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Prague 'cottagers' devote loving care to weekend dwellings

There used to be a tradition that London was vacated on weekends. The inhabitants flocked out en masse and left their city behind. Today this tradition has affected other parts of Europe as well. My friends, enthusiastic visitors of Czechoslovakia, drew my attention to the fact that Prague is a city with the most conspicuous disproportion between the numbers of people in the streets on weekdays and on Sundays.

"Where are all the crowds?" they asked me. "Prague seems to be overpopulated. But what are the people up to on weekends?"

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Several thousands of them will be swallowed by sporting events. A few more thousands are dispersed around the zoo. But most will be leaving Prague to take care of chalets and cottages. The second home is so popular that there was even a serial on TV called "The Cottagers." Without exaggeration we can say that no other nation is size boasts so many weekend dwellings.

The quality of these houses ranges from small one-room sheds, constructed by members of the family, up to traditional farmhouses or splendid two- or three-floor villas designed by the foremost architects, equal to any tycoon's residence.

But whether it be the tiniest chalet or a proud manor, all householders agree on one thing. During the week they look forward to spending their free time at what is enthusiastically called "active relaxation."

To tell the truth, sometimes it may appear to be pretty rough work. Normally people would never labor like this, no matter how much money they might receive. But if the country home requires it -- well, that's another story. And mysteriously, these Sunday kingdoms seem to be demanding new things every week. Alas, their obedient servants repair the roof, paint the fence, add a bathroom, or at least take care of the front garden. Each "cottager" frowns and grumbles over this voluntary serfdom and swears never again -- once he completes this one last task. By Monday, however, he is already shopping for cement or windowpanes or perhaps for some large boards for a new wall paneling.

Many cottagers travel by bus or train to reach their domiciles. But many more own their private means of transportation. Prague's access roads are overcrowded by vehicles on weekends, the quality of which differs as much as the cottages themselves. There are big cars of foreign makes, lovingly maintained veteran cars, outmoded ghosts of cars, or even three-wheel canvas-covered little vehicles. But most of all, you can see the Skodas -- the small, dependable Czechmade cars.

Czechoslovakia is not a big country, and so the distances to be covered are not gigantic. The journey is usually part of the fun. Mostly there are one-lane roads. About half an hour out of Prague they take you along river or through fragrant forest. The owner of a chalet just a few miles out of Prague is fortunate because he can save gas, and he who has to travel farther rejoices in the lovelier, unspoiled countryside.

But the proudest are the owners of traditional old cottages, flawlessly reconstructed, of course. Inside you may find up-to-date facilities, cutomary in today's Czechoslovakia: hot water, refrigerators, TV sets. Despite these additions the cottages have kept the charm of the true Czech or Moravian countryside.

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When they've arrived, some nature lovers spend long hours strolling in the spruce and pine forests, especially when the season is ripe for picking mushrooms, raspberries, or blueberries. This close contact with nature is a worthwhile experience to many townsmen. Of course, we find the other kind -- the ones who would never step over the border of their little garden and who sport huge cauliflowers or tasty radishes, not knowing an oak from a fir.

A completely different kind of weekend is spent by those who have little log cabin in an encampment. Every Saturday there is a campfire glowing and songs are sung about Niagara and cowboys -- songs once popular in the States but long since forgotten there.

Forest lovers, gardeners, or enthusiastic builders -- they all scramble each Sunday night into their cars and, with practice that has made their performance perfect, fold in their children, grannies, and several bags full of laundry and vegetables or fruit -- the crops raised by their own hands.

With the setting sun they start pouring into their city like returning prodigals. For the next five workdays Prague will claim these citizens of two worlds. Then, as sure as the seasons, the cycle will start again.

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