Český Šternberk Castle Diary

Steep steps took me to the top of Český Šternberk, a massive Gothic structure that has an interior just as exciting as its colossal exterior. I had been there more times than I could count – with tour groups, friends, alone. The castle loomed over the surrounding countryside as it was situated 350 meters above sea level. When I had been on a tour of churches in the Posazaví region, our bus had even stopped in front of the castle because it dominated the area. This time I had come by car with a friend. We donned masks during the tour because of rules concerning the pandemic.

Whenever I visited this castle, I thought of George from Australia, my sixtyish friend whom I had met on a tour here in 1993. We spent some time together during his stay in Prague that summer and then became pen pals. About a year later, I received a letter from his daughter saying that he had died unexpectedly. I hadn’t known him well, but it was shocking all the same. So, whenever I come here, I realize how important it is to make good of the time you have with friends because they won’t be there forever.

Soon I gave the castle my full attention. I focused on the exciting history of Český Šternberk. Inside, it was hard to miss the eight-pointed star that symbolized the Sternbergs (in English the dynasty is spelled Sternberg not Šternberk), a name that harkens back to the original owner of the castle. In the mid-13th century, Zděslav of Divišov was responsible for the construction of this castle. He changed his name to a combination of the German word for star (stern) and the word for hill (berk).

Armor-clad George of Poděbrody
Chapel off the Knights’ Hall

In the Knights’ Hall, the vast first room, a portrait of Czech King George of Poděbrady, who had been related to the Sternbergs, hung prominently. A coat-of-arms representing the marriage of George of Poděbrady to Kunhata of Sternberg featured prominently in the space along with many other intriguing coat-of-arms. Indeed, George of Poděbrady influenced the history of the castle. During the 15th century Hussite wars, Catholics including castle owner Petr Sternberg fought against Hussite Czech King George of Poděbrady, who promoted the Utraquist religion. In 1465 Zdeněk Konopistský Sternberg even fought against George of Poděbrady, who was victorious and even destroyed the castle. George of Poděbrady would be the only ruler to conquer Český Šternberk.

Jiří Sternberg

Reconstruction took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Thirty Year’s War caused much damage and other difficulties. Still, the castle survived. Due to early Baroque reconstruction in the second half of the 17th century, Český Šternberk could no longer be used for defensive purposes. When the last member of the Holič branch of the Sternbergs passed away, there was not an heir, and the Sternbergs lost the castle. However, they would make a comeback in 1841 when Zdeněk Sternberg purchased it. The castle would remain in the family until 1949. The Communists took over the castle in 1949, but owner Jiří Sternberg was allowed to reside at the castle with his family in two small rooms. Jiří worked as a castle guide during the totalitarian period. He died in 1964. Due to his diligence and attention to detail, a precise inventory was created. This is why it is possible to see many of the original possessions there. A few years after the Velvet Revolution, Zdeněk Sternberg received the castle in restitution. Some 20 generations of Sternbergs have worked and lived there since the castle was built.

The first room, the Knights’ Hall, has always been my favorite. Every time I stepped inside, I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the large space with 17th century stucco decoration and two Czech crystal chandeliers weighing 250 kilograms each. An eight-pointed Sternberg star decorated the floor. On the walls portraits of generals from the Thirty Years’ War stared at me. George of Poděbrady’s painting also made an appearance. A variety of chairs were situated in this space. Some cozy-looking seating dated from the early 20th century while others hailed from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. I especially was drawn to the 17th century Florentine cabinet. The semi-precious stones and pieces of marble decorating it were sublime.

You can see the eight-pointed star in the coats-of-arms above.

The Sternberg star was evident in the Dining Room, too, another of my favorites and the second largest room. A Bethlehem star was shining in the night sky of a painting of the Three Kings adoring Jesus. Of course, the star had eight points.

I loved the wall painting of idyllic landscapes in the Yellow Salon. I also was captivated by yellow because it had been the color of my mom’s kitchen, where I grew up. The color symbolized for me my mother’s optimism and calming voice telling me my problems would soon be solved, the sun would soon be out. The ceiling was captivating, too. The 18th century stucco ornamentation was amazing. In the Ladies’ Lounge, the ceiling was no less spellbinding. I was enamored by the Baroque frescoes above me. It intrigued me that the 18th century Rococo chairs lacked armrests. Ladies had donned such wide and huge dresses that the armrests were not needed. I would have loved to have been seated at the writing desk hailing from the second Rococo period. What kind of letters would I have written at that desk decorated with carved ivory? Perhaps letters to my parents and friends in the USA.

