The Historical Underground of Pilsen Diary

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When I bought my ticket to visit the underground cellars below the center of Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech), I thought the tour would be interesting. However, I had no idea it would be fascinating and one of the highlights of my many trips to this dazzling city in west Bohemia. The ticket office was at the entrance to the Brewery Museum, which I also visited and found intriguing, even though I rarely drink alcohol.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of visiting underground areas, and I admit that I was a bit scared for my safety when I had to put on a hard hat. It turned out that there was no reason to be afraid. The corridors were not wide but provided enough room for one person to walk through. I can at times feel a bit claustrophobic, but I did not have a problem there. In some parts in caves I had visited, I had been squashed between rock formations, and the paths had been very tight.

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The guide explained that we would explore 800 meters of the underground area, though the cellars were actually much more extensive. The passages can be traced back to the early 14th century. They were built soon after the founding of the town by the first houses that had obtained the right to brew beer. The cellars served various purposes. Food was stored there, and beer was brewed in the underground areas. During sieges of the city, inhabitants took refuge in this labyrinth. The passages also became important parts of the city’s defense system. In addition, during the Middle Ages, the pubs above the passages were ordered to close at a certain hour, and the establishments carried on serving beer in the cellars after hours.

The eloquent guide told us the different eating habits of the poor and the rich during the Middle Ages. Poor people used ceramic tableware and ate mostly vegetarian food because meat was too costly. Birds and fish made up part of their diet. The wealthy, though, used glass, metal and silver tableware and ate a lot of meat and spices. They ate with their hands, though they used knives when eating meat. The well-off citizens refused to use forks because they thought they resembled pitchforks and were bad luck.

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I saw beautiful tiles from stoves constructed in the Middle Ages. One that caught my fancy showed Saint George fighting the dragon. I also saw an exquisite decorated water pot from medieval times.

The guide talked about the three symbols on Pilsen’s coat-of-arms – an angel, a camel and a greyhound. I loved the story about how the camel came to be one of the city’s symbols. During the Hussite wars, the Hussites attempted to overtake the city four times, but never prevailed. The Hussites tried to frighten the inhabitants of Pilsen with a camel. However, their plan backfired in a major way. The inhabitants liked the camel so much that they put the animal on their coat-of-arms. In the end, the Hussites left, defeated. The camel stayed.

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The guide also explained that the three golden fountains of contemporary art on the main square stood for the three symbols of the city. The T-shaped fountain stood for the angel while the F-shaped one represented the camel. The Greek letter stood for the greyhound. I was captivated by the three fountains, though I had not understood what they symbolized. Though contemporary, they fit in well with the medieval atmosphere of the main square dominated by the Church of Saint Bartholomew. I was impressed that they by no means take away from the square’s historical charm.

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I also saw samples of ceramics from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Two objects that caught my attention included a unique 16th century sieve and a piggybank from the 17th century. I was intrigued by the many wells – we saw 20 of them!

When we reached one point, the guide told us that we were standing under a house that once printed books in Pilsen. The first book published in Pilsen hailed from 1468. I also was intrigued with a pair of very pointy shoes, often referred to as poulaines. They looked very uncomfortable. I did not understand how someone could squish up his or her feet into those shoes. How would it be possible to walk in them? During the Middle Ages, very pointy shoes were a sign of wealth. I recalled that they had been particularly fashionable in France during that era, as evidenced by The Book of Hours. The pointier your shoes were, the richer you were.

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There were many guilds during the Middle Ages, including a guild of manufacturers of tiled stoves. I saw many examples of tiles from stoves during the tour. Emperor Rudolf II lived in Pilsen for one year when the plague was ravaging Prague, and the inhabitants presented him with a tiled stove to show their appreciation that he had chosen their city as his temporary residence.

I saw some cannonballs used by the Hussites. They weighed 200 kilograms each!  The cannonballs were able to demolish the first town wall, but they did not destroy the second wall. The inhabitants of the city threw the cannonballs back at the Hussites, foiling their enemy’s plan.

A functioning water wheel fascinated me. It was a replica of one that dated from 1532. I also saw remains of a water town hailing from 1847. It had played a role in the town’s defense system. Emil Škoda, an entrepreneur who set up the Škoda factory that would play a major role in European industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, was born in the water tower on November 19, 1839.

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The 2002 floods had made their way to Pilsen. A sign showed the high level the water reached on August 13 of 2002. The entire underground had been immersed in water. I recalled my personal experience with the floods for a few moments, lost in thought.

