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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I had visited Blatná twice before, but not during the last five years. Those first two trips I had traveled to the south Bohemian town by bus, but now I had the luxury of going by car with a friend. Blatná is a chateau that makes an everlasting first impression as it is surrounded by water. By the summer of 2021, I knew very well that its romantic exterior was matched by an enthralling interior. Unfortunately, it was prohibited to take photos inside.
I already knew the history of the chateau, which harkened back to at least the 13th century, when the name first appeared in writing. Benedikt Reid, the acclaimed 15th century architect who helped designed Prague Castle, worked his magic on this chateau as well. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Late Gothic art. The Sternbergs featured in the story of Blatná, as they had in the history of Český Šternberk Castle and Jemniště Chateau, which we had also visited during that summer of 2021. This family bought Blatná in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace.
Another clan played a major role in the chateau’s long and vibrant life. During 1798, Baron Karel Hildprandt purchased Blatná, and it remained his property until 1948. Even after the chateau was nationalized by the Communists that year, the Hildprandts were allowed to live there, albeit in two small rooms. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviets took charge in the 1970s. From there, the Hildprandts’ journey continued to Spain and West Germany. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that triggered the end of Communist rule, the family got the chateau back. During 1992, the descendants returned to the chateau and later made their home there.
A legendary 19th century Czech scientist was connected with the chateau, too. Jan Evangelista Purkyně had lived and studied at Blatná. The library where he spent much of his time now holds 13,000 volumes. Acclaimed worldwide, he excelled as a physiologist, botanist, anatomist, poet and philosopher. He also contributed to the art of animated film. Purkyně translated poetry from German and Italian to Czech, especially the works of Friedrich Schiller. Other writings focused on slavistic studies and autobiography. He joined the Piarist Order when he was young, but he left and became a tutor to noble families. Later, he joined Prague’s medical faculty of Charles University as a professor. Holy Roman Emperor Franz Josef knighted him in 1868. I recalled that as a youth he had lived at Libochovice Chateau, where his father had worked. Libochovice was a marvelous chateau, one I had visited several times and had described in several articles.
Two spaces in Blatná made the chateau most notable. The Ethiopia Room was a delight with souvenirs from the Hildprandts’ tenure in that country. Unfortunately, during our 2021 tour, we did not see this room, although it was listed on our ticket.
The other remarkable space was the Green Chamber with Late Gothic frescoes. I saw plant motifs and coats-of-arms of well-known Czech noble families painted on the walls of this small space. There were many religious scenes as well. The birth of Christ and St. George fighting the dragon were the subjects of two frescoes that captured my undivided attention. I recalled the numerous Saint George relics housed at Konopiště Chateau, where my friend and I had been the previous summer. I had written articles about that chateau and the Saint George Museum as well. In the Green Chamber, Saints Wenceslas (Václav), Barbora and Markéta made appearances in religious scenes, too. One painting showed a landscape with Blatná in the background. I have always been mesmerized by this small space. It was so well-preserved, and the wall paintings were astounding. The Green Chamber was always the highlight of my visit.
The chapel was a thrill, too. It included Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my former parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again because my parents had moved. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery included a portrayal of a vast landscape on one wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it. I imagined strolling along the Charles Bridge sans the Baroque statues it was known for.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. I recalled that during a previous visit, a guide had told our group that a chandelier had fallen during one of Ferdinand d’Este’s visits, but I didn’t remember anything about anyone being hurt.
In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry, and four paintings of the Italian seaside decorated a wall.
Drawings of Venice also captivated me. I remembered walking through Venice on an early Sunday morning some years ago when I practically had the city to myself. That was one of my favorite experiences in my travel adventures. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space as did other Empire furniture, including the black-and-gold chandelier made in that 19th century style. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmitál, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. A 1720 map of Bohemia in another space caught my attention, too.
The tours were comprehensive. We had all worn masks, so I had felt protected from coronavirus, and there were not many cases in the country at the time. Afterwards, my friend and I went to a hotel for lunch, the same restaurant where I had eaten during my previous visits. We both had the fried chicken steak, a popular meal in the Czech Republic. We talked about where we would travel the following week. Life was good.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.
Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.
The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.
Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.
Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.
We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.
The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.
Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.
The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.
Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.
The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.
It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.
Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel. On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.
Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.
The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.
We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century. A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.
The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.
The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.
In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.
Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.
I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.
Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.
The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.
I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.
I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.
This was my third or fourth trip to Lány, a town about 35 kilometers west of Prague near the Křivoklat forest. I loved going to Lány to pay tribute to the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his family. I came by car this time, accompanied by a friend. First, I went to the TGM Museum, which told the story of Masaryk’s life and career. Then we went to the cemetery where Tomáš Masaryk and three members of his family are buried. After that, we strolled through one of my favorite chateau parks, part of the president’s summer residence. Masaryk had spent a lot of time in that majestic park and had died in the chateau.
First, the museum: I had been there once before and loved refamiliarizing myself with the history of the First Republic. If I could go back to any time in the past, I would travel to 1920s Czechoslovakia. The country was new, off to a fresh start as a democracy.
Besides exhibits relating specifically to Masaryk, the museum is home to period furnishings and paintings of his family members. There is a section devoted to the first World War, when he set up legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army, doing battle against the Habsburgs. First, we saw photos of Masaryk in a special exhibition. Then we went into the main part of the museum.
A philosopher, scholar and politician, Masaryk founded Czechoslovak democracy. He believed that small nations played a significant role in Europe and in the world. He also touted individual responsibility and religion as a source of morality. Masaryk came from humble beginnings. His father had been a Slovak carter, later a steward, while his German-Moravian mother had worked as a cook. At a German high school in Brno, Masaryk saw for himself the fraught tension between high-class Germans and oppressed, lower-class Czechs. He later concentrated on philosophy at the University of Vienna. While he was studying in a year-long program in Leipzig – a city I had loved visiting several years ago -, he met an American from Brooklyn, Charlotte Garrigue, and they were married in the USA during 1878. (I named my late cat the Czech version of Charlotte, Šarlota, after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia. My cat died suddenly in July of 2021 at the age of 11.) Tomáš took his wife’s last name as his middle name. They had five children, and their son Jan later became a prominent politician whom Communists pushed out a bathroom window, killing him.
Tomáš Masaryk was a university professor and a writer. He penned books about the deplorable conditions in Russia after visiting that country and in another grappled with the causes of suicide. His writings centered on politics as well.
A wall of the museum took up the theme of the scandals that had scarred the public opinion of Masaryk. He proved that epic poems, which supposedly dated from the Middle Ages and appealed to Czech nationalists, were forgeries. These nationalists branded Masaryk a traitor. Then, a Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner was sentenced to death for ritual murder. Masaryk insisted that the trial had been anti-Semitic. Hilsner was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Not all Czechs approved of Masaryk’s participation in this case, and the Masaryk family experienced anti-Semitic attacks.
