Louche and Alive in Ostrava

By Jo Phillips

Ostrava  is the 3rd largest city in the north-east of the Czech Republic the capital of what used to be two regions Moravia and Silesia split by a river and now called Moravia-Silesia  ; it is also near the border with Poland. Having been overshadowed by its better known sister city Prague, Ostrava is beginning to propagate itself as a ‘go-to’ town for cultural experiences.

For centuries it was primarily known for its industry of coal-mining and steel.  In fact the coal mines in the area were so prolific that the Rothschild family owned one of the mines and the area became an important industrial centre.  So what happens to an area like this when these industries are no longer either fashionable or profitable?

Since the 1990s Ostrava has been working to transform itself into a modern cultural city, with numerous theatres, galleries and other creative pursuits. It hosts a wide range of  events throughout the year, as well as having local historical sites many of which have been restored.  It’s a great example in many ways of what can happen in a positive way to areas that need to re-group in order to keep a city viable and profitable as well as an engaing place to live for the local communities which may well been settled for centuries.

The first thing that is surprising is the general lush, green nature of the surroundings when driving from the airport to the centre of the town; rolling green fields ripe for agriculture.  Before the industrial revolution the area was an agricultural centre. All that changed after the discovery of coal which made the area wealthy with the coal and steel furnaces worked well into the late 1990’s.  Now the city is taking a very different approach to life. Ostrava is easily accessed via two airports.  One is Brno which is about two hours drive away or to Ostrava city airport. The drive although long, is truly a great way to see the sounding countryside.

The town itself is quite small but makes for a lovely place to walk around with several sites to visit  in the centre all do-able by foot.  One of the first things you may notice whilst on foot is how clean the town is and that dotted around are flowers, planted in pots or hanging on lampposts. But the big treat is to look up at the architectural landscape and you may well be surprised.

Your initial reaction may well be that there are many buildings left over from the communist era, but peer a little closer. Cities that hadn’t been  powerhouses in the communist era, like Ostrava, were not as affected by the communist regime as many of the bigger cities in Eastern Europe.  So the treat for architecture lovers in the city are that some of the buildings are left over from the bauhaus movement. Modernist angular in shape with distinctive bauhaus touches.

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Some of the buildings were commissioned and built in this design period and when the communists took over buildings were altered to fit better with the new aesthetic.  The Imperial Hotel  is a good example of this. However the markings on the hotel walls are not in fact the communist hammer and sickle but in fact are from the days when the area was agriculturally lead. There are several original Bauhaus buildings left intact to enjoy, just pan across the skyline to spot them.

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Outside of that, the town square Masaryk Square, is very much the baroque candy box painting of pastel coloured buildings from the 19th century.  Little known is the fact that many of the buildings in Ostrava’s central district were designed by famous architects such as Karel Kotas, Josef Gočár, Ernst Korner and Alexander Graf. It still houses the old  town hall standing in the corner of the square with a large clock tower still erect.   A newer working town hall venue was built in 1912 and sits in another part of the city. Keep an eye out too for vintage stores as there are several dotted around the town.

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So within walking distance and  literally 10 minutes walk apart are several cultural activities.  Very much targeted at families, there is firstly the Miniature village.  Here you can find of course miniature versions of some of the world’s most famous buildings like the Pyramids, Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben.  There is also a small museum with wooden hand built sculptures of  historic churches, boats , and local postal memorabilia. The exhibition pieces were made by hand by a local craftsman and the site also has a mini railway track rounding around the whole of the outside exhibition.

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Almost next door is a large space used for one off exhibitions and whilst we were visiting it held an American car show, with cars from the 1920’s to the 80’s.  This space is used for one off exhibitions through the year.

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Next to the the local castle.  Silesian Ostrava Castle  is also near the square sitting where the two rivers meet.  Originally built in the 1280s  for military purposes due to its proximity to the Polish border , although Poland didn’t exist at that point the area was very much under a feudal system hence the need for defence.

