Living in the Mountains
In conversations with friends, I often find myself saying “When we lived in the mountains” and realize just how much that experience altered me. In 1998, we decided we’d had enough of the bright lights and big city, moving to the mountains in Northern Bohemia, about an hour and a half away from Prague. We spent a decade there and that’s a significant portion of my life … significant enough to mention here.
The Důl – Part 1
The decision to move from Prague was quick and simple – we just wanted to escape the city. My sister suggested her favorite area and we drove through the mountains, posting notes that we were looking for a place to rent and, almost miraculously, immediately found one. A brand new house in the village of Josefův Důl, which was at the end of the road. Beyond us, there was only the water-reservoir and deep woods. Each spring brought a burst of wildflowers in meadows, each fall splendid colors and winters were fairytale white. But the one who really appreciated the outdoors was our Labrador Barkley and later our two cats. And yes, there was gardening as well.
But access to nature was not the only thing to turn out great. We’ve gained meaningful time with our friends. They actually joked that their quality of life had just gone up because they now had a place to go on weekends. Rather than seeing them at parties, where everyone talks a small talk, we actually spent time together – shared meals, took long walks, relaxed in front of the fire. We had around fifty such visits a year – regular weekends, long holiday weekends, occasionally a week or two. Ken Nash holds the record – he lived with us for three months and we were sorry when he moved back to Prague.
After five years, we moved to a very fancy house on the other side of Liberec, which our friends nicknamed Batman’s Cave. It was built by a Dutch-based Czech architect for himself and he wasn’t yet ready to leave Holland. We got it at a ‘caretaker rate,’ else could have hardly afforded such opulence. The house sat in isolation, on a hill overlooking its huge property and mountain vistas, the entry-drive sweeping up through woods. Unique in design, it sported nine-meter ceilings, glass walls, an extensive roof covered by slate and grass. We watched incredible sunsets from our office, dramatic thunderstorms sweeping across the valley and often a herd of elk gathering in our meadow. We only stayed a little over a year, but we got married in this house – what better place? It had its own cathedral ceiling.
The Důl – Part 2
We returned to Josefův Důl for another four years in a different house. This one in such a horrible state that we scrubbed, painted and repaired it before it was ready to move into. But once settled in, we realized that its more normal ‘human scale’ really worked for us. It was cozy, simpler and had an open fireplace … the real thing! We added a splash of color to the walls to keep us happy through cold winters and I think that if I were to build my own house, it would be very much like this one in size and layout.
The experience of living in the mountains was not simply about nature and homes. It was about people, their overall slower lifestyle and the difficulty of getting simple things done when you are a long way away from the closest service or store. Shoveling snow is a serious part of it, something that may be exciting for the occasional guest, but gets pretty tiresome when you live there. But if you are lonely and old (as was our neighbor lady), your neighbors shovel, drop off your groceries, check your wood supply and even take your dog to the vet… if the vet doesn’t stop by to check on his own.
It was interesting to live in a small community, seeing how important small events are to people – anything from school trips to sports matches were in the local paper… all these things are meaningful to villagers and celebrated. In the city, your neighbors are unlikely to know that your kid won a math contest, perhaps not even knowing your child’s name. In a village, that kid gets noticed, there’s time to stop and talk over the fence. There is time to build the huge pyramid of logs for a community bonfire during ‘Witches night’ and no problem for firemen to oversee safety – they are the ones who cut the logs for it.
There’s authenticity to all this and the experience is very real, sometimes too real, when you realize most villagers are unemployed, ski lifts barely earn enough to pay off loans and the rates of alcoholism are high. But I generally found our mountain neighbors friendly – tough and friendly. Weather is king. Being stuck in a car can be dangerous and they won’t pass without asking if you need help—then give it. We fell into that habit as well.
Living in mountains changes you. I can’t say I missed the city, as we came to Prague about three or four times a month, usually for some cultural event. Then coming back at night, we might be putting on tire chains at 2 a.m., just to get home, all dressed for the theater… it just changes you.