Foreign Correspondence: History Keeps On Ticking In Czech Town

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Ivo Opletal, 26, is a journalist with Nase Adresa ( —"Our Address" — an online weekly newspaper in his hometown of Olomouc, Czech Republic.

Q. The stories on your site are in the Czech language, and it seems like every other word contains letters topped by accent marks. Why is this — and what does your typing keyboard look like?

A. Czech is a Slavic language that uses a Western alphabet; the marks on the letters help you say the word. If you take an "S" and put a hook on top of it, it makes you say "esh" — a softer sound. Put an accent mark on the letter "D" and it becomes "duh."

We have a different keyboard layout than you do, to add those accent marks. On our keyboard, they're up by the numbers.

Q. Where is Olomouc, and what's it like?

A. It's in the middle of Moravia, and is one of its larger cities — 100,000 people. Olomouc sits on the Morava River, in the lowlands. It is also very historic, like almost every city in Europe. Olomouc is a center for business, but there are lots of castles and old churches everywhere.

Q. Moravia, where you live, is one of three historic states that form the republic; the others are Bohemia and Silesia. What's the difference among them?

A. That's hard to say. They use the same language, but there are different dialects. But people in both try to speak proper Czech, as taught in all the schools.

Q. Czech beer is known for high quality and low price. Is there a brewery in your town?

A. It's not exactly there, but about 15 km (9.3 miles) outside Olomouc is the Litovel brewery. It's a big one. Beer is cheaper than Coke. You pay 22 crowns ($1.28) for a half-liter draft (16.9 ounces) in a restaurant.

Q. Do many tourists go to Olomouc?

A. Sure. Olomouc is just like any historic city. They're mostly Europeans, especially German and English. We also get some from South Korea and Japan. There are no mountains or anything like that around here, so they just go downtown to Olomouc's historic center. That — and the clock there — are probably the main attraction for them. The clock is very huge and also famous. It is an astronomical clock. There's also a famous astronomical clock in Prague that tourists like to visit.

On ours, one big dial shows the time; the dial above it shows where the planets and stars are located in the sky at that time.

The Olomoucky Orloj — "The Olomouc Clock" — is 8 square meters (86.1 square feet) when you figure in its engine and all that stuff. It's on the outside wall of the town hall. Worked around it and also into the wall are mosaics. The whole thing is about 14 meters (45.9 feet) tall. There has been repair work on the clock this fall; the moving figurines had to be repainted.

Q. This is one of those clocks where mechanical people come out on the hour?

A. Yes. There are 16 figures in all. They're not life-size — each is 80 cm (2.6 feet) tall — and some of the figures hit bells when they come out. The clock keeps quite good time. On the hour, the figures come out of the clock's doors; there are four doors and each is about 6 meters (19.6 feet) from the ground.

Because the doors and figures are pretty close to the bottom, the area directly in front of the clock has a small fence to keep kids from goofing around with the thing.

Q. How big is the crew that makes sure everything keeps ticking properly?

A. Actually, only one person takes care of the mechanism, and that job goes from generation to generation.

Q. Is this a really old timepiece?

A. Not really. The original clock was damaged during the Second World War; the one you see was built in 1955 and looks completely different. It was done in what was called the Socialistic Realism style during the communist era. Back then, everything had that style.

In Olomouc there were a lot of debates recently about changing the clock back to its original look. But they finally said no to that because the communist times were a part of our history. They decided to leave the clock as it is.

Q. So there are little commissars coming out of the clock instead of, maybe, monks?

A. No commissars, either. Just figures showing regular people: a musician, an athlete, a clerk and so on. The figures are made of wood, and real people posed for them as the figures were carved.

Q. Are the models still around? Do you know any of them?

A. Who the models are is something of a secret — people don't like to talk about having anything to do with the old regime. Even if it was just standing there as a model for a clock figure. I did find out, though, who the model was for the discus thrower. It's Olbram Zoubek, a very famous Czech sculptor.