One of the reasons I came to České Budějovice was its location betwixt two UNESCO World Heritage sites. Ever since I first stumbled upon the list on the UNESCO website in August 2004 I’ve been trying to visit as many as possible. In the two years, eight months since I’ve managed to tick off 48 sites in 17 countries, over three continents.
Visiting Český Krumlov was easy, with frequent trains and buses. The preserved village of Holašovice, though nearer to České Budějovice proved harder to get to. As the girl in the tourist information office said when I asked what the best way was to reach the place: “It is just a little village; I think there is nothing for you there!” And indeed, the village is not on any rail line. A local bus does make the journey from the coach station a couple of times a day, but at awkward times. It came to my last day in České Budějovice and I had still not managed to pay it a visit. It was a Sunday and the first (and indeed only) bus was at 14.25 – a good half hour after my train to Prague.
However, let no one say I give up easily. 11am saw me approach a taxi in the main square. How much to Holašovice? 600CK. A bit of haggling in pidgin Czech and we agreed on 1000CK for a round trip, which was more than I had hoped for, but was still only around £20, the going rate for a taxi back from Manchester city centre to my parents’ house in the suburbs. Plus, if I was half serious about trying to visit as many sites as possible it would be terrible to have left one ignored when I was only 15km away and had almost three hours to kill anyway. So I got more cash out of the ATM and hopped in.
The route first lead out through the western suburbs of the city. As with the town centre the buildings were painted in pastel shades, but here they were neat, balconied tower-blocks with massive four-storey numbers painted on the sides – block 74, block 76, etc. From there we spurred off down winding country roads, tarmacked but sliding off into ditches without any kerb. To either side we passed fields, ponds and thickets of fir and birch. Ahead the hills rose, thickly carpeted with woodland.
It was at this point, as the taxi driver answered his mobile phone with one hand, changed gear with the other and steered us around a sweeping bend with his knees, that I noticed his gun.
When I say ‘gun’ I mean an automatic pistol in a holster tucked next to his seat. Maybe this is not noteworthy to Americans or Europeans, but in the UK we just don’t see guns very often, other than in museums, the odd air rifle in Scouts, and the weapons carried by armed policemen at the airport. So I hope you will forgive me if my mind was suddenly running over the following facts: a man with a gun, who had just seen me get a wodge of cash out of an ATM, was even now driving me out into the forests and hills of central Europe. I thought, What would the Hoff do? Sadly, my lack of a talking car let me down on that one, so I just sat tight and said nothing when the man changed radio channels and the taxi filled with the tortured strains of James Blunt.
Of course, all this was just my over-active imagination. I was never in any danger, though it does beg the question why taxi drivers need to be armed? Is crime that big a risk to them? Surely that would not be the case out here in the countryside as the continued through villages of ever-decreasing size, and the road began to swerve up rises and low hills. Finally we reached Holašovice itself. The village is tiny – a village green surrounded by houses, that’s about it. The green was marked by a restaurant, a pond, and a microscopic church painted a butter yellow. It maybe had standing room for a dozen inside, if that. Beside it a tall pole supported a stork’s nest.
The houses around the green have very ornate frontages, and are made of stone, nicely plastered, prettily painted, and decorated. The dates on them ranged between 1833 and 1890. The town itself was founded at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries by the Holasics (“the people of the Holas’ yeoman”), but a plague epidemic between 1520 and 1522 left only two villagers alive. It was in recognition of the village’s nineteenth-century ‘rural Baroque’ architecture that UNESCO deemed this place a World Heritage Site. Outside each house stood a wooden ‘nodding-donkey’ type contraption, which served as that family’s well. Double doors lead into courtyards, with the farm compound arranged around it.
A mere two steps out off the centre and the roads petered out into mud as they descended past farms and fields. Returning to the green I watched the villagers as they went about their business. Two old fellers sat outside a bar (on a Sunday morning!), and some Nora-Batty-esque women with smocks and rumpled socks rested on benches outside their houses squinting as they turned their faces to the sun. A historical reservation Holašovice might be, but people still inhabited it and went about their daily lives.
There is a vistor centre set off one corner of the green, but without it there is not an awful lot to see and do in Holašovice. Twenty or thirty minutes does it. Heaven knows how long the coach trips I saw advertised in Prague that take in both Holašovice and Český Krumlov must take.
Driving back towards České Budějovice I was now able to compare those villages we passed through with what I had seen at Holašovice. None were as homogeneous, as you might expect of towns located along, rather than at the end of, a road. And they certainly were not as pristine. They were not listed by UNESCO, and so they had missed out on any grant money that might have been going. A pity because, in their own way they were charming. Dubné for example has a church topped by a huge twiggy stork’s nest in the manner of a crown of thorns.
Holašovice is a good example of rural Bohemian village life. However, because of this, and the fact it has been preserved as such, it is actually not as typical as it might be. Instead it has been renovated, given a new lick of paint, and preserved in aspic. The villagers seem to go about their lives unconcerned, but it is not hard to see how its UNESCO listing has distanced it from the other towns and villages of the area. For those interested in village life a trip is well worthwhile. For those trying to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible a trip is necessary. But for anyone else I would class it more as an interesting (and expensive) diversion.