The train trip from Brno to Rájec nad svitavou took about an hour. I chatted with four young women from Vancouver during the short ride. They got off at Blansko, heading toward the Punkva caves in the Moravian Karst region. I recalled waiting for that same bus during my exciting journey to the most beautiful caves in the region. Other astounding caves were accessible by bus from Blansko, too. By now I had seen all 14 Czech caves accessible to the public. Today I was enthusiastic about visiting Rájec again. Ten years ago I had been bewitched by the chateau’s interior. I expected to be enamored again.
I found my way from the train station in Jestřebí to the chateau in Rájec without getting lost, for a change. One glance at the rectangular courtyard decorated with blossoming orange flowers, and I recalled my thrilling visit all those years ago. I saw flashbacks of the big library, Hall of Ancestors and the Big Dining Room. Then I gazed straight ahead at the three-winged, elegant building, its entranceway sporting a balcony passage. The chateau was crowned by a high mansard roof. A dormer window and a clock tour made up other significant architectural features. To my left was the chateau’s chapel.
I was psyched by the time I entered the box office. I introduced myself and told the dark-haired, frowning woman manning the computer that I was a journalist writing about the chateau, that I had set up a 90-minute tour by email and that I had sent a confirmation a few days earlier.
Her belligerent response caught me totally off-guard. “I don’t care if you are a journalist. You have to wait until there are 10 people interested in a tour before you can see our chateau,” she screamed at me. There were circles under her eyes. I wondered if she had gotten enough sleep the previous night. This woman clearly had anger issues she was not dealing with. An older, smiling woman stood next to her, and a teenage boy in a scruffy T-shirt and jeans organized some pamphlets behind the belligerent brunette, ignoring her outburst as if it was nothing new to him.
“But I reserved a tour. I contacted you a month ago and sent you a confirmation on Saturday. I will be happy to wait up to an hour, but it is customary for journalists to get private tours if there is no one else interested in a tour at that time.” I spoke calmly, careful not to make the woman angrier.
“I never got any email from you.” Her tone was aggressive, vehement even, as her eyes bore into me. The boy kept his back to her, and the round-faced woman with short, grey hair kept smiling.
“If you did not get it, why did you answer it?”
“I did not get any email from you. I certainly did not get any confirmation,” She said, skirting the question.
“I sent you the confirmation on Saturday. It is Wednesday. Surely, you have received the email by now.”
“I will go look at our computer and call the caretaker, even though she is on vacation. Give me your email address.” I wrote it down for her, and she left the building. I gathered it was not possible to look it up on the computer in the box office.
Her calm, forever smiling colleague said that of course everything would be all right, and I would get a private tour if no one else was interested in seeing the chateau now. I found the email confirmation on my mobile phone and showed it to her. The teenager, who I assumed was a summer tour guide, answered the phone next to the cash register and announced, “She already found your email. Everything is okay.”
If everything was okay, why did it take the woman another 10 minutes to return?
Finally, she stood behind the computer, which once again became the imposing physical barrier between us. The smiling woman left the room as the chateau leader in her forties announced, “I did not get any email from you. I called the caretaker, and she knows nothing about you.” I showed her the email confirmation that her colleague had seen. I noticed that her hair looked unwashed and uncombed. The young man was placing brochures in a drawer.
“I never got any email from you.”
“Then why did you answer the email I sent you a month ago and write me that you were looking forward to my visit?” I persisted.
“I do not even know what publication you are writing for.”
“You just read the name and link two seconds ago.”
The calm woman had returned and dared to speak up, stating that the guide should give me a tour, but the belligerent woman interrupted her, yelling, “We have decided you can spend 60 minutes in our chateau, but no more. You cannot spend all day with our tour guide.”
“I requested the 90-minute tour, and I do not want to spend all day with your tour guide. I just want the 90-minute tour.”
“Sixty minutes. That’s all.” She said, her gaze threatening me to challenge her.
I set off with the young man, disappointed that I would only get a 60-minute tour. We were both silent until he opened the main entrance. “What do you want to take pictures of?”
“I never said I wanted to take any pictures. I said I wanted the 90-minute tour.”
“Oh, then that’s different. I have to go back and ask them if that is possible.”
About to give up and return to Brno, I waited another five minutes for the scruffy teenager. “If you want the 90-minute tour, you need to wait 10 more minutes.”
Why not? I had already waited 30 minutes. What did 10 more minutes matter? I felt as if I was a character in an absurd play.
At the designated time, a small group gathered around the entrance, and the guide introduced himself. There were seven people in our group. The woman had told me that there had to be at least 10 visitors for a tour to take place.
I knew I should be angry. No one had spoken to me so rudely for a long time. No administrator of any monument I had visited during my 21 years here had treated me so badly. I inferred that the people running Rájec did not make an effort to encourage tourists to visit their chateau and did not care what impression they made on journalists. The entire experience was so Kafkaesque, so typical for this country.
I recalled other Kafkaesque experiences, such as when I had to go to customs in Prague to pay tax on a package my mother had sent me. She had written that the cat litter box liners cost 11 USD, and the customs officer was convinced it read 1,100.00 USD. While I was able to persuade her it was not that expensive, she still made me pay tax. Each time it became my turn at the five customs counters, the officers on duty went on coffee breaks.
