After communism fell with the excited chants of Czechs filling the center of Prague, and Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two countries, a wave of tourism descended upon the capital city, the eventual size of which few would have predicted. Prague has become one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, but it usually ends up being a one-city stop as part of a rather disjointed multi-country tour. What most visitors to Prague come away with is a dizzying look at the city’s historic architecture, clouded by the overwhelming number of tourists, with little sense of authentic Czech culture or what the rest of the country is like.
What might surprise people is how rich the culture and history are and how much there is to experience outside Prague. Take the number of castles–with over 2000 castles and chateaux, it’s the highest number per square mile of any country! These reflect the country’s complicated history. After all, ruling families from around Europe settled there, and the seat of the Holy Roman Empire was in Prague in the 14th century.
Besides historic monuments, the Czech Republic has so much more to offer, from mountains and rural wine country, to thriving university towns and picture-perfect historic architecture. The Czech tourism boards continue to develop plans to spread tourism beyond Prague and the handful of other usual sights (e.g. Český Krumlov, Kutná Hora, and Karlštejn).
I’d like to introduce people to a place they likely have never heard of, the region of Moravské Slovácko (Moravian Slovakia) and discuss the importance of preserving its cultural heritage.
Moravian Slovakia is the southeastern region of the Czech Republic, bordering Austria and Slovakia. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to live there in 1996-1997 and to have made several trips back there from 1998 to 2006. Its land includes the dense forests of low mountains and rolling hills, some covered in yellow mustard plants and sunflowers. It’s a beautiful area.
Moravian Slovakia is home to unique music, wine, folklore, and traditions. It was the center of the Great Moravian Empire more than 1000 years ago. It also has a number of historic palaces, gardens, and castles, including the UNESCO Heritage Site of Lednice and Valtice.
But the traditions of Moravian Slovakia may not stay visible for long. When the Czech Republic was finally free of the grip of communism, its economy grew quickly, and it has since been an example of success in the former Soviet Union. Its population eagerly took on the challenge of assimilating into the rest of Europe after 1989. Many young people are well educated and speak good English. Some move out to other countries or relocate to the Czech Republic’s larger cities in search of good jobs.
In Moravian Slovakia, the traditional culture still lives in the small towns and among the older generation, but among most young people, an interest in preserving the traditions of home has (possibly unconsciously) been replaced by an interest in being part of the rest of the world.
Globalization has had this effect around the world, creating a more connected generation in which people can make connections, get educated, and work in a kind of global culture, often at the expense of preserving traditions. At the same time, global tourism continues to grow every year, and tourism to developing regions is especially on the rise. Such conditions mean that preserving local traditions is of the highest importance. Without that, the world’s unique cultures and traditions will barely survive in the future.
The importance of Moravian Slovakia’s culture:
As I discussed in a previous post, developing tourism and preserving cultural heritage with a view toward what is sustainable for the long term is good for the local economy. It provides a wealth of sights and experiences for tourists; after all, most tourists travel to see something different, not something that seems like a copy of what is at home. The combination of preserving those attractions for tourists to enjoy and providing ways for tourists to experience them easily (transportation, information) translates into a sustainable source of economic progress for the region. Without these, a region such as Moravian Slovakia will likely have the same fate as small towns in the Midwest of the United States–young people increasingly move out, jobs leave, the population decreases, the economy weakens, and tourists have little reason to visit.
Therefore, if preserving cultural heritage is good for tourism and the economy, of all the regions in the Czech Republic, why should the culture of Moravian Slovakia be a priority for preservation? And how can people experience the cultural heritage of Moravian Slovakia?
Czechs’ love of nature:
First, the Czechs in general, but especially those who live in this rural area, have a close connection to the land. Many families have a cabin in the woods where they spend weekends. They love to hike and camp. They go mushroom hunting. Many people grow vegetables and tend fruit trees. The hills and forests of Moravian Slovakia are beautiful, and the people appreciate the land and feel connected to it.