A section of the museum described Masaryk’s role during World War I. While Masaryk had fought for reforms with Austro-Hungary before the war, during World War I he became convinced that Czechs and Slovaks needed independence rather than autonomy. Masaryk was head of the government-in-exile in London. During a trip to the USA, he convinced President Woodrow Wilson that Czechoslovak independence was vital. Czechoslovakia was created October 28, 1918.
Then there were the many exhibits about his presidency. Masaryk abdicated during his fourth term in office due to health reasons, after 17 years as head of state. During his presidency, the country was a democracy with all citizens equal, and minorities had rights to maintain their national identities. Freedom of the press and universal suffrage were other features. However, the country was not without its problems. German-Czech tensions and Slovak calls for separatism were two of the issues that caused him great concern.
After his reelection in 1920, the country flourished, especially economically. However, personal tragedy hit the Masaryk family. His wife died in 1923. Three years into his third term, in 1930, he turned 80, and ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism had infiltrated the democratic country. During 1934, he was elected for a fourth term, yet his time in office was riddled with health problems. He resigned in 1935 and died at Lány on September 14 that year.
After admiring a statue of Masaryk outside the museum, we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs marked the graves of Masaryk and his wife Charlotte, son Jan and daughter Alice. The small grassy area was roped off. It was a modest yet eloquent commemoration to lives that had upheld democratic values even during troubled times.
I reflected on Masaryk lying in state at Lány. About 60,000 citizens came to pay their respects. When his wife died in 1923, thousands of Czechs paid homage to her by going to Lány chateau as well.
I thought about Tomáš Masaryk’s funeral in Prague. Black flags had fluttered from downtown buildings. Busts and pictures of Masaryk had dotted the town and covered the front pages of numerous newspapers. Black banners reading “TGM” had adorned Saint Vitus Cathedral and buildings on Wenceslas Square. Thousands of soldiers and legionnaires had marched in his funeral procession September 21 as 146 military standards appeared. Draped with the Czechoslovak flag, his coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the city. On its last leg to Lány, the coffin had traveled by train, placed in a car covered in wreaths and flowers.
I remembered seeing that gun carriage at a temporary exhibition in a Prague gallery a few years earlier. I recalled watching Václav Havel’s coffin travel by me while I waited on an Old Town Street in December of 2011. I was huddled in my LL Bean winter coat on that dark, dismal morning as the coffin made its way toward Prague Castle. My hero was dead; my heart broken; my mood solemn. I thought that it was the same way I would have felt if I had seen Masaryk’s funeral procession.
From the cemetery we made our way to a restaurant on a square, where I ate fried chicken steak and ice cream on that sunny May afternoon of 2021. We ate outside to be safer from coronavirus infection.
The next and last stop was much more upbeat – Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since 1921. While the residence was not open to the public (with several exceptions), the beautiful park was. I first set foot in this park during the summer of 1991, when I was a tourist seeing Prague and its environs for the first time.
That trip during the summer of 1991 was magical – walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery, gawking at Old Town Square with its superb architecture, making my way to Prague Castle via the Charles Bridge, where Russian soldiers sold their uniforms and fur hats. On the way, I walked up Nerudova Street, where, in a photography store, I found some prints of President George H.W. Bush with Václav Havel during that historic visit in 1990. There were also discounted posters of Gorbachev, but I wasn’t interested in buying one. Saint Vitus Cathedral had amazed me. On Golden Lane, a place in legends dating back to Rudolf II’s era, I got my picture taken with a man I had met on the train from Berlin to Prague. We were smitten with each other. Yet, we would part our separate ways a few days later, never contacting each other again. Life somehow had gotten in the way. I visited Karlštejn Castle, Konopiště Chateau, Hluboká Chateau, Kutná Hora and so many other places during that trip. Prague had felt like my true home, and the park in Lány was so special in my heart.
By this time, I knew the history of the chateau well. There was a structure here before 1392, when it was first mentioned in writing. Late in the 16th century, that edifice became a Renaissance keep. Rudolf II acquired the property in 1589 and did much hunting on the grounds at the game reserve. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops had occupied the residence. After Rudolf II acquired it, the residence was state-owned for 100 years. In 1685 Arnošt Josef Wallensteain bought it. When his daughter got married, the chateau and surrounding land became the property of the Furstenberg family and stayed in their possession until the state bought it in 1921. Then the chateau was modernized. Masaryk had the balcony built. During Ludvík Svoboda’s presidential term, the game reserve had been open to Western tourists, but later it was closed off again. Many other renovations had taken place throughout the decades. The chateau had been in poor condition after Gustav Husák’s tenure, when the Communist regime was toppled in 1989. Under Václav Havel and Olga Havlová – after whom I had named one of my cats – the chateau had been totally reconstructed into a beautiful work of art and architecture.
Near the park we perused the obelisk that Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had erected during Masaryk’s era to commemorate fallen soldiers during World War I. In the park I felt at home, so comfortable as if I was meant to be there, basking in the sun near the greenhouse or taking in the many landmarks. This was one of the few chateau parks that made me see not only the beauty around me but also the beauty inside me. The other park that gave me this feeling was at the chateau in Opočno in north Bohemia.
I loved the two ponds. One landmark that impressed me was a lion-headed fountain made by Plečník, who had superbly decorated parts of Prague Castle, too. With five Dorian colums and five lions’ heads, the fountain symbolizes the five lands of Czechoslovakia. Water from the five heads flows into a sixth head that spouts the water into the pond, symbolizing the unity of newly-formed Czechoslovakia.
Across the Masaryk stream I saw three bridges constructed in a simple design by Plečník. I remember visiting Plečník’s studio when I was in Ljubljana. Communist president Klement Gottwald had contributed to the park as well. He had a small cottage with fairy-tale elements built for his grandson. There were also beehives from Masaryk’s era, again designed by Plečník. The Furstenbergs, who had owned the land with chateau for several centuries, were responsible for setting up the greenhouse. Three benches celebrated more recent events. One commemorated the Višegrad Four conference hosted in Lány in 2006, when Václav Klaus was the Czech president. Another was donated by Livia Klausová, a former First Lady, in 2012. The third was donated by current President Miloš Zeman. The Riding Stables were built in Neo-Gothic style during 1861.
We walked along the main chestnut-lined path and took in the various perspectives of the yellow, Baroque chateau. I knew something about the interior, even though it was not possible to go inside. The Blue Dining Room was decorated in Third Rococo from the beginning of the 20th century. The bright yellow wallpaper in the Yellow Salon harkened back to Husák’s era. After the Velvet Revolution, five Renaissance painting of Habsburg archdukes as children had been installed. There was a beautiful marble fireplace surrounded by superb woodcarving in the library. Masaryk’s Salon includes, thanks to the Furstenbergs, furniture made from black pearwood.
During Masaryk’s tenure, there was a movie theatre at the chateau where locals could watch the latest talkies. The films of Vlasta Burian, a comic actor whose work I knew well, often were projected there. This was where the Lány Agreement promoting cooperation between Austria and Czechoslovakia had been signed in December of 1921. So many presidents and dignitaries had graced the halls of that chateau.