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In the 18th century an important local family bought the castle and it was then that  coal was discovered.  This was way before any kind of  industrialisation, so the find had no real worth. Of course at the beginning of the 19th century when the industrial revolution started, the castle area was extensively mined for coal.  The mining even went  underneath the castle which eventually made the building drop down by 16 metres.  It started out on top of a hill and ended up on more or less flat on the ground and now  with gardens surrounding it.

About seven years ago  a complex  extensive renovation was made.  The castle cellars are now home to an aquarium with freshwater fish, a museum of witches and torture,  music festivals (originally Colours of Ostrava music festival was held here) and even Shakespeare plays (it has its own amphitheater) are put on. It is now a great example of where past and present of Ostrava meet.

Goblins and gooks dotted around the restored buildings give a peek into the legends and folklore are at the core of the countryside . Czech legends even say there was huge treasure buried beneath the castle. Interestingly these seem to speak of a time when belief in wood nymphs or other folklore characters may well have been held in high regard.  Hence the great wooden status of goblins hiding in wells protect the building and the potential hidden treasures.

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Walking back towards the next attraction in the centre of the town,  you notice again the amount of lush green surrounding.  The rivers  banks make for wonderful bike rides for those wishing to escape and the  path takes people almost straight into the surrounding woods, as the city sits encased in a forrest.

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Back into town one the the Neo-baroque buildings, specifically  the Antonin Dvorak Theatre  theatre which was designed by architect  Alexander Graf. It is primarily used to stage operas and ballets. It’s all plush golds, creams and blood red, styled in the vain of a classical theatre that houses up scale theatrical productions.  However hidden under the stage is  a circular moving floor; the kind of equipment  many a theatre would only dream to have, allowing all the performances an add level of drama.

Walk back across the town to the New Town Hall erected in 1930 famous for its viewing tower.  At 86 meters from the ground the tower offers sweeping views of the Ostrava basin, the mountains of Beskyd to the south, the Jeseniky mountains to the west and the Upper Silesian plateau to the east. On a clear day the view is simply majestic and probably why it’s the areas top tourist attraction. The observation deck  is accessible to the public via two levels of express lifts.

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photo Lenka Jamnická

The city also has a zoo, several parks and woodlands as well as churches to visits  with buses and trams that are straight forward to navigate.  Should you chose to be staying inside the city, walking is a great way to really see whats going on.   However it is well worth noting most people live on the out-skirts not the centre of the town, so there is no discernible ‘scene’ at night with clubs and bars for hanging out.  This does mean a trip out for a drink in the evening is not over-run with noisy  groups which can often put people off city breaks and although the are plenty of places to eat, this is just not a city that as yet plays  a lot all night.  Saying that there are enough festivals going on  to cater for those that wish for full on party nights.  However there is Stodolní  street which is the big party street in the city.

Step slightly outside of the central town and you will see exactly this in motion.  Ostrava holds possibly Europes’  biggest dance music festival, Beats for Love.  This is no ordinary festival, in no ordinary location, far from it, this is a 11 stage dance spectacular integrated in the old Central Energy Station a former coal and steel plant.  This is no regular former industrial unit either but a vast sprawling metropolis of twisted steel and iron.  Gigantic rusted  structures populate this post apocalyptic park.  But unlike most modern European cities, the very nature of the areas initial use has been preserved and rather than knock things down and rebuild, the site has been celebrated, utilised and given a second life with events going on in and  around the rusty towers, drums and stairs.  It’s a gigantic monolith of days gone by bought together with the days to come.   The area is known as Lower Vítkovice Area (DOV) and is very much a cultural hub for the city as well as a truly innovative use of a former mining plant.

 

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Towards the beginning of the plant the one piece of modern architecture has been added,  the Bolt Tower.  Initially not named after the world renowned Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt, but Bolt because of the fact that the construction was build around an original blast furnace  (Blast Furnace 1) so the build symbolises the fire that raged from out of the furnace  in its working days. However the English play on words worked so well as the athlete whilst running at the Golden Spike (yearly athletics event is held in Ostrava) the well known Jamaican fast footer didn’t just win three races he also went on to christen the tower in the park.  

