A comfortable 40-minute ride in a new, clean train. That’s all it took to get from Prague’s Masaryk station to Nelahozeves chateau in the village by the same name as it is a mere 30 kilometers from the capital city. Then it is only a short walk to the two-storey chateau. It was my third time here. I especially love the plethora of art work in the Italian Renaissance three-winged structure. Even from the train I could see the chateau, appearing as a sort of fortress looming above me, with its enchanting sgraffito-decorated northern wall facing me. I crossed under the oldest railway tunnel in Bohemia, dating from 1851 to 1855 and constructed in Neo Romanesque style, and then wound up gazing at the beautiful sgraffito on the façade.
Floral motifs decorate the northern wall as do scenes from The Old Testament. For example, on the wall Judith holds the head of Holofernes, Hercules fights the giant Antacus and Isaac is sacrificed. Virgil Solis, a follower of the master artist Albrecht Dürer, is responsible for the design. After crossing a stone bridge, I went through a gateway flanked by Ionic columns and arrived at a rectangular courtyard. The box office was straight ahead.
The history of the chateau intrigued me, as it had become intertwined with the Lobkowicz family, who bought the chateau in 1623. Bavarian aristocrat Florian Griespek of Griespek constructed it, and his successor Blažej put on the finishing touches in 1614. It took 60 years to build the chateau. Griespek had an interesting background. A former court official of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Ferdinand I, he had spent time in Prague’s White Tower for charges of high treason. Thanks to Ferdinand I, though, he became a free man again. It was his granddaughter Veronika who sold the chateau to Polyxena of Lobkowicz. The intriguing history does not end there. Not at all. During the Thirty Years’ War, the chateau was occupied by Swedish troops and those of other nationalities as well. Then it served as a military hospital during the Austrian-Prussian War. Later it was the home of a girls’ boarding school. During World War II and under the Communist regime the items in the chateau were scattered in various locations.
Restoration did take place after World War II when it became the property of the Czechoslovak state. Then, finally, in the early 1990s, the Lobkowicz family became its owners once again. The current owners live in the USA, while their son William takes care of the noble residence. To be sure, many of the Lobkowicz clan had been active in Czech politics and culture. For example, Polyxena’s son Václav Eusebius worked as an advisor to Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Ferdinand III and Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Leopold I. Also, Max Lobkowicz focused his energy on the Czechoslovak exile government in England during the Second World War. During that time he also served as Czechoslovak ambassador to Great Britain.
Perhaps the chateau is best known for its paintings. In the Gallery of Portraits I saw paintings of members of the Lobkowitz family from the 19th and early 20th century. In my favorite, a woman in a stunning blue dress holds a budding pink rose. An admirer of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s works, I spent some time gazing at his “Madonna with Child, Saint Barbora and Saint Kateřina” from around 1520. I noticed the calming green and blue colors in the horizon as a saint in the foreground read a black book. The Madonna looked pensive while the child appeared defiant. I liked the detail of the baby’s little fingers.
There is a Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece on display as well. It is called “Hygieia feeds a sacred snake” and dates from circa 1614. The Baroque gem shows a snake with its mouth open, appearing famished. I could almost see its tongue flicking in anticipation.
My beloved Bruegel clan is among those represented in the chateau’s art work, too. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Haymaking” dates from 1565 and depicts women walking in the foreground, gripping hoes, while others carry baskets on their heads. Horses, used for carting hay, drink from a bucket in the middle of the foreground as people toil in a vast field. The gigantic cliff to the left in the background caught my attention just as the blue and green mountains and river did. The painting depicted two months of the year, illustrating June and July. Then there’s a winter village scene, idyllic and calming, by Pieter Bruegel the Younger around 1615.
But that’s not all. In Canaletto’s “Thames with Westminster Bridge” from 1746 I noticed the gentle frolicking of the waves and appreciated the details of the boards, sails and oarsmen. Hundreds of black-and-white prints depicting hunting themes also line the walls of a hallway.
My favorite three paintings, though, made up a satirical series of cats posing as female nobles and monkeys representing the male nobility. They are located in a small room filled with 47 paintings. The works by Sebastian Vrancx, who lived from 1573 to 1647, include one depiction of monkeys sword-fighting. I was drawn to the bright red clothing with the stiff collar of one particular monkey as he lunges forward to strike another monkey that had fallen onto the ground. A cat on the sidelines flails her arms, as if saying, “Enough already!”
Another shows cats and monkeys at a banquet. Two monkeys working as waiters had a well-ironed cloth over one arm. A plain chandelier is overhead while one monkey brings a kettle to a table full of chattering cats. I could almost hear the chit-chat of the seated felines.
In the third rendition cats and monkeys are on a boat in a river. A palace or manor house and another boat make up the background. One monkey reads aloud from a book while another plays the piccolo. I thought it was intriguing that the painter chose to place a monkey with his back to the viewer in the center of the foreground.
On the tour I saw much more than paintings. For example, the library contained 65,000 books, written in German, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Czech. There were 679 manuscripts, and 114 of them date from the Middle Ages. Subjects ranged from history, medicine, architecture, literature, law and travelogues. However, only a small portion of the books are on display in the chateau. Still, I was fascinated by the 1696 French first edition of The Art of Swimming, which ranked as one of the earliest books on the subject.
In the Drawing Room I set my eyes on a gold Empire-style table, made with gems and decorated with intarsia. On the black table were pictures of apples, birds, and fruit and flowers in ornate bowls. In the room where the prince welcomes guests, I saw a black cabinet from the 17th century, decorated with pictures of biblical themes, birds and flowers. In the chapel there was a three-winged altar with pictures of an angel, a man on a chariot with a skeleton to his side and a man in a long robe pointing at a manuscript on a podium.
The Dining Room exhibited exquisite Venetian decoration encased in glass. I was also impressed by the desk made out of antlers, located in the armory. In the middle of the room was a rifle for bird-hunting, decorated with a grotesque brown mask, a black ball in the creature’s mouth. Then there was the beautiful Knights’ Hall with paintings of knights on the walls and a sandstone fireplace from the 16th century. Stucco reliefs adorned the ceiling. At one time, many centuries ago, this room used to be the social center of the chateau, with its Renaissance décor.
After the tour I wanted to get something to eat in the delightful restaurant upstairs, but it was open only to groups who book it in advance. In past years, it had been open to the public. I made my way back to the train station- a small, brick building that was more of a stop than a station. I passed Antonín Dvořák’s birthplace, a white house that was open odd hours. It was a pity the house-turned-museum was not open; I would have liked to have visited the place again as I had not been there for many years.
A comfortable, clean train came on time, and I headed back to Prague in the early afternoon.