I tried to imagine Masaryk riding his horses through the park. At Lány Masaryk had written many of his books and had met with legendary Czech author Karel Čapek to put together the nonfiction work Conversations with TGM. During the Nazi Protectorate, Emil Hácha had called the chateau home. I tried to imagine the Protectorate flag fluttering from the tower during the second World War. I recalled that Gottwald had tried to do away with all the monuments at Lány that were associated with Masaryk. There had been an assassination attempt on President Antonín Zápotecky in 1953, as a bomb went off under his car. One of the town’s inhabitants was killed in the blast. During Havel’s presidency, I used to love to listen to his Conversations from Lány radio broadcast.
The chateau and park made me think about Masaryk’s era and Havel’s 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic. After spending some time enjoying the sights in the park, it was time to go back to Prague. It was our first trip of the 2021 chateau and castle season, and it would always be one of the best ever.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
From the moment I saw a picture of Neo-Renaissance Červená Lhota Chateau, I yearned to see it with my own eyes. Its cheerful red appearance cast a spell on me. Comprised of two stories, the pictured chateau dominated a rocky island surrounded by a pond. Červená Lhota looked as if it had jumped out of a fairy tale. How beautiful and romantic the reflection of the four-winged structure looked in the water! I read that a forest was situated nearby as was as a park with the Renaissance Chapel of the Holy Trinity.
There was only one problem: I had heard that the chateau was a 10-kilometer walk from the nearest public transportation, a train station. I was afraid I would get lost as I didn’t have a great sense of direction. I had no one to go with me and didn’t have access to a car. I wondered if I even could walk 10 kilometers. I loved playing sports, but 10 kilometers – was that even possible?
One afternoon I found myself at Prague’s main bus station, arriving home from a day trip. I decided to ask at a window if it was possible to travel to Červená Lhota by bus. I was in luck! It was! I got my bus ticket for the following Saturday. I would have to change buses at Jihlava, in Moravia. I hadn’t realized that the chateau was in Moravia, but I didn’t think any more about it.
I set off for Červená Lhota on a scorching summer day, enthusiastic, elated even, as I listened to the melodic singing of Slovak soft rock star Pavol Habera on my Walkman. I was sure nothing could destroy my ecstatic mood.
Two and a half hours later, I got off the bus at Jihlava and waited for another bus to take me – finally! – to Červená Lhota. Soon I would see that cheerful red façade that featured prominently on the craggy rocks! I would gaze at the sublime reflection of the chateau in the pond! It would be bliss! Before long, I walked to platform number 10, thinking that I could not have hoped for better weather and that nothing surely could go wrong.
Finally, the bus came, and on a sign behind the windshield I saw the words Červená Lhota. I was so close to my destination. It would not be long now.
The bus driver announced “Červená Lhota” when we came to a village. As I exited, I asked the driver, “How do I get to the chateau?”
The driver looked at me as if I was crazy.
“The chateau is near Jindřichův Hradec, in south Bohemia. This is another Červená Lhota.”
My face fell with disappointment.
The driver continued, “I’ll be stopping here again in an hour. Wait, and then you can go back with me to Jihlava.”
I thanked him, tempted to burst into tears. I sat on the bench at the bus stop, my mind reeling. How could I be so stupid? Hadn’t I read that the chateau was in south Bohemia? When I got my bus ticket, I had been so happy, so full of hope. Now I didn’t even know exactly where I was. Somewhere not too far from Jihlava in Moravia. I felt lost – in more ways than one. I didn’t like teaching with the agency full-time. I didn’t want to get up at five every morning and finish work at seven or nine at night. I wanted to do other things, to be able to sleep until seven am, at least several days a week. I didn’t like my housing situation. I felt like my life was just one disappointment after another, as if it was full of days spent in the wrong places. Is this all there was? Was this the only life I could live? I was in my early thirties. I wanted to make a change, but what? And how? I knew I didn’t want to move out of Prague. I felt that I was stuck at a crossroads.
No one else came to the bus stop during that hour. I was alone. It was quiet. I got myself together mentally, many thoughts going through my head. I had to persevere; I knew that. I had to move onward one small step at a time. During those 60 minutes of solitude, I decided that I wouldn’t let life get me down. The following Saturday I would take the train to Kardašovy Řečice, which was 10 kilometers from the right Červená Lhota. I was determined to see the chateau. I would walk the 10 kilometers alone. I could do it, I kept telling myself. When I saw the bus approaching, I breathed a sigh of relief.
From Jihlava I easily found a bus to Prague. When I got off in the capital city, I did not feel lost anymore. Instead, I was filled with purpose and determination.
The following Saturday I made it to Kardašovy Řečice in the morning. The weather was beautiful though very hot. I was so kanxious. What if I got lost in the middle of nowhere? Casting these thoughts aside, I started walking. Soon I came upon four adults in their twenties, two women and two men who had exited the same train.
“Is this the way to Červená Lhota?” I asked.
“Yeah. We’re going there, too. Come with us!”
We walked to Červená Lhota together, talking about their vacation in south Bohemia and their home in north Bohemia as well about Czech culture and literature. They recommended Zákupy Chateau near their hometown and Děčín Chateau, where I had been when it was still closed to the public in 1991. We talked about our respective travels, too. Our conversations were very pleasant, and I was glad to have met them. I had made four new friends.
I was tired when we arrived at the chateau. However, I totally forgot about my fatigue when I gazed upon that cheerful red façade and its reflection in the calm waters. The chateau was everything I imagined it to be. I almost pinched myself, not believing that the enchanting structure in front of me was real. I took photos on my disposable Kodak camera – I was saving to buy a digital one – while we waited for the tour. I also had a bite to eat in the chateau restaurant, sitting outside with a spectacular view of the red beauty.
The chateau rooms were small but intimate. However, the tour was crowded. Sometimes I had to almost push my way to the front of the large group so I could see because I was short. Still, I didn’t mind. I had reached my goal and met some nice people on the way. The furnishings and decorations were superb, in styles from Renaissance to Beidermeier. Each room had its own charm. I loved the intimate feel of the chateau. It really felt as if a family could live there rather than as a cold representative space.
We all left the chateau feeling elated and set off for the 10-kilometer walk to the train station. Could I trek another 10 kilometers? I needn’t have worried. A bus came and took us to the train station in a five-minute journey. As I stepped off this bus, I felt so different from the moment I had exited the bus in the village of Červená Lhota the previous weekend. This time I felt triumphant, victorious, full of energy despite my weary legs.
My four friends were catching a later train, so we parted at the station, promising to keep in touch. We said our goodbyes, and I started my journey back to Prague. I knew I had to come back here one day.
And, 18 years later, I would.
My second trip to the right Červená Lhota took place during August of 2021, when the situation with covid cases was not too horrible. A friend drove me there. I often visited castles and chateaus with her. She had visited the chateau decades ago but had never seen it surrounded by water. It was much easier than walking 10 kilometers, that was for sure, though I knew I could use the exercise. During the pandemic I had become lax about fitness.
