A few months ago, Richard, a university professor in the eastern Czech city of Olomouc, put down the money to buy a small hut deep in the countryside. After the birth of his first child, he and his wife wanted somewhere quiet to go on weekends.
“COVID and more stable jobs are another factor; since it is now more difficult to travel abroad we want to enjoy more time here,” he said.
They aren’t alone. Purchases of small countryside cottages have boomed in the Czech Republic since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a “new era” of cottage culture, the social geographer Dana Fialová told the Aktuálně newspaper this month.
However, that has raised concerns ordinary Czechs could now be outpriced. As the wider property market saw prices increase by between 20-30 per cent since early 2020, cottage sales increased by 12 per cent in the first nine months of that year alone, with values up almost a third on 2019 prices, according to a survey by Reas, a local real estate firm.
Countryside cottages - most small two-storey huts, with an attic bedroom and small kitchen downstairs, as well as an ample plot of land - are ubiquitous across the Czech Republic. In 2015 the newspaper Lidovky estimated that a third of households own one.
Other reports say one-in-seven, yet because most friends and family share cottages an even greater share of the population has access to a rural retreat.
“Most people try to either move out of the city and have their own house, or as a substitute, have a weekend [cottage] to go out and spend time in nature,” said Richard.
Although it’s a tradition that dates back centuries, owning a country cottage really began during the communist era and has remained a feature of Czech life since.
“Cottages are important for Czech people,” said Ondřej Zuntych, a journalist in Olomouc. In normal times, many Czechs, but especially the elderly, move to their cottages for the warmer months of the year, he explained.
But the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict lockdowns enforced by the authorities throughout much of 2020 and 2021, when freedom of movement was greatly restricted in urban areas, saw an exodus of Czechs to the countryside.
Those advised to work from home found they could do so in the sticks. Parents no longer needed to be near schools, which were closed. Low-interest rates made mortgages more attractive.
So integral are cottages in the national psyche that Czechs even have specific nouns, chataření and chalupaření, to describe what one gets up to at a cottage.
And conversations with Czechs about their weekend getaways can often get bogged down in terminology.
There’s a distinction between a chata and a chalupa, notes Zuntych.
The former is usually a small hut and garden, used primarily for weekend recreation, such as gardening and relaxation. Most have no electricity nor running water. Outside toilets are a near certainty.
The latter, though, is a rebuilt small house in the countryside that can often be lived in all year long. Invariably, English translations to cottages, cabins, chalets and huts seldom conjure the multitude and variety of these properties.
But, Zuntych said, what people do in their retreats is the same, from growing vegetables to sitting around an open fire.
The Czech Republic isn’t alone in its obsession with countryside cottages. They’re popular across parts of Central Europe and Scandinavia.
But the Czech history is unique.
Cottage culture predates the communist takeover of what was then Czechoslovakia in 1948 but it was shaped by the socialist government’s policies, noted the historian Paulina Bren in her influential 2002 essay, “Weekend Getaways: The Chata, the Tramp, and the Politics of Private Life in Post-1968 Czechoslovakia.”
By the 1980s around a third of residents of Prague, the capital, owned a countryside cottage, and another quarter had access to one, she noted.
A government study that decade found people were spending between 100 and 120 days each year at their second homes.
Writing in a 1982 book called Problems Of Communism, the historian Vladimir Kusin described a typical image of Czech life at the time. An “early escape on Friday afternoon in a private car laden with stacks of precooked Wiener schnitzel for a weekend away from it all at a private country cottage.” Chatař (“The Chata-Owner”) was one of the more popular magazines during the communist era, which came to an end in 1989. Skoda, the Czech car giant, would feature its latest models parked in front of country cottages in advertisements.
Like so much of Czech history, the growth of what Bren calls “chata culture” — the “ever-expanding Czech pastime of long weekends spent at a private country cottage”, as she put it — was a result of the Prague Spring.
In 1968 the reformist communist leader Alexander Dubček attempted to liberalise the country but was ousted when Soviets troops invaded Czechoslovakia.
Afterwards, the new communist authorities adopted a policy known as “normalisation” that's primary objective was to keep the Czech people docile.
Gustáv Husák, who took over the Communist Party in 1969, justified the crackdown by claiming most Czech people weren’t all that interested in politics. “A normal person just wants to live quietly,” he said, adding: “this Party wants to safeguard a quiet life.”
Bren, the historian, pinpoints the explosion of “chata culture” as starting in 1969. Although it contradicted their opposition to private property and materialism, the communist authorities subtly encouraged a surge in cottage ownership, allowing Czechs to sate their consumerist, individual desires in ways that didn’t directly challenge the regime.
“The weekend retreat into the Czechoslovak countryside - while not comparable to a trip to Italy - promised to deliver on a regular basis the sort of rewards that communism and the communists had been promising for so long,” Bren wrote.
At the same time, the authorities were also happy that “chata culture” meant cities emptied most weekends, whereas the masses might have gathered to make their political feelings known.
“Chata culture could ostensibly provide for a depoliticised, government-mediated escape,” Bren stated.
The other reason was economic. During the more liberal years of the 1960s, Czechs were allowed to travel abroad quite freely, but “normalisation” made it harder. Denied a holiday abroad, more Czechs began vacationing at home. And unlike in most of the communist Eastern Bloc, “the Czech economy did reasonably well throughout the 1970s and the standard of living continued to rise until the 1980s,” wrote the sociologist Kristina Alda in an essay published in 2020.
This meant that ordinary Czechs were able to afford a cottage, “an unthinkable luxury, not just for much of [the] East, but also the West,” she added.
An “unthinkable luxury” may be the case in the future, however. Radim Maštalíř, an asset valuation expert at ČSOB, a Czech bank, said the steep rise in the house prices, in general, has affected the cottage market, especially in the vicinity of large cities.
Czech property prices rose by around 11.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2021. In the second quarter of last year, they were the second fastest-growing in Europe, after Hungary, according to the house price index database by Eurostat.
A recent report by Deloitte, an international consultancy, found property in the Czech Republic was the second-most unaffordable in Europe in 2020, costing an average of 12.2 gross annual salaries for a “standardised dwelling”.
But “chata culture” has always proved resilient. After the fall of communism in 1989, cottage life hit a nadir as Czechs preferred to vacation abroad, especially to Western Europe, where they were previously not allowed to visit.
But an upswing in cottage ownership took place after the economic crisis in 2008-2009 when most Czechs spent less money on foreign holidays, the social geographer Fialová said in an interview with local media this month. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in yet another wave of cottage ownership.
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