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Prague Dries Off

"The worst damage to the town was done not by the flood but afterward, by people who threw out the old wood floors and knocked the plaster off their walls because they thought they would dry faster," says Martin Serak, former chief preservationist of Krumlov—a position the city abolished a year before the flood. "A stone wall covered in plaster tells a house's history, how it was built and lived in over the centuries."

Krumlov's remarkable assemblage of houses, dating from Gothic times to the early 19th century, inspired Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele to do some of his best work. But even before the flood, the town was making aesthetic compromises. Old houses had become anodyne hotels with neon-bright electric signs. "Tourists come for the monuments, but as the owners make money from the tourists, they try to improve their houses," Serak says. "Bit by bit, it destroys the whole reason people visit." The floods, he says, will speed up the process.

"The fashion today is new, imitation, like a stage set," Serak says, pointing out the gaudier paints, straighter walls, plasterboard interiors, and linoleum flooring of some buildings redone before the floods. "It really is a problem of Central European and German taste," he adds. "People want everything perfect. In Italy, they don't care so much about perfection. They'd rather sit in a café all afternoon and drink wine. The Germans—and now the Czechs—would rather spend all day repairing their façades."

Serak takes me to the edge of town to see the remains of a series of 17th-century stone bridges so worn into the fabric of the countryside that locals seem not to notice their age. After they were damaged in the flood, the army erected steel combat bridges over the broken spans. Serak says the district highway authority is unlikely to find the money to restore the original structures. Instead, the old bridges will probably be replaced with simple concrete or steel ones—another piece of history lost.

Krumlov officials seem unconcerned with the harm that careless renovations may do the city's character. Chief engineer Lumir Lusicky accuses preservationists of caring more about buildings than people: "This is the twenty-first century and the buildings have to live. We can't make this city into a museum." Besides, he asks plaintively, "Why does everybody ask me about the old buildings?The floods washed away our sports center and soccer field, too."

Farther downstream, the waters swamped forgotten treasures like Veltrusy, a Baroque-and-Rococo summer palace built by Count Vaclav Antonin Chotek, a wealthy entrepreneur, and his son Rudolf, an imperial courtier. This impressive pile has a red stucco façade and radiating wings dominated by a soaring central cupola. Its 300-acre landscaped grounds—which include a deer park and follies alongside the Elbe—were among the largest and best-preserved in Europe. Fallen trees still litter the ground, and 40 of the 60 deer fled or were drowned. The soaked frescoes on the château's ground floor may have to be replaced, or simply removed. What's worse, the penny-pinching count used mud bricks in the less-visible parts of his columned château, presenting the curator, art historian Eva Hajkova, with a dilemma: if the damp bricks freeze and split over the winter, she will have to replace them with poured concrete—as long as the state has the money.

The Czech government has dozens of castles like Veltrusy to worry about, however, and nothing approaching the $6 million or $7 million Hajkova estimates it will take to restore just one castle to its original state.

Besides, like the dozens of similar hidden gems in the Czech countryside, Veltrusy will take a back seat to Prague, Krumlov, and other heavily touristed destinations. Here, as elsewhere in this soggy country, the temptation is strong to save money and fix the damage in a way that may compromise historical authenticity. At risk are not just the old buildings themselves, but also a crucial source of Czech identity. "If we don't invest more money and care in protecting our monuments," Hajkova says, "the next generation won't have any connection to their history."


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