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Photo Lenka Jamnická

A walkway spirals around the tower and for those brave enough can walk all the way from bottom to top. The glass-walled tower serves as a multipurpose observation point with views across the whole of the city and includes a cafe should you wish to take a view whilst enjoying coffee and cake, but know there are new lifts should the idea of walking sounds too much!

Precisely because the city has not been over-developed and neither has the Vítkovice Area, the idea of over cautious health and safety ‘nimby’ style rules , has not ruined a wonderfully unique venue. The whole area only stopped producing coal and steel in the late nineties and so is now one of the best places in Europe to go to for festivals.  The the industrial complex has transformed into a unique educational, social and cultural centre too.   The home to a vast landscape of now debunked industrial sized machinery hosts alongside a  Science and Technology Centre  aimed very much at kids and families, with lots of interactive practical examples to engage. The whole site is home to many music festivals, international conferences, sports activities and cultural events.  In fact the site is used often for activities with among the best known of which are  the Colours of Ostrava multi-genre music festival, the Janáček May classical music festival, the Summer Shakespeare Festival and of course  Beats for Love (B4L).

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In June each year the venue hosts Beats for Love (B4L) music festival.  This June ’16 was the festivals the third and most successful event to date. It ran over the four days covering a space of over  100,000 m2 with more than  42 000 visitors coming through the festival’s gates to enjoy dancing and music which included quite the international round up of musician and DJ’s. With 11 stages allowing for a huge variation of dance genres from Psytrance, Hardstyle & Hardcore, electro-swing, Breakbeat, Urban, Reggae 2 Jungle, Techno, House to Trance & EDM and Drum & Bass.  The Dj’s and musicians came mainly from across Europe and although not the biggest names in the world within each genre, there were certainly enough known names to make this a great event. Speaking with the organisers, a key part of the festivals philosophy is the keep prices very reasonable so that local as well as international guests are not priced out of coming and so the balance is to have big named artists  but not so expensive to pay for that tickets become unattainable for all that want to visit. However the Cezech  Dj’ community was well represented with names such as DJ Lucca (one of the only female techno DJ’s)  Chris Sadler, DJ Trava, Michael C, Ravic, Underground Children, Mr Teacher, Forbidden Spociety, Ian Blond and many many more with the event having its first sponsor this year a condom company Pepino

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The site does come alive in a very different way than seeing it in the daytime.  It brings up the question as to what it is like for the artists to play at. So we asked  British junglist singer and musician David Boomah  about his experience of B4L:-

How does a nice boy from South East london do end up playing in a festival in Ostrava?

“I think I would have to attribute that opportunity to the power of Music ….I’ve ended up playing all over the place over the last 20+ years: Kolkata, Sao Paolo, Lithuania, Slovenia, Germany, Guatemala Toronto. Jungle Music is truly an international phenomenon and it continues to take me to new places each year.

What was you experience of playing at the festival after all it is still quite new and in an area not well known?

“I had an amazing time at the Reggae to Jungle stage. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to see any of the other stages.The crowd were ready to have a good time which always make it easier and they got involved from the start to the end of my set. This was my first time at Beats For Love and I would definitely do it again. There were some teething issues around organisation and hospitality but nothing they can’t fix easily. My experience was memorable in a positive way so thanks to the organisers and lets do it again!!!”

How much of your life is about travelling around the world to play at festivals?

“My life is so fragmented and unpredictable it is hard to answer that question. Singing is but one of my career commitments. I also teach English, provide Youth Work Consultancy Services and work with youth at risk of social exclusion. It all depends on what year it is and what my priorities are at the time. This year the focus has been on teaching but the previous two years I was touring all over the place”.

 So whats next in the world of David Boomah?

