What are the origins of the Czechs? Where did they start out? The cultural anthropologist would tell you there is no clear answer. The patriot however would tell you the answer is as clear as day, or in this case, as clear as a mountain: a famous one outside of Prague that has played a special role in the history of Czechs, and it’s called Říp.
Once you have climbed the 300 metres or so to the top of Říp the first thing you see is a cottage – a pub of course – on the side of which a well-known phrase is written: “What Mecca is to Mohammed, Říp is to a Czech”. Jiří Voves is the custodian of the mountain, and has spent his entire life there in a village below the hill called “Mnetěš”.
“That inscription was thought up by another fellow from Mnetěš, a big patriot like all of us who are from here – how could we not be? And he originally burnt it into a piece of wood. Sure, it doesn’t make proper sense if you think about it, but everyone gets the point. For every nation there should be something sacred, and for Czechs that sacred place is Říp.”
So what is it that makes this ancient hill, actually an extinct volcano, so unique, aside from its beautiful views, endemic flora and striking appearance? Martin Zubik of the National Heritage Institute told me the story that young Czechs learn on their grandfather's knee.
“According to legend, Říp was the hill that our forefather Čech visited long, long ago. It is said that Čech was a prince or a duke in Croatia when he committed a crime – he murdered someone – so he had to leave the country with his tribe, with his closest people. The tribe wanted to find their Canaan, a homeland of their own. And Forefather Čech climbed the hill one day, he looked around and, according to the legend, he saw this beautiful, beautiful land. And so he told his people they had found their homeland, and the tribe called the land ‘Čechy’.”
The land of milk and honey was a land of heavy rain and fog when I visited, but even then there was no doubting what makes the place so very special. Říp is one of the first large hills – though titled a mountain – past the so-called Prague Basin. On the clearest of days you can make out Liberec near the northern boarder, and on days like this, the tall hills or low mountains of the Central Bohemian range poke out of the fog, surrounded by swaths of green and yellow fields. This was good enough for Forefather Čech (whose descendants today say he was simply too lazy to keep looking for a spot on the sea), but he was not the only one on the trek.
“Part of the story was that when Čech started his journey from Croatia he took with him his brother, Lech, and some say there was another brother, Mech. And when Čech and his brothers came here, Čech stayed but Lech went to the north and settled Poland, and Mech – according to legend – Russia.”
Poland today is still known as Lechia in some languages, and Poles like Lech Kaczyński and Lech Walesa carry on his memory today. It’s a legend that was long in the making and it has been modified and added to again and again. In one interpretation Čech actually is Lech. Or rather, “a” lech: one theory has it that “lech” may have been a title for a prince, and that that was later misunderstood to mean two different people. In any case, the original story was quite different, as Mr Zubik explains.
“The legend first appeared in the 12th century. The first Czech chronicle, written by the monk Cosmas, he mentioned a leader of the tribe named Čech, but he never said that he was on the hill, he only mentioned a man and his tribe. The other chronicles created a story out of it. And it’s obvious that this journey to a “holy land” is taken from the Bible. There are also many parts of the legend that are very similar to ancient motifs from ancient Rome.”
Legends, it sometimes seems, are made to be debunked, and factual history, as far as fact can be untangled from fiction, is often a disappointment. The word "Říp”, for example is merely an early Germanic word for hill, “ríp”, seemingly Czechified to the maximum. And where the name “Čech” comes from nobody really knows. One theory is that it originally referred to military units, “čety”.
Then again, in mythology there is often some grain of truth. The first Slavic settlements in the area that is now the Czech Republic may have been just to the south of Říp, and archaeology has shown that the hill was important, if not indeed sacred, to the Germanic and Celtic tribes that came before them. It was the Czech National Revival however that brought the mountain to the peak of its fame. Whether or not Forefather Czech gave rise to the nation, it is thanks to the National Revival that the nation’s still here, and Říp played a major role.
“This mountain, or hill, its importance grew in the 19th century when we were a part of the Austrian Monarchy. And Bohemia was also part of the Holy Roman Empire. But the Czech people didn’t want to be Germans, they wanted to be Czech. And this symbol of Říp, and Forefather Čech who gave his name to the nation, it was the greatest symbol in the country, so its importance grew during the 19th century.”
One of the greatest physical manifestations of the national revival was the National Theatre. Work on it was begun in the middle of the 19th century, and it was to be – and indeed became – a kind of temple of Czech culture. For such a great nationalistic endeavour, there was little doubt as to where to turn for a cornerstone.
“During this time, the Czech people wanted to have their own theatre, which is now the National Theatre in Prague. They wanted to prove the nation worthy, to create a place where only Czech plays would be presented. So the cornerstone was taken from the hill of Říp and there was a great celebration; many, many people went with the stone to Prague.
Říp has obviously always drawn the special attention of those settling nearby for its singular appearance, sticking out of the landscape as it does like a hat, a bullet-head, a bell or many other things by which it has been variously described. But there is more to Říp than meets the eye. Aside from its striking appearance, another reason why the mountain may have been considered important or even holy since ancient times is a special property that old Forefather Čech or anyone else in his time would have known about, though perhaps not fully understood. Jiří Voves again:
“It's a magnetic mountain, an iron mountain, it’s made of nephelinite, olivine, magnetite – lodestone – and so on. There’s not enough magnetite to mine for, but it’s enough to draw lightening, and when it does it’s such a whack that you can’t hear for five minutes. But people are brainless and they walk around with metal umbrellas anyway. There are places where you can feel it in your fingers – people think I’m crazy when I tell them why, but it’s true! Telephone, television and internet transmissions often don’t work, and planes flying over the mountain can have problems with their navigation systems”
The main victim of the lightening storms on Říp is the Romanesque Rotunda of St. George that sits upon its peak.
“This rotunda, as we see it now, was built in the 12th century by the duke Soběslav I. Říp Mountain has been a sacred place for as long as people have been living here. It is said, or rather it is written, that there was a wooden building here, and the duke replaced it with this stone structure. He had won a battle nearby and he wanted the people here to remember his victory, and so he built this rotunda.”
Aside from being a lovely work of Romanesque architecture - in fact one the last of its kind made in Europe before the onset of the Gothic style – because of its sacred site on Říp it is a popular destination for weddings and christenings – a kind of pilgrimage point for some Czechs, religious and otherwise. Fittingly, the word for pilgrimage in Czech, “pouť”, is the same as the word for “fair” or “carnival”; the biggest event of the year on Říp is the “Řípské poutě”, both pilgrimage and carnival.
“The Říp Fair is a huge tradition,” says Mr Voves.
“It means a
huge amount of visitors, sometimes 70,000, sometimes more, with stands and
activities all along the paths to the mountaintop and beneath it. And it
depends on the weather - if it’s bad there are less people. But people
will always come to Říp in any case! Because a Czech who has never been
to Říp…! Well he has never really lived!”