of mining, processing and manufacturing on one site. The disused blast furnace towers, tanks and conveyor belts reminded me of a herd of metallic dinosaurs caught in the same rainstorm as the Tinman from the Wizard of Oz.

Since August this year, it’s been possible to walk among the dinosaurs, climb up their legs or tails and scratch their bellies. Tours run by the Ostrava Information Centre run daily, take about an hour and cost 60Kč for adults/30Kč for students. Hardhats are supplied and an English text is available.

The coal mine and blast furnaces have been disused since the early 1990’s when the newly democratic government decided it wasn’t appropriate either socially or environmentally to a have a huge coalfired industrial complex in the middle of a city of 300,000 inhabitants. The steelworks continued to operate but the unemployment caused by the closure of the mines was such a heavy burden that some people felt Ostrava was being punished for being a reliable bastion of support for the former regime. Bringing in busloads of miners was a favourite tactic to intimidate any public gathering leaning towards dissent against the Communist government and Ostrava was a popular location for the imprisonment and edification of political dissidents, including former president Vaclav Havel.

The other interesting industrial site is the Mining Museum, right out behind the train station at the other end of town. The bus trip there is fairly straightforward and then it’s a five minute walk to the museum entrance. There are three tours, each of which takes about an hour to complete. I started at the mine rescue exhibit, which begins with an elegant and understated memorial to local mine rescuers who died doing their jobs. There are displays of breathing and diving equipment and an underground replica of a rescue station and training chamber. The training chamber is mostly for children to try squeezing through tight spaces in the dark, but the whole underground section brings home the horror of being trapped in a mine, especially if there’s flooding involved.

The second tour is of an actual coal mine, focusing on the techniques of extracting coal and the conditions under which miners worked. The guide is an cheerful old miner with a relaxed manner and, while the old wooden part of the mine is a mock up, the modern steel-reinforced section is an authentic disused coal mine. As on most underground tours you’ll have a chance to experience total darkness. The third tour is of the exhibition building, but I didn’t make it in time for this one. It displays mining equipment, the development of mining lamps and illumination and talks about the different professions associated with mining. Each individual tour costs 30Kč.

Its not just work, work, work though. There’s a rich cultural life in Ostrava, and it boasts an energetic nightlife zone that puts Prague, Krakow and Vienna to shame. Along Stodolní Ulice and neighbouring lanes dozens and dozens, perhaps a hundred bars and clubs stand shoulder to shoulder and combined with the exuberance of the locals and the working class ethic of ‘work hard, play hard’ you can imagine the kind of night out you might have. If you’re visiting in June, Colours of Ostrava is one of the country’s best music festivals, with 16 stages, a leaning towards world music and past headliners like Marianne Faithful, Robert Plant and Goran Bregovič. There are also plenty of good cafes in which to pass an hour or two with a coffee and something to read. My two favourites are the café in the multi-floor bookstore on the main square and the Černá Hvězda (Black Star) on the corner of Stodolní and Nadražní.

There’s also the local museum, some interesting churches to visit (including the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour) and the Moravo-Silesian castle, which has remained intact despite sinking an amazing 17 metres due to undermining! The museum of firefighting will be interesting to some and tours of the local Ostravar brewery include tastings. Or you might prefer to try the beer in its native habitat; a Banik football club home game.

So there’s plenty to see and do here, and while Ostrava is far from the country’s top tourist destination, anyone who dismisses it as a worthless industrial wasteland is not being fair, or simply hasn’t been there. The black steel heart has opened up, the rainbow colours of the music festival and Stodolni are outshining the black star and, in contrast to more famous Czech tourist destinations, there’s never been a better time to visit Ostrava than now.


Ostrava 
Jaromir Nohavica, Translation: Roman Kostovski
Ostrava Ostrava
City of all cities
My bittersweet felicity
Ostrava Ostrava
Blackened star above my head
God has given
Beauty to all the other cities
Steamboats on the rivers
And picture perfect ladies
Ostrava Ostrava
Your red heart
A fate sealed from the start
Ostrava Ostrava
Where did I lose my sight
When I rushed towards your light
Ostrava Ostrava
Blackened star above my head
And my rambling legs
Where ever they would bear their load
The birds up in the sky
Would draw me to that single road
Ostrava Ostrava
Your red heart
A fate sealed from the start


7 comments:

Michael said...

Sounds a lot more interesting than I thought. It makes a change to see a city preserving its industrial heritage instead of mindlessly bulldozing it to make room for yet another supermaket or multi-screen cinema (take note Liberec). One to put on the list for my next visit.

Hello Xu Xu said...

Yep I liked grimey Ostrava. I like the first picture on the post too, I've always liked something and now I've discovered that it has a name, "steampunk". I don't think much of the name but it's what I've been into for a long time and that pic rings that bell for me.

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