Křivoklát Castle Diary

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I’ve been to this Gothic masterpiece many times as it is only about an hour from Prague. Usually I go there by bus and travel back to Prague by train. This time I went for the first time by car with a friend. However, that was not the reason I would always remember this visit. I would remember it because it was my first trip after stay-at-home orders had ended during the coronavirus pandemic. From mid- March until mid-May, I had only been out of my home for long walks through scenic neighborhoods. The first three weeks I hardly went out at all because I was so terrified of getting the illness.

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The tower

I was nervous as we parked near a restaurant not far from the castle. What if someone coughed on me? One thing I knew: everyone would be wearing a mask. Czechs did not have a problem wearing masks – unlike some Americans. As we approached the castle, I felt a sense of relief and comfort. I had waited for this day since the beginning of April, when castles normally opened for the season in the Czech Republic. Now it was May 26, the first day castles were accessible to the public during 2020.

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I was familiar with the history of Křivoklát Castle. The castle dates back to the 13th century, although there was a fort at a different location as far back as the 12th century. Křivoklát Castle was constructed during the legendary era of the Přemyslid Dynasty, the clan that reigned in the Czech lands during the 13th and 14th centuries. The three-level circular tower, inspired by a French style, harkens back to the original structure. This tower is a dominant feature of the castle today. The upper courtyard also hails from this period.

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During the reign of Wenceslas II, Křivoklát was a remarkable and extensive early Gothic castle boasting three towers. A fire in the 14th century proved a major setback, though the castle was rebuilt. Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was imprisoned there as a youngster and later would visit on many occasions despite his nightmarish childhood experience. Charles IV’s son Wenceslas IV had the castle reconstructed at the end of the 14th century and during the 15th century. That’s when Křivoklát became a very impressive structure holding a prominent position in the Czech lands.

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The Hussite Wars put an end to the castle’s glory. During this 15th century conflict, Křivoklát was conquered by both the Hussites and the Catholics. However, better days were to come as Czech King Vladislav II had Křivoklát reconstructed in late Gothic style, beginning in the 1470s. The chapel that has been preserved dates from this time. Also, Křivoklát was enhanced with topnotch defense features, such as semi-circular bastions, a battery tower and a triangular foregate with casements. Křivoklát Castle once again became a magnificent structure that was admired not only throughout the Czech lands but also all over Central Europe. Prominent people were imprisoned there. Some notable figures who were incarcerated there included Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren Jan Augusta, who spent 16 years in a cell without light. Alchemist Edward Kelly also did time at Křivoklát after killing a man in a duel.

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A fire in 1643 did much damage. It was sold to the Wallenstein clan during 1685. Then, in 1733, the Furstenbergs took control of the castle. After a devastating fire in 1826, the Furstenbergs had it renovated. The Furstenberg library was one of the highlights of the tour. Czech historian František Palacký used the library for his research. In 1929, the family sold the castle to the Czech state.

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The main altar, hailing from 1490

Because we went during the coronavirus epidemic, we had to wear masks, and only 15 people were allowed on each tour. However, it was not possible to stand two meters (six feet) apart from other castlegoers, which had me a bit concerned. On the tour, I learned that the original residential and defensive tower is 42 meters high. We saw three models of the castle from different periods. The model from the 13th century showed the tower at the castle’s unprotected side and a simple first courtyard. The second courtyard, though, looked as it did today. We toured the seven prison cells, and I tried to imagine living in one of them for 16 years without light as Jan Augusta did. I could not fathom it.

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The main altar in the chapel

Then we came to the chapel, my favorite room in the castle and one of the best preserved Gothic chapels in Europe. The winged main altar showing the crowning of the Virgin Mary dates back to 1490. It consists of four panels portraying the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I noticed one panel pictorially described the birth of Christ. I liked the prominent gold color of Mary’s halo in all four panels. I saw masterfully carved statues of the 12 Apostles on the walls. I loved the armrests on the pews with remarkably carved demonic monster-like creatures. While churchgoers were seated and gazing at the heavenly altar and 12 apostles, the “evil” armrests of the pews reminded them that there was also a Hell, which was readily accessible.

