Cieszyn: One town, two countries
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A river runs through Central Europe. Only about 100km long, it is not a particularly mighty river, but it has inspired poets and aided commerce for centuries. Depending on which bank you stand on, it has a different name, because in the 20th century a small segment of its course became an international border. For a few kilometres, on its southern and western banks, lies the Czech Republic, where it is called the Olše. The northern and eastern banks are Polish territory, and there it is the Olza (English for the Czech name Olše).
As it flows west, it empties into the Oder river, itself a border, first between Poland and the Czech Republic, and later between Poland and Germany. But I travelled close to the Olza’s source, to the stretch where, as the Polish-Czech border, it partitions a town into not just two banks, but two countries.
I first learnt about this town in 2013, when I had travelled to Polish Silesia, looking for the civilian camp where P.G. Wodehouse had been imprisoned during World War II. My lunch there was accompanied by a delicious black beer called Żywiec Porter. Returning to India, I looked up the beer and discovered that it is brewed in a place that is partitioned into a Polish half called Cieszyn and a Czech half called Český Těšín. Intrigued, I read more.
For centuries, Central Europe’s Silesian region was a political football, its possession passing from one empire to another. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I meant that battles were now fought between republics rather than monarchies. Newly independent Czechoslovakia and Poland fought bitterly over Cieszyn Silesia, the small territory that had been under Austrian control. A lot was at stake—fertile land, rich coal deposits, navigable rivers, and a railway line that connected the Czech and Slovakian halves of the new, fragile republic. Czechoslovakia declared war on Poland. A few months later, in July 1920, a conference of great powers partitioned Cieszyn Silesia between Czechoslovakia and Poland. Most unkindly, the town of Cieszyn itself was partitioned, with the east bank going to Poland, and the west to Czechoslovakia, to be renamed Český Těšín.
I may have learnt about Cieszyn only in 2013, but I’m no stranger to partitions. In July 1947, faced by religious mob violence and an uncertain future when India was partitioned to form Pakistan, my grandfather closed his shop in Lahore and brought his family to Delhi. He had to cross the border four times in all to find all his relatives, each journey more desperate than the previous. He abandoned disabled children to the rioting, discovered his brother barely alive under a pile of corpses, and was thrown into a Lahore jail when found to be Hindu. I grew up with these stories, and realized later that Partition had also cast its shadow on things we didn’t tell stories about: my grandmother’s mental illness, my family members’ stubbornness and competitiveness, and insecurity over money even when we had it.
My life was influenced by Partition and yet, 70 years later, it still isn’t possible for me to explore the places where my grandfather grew up and started his adult life. Getting a visa to visit is practically impossible. So I did the next best thing and resolved to visit Cieszyn to see another partition up close.
When Cieszyn Silesia was partitioned in 1920, Czechoslovakia retained the railway connecting Czech Republic and Slovakia. Though they are now independent republics, the rail line still operates, with a stop in Český Těšín. Poland, which got to keep the historical town square, castle, and the brewery that kicked off my journey, was left without rail access. It has a station now, but one on a branch line; so it’s easier to get to the Polish beer by taking a Czech train to Český Těšín, and then crossing the border on foot.
When my girlfriend and I arrived in Český Těšín, it was raining heavily. We spent almost an hour sheltering in a café, drinking a very welcome hot chocolate. Warmed up, we set out, ducking under shop awnings, until we finally bought an umbrella. Dry at last, we set out to cross the border.
Finding the nearest bridge, we walked across the Olza. A bronze strip at the halfway point marks the border. Everybody else using the bridge, whether in car or on foot, crossed it rapidly without a pause. But I’ve spent more than 30 years applying for visas and booking tickets any time I want to visit a new country; and the joy of crossing a border without any of those drove me giddy. For almost 5 minutes, I hopped from one side of the border to another, taking photographs, embracing my girlfriend exactly on the border marker, and grinning at the wonder of being in two countries at once. Finally, I walked into Poland and began noting the differences between the two sides of town.
Český Těšín is a little more suburban and blocky in its architecture. The streets are laid out like a grid, and the buildings are high and close together. Cieszyn also gets blocky, but the old town’s castle and town square give it a more open and relaxed appearance.
The castle isn’t large by Indian standards, but it still rises prominently over Cieszyn and the river. It belongs to a time when enterprising military leaders would find a hill overlooking a river and fortify it, so that they could pick off approaching armies or tax trade boats. Today, it functions as a museum of Silesian history and hosts school excursions. Climbing up a tower in the castle grounds, we looked down at the brewery where Żywiec Porter is made, and out over the Olza at the Czech Republic. Then we headed to the town square for lunch: dumplings and the same black porter that had brought me here. That done, it was back across the river and into the Czech Republic to catch our train.
A few days later, I left the Schengen area, and came back to the world of border controls and stamped passports. But for a few hours, on the banks of the Olza, there was the comfort of a world that had overcome the pain of partition, without annulling that partition. Someday, perhaps, my family will join that world.
The Czech city of Olomouc, a train ride from Prague, is a convenient base for a day trip to Český Těšín. Stay at the Hotel Trinity in Olomouc. While the Moravian town doesn’t have any famous landmarks, visitors can explore its large town square, and the Holy Trinity Column on one side of it that is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Have hot chocolate at the San Pietro Kavárna in Český Těšín, on the Czech side of the border. Cieszyn’s town square is full of cafés and restaurants; try Pod Merkurym. In Olomouc, the Svatováclavský microbrewery offers great beers and meat platters. For fine-dining, try the Moravska restaurant in the town square.