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Turrets and Tourists in Bohemia

Established in 1918, the Czechoslovakian Republic was barely twenty years old when the Nazis carved it up. Having survived this, and the following Communist occupation, there is now a new threat to its remarkable architectural heritage. More accessible today than at any time since the 1930s, the Czech and Slovak Republics represent virgin territory for many visitors.

Millions of Western tourists now flock year round to see a country they perceive as having been lost in time. The custodians of Czech castles are finally in a position to take action to reverse the neglect suffered under the Communist regime and to re-write their history free from political dogma. However, those in charge of the country's historic properties are also facing a monumental balancing act; juggling unprecedented mass tourism with the development of a free-market economy, very little money and sites damaged and neglected under the previous political system.

Last summer I joined the crowds, indulging in a little curiosity of my own; to evaluate the threat tourism poses to the stunning castles of Bohemia, and to see what action, if any, is being taken to reconcile the interests of tourism and conservation. I spoke with custodians, guides and visitors at fourteen castles in Central and Southern Bohemia, as well as members of the National and Regional Institutes for Monument Care. These institutes, sponsored by the Czech Ministry of Culture, have the daunting task of maintaining the historical properties neglected, misinterpreted or vandalised under Communist rule.

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