KOBYLNIKY, CZECHOSLOVAKIA -- Some weekends, the accommodations at Vlasta Bartonova's timbered cottage are nearly as tight as in her cramped apartment back in Prague. Her parents share one small bedroom. She and her husband and two small children take another. Her grown brothers and their families share two more rooms. Carloads of cousins bunk on the couch.
"It doesn't matter," said Bartonova last week, smiling and tugging at her bikini as she took a rest from pruning apple trees.
Russians have their dachas, Poles keep summer huts known as dzialki, but it is here in Czechoslovakia that the East European affection for the weekend cottage reaches its ardent peak.
Czechoslovakia ranks second in the world after Sweden in number of summer cottages per capita, according to the YMCA almanac. Because most cottages usually are shared by three generations of the same families, Czechoslovaks estimate that as many as 80 percent of the country's 15 million people have access to a cottage or cabin on any summer weekend.
"The cottages are the Czechoslovak folly, our craze," said Karel Nejdl, a tourism official with the country's Czech republic. "Every Czechoslovak has to have his own peasant cottage. It's something to do with the life we had here, where for 40 years life was so hard. People closed themselves in -- to the family and themselves -- and they ran away from the city on the weekend."
Unlike in the West, where a second home is usually a sign of affluence, cottage ownership in Czechoslovakia crosses class lines. President Vaclav Havel has one, and it came up frequently in his letters and dreams. So do young taxi drivers plying Prague's Wenceslas Square.
Some fear the egalitarian aspect of cottage life may erode under capitalism, but here in Kobylniky, a sun-dappled settlement of 65 cottages on the Vltava River an hour south of Prague, residents include a driver, a pharmacist, a biologist, a former policeman, cooks, waiters, car painters and a doctor who works for the United Nations.
Life is good here in a way it never gets in Prague's cement suburbs. As Bartonova pruned her apple trees and prepared rows of zucchini, honey bees dive-bombed the phlox beds. In the river nearby, ducklings bobbed amid floating yellow apples. The wheat fields were spangled with red poppies and violet thistle, and the air smelled of branch water, roses and drying hay.
The craze for a cottage predates communism, but it was under communism that cottages earned a special place in the hearts of Czechs and Slovaks. It was to their cottages that people retreated to escape the eyes of the secret police. The cottages became outlets for creative energy stifled in huge, Communist-run factories and state bureaucracies.
"We have a saying that a Czech's first job is his cottage, and his second one is the job where he makes the salary to pay for the cottage," said Milada Dvorakova, sitting in her garden under an apple tree in Kobylniky.
The cottages were even more important after the 1968 Soviet invasion. "It started in a big way then," said Michael Zantovsky, a former journalist and songwriter who is now Havel's press secretary. "People who hardly worked at all in their jobs left town on Thursday morning and came back Sunday night completely destroyed after a weekend of working hard at the cottage."
During his years as a dissident, Havel told visitors to his Prague apartment that his real home was his cottage in Hradecek.
The cottage looms large in Havel's published prison letters to his wife, Olga. "I think you should stay in Hradecek," he wrote. "Look after the place, tend the meadow, make improvements to the house, take the dogs for walks to the pond."
In another letter, Havel mentions a recurring dream in which years of improvements to the cottage are a symbol of his marriage. In the dream, he is shocked to return to the cottage to find that all the painstaking repairs to the house have been undone.
Czechoslovaks have a name for the long weekends of hammering, sawing, gardening. They call it "active rest."
Now, as under communism, "active rest" starts as early as Thursday morning, when millions of city people board trains, buses and little Skoda sedans and head for what they consider to be their real homes. As the summer weeks go by, nearly everyone in Prague begins to sport a golden tan.
On the roads out of the city, the hills are dotted with newly built cottages, known as chaty (pronounced HA-tee), and refurbished old farm cottages, or chalupy. They cluster by millponds, they nestle in forests of silver spruce, they are as varied as the city apartment blocks are the same. There are dark log cabins, bright A-frames, faux-Bauhaus 1960s ramblers and amber stone cottages fitted out with curlicues and white plaster garlands.
Cottage culture has even spawned its own magazine: Chatar, which means, roughly, "weekend cottage." Articles in a recent issue included such hardy homeowner perennials as "Do-It-Yourself Glazing," "Electricity -- Welcome but Dangerous," "How to Smoke Your Own Meat" and "Upholstery for a Friendly Sit-Down."
The cottages serve as lifelong works of art and modest family seats; they expand and contract to fit new generations. Porches are built, roofs are raised. "I've rebuilt three times to accommodate the family," said a 66-year-old man in Kobylniky as he headed toward the river in his bathing suit.
"It's beautiful here," said Bartonova, 33, a designer. "The air is better than in Prague. The children swim every day, and I see my brothers, who live away from Prague."
At night, people visit between cottages or gather under the big willows and copper beeches on the banks of the Vltava, roasting sausages around campfires and playing guitars.
But changes are coming. Electricity was installed here 12 years ago. Television wasn't so tempting before the revolution, but now Czechoslovaks have two national channels and a third that brings them French and German television, as well as several hours of Cable News Network.
"Formerly, there was much more meeting together and visiting back and forth," said Bartonova. "Now quite a few people have television, so people visit each other less."
For years, cottages were available for very little money to almost anyone who wanted them. They sprouted on every available hillside and riverbank. "In some places, too many cottages have completely destroyed areas that were once quite beautiful," said Zantovsky.
The boom is over now. Not so long ago, a cottage could be swapped for a medium-priced car. Now, the price is many times that, and open land for new cottages is almost gone. From now on, say Czechoslovaks, cottages will be handed down like heirlooms or sold to the highest bidder.
"Practically all of Czechoslovakia has been parceled out already, and thanks to that the prices are zooming up," said Nejdl.
As Czechoslovakia converts to a competitive, free-market economy, some wonder if the Thursday morning slide, and even the three-day weekend, isn't headed for extinction.
"People won't have the money to come here," said Vlasta Swoboda, a 66-year-old pensioner, as he varnished his 1936 racing canoe under the shade of a willow tree. "Look at what's happened to the price of gasoline!"
A few patches down, at an informal tea party under the willows in Vera Selinkova's back yard, the guests couldn't bring themselves to feel so pessimistic. Czechoslovaks were slogging out to their chaty on buses and trains long before most of them could afford cars, they pointed out.
"And eight hours of work five days a week will be sufficient," said Milada Dvorakova with a comfortable sigh. "It will be a big improvement if people work at all."