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Detail of the main altar

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A detail of a pew

We also saw a room dotted with Gothic art – altarpieces, statues and paintings that astounded. A triptych of Archangel Michael hailed from 1500. Illuminated manuscripts also caught my undivided attention. The Big Knights’ Hall measured 28 meters in length and eight meters in width. The statuary was splendid, the pillars elegant, the fresco remnants intriguing. From the oratory, I gazed down at the chapel and that dazzling main altar. The gilded pulpit was an architectural delight.

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From the chapel again

The library was another favorite room. I loved being surrounded by books, especially by 53,000 volumes. They were written in German, French, Latin, Italian and Czech. The guide pointed out the biggest book, called Hebrew Didactics and made up of 2,500 pages. Published during the 17th century, it weighed 11 kilos. Always a fan of paintings of castles, I liked the portrayals of the castles before the horrendous fire of 1826. A portrait of a young Franz Joseph I also was intriguing. In the Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs, the most important painting was also the smallest – a rendition of Albrecht Furstenberg from 1577. He had worked for Emperor Rudolf II. It was the oldest portrait in the collection.

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Another room showed off Baroque and Rococo sleighs once used for hunting, including one that had scenes of Amsterdam depicted on it. The Furstenberg museum included paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, knights’ armor, spears and a colorful Asian vase plus many other artifacts.

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Gothic art and illuminated manuscripts amaze.

I had been nervous about this visit because of the coronavirus epidemic, but it went quite smoothly, despite the lack of social distancing on the tour. I was glad to travel again, even if it was only an hour from my home. I realized how much I had missed my weekly day trips. Being cooped up at home, only getting outside for walks, had been at times agonizing as I longed for the old normal that would never exist again. Now, at least after visiting this castle, I felt as if I was following a more normal routine, though I was still terrified of getting the disease.

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From Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs

We ate lunch in a quiet restaurant in Lány, the town where the president had his summer residence. We were seated at least two meters from the other diners. It was a fantastic feeling to be at a restaurant again after so many microwaved meals at home. It felt liberating, but I knew I still had to be very careful. We got back before 5:30 in the evening, so I was able to watch New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefing live. His briefings helped keep me sane while living through such crazy times.

The library and sleigh collection

While memories of all my other trips to Křivoklát blended together, this one would stand out because of the coronavirus pandemic. I had never imagined I would have to wear a mask while touring a castle. I did not understand why some Americans refused to wear them. After all, it could make all the difference between staying healthy and getting ill or even dying.

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During my trip to Křivoklát, the world seemed a little saner, a little less chaotic and less confusing. Admiring Gothic art and Baroque sleighs allowed me to – at least for an hour and a half – forget that the world was messed up, there were so many sudden changes to deal with on a daily basis. Visiting Křivoklát Castle helped me conquer my fears of going outside. And I knew that tomorrow would be another day as I had to take life one step at a time, always moving forward, never looking back.

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

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Views from the castle

 

Červený Újezd Castle Diary

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The place looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. That was my first impression of Cerveny Ujezd Castle back in 2002 and my first thought when I visited again during 2017. The beauty of the castle almost put me in a trance. I loved the medieval atmosphere of the courtyard with balcony and wooden bridge. The Renaissance sgraffito on one wall looked authentic. The Gothic style windows also captivated me.

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Though it has a medieval feel, Cerveny Ujezd is a newcomer to the world of castles. It was built from 2001 to 2002, according to the wishes of Czech entrepreneur Pavel Orma. Cerveny Ujezd took about 18 months to complete. The museum in the castle features approximately 4,000 objects relating to countryside life in the Czech lands from the 17th to 19th centuries. It took Orma 40 years to collect the intriguing items. The museum is divided into sections that display artifacts from various regions in the country. There was also a part that reflected the life of the nobility with a Knights’ Hall and chapel.

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While waiting for the tour of the museum to start, I also recalled from my first visit that the castle had a magnificent park and open-air architectural museum of countryside buildings. I could not wait to see it all again. On the drive to the castle, I saw many ugly mansions built in the garish pseudo-Baroque style, which the owners employed to display their wealth to the world. They were such eyesores in the countryside. I mused that this entrepreneur put his money to good use, creating an intriguing museum in a structure that looked like a real castle, bringing the Middle Ages to life. It was hard for me to believe that the building was so new. The castle featured so many traits of past architectural styles. Not surprisingly, many couples chose this castle as the place to exchange their wedding vows. I would not have minded getting married there, if I had found the right man.

