Monday, 9 November 2009

A peek at Písek

Písek is a pleasant riverside town of 30,000 people not far from where the waters of the Otava River join the mighty Vltava below Zvíkov castle. It's far from being Bohemia's most intact historic town, but Písek does have some outstanding individual pieces of medieval architecture and many of the modern buildings that interrupt the streetscapes are interesting and attractive in their own right.

Písek is the Czech word for sand and the name refers to the gold-bearing flat-bottomed river that was the main source of the town's wealth. Thanks to finds of ceramic utensils, archaeologists believe gold was panned at Písek as far back as the bronze age, but the earliest written record is from 1336 in the time of King John of Luxembourg.

Predictably for South Bohemia it was John of Luxembourg's father-in-law, King Přemysl Otakar II, who was responsible for the founding of Písek. His builders constructed a castle, a defensive system of stone walls, a church, a monastery and a bridge across the Otava around the same time as they were fortifying Zvíkov, 18 km to the north.

Not all of their hard work survived the centuries, but the stone bridge has weathered seven centuries of wars and floods to remain modern Písek's most valuable and beautiful piece of historic architecture. Pre-dating Prague's Charles Bridge by a hundred years, Písek's simply named Stone Bridge (Kamenný most) is the oldest in the Czech lands and one of the oldest in Central Europe. It became a graphic symbol of the catastrophic floods of 2002 when it disappeared completely underwater.

The 2002 floods damaged historic cities and towns from Český Krumlov to Litoměřice and there were serious fears for Písek's stone bridge. When the bridge resurfaced most of the retaining walls had been washed away and the paving had been ruined but the core of the structure was largely intact.

When the flood waters receded, an underwater investigation showed angels, saints and most of the rock from the bridge walls lying on the river bed. Cranes were brought in to lift the historic stone to the bank where it could dry properly and be prepared for re-installation. The missing sections of the walls were replaced with the granite that most closely matched the original. The ceremonial reopening of the bridge was in May 2003, less than 12 months after the destructive floods.

Písek's other outstanding piece of medieval architecture, the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, was far too high to be affected by the floods but it has also been recently reconstructed and its forecourt is now a lovely open space with interesting but unobtrusive sculptures, a preserved medieval well and the glass covered remains of a Celtic Oppidum from the 6th century.

The church tower has dominated the skyline of Písek since it was completed in 1489, but the bulbous baroque tip of the bell tower was built only at the beginning of the 19th century after the original was destroyed by a lightning strike. The clean white core of the church was built in the 1200's, modified in later centuries and returned to its original Gothic appearance in the 1880s.

The most interesting details of the church exterior are the stone carvings around the entrance, depicting the earthly Jagiellon kings and the city coat of arms beneath portraits of Matthew, John, Luke, Paul, Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and a Latin inscription mentioning the builder of the tower and entreating “Defend we who love you Jesus, from our enemies”.

Backing up the Son of God in defence of the town were a system of stone walls and moats that encircled the old town. The staircases from the small plaza in front of the church lead down through the old stone walls and from there, Piseckeho Ul leads along the old walls to the semicircular bastions of the old Putim gate and the river, where a path follows the base of the stone fortifications along the river to the old bridge.

The white building that towers over the city walls just before the bridge is what is left of the castle. Extensively damaged by fire in 1510, the castle stood in ruins for years until gradually being replaced by new structures. The east wing was replaced by the baroque town hall in the mid 1700s and the north wing was turned into a brewery around the same time. The west wing is the best preserved part of the castle and now houses the award winning city museum. Even without looking at any of the exhibits (the gold panning one is especially good) it's worth the nominal price of entry into the museum just to see the old halls of the castle itself.

Further along the riverside path stands one of the interesting modern structures in Písek; Křižíkova elektrárna (Křižík's powerplant). He'd previously illuminated streets in other places, but when Engineer Křižík flipped the switch of his trial system on 23rd June 1887, Písek became the first town to be completely illuminated by electric lighting.

The dynamos of the original system were powered by a steam engine, but when Písek approved a permanent system they converted the waterwheels of an old mill and followed up their streetlighting milestone by creating the country's first hydroelectric power station.

František Křižík is often associated with Prague, and in the suburb Karlín where he had his workshops a major street and metro station both bear his name. Písek however is an appropriate location for his landmark achievement because he was born in South Bohemia (near Klatovy in 1847) and retained a strong connection with the region until passing away near Tábor in 1941.

The hydroelectric plant was converted to alternating current in 1926 and produced power for the town until 1986 when it had to be closed after falling into disrepair. It was refurbished and opened to the public in 1994, and a top-hatted Křižík still keeps an eye on things from high in the rafters.

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Sue Hayton said...

Good to hear some more about Křižík. I brought a group interested in Industrial history to the Czech Republic a couple of years but we did not have time to visit Pisek.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Sounds like an interesting group Sue. Just for curiosity's sake, which places did they make time for...?