During 2002, devastating floods ravaged the republic. I was in Slovakia at the time, so I did not witness them first-hand. Even though the house where I lived in Prague was on a hill, there was significant water damage because we had had no roof because it was being repaired. There was only a protective covering. Rain from the downpours seeped into my flat. I came back to find some of my clothes ruined and mold on the walls. My cat was traumatized. Luckily, my books were all dry. Living through the aftermath of the floods was one of the most difficult times of my life in Prague, where I have lived for 23 years.

When we reached the end of the tour, I was enthusiastic and bewitched by the information I had learned about the Middle Ages and the history of Pilsen. The objects I had seen during the tour were very intriguing. I thought the tour was organized well. I had taken the tour in English because that was the one offered at the time I was able to visit, and the guide had an excellent command of the language and a talent for communicating effectively.

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I am convinced that the underground tour should not be missed when tourists are visiting Pilsen. It is a must-see. When you come back above ground, you understand how the Middle Ages affected Pilsen and have a greater appreciation for the city.

I left Pilsen for Prague about an hour after the tour, and I was certainly more than satisfied with my day trip.

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

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Pilsen (Plzeň) Museum of West Bohemia and Pilsner Urquell Brewery Diary

The Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew, a landmark in Pilsen

The Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew, a landmark in Pilsen

I had been to Pilsen many times. After all, it was only an hour away via the comfortable Student Agency bus service. I had even spent several days in the town, staying in a pension above a beer hall-restaurant, but I did not do much sightseeing. I had been in town for a theatre festival and found myself in various theatres the entire time. Indeed, I was ashamed that did not really know Pilsen well after having lived in Prague for more than 20 years. It had always been one of those places where I changed trains.
I would soon find out that Pilsen certainly is worth visiting. It was even selected the European Capital of Culture for 2015. With a population of more than 170,000 inhabitants, Pilsen is the fourth biggest city in the Czech Republic.
A travel blogger on Twitter mentioned that he had really enjoyed the tour of the Pilsner Urquell brewery. Although I rarely drink alcohol, I thought it would be intriguing to see how beer had become an integral part of the town’s history. I wondered what processes were entailed in brewing it.

The town hall with its sgraffito Renaissance facade

The town hall with its sgraffito Renaissance facade

Before my tour of the brewery, I made a stop at the Museum of West Bohemia, where I visited an exhibition on the city’s history from medieval times to the 19th century. First, I explored other areas of interest in the museum. The Gothic armor in the armory was impressive, and the Meissen collection certainly caught my attention. I was especially drawn to a bowl with the entire surface covered in three-dimensional, handmade flowers with leaves. The handle looked like a tree branch. Dating from 1739, it was truly exquisite.
Then it was time to concentrate on the history of the town in context with the events that had so greatly affected this land. The exhibition also focused on everyday life from the various centuries. There was an exposition of a medieval, rural house, for instance and recipes from the 15th and 16th centuries as well as a section on food and textiles in the Middle Ages.

The Plague Column in Pilsen

The Plague Column in Pilsen

This is what I learned: Pilsen was established in 1295 by King Wenceslas II. It was designed in a regular Gothic ground plan with a rectangular square that was 193 meters x 139 meters. In the beginning about 3,000 people lived in 290 houses. The town was significant because it was situated on a trade route from the German borders to Prague.
When the Hussite wars ravaged the lands during the 15th century, the town at first supported the revolutionaries but then turned toward the Catholics in 1420. Pilsen was never conquered.
During the second half of the 15th century, Pilsen became a regional center. It had a Catholic majority, most of whom spoke Czech. Because the town was located on an important route to Germany, there was much trading with Germans. Non-Catholics wanted to teach Pilsen a lesson for taking such a strong Catholic stance, so they set fires deliberately and destroyed part of the town. This happened, for example, in 1507. During the 16th century, because the city had a Catholic majority, it supported the monarch.