The moment I saw the chateau I was flabbergasted because the pond had disappeared. My friend was so disappointed. The chateau still had me in a trance with its bewitching exterior, but the lack of water made it seem more steeped in reality than in a fairy-tale. Later, we would find out that the chateau would not have water around it for at least two more years. It was simply too expensive to maintain. A garden area was set up on one part of the dry land below the rocky terrain, but it still didn’t make up for the appearance of yesteryear.
It had been a long 18 years. I had stopped teaching full-time about 11 years ago, and I had moved twice. Now I was happy with my work as I was doing more writing and content with my accommodation. I was excited to be back. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this chateau until I set my eyes on it again. It was scorching hot just like the first time I had visited. The guide told us that we had to wear masks. I was glad because when I was at Jemniště Chateau that rule had not been enforced. I was also pleased that only 20 people were allowed on the tour due to health concerns. I wouldn’t have to deal with a crowd like I had at Jemniště or Děčín chateaus, and there was less of a chance of catching covid during this visit.
I had refamiliarized myself with the chateau’s history before making the trip. The structure was first mentioned in writing during 1465 when it had been a Gothic fortress under the control of the sons of Ctibor of Zásmuk. During 1530 the knighted family of Káb from Rybňany became the owners. Jan Káb’s tombstone would be placed in the nearby chapel. Jan Káb’s two children had succumbed to the plague, so, after his death, his brothers took over. Then called Nová Lhota, the structure was transformed into Renaissance style from 1542 to 1555. A private chapel, now the Church of the Trinity, was built near the chateau in the 1550s. It would become known for its illusive fresco decoration that originated in the second half of the 16th century.
It got the name Červená Lhota (červená means red in Czech) during 1597, when it was painted the same color it is today. The chateau had changed owners again. Vilém Rút of Dírná had chosen this bright color for his residence. A legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had been killed. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend claimed that her blood had gushed over the chateau exterior, making it red, and the color could not be changed.
When the Catholics defeated the Protestants at White Mountain in November of 1620, the chateau was confiscated from the Rút family because they were Utraquists. It didn’t make a difference that they had not fought in the battle that would start the Thirty Years’ War.
During 1621 an Italian aristocrat named Antonio Bruccio took charge of Červená Lhota when the imperial army occupied it. After the war he made sure the chateau was not looted. The chapel was plundered, though, and Bruccio reconstructed it, so that the holy space could be reconsecrated in 1635. He founded a spa nearby, and it earned as much praise as the one in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), which has for centuries grabbed world-wide attention. Bruccio’s spa, alas, is no more. The stone bridge was built during his era, in 1622. He died in 1639, childless.
Vilém Slavata from Chlum and Košumberk purchased it after Bruccio passed, but he wouldn’t use the chateau as his main residence. I recalled that during the Third Defenestration of Prague, in 1618, he had been thrown out the window of the Castle. He didn’t die because he fell on a heap of dung. While looking after the chateau, he had some reconstruction completed. In 1641 the tower with distinguished portal was built. By 1678 the chateau sported a Baroque appearance. To this day the tower’s portal is decorated in Baroque style. Stuccowork seen in the chateau hails from this era.
When the Slavata dynasty died out, the niece of the last of the Slavata clan was given possession of the chateau. Marie Theresa married into the Windischgratz family. Two owners in this clan accumulated a great debt due to their bad handling of finances. They wound up selling the chateau to barons, who started having construction work done. A fire damaged the chateau.
Two years after the fire, in 1776, Baron Ignác Stillfried bought the place. Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a composer and co-founder of the German opera, lived at the chateau from 1796 to 1799, when he died. Then the dukes of Schonburg-Hartenstein took control in 1835. They would own Červená Lhota for 110 years. During the second half of the 19th century, the chateau was given pseudo-Gothic features, inspired by Hluboká Chateau, one of my all-time favorites. From 1903 to 1913, the chateau got a Neo-Renaissance makeover, giving Červená Lhota the appearance it has today. The chapel was renovated at the beginning of the 20th century, too. In 1907 mass began to be held here again. (Services had been halted during the early 19th century.) After World War I, Johann, the then current owner who had been awarded Golden Fleece and Maltese Cross medals, lived there and added to the chateau’s splendor. When Johann died in 1937, he was buried in the chapel nearby.
Because the family was German, the chateau was handed over to the Czechoslovak state after the war. A children’s sanatorium was set up there in 1946, but its existence was short-lived. During 1949, Červená Lhota was open to the public. Some services, such as weddings, still take place in the former private chapel.
Soon it was time to tour the 16 rooms. So glad that we were in a small group, I was enamored of the interior, which once again felt like a home instead of mere representative spaces. The first floor showed off the life of the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan at the start of the 20th century. It was thrilling to see mostly original furnishings of various styles. Not many chateaus showed off authentic furnishings. At the beginning of our tour, we watched a flutist and pianist in period dress superbly play Renaissance music. The painted ceilings, elaborate clocks and stunning chandeliers all caught my undivided attention. Exquisite religious paintings and portraits, beautiful tiled stoves, furniture with intarsia, black-and-white graphics of various animals and fine porcelain also complemented the spaces. The intricate gilded headboard of a bed sported a hovering putti.
While we perused each room protected by our FFP2 masks, I recalled that Jan Káb’s two children had died of the plague, and I realized that, as the current coronavirus pandemic continued, I had learned how to live all over again. I had spent the first three weeks of the pandemic hiding in my apartment, tuned all day and night to CNN, only leaving to take out the trash. I had been that scared of catching the virus. I had kept my windows closed; my life closed off. Now I was doing things the best I could, being as cautious as I could, but still living rather than merely existing.
I thought back to those 60 minutes spent on that bench at the bus stop in another Červená Lhota, where I had mustered up the courage to face challenges and disappointments head-on, where I had become determined to make changes in my life, even if the changes meant sometimes taking small steps at a time. The tranquility of the hour that seemed to last for such a long time allowed me to get to grips with my present and helped guide me into the future.
Perhaps finding the village of Červená Lhota in Moravia had not been a mistake, but rather it had marked the beginning of a journey that had taken me here, for the second time, to this neo-Renaissance architectural wonder, visited during a pandemic that I had weathered the best I could, making changes along the way, directing my life story one day at a time as I came to new revelations about my journey and my destination. Perhaps it was only fitting that Červená Lhota would be the last chateau I would visit during the summer of 2021. After the tour, my friend and I promised to come back when the pond was restored. So, until then, I said my goodbyes to the place that has been close to my heart for several decades.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I arrived at Baroque Jemniště Chateau for the third time during July of 2021. While I had traveled to the chateau by bus on previous visits, this time I came with a friend in a car. The chateau was an hour or so from Prague.
It was a place I wanted my parents to see, but both of them were in their eighties, and they weren’t about to travel here during the pandemic. I doubted they would ever return to Prague.
