“You can park your car up here,” Martin Bareš says as I crunch through the snow. Climbing into his 4×4, I tell him that I walked from the train station. He is shocked; a car is a necessity for people who live in the country and Martin’s navy Mitsubishi is his livelihood. It is decked out in Offroad Safari decals and he uses it to jostle people through the Bohemian Uplands. Today, I am booked on a tour called the Unexpected Charm of the Industrial Landscape. I am expecting to see the ruins of industry – I am excited for the ruin porn. But what Martin will show me is far more interesting.
The wheels of the Mitsubishi spin on the ice and we’re off through Litvínov. Immediately, we’re deep into the communist history of the Czech Republic. Martin tells me that the town we’re driving through is actually New Litvínov. This is coal country and the communists razed Old Litvínov to get at the seams buried underneath. We slide up a track out of the functional tower blocks and into a wood of small, young trees and come to a halt. Forty metres beneath us, Martin tells me, lies Old Litvínov. It is covered by the mud and rock from the open cast mines.
Since the fall of communism the Czech government has begun to rewild the area. Wildlife is being reintroduced and the trees are being replanted. But it takes time – land is easy to destroy and difficult to bring back to life. Martin points over the crest of a hill. In the distance steam rises out of cooling towers surrounded by a network of buildings the size of a small town. I assume it is a power plant, but it is a chemical plant. “The Nazis built it,” Martin says.
We are deep in what was known as the Sudetenland – the area of Czechoslovakia that was inhabited by Germans and ceded to them in 1938. For Czechs, this is the start of the Second World War. Immediately, the Nazis began building Záluží to produce fuel. They needed it for their Panzers and their Messerschmitts. They needed it for blitzkrieg.
Work on the plant was carried out by concentration camp prisoners. There were forty thousand workers held nearby and it is thought that fifteen thousand died. One of the worst was Camp 29. It was staffed by Nazi sympathisers from Romania and the Balkans and has the reputation of being one of the most sadistic of the work camps.
Záluží was finished in 1942 and the fuel was sent to the eastern front. That was when the bombings began. The first American planes put the plant out of action and killed thousands. The damage was fixed and the raids continued until the Red Army overran Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.
Because the plant and the surrounding area were constantly bombed, the whole region is pocked with shelters that we don’t have time to explore. After the war they were used by the communists as nuclear shelters. Almost every citizen in Czechoslovakia had to be able to reach a shelter in case a hail of Nike Ajax, Hercules and Zeus rained down. Czechoslovakia was one of the main targets of the West’s nuclear bombs. They would be used to stop the Soviet tanks from rolling across the plains to West Germany.
Martin drives us past an old coal mine – Julius III – that has been converted into a museum. It is closed for the winter but he shows me a map of the tunnels radiating from it. They stretch everywhere. The coal in the region is lignite and it has mined here for hundreds of years. It is the reason the the Czech lands were one of the first areas of the world to industrialise, and Czechs have a huge amount of pride in their miners.
Further up the road we park at a viewing point looking out over the frozen Lake Most. The city of Old Most lies underneath it. It is another casualty of the communist mining. Deer skip through the snow and a kestrel perches on top of a rocky outcrop. This area is also being rewilded but one small section has been left. The barren rock stretches down to the road. Tree fossils that were hauled up by the mining lie around ready to be hammered open to show off their leaves. The local people used to call the wasteland a moonscape.
Martin winds the 4×4 through the tracks until we reach Most. He pulls up outside the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is the only building in the city that the communists rescued from Lake Most and it is the heaviest structure ever moved by rails. The potential fallout from destroying a thirteenth century church was too risky for the government, so they rolled all twelve thousand tonnes of it eight hundred and forty-one metres and ten centimetres to its current location.
Standing in the hills above the city is Hněvín Castle. It looks as if it could be straight out of Game of Thrones. Hněvín is a reminder that the city of Most has suffered destruction before. During the Thirty Years War it was besieged by the Swedes, and Most was razed. The people of the city blamed the castle for losing everything, and once the war was over they pulled it down and used the stone to rebuild their homes.
Martin and I have a quick filling station sandwich for lunch. As we eat he tells me about working in the mines – he has been digging coal for two months so that he can tell people exactly what it is like. Martin’s health is already suffering. He has a hacking cough that has been brought on by the dust. The work is heavy and dangerous. When he is not hacking at the walls or operating heavy machinery, he is carrying seventy kilogram lengths of steel through the shafts.
Mining is the largest employer in the region, and people will work in the pits for thirty to forty years when their bodies give up or until they die from disease or an accident. Under communism, being a miner was one of the best remunerated jobs available; a miner would earn more than a doctor or engineer. Under capitalism, a miner can only hope to bring home five hundred euro a month, which is barely enough to live on.
Martin fills the car and drives us to one of the open-cast mines. Normally, the public aren’t allowed near – it’s not a safe environment for a hillwalker – but Martin has permission from the correct authorities. The machinery is huge. Some of the equipment used to gouge the earth must easily be one hundred metres long and high. Trucks full of earth and coal rumble past. A conveyer belt hums its way to the train tracks where it splits into ten.
I climb a mound of earth to look over a slag heap. Another massive machine is pumping coal into it. This is the reserve. Forty per cent of the Czech Republic’s electricity is produced nearby, and the power stations need tens of thousands of tonnes of coal every day. If there is a problem in the mine, this heap ameliorates the problem for a time.
Behind me, the black scar stretches out for kilometres. The heavy machines are specks in the mine. Martin points to a hill one side and tells me that all the coal has been taken and any earth removed is now piled there. On the other side the pristine snow reaches the mountains on the horizon. They plan to cut all this up – all the way to the hills. We are standing at a viewpoint. Just beside us the mining company has erected a poster of other mines that have been returned to their former glory. There are plans that show a lake and parkland. But first the coal must be dug and burnt, and the scar will slowly stretch across the beautiful Czech Uplands.
Martin takes me to another mine. This one is even bigger. It is almost sixty square kilometres. The mine is surrounded by small lakes where the earth has collapsed into unused shafts underground. On the opposite side of the berm on which we stand is the village of Horní Jiřetín. This village is set to be destroyed too. There is an intense debate among the two thousand or so villagers – take the money and run or defend their home. Families have been torn in two over the decision.
In the mountains surrounding Horní Jiřetín is Jezeří Castle. From a peak above it we look down over the mine. It is all that can be seen. The castle has a history; one of Beethoven’s symphonies was first performed here and Goethe stayed and wrote. It was said to be one of the favourite places of the first Czech president after communism, Václav Havel. Before the mine, the view from the Jezeří was of the largest lake in the Czech lands. Now that it is all gone.
The communists wanted to destroy Jezeří to get at the lignite underneath but failed. Instead, they allowed it to be looted. After the fall of communism, Havel still used it as a diplomatic retreat to entertained guests from Prince Charles to Bill Clinton, but the castle has been hollowed out. Like the wasteland that surrounds it, Jezeří holds onto its stark, magnificent beauty but it is not a beauty that fills me with hope. Today, I have not seen the ruin of industry but the ruin caused by industry.
Tours with Offroad Safari run throughout the week. They are also available to hire privately for companies and location scouting