Dolní Vítkovice – Precious Mettle

Legacy of Steel 

View of a section of the Dolní Vitkovice site. The round building is called “Gong” and is a former gas container repurposed to a multi-use auditorium.

When the term “Steel City” is heard, many places around the world may come to mind. Many of these places retain their reputations as steel cities well after production of the metal has fully ceased or been much reduced there.

In the Czech Republic, no place is more deeply associated with steel production than the north eastern city of Ostrava, most specifically the Vítkovice district of the city. In this area of the city, you will find the sprawling site of the Dolní Vítkovice ironworks.

As a functioning ironworks, the facility was permanently closed in 1998. However, the Dolní Vítkovice  site has a history of iron production that reaches back to Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The first ironworks on the site was established in 1828. Due the rich bituminous coal and iron ore deposits in the Moravian regions, the site was a logical place to establish an ironworks. It was created upon the order of Archduke Rudolf Johann Habsburg (1788-1831); the Archduke was also the Archbishop of Olomouc. Following Rudolf Johann’s death, ownership of the ironworks and foundry passed first through the hands of Archbishopric of Oloumouc and ultimately into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Rothschild banking family in 1843.

The Rothschild era of ownership saw constant expansion and modernization of coal mining as well as iron and steel production at the site. It grew to be the biggest and most important iron and steel production site in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was a key producer of armaments for the Austro-Hungarian military until the end of the First World War.

Looking at the immensity of the site from ground level.

With the exception of the economic downturn immediately following the First World War and the Great Depression, the coal, iron and steel operations at Vítkovice took the interwar years in their stride and stayed strong.

Rothschild ownership lasted until the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938.

The Vítkovice Mines, Steel and Ironworks Corporation, as the company had been known under Rothschild ownership, was nationalized following the Second World War and renamed Vítkovice Ironworks State Property in 1946.

Modernization and expansion at Vítkovice continued through the Socialist era and the company was involved in many projects at home and abroad. This was a trend that would continue into the post Socialist period.

As it did for all companies in former Socialist countries in Europe, the fall of Socialism brought much change to Vítkovice in the way of company structure and diversification of operations. With a strong reputation built over more than a century of continuous operations, Vítkovice continued strongly into the post Socialist era with fabrication of steel structures at home and abroad. The actual production of steel, however, was another matter.

In 1998 the blast furnace at the company’s iron and steel works was run for the last time, closing a chapter of company history over 160 years long. While the Vítkovice company survived, the foundry at Dolní Vítkovice fell into disuse and the ensuing layoffs of employees in the nation’s coal mining and steel industry plunged Ostrava and much of the north east of the country into high levels of unemployment.

Happily, through the early 2000s up to the present, the fortunes of Ostrava have changed for the better as several domestic and foreign companies have discovered it to be a good place to set up offices and do business.

To Scrap or to Save? 

Looking toward Blast Furnace 1 and the Bolt Tower.

Even before the foundry and associated industrial sites were shut down, there had been much debate over what to do with them. While many people pushed to have it demolished and sold for scrap, many others drove to have it preserved as part of the nation’s industrial heritage.

Ultimately, those who pushed for preservation were victorious and the Czech government proclaimed it a National Heritage Site in 2002. It has been on the country’s list of tentative UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2001 together with other associated sites as “The Industrial Complexes at Ostrava”. The push for UNESCO listing comes from the area being unique in that the facility was so large the entire steel making process from the mining of the coal to the finished iron and steel could be done in one place and that it was done on that spot, uninterupted, for so long.

Given how inextricably linked coal mining as well as iron and steel industry is to not only Ostrava’s history, but also to the entire north east of the Czech Republic, it made perfect sense to preserve the facilities at Dolní Vítkovice. Doing so has given the city a tourist draw to compensate for what was lost after the facilities were closed.

If you’re interested in industrial monuments, Ostrava is definitely the place to go when you’re in the Czech Republic. This is not only because of the monuments, but also because of the distinctly working class and non-touristy atmosphere of Ostrava.

Dolní Vítkovice has the nickname “Hradčany of Ostrava”. The nickname is in reference to the Hradčany district of Prague, where Prague Castle is located, and speaks volumes for how important the Dolní Vítkovice area is to Ostrava and how much of the city’s history is tied to it.

Rust Never Sleeps 

Inside the blast furnace.

The transformation of Dolní Vítkovice from disused industrial facility to the tourist attraction, interpretive centre and multi-function area of today started with the establishment of the DOV Group in 2007. By 2017, the complex as it is today was complete and was given the name DOV.

It’s possible to take a guided tour of the foundry that will show you the path taken from raw ore to finished steel. Tours are available in English, German, Polish or Russian for groups of ten or more by prior arrangement. If you are alone or part of a smaller group, you can rent an MP3 player with a commentary in English, German or Polish and follow along with a Czech language tour. The commentary on the MP3 corresponds to a series of numbered points along the tour route.

Beyond the opportunity to tour and learn about the history of the site, DOV offers a number of cultural activities around the year that include music performances and art exhibitions among other things. The largest music festival in the Czech Republic is held annually on the Dolní Vítkovice site. The Colours of Ostrava is a multi genre music festival of international scope and a very popular event on the city’s calendar.

Usain Bolt’s autograph in the Bolt Tower, which was named in his honour.

There are also cafés, science centres and the Bolt Tower which sits atop the former Blast Furnace 1 and provides a panoramic view over Ostrava and to points beyond.

The Bolt Tower was completed in 2015 and was named in honour of decorated Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt.

The connection between the champion sprinter and Ostrava comes from his multiple visits to the city for the annual Golden Spike athletics tournament until his retirement from competition in 2017. The city’s stadium, where the tournament is held, is also in the Vítkovice district.

The city and the sprinter made very positive impressions on each other and he was on hand in 2015 to put his autograph on a wall when the tower was opened and named after him.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

The control room that was the nerve centre of the entire foundry, preserved as it appeared at the itme of closure.

Visiting Ostrava and Dolní Vitkovice is quite straightforward. As the country’s third largest city, Ostrava is easily accessible by road or rail. Additionally, Ostrava also has an international airport.

Once in the city, Ostrava’s public transportation system has four tram lines that can take you directly to the Dolní Vítkovice site.

While Ostrava has a number of accomodation options to offer, there is a hotel directly on the old foundry site. Hotel VP1 is quite a comfortable hotel with friendly and helpful staff. With four tramlines stopping practically on its doorstep, the hotel is a good option for an extended visit to Ostrava as you can access many other areas of the city with ease.

The following links will tell you more about the area and its history:

This is the official DOV website where you can find out more about the site and events going on there:
Link to the official DOV website

This link will take you to a historical timeline of the Vítkovice company at the company website:
Link to Vítkovice historical timeline

This link will take you to the  Colours of Ostrava music festival website where you can see a number of pictures of the site as a backdrop to the festival:
Link to Colours of Ostrava website

This will take you to the website of  Hotel VP1. It’s only in Czech, but will show you the accomodations on offer. It is possible to book a room there in your language through online booking sites:
Link to Hotel VP1 website