On a hot Friday morning in August, I went to one of my favorite chateaus, the small yet enchanting Hrádek u Nechanic, situated west of Hradec Králové, a major town in east Bohemia. Once again, I changed buses at Hradec Králové, a station I now felt I knew intimately.
When I reached the chateau, I was struck by its cheerful, romantic, dark orange façade that made it look like it belonged in a fairy tale. After getting my ticket, I walked to the back of the chateau and noticed that this part of the park bordered on a golf course. What struck me most, though, was how the back side was not a playful orange but a mundane grey that was badly in need of a paint job. It even looked a bit dilapidated. A wire fence was set up in front of this side of the chateau. To the far left, though, I climbed a few stairs that led up to the chateau as another wing was painted that dynamic dark orange.
At the beginning of the tour, the guide pointed out the lantern lamps hanging on the walls. They harkened back to the 16th and 17th centuries and had been created in Venice. Hunting trophies also adorned the walls. Then the guide acquainted the group with the chateau’s history. While the village dated back to at least the 14th century, the chateau was young, a 19th century construction built in the Neo-Gothic style of English aristocratic homes reminiscent of the times when Queen Elizabeth I and King James I reigned during the 16th and 17th centuries. Count František Arnošt Harrach of the prominent Harrach family was responsible for building this intimate chateau in 1839. A patron of the arts, he also supported the construction of the National Theatre in Prague.
From the July 3, 1866 battle of Hradec Králové during the Prussian-Austrian war to November of that year, the chateau served as a military hospital for the Prussians and was subsequently heavily damaged. Tents had been set up outside the chateau. In 1884 František Arnošt’s son Jan Nepomuk Harrach took over. A distinguished Czech politician, he also was keen on the arts, giving his support to Czech artists such as Karel Jaromír Erben and Bedřich Smetana.
When Jan died, the property was passed on to his brother Otto and then on to Otto’s son Jan, who lived there until 1945, when the Beneš decrees declared the property be handed over to the state. The controversial Beneš decrees declared Germans, Hungarians and collaborators living in the Czech lands and Slovakia would have to relinquish their Czechoslovak citizenship and property without compensation. Approximately three million ethnic Germans and Hungarians were expelled from the country from 1945 to 1947. The chateau was open to the public as early as 1953. It did not become a National Cultural Monument, though, until 2001.
After putting large slippers over my shoes, I followed the group into the Knights’ Hall, a small room that happened to be the biggest in the chateau. I noticed that the floor had a black-and-white diamond pattern. Coats-of-arms decorated the space above the two doors and just below the ceiling. Portraits of Harrach family members dotted the walls. I noted the exquisitely carved backs of the chairs – there were nine of them. I remembered how this entire chateau had always enchanted me with superbly and ornately carved wooden furniture. That was one of the reasons I liked it so much. I found the dark wood appealing, and it made the small rooms feel cozy, perfect for a cup of hot ginger tea on a windy, wintry night. This is definitely a chateau I would not mind living in, if it were not so far from Prague. In the center of the room stood a stone table from the 16th century, decorated with writing and coats-of-arms. Looking up again, I spotted the Lobkowitz family’s coat-of-arms just below the ceiling near the door we had come through. It boasted two black eagles complemented with red and white colors.
The Golden Hall next on the list was the most riveting space in the entire chateau. Its gold-plated leather wallpaper that featured golden swirls on a dark red background astounded me. The marble fireplace weighed 11 tons, and the tableware was 16th century, from Italy. What looked like a roll-up desk was revealed to be an upright piano. The guide lifted the lid to reveal a keyboard. Opening the two doors above the lid revealed the piano strings. But that was not the only object in that room that amazed me. A figure of a black eagle with a crown had a golden clock on its breast. It used to be able to wave its wings, too. This was the clock of Emperor Leopold I from the 17th century, the one a Russian tsar had given him. It is one of two in the world; the other graces the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
I was also entranced by the chandelier in the Breakfast Room. It featured a figure with a head and body. Its legs had been replaced by antlers that branched out to all sides. It reminded me of a creature from a fairy tale, one that was on the side of good rather than evil. Again, I admired the richly carved backs of the chairs.
The Dining Room featured plates and ceramics situated on high shelves around the walls. They hailed from 16th and 17th century Italy and Germany. What looked like a brown and white water fountain once had been used to pour wine on tap. Predictably, in the Billiards’ Room there was a big pool table. Yet the holes had been covered over. A brown with gold décor grandfather clock hailed from 18th century Berlin. The dominant 16th century painting “Celebration in the Spa” by Dutch artist Lucas van Valckenborgh featured hills and a forest dotted with people. The picture was so detailed that if you looked closely, you could see a couple holding hands far in the background.
I marveled at the next room, the library, which housed an impressive collection of 19th century Czech and Slovak books. Usually chateau libraries held few, if any, books in Czech, and I had not heard of any carrying works in Slovak. The room was also home to many publications in English, French, Latin and Greek. There was even one book in Hungarian. But the books were not what caught my undivided attention in the library: The portraits hanging high on the walls did. There were 12 portraits of people’s faces, all with various diseases that resulted in deformities. I had to turn away when I saw the swollen warts on one man’s neck. Another had evil, demented eyes, his mouth open as if screeching in pain and anguish. The portraits also reflected the anti-Semitism and racism of those times by portraying an Arab, a black man and a Jew with diseases. I was relieved that society no longer condoned such revolting prejudices. At the same time, I knew that society still had far to go in the anti-Semitism and racism departments.
Now on the first floor, we came to the Count’s Hall. The gold, blue and green leather wallpaper immediately caught my eye. The guide pointed out a faded pink armchair that was adjustable, able to move up and down. When the back of the chair was in the down position, it looked like a coffin. It so happens that František Arnošt died in that chair.
The Count’s Study featured a chandelier from Murano and a Renaissance desk. The guide showed our group what looked like a golden miniature telegraph but was really an alarm clock. Even the trash can was elaborate; it was made of carved wood. How I would love to have a garbage can like that!
We continued to a bedroom with an icon from the 15th century, the oldest object in the chateau. I liked its bright colors; it had a distinctive vibrancy. The guide showed us a chandelier that was electric; electricity had been installed in the chateau in the early 20th century. It hung from a flexible band that could be pulled up and down.
We walked through the guest rooms, where historical personalities such as Czech ethnographer and patron Vojta Náprstek had stayed. The exquisite carving on the doors also drew my attention. On one wall I noticed the black-and-white engravings of an ancient city’s ruins – was it Rome? I saw a lovely, light blue bed frame with floral decoration in one of the rooms as well. Finally, we entered the Family Halls. Landscapes covered one wall. I noticed an impressively carved jewelry box with detailed wooden drawers. On the walls were black-and-white engravings of portraits of Habsburg generals. One of the earliest digital clocks was on display, too. It had a white square and a number in black on top of one other. The top number read two, the bottom one 59.
Almost last but certainly not least was the Oriental Hall. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the ornate, detailed craftsmanship of the wooden furniture from China. I could not recall being more impressed by any other wooden furniture in all of the chateaus I had visited.
The chapel was dedicated to Saint Anna, who was depicted reading to a child in the altarpiece that consisted of lively, red, blue and tan colors. The stained glass windows were also a sight to behold. The men’s oratory was made of finely carved wood.
The tour ended as a thunderstorm ensued. I wanted to take refuge in the cozy rooms of the chateau with dark wood lining. Yes, this chateau was still one of my favorites. I ventured outside and into the downpour, unable to get the images of all that exquisitely carved wooden furniture and lovely leather wallpaper out of my mind.