I already was familiar with the history of the chateau, which had come into existence during 1725. However, a fire destroyed it in 1754. The front section of the chapel, which included the main altar and a ceiling fresco, was the only part of the place that wasn’t reduced to ashes. Then two master artists took control of the reconstruction – Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun. They made the structure an architectural gem. I recalled Reiner’s dramatic painting at Duchcov Chateau, which I had visited for the second time the two years earlier, the year before the pandemic hit. How I missed those times! Braun was best known for his sculptural groupings on Prague’s Charles Bridge.
In 1868 Zdeněk Sternberg bought the chateau, and this family would own Jemniště for many decades. In fact, the Sternbergs currently owned the chateau, and Jiří Sternberg even lived there with his family. Filip Sternberg inherited Jemniště when Zdeněk died. A talented artist, he created renditions of children and horses that were exhibited in the chateau. He had been taught by the best Art Nouveau artist of the day – Alphonse Mucha. I recalled visiting the Mucha Museum with my parents, who loved Mucha’s art. I had also seen some of the Slav Epic canvases in the Municipal House and, years before that, in the chateau at Moravský Krumlov. The Sternbergs held on to the chateau until the Nazis took it away from them in 1943 because the family would not accept German citizenship. The Nazis gave the Sternbergs two weeks to move, and they were able to move original furniture. During Communism, Jemniště Chateau was controlled by the state. Jemniště wasn’t returned to the Sternbergs until 1995, six years after the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime.
We had about an hour before our tour so we walked through the charming park, which featured goats, a kangaroo, a donkey and exotic birds. It was tranquil. I found wondering if I would get back to the USA for a trip this year or if the pandemic would keep me in Prague. I wondered if there would come a day when I could show my parents Jemniště and maybe Kozel Chateau as well. While perusing the park, we did not have on our masks because we did not have to wear them outside. Inside, though, it was strictly forbidden not to wear a mask. I firmly believed that wearing masks inside was the right decision.
Then it was time for the tour. There were about 40 people there. I was surprised that so many people were allowed on the tour. Most chateaus I had visited during the pandemic had limited the number of participants on each tour. I was also surprised that the tour guide said that we didn’t have to wear masks. Only my friend and I wore them. Some of those on the tour were children under twelve, definitely unvaccinated. The Delta variant was gaining ground in the Czech Republic. I was dismayed that so many people didn’t seem to take the virus seriously.
I tried not to stand close to anyone, but it was not possible to social distance. Still, the tour was just as breathtaking as I remembered it. In the Sala Terena two of Braun’s statues portraying cherubs were a highlight of the space. The entrance hall featured watercolors of a castle and two chateaus that the Sternbergs own – Jemniště, Častolovice and Český Šternberk. I mused that I hadn’t been to Český Šternberk and Častolovice for some years and would like to go back there. The tour guide also mentioned that Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sofia Chotek had visited the chateau in 1909. I recalled the three impressive tours at Konopiště Chateau, where Franz Ferdinand d’Este had lived with his family before he and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914. In fact, Konopiště was the last chateau we had visited last year before more and more people came down with the coronavirus.
I liked the three painted windows in one Baroque room. They were painted across from three real windows, and it made for a pleasant contrast. In the Small Dining Room, I was entranced with the intarsia furnishings. A Delft tiled stove caught my attention in the Study. I would also be enthralled with miniature figures of furnishings in the Delft style later in the tour. The red upholstered chairs made the space look cozy and warm for a winter evening. Intriguing porcelain, including Meissen, was exhibited throughout the tour.
The Main Hall was a delight. Portraits of four Habsburg rulers dominated the walls. The gods of Olympus were displayed on the ceiling. Gods from antiquity and the three allegories of the four seasons were other painted creations that stunned viewers.
The last space we visited was Saint Joseph’s Chapel with its thrilling frescoes. Reiner was responsible for the fresco sporting the Holy Trinity. Another showed off allegorical figures. The main altar dazzled with gold décor, portraying Christ crucified as well as statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint John of Nepomuk.
After the tour, again I wished my parents could have joined me on this visit. I had taken them to many chateaus and castles, and they always enjoyed seeing an impressive chateau. I think my mom would have especially liked the porcelain and Delft objects. I wondered if my dad would have been most moved by the frescoes.
Soon, we left Jemniště Chateau and searched for a restaurant. We found a nondescript one after the railroad tracks, near Benešov. The food was excellent, but I wouldn’t remember this place for its food. My keys, in a padded container, dropped out of my rucksack.
When I got home, I realized I did not have my keys! Luckily, my friend had my extra set of keys in her car. One of the keys could not be copied. If I didn’t find them, it would mean a great deal of trouble for me financially and for my landlord, who would have to get new keys made. Luckily, the restaurant owner informed me that he had the keys when I wrote him a text message.
The restaurant was about an hour from Prague, so I asked them to send the keys to me cash-on-delivery. They sent them the next day by regular, standard mail not cash-on-delivery, so there was no receipt. It took eight days for the keys to travel from the Benešov environs to Prague. During those days, I was so stressed and panicked. I should have gone back there to get the keys in person. When they arrived, I noticed that the envelope was open, but the keys were still inside. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
This museum of Art Nouveau artist František Bílek’s works is one of the most underrated art collections in Prague. The many times I have been there it has not been crowded, making it easier to appreciate fully the emotions triggered by Bílek’s sculptures, furniture, drawings, sketches and book illustrations. The symbolism is religious and mystical and seeps into my soul as I am overcome by emotions. Art Nouveau is a style I cherish, too. I am especially drawn to his dynamic wooden sculptures.
František Bílek, born in 1862, initially wanted to become a painter but switched to sculpture because he was colorblind. He would wind up making a name for himself not only for his evocative sculptures but also for his prints, architectural designs, ceramics and books, for instance. A man of many talents, he was very religious, and the works of the Catholic Modernists greatly influenced his works. He later worshipped at a Czechoslovak Hussite Church, inspired by the teachings of Czech martyr Jan Hus who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.
I had also visited Bílek’s hometown of Chýnov in south Bohemia, where his villa there housed more of his fascinating creations. It was easy to find his grave in the cemetery there – a huge sculpture marks the spot. Bílek passed away during the Nazi Occupation, in 1941.
While I waited for the museum to open, I perused the exterior of the building, which was just as intriguing as the inside. It has huge columns that resemble an Egyptian temple as Bílek brings religion to the fore. The irregular shape of the former home also caught my attention. I liked the inscriptions on the side of the building, too. Indeed, Bílek incorporated inscriptions into some of his works. There were several sculptures in the quaint garden.
Dominating the garden was a sculpture that featured Czech national figure Jan Amos Comenius, who contributed greatly to the education system in the Czech lands and had to leave his native land because of threats of persecution on more than one occasion. The sculptural grouping shows the 17th century religious and educational reformer forced to escape his native land. He lived in many countries, including Poland, Transylvania, the Netherlands, Sweden and England. I recalled the play version of his novel The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart at Goose on a String Theatre in Brno many years ago. I remember the stunning performance of Petr Oslzlý as the protagonist.
