Diogo Rodrigues is Bridgwater’s latest Mayor. 28 years old, a restaurateur and Portuguese born (on the island of Madeira) he is hitting the news everywhere he goes. Britain’s first Portuguese born Mayor, Bridgwater’s youngest Mayor and we’re checking records to see if he’s the shortest ever Mayor…but that’s a good thing as one of his themes is youth and making eye level contact appears to be paying dividends. Diogo’s first major project as Mayor was to visit the Czech Republic where he had been invited to attend an International Conference of funding and to celebrate 100 years of Czech independence. He took with him a small support group including Town Council Leader and Czech link founder Brian Smedley, Chair of the Czech Freindship Society Tim Mander, and SDC funding projects worker Julie Cooper. They packed a lot in and here’s the story.
Bridgwater twinning with the town of Uherske Hradiste in 1992 and yet again made history when it became the first British town to twin with a Czech town after the Velvet Revolution. Our shared histories go back to the Vernon Bartlett election of 1938 when Bridgwater was the only town in the UK to vote against the Munich Agreement. To read that story click here.
Stairlifts and Family Centres
So Diogo’s first visit naturally was to Uherske Hradiste and to the firm of ALTECH, a stair lift company set up by Antonin Machala who, along with Brian Smedley, started the twinning link.
Diogo says “Altech will be fitting a new stair lift in Bridgwater Town Hall which will make the building fully accessible to all our visitors so it was an eye-opening experience to tour around the factory, learn about the process and see all the technical equipment being used to create the stair lifts. I was most inspired by the humble beginnings of Antonin, the CEO of Altech, who went from working in a factory himself to opening and developing his own business into a successful company employing 250 people and doing business globally. Thank you Antonin for the interesting tour and we look forward to welcoming you soon to Bridgwater.”
Diogo’s next visit was to the Family and Children’s Akropolis Centre, whose staff have co-operated with similar centres in Bridgwater for many years and whose director , Dagmar Mega, welcomed our group for an update on projects ahead
Diogo observed “It was a great experience to tour around the Akropolis family centre and witness all the excellent work they do there, I was most impressed by the sensory rooms which are used to make young people feel more relaxed. It was also interesting to learn of the European funds which the centre has received to not only develop important links with communities at home and abroad but to help run important services for their community.”
Councillors and Conferences
The main focus of the weekend was the International Conference, organised by the UH town council and including reps from Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, UK and the Czech Republic. The keynote speech by the British delegationwas given by Town Council Leader Brian Smedley who said “Whatever happens with Brexit , Bridgwater remains an Internationalist town and we will maintain those links in the future. In fact it makes us even more determined.”
Diogo says “The conference for me was the first time that I had ever really been in a room with Mayors from our neighbouring European countries. Each country was able to share information on the European funds they access to further develop important cultural links with their twinned towns. For us it was important to put across that although Brexit takes us out of the European Union, it doesn’t stop us from continuing and further building on the strong links we have with our European neighbours.”
Travel and Tourism
The next day the groups all toured the UH region to see what opportunities for link projects there were and what we could learn from each other. The first stop was ‘KovoZoo’ . Based in a massive scrap metal yard they had basically created a zoo featuring animals made from recyled metal.
Diogo says “The Zoo was so very impressive! They used scrap metal to create models of animals, small & large, and they also had some unused vehicles like planes and trains on show. This is a clear example of the kind of innovative approaches we can take to not only reduce and reuse waste but also to use this as a business opportunity creating local jobs and generating income for the Town.”
After the zoo the group visited the nearby town of Straznice, wth it’s ancient town walls and while there visited a recreated medieval folk village. After that they took us on a boat ride down the Bata Canal to the Slovakian border.
Diogo says “Our visit to the Bata Canal showed us what potential we have here in Bridgwater with the Bridgwater & Taunton canal and the docks. This was an area bustling with activity, with a café, canal boats, small motor boats for hire and trips up and down the canal. It is great for tourism in the town and a key leisure area for families and young people. It is certainly something we can look to and learn from when looking at developing our docks and waterways in Bridgwater”
For a while we popped over the Slovakian border to the town of Skalica where we visited the ‘Trdlofest’ -a festival of the Czech-Slovak confection ‘Trdelnik’, but mainly an excuse for a party involving folk costumes, singing and boozing.
On the Sunday we took part in a second festival. The Jizda Kralu (Kings Ride) event in the neighbouring district of Kunovice, was a massively costumed festive celebration featuring decorated horses and people along with folk singers, dulcimer bands and market stalls.
Independence and Incendiaries
At the end of the day there was an open air performance of Carl Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ in the main square of UH to which the foreign delegations were special guests. The music powered across the cobbles and slightly fat bald men with their tops off blew fire in time to the orchestra.
Diogo says “Thank you to the Mayor, Stanislav Blaha, for inviting us to celebrate 100 years of independence. We were spoilt with a live musical performance and later given a tour of their Town Hall. Meeting with some local councillors was a great opportunity to compare the difference in our local government structures and understand some of the issues that the councillors have to deal with in a city. We later got the opportunity to meet some local people and talk about their experiences and thoughts on the Czech Republic, and of course we couldn’t get away without talking about Brexit!”
Prague, Planes and Automobiles
On the Monday, Antonin Machala greatly assisted us by flying our group from UH to Prague in his personal light aircraft touching down on the grass runway of Letnany some 50 minutes later and avoiding the Czech motorway system and a 3-4 hour drive.
Once in Prague we continued with more civic and social visits meeting local councillors, Brits in exile, and visiting some schools, most notably the Arabska Gymnasium in Prague 6, where Bridgwater teacher Andy Pole had set up a link in the mid 90’s and which we maintained to this day. Naturally Diogo put on his chains for a visit, met the headteacher and even took a 45 minute lesson.
Diogo says “I was pleasantly surprised by the level of English that the young people were able to converse in. We were given a tour of the school by three friendly young chaps. The surprising thing for me was that the students had a ‘chill out’ room for students only. No teachers allowed and no cameras, that’s what we would call a safeguarding nightmare in the UK! However, the students all contributed towards kitting out the room with music players, magazines and more in order to make the space their own. I think this was a really good idea to give the students some sense of ownership and responsibility.”
Embassy’s and Academies
After the school visit we wandered across to the Portuguese Embassy, also in Prague 6, and were welcomed by the Ambassador Mrs Manuela Franco.
Diogo recalls “We were invited to visit the Portuguese Embassy in Prague and meet with the Portuguese Ambassador. We were able to have a conversation about the importance of cultural partnerships and the benefits of twinning towns. We had an interesting talk about Brexit and Portugals strong and historic relationship with the UK. I left feeling happy that for once on this trip I wasn’t the shortest person in the room!”
Before the group flew home we were invited to the Lidovy Dum (Peoples House) to take part in a discussion on British Local Government
Diogo says “We were invited to the HQ of CSSD, labour’s sister Party in Prague and were taken back in time talking through the successes and losses of the party in the country. We were given a talk by Guardian journalist Lewis Baston, an interesting and accurate talk on the role of local government and Labour’s dominance in the big UK cities. I was also honoured to have met ex Czech prime minister Vladimír Špidla.”
Not many other UK towns have such strong, active and sustainable links with the Czech Republic as Bridgwater does, and none of them have a Portugese Mayor. Chalk up several more firsts for us! Yay!!
A Gallery of Czech Twinning