I tried to concentrate on the tour. First, the guide gave some insight into the history of the chateau. The community of Rájec was established during or before the 12th century while a stronghold was situated at the settlement probably from the 13th century, though it had not been on the site of the current chateau. The seat of the Lords of Rájec was destroyed twice – during the 14th century and again during the Hussite wars of the 15th century.
The most significant clan to own the chateau was the Salm-Reifferscheidts, who obtained it in 1763. They would remain the owners until 1945. This chateau was built in 1769. The member of the family who would most influence the chateau was Count Hugo František Salm-Reifferscheidt, who became the owner in 1811 and was responsible for furnishing the interior. He expanded the library and the chateau gallery. However, dark days came to Rájec when the Nazis took control of the chateau during World War II – the reason why the state confiscated the building in 1945 under the so-called Beneš’ decrees. Now the chateau mostly flaunts the style of 19th century Romanticism.
The tour began. The Neo-Renaissance Dining Room featured a carved cassette ceiling supported by two Corinthian columns. I marveled at the colorful handsewn tablecloth sporting 126 coats-of-arms. The colorfully upholstered chairs also lent a certain charm and energy to the room. A closet from 1667 featured rich woodcarving.
After passing by impressive Oriental vases – there were a lot of them at this chateau -, we came to the Corner Room, which displayed the prince’s crown trimmed in white fur above a blood red color. It was given to the Salms on the coronation day of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II during October of 1790. The guide showed us the bronze door knocker featuring the god Neptune. This was the only furnishing in the chateau that hailed from its Renaissance days.
The Engravings Cabinet enthralled me. The wooden wall panels were decorated with engravings inspired by works of prominent artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens. Each wall showed off engravings with a different theme. I was especially drawn to the works dealing with life in the Vatican, though the ones focusing on French rulers also grabbed my attention. I was especially impressed with the 18th century Holland Baroque furniture with floral and plant motifs. I recalled admiring this style in the Český Šternberk Castle not far from Prague.
The stunning Hall of Ancestors contained 40 portraits of former owners and their families. I knew that each portrait told the story of a life, of dreams that did or did not come true, of love, of troubles and of pain. As I gazed around me at the portraits, I wondered what each person’s story was. I also noted the blue and white Meissen porcelain decorating the room. A jewel chest and two tables glittered gold.
The octagonal Ceremonial Hall featured Classicist illusive wall painting that covered the 18th century Rococo frescoes with mythological themes. I wondered what exactly the frescoes had looked like. A chandelier gave the illusion that it was gold.
The Rájec library, covering three rooms, contained 60,000 volumes, making it the largest chateau library in Moravia. Its possessions included medieval manuscripts pertaining to black magic. It dated back to the 1770s and was adorned in Empire style. What really caught my attention were the three standing skeletons in the second room. Two skeletons had one arm on each of their skulls. I wondered if they were scratching their skulls because they were puzzled by the box office brunette’s behavior. The other skeleton was headless.
Next we ascended to the first floor. The blue and white Meissen porcelain in the Dining Room was exquisite, and in the Big Hall I admired the detailed woodcarving on the gramophone from World War I. In a bedroom there were two intriguing maps – one showed Central Europe in the 1830s while the other was an administrative map of the Czech lands, delineating the different districts, from 1720. I was disappointed we did not get more time to peruse the maps.
In the study three African shields entranced me. On a desk from the 1830s there was a model of a hand that could be used as a paperweight. The Oriental Antechamber included a 17th century jewel chest with Chinese landscapes painted in detail on the drawers. In another bedroom I saw a tapestry decorated with 120 coats-of-arms and some seascapes with raging waves.
Last we visited the chapel, in another building. The Empire style painting of the Virgin Mary was the only intriguing piece inside. Otherwise, it was barren and depressing.
I took a short stroll through the English park, established in 1767, with ponds and a waterfall. I was still puzzled by the anger the woman had unleashed at me as I walked on a narrow path, thick with trees. I pondered on how all my life I had always taken the path less traveled by, the path to adventure, the path that would lead me to get to know myself better as a person. Growing up I had played baseball and ice hockey with boys, for instance.
At a university in America shortly after the Velvet Revolution, I had become enamored by Czechoslovak theatre and the life and works of playwright-turned-president Václav Havel. After graduation I moved to Czechoslovakia, with a modest job teaching English, not knowing the language and not knowing anyone in the country. So much had changed since then. I was not even the same person anymore.
Then I wondered if my memory of this chateau would forever be associated with the rude remarks of that nasty woman at the box office and the Kafkaesque absurdity associated with it. Most probably it would, unfortunately. I remembered reading one travel blogger’s post about how unfriendly and cold Czechs had been to her in Prague. She ended the article by stating she would never return to the Czech Republic. I hoped that someday I would return here, have a positive experience and be full of the enthusiasm I had felt when I first visited this chateau some years ago.
I noticed dark clouds hovering in the sky and glanced at my watch. It was time to head back to the train station.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.