I noticed the elegant Art Nouveau doors as I waited for the museum to open. Soon, it was time. I entered the first room, my personal favorite. It contained numerous sculptures made of wood. I was always overcome by emotion as I perused all the sculptures.
I was most impressed with “Astonishment,” which showed an amazed figure looking up to Heaven. I see the figure as being enthralled by what life has to offer, and it brings me back to my first year in Prague, the last quarter of 1991 and 1992, when my hero, the former dissident and playwright Václav Havel, was president of Czechoslovakia. I was learning Czech, which I consider to be a magical language. I also frequented the Czech theatre where Havel had once been resident dramaturg and playwright as I tried to improve my listening comprehension. A theatre major, I was enthralled by the plays, especially by Havel’s The Garden Party. I met Havel at the premiere of one of his plays, which was a big thrill. I had read the English translations of his books in the USA and had done much research on the Velvet Revolution during university. At that time, I yearned to read his books in Czech.
Everything was new, and the world seemed full of possibilities. To me Havel symbolized hope. I felt this sense of hope in my personal life as I made new friends and started writing for a weekly English language newspaper, interviewing former dissidents and other fascinating Czech personalities.
Another sculpture that deeply affected me was called “Grief.” I could feel the sorrow seep through my body as I stared at the female figure clearly devastated by death. It brought to mind moments of sadness when I had felt a deep pit in my stomach. Gazing at the statue, I let myself experience the sadness, not trying to stave off the painful emotions.
A charcoal drawing that spoke to me was “The Blind,” portraying a blind man leading a blind woman, perhaps on a path to knowledge. (I apologize for not having a picture of this one. The reflection of light on the glass didn’t allow for a decent photo.) The blind man is clearly upset that he cannot see as evidenced by his hand gesture. While they cannot see, they have an inner vision that is necessary to develop as one goes through life, experiencing trials and tribulations. It made me think of the many times I had made mistakes and how I learned from them. I also had learned not to be niave and not to trust everyone or take everyone at their word.
I also marveled at Bílek’s massive furniture, created with light and dark wood. Much of the furniture sported religious motifs as a desk even resembled an altar. I also saw family portraits that reminded me that the villa had once been a home. It gave the place an intimate quality. I wondered what kind of conversations had taken place in that villa when the Bílek family resided there. What had they worried about? What had made them happy?
After a while, I left, feeling so much stronger mentally. This was a museum I could visit often and still be greatly affected by the works of art.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
We approached the yellow-and-white Baroque chateau that was located about 16 kilometers south of Pilsen. Nebílovy had two horseshoe-shaped sections, a front and a back wing. The front part of the chateau boasted a beautiful yellow exterior. However, the outside of the back chateau was in bad condition. When my friend saw the back wing, she asked me if the chateau was open.
Because this was my second visit, I was able to explain to my friend that the building in the back sported some beautiful interiors of representative rooms, including a dazzling dancing hall and an impressive chapel. Unfortunately, finances had not yet permitted the exterior of the back wing to be restored. Many rooms in the back wing had to be renovated, and it would take a long time. Czech chateaus and castles just didn’t have the money to do repairs quickly. I wished I was a billionaire and could donate money to cats and the restoration of chateaus and castles in the Czech Republic. Alas, this was not to be.
I was familiar with the history of Nebílovy. The chateau came into existence during 1706 thanks to Count Adam Jindřich from Steinau, who had it built for residential purposes. The Viennese architect who made this possible was Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Count Adam Jindřich would be a major player in the chateau’s history. He had made a name for himself as imperial general and field marshal of the Venetian Republic. However, Adam Jindřich passed away in 1712, before construction was completed.
Then Nebílovy was sold to the Černín family, and construction was finished before 1720. Count Vojtěch Černín from Chudenice, an accomplished hunter, had it reconstructed in the late 18th century, when master artist Antonie Tuvora painted the interiors. Unfortunately, most of his painting had not survived. It was still visible, though, in the 18th century Dancing Hall due to a lengthy and complicated restoration process.
The Wallenstein-Vartemberk clan then had possession of the chateau, but they lived at Kozel Chateau nearby. I had visited Kozel with its one-floor unique architectural style several times. Later, Nebílovy became decrepit and would remain in bad condition for 100 years. From 1816 it was no longer inhabited. It was used for agricultural purposes. After World War I, parts of the property were divided into plots and sold. Restoration didn’t start until 1968, when the state got control. It was open to the public in 1998.
We walked through the park, which had many flower arrangements and an intriguing fountain. One side was fenced off. Sheep, rams and goats called that part home.
Soon it was time for the tour of the front and back wings. Even the hallway of the front wing was impressive with its delightful paintings of herbal flowers. I especially liked one painting near the beginning of the tour – it showed two hamsters eating grapes. I hadn’t seen many hamsters in paintings in chateaus.
One feature I loved during the tour was the presence of impressive Venetian chandeliers. The Oriental porcelain and furnishings also captured my attention. The porcelain in general was also worth praising, especially the Meissen works. An avid tea drinker, I especially liked a white tea cup decorated with painting of ivy and red flowers. It had a cheery, Christmasy feel. I loved Christmas Eve. It was my favorite holiday. Another piece that interested me was a blue porcelain peacock adorned with real feathers. I also was drawn to a black jewel chest, its drawers sporting floral, plant and bird motifs. The pianos in the chateau were another delight.
While we were examining the back building, we saw the Dancing Hall. I stood in the middle of the 180 meters squared room and stared at the wall and ceiling frescoes of an exotic landscape with Classicist and Rococo elements. It almost made me dizzy with glee.
The frescoes were dotted with monkeys, peacocks, birds and ancient ruins as well as a few people in 18th century attire. The palm trees started at floor level and reached to the ceiling. The doors and fireplace became parts of the landscape, surrounded by trees and architecture from antiquity. I particularly liked the painting of the monkey praying. The faux window, made using illusive techniques, was another thrill. A temple stood in the idyllic landscape, where several people relaxed. Broken statues and pedestals added to the motif of antiquity. I was awed at how Tuvora’s delicate work really drew the viewer into the setting. I was even more fascinated by the restoration process of the fresco. They had arranged it into 650 parts and restored each piece during a lengthy process that was not ready until 2013. The fresco restoration had been even lauded by the National Monument Institute.
After the tour, we entered a small doorway from the courtyard of the back building. It didn’t look like it would be anything special. But inside there was a chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony, an impressive Baroque creation with gilded altars that included wonderful statuary. On the other side of the back building, there was a modern art exhibition that was interesting to see.
We soon left the chateau, full of awe at the 18th century interiors and intriguing architecture of the exteriors. Images of the Dancing Hall kept popping through my mind. It was definitely exceptional, a true work of art – precise and masterful. We came back to Prague, knowing our trip was a great success.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I had been to Konopiště Chateau at least seven times. The tours were always packed with 30 tourists or more, which could be a bit disconcerting. About 40 kilometers from Prague, Konopiště is a popular sight for day trips from the capital city and is usually swamped with tourists.
