At the foot of the rocky, peninsular resort on the western coast of Italy, we stop at a refreshment stand. The goal of our journey is still a few kilometres off. The air is hot, a little over thirty degrees, but a pleasant sea breeze brings coolness.
"What language are you talking?" asks the man in the stand, who introduces himself as Angelo. When he hears that it’s Czech, he lights up in a smile. "And did you know that your managers and politicians have villas everywhere around here? I even deliver food to your former Prime Minister,” he says. "Mirek Topolanek?" I ask. "Yeah, yeah, Mirek," Angela nods and continues: "A friend of mine manages the Aries yacht. It belongs to some Czech politician, right?”
Right he is. The Azimut 68E maritime yacht, christened Aries and worth about 50 million crowns (€1.9 million), is owned by the former Minister of Transport, Aleš Řebíček of the ODS. Řebíček also owns a residence. For the large complex, one of the most expensive in the resort, he lavished 126 million crowns (€4.9 million). "Ales, Ales," Angelo repeats with an endearing accent.
“Vladimir is at home here”
Welcome to Monte Argentario, a coveted peninsula in Tuscany separated from the mainland by two lagoons, the Laguna di Ponente and the Laguna di Levante. I first visited Monte Argentario three years ago. In the summer of 2009it became clear that Czech politicians were holidaying there with, for example, CEZ (state power utility) director Martin Roman and his friend and lobbyist Vladimir Johannes. For the then chairman of ODS, Mirek Topolánek, deputy Řebíček or Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) vice-chairman Milan Urban, that was a problem – it happened a few days after the Czech lawmakers had given CEZ tens of billions of crowns.
Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday
Influential Czechs are enjoying the sunshine this year in the same villas. Once again, I find the old "Tuscan crew” here. There has been one significant change, though. The Italian holiday scandal about three years ago marked the start of the gradual political decline of the main players. And so Topolánek is no longer the head of ODS, Řebíček a deputy and Roman the director of the utility giant CEZ.
First I travel to the part called Pozzarello, where Vladimir Johannes’ white villa sits behind high walls. Johannes is the man who once led rich Czechs to Monte Argentario. Johannes was in charge of CEZ’s contacts with politicians, and he worked as an advisor to Urbana when Urbana was Minister of Industry. "Vladimir is at home here. We know him well. I play golf with him. He’s generous. He always orders water in a golf club and pays thousands of euros for it,” exaggerates real estate agent Agnella.
Just a few hundred metres away, still in Pozzarello, is another luxury villa where three years ago Topolánek and his loved ones spent their holidays. His family still lives here even today. On the terrace of the villa I spot his wife, former Deputy Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Lucie Talmanova, with her son Nicolas. A white BMW, which is driven by Topolanek's older son Thomas, is parked outside the villa.
A lot of wealth to spread around
"I do not know what you expect to gain from harassing private individuals on a private holiday. I will not respond the way you want me to, and I will consider taking legal action against any further attacks by you,” was the response of the former Prime Minister to a request for a brief interview.
"His" 1,800 square metres orange villa, worth around 50 million crowns, can be seen from far away. A residence with a cascading garden of and with mature trees sits on the Via dell'Olmo. It has four floors, and the terrace off the second floor has a swimming pool. The villa stands on a cliff directly above the bay in Pozzarello. In the garden stand statues by prominent Czech artists.
Monte Argentario has drawn influential Czechs mainly for its peace and privacy. It is a popular resort, but not an exclusive oasis for billionaires and celebrities, like Monaco on the French Riviera or the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia.
Other Czechs, especially entrepreneurs, also own villas in Monte Argentario. And their numbers are growing. Locals hope as many Czechs as possible settle there for the summer. After their experiences with Dalik, Topolánek, Řebíček and Johannes, they seem to have the impression that Czech public officials and managers have a lot of wealth to spread around. At the same time they speak very well of the Czechs, including those who had been politically active. In this respect, our political class is indeed well represented.
Was this article useful? If so we are delighted! It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans. Discover our membership offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!
LIVE | On the ground: a closer look at the refugee crisis
Belarusian journalist Anton Trafimovitch and Greek journalist Stavros Malichudis document the situation of refugees in Europe and at its borders. They talk to Voxeurop about the reasons, challenges and difficulties behind their fieldwork.Go to the event >