“I really don’t know to be honest. I just released a single called “Wish Upon A Star Feat Rowpieces” on my own Record Label “Forward Ever Recordings” and I’m really proud of it as the original is amazing and the array of Remixes are outstanding!!! I have 3 other singles out as the moment as well on the legendary labels Philly Blunt, Ram Recordings and Spearhead so I gues I will be busy promoting them over the next few months. I am also getting ready to release another single on “Forward Ever” and attach both tracks to a forthcoming album but it all depends on how well the songs are received …..it’s a tough game out here so only time will tell. Whatever happens I will be making music somewhere ….it’s the air I breathe.

David Boomah (Singer/Songwriter/DJ/Radio Host) Forward Ever Recordings

www.davidboomah.com Facebook  soundcloud  twitter instagram www.forwardever.co.uk

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 Photo Lenka Jamnicka

As a festival site the Vítkovice Area is mammoth and  spectacular.  A wonderful inspiring site for not just the industrial style music of Beat4Love but for the myriad of festivals going on at the location.  There is of course camping areas and unlike many festivals the size (being relatively small in comparison) is easy to navigate which makes for a relatively intimate experience.

Well whilst on the idea of anything mammoth and historical,visitors really can have a truly get to grips with the local history of mining by actually going down a once working mine, and in the same spot mammoth bones have been found.  This gives just a small idea of how old the area is and also how the area lived and worked.

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Landek Park is the largest Czech coal mining museum. It is 250-m-long underground with credible guided tours available from ex miners.  In fact to go below to the twisted veins of the old working mine visitors are taken down in the lift the miners themselves used. The tour gives a step by step  of the process used, with original  mining equipment and even sound effects.  This is as authentic an experience as it gets to be down a mine, which in its day was a traitorous place to work.   Hence there is a mine rescue workers exhibition  alongside the original  changing rooms that have been transformed onto  an art installation almost fit for the Turner prize with lastly the original mine train from the 60s which visitors can travel in the tiny caged carriages too.

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So from the hyper-real to the  fairytale, a trip up to the quaint little town of Stramberk.  Because of the town’s location and  its historical collection of timbered houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, the town has been declared a conservation area.

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The area is dominated by the ruins of the Strallenberg castle an important fortified site on a hill which includes the Truba Tower.  The small hill roads that lead to the castle are tight and twisted so do involve a little bit of an effort  but worth it for the magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.

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Štramberk is also famous for the gingerbread “Štramberk Ears” which have been baked here for many centuries in memory of the legendary victory of the Stramberk Christians over Mongolian soldiers, (the ear shaped gingerbread relates to the cutting off the locals’ ears as proof to the Mongolian chiefs of how many  were killed).  The town square has shopped dedicated to the confectionary as well as several restaurants.  For one of those extra little visual treats the restaurant by the Truba Tower has the most beautiful reproductions of original stencils on the walls.  

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Should visitors want to finish off with a few lazy days by the river and to indulge in a little harmony and nature, then none is better than The Straw Mill Waterman which is a park, picnic location,  hotel,  bed & breakfast resort that also holds a lot of equestrian events through he year too.  A place for guests to ride horses, eat local food as well visit the no longer used but restored grain mill the Slamove Museum.   Picnics are available with local foods,  a farm shop too where local produce from the farm itself can be purchased alongside rather wonderful lilac coloured homemade lavender lemonade.

Ostrava, is a city on the up…Not in the traditional horrific regeneration we here of, with international labels flogging the same products the world over but a city looking within to see what is has in its far and near past that can be polished and packaged for a new generation and a whole new set of visitors.  This is a city to visit now, this is a city who if you like is ‘lifting her skirt’ and ‘showing off her knees’ if you like, (not her garter as yet) because like most other places across Europe it will develop, and hopefully without destroying its history and identity.   However if you want to see the city whilst its in its slightly shall we say awkward teenage years and watch it bloom in front of your eyes this is the time to go.  There are ski holidays in the winter if the cultural pursuits are not for you, local beers and wines to be tasted modern art galleries to visit and wellness and spa centres for those just wanting to take it nice and easy. Good weather in early summer make for a perfect temperature to site see.

For more information on the city of Ostrava click here.