You don’t have to visit Prague to see a typical Eastern European central square. On a recent trip to Novy Jicin in the part of Northeastern Czech Republic better known as Moravia, I found a small village with a long history and beautiful architecture that rivals Prague. Its central plaza, Masaryk Square, is unique in that three sides have arch-covered walkways on the ground level with retail, known as arcades, a very uncommon feature not found elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Typical design is for the arcade to be on only one side of a plaza.
Novy Jicin is known as the “town of hats” because its residents have been engaged in making hats for centuries, and today the hat company here exports hats all over the world, including traditional Jewish head coverings for export to Israel. A visit here is great if you are looking for a weekend getaway from the bigger cities nearby — Ostrava, Czech Republic; Krakov, Poland; or Bratislava, Slovakia, all great destinations as well.
History here dates back to the first mention of the town in 1313 when the local lord granted it the right to collect a toll for entry into the walls that surrounded the city, as they do in many European cities. In the late 18th century a major road was built through the town, which resulted in the development of industry there. Jewish merchants came to the area and began textile factories that eventually migrated into hat factories.
The central square of the town won a major tourist prize in 2015 as “the most beautiful square in the Czech Republic,” and tourism to see it has been increasing ever since. The center of the square is dominated by a statute of dancing farmers, which has irritated locals to no end as the farmers are dressed in traditional German attire. Another sculpture on the square causes equal angst with locals as its religious symbolism is said to be diminished by larger than life size bronze apples that have been placed around it seemingly for a place for people to sit. In any event, the square deserves the accolades it has received and is reason enough to take a trip off the beaten path to visit this little village.
But if architecture and controversial sculptures don’t entice you to visit, the town’s synagogue from 1908 might. Today, it is a museum, the only remaining sign that Jews once lived in this area. They were mainly exterminated by the Nazis.
The only part of their culture surviving is the hat industry, today manufactured on the outskirts of town. On the main square, a museum to the hat industry displays an extensive sampling of the hats made here. You can try on hats, watch a movie about the hat-making process, and even make a miniature hat of your own in the museum’s mini-factory.
Seemingly out of place, the museum also has a floor dedicated to General G.E. Laudon, a notable Australian military commander, who fought in the Seven Years’ War and died here in 1790. Since he was a contemporary of the American revolutionaries, many of the military weaponry and uniforms are very similar to those Americans are familiar with from their own history, including the three-cornered hat, which forms the tenuous connection with the hat-making factory.
On the bottom floor visit the unique museum store where you can purchase any number of the hats made here, as well as pick up local maps and sweets.