The exquisite facade of a building on Republic Square

The exquisite facade of a building on Republic Square

In the mid-16th century Pilsen ranked third among the biggest cities in Bohemia. The town flourished by buying villages and creating ponds. The beer brewing industry also proved successful – but more about that later. By 1557 Pilsen was ranked as the second wealthiest town after Prague. The inhabitants were mostly from Bohemia. At the end of the 16th century, Emperor Rudolf II took refuge in Pilsen when the plague epidemic spread through Prague.
During the 17th century Thirty Years’ War, Pilsen, not surprisingly, supported the Catholics, who were victorious, so the town was not punished after the war. However, the 17th and 18th centuries were not all that rosy. In 1623 a fire destroyed parts of the town. The plague made its way to Pilsen in the 17th and early 18th centuries. There was another fire in 1729.
Pilsen soon found itself as a provincial town. The population decreased, and the city experienced financial problems. In the middle of the 18th century, many immigrants came to the town. Some of the newcomers were officers for the administration of the city.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Pilsen contributed to the National Revival, a movement to revive the Czech language, improve Czech culture and emphasize Czech national identity. Pilsen was one of many places where this revival was successful. Czech schools were established. Theatres put on performances in Czech. There were Czech technical organizations, and Pilseners contributed to Czech literature. Yet there were hardships, too. In the 1830s, ethnic controversies riddled the town. Poor harvests and financial crises did not help matters.

Republic Square

Republic Square

In 1848 Pilseners were among the Czechs who demanded national democratic and constitutional rights in the monarchy. At the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, Pilsen was a town oriented in trade and agriculture and had promise in the industrial sphere as well. The food industry grew thanks to breweries, mills and distilleries.
The 19th century brought major developments in the city. For instance, Škoda Works was established by Emil Skoda and became the top arms producer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later the company became a leading engineering enterprise. The brewery brewed its first batch of beer on October 5, 1842. The Pilsner Urquell brand and the pilsner type of beer would capture worldwide attention. But more about that later.
One feature I really liked in the history section of the museum was the focus on individuals who had made a difference during these centuries – people who were not necessarily famous. I learned about Joseph Vojtěch Sedláček, for example. Active during the National Revival, he collected art-related objects for Prague’s National Museum. While he taught math and physics at a monastery, he also scribed poetry. He is also the author of the first Czech textbooks on math, geometry and physics.

Part of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery complex

Part of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery complex

Now it’s time to get to the main topic: beer. If there is one thing that symbolizes the city, it is beer. The beverage was first brewed there at the time of the founding of the city in 1295. King Wenceslas II gave 260 townspeople the right to brew beer in their homes. The quality of beer was controlled by town councilors in the entrance of the town hall. The town magistrate poured beer on oak benches. Then councilors would sit on the benches for an hour. If their leather britches did not stick to the bench when they stood up, the beer was deemed undrinkable.
In 1838, 36 barrels of undrinkable beer were spilled out in front of the town hall, an event which compelled some brewers to set up a brewery. The Burghers’ Brewery opened on October 5, 1842, when the very light, bottom-fermented Pilsner Urquell came into existence.
Pilseners have the then 29-year old Bavarian brewer Josef Groll to thank for their internationally-acclaimed beer. He’s the one who put local ingredients of soft Bohemian water, very pale malt and Saaz hops into the mixture using a new method to produce bottom-fermented beer and then came across the new type of beer – the pilsner type — by accident on October 5, 1842.

Historic barrels in the brewery cellars

Historic barrels in the brewery cellars

Two of the Czech Republic’s most famous brands of beer, Pilsner Urquell and Gambrinus, are made at the vast complex near the center of town in buildings that had been constructed on a former executioners’ site. I picked up my ticket in the Visitors’ Center, where an original wort barrel is displayed. The place was crowded with tour groups. It was not possible to tour the Gambrinus brewery. For some reason there were no tours in March.
When it was time for my English-speaking tour to start, we stepped outside, and the guide pointed out a few landmarks. The water tour hailed from 1907 and was 47.2 meters high. It reminded me of a lighthouse that I remember seeing as a child while on vacation near Freeport, Maine. As a young child I had wondered if some evil person had inhabited that lighthouse. The Pilsen water tour is no longer used.
There was also a decorated historical gate built on the 50th anniversary of the brewery, in 1892. By the way, that year 462,550 hectoliters of beer were brewed there, and the brewery had more than 600 employees. The cellars even already had electrical lighting. The gate brought to mind the historical gate at the entrance to the town of Mělník, where I had visited a chateau a week earlier. The guide elaborated on the history of the brewery, mentioning Josef Groll and the 1838 barrel-spilling event, for example.
Then we got on a shuttle bus and went to the packaging hall, where we would see the bottle lines in action. The packaging hall was modern, hailing from 2006. There were four lines, one reserved for cans. On the premises was a washing machine as well as a camera that takes a picture of each bottle to show if it is clean. The bottles were filled, warmed at 25 degrees Celsius, dried and then labelled. We saw the huge bottle lines from above, behind glass. At that time two lines were working.