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During the tour led by an intelligent and enthusiastic guide, I saw a baking kiln from several centuries ago which reminded me of all the black kitchens I had seen in castles. Wooden dishes and utensils were also apparent in that kitchen area.

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One room was devoted to instruments used for the once popular Czech pig slaughtering ritual that had taken place in villages throughout the country for decades. Now, though, it was illegal because of European Union regulations. This was one of the many reasons some Czechs I knew thought it would be better not to be in the European Union. Czechs are proud of their traditions that play an integral role in the country’s national identity. I saw axes and butchers’ tables, for instance. A Central Bohemian kitchen boasted a handpainted stove and exquisite ceramics. The section of the exhibition devoted to life in the Krkonoš (Giant) Mountains included a wooden machine for making linen. I especially liked the Christmas tree in the Litomyšl section. I could imagine small children gathered around the tree, tearing open wrapping paper and squealing with delight as they opened each package.

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Handmade carvings from the Wallachia region of Moravia entranced me in a workshop. Wallachia is the easternmost part of Moravia near the Slovak border. I remembered visiting the open-air architectural museum in Wallachian Rožnov pod Radhoštěm many years ago and seeing the world from another perspective at the top of nearby Mount Radhošť.

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The part devoted to ceramics caught my attention. I loved the colorful ceramics from south Moravia. The ceramics from Rožnov were traditionally brown and white. There were some black ceramics from north Moravia. I enjoyed seeing the big collection of Baroque Christmas molds, some shaped as crayfish, others as babies and still others as small and big lambs. The bed with bright blue, orange and red painted ornamentation and a floral pattern was superb. A long bench could be pulled upwards to make an – albeit very thin – bed.

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In the Cheb and west Czech lands section, I marveled at the folklore-themed closets and chests. A tapestry stood out as did a machine for making them. I loved tapestries, especially those in the Residence Museum in Munich and in Náměšť nad Oslavou Chateau in Moravia. (I remembered my train ride to Náměšť nad Oslavou well because an elderly man died on the train. I will never forget the sobbing of the widow from a neighboring compartment.)

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Next, I entered the part of the exhibition dedicated to the nobility. I saw a small chapel with a Crucifixion scene on its main altar. It had a distinct feeling of intimacy. There were also replicas of weapons that the Hussites had used in the 15th century during the Hussite Wars that had ravaged the Czech lands, when so many Czech castles had been destroyed.

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I particularly was drawn to the Knights’ Hall that showed off four sets of knights’ armor. It was decorated with bearskin rugs and a big tiled stove. I noticed that there was no silverware. Back in the Middle Ages, even the nobility had eaten with their hands. There was also a model of a knight on a life-size horse. Weapons that could be used in a knights’ tournament were also displayed. I held in my hands a knight’s pair of pants and shirt armor – I was surprised the clothing was so heavy. It is hard to fathom how someone could wear such heavy clothing all day, especially in battle.

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I passed a workshop for cutting and polishing precious stones. The large purple gemstone in the middle of the room was particularly pleasing to the eye. I also saw a typical blacksmith’s shop. Standing inside made me feel as if I had been transported back in time.

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Soon, I strolled through the park and open-air architectural museum. The park included 2,500 kinds of woody plants. In the park, I thought I must be in a dream. The water lilies looked like they had jumped out of a Monet painting. The park was too picturesque for words. Not even superlative adjectives could do the place justice. I saw sheep grazing and an ancient beehive – without any bees, luckily. I walked by a windmill, belfry, wine cellar, charcoal kiln, hayloft and shepherd’s hut as well as a wooden chapel. I have always dreamed of visiting all the wooden churches in east Slovakia, set in the villages where I imagine time has stood still. I had seen several wooden churches in the Czech lands, and I immediately recalled the Church of the Virgin Mary in Broumov, which was the oldest preserved all-wood construction in Central Europe. Also, the wooden Church of All Saints in the village of Dobříkov came to mind.

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Finally, I went to the medieval-style pub where musical instruments and various artifacts decorate a large space with picnic-like benches and tables. It was quaint, quite charming. The potato soup was exceptional.

Then it was time to make my way back to Prague. After being immersed in such beauty for several hours, it was hard to leave. I knew I would not wait another 15 years to come back.

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

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