Konopiště Chateau Diary

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.

Zákupy Chateau

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.

Interior of Zákupy Chaptel
Interior of Zákupy Chapel

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.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his family – Photo from Franz Josef

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.

A look at the countryside around the chateau

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.

We didn’t have a chance to go on the third tour, but I had been on it during previous visits. It consisted of Franz Ferdinand’s private apartments. Furnishings of various styles exuded charm and luxury. A hunting theme dominated the décor.

Museum of Saint George in the former orangery

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.

Target in the Shooting Hall

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.

Chateau park

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. . . .

My last dessert at a chateau restaurant in 2020

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

Shooting Hall at Konopiště Chateau Photo Diary

The shooting hall is located in the former stables of Konopiště Chateau, about an hour from Prague.  It hails from the time when Franz Ferdinand d’Este, an avid hunter, resided there. He bought the chateau in 1887 and carried out repairs from 1889 to 1894 so that the architecture resembled a Renaissance chateau in North Italian style with a partially medieval appearance. His penchant for hunting is well-documented as the chateau shows off 4,500 of his hunting trophies and 3,000 deer teeth.

The shooting hall includes painted moving targets of various figures rendered in great detail. One man holds out an open umbrella to fend off an angry dog. Another man brandishes scissors in one hand as if about to use them as a weapon against people gathered in front of a bank. There are targets of various animals, too. The shooting hall includes a section with many hunting trophies, too. Its meticulously portrayed painted scenes are unique, to be sure. This part of the chateau is free if tourists buy a ticket for any of the four tours of the interiors.

Franz Ferdinand was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, the brother of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef I. After his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father passed away, Franz Ferdinand found himself heir to the Habsburg throne.

The emperor strongly frowned upon Ferdinand marrying Sophie Chotková because no one in her family was a descendent of a European ruling dynasty. Finally, the couple was allowed to marry, but there were strict conditions. The couple’s three children could never be heirs to the throne.

They only enjoyed 14 years residing in the chateau. Their tenure was abruptly cut short when, during the summer of 1914, as Inspector General of the Army, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie oversaw military maneuvers in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This region, along with Herzegovina, had been annexed by Austria in 1908. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, an assassin affiliated with the Black Hand terrorist group, shot and killed the Archduke and his wife while they were in their car. Less than two months later, World War I began. 

People usually pop into the shooting hall for a quick look but the skillfully made moving targets deserve more attention.

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

City Museum of Prague Diary

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I had wanted to visit the City Museum of Prague again for some time, but I had just not gotten around to it. I remembered how the intriguing museum took visitors through the joys and disappointments of Czech history. This time, I went to see a temporary exhibition about Prague during the 20-year existence of the democratic First Republic, but, of course, I explored the entire museum as well.

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It was even more impressive than I had remembered. In the main hallway, I saw the calendar dial for Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, painted in 1865 by well-acclaimed Czech artist Josef Mánes. The dial was divided into circular rings. I took notice of the medieval syllable calendar. The folk costume-clad figures represented the 12 months, celebrating Slavic identity. I recognized Troský Castle in the background for September, and I knew that December symbolized the tradition of Czech pig-slaughtering, a custom the European Union did not approve of. A castle addict, I was excited to see Bezděz Castle in the background of the portrayal of March as a young farmer did his ploughing duties in the foreground. I remembered walking 4 kilometers from the train station to the ruins of Bezděz. It had entailed two kilometers of a steep, rocky incline that led to the remnants of what must have been at one time an impressive castle. I liked walking around the ruins, several pages that described each part in my hand, trying to imagine what it had looked like in its heyday. I wasn’t a big fan of ruins, but this one had charmed me.

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Mánes had also painted figures as zodiac signs. I saw dolphins with a plump cherub for Pisces. Sagittarius featured an Old Bohemian warrior while the depiction of Capricorn did not include any human figures but rather a cherub guiding a goat.

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I also noticed that Romanesque elements had greatly influenced the adornment on the dial. I recalled the Romanesque church in Regensburg, Germany, the façade an architectural delight. I had also seen many churches with Romanesque features in Czech villages. At the ruins of Vyšehrad Castle in Prague, St. Martin’s rotunda fit the Romanesque style.

