Gotta Chata

Daisy and Emma wave from the porch of the chata we rented in west Bohemia.

I went to the chata last weekend.

I've lived in the Czech Republic for more than 10 years, and that's the first time I've been able to say that.

Chatas (pronounced haht-ahz) are tiny cottages sprinkled all around the Czech countryside.

Czechs spend years building, decorating, and improving their chatas. I guess they must find some time in there to actually just sit and enjoy them, too.

On the weekends, Prague turns into a ghost town. In my neighborhood on Friday, the cars disappear as everyone heads out to their chatas to putter and plant. The highways are packed on Sunday evening when everyone returns.

The ruins of 14-century castle Buben were a short walk away.

I had been under the impression that chatas were a creation of socialist rule in Czechoslovakia, that the communists had given everyone a little plot of land in the country in an effort to keep the restive masses quiet.

I've since learned, after doing a little reading, that chatas actually date back to the early 20th century or so.

It seems that the living conditions initiated during communism -- thousands of people crammed into ugly concrete panelaks, or large apartment blocks -- also contributed to the popularity of chatas. As did the lack of opportunities for ordinary Czechs to travel during communist rule.

Daisy, my stepdaughter Emma, and I rented a chata in the little Czech village of Újezd nade Mží, near Pilsen, in western Bohemia. It had a cozy fireplace, a terrace, a little swimming pool for Emma, and a swiftly flowing river, the Mzi, right out front, complete with canoe. We even spotted a large, beautifully patterned lizard living near the front steps.

Emma stands next to the massive trunk of "Velky Dub," or Big Oak, a 550-year-old living oak tree not far from our chata.

There was even a picturesque ruin -- the 14th-century Buben castle -- a short hike away.

Our chata felt private, but it was surrounded by other chatas. As we walked around, we noticed that each chata is unique and expresses a little, or a lot, of the personality of its owner. For example, our chata was decorated with old U.S. license plates and pictures of the Twin Towers and the Grand Canyon. There were also odd-looking pieces of wood found in the forest hanging from the walls and on the outside of the cottage and incorporated into a kitchen bar/counter.

Many of the chatas don't have indoor toilets, but outhouses, instead, while others appear to lack hot water, since many feature elevated barrels of water in their yards that are heated by the sun and used for showers.

Each chata is built and decorated with a bit of individuality, like this one not far from the one we rented.

It's believed that there are 400,000 chatas in the Czech Republic, which has a population of around 10 million. From what I've been reading, that places it second only to Sweden in the ratio of country cottages to inhabitants.

We had a relaxing four days, reading, hiking, swimming, barbecuing, and socializing with good friends who came down to visit for a day.

We even met our next-door neighbor, an old man who -- after learning that I was an American -- told me that he was 10 years old when U.S. soldiers liberated Pilsen in World War II. He said it was the first time in his life he'd ever had chewing gum. He said the soldiers handed out gum and candy and chocolate to the children in the streets.

The memory still made him smile.

While we saw a whole bunch of cyclists on the paths, we sadly did not have a chance to get out on the trails ourselves. But I thought you might enjoy a peek inside this charming Czech tradition.

The river Mzi flowed in front of our chata.


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