The bottle lines at the packaging plant

The bottle lines at the packaging plant

Everything was so mechanical, so efficient. And to think that I only saw several people in the room while all this action was taking place! I almost expected to see Charlie Chaplin running from one side to the other as in Modern Times. It also made me think of Karel Čapek’s science fiction play R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in which robots made by man take over the world, bringing about the extinction of the human race. Everything was so mechanical. It was as if an army of bottles were marching into battle.
The process also reminded me of one of my favorite episodes of I Love Lucy, when Lucy and Ethel are stuffing chocolates into their mouths, picking them off the conveyor belt at the chocolate plant. That scene had such a human quality to it, though. I missed seeing many people in the hall. I tried to imagine it back in the days when people had worked at the belts. It both impressed me and saddened me that technology was so advanced.

A bottle line at the Pilsner Urquell Brewery

A bottle line at the Pilsner Urquell Brewery

Then we took the bus to another location and saw some cylindrical tanks outside. They were used for the fermentation and saturation of the beer. The guide mentioned that there were 20 cylindrical tanks outside and 110 in the building. A green-and-white train from 1952 stood to my right. At one time it had been used to take beer to the brewery. We went inside and got onto the largest passenger elevator in the country with room for 72 passengers.
We watched a short film about beer production in a panorama cinema with a revolving floor. One of the things I learned from the film is that it takes about five weeks to make the beer. Then we went to an exposition on barley and the stages of malt production. You could hold the barley in your hand and sniff it. You could also see how yeast looks through a microscope and taste hops that came out of a machine that looked similar to a soap dispenser. The Saaz hops had a subtle aroma. An exposition explained about granulating the hops. It told how they had to be dried, ground and boiled.

The packaging plant

The packaging plant

Then we went to the old brewhouse in a 1930s era building and the new brewhouse above it, which has been used since 2004. The former brewhouse had been used for 75 years. During that time five million hectoliters of beer had been brewed there. The tanks used in the brewhouse looked like alien space ships and brought to mind the TV serial Mork and Mindy and the movie E.T.

The old brewhouse

The old brewhouse

Two million hectares of beer are produced in the new brewhouse annually. The filtration process, for example, takes two hours, and the boiling process lasts 90 minutes. After that, the wort is chilled to six degrees Celsius. Only two people seated in a small office behind a glass wall controlled the mechanisms. Such a complicated process and only two people are needed to monitor it! Again I viewed technology as both awesome and disheartening.

The brewhouse

The brewhouse

From there we went to the room called The Hall of Fame, where the brewery’s trophies and various awards are shown off. A copper bin on display once held the first batch of Pilsner Urquell. Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, had penned his name in the visitor’s book, but his handwriting was messy. The guide mused that the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire might have been drunk when he signed it. I thought about the suicide of Franz Joseph’s son, Crown Prince Rudolf, and the assassination of his wife, Empress Elisabeth, nicknamed Sisi. To be sure, Franz had good reason to drink!
Nineteenth century Czech poet Jan Neruda even wrote a feuilleton praising the brewery after his visit. It was published in Hlas on May 5, 1863.

Emperor Franz Joseph signed the visitors' book at the brewery.

Emperor Franz Joseph signed the visitors’ book at the brewery.

The guide also mentioned that the oldest house where beer had been brewed is at number 58, but I do not remember the street. Now the Beer Museum is located in that building. I had hoped to get there that day, too, but I would not have enough time.
Then we explored the cellars. They were nine kilometers long, with a size of 32,000 square meters. Of course, we did not walk through every passage! I thought of how difficult it must have been to have built this vast underground area – it must have taken many people to make all these tunnels. No machines had been used to make the cellars. It had all been accomplished by hard, sweaty manual labor. I wondered who had done this sort of work. Poor people who needed the money? Prisoners? Maybe both.

The barrels in the cellar

The barrels in the cellar

These underground spaces were once used for the fermentation and saturation processes. We saw storage areas with big, historic barrels. We walked through an ice room, too. In the second half of the 19th century, they used to cut ice from rivers and ponds to keep the place cold.
At the end of the tour, we tasted unfiltered and non-pasteurized Pilsner Urquell beer. It was tapped straight from an oak lager barrel. The beer was very good, but since I am not much of a beer drinker, I am not enough of an expert to compare it with other brands. I tended to like black beer, but this light brew was as good if not better than any of the dark beers I had tasted.