This time, though, there were only about five of us on each tour. It was during the coronavirus pandemic, at the beginning of September of 2020, when the situation was just starting to get worse. (It would be our last day trip during 2020 because of the steady increase in coronavirus cases.) The courtyard was almost empty. A few tourists waited on benches and fiddled with their cameras. No tour buses traveled there at that time because of the pandemic. We wore our masks and were able to social distance from each other on the tours.
By my 2020 visit, I knew the history of Konopiště well. The chateau of four wings and three storeys came into being as a Gothic fort with stellar defense features in the 1280s. The Šternberks took control of the castle in 1327, and it remained their property for more than 275 years. Konopiště survived the 15th century Hussite Wars without a scratch, a much different fate than so many other Czech castles that were plundered and even destroyed. Konopiště got a Gothic-Renaissance makeover during the late 15th century thanks to George of Šternberk. It became a Renaissance chateau when the Lords of Hodějov owned it in the 17th century. The Lords of Hodějov rebelled against the Habsburg monarchy in 1620, and the chateau was confiscated from them, placed in the possession of military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein.
While Konopiště had experienced good fortune during the Hussite Wars, the same could not be said about their fate during the Thirty Years’ War. The Swedes plundered it in 1648, and throughout the war, the chateau suffered serious damage. After Adam Michna acquired the chateau, the serfs rebelled against his repressive measures and conquered Konopiště in 1657. The Czech kingdom’s highest burgrave, Jan Josef of Vrtba, purchased Konopiště when it was in a decrepit state and transformed it into a luxurious Baroque chateau. Later, the chateau’s interior would also feature some Rococo elements.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este – Photo from Dotyk
During 1887 Franz Ferdinand d’Este purchased the chateau. He was the oldest nephew of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and later would become the heir to the Habsburg throne. He made a multitude of changes to the chateau, reconstructing it as a Renaissance residence with North Italian features. One part of the chateau was remodeled to look medieval. Architect Joseph Mocker carried out the renovations between 1889 and 1894. The archduke founded the 225-hectare English style park with the exquisite rose glarden. He established what is today the third largest European collection of armory and medieval weapons. Perhaps what stood out the most was his impressive collection of hunting trophies that are seen in the hallway at the beginning and throughout the tour.
He also installed modern technical features, such as a hydraulic elevator, central heating and electricity. His vast collection of items dedicated to Saint George are located in the former orangery. After his assassination in Sarajevo during 1918, the First World War took place, and the chateau was plundered. During World War II the chateau served as a headquarters for the Nazis. It was nationalized in 1945, after World War II.
Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophie Chotek – Photo from Pinterest.
To know the history of Konopiště, it is necessary to know more about Franz Ferdinand d’Este. The oldest son of the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I, he became heir to the Habsburg throne after his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father died. The Crown Prince, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I, committed suicide along with his mistress, Mary Freiin von Vetsera, at Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Franz Ferdinand achieved much success in the military. However, he often disagreed with Emperor Franz Josef and was by no means a favorite of the emperor.
Sophie Chotek – Photo from Alchetron.
He was smitten by Sophie Chotek, a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella. The two were secret lovers for two years because Sophie was not descended from the Habsburgs or any other European ruling dynasty, something that caused much tension between Franz Ferdinand and Emperor Franz Josef. The emperor did eventually allow the couple to wed, but he set rigid conditions. None of their children could be heirs to the throne. Also, Sophie was forbidden to sit in the royal carriage or royal box.
They were married at Baroque Zákupy Chateau in northern Bohemia, a place I had visited a few years earlier. I recalled the many portraits and pictures of members of the monarchy at Zákupy. Franz Joseph had used the place as a summer residence for some time in the second half of the 19th century. I remembered what I liked best about Zákupy’s interior. I loved the delicate, decorative painting of Josef Navrátil on the upper walls and ceilings of many rooms. A fantasy-inspired painting of the four continents had also held my attention. The 17th century Baroque chapel was amazing with ceiling frescoes portraying scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had three children and were married for 14 years. The couple was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand terrorist group, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. Franz Ferdinand and his wife had travelled to Sarajevo because Franz Ferdinand wanted to oversee military maneuvers. Less than two months after their tragic deaths, World War I broke out.
Soon it was time for the tour. One characteristic that has always enthralled me is that the chateau has 96 percent of its original furnishings. So many original furnishings of castles and chateaus had been destroyed or lost. Photographs of Konopiště’s interiors from Franz Ferdinand’s ownership of the chateau made it possible to see the spaces as they really had looked during that time period.
As we admired the luxurious spaces on the first tour, I recalled that Franz Ferdinand and Konopiště were mentioned in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, an anti-militaristic, satirical novel sprinkled with anecdotes in which Švejk, a gung-ho soldier serving in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, appears to be an idiot. It is not clear if he is pretending to be an idiot. Originally published from 1921 to 1923, the book was never finished as Hašek succumbed to a heart attack while writing it. The Good Soldier Švejk, as it is often called, holds the distinction of being the most translated book in Czech literature.
Photo from booktook
The first tour showed off some 5,000 numbered hunting trophies, many of exotic animals, as Franz Ferdinand had travelled all over the world on hunting expeditions. Many trophies consisted of exotic animals. I saw bears, antelopes and wild cats, for instance. The archduke had also killed 12 Indian tigers. There was also a collection of 3,200 pairs of deer teeth. But Konopiště is much more than its seemingly ever-present hunting souvenirs.
One of the most impressive spaces is the Rose Room, which has an exquisite pink ceiling and shows off 19th century Rococo furniture. Its Czech crystal chandelier is another delight. I was especially drawn to an Empire style table adorned with gemstones. I loved the three Italian marble cabinets that sported drawers decorated with leaves, fruit, animals and birds. I noticed the delicate ruddy cheeks of Marie Antoinette in one portrait. The Grand Dining Room stood out for its Baroque ceiling that portrays the four seasons and a Czech crystal chandelier weighing 170 kilograms. The 15th century paintings in William II’s Bedroom caught my undivided attention. An exquisite Spanish tapestry of a forest with people on horseback hung in one room. A beautiful yellow, blue and white tiled stove stood out in the Guest Bedroom. A Venetian mirror showed off a picture of Saint George. Many artifacts on the tours were decorated with likenesses of Saint George.
The second tour of the chateau included rooms specifically meant for Crown Prince Rudolf, though he died before he could visit his cousin. Franz Ferdinand had been very close to the Crown Prince and had taken his death very hard. On this tour we learned many interesting facts about Franz Ferdinand’s life. The guide told us that Franz Ferdinand’s brother encouraged him to keep Sophie as a mistress instead of marrying her. Franz Ferdinand never spoke to his brother again.
I marveled at the 16th century Renaissance vaulting throughout the rooms. These spaces make up the oldest part of the castle. My favorite room was the chapel, one of my favorite chapels in the country. It was a place where I could have imagined having my wedding if I had found someone to marry. I was awed by the 19th century blue vaulted ceiling speckled with gold stars, symbolizing the sky. The 15th and 16th century sculptures also amazed. The main altar was Gothic, featuring the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Saint Hubert and Saint George (of course!) also made appearances. Instead of an organ, the chapel was equipped with a harmonium, and it still worked. I loved the bright colors of the chapel – they had such a distinctive vibrancy that gave off positive energy. Also, the small chapel had an intimate feel.
