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.

2017 Travel Review Diary

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Sassi in Matera, Italy

My travels during 2017 made my year very special. I went to Italy twice and spent time exploring the Czech Republic on day trips, taking jaunts to numerous chateaus and a basilica, for instance.

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Castle in Trento

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Treviso

During my first trip to Italy in 2017, I saw a wonderful Impressionist art exhibition in Treviso. I visited the impressive castle and picturesque streets of Trento. I also ransacked a few good bookstores in Treviso and picked up a year’s worth of reading in Italian. (I took advantage of the fact that we were traveling by bus.) I especially enjoyed discovering the charming town of Bassano del Grappa with its wooden Palladian bridge and, most importantly, its superb collection of paintings by Jacopo Bassano and others.

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

In June, I took one of my best trips ever, to the lesser known and lesser travelled regions of Puglia and Basilicata. Most of the sights were not so crowded. We saw many charming, sleepy towns, refreshingly not inundated with tourists. I was entranced with all the Apulian-Romanesque cathedrals. The intricate design of the main portal of the cathedral in Altamura and the rose window surrounded by lions perched on columns on the Cathedral of Saint Valentine in Bitonto are only two of the many gems designed in this rich architectural style. The bishop’s throne from the 12th century in Canosa di Puglia featured two elephant figures for legs and was a true delight.

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Altamura, cathedral

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Bishop’s throne in cathedral in Canosa di Puglia

Lecce with its Baroque wonders, Roman theatre and Roman amphitheatre left me speechless. The Baroque craftsmanship of Lecce’s most notable architect, Giuseppe Zimbalo, was breathtaking. The Cathedral of Our Lady the Assumption, one of many Baroque gems, had a stunning side façade and 75-meter tall belfry with balustrades, sculptures and pyramids. Inside, the structure was no less amazing. The gilt coffered ceiling over the nave and transept and the 18th century marble main altar decorated with angels were just a few of the awe-inspiring features of the interior.

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Ceiling of cathedral in Lecce

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Altar in church in Baroque Lecce

A castle buff, I was also more than intrigued by the octagonal Castel del Monte and the way the number eight was so symbolic in its architectural design. I was impressed with the French windows, Romanesque features and mosaic floor, for instance.

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

What fascinated me most of all on that trip was the rock town of Matera with its two “sassi” districts. I have never seen a place that is so unique and moving, except for Pompeii. I explored the Sasso Caveoso. Its structures were dug into the calcareous rock on different levels of a hillside. They were cave dwellings that had been turned into restaurants, cafes, hotels and sightseeing gems. It was difficult to believe that, until the 1950s, the sassi had been poverty-stricken, riddled with unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

The Rupertian churches especially caught my attention. They boasted frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries. The Santa Maria de Idris Church had a main altar made of tufo and chalk and decorated with 17th and 18th century frescoes. The rocky churches had actually been places of worship until 1960.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

I also explored two neighborhoods of Prague, parts of the city that I have always loved. In Hanspaulka I became more familiar with the various types of villas – Neo-Classical and Neo-Baroque, functionalist and purist, for example. I saw the villas where actress Lída Baarová had lived and where her sister had committed suicide as well as the villa where comedian Vlasta Burian had resided. I love the Art Deco townhouses in the area.

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Art Deco townhouses in Hanspaulka

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The villa where actor Vlasta Burian once lived, Hanspaulka

There are just as beautiful Art Deco townhouses in the nearby Ořechovka district, where I saw villas created by the well-known Czech modern architect Pavel Janák and many former homes of famous Czech artists. The Rondocubist dwellings with their designs inspired by folk art also excited me. I loved the folk art elements in Rondocubism. My favorite place in the quarter is Lomená Street. The 1920s townhouses are modelled after English cottages.

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Lomená Street in Ořechovka

I also visited the Winternitz Villa, designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos and his Czech colleague Karel Lhota, situated in Prague’s fifth district. Winternitz, a lawyer by trade, was forced to leave with his family in 1941 due to their Jewish origin. His wife and daughter miraculously survived Auschwitz. The villa features the Raumplan, Loos’ trademark, in which every room is on a different level. I also saw two apartments designed by Loos in Pilsen. The Brummel House with its bright yellow furnishings and Renaissance fireplace amazed.

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Exterior of Winternitz Villa, Prague

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Living room of Winternitz Villa

I took many day trips outside of Prague. Červený Újezd Castle, only built in 2001, looked like it belongs in a medieval fairy tale. The park and open-air architectural museum were just as appealing. Braving the D1 highway that is partially under construction, my friend and I made our way to Telč. I admired its Renaissance burgher houses lining the main square and its chateau that features a Renaissance gilded coffered ceiling in the Golden Hall, 300 Delft faience plates on a wall in the Count’s Room and an African Hall with a gigantic elephant’s ear.

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Červený Ujezd Castle

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Burgher houses on the main square in Telč

At Zákupy I was entranced by the ceiling paintings of Josef Navrátil. Its Chapel of St. Francis sparkled in 17th century Baroque style with frescoes on the ceiling. I finally made it to the Minor Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence in the tranquil north Bohemian town of Jablonné v Podještědí. The main altar is in pseudo-Baroque style while the pulpit and the baptismal font hailed from the 18th century. One chapel’s altar is Rococo, adorned with a late Gothic statue. The stained glass windows amazed me.

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Interior of chapel at Zákupy Chateau

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Interior of Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence

The chateau