The Czech Republic’s oldest continually existing association, the Vltavan Club, has marked its 140th anniversary. Founded by timber rafters fishermen and other people who worked on the river in the Prague district of Podskalí, its original purpose was to assist its members in times of need. Since then, much water has gone under the bridge but on Saturday, the club once again took over the Vltava in the capital to mark its anniversary with a day-long celebration.
The embankment of the Vltava in Podskalí, a short walk from Prague city centre, looked on Saturday like time had stood still there for decades. Austro-Hungarian soldiers walking side by side the Imperial marines, along with the iconic figure of the Austrian policeman with blackcock feathers on his cape: these all could be seen promenading the embankment to the tones of brass music.
But most of those who came for the celebrations wore red and white striped shirts, part of the traditional uniform of the Vltavan Club, the oldest Czech voluntary association that has survived to date.
Timber rafters, fishermen and other people of the river trade from Podskalí, a bastion of Czech patriotism in the capital and beyond, founded the club 140 years ago on Saturday. Historian Jan Jungmann from the Prague City Museum, explains.
“The Vltavan Club was established in 1871. Its original name was The Cooperative of Timber Rafters, Fishermen and River Workers, and today it’s the oldest continually existing voluntary association in the Czech Republic. It was founded by rafters and timber yards owners in the Prague district of Podskalí. It originally functioned as a charity and provided mutual assistance in case of unemployment, sickness and so on. Today however, they are mainly a social and historical society.”
The celebrations began early on Saturday morning with a parade around Podskalí, a Prague neighbourhood that, like some other fascinating parts of the capital including its Jewish quarter, a hundred years ago succumbed to urban development.
At the head of the parade, wearing a large ceremonial sash, was the club’s 31st chairman, Jaroslav Červený, who grew up only a few blocks away. He describes the club’s activities.
“We now mainly focus on cultural and historical activities – but it’s not just colleting old documents about what the club did in the past and what timber drafting was like back in the day. We organize an annual ball, we initiate the navigation season on the Vltava, we organize boat trips and annual meetings.
“We also have some charity projects; we work with a local elementary school and each year welcome the first years. And on the eve of All Saints Day, we commemorate all those who died on the river that year and lay wreath to the statue of the river at the Smíchov lock.”
Saturday’s celebrations included a jubilee session of the Vltavan club, a dance on the embankment and, of course, a boat ride on the Vltava. One of the clubs’ 92 current members is Karolína Mazurková.
“I joined 11 years ago, after my husband died. I’m from the neighbourhood of Libeň but I have always admired Vltavan. I like being part of it; it’s always nice to meet people there when I feel down. They make me feel better.”
Despite losing their original purpose, many similar associations existed in the country until the communist takeover of 1948. But the ruling party did not trust any independent organizations and soon abolished hundreds of associations and clubs like Vltavan. So how did they survive four decades of communist rule? Historian Jan Jugmann explains.
“They were very clever. In the 1950s, at a time when all such associations were abolished, they became affiliated with the Prague Public Transit Company which at the time ran boats on the Vltava. There they survived as a historical association, part of the company’s trade unions. But they have maintained their uniforms and customs, even membership books some of which were issued in the 1930s. Immediately after the fall of communism, Vltavan was revived as an independent association.”
With universal health care and social insurance long established, Vltavan naturally had to look for a new meaning and focus for its existence. The club found it in highlighting centuries-old traditions of timber rafting as well as in presenting the historical heritage of Podskalí.
“The area of Podskalí was just a small village. Until the early 20th century, there were only small houses here along the bank, and a single street. In between the houses and the river, there were timber-yards that stored the logs which came in rafts along the river. This ancient neighbourhood ceased to exist around the year 1910 when new, tall apartment buildings were erected here. The only exception is the antique customs house Na Výtoni where customs were collected for the timber.”
There are three other outside Prague, there are three similar Vltavan associations. The one in Prague is the oldest of them but they all share one striking feature: their uniforms consisting of red and white shirts, white pants and skirts and blue jackets. Jan Jugmann says the founders looked far away for inspiration.
“It was usual in the 19th century that various clubs and associations had their own uniforms which were often based on the Sokol uniform. But Vltavan is an exception in this respect because theirs is traditionally based on uniforms of the Revolutionary French Navy. That might have been linked to the revolutionary sentiments present in the Czech society at the time.”
Throughout its history, many members of the Vltavan Club came from several traditional families of Podskalí, such as the Pružina, Vondráček and Šulc. The club’s current secretary, Bohunka Štěpánková, is a proud member of the Štěpánek family which played an important role in Vltavan after WWII. She told me how she got involved with the club.
“I was single, and my mother didn’t want me to be alone at home all the time, so she took me with her. There, I met my second husband who was the club’s colour-bearer and in 2002, he was elected the chairman. He came from the Štepánek family from Podskalí; he was one of four children and the whole family was part of the club.
“My husband really loved Vltavan. Ever since he was a child, he would go to all the events. People didn’t have TVs back then, so the clubs were their entertainment. They would also go to other clubs’ events, like those of pigeon breeders and others.”
Vltavan today welcomes any new members, many of whom come from different parts of Prague, or even from elsewhere in the country. Ms Štěpánková says most of the traditional families have died out, and although children of current members are encouraged to join, few of them do.
“When they reach the age of 18, they are supposed to formally join, but no one really does that. The young generation is just not interested. But they come later, when they are 45 ore 50, they children have grown up and they don’t have much to do. Then they come. The average age of our members is over 60. Our oldest member, Andulka Otčenášková, is 97; the youngest is a 21-year-old man who works as an engineer with the steam boat company.”
Back on the Vltava embankment, people from Vltavan celebrate the anniversary, believing that people will be always fascinated by the river and the rich history of Podskalí. Karolína Mrázková is a great example of that.
“It’s something amazing. I came here despite the fact that I’m sick; I thought I couldn’t miss this. And how will I celebrate? Well, if my feet are up to this, I will be here until the night.”
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