Blog: WHC 2018: Žatec, Town of Hops

Žatec – the Hops Town is up for inclusion in the World Heritage List in 2018. I’ve not been able to find any information online yet whether the ICOMOS advice has come out positive or negative. I put the Bohemian town on my itinerary of a long weekend trip to the German/Czech border region anyway. Žatec lies only about an hour’s drive away from Marienberg in the Ore Mountains, where I was staying.

18th century Holy Trinity Column in Žatec

I visited on a Saturday afternoon, and already on the way to it I was surprised that ‘everything’ was closed: shops had their doors firmly shut, and I was happy that I had filled up the tank of my car in Germany as even gas stations looked doubtful. Arriving at the central square of Žatec, it was easy to park there as no one was around as well! I had expected terraces full of beer drinking locals and tourists (the weather was very sunny and warm for late April), just as in most Czech towns that I had visited before. Only after some effort I found a pizzeria open for a late lunch.

Žatec advertises itself as ‘The Hops Town’, which isn’t the same as ‘The Beer Town’: the word “beer” does not even feature in the official T list description. What you will learn from a visit is how hops actually looks like (I had not seen it before) and what they do with it before it ends up in the beer. The industry of hop growing and processing in Žatec goes back to the Middle Ages.

Saaz hops

The best place to learn more about the history is at the Hop Museum. This lies just around the corner from the quite tacky Hop and Beer Temple with its tower. The museum is located in a former hop storage and packing plant (a huge building). At the entrance I received a print-out of a few pages in English, explaining the objects shown across the 3 floors. Most spectacular I found the exhibition about hop-growing on poles – hop plants actually look a bit like vines, but taller. Until 1957, it was common to grow them attached to constructions with meters high wooden poles in ‘hop pole gardens’.

The wealth that came with the blossoming hops industry also led to rich residential and communal buildings. A nice row of those at the elongated main square looks recently revamped or repainted.

Although there is some signposting, I found it difficult to find out which places can be visited. They are scattered around town among lots of not so interesting places. Roaming around the empty streets I stumbled upon the old synagogue – while peeking in, it looked in such bad repair that it might be a hazard to enter. But there is actually an exhibition inside about the Jewish history of Žatec. The synagogue itself was badly damaged already during the Kristallnacht (1938) and never used again. I was unexpectedly quite moved by the visit, as the state of the building makes it seem that it all happened yesterday.

Chimneys of the historic hop drying houses

After so many WHS associated with grapevine growing, it would be a welcome change to have one about hops too. I find it a pity actually that Žatec has not gone for a cultural landscape approach, as hops growing is still practiced around town as well as the rest of the production process. The current proposal possibly focuses too much on the historic buildings, which may come across as yet another Central European town center with a row of colourful houses.

Published 12 May 2018

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