Dutch Baroque style grandfather clock

I also was excited to find some Dutch Baroque furniture in another space. The furnishings had a floral theme. Some paintings showing the Thirty Year’s War were on display here, examples of battle scenes from the 545 paintings in the Sternberg’s collection that depicted the conflict. My favorite of these renditions is the one showing the Charles Bridge. Back then, it was the only bridge joining both banks of the Vltava River.

Painting supposedly by Petr Brandl

The main altar in the chapel was home to the painting called The Passion of Saint Sebastian as the religious space is dedicated to that saint. What I liked best about the library was a painting that was said to be Apostle Peter, though he is depicted without attributes. The surprised expression on the face of the figure with the thick beard intrigued me. It was probably created by my favorite Baroque painter, Petr Brandl. I recalled his paintings in the cathedral of Sedlec near Kutná Hora. I had been enamored by so many of his works throughout the decades.

I was also astonished at the beauty of the Oriental Antechamber, which was decorated in furniture made from mother-of-pearl and ivory. I have always loved visiting Oriental rooms in castles and chateaus because they remind me of my mother’s fondness for antique Chinese porcelain and how I had come by pieces in various cities in different countries.

Battle of Hradec Králové

A painting that interested me in the hallway that showcased a variety of artifacts at the end of the tour was one by Filip Sternberg, a talented artist who had studied under the tutelage of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. My parents and friends always enjoyed visiting the Mucha Museum when they came to Prague. The rendition by Sternberg showed the Battle of Hradec Králové (also known as Koeniggraetz), which is situated in east Bohemia. During that 1866 conflict, the Austrians were defeated by the Prussians. Filip had painted the scene masterfully even though he had only been 14 years old when the actual battle had been fought.

Pipe collection

I always leave this castle realizing it is one of the most beautiful castles in the Czech lands if not the most beautiful. This time we retreated to the restaurant below and had a delicious lunch before making our way back to Prague.

Rest In Peace, George.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Děčín Chateau Diary

The moment I saw a picture of this majestic and riveting chateau dramatically perched on a cliff, I knew I had to go see it with my own eyes. A snapshot of Děčín Chateau adorned the cover of a guide to Czechoslovakia, a publication I had picked up at the many Prague bookstores I regularly visited. On a whim, during Easter Sunday of 1992, I took the train to Děčín. It was cold and raining. The chateau was closed as it was still under reconstruction, being transformed into a tourist spot from soldiers’ barracks. However, I was able to walk through the rose garden that dreary day, and I was determined to come back.

I did return, several times. My last visit took place during the pandemic, in 2021. By then, I had thoroughly familiarized myself with the history of the chateau. A Gothic castle had been located there as of the second half of the 13th century. Until 1511, the well-renowned Vartenberk clan had owned it. However, during the Hussite wars, in 1444, the structure was conquered and razed. It was rebuilt, and during the second half of the 16th century, the Knights of Bunau transformed the castle into a Renaissance chateau.

The Thun-Hohenstein clan’s tenure as owners of the chateau lasted from1628 to 1932. Hailing from south Tyrol, the Thun-Hohensteins had made a name for themselves in politics and religion. They were also responsible for renovating the chateau on two occasions. The first time, at the end of the 17th century, owner Maxmilián Thun, an ambassador and diplomat, gave the chateau a High Baroque makeover.

He also had the Long Drive built. This was a steep, Baroque driveway that measured 270 meters long and 9 meters wide. The walls surrounding it were seven meters high. Blind arcades with 64 columns added to the elegance of the approach to the chateau. On one side there was the rose garden with a gloriette and statues of mythological gods as well as a sala terrena. The last major renovation took place from 1783 to 1803 in Baroque-Classicist style, which gave the chateau its current appearance.

During the middle of the 18th century, a comprehensive library was founded. Czech writers and historians František Palacký and Josef Dobrovský came there to do research. At that time, it had held 90,000 books and had taken up the biggest room. Now this room is adorned with the elegant Czech crystal chandeliers and is used for celebrations. During the Soviet army’s tenure, a gym had been located there. At present, the library is housed in a smaller room. Because no one wanted to buy the complete library, the Thun-Hohenstein family had to sell books by the pound, and many museums acquired the volumes. Only about 4,500 books have been returned to the chateau.

During the 19th century, Děčín Chateau blossomed culturally and politically. Frédéric Chopin paid a visit in September of 1835. The Thuns had met him previously in Paris. All their children played the piano. Chopin even wrote a waltz dedicated to Děčín – waltz As-dur op. 34 no. 1. Holy Roman Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife “Sissy” came to town in 1854, three weeks after they were married.

