I was very excited to visit Zbiroh Chateau because, even though it had been open to the public since 2005, I was visiting for the first time. It wasn’t far from Prague, either. I knew that the chateau served as a hotel, but I hadn’t realized that there also were tours of the representative spaces. After a steep incline, I approached the two lavish statues of lions that guarded the entrance. The entrance gate seeped with grandeur. Both features hailed from a 19th century renovation.
Czech King Přemysl Otakar II, photo from Turistický denník
I learned about the fascinating history of Zbiroh on the tour. It was built before some time before 1230. In the late 13th century, Czech King Přemysl Otakar II conquered Zbiroh. The Přemysl dynasty of Czech rulers was legendary in the Czech lands. Přemysl Otakar II built many towns, among other accomplishments.
Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, photo from Medieval Histories
In the 1330s, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV gained control of the property. Charles IV would become perhaps the most prominent figure in Czech history. who had controlled the castle after he returned from fighting in France. Charles IV established towns, churches and castles, for instance. He created Prague’s New Town district, what is now called the Charles Bridge and the first university in Prague. He also had Prague’s Saint Vitus’ Cathedral built.
Emperor Sigismund, photo from Quora
During the 14th century, Petr of Rosenberg owned the castle, and it would stay in his family for about 100 years. Emperor Sigismund, the son of Emperor Charles IV, bought the castle from the Rosenbergs during the 15th century. Other famous royal dynasties would take over the chateau from the time of the Hussite wars in the 15th century – first the Kolowrats, then the Lobkowiczes, then the Sternbergs. During the Hussite wars of the 15th century, Zbiroh was not damaged, a fate that did not behold many other Czech monuments.
Emperor Rudolf II, photo from Kalendar.beda.cz
Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, painted by Arcimboldo, photo from Heureka.cz
At the end of the 16th century, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II acquired Zbiroh, and he would have a momentous effect on the castle’s history. Emperor Rudolf II had made Prague the center of the Habsburg monarchy. A lover of art, Rudolf II bought many paintings, and, thanks to him, Prague flourish as a cultural center. He made many changes to the Gothic castle, transforming it into a Renaissance chateau. He liked to hunt on the property.
However, this golden age would come to an end. After the Battle of White Mountain, which the Catholics won against the Protestants in November of 1620, the castle was turned into a prison for the defeated soldiers. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops damaged and pillaged the chateau Until the middle of the 19th century, the chateau was dilapidated.
Baron Henry Bethel Strousberg and family, photo from Epochplus.cz
That’s when European entrepreneur Baron Henry Bethel Strousberg came along. He made a name for himself throughout Europe as the owner of iron and coal mines, factories and property, among other things. After he purchased the chateau, he made it a representative seat and modernized it. He envisioned making Zbiroh an industrial center focusing on extracting iron ore and wood coal. However, the ore had phosphorous in it, and the project, thankfully, had to be abandoned. Baron Strousberg wound up going bankrupt. He fled to Russia, where he was incarcerated for two years. Then Strousberg went back to Berlin. His family fled to London. The once influential and wealthy Strousberg called an attic flat owned by his former cook home. He died there, penniless.
The lavish arch built during Strousberg’s tenure at Zbiroh
The next owner of the chateau was Duke Joseph Coloredo-Mansfeld. He rented it to legendary Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. While residing at Zbiroh, Mucha created some of his most important paintings, such as the 20 Slav Epic depictions that celebrate Slav identity.
View from the terrace at Zbiroh
The Mansfelds hung onto the chateau until the Nazis came and turned the place into a SS headquarters. At the end of the war, the Nazis hid their secret documents in the bottom of the chateau’s well – at 163 meters it was the deepest in Europe. Then they covered it with a metal plate at the 150-meter mark so that their documents would be difficult to retrieve.
View of Zbiroh from postcard
The Czechoslovak army took control after the war, in 1945. Zbiroh was taken off the map as a top-secret facility was placed there. Czechoslovakia gathered information about NATO armies. The soldiers did not take care of the chateau. They even used the unique well as an ashtray. The army didn’t leave until 2004, when a private company bought the chateau and Zbiroh was put back on the map. It was open to the public in 2005. Zbiroh’s history is also connected to the Teutonic Knights as the current owner is a member.
The tour was fascinating. In the first room I liked the collection of African masks on the wall. Remnants of some of the documents the Nazis had tried to destroy in the well were on display in another space. My favorite artifacts were the Madonna statues dotting the representative rooms, some hailing as far back as the Romanesque and Gothic eras. A 650-year old Madonna was the most valuable artifact in the chateau. The Christ child appeared jovial and curious while the Virgin Mary looked like a proud mother. In a Late Gothic Virgin Mary sculpture from the 15th century, the Christ Child was smiling, about to break out in laughter. The Virgin Mary donned an elegant, simple crown. An ivory statue of Saint Nickolas also caught my attention. It hailed from the 14th century.
I saw a masterfully carved 13th century Romanesque chest, too. Chamber tiles from the 15th century showed Saint George battling the dragon. I saw many copies of works by Leonardo DaVinci, including the Mona Lisa, a self-portrait of the painter and a portrait of Mary Magdalene. Even though they were reproductions, these paintings were very impressive. A life-size carving of Saint Vitus from the 18th century was another delight.
On the lavish dining room table gilded silverware hailed from the era of Empress Maria Theresa. The napkins were shaped in the form of a lily, a royal symbol. I also saw a detailed map of Bohemia from 1702. The Empire furnishings bought in the mid-19th century were ravishing, too.
Alphonse Mucha created posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt and achieved worldwide acclaim. Photo taken at Mucha exhibition in Wallenstein Riding Stables, 2022.
Mucha’s Rooms were another highlight. I had been a fan of Mucha’s Art Nouveau works for a long time. I had visited the Mucha Museum in Prague and only months before this visit, I had seen the comprehensive Mucha exhibition in the Wallenstein Riding Stables in Prague. In these spaces, I saw a portrait of Mucha featuring Masonic symbols because he had been a Mason. Also, Masonic medals owned by Mucha were on display. I was entranced by Mucha’s historical painting “Master John of Rokycany at the Council of Basel” from 1933. On one wall, Mucha’s students had painted female figures in their teacher’s style.
From Mucha’s Slav Epic paintings, photo taken at Mucha exhibition in Wallenstein Riding Stables, 2022.
The ballroom was the most beautiful space. This was once Mucha’s studio while the balcony had served as a dark room for his photographs. The large room was built in the second half of the 19th century. It featured a skylight with glazed glass and two elegant crystal chandeliers. I spotted Zbiroh Chateau behind what looked like blue mist in a painting by Mucha. The yellow, blue and red decorative wall painting enthralled me as well.
Another masterpiece by Alphonse Mucha, photo taken at Mucha exhibition at Wallenstein Riding Stables, Prague, 2022
Then we walked down a long hallway with Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque tapestries and armors of knights from various eras. As the tour ended, I was very glad I had finally discovered this gem. The history of the chateau was riveting, and the artifacts in the representative spaces were amazing.
It was time to get something to eat. In the parking lot, I noticed the beech trees that surrounded the chateau and listened to the sound of silence. It was so quiet and tranquil, such a relief from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader 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.