Republic Square

Republic Square

After the tour I went back to Republic Square in the center of town, where there are three modern gold fountains with black Chinese basins. I liked the gargoyles from which the water spewed. (I’ve always been a fan of gargoyles and the grotesque.) There was a 17th century Plague Column, too.
For years I had wanted to go inside the Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew on the square, but it was never open when I was in town. It was only open certain months during weekdays. I had read that a Neo-Gothic altar featured the Madonna of Pilsen showing the Virgin Mary with a very expressive and sorrowful look on her face. I loved gazing at the Renaissance town hall with all the sgraffito decoration on its façade that dates from 1558.
I was very hungry, and I decided to eat lunch at my favorite eating establishment in Pilsen – the famous U Salzmannů restaurant around the corner from the square. During the 19th century this had been the most significant pub in the city. A famous event in Pilsen’s history was connected with this former beer hall. In April of 1843, the original owner of the place, Martin Salzmann, sent some beer to his close friend in Prague, a tailor named Jakub Pinkas. The tailor was so impressed with the taste that he decided to hang up the scissors and open a pub, U Pinkasů. The pub still serves Pilsner Urquell beer.

A tower of the Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew

A tower of the Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew

Supposedly, Salzmann had been quite a character. He was known as a very grumpy and unpleasant man. He would place a coaster on the table for each customer and put the mug of beer on it. If he became disgruntled with a customer who was too drunk and too loud, he would take away the coaster and kick the guest out of the pub.
There was another way to lose your coaster. If you clinked glasses – Salzmann hated it when customers did this – you also lost your right to drink in the establishment. Salzmann also disliked students and deterred them from visiting his pub because they often did not have enough money to pay for their drinks.
After my late lunch, it was time to head back to the bus station. I vowed to come back to tour the underground areas of the city and to wander through the Beer Museum. I now am very aware that there were many sights to see in Pilsen, and I want to visit as many as possible.

 

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

The new brewhouse

The new brewhouse

 

Častolovice Chateau Diary

 

The facade of the chateau

The facade of the chateau

I had visited Častolovice about 10 years earlier, but I did not remember many details of the interior, though I had fond recollections of the picturesque courtyard. For some reason I had fixed in my mind that the chateau was on rather large main square with a pub on one corner, so I expected that the direct bus from Prague would drop me off there.  It turned out to be a three-hour trek to Častolovice, located in northeast Bohemia near the Orlické Mountains, via Hradec Králové, but the trip didn’t actually take so long. There was a 40-minute layover in Hradec Králové, which is only 30 kilometers away.

When the bus arrived in Častolovice, I did not recognize it at all. “This is where I get off?” I asked the elderly woman sitting next to me. She answered affirmatively. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no big square with a pub. The main square was hardly a square at all, just a few buildings along the main street with a small parking lot.  I got off the bus, feeling utterly lost. Luckily, a passerby pointed out how to get to the chateau. It was hardly more than a stone’s throw away. I walked by a decent-looking restaurant. I wondered if it was the only one in town. I hoped I would be able to get a table there later in the day.

The Baroque fountain

The Baroque fountain

I entered the main gate of the chateau, eager to become reacquainted with the place. A Baroque fountain charmed me in the chateau’s courtyard, where birds in an aviary fluttered while singing pleasant melodies. The gentle, soft tones of classical music also filled the air. The atmosphere made me feel at ease on this sunny, warm, spring day.  I noticed that the wall of the chateau facing the fountain was covered in what I would later find out were 16th and 17th century frescoes depicting six Roman emperors and a battle. Tourists sat idly at the courtyard’s outdoor café.

The 16th and 17th century frescoes of six Roman emperors and a battle

The 16th and 17th century frescoes of six Roman emperors and a battle

After going to the box office, where the attendant announced that I would have a private tour at 11:00 o’clock because I was writing about the chateau, I followed an arcade to the 19th century English park that featured a rose garden, pond and small animal farm with an intriguing combination of ostriches, pheasants and pigs.  I sat on a bench and read a David Hewson mystery in English for a while, feeling relaxed and enthusiastic, after walking to the pond with gazebo. The flowers in the garden were ravishing, in full bloom, bringing vibrant colors to the natural setting.

