On the edge of Ostrava there’s a sharp-sided hill. If you stood on it, you’d have a view over the old city, and you’d marvel at the number of smokestacks you saw. They’re all shapes and sizes and surround the old town centre like widely-spaced fence posts. If it was wintertime, you’d also marvel at how the hill you’re standing on is free of snow, while all around is white satin. Putting your hand on the ground, you’d find it oddly warm.
Like the old buildings and the smokestacks, this hill – called Ema – is a symbol of Ostrava’s inescapable past. It’s formed of the waste from the ironworks in the town’s centre. The last slag was dumped on Ema in 1993 and despite that 22-year gap, it’s still hot. Beneath the streets of Ostrava lies a massive anthracite deposit that made the area the ideal location for iron smelting, and which had been exploited for more than 200 years.
The city started as a modest town of a few thousand people, surviving as a stop on the Amber Road that brought the yellow-green jewels from the East. Yet it was the coal-mining revolution of the mid-19th century that changed its fortunes. The anthracite the miners found beneath the town’s streets was exceptionally high-quality – nearly 90 per cent carbon – meaning it could burn intensely for a long time.
Ten minutes from the city, you can see what Ostrava looked like before the industrial revolution, at the Valachian Ethnographic museum. Large houses, workshops and churches made of rough-cut logs dot this outdoor shrine to the past, either recovered from nearby towns and transported here, or facsimiles of ones long destroyed. Elsewhere, entire villages and a watermill have been reconstructed. The earliest buildings here date from the 1600s, with the latest from the early 20th century when the museum was established. The implements on display – tailoring equipment, agricultural tools, and an entire working blacksmith’s shop – show a rural life much like anywhere else in Europe. (And a nearby brewery – Chateau Zámek Zábřeh – shows another constant of Czech life.)
BENEATH THE CITY STREETS
Landek Park, by contrast, shows how quickly the area changed when coal was found. By 1835 this huge coal mine had been established, descending to a depth of 622 metres, with hundreds of workers being lowered every day to work in its many state-of-the-art galleries. To be clear, though ‘state-of-the-art gallery’ does communicate effectively their increased space, light and airiness, that’s only relative to the astoundingly tight, dark and claustrophobic conditions most of the miners worked in at the time. You can wander around the workings and see some of the old machines in operation, left there when it was closed in 1992.
Even after 160 years, these mines weren’t safe. Next to the park is the largest museum in the world dealing with mine rescues and the mining rescue services. Inside is a sobering memorial wall of all the specialists who have died attempting mine rescues across the Czech Republic. It also stores examples of a typical rescue set-up, involving a rescue base, respiratory and resuscitation equipment.
The respirators are particularly fascinating, changing from giant air bags in the 1880s, which provided just 15 minutes of air, to lead-shoed diving suits and modern compressors. And a training rescue area lets visitors experience a taste of the stifling claustrophobia, darkness, heat, noises and tightness that a rescuer would normally face.
Though Landek Park is on the outskirts, similar mines were established all across the city. Even today, walking around Ostrava, you see signs of them. In the middle of a grassy border at the city centre, a tall pipe provides an outlet for methane from the mines beneath the well-regarded Dvorak Theatre. Another brownfield mining area – still charmingly called Black Meadow – now houses the town’s exhibition hall and an indoor golf centre. By contrast, Ostrava Castle was once situated on a large hill, overlooking the town. Now, years of subsidence have sunk it anywhere between 18 and 38 metres, depending on who you listen to; it certainly sits at the level of the plain today and is heading lower.
Across the city, within walking distance of the centre, another massive structure sprawls raggedly into the air. This is DOV, originally called the Rudolf Ironworks, which was in continuous operation from 1828 until 1998. Over that 162-year period, it produced 90 million tons of crude iron, using 200 million tons of raw materials and 42 million tons of coke, mined out from under Landek Hill and Ostrava.
That industrialisation only went further when the USSR ‘liberated’ the Czechs in 1945. There were plans – eventually abandoned – to demolish the entire city centre to get to the coal. But between 1953 and 1956, large new areas were built, even as the building of the traditional family homes was banned.
One of these areas, Poruba, shows the marks of Soviet civilisation. The building style here – Social Realism – features murals and statues modelled after the perfect socialist worker and family. Across all of the monolithic apartment blocks stride murals of idealised husbands, wives and children. And every building is huge, a great box to hold hundreds of people, embellished with this unsubtle propaganda, set on wide boulevards.
A particularly striking building called Oblouka (‘The Circle’), was modelled after the monumental squares of St Petersburg, with a bifurcated road running through two arches built into its wide crescent. From the air it apparently looks like a hammer and sickle – presumably for the benefit of American spyplanes and the few Soviet masters allowed to fly – though on Google Maps, it looks like they forgot the hammer. A typical slogan blazoned on it reads ‘Strong as steel, educated with power, defend your rights, world peace.’
Everywhere you go in the city, similar murals and statues appear, but in Poruba they’re set across a whole dystopian district. Even as these buildings were being constructed, they were failing. Many of the buildings are asymmetrical, with missing statues and carvings, as the money ran out before the builders got to them. In photos from the time of their construction, even with these difficulties the buildings look clean and impressive. Yet, 50 years on, the soft dusk of a sunny Ostravan evening makes them look weather-beaten and tired.
