Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Rožnov Easter festival

The Czech lands have some wonderfully colourful traditions connected with Easter, but unless you know where to look, they can be easy to miss.

Most people with any connection to the Czech Republic would know that there’s a tradition of decorated eggs and some kind of whipping on Easter Monday. But to really understand what’s going on, why, and how it came to be is sometimes difficult. Even local people are often unable to explain the traditions and are hasty to dismiss them as only for old people and country bumpkins.

One way to really find out is to go to an event with performances by folklore troupes, which are groups of people dedicated to preserving the traditions of their forefathers. The troupes have members of all ages, genders and professions, and are a popular alternative to other leisure and social activities like football, fishing, scouting or ballet lessons. Some troupes focus on traditional music, others are more oriented towards dance and still others excel at particular events like the Ride of the Kings or Masopust.

A good place to see pure Easter traditions performed (half drunk teenagers chasing their schoolmates around city streets with sticks doesn’t count) is the Easter festival in the Outdoor Museum at Rožnov pod Radhoštěm.

The outdoor museum is the oldest and largest in the country and owes its existence to two brothers who, in the early 20th century, dedicated themselves to preserving the traditional wooden buildings of Wallachia. Whenever they found a building that was going to be torn down they relocated it to the riverside park in Rožnov and eventually recreated an entire town square.

Among the buildings are a functioning post office, a church (whose tiny cemetery includes the grave of local boy and Olympic champion Emil Zátopek) and three working pubs with benches that spill out onto the square whenever there’s a big event on. There are three parts to the museum, but the Easter festivities are all held in the little wooden town, which is the collection of buildings around the green square.

The second part of the museum is the mill valley where the flowing waters are converted into power for grinding stones, a woodsaw, an oil press and a blacksmiths’ hammer. The third and largest part of the outdoor museum is the Wallachian farming village which spreads across the hillside above Rožnov. The farmhouses, barns, wells and windmills are all used for their original purposes and horses, cattle, ducks and geese, flocks of the local Wallachian sheep and bees are all tended here.

Events are always well run here and the Easter festival is three days of music, traditional dance and demonstrations. Some of the specific Easter traditions are the burning of the winter maiden, rattle processions, chases with birch whips and the dance to wake up the new year, which is represented by a sleeping man wrapped up in a white blanket.

The museum is worth a visit at any time, but going during the Easter festival is two for the price of one. Why not take your Czech friends along and challenge them to buy you dinner if you show them something they didn’t know about their own country?

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