Story and photos by Norma Davidoff
GO BEYOND PRAGUE: Castles and Chateaux in the Czech Republic
Czech countryside: bucolic landscapes, historic castles, and hunting lodges. Even in the hinterlands, you’ll find factories producing famed Czech crystal (see torches of molten glass being formed and etched exquisitely) or chugalug at a brewery. Another Czech claim to fame is Alfonse Mucha. You may have seen his stylized posters of beautiful women with flowing hair and swirling gowns in the art nouveau style. (A museum in Prague honors Mucha.) A famed artist and proud Slav, he died during the German occupation of his country. At Zbiroh Castle, where he lived for almost 20 years and painted the bulk of his work, the grand ballroom includes an exuberant Mucha mural. The castle displays photos of the artist and his family. The castle’s intimate Gothic chapel dates from the 14th century. Its rounded ceiling, carved wood benches and red carpets over stone floors lend atmosphere to the many weddings here. And as I had dreamt of sleeping in a castle, here was my chance… just 45 minutes from Prague.
This castle is just one of many that I saw in the Czech countryside. Their towers, ramparts, and castle keeps, and often birds of prey perched and chained, reflect the days of yore. Exhibits inside explain these and many other aspects of Czech history and culture. Many have contemporary art exhibits, which offer another dimension.
Southern Bohemia is the most rural and least industrialized part of the country. It brings into view low rolling hills, wheat-colored fields, low stone buildings, old growth trees, and red-tiled roofs. So pastoral, you may just want to “hang out” for a day or two. Chateau Mcely Spa Hotel and Forest Retreat is a former hunting lodge of the German Thurn und Taxis family, now lovingly restored. Walks in the forest, a massage, a swim in its naturally filtered lake, looking at a 14th century church, all make for peaceful pastimes. Tennis, volleyball and basketball are there for those in need of a different kind of “fix.”
But more castles beckon. The most frequented castle in the country is Karlstein, the summer palace for Prague’s rulers. Only an hour after you’ve left Prague by train, a horse drawn carriage can meet you for a short ride to the castle. Prague at its height was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation in the late Middle Ages. Karlstein, started in 1348, was a safe place for Emperor Charles IV’s art and crown jewels. Its Chapel of the Holy Cross is unique. In it, fifty rare portrayals of Old Testament saints are painted on wood; protruding metal thorns in the walls symbolize Jesus’ crown. Its ceiling looks like heaven itself; more than 2,000 precious and semi-precious stones adorn the room.
Three hours through countryside as magnificent as a Breughel painting, and you arrive at the Czech Republic’s second most famous city with a castle: the medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. It also is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This well-preserved city matches the fairytale magic of Prague, but on a smaller scale.
The town’s vivid red roofs, elaborate stone buildings, and spires twist and turn around the River Vlata. Its castle complex holds treasures. A Baroque theatre dating from the 1700’s is one of Europe’s only two such theatres still in use. It presents a few, rare performances each summer. Sitting on its wooden benches to hear the hand-cranked sounds of thunder and rain, is an experience in itself. Then there is the beautifully preserved and refurbished ball room, the Hall of Masks. Since the 1700’s its walls have been covered with paintings of an opulent masquerade ball. Each costumed character is telling part of a story of intrigues and flirtations.
The country’s numerous castles and chateaux originally were fortresses. Admired not just by military buffs and antique collectors, locals and tourists flock to them. My surprise was that after a fascinating tour at Konopiste chateau, it was revealed that this had been the hunting lodge of Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este. His shooting signaled the start of WWI! In its rooms is perhaps the largest collection of Italian Renaissance armaments anywhere. The Archduke was so taken with these things that he had coats of armor, cannons, crossbows, wood rifles, and even special swords for executions. An obsessive, proud hunter, he kept a precise record of every animal shot in a log book. Total: 274,889 kills!
Romantically remote and off the tourist path is Zvikov Castle, visited mostly by Czechs. Particularly unusual, this castle boasts early art work that catapults you into the past. A roomful of saints and apostles, who appear to be gazing at us, is almost primitive in feel. Faith is embodied in this setting. Another room holds frescoes of medieval dancers, women with flowing tresses and long gowns, men, courtly in tights. The artworks have been beautifully restored, but the castle itself has not been reconstructed since the 14th century. This haunting quiet place with its stone corridors, amidst dramatic turrets, courtyards, and balconies, armaments and stone cannon balls, makes you feel transported.
Forward to the present, it’s time for a beer. Both Budweiser and Michelob started in the Czech Republic, says our guide. Nearby Zvikov Beer Brewery is taking things one step further, as it’s a microbrewery celebrating just 20 years. They’re creating “fresh” beer, without chemicals, to be imbibed then and there… eight different kinds… everything from lager, to stout, to an ultra strong one that is almost a hard liquor aperitif. After touring the basement brewery, I picked out a beer to pair with sausage, pork tenderloin, mustard, and dark bread and butter. There’s nothing like a zesty present to combine with the past!
IF YOU GO:
Chateau Hotel Zbiroh, an hour from Prague www.zbiroh.com
Chateau Mcely Spa Hotel and Forrest Retreat less than an hour north of Prague www.chateaumcely.com/cs/hotel.php
Karlstein Castle www.hradkarlstejn.cz/en/ an hour from Prague
Town of Cesky Krumlov and its Castle, 100 miles from Prague, www.zamek-ceskykrumlov.eu
Zvikov Castle, southern Bohemia, www.hrad-zvikov.eu
Zvikov Beer Brewery, Pohradi, southern Bohemia, www.pivovar-zvikov.cz
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