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.

Ploskovice Chateau Diary

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I first discovered Ploskovice Chateau in 2005, and I wrote about it in an article about chateaus of north Bohemia for The Washington Post. My second visit was long overdue – not until 2019. I remembered being very impressed by Josef Navrátil’s delicate ceiling and wall painting that exhibited painstaking detail.

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The name Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 12th century. A fortress used to be in the settlement, but the defensive structure was replaced by a Renaissance chateau in the 17th century, and that building was given a Baroque makeover in the 17th century. The current chateau hails from the 18th century, when grottoes, a decorative garden and statuary were all added to make it the superb architectural work that it is today. The architect was most likely the renowned Kilián Ignatius Dientzenhofer.

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Ploskovice became the summer residence of Ferdinand I after he had abdicated from the throne in 1848. This was the era when the brilliant Navrátil did his magic. After the founding of Czechoslovakia, the chateau was nationalized. It was made into a private summer residence for the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, who had promoted independence while living in exile during the First World War. He made frequent visits during the 1930s.

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However, after the Munich Agreement ceded the land of the Sudeten region to the Third Reich, German soldiers took over the chateau. A school for young Nazis was on the premises. During 1945, after the end of World War II, the chateau became state property again. In 1952 renovation began, and Navrátil’s frescoes were restored to their original beauty. During the 1960s, the chateau was opened to the public.

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The tour started in the hallway that boasted beautiful arcades. The entrance hall was stunning with frescoes, stuccowork and statues of the four elements and four seasons. We then saw 11 rooms.

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The Engraving Salon featured a large collection of engravings and mid-18th century Rococo decorations with white-and-gold furnishings. Meissen porcelain enhanced the beauty of the room. I loved the vedutas of Paris, French chateaus and French parks. In the Rococo Ladies’ Bedroom, the small crucifix that can be opened and closed was made from ivory. An early Baroque jewel chest dated from the 17th century, hailing from Cheb. The small opening in the jewel chest held an altar. A gilded Rococo mirror also added to the elegance of the room. Paintings from late Baroque and Rococo periods also hung in the space.

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The Dining Room boasted Czech porcelain service from the days of Ferdinand I. The four seasons were personified on a ceiling that included superb medallions. The Emperor’s Salon boasted second Rococo furnishings and appeared as it had when Ferdinand I had used the chateau as a summer residence. Navrátil’s delicate floral designs on the ceiling were other delights. A second Rococo chandelier adorned the space. I saw portraits of Empress Marie Theresa and her son Joseph II. They looked like they were made of stucco but were really paintings. A superbly decorated white tiled stove also impressed me.

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The Dancing Hall was the highlight of the chateau. Large figures representing the four continents dominated the ceiling, painted in Navrátil’s cheerful colors. A Turk with a camel represented Asia while a crocodile stood for America. The room even had a delightful balcony. An antique vase was painted on one wall. The colors were dynamic, the painting in the room powerful and bold.

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The Emperor’s Bedroom featured furnishings of the second Rococo style, dating from around 1850. The ceiling was colorful, adorned with bouquets of flowers. In the corner, medallions showed allegories of the times of day. A rooster represented morning, a relaxing hunting dog portrayed noon while a drinking deer stood for evening and an owl personified night. I loved the dark blue cups for coffee or hot chocolate. They came from Karlovy Vary. Two paintings of a Madonna and Child also adorned the space.

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In another space there were sofas on which the people would be seated back-to-back. The ceiling boasted scenes from the Italian countryside. It brought back fond memories of my day trips from Florence to Tuscan towns and many other places in Italy, a country I loved dearly.

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The Emperor’s Morning Salon was also worth mentioning. The wooden chandelier was stunning as were the small wooden cups and kettle. They looked so delicate and quaint. In another space an artificial marble table featured a design with shepherds. An 18th century Biedermeier clock also adorned the room. The chandelier was made of alabaster.

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I loved the paintings on the wall of the Emperor’s Study, showing scenes from a Roman market. It also included French bronze clocks. Because Ferdinand I had been a passionate collector of clocks, there were many clocks of various styles in the chateau. A portrait of Napoleon’s handsome son hung on one wall. He had died of tuberculosis when he was 20 years old. I thought of my family friends who had lost a child when she was 20. I sometimes wondered what her life would have been like if she had lived, what she would have done for a living, whom she would have married, how many kids she would have had. I always thought of her donning that contagious grin, which could light up every room.

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Another space showed off Late Empire style furniture with a stunning circular table made of artificial marble. Paintings of Apollo and the muses also astounded. I was especially interested in the two colored lithographs of a banquet in Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle in honor of the coronation of Ferdinand I becoming Czech king in 1836. I was very passionate about Czech and Slovak history, having studied this field in graduate school, when I got my master’s in Czech literature. Vladislav Hall was seeping with history. I felt it whenever I meandered around the Castle and visited the architectural masterpiece.

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The second floor of the chateau consisted of masterful 19th century Czech paintings, such as those by Jaroslav Preiss, Navrátil, the Mánes brothers and Chitussi. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. I loved the small landscape scenes best.

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Six ground floor spaces had been made into grottoes – artificial water caves – in second Rococo style. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. One fountain was adorned with motifs of Hercules’ deeds. Allegorical figures of the four seasons also stood out. The coats-of-arms of all the past owners of the chateau adorned one wall. The ceiling decoration was also breathtaking.

The chateau park consisted of eight hectares with a four-tiered terrace punctuated by marble fountains. It dates from the 19th century era that promoted the second Rococo style. One of the features I liked best about this chateau was the presence of peacocks. Peacocks flaunted their colorful plumage throughout the grounds.

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I was also very pleased that the local restaurant offered my favorite meal: chicken with peaches and cheese. It used to be on the menus in many restaurants during the 1990s but then for some reason disappeared from the lists of entrees. The meal was delicious, and my trip had been a great success.

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

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