Later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este would become a frequent visitor because he was friends with František and Jaroslav Thun. Jaroslav married Marie Chotek while Franz Ferdinand married Maria’s sister, Sophie Chotek. Franz Ferdinand had met Sophie at a ball when she was lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabela. The two were smitten. They kept their relationship a secret for two years because she was not considered worthy of marrying an archduke. No one in her family had been descended from any European ruling dynasty. Finally, they did get married, but Emperor Franz Joseph I made some conditions. Their children could never be heirs to the throne. Sophie was not allowed in the royal carriage or royal box. In fact, Ferdinand d’Este’s three children lived at Děčín for a while after their parents were assassinated at Sarajevo in June of 1914. The children’s aunt had married a member of the Thun-Hohenstein family.

 Inspired by a trip to England, František Thun, who promoted sporting activities, brought the rules of tennis to the Czech lands in 1911. Another interesting tidbit is that Miroslav Tyrš, the co-founder of the Sokol gymnastics movement, was born at the chateau because his father worked there as a doctor. He would live there for four years. Many Czech patriots took part in the Sokol organization that was created in 1862. The following year, more than 2,000 Czechs belonged to Sokol. Besides doing sports, the association offered lectures and field trips, for instance. Tyrš was not only known as a leader in Czech sports. He was an acclaimed art historian and university professor.

Unfortunately, in 1933, the Thuns had to sell the chateau, hindered by a high inheritance tax and other financial troubles. That year, the Czechoslovak army took control of the chateau. The Thun-Hohensteins moved to a nearby town called Jílové and eventually to Vienna. When this property was located in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the chateau came into the hands of the Nazis. German soldiers lived there. Then the Czechoslovak military once again called the chateau home. From 1968 to 1991, the Soviet army occupied it. In March of 1991, the last Soviet soldier left. That year it was sold to the city of Děčín.

Astounded by the two tours of the chateau, I particularly liked the Blue Hall with its two exquisitely painted blue walls depicting classical landscapes. In the foreground I saw people doing various activities, such as rowing boats. Trees and temples dotted the idyllic landscape. I was amazed that the wall painting had only been uncovered during a renovation in 2001. This space had once been a dining room, and the flooring was original.

At the beginning of the tour, I saw Egyptian drapes that were 3,000 years old. Some puppets in a children’s room hailed from 1906. A historic painting of Děčín showed the same streets that are in the town today.

In past centuries, the tower room served as a tranquil place for tea, coffee or meals. The view from the tower, at the confluence of two rivers, was spectacular. I could see the rough-hewn cliffs and the zoo from there. Tourists often climbed the cliffs or went boating to nearby Germany.

A painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms and showed the origins of the clan. The Floral Salon with blue flowers painted on the walls had been the bedroom for Franz Ferdinand d’Este’s children.

I saw a short, wooden bed where ladies had once slept. In centuries past, women had slept half-seated because they feared that they would die if they lay down. Also, it was easier this way to keep their hairstyles looking good.

Paintings punctuated the chateau’s décor. One disturbing work showed the building with boars killing dogs in the foreground. At weddings in past centuries, guests had entertained themselves by watching such gruesome events. I noticed the paintings of the town by Karel Graff, whose 26 renditions of Děčín were exquisite. I especially liked a painting of an Italian market by Francesco Bassano. It triggered memories of my many trips to Italy, a place I longed to visit again. I was hesitant to travel there during the pandemic. Another unique and dramatic painting called “Cross in the Mountains” depicted Christ on the Cross with a background of cliffs dotted by evergreens adding vibrancy to the work. I saw other black-and-white paintings of scenes from the Battle of Waterloo. The last room we visited was the elegant Baroque Chapel of Saint George with a main altar featuring a painting of this saint. Exquisite tiled stoves dotted the numerous rooms.

My friend and I left Děčín that day enamored by the two tours that had given a comprehensive and detailed look at the vast chateau’s interiors and exteriors. We were hungry, but we didn’t find a restaurant in Děčín, so we went by car to Ústí nad Labem, another city in north Bohemia. We wound up parking near the center, around the block from an establishment whose sign just read “Restaurant.” In a nook at the back of the restaurant where only locals were seated, I ate one of the best hamburgers I ever had. It was proof once more that one did not need to go to an expensive, modern restaurant to find excellent food in the country. I loved discovering local eateries that catered to people living in the respective towns. It was always a delight to have a delicious lunch after a remarkable visit to a Czech chateau. Then we headed back to Prague.

Tracy A. Burns is an editor, writer and proofreader in Prague.