After visiting the chateau in Manětín not far from Plzeň in west Bohemia, I had to go by car to get to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, the smallest town in the Czech Republic and allegedly the smallest in Europe. As I entered the town, I noticed a pub on the right-hand side. I think every town in the Czech Republic has at least one pub. I had tried to visit the town the week before, but the only road to the town had been closed due to construction work.
I expected to see four or five houses, maybe one church, but it was bigger than that. There was a yellow and white church on a hill and next to it a chateau behind a gate. A sign stated that it was private property. The façade was impressive and the lawn meticulously well-kept. Situated next to the site of a former castle hailing from around 1260, the chateau was built in Baroque style in 1705. The castle originally had a high cylinder tower and walls around it but was severely damaged in the 16th century. Now some of the walls and the foundation of the tower are all that is left of the castle.
The road dipped down suddenly, and I came to the main square. About five men were struggling to put up a maypole as the May 1 holiday approached. Branches flaunted fluttering, colored ribbons. There was a decrepit building behind me and another one with an old, battered sign above the doorway in German. It read “LIEDFELDERHOF.” I wondered what it meant and if it hailed from World War II or even from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later I would find out that the word stood for “Sorrowfields’ Inn,” with “sorrowfields” probably being the surname of the innkeepers.
The sign in German attested to the influence that Germans had had on this town since settling in the region during the 12th century. Even the name of the town derived from the German words “rabe” for raven and “stein” for stone. The town was the property of Germans for many centuries. In 1631 military leader and politician Albrecht von Wallenstein became the owner. Wallenstein played a major role in the Thirty Years’ War, allying himself and his army with the Holy Roman Empire. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, he became supreme commander of the Habsburg armies. Wallenstein was assassinated in the west Bohemian town of Cheb after quarreling with Emperor Ferdinand and considering allying himself with the Protestants.
After World War II, when the Beneš’ decrees came into effect, most of the Germans were banished from the country, and Czechs came to live in the town. In 1930 Rabštejn had a population of 344. By 1950 it had dwindled to 77.
I also wondered what the town had looked like in the Middle Ages. I was impressed that the history of this town could be traced all the way back to the 13th century. I had read that in medieval times two rows of houses surrounded an irregularly-shaped square. How had people lived long ago? I knew that in the past inhabitants had taken up making handicrafts, weaving, painting playing cards and glass as well as producing roof slate.
Farther down were several timbered cabins, one painted black with green, another mostly white with black. They looked like they belonged to another century. It was strange when I saw a man open the door of one of these homes and go inside. It was as if a person from the 21st century was entering another time period.
At the end of the town was a restaurant with picnic tables outside. Seven bikers were sitting there, drinking beer while engaged in animate conversations. There was an old stone bridge, dating most likely from 1335-1340. Under it flowed the Střela River. The body of water meandered through a forest, gurgling softly. A thick forest made up the background. It appeared as if this could be the backdrop for a landscape painting, as if I were looking at a canvas rather than real life. The forest was romantic, but it felt comforting and dangerous at the same time.
I had read about a former brewery that only put out 700 hectoliters of beer during a year, but I did not see anything resembling a brewery. I did not see a former monastery, either, but there had been several in this town over the centuries. One dated back to the end of the 15th century but was destroyed in 1532. A new one was built in the 17th century, but it was abolished in 1787. There were several churches in the town during the 19th century, and legend has it that one of them was damaged in 1856. Workers had to dismantle the cross from the top of the church and reinstall it. While they were doing this, people celebrated below. The workers drank some wine in the tower and threw a wine glass down. It fell but did not break.