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I walked into the prehistory section, not knowing if I would find it interesting as prehistory was not my cup of tea. I discovered that the first archeological find in Prague was unearthed near St. Matthew’s Church in Prague’s sixth district, a nice walk from where I had lived for many years. The small church had an intimate flair, and if I had been religious, I would have gone there for services. I would also like to be buried there. It is a relatively small and beautiful cemetery in my favorite section of Prague, but I do not think that would be possible. The cemetery is home to some famous Czech artists – architect Pavel Janák and actor Jiří Kemr.

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I also learned that the first farmers in Central Bohemia came in 6 BC. Another interesting fact was that the Celts, in the second half of 1 BC, were the first people to wear trousers in Central Europe.

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The medieval displays were eye-catching. Frescoes and wall paintings from Prague houses were highlighted. I read that Prague’s boroughs were created in the 13th and 14th centuries when a medieval fortress had been built. I already knew the Old Town was founded by King Wenceslas I during the 1230s. I read about the origins of the various districts of Prague. A statue that got my attention showed Christ in agony, hailing from 1413 and made of linden wood. Ceramic stove tiles showed pictures of Hussite soldiers from the 15th century, when the Hussite wars ravaged the Czech lands.

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Rudolf II’s Prague was also featured in the museum section that documented Prague from 1434 to 1620. Artists had flocked to Prague, which had made a name for itself as a center of European Mannerism. Rudolf II’s collection of art and curiosities was certainly impressive. An art gallery at Prague Castle displayed much art that had been attained during his reign. I had also seen many of Rudolf II’s curiosities in the Kunsthammer in Vienna.

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Of course, the Thirty Years’ War was given much attention, as the Catholic victory over the Protestants would greatly influence Prague and Czech history for hundreds of years. Before the war, there were many Ultraquists in Prague society. The defining battle for the Czech lands was at White Mountain in Prague during 1620. The townspeople of Prague were not happy with the then current legal, economic and political roles of towns and took part in this battle. During the war, the Saxons occupied Prague, and the Swedes pillaged and bombed the New Town in Prague.

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I remembered living near the Vltava embankment in the pleasant New Town. I tried to imagine the damage and destruction that those bombs had brought to the quarter. It must have been a devastating sight. Prague became part of a province after the war, and Baroque art and architecture became the fashion. In 1624 Catholicism became the only religion allowed in the Czech lands. During the Baroque period, Czech artists including the Dientzenhofer family of architects, sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun as well as painters Karel Škréta, Petr Brandl and Norbert Grund made their way to Prague in 1710 and had a great influence on the art in the city.

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The reign of the Habsburgs brought with it a long period of Germanization and a centralized monarchy that dominated the 18th century. Some of the exhibits on display from this century were intriguing, to say the least. A table clock took on a macabre character, featuring a skeleton wielding a scythe. There was also a wooden throne from St. Vitus Cathedral, made in the second half of the 17th century. A glass garden with musicians and nobles was another impressive creation.

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Then Prague experienced peace for 100 years. The exhibition ended with the Baroque section, but there was more to the museum, specifically Antonín Langweil’s model of Prague, constructed from 1826 to 1837. He had worked in the University Library at the Clementinum when he was not creating this amazing three-dimensional model of the city. The precision and detail left me in awe. He did not finish the project, but what he did create is astoundingly beautiful and innovative. I saw many sights I had first become acquainted with when I was a tourist in the city during the summer of 1991 – Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and the Lesser Quarter’s main square as well as the Old Town, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

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I recalled walking to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge early each morning when I first moved to Prague and lived in the Old Town. I would never forget standing below the balcony of Prague Castle on a frigid February evening in 1994 while Václav Havel gave a speech as the first President of the newly created Czech Republic, his wife Olga by his side. I recalled the moment I had set my eyes on Old Town Square for the first time, back in 1991, feeling at once that I had found my true home.

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What I found just as impressive as the exhibits were the richly adorned coffered ceilings in the museum. The painting is incredible. One used to be in a house in Prague and hails from the 17th century. On walls of the upper floor is a magnificent painting of the city.

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While I already had a solid foundation in Czech and Prague history before this visit, I realized how important this museum would be as a learning experience for tourists who really wanted to become acquainted with the historical events that had shaped the city’s identity through the Baroque era.

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It was such a shame that the displays ended with the Baroque era, but there was no more space in the museum. I thought that a museum of more recent history should be created with a special room celebrating Václav Havel as a dissident, playwright and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

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Walking through this museum, I was moved by the lands’ often tumultuous history and reminded how the history of the city seeps into my soul every day, no matter where I am. Just looking around me, I feel the history, which is one of the traits I like most about Prague. It is one reason I feel at home here and don’t want to leave.

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

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