Tábor is one of the most attractive and unusual historic towns in Bohemia. Most Bohemian settlements of Tábor's age were founded either as a stop on a trade route or as a seat of aristocratic wealth and power. Usually they had wide straight streets laid out on a grid to facilitate the comings and goings of horsedrawn wagons to their central marketplace squares. Medieval Tábor however was founded by a religious group of people and its primary function was defense.
The Hussites were followers of Jan Hus, an early reformist preacher who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his outspoken opposition to established practices of the catholic church. Three years later, the tension following Hus' execution erupted into armed conflict between his followers and Catholic forces. By 1420, the core of the Hussite movement had gathered at Tábor and the most interesting facets of the town's current appearance survive from this time.
Tábor has an open marketplace square that served also as an assembly place for citizens and the Hussite armies. The streets leading off the square to the different corners of the old town were laid out to deliberately zigzag between sharply protruding corners to hamper and confuse the attack of any aggressors. Some end in tight t-intersections, others begin deceptively wide but narrow so sharply that no wagon or a cannon could pass and any invading army would be reduced to single file.
Many of the dozen or so streets, alleys or laneways forking away from the square to different corners of the old town are so difficult to see that you don't notice them until you're almost on top of them. Some are spanned by arches and others lead right through the houses facing the square, including the town hall.
On the upper edge of the square at the highest point of the old town stands the church of the Lord's Transfiguration on Mount Tábor. Originally a Gothic structure from the late 1400's, the church was modified by the addition of renaissance gables, and inside the minor altars are all textbook baroque from the late 1600's. The roof above the main altar is supported by rare lierne arches (the ones that look like gigantic works of origami) and the 64 metre high tower can be climbed for the best views over the old town, lake Jordan and the countryside beyond.
The old town hall is the other really outstanding building on the main square. It dates originally from the 1400's and was remodelled and restored in 1878. The clock tower and three steep gables make the town hall the most recognisable of Tábor's historic buildings. Inside are the tourist information office, the Hussite museum and the entrance to the system of catacombs that run beneath the square.
The catacombs are accessible on a guided tour that lasts about 30 minutes. All participants have to wear hard-hats and the tour progresses through damp cellars and dark tunnels that were used for food storage, beer fermentation, as a prison (beneath the town hall) and for shelter in times of strife. The tour ends across the square behind house no 7 and the route is marked in the pavement in front of the Skoch house beside the town hall.
Inside the town hall are ten rooms of artworks and historic artefacts connected with the Hussites. The history of Hussitism is explained in detail and there are original and replica weapons including an authentic 15th century shirt of chain mail shirt. Prints, paintings and statues depict all the important figures of the Hussite movement and their reformist colleagues across Europe, but the overwhelming majority honour either Jan Hus or the movement's most revered military commander, Jan Žižka.
Around the edge of the old town the stone fortifications are well preserved and from atop the western walls there's a view over Lake Jordan, which is the oldest man-made lake in Central Europe. The busy road curving away to the north towards Prague runs along the top of the dam wall and beneath it is an 18metre high waterfall that drops down to the original height of the stream below.
High above the valley on this side of old Tábor, the stone walls and bastions are surrounded now by a forest of ash, birch and linden, but smooth trails wind up the hillside to the base of the walls. The trails are punctuated by descriptive signboards in significant places and particularly the crudely pentagonal Soukenická bastion is a good example of Hussite defensive architecture.
At a glance it might look just like an oddly angled part of the wall, but on closer inspection the Soukenická bastion is very similar in design to the fortifications of Terezín, Josefov, Hradec Králové and Olomouc. Those four places were all important fortresses in the Hapsburg era and their red brick walls and bastions were considered the pinnacle of military defensive architecture when they were built. Tábor's Soukenicka bastion is 300 years older and cruder but the unmistakable similarities demonstrate just how far the innovative Žižka and his followers were ahead of their time.
For a hundred years or so following the Hussite wars, Tábor was one of the most prosperous towns in Bohemia but its fortune failed in the 16th century. It suffered fires in 1532 and 1559 and was heavily punished for refusing to support Emperor Ferdinand I in his fight against the non-catholic estates. Heavy fines and confiscation of town property left Tábor with mountainous debt and along with their difficult political position, the economy and architectural development stagnated. The Baroque architecture of the 17and 18th centuries passed Tábor by, and the historic core has survived largely unchanged since the 16th century. In 1961 Tábor was among the first Czech towns to be officially declared an urban preservation zone.
Despite its historic value and architectural beauty, one of the great pleasures of visiting Tábor is simply wandering through the unpredictable maze of cobblestoned lanes, some of which are barely wider than Jan Žižka's shoulders, if his statue on the square is a reliable guide. Of course that's a good thing to do in most historic towns, but in few places is it as fascinating, enjoyable and surprising as in Tábor.
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Related posts: Who was Jan Žižka?
Monday, 30 November 2009