Friday, 17 May 2013

Tábor

The Old Town on the flanks of the hill


On arrival Tábor looks a lot like a worn-out seaside town: the echo of quaintness buried under red brick and cheap shop fronts. The main square of the new town is peopled by ruffled pensioners, gamely dragging their baskets behind them, as they walk to the local supermarket. This being the Czech Republic, however, a gang of drunks mill around benches in the memorial park. Four boys, BMXs parked on the floor with their front wheels yanked carelessly skyward, chat and loudly scold each other over cheap lemonade. An elderly couple, heckled by the autumn breeze, point out the clutter and disorder of the boys' bikes. You get the sense this is not the first time they've had to point this out to each other. Another English trait: it will take them forever to share their complaints with the boys directly. The weather has that damp, interminable feel of the English seaside in autumn. It's wet without really being wet. Soggy without anything so dramatic as rain. How, you wonder, could anything remarkable ever have happened here? But it did. Once upon a time the military strategy of a whole civil war was drawn up here.    

Tábor, home of the radical wing of the reformist Hussites, lies about 90 km south of Prague. The Hussites are acknowledged as one of Europe's earliest Christian social reform groups. The huge, ugly monument to the Hussites in Prague's Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) nonetheless celebrates them as martyrs to the Czech national cause. Co-opted by nationalist propagandists, the Hussites present an easy collective symbol of national suffering, repressed by Rome and Vienna alike. In fact, almost from the movement's inception, the Hussites were divided into two camps: the Utraquists (moderate proponents of communion under both kinds) and the more socially radical Táborites. Clichés about the Spartan militarism of such movements do not ring entirely false here. After relocating to Tábor, the radical general Jan Žižka presided over a fiercely democratic and militaristic regime. The Táborites inherited a legacy of Bohemian challenge to both Papal tyranny in Rome and corruption in Prague. Yet in Táborites hands, reform and attempted accommodation with Rome (which had got Jan Hus burned alive in 1415) became something much closer to radical utopianism, an intense (in some accounts, cultish) community of true believers. Indeed, while the Prague-bound Utraquists espoused a limited, reformed Bohemian synod, which would be unified with the traditional Catholic powers, the Táborites were brazenly storming the Vyšehrad castle, just down the river from Hradčany, the seat of Bohemian power. It was the Táborites who eventually brought the wrath of a united Catholic Europe down upon Bohemia.

Jan Žižka at Vitkov
Tábor was named after Mount Tabor in Palestine, a biblical site of strategic importance for warring tribes, which it resembles only in the loose geological sense of being a lone-standing hill. However, its name leant a certain weight to the radical's self-image: the biblical Mount Tabor had, for a time, been home to the Israelites, who had used it to prepare their victory against the Canaanites. Its other claim to fame was as a site of Christ's transfiguration. All very scripturally apposite, of course, but the hill-top's real advantage came in the form of its height and seclusion (stemming from the nearby Lužnice river). Tábor's old town is said to be planned in ways that both minimize the enclosure of private property and enable the mobilization of the citizenry to the city's defence. Its tangle of alleyways allowed easy cover and ample opportunity for locals to mount hit-and-run attacks on invaders. Although very small, Tábor's historic centre still disorients. From the old town square a jumble of criss-crossing streets descends part-way down the hill's rolling flanks, encasing it in a thick mesh of still inhabited houses-cum-fortifications. In a sense the two primary social functions become a single, inseparable aspect of the lived environment: self-defence and the construction of a way of living decently together are embodied in the architecture. It wouldn't last: four years after Žižka's death from plague in 1427 the radicals had been utterly defeated by their moderate Utraquist rivals.

What remains of this utopian mode of social organisation today is at once marginal and ironic: following the national pattern of heroic alcohol consumption, the locals gang together in one of the pubs on the main square and drink as much booze as possible between the hours of five and twelve (or whenever they are forced to leave). The pubs, like most Czech pubs, are either unremarkable halls of the German variety, or belong to that dingy, quiet tradition where more cigarettes are smoked of an evening than words said. While the aesthetics of the particular establishment border on negligible - anonymity being a bonus - the point is really the solidarity of the undertaking. There is one lager on tap (one dark beer also but nobody drinks it) and all pursue inebriation with the same commitment. No bad thing, but what elevates Tábor above the Czech standard is the challenge that arises when it's time to get home.


The old town square at night

Owing to the darkness and a disorientation compounded by the shifting nocturnal lattice of lanes and alleys, a physical solidarity must be sought. In negotiation with a bafflement once intended for outsiders, today's drunk Táborites must mimic the old ways of communal solidarity just in order to make it home. This latter-day solidarity probably issues as much from the beer and the bumpy roads as the awkward town-planning, but all are important ingredients in the stew: normally restrained Czechs drop their guard and comfily embrace, stepping carefully over the cobbles in teams of three or four. They call instructions and thank each other gratuitously, all the while arm in arm. On our last night in Tábor we saw two men, wives descending the hill some way ahead (and it must be said with greater alacrity, despite their vast heels), walking together towards home, hands falling purposefully into each other's grasp. Then, like swinging Parisian lovers, these two burly, sleepy men leapt off into the night. Who would've guessed such fierce radicalism would result in such a tipsy legacy?        

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