Moravian wine country:
In a related vein, this is a big wine growing area, and local wine is a visible part of the culture. Friends meet at wine cellars in the evenings. Some families make their own wine and have a cellar under the house. There is an annual wine festival in September. Wine cellars are a wonderful place to spend an evening–people share a table, order a jug of wine and snacks of bread and locally-made feta cheese, and sometimes groups crowd the cellar to perform traditional music. In Moravian Slovakia, tourists can hike, bike the country roads, ride horses, and get to know a bit of the region’s lifestyle while experiencing its wine culture.
Cultural sights in Moravia:
The region is dense with cultural monuments that reflect the area’s history, and by renting a car or using local buses, tourists could easily visit many beautiful castles, palaces, and formal gardens. The old hilltop castle of Buchlov, the Baroque palace of Buchlovice, and the UNESCO Heritage Sites Lednice and Valtice are especially worth visiting.
Moravian Slovakia has its own unique decoration and folkloric aesthetic. These can be seen in the ceramics and glassware made in local villages and the way wine cellars and some houses are painted. Tourists could visit ceramics workshops and glass factories to see how the people continue these traditions, and the ceramics and glassware make wonderful souvenirs.
The most significant aspect of the region’s cultural heritage is its folklore. Each region of the Czech Republic has its own folklore traditions, but they are particularly strong in Moravian Slovakia, where they are still celebrated regularly at festivals and special occasions. The traditional costumes of this region are ornate and differ from one village to another. The details of the costume decoration are passed down from one generation of women to the next. Many older women even wear simpler versions on a day-to-day basis. For tourists, this is the best region to see the traditions of music, dance, and costume from historic Czech folklore.
Festivals in Moravia:
UNESCO recently recognized four Czech traditions as examples of intangible cultural heritage; two of them are from the small region of Moravian Slovakia. One of them is the region’s best known festival, the Ride of the Kings in the village of Vlčnov. It has been celebrated there since 1808 (and in three other nearby towns).
This was the first festivity I experienced after moving to nearby Uherské Hradiště, and I was fortunate to be “adopted” by a Czech family for the day–they dressed me in folkloric costume and explained the day’s complex traditions.
The festival includes a show of costumes, dance, and music of each village and town. The most important part of the day is a parade of young men on horseback, all decorated with colorful ribbons and flowers, with one local boy chosen as the young king. He is dressed in female costume to remember a story from 1469: after a defeat, King Matthias Corvinus retreated to his home in nearby Trenčín. According to the legend, in order not to be recognized, he dressed up as a girl, with a rose in his mouth and ribbons covering his face, as shown below:
The festivities are passed from generation to generation. The tradition of making the decorations, which vary from one village to another, is preserved by the women, while the men are responsible for preserving the activities and teaching the younger generations the process, chants, and other details of the festival.
The Ride of the Kings festival is an excellent way to learn about Czech folklore and experience the pride of people celebrating their traditions as a community. Being recognized by UNESCO as an example of intangible cultural heritage is an important step in preservation, and according to the UNESCO description of the Ride of the Kings, it is hoped that neighboring countries will be inspired to preserve similar examples of cultural heritage.
Making the preservation of cultural heritage should be a priority, first for the sake of community, and second for the sake of providing a sustainable way to generate the economy. People should be encouraged to be proud of local customs, and money should be set aside to preserve cultural monuments, like the decorated houses and historic castles mentioned above. At the same time, tourism efforts can be improved in the following ways:
- promoting the appeal of the region’s cultural heritage
- making information available online and at tourist attractions in multiple languages
- establishing tourist information offices in the region’s towns
- hiring English-speaking employees at the region’s busiest attractions
- offering guided itineraries
What do you think? Would you like to visit Moravian Slovakia? What regions with rich cultural heritage do you wish would work to preserve it?
(All photos are from Wikimedia Commons except for the fourth one, which is mine, and the last one, courtesy Czech Tourism.)
Source for UNESCO information: http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/RL/00564