Though people still live in them, places like Poruba are curiosities, and at the heart of the city’s attempts to reinvent itself. Given its weird appearance, the area is starting to be used as a location for films, with Vin Diesel filming Babylon A.D. here. Thanks to its great, wide boulevards it has also hosted the world inline skating championships.
The Russians made their mark in other ways too. The old cafés of the Imperial era either shut or went into slow decline – only a couple survive today and they’re much outpaced in popularity by the cruder delights of the pub-filled Stodolni Street. Those ancient buildings that hadn’t been moved to the Ethnographic Museum and had survived the tank battles and bombings that devastated the city centre, sometimes survived the Soviet regime, but are now surrounded by the forthright styles of the era.
THREE WAYS TO REGENERATE
But it is that legacy of industrialisation, from both capitalists and communists, that is Ostrava’s current challenge. The town is dealing with regeneration in three ways, which you can see when you look out from the great tower on top of the New City Hall: turning its heritage, good and bad, into tourist attractions; bringing in new attractions; and tackling the environmental problems of its industrial legacy.
Looking out from that town hall tower, you can see the hundreds of chimneys and towers that birthed the modern city. They mostly closed just after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, especially the ones close to the city centre. Poruba, the Ethnographic Museum and Landek are all efforts to reuse existing sites for tourism.
DOV has taken a more interesting turn, one that makes it a must visit for any tourist. Put a hard hat on and you can explore inside and out the awe-inspiring blast furnace tower – now called Bolt Tower – and even ride up in the coal hoist into the primary blast furnace chamber. For the other half of your day, the museum has converted a former gas holder into a stunning multifunctional auditorium called Gong, and has made even better use of the former VI Energy Central Station. This has been remodelled as a top-end science and technology museum with a range of exhibits that rival those in London’s Science Museum.
The second strand of regeneration is one taken by cities all over the world, desperate for the tourist dollar. A nearby woodland observatory has been completely rebuilt to be a state-of-the-art planetarium. The city’s puppet theatre is genuinely impressive, putting on both children’s shows and a repertoire of new and classic adult plays, told anew with a variety of marionettes. And there are music festivals, athletics meets, Davis Cup tennis matches, and even a world-class golf course.
GUNS AND GUNG-HO
Ostrava’s biggest attempt at cultural relevance, though, is NATO Days at Leoš Janáček Airport in Ostrava-Mošnov. This free-to-visit, four-day festival began five years ago, and now attracts over 220,000 visitors annually; the day I visited was a new record, with over 155,000 people present. You could easily believe that, not because it was too crowded, but because the crowds faded into the distance, a gently jiggling mass of placid humanity surrounding two or three hundred grounded planes and a handful of tanks. Heads swivelled in eerie synchronisation as groups of journalists walked up to the press area, tracking the display planes overhead.
The event was an odd mix of old fashioned family fun and a show of NATO’s air power within two hours flight of Moscow. There were only three things there; static military hardware, mobile military hardware and the thousands of usual concession stands left over from medieval fairs. The show’s strange motto says it all: ‘Our security is not given and there is no prosperity without security’. This, right here, was security; T-72 tanks, giant B-52 bombers, artillery pieces and blaring rock music. It was like Glastonbury organised by the NRA.
That seemed to be enough to entertain the visitors, with a typical scene featuring 50 children and adults standing awestruck atop an immobilised Russian tank as a NATO jet performed a loop-the-loop above their heads, or posing for photos with an indomitably cheerful US airman as if he was something unusual and alien.
Inside the VIP area, it was business as usual much like arms fairs all across the world. Burly military men and bureaucrats, bundled up in beribboned uniforms, thawbs or suits, being wined and dined in the hope that they’d buy even more guns, tanks and planes. Women, dressed more appropriately for night clubs than airfields, stumbled across the rough terrain in high heels, there to lure the men into their company’s salesroom. A tank salesmen with scary eyes mistook me for a military journalist and talked very, very seriously about the technical specifications of his firm’s latest product while I nodded sagely and tried not to gawp over his shoulder at it crushing cars.
Ostrava is regenerating, using those shuttered factories to create something unique among post-industrial European cities. But some problems of pollution can’t be removed quite as easily as the topsoil found in the Black Meadow.
Somewhere not pushed by the tourist board, understandably, are the oil lagoons. Left behind by the Ostramo chemical plant that operated in Ostrava during the 19th and 20th centuries, these four dumping pools are regarded as one of the Czech Republic’s biggest environmental burdens. The state-run company Diamo has removed 200,000 tonnes of toxic sludge from the lakes, and the remainder is another indicator of the challenges the region faces as it seeks to transition to a holiday destination.
And that’s Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s ‘third city’. A strange mixture of ambition, history, culture, militarism, and industrial wasteland, sitting at the heart of Europe, not hiding from its troubled past, but embracing it and using it as a means to draw you in.
When to go
Average temperatures in Ostrava are above 10ºC between May and September, though the area never really heats up. It is typically below freezing and snowy for most of the time between November and February, with a short period between June and August, when it might be uncomfortably hot.
The only airline that flies directly from the UK to Ostrava is Ryanair, from London Stansted costing £250 for a round trip. There are no visa requirements for tourists.
You will need to get a taxi from the airport to Ostrava proper.
Imperial Hotel: www.imperialhotelostrava.comNATO Days: www.natodays.czDOV: www.dolnivitkovice.czValachian Ethnographic Museum: www.vmp.cz/enLandek Park: www.landekpark.cz
This article was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.