The new “Via Travel Agency” travels to the Těšín region to meet people who are changing the Czech Republic

Via on the road. A new way of getting to know initiatives in various parts of the Czech Republic. And a new way for Via Foundation to support people who are engaged in their local communities.

For our very first trip, we chose the Těšín region – for two reasons. The first reason is the support we got from a group of local residents who participated in our program ViabilityNet a couple of years ago. The second reason is based on the specific characteristics of the Těšín region. Most of the region’s current residents moved there during the socialist era from other parts of the former Czechoslovakia. Labor was needed to meet the demands of the region’s developing industries. Today, the region has a high unemployment rate because many of the large industrial companies have shut down. Add to this the region’s specific multi-cultural background, which stems from its proximity to Poland, from the fact that it alternately belonged to Czechoslovakia, to Germany and to Poland, and from the co-existence of all three of these nationalities as well as other ethnicities. That’s also why the first stop on our trip was the city of Český Těšín and Cieszyn – a city where this history is very much alive today.

A total of 13 people joined us on the trip: 8 from the Czech Republic, 3 from Serbia (ViabilityNet Alumni) and two other people who currently live in Prague but originally hail from Russia and Poland, respectively (also ViabilityNet Alumni). We spent two and a half days visiting the Těšín region together. Several people from local initiatives and one local politician joined us for a chat in the Český Těšín castle tea shop, Laja, since we were staying in the castle accommodations.

What did we see and experience during the trip?

We visited and/or heard from 11 different initiatives in Czech-Polish Těšín, Havířov, Karvina and Orlova. If we were to write up all of the adventures we had over the 2½ days, we could publish a book. We will spare you that and just share a few highlights here.

Havířov is the eleventh largest and youngest city in the Czech Republic. It was built in the 1950s with a single purpose in mind: giving miners working in the nearby mines a place to sleep. The train station in Havířov feels kind of abandoned and bare. Aside from a few coffee vending machines, the ticket counter and two kiosks, the main hall – which could easily hold ballroom dances – is empty. Although it isn’t apparent at first glance, the train station has architectural merit. It was built in the “Brussels style”, inspired by the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. The city’s recent attempt to demolish the station and replace it with a modern building motivated a group of people in Havířov to take action and try to save the station. They succeeded, at least partially: the main building will be preserved while the side buildings will be demolished. The group also managed to establish a café in the train station building and hold various cultural and social events there. And this initiative has evolved into other projects, such as revitalization of five Havířov courtyards, which used to be vibrant public spaces in the city.

Nearby Orlová is two cities in one. The old part is a ghost town today. The only buildings still standing are three churches and one block of buildings that include the old town hall, a health clinic and a restaurant, which closes for the night when the employees from the other two buildings go home. Entire streets have disappeared in areas where coal mining caused the earth to collapse directly under the city. A short distance away, a new Orlová grew like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its predecessor. It consists of several high rise housing estates, which were built next to one another in succession during the 20th century. The differences between the decades in which each section was built is easily visible. The blocks look the same as those in many other cities in the Czech Republic. Here, too, life seems to have fallen asleep. There are a few non-profit organizations, social services, churches, and a mega-supermarket. And in the middle of all that there is the Futra club. Originally a venue for alternative music concerts, it gradually added other uses: as an open youth club, as a space for political and social discussions and a music studio for local musicians of possible future fame. And other activities are starting up. The most popular concerts bring in 100-120 people, the least popular 7. Both happen regularly. Another regular occurrence: the team at Futra, who are happy to brew you a cup of coffee, have also begun holding volunteer cooking events guided by the Food Not Bombs concept (because food shouldn’t be wasted). Once in a while they cook and then hand out hot food and tea on the street. Everyone and anyone who happens to be walking past at the right time gets a meal. Everyone in our group got a plate of food, too, as we talked about what it’s like to live in Orlova.

And what did our participants think about the trip? They said that it was hugely beneficial to see the initiatives in the places that they actually work, so that they could understand the context of why they do things the way they do. They also found the diversity of initiatives and activities that we learned about useful – from the Trianon social enterprise to Business Gate, a project implemented jointly by the city of Karviná and the local university, to various cultural-social activities and a mobile community garden. What we could strengthen, they said, was enabling a greater understanding of the region as a whole at the beginning of the trip. But as Vojta L., one of the participants, said: “Via on the road was a delight and gave me hope and courage. It is great to see engaged people doing good things.”