I still had time to kill, so I went inside the café, as all the outdoor tables were taken. The establishment featured plush couches and armchairs, one of which I sunk into. The pastel colors decorating the space were lively, vibrant. It was also very quaint. I sipped a cappuccino before heading for the box office to start my tour.

The guide told me about the chateau’s long history, much of which was dominated by the Sternberg dynasty. While the first written records of what was then a stronghold dated back to 1342, the chateau was transformed into Renaissance style in the 16th century, renovated into a Neo-Gothic style during the 19th century and then changed back to Renaissance style at the beginning of the 20th century.

The picturesque courtyard

The picturesque courtyard

The Sternberg family has owned the chateau for 11 generations, dating back to 1694, when Count Adolph Vratislav Sternberg, the Highest Burgrave in Bohemia, purchased it. From 1694 to 1948 – not counting the Nazi Occupation of the country – Sternbergs have lived here. During the 15th century, it was Zdeněk of Sternberg who guided the Catholics in their battles with the Hussites and their king, Jiří of Poděbrady (also a former owner of Častolovice).

I hadn’t realized what a mark the Sternbergs had made on Czech culture. Franz Josef Sternberg founded the National Gallery and, along with his cousin Casper Maria Sternberg, established the National Museum. The chateau was returned to interior designer Diana Phipps Sternberg in 1992, and at that time she was residing in one wing where she also had a pension. Even during Communism visitors had a chance to see the chateau’s interior as one wing of the chateau was open to the public while the other served as a school for refrigerator repairmen and repairwomen.

Soon it was time to see the interior of the Renaissance architectural masterpiece. It featured furnishings from the 16th to the 19th century, and the many family portraits attested to the significant role of the Sternberg dynasty.  To be sure, the interior was more than impressive: Take the Gallery of the Bohemian Kings, for instance. Or the Knight’s Hall, one of the largest of its kind in Bohemia. And I certainly didn’t overlook the small, though exquisite, chapel.

The view from the park

The view from the park

In the Dining Room overwhelming, mammoth portraits of four Bohemian kings filled me with awe. I felt so small compared to the vast portraits. These included the black-armor clad Jiří of Poděbrady, who was King of Bohemia, leader of the Christian Hussite movement and owner of the chateau during the 15th and 16th centuries. Breathtaking as well were the portraits of seven Habsburg Emperors who ruled from 1526 to 1705. Two portraits of the Spanish side of the Habsburg dynasty plus three others hung nearby.  What is more, the painted coffered ceiling, another architectural thrill, illustrated a biblical scene from the Old Testament.

The Knight’s Hall was decked with many portraits of Sternbergs, including one of Kateřina Sternberg, also called the Black Lady of Častolovice, because, as a result of an unhappy love affair, she became the chateau’s ghost. I was particularly drawn to her painting. I gazed up at the coffered ceiling, which shows 24 pictures from the Old Testament.  I noticed that the marble fireplace had a bronze relief in the middle; it showed a woman praying.  Another portrait depicted Emperor Charles V, a Great Dane by his side.  In yet another, a woman donning a serious expression and dressed in black stood next to blooming pink roses. I found the juxtaposition of her black attire and the pink roses intriguing.

The park

The park

The adjoining chapel was a real gem, too. The painted doors depicted the 12 apostles, and the painted pews were adorned with floral decoration, which immediately caught my eye. The green and yellow tiles on the floor were original, some bearing imprints of dogs’ paws. I thought this was an impressive, unique touch. The wooden altar dated from 1601, and one of the frescoes inside the chapel harkened back to the Late Gothic period.

While family portraits were scattered throughout the chateau, there were other intriguing paintings as well. Two noblewomen in shepherds’ attire were the work of Czech Baroque master Karel Škréta or one of his students. Škréta was definitely the artist of the 17th century work, “The Young Huntsman,” who gazed confidently at the viewer. Two small pictures of an elderly woman in the Coat-of-Arms Room were from the Peter Paul Rubens’ School, possibly executed by Jacob Jordaens. A copy of a portrait by Rubens, depicting his second wife, Helen Fourment, hailed from 1640.

One painting that drew me into its artistic power was the head of Medusa, with bulging eyes and blue and golden snakes slithering around her head; it was another painting after Rubens. The gem “The Temptation of Anthony” by Flemish artist David Teniers was painted on wood in the Empire Room.

