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.
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.