Once proudly known as `The Steel Heart of the Republic`, the city of Ostrava is now back to what it used to be before communism came to Czechoslovakia: a collection of provincial towns located at the confluence of the Oder, Ostravice and Opava rivers. Chimneys are no longer seen as a sign of progress but as a source of pollution. Ostrava is now looking for new ways to repair its image and regain some of its old grandeur.
Today`s Ostrava is a strange fusion of historical eras and geographical regions. It combines peculiar border-town characteristics with a history that was rich in prestige but not necessarily in culture. Without statistical evidence supporting the following claim, I feel confident in suggesting that Ostrava has more strip clubs, more casino`s, more people with tattoos, more beer gardens, more immigrants and more supporters of the Communist party than any other big city in the Czech Republic.
`I wanted to become au-pair in Germany but I now have my own baby to take care of`
The population of Ostrava, roughly 300,000, is spread out over an area measuring 20 by 20 kilometers. The different neighbourhoods, originally different cities, lie scattered across the area. Distances between the borders of each neighbourhood can easily reach several kilometers. By consequence, Ostrava, and it`s city centre in particular, is actually more of a giant cross road than a unitary city. Or maybe a patchwork of residential areas, industrial estate and parks, carefully connected by roads, railways and tramlines.
Despite the vast areas of green land that separate the different parts of Ostrava from one another, pollution is still one of the main problems the cities is facing. The mining industry ceased activities in 1994, but steel production still carries on. Although the city no longer hides below a big cloud of smog, the wind still transports unrecognizable yet noticeable fragrances through the city. Filip (26) thinks that Ostrava is the most polluted town in Czech Republic. `Maybe on a par with Usti nad Labem. While we suffer from heavy metals in the air, they have a lot of dust because of the open-cut mining operations. We have chimneys and factories, Usti has large parts of lands that have been spoilt by excavation. And contrary to the situation in Ostrava, their mining operations are still continuing up until today`.
Filip was born in one of the cities around Ostrava and has lived in the area during all of his life. He agrees that the air pollution will probably cost him a few years of his life, but still prefers living in Ostrava to any other place in the Czech Republic. `We fortunately have the Beskydy mountains nearby. They are a popular destination for day trips out of the city. For swimming, we have a couple of lakes and some open-air swimming pools. Jumping into a river will probably not make you come out green, but it will definitely be sufficient to catch some nasty skin problems.`
Beside pollution resulting from past and present manufacturing operations, Ostrava also suffers from dramatic unemployment figures. Filip works as a system administrator. `IT is one of the business areas that has plenty of jobs on offer. In all other industries, it`s quite difficult to find a job. Imagine the number of workers that got laid off following the fall of communism. All operations were downsized and the nature of people`s jobs did not make them very suitable to be employed in other jobs. Many former miners or factory workers were old, in bad health or otherwise incompatible with the demands of a modern-style labour market.`
Although circumstances may suggest that people from Ostrava would all be better off living elsewhere, few of them actually undertake steps to move somewhere else. A couple of `work abroad` agencies create the impression that everybody is ready to leave, but reality is a little different. Filip thinks that the job agencies take a lot of money from people`s salary. `It can`t be that difficult to find a job abroad. If you go there by yourself, then at least you will get 100% of your salary instead of handing it in to such an agency.`
Gabriela (24, photo) from Buhemin, close to Ostrava, once thought about exchanging her birth ground for Germany. `I wanted to go there and work as an au-pair for a while. In the mean-time, I now have my own child to take care of. I do want to start studying German next year, but I don`t think I will move away from here. The city got much nicer over recent years. More colourful and also cleaner. Apart from that, my family lives in this region, I have got my house here and a job. People are a bit different here than they are in Prague. They are a bit more sarcastic and pessimistic because most of them are hard workers. People in this region are at least less hasty and stressed out as the Pragians are.`
Petr (25) is also planning to stay in Ostrava. `Some of my friends moved to Prague which is only four hours away so I still see them quite often. The downside of living in Prague is that it can be up to ten times more expensive than living here. For a higher salary as well, but still. Moving abroad is also common but there is no mass exodus taking place. The good thing is that internet is helping everybody stay in touch, even when they move to Prague or abroad.`
Martin (22) also likes his home city and would not go away unless he gets a job in the army. `I think that Ostrava has a very particular city landscape. I am proud of that and would be happy to show it to others.` His case is supported by the development of a tourist infrastructure that, until now, mainly consists of a bunch of traffic signs that indicate cycling routes. Tourists can also appeal to one out of several information points in different parts of the city. All of those offer beautiful booklets summing up all that`s worth seeing in Ostrava. No detail has escaped the attention of the composers: Ostrava has the most modern bus parking lot of Czech Republic, and since 2001, also the most modern tram depot. 32 000 blood samples were taken in Ostrava Faculty Hospital (year not specified), which hosts the largest `blood centre` in the Czech Republic.
Unfortunately, the promotion of tourism has so far been limited to good intentions of the local authorities, comfortably backed by EU funds for regional development. Brochures are readily available, walking and cycling routes are clearly marked. So far, entrepreneurs don`t seem convinced. Accommodation facilities have hardly been upgraded. The choice is still limited to either grayish, functional workers` pensions or hotels that make memories of the pre-1989 era revive.
Beside stimulating tourism, local authorities have actively sought for new prestigious projects to present Ostrava in a positive light. New universities and health centres have been opened in recent years. The city is hosting various cultural events at an increasing number of venues. New theatres and sports facilities have been opened, while ongoing initiatives to decrease the consequences of pollution are being planned and carried out.
Altogether, Ostrava has a particular charm that cannot easily be found elsewhere. Rich in building styles, industrial heritage, international influences and beer gardens, the city at least deserves a stop-over by any visitor who thought of passing it without first having a look around. For anybody who likes the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ostrava is a definite must-see.
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