One huge portrait shows a red-robed Vilém Slavata, who was thrown out a window of Prague Castle during the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when Protestant nobleman rebelled against the Catholic hardliners in an event that would in part trigger the Thirty Years’ War. Slavata lived through the ordeal as he landed on a pile of manure, but was then arrested. The ordeal reminded me of the black humor in the stories and novels by Czech legendary writer Bohumil Hrabal.

Another shot of the frescoes

Another shot of the frescoes

Paintings of Venice, specifically of St. Mark’s Square, the Doges Palace and the Rialto Bridge, decorated the Tower Room and brought to mind my happy days as a tourist in that jewel of an Italian city. Realistic paintings from the Netherlands adorned the chateau, too. I have been fascinated by art from that country ever since taking a course about it in college. In one small portrait, a poor man is eating fish, the bones and head left on the plate he is holding. This work captured the man’s miserable existence – the despair and hopelessness of his life. Another picture from this era depicted a man reading, though he seems lost in thought.

The guide pointed out four portraits of women representing the four seasons. Dating from the middle of the 18th century, they included a woman holding grapes for autumn and one holding a flower for spring. If you look closely, the guide explained, it was possible to discern that one woman was the subject of all the portraits, and she aged as each season went by. I was intrigued by these four unique works of art.

Numerous other objects of interest cropped up in the chateau.  There was a 150-year old Mignon portable folding typewriter and a portable, folding Napoleonic desk in the Empire Room, both of which caught my attention. The Biedermeier Room boasted furniture of that style. I noticed a small statue of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife Elizabeth of Austria along with a large portrait of General Leopold M. Sternberg. I was impressed by the many military medals that the general donned.

The frescoes and the arcades

The frescoes and the arcades

The State Bedroom featured a stirring portrayal of a figure bringing a drink to his guest in the Flemish tapestry “Welcome to Guests” from the end of the 16th century. I loved Flemish tapestries! Two mirrors seemed to be decorated with small gem stones in the frames, but it was just imitation, painted under the glass. In the Ladies Sitting Room, I noticed that Meissen porcelain birds were suspended from the wall. I found it to be a nice, elegant touch to the interior.

The Wallpaper Room gets its name from gold-and-black wallpaper that imitated leather, though it was made of paper. In the library, which contains political and religious books as well as novels and poetry written in Latin, English, German, French and Czech, I saw a tapestry showing Cleopatra and Mark Antony. It was Flemish, from around 1600. Another thrill for me!

 

The flowers bursting with color in the garden

The flowers bursting with color in the garden

The Renaissance arcaded Gallery, with its vibrant dark pink walls and flourishing plants, featured lavish silver-framed mirrors that dated from the Second Baroque period.  I marveled at the elegance of the elaborate silver frames. The Ladies Sitting Room also was home to an intriguing item – a small watercolor, on the back of which is a note of condolence by Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire and Queen of Bohemia Maria Theresa of Austria on the occasion of the death of Francis Phillip Sternberg’s wife. The Children’s Room also moved me. It was almost all white, with dolls, portraits of children and a dollhouse, exuding a sense of purity.

After the breathtaking tour, I walked to the only restaurant in sight and found a table outside. Again I was able to order my favorite – chicken with peaches and cheese – plus a Diet Coke. After a delicious lunch, I made my way to the bus stop to wait 20 minutes. I always arrived early because I was always nervous I would miss my  bus. I stood at the small ČSAD sign, watching cars and trucks drive by.

The chateau from the park

The chateau from the park

Finally, after two o’clock, it was time for the bus to come. And it did. I watched it whiz by the other bus stop, without even slowing down. I was at the wrong stop! I chided myself for being so stupid. I had thought the bus would come to this stop and turn around. I sure felt like an idiot!

Then I thought that maybe it was a blessing in disguise. There was another bus in two hours, so I went back to the chateau and sat outside at the café. I read about another murder in front of the Baroque fountain.

The bus was slated to arrive after four o’clock. So, I got there at 3:30, determined not to  miss this bus as it was the last direct one to Prague. Shortly after I arrived, five others with big duffle bags and shopping bags gathered there, too. Then, a little after 3:30, a bus to Prague showed up. Bewildered at the timing of its arrival, I got on and made my way back to Prague. I wondered if it was a bus run by a private company that wasn’t listed on the schedule posted on the Internet.

Curiously enough, the bus driver told me that no bus comes through the town after four o’clock.

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

 

The stunning chateau from the park

The stunning chateau from the park