Even though I was not a big fan of weapons, the armory was very impressive. I saw 15th century weapons from the Hussite wars, executioners’ swords and complete armor for a horse and knight hailing from 1560. Renaissance armor for a musician from 1600 was exquisitely decorated with pictures of instruments. A rifle made of ebony hailed from the beginning of the 16th century. Cannons on display had been used during the Thirty Years’ War. Some shields were decorated with mythological themes. One showed a fighting Hercules. I also saw rifles and pistols made in the 16th and 17th century.
There was even more to admire on that tour. An electric elevator with plush seats looked like a small, luxurious train compartment. Franz Ferdinand had equipped the chateau with the most modern technology of the time period. I liked the ashtray made of part of an elephant’s foot. In the Smoking Salon, a 16th century tapestry portraying King of Macedon Alexander the Great caught my attention. Also, the 17th century monumental fireplace adorned with figures of lions and coats-of-arms was carved from rare Italian Carrara marble. Toward the end of the tour, we saw a stuffed bear that had lived in the chateau’s moat until 2007. Now another bear, named Jiří (George), resided there, though I hadn’t seen him when I had looked over the moat during this visit.
Franz Ferdinand and his family hunting, Image from treking.cz
The third tour, the one featuring Franz Ferdinand d’Este’s private apartments, lasted 90 minutes and was as enthralling as I had remembered it. We started off in the 70-meter-long hallway where over 800 of Franz Ferdinand’s hunting trophies were displayed. I especially noticed the razor-sharp teeth of an open-mouthed tiger. In another space I was drawn to a Nuremberg chandelier made with deer antlers and decorated with mythological figures.
Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and family, Image from stoplusjednicka.cz
My favorite part of the tour came next. We walked down a hallway lined with portraits of historical figures, such as Dante Alighieri, Titian and Christopher Columbus. Empress Maria Theresa’s likeness stood out as well. In another space, I noticed the delicate embroidery on Franz Ferdinand’s uniforms, such as his attire as a Russian general. The chest that traveled to Sarajevo with Franz Ferdinand and his wife made an appearance, too. The gigantic tooth of a whale was intimidating. Portraits of Emperor Franz Josef I dotted the apartments. Each time I saw one, I recalled the rigid conditions that Emperor Franz Josef had put in place while allowing the two lovebirds to marry. I also noticed the fine woodworking craftsmanship on the headboard of a bed.
Eventually, we came to a room where there were 1,307 hunting trophies. I remembered the space from one of my favorite films, featuring the fictional Czech legendary character Jára Cimrman, who was the focus of a small, intimate theatre in Prague’s Žižkov district. I noticed a lighter in the shape of a dog on a desk. In the Dining Room the tiled stove was enchanting. I loved seeing various styles of tiled stoves in chateaus.
I took note of a painting of Saint George killing the dragon, a theme featured throughout the chateau in 3,900 objects. Franz Ferdinand had wanted to impress King George with his collection and persuade him to visit Konopiště, but his dream was never realized because Franz Ferdinand d’Este was assassinated in Sarajevo.
A miniature jewel case sporting the intarsia method caught my eye. In the Pink Salon I was captivated by one of many portraits. It showed a young Sophie Chotek, Franz Ferdinand d’ Este’s wife, with a wreath of flowers in her hair. I recalled that neither she nor her children could have the Habsburg title because she was not descended from a European ruling dynasty. I mused that their children could never become heirs to the throne as I stared at a huge portrait of the three offspring. They looked serious, pondering. In a bedroom with 20th century furniture there was a Madonna painting. I liked the tan-and-black color combination for the bedspread. I also liked the pale-yellow bedspreads in the room for Arnošt and Maximilián, the two sons. The model boats in the room were very detailed. A huge portrait showed the boys in the chateau park. I imagined them frolicking through the impressive park, carefree and full of joy. A photo showed them in sailors’ uniforms, standing with their father. In another portrait the two boys were dressed in girls’ clothes because this was the normal attire for young boys during that era. I tried to imagine the boys playing Indians, reading adventure books by Karel May or playing puppet theatre with a Saint George and the dragon theme. I also saw portraits of dogs, textbooks and collections of fairy tales. The guide showed us a magazine the children produced about music, dogs and birds, for instance.
Countess Sophie Chotek, Image from flikr
I also was shown the room where the children’s French and music teacher had slept. Franz Ferdinand’s children had kept in touch with her even after becoming adults. In the daughter’s room I especially liked the Venetian mirror and took notice of the delightful floral bedspread and floral upholstery of the furniture. In another space the Delft porcelain caught my eye. I thought of the Delft porcelain at Zákupy Chateau, where Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had wed. I had admired Delft porcelain in so many chateaus and palaces. A magnificent tiled stove in green, blue and yellow stood out, too.
We were in the chapel briefly. The biblical scenes shown in the stained-glass windows captivated me as did the many sculptures. The blue ceiling decorated with gold stars was my favorite feature of the chapel. This was definitely one of my favorite chateau chapels of all time, I mused. I could have spent an hour just perusing the chapel because it showed off so much precious decoration.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este and Countess Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo, Image from http://www.payne.cz
In another room there were black-and-white photos of the family’s travels to Japan, China and India, for example. I perused shots taken in Nepal and Calcutta as well as one of an elephant in Ceylon. While some pictures showcased the landscape, others focused on people. The hydraulic elevator with comfortable, upholstered seating had traveled a half-meter each second.
Finally, we came to a display case holding Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s death masks and one of the bullets from Gavrilo Princip’s pistol. Such a small object had produced a fatal wound. Blood stained an otherwise dainty handkerchief. The delicate white dress and white hat Sophie had been wearing when she was shot were in full view as well. The white color of her attire somehow made her assassination seem all the more tragic.
I also visited the Shooting Hall in the former stables, which hailed from Franz Ferdinand’s time at the chateau. I was impressed with the astounding detail of the painted moving targets of various people and animals. The museum of 808 objects depicting Saint George killing the dragon in the former orangery was another delight. Franz Ferdinand had collected these paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces with the hopes that one day Britain’s King George would visit the chateau. That dream was cut short by Franz Ferdinand’s death.
Then there was the vast park, which we only had a little time to visit. The rose garden had always been my favorite part of the park along with its numerous Italian sculptures. I also had an affinity for the greenhouse and its intriguing plants. I had been at the park during the spring and summer previous years, so I had seen it in full bloom.
Then it was time to eat. We were the only customers in the cozy chateau restaurant. I had chicken and couldn’t resist a large sundae for dessert. I loved treating myself to ice cream on my day trips. It made them even more special. I would remember this sundae more than others because it would be my last at a chateau for the season. I can still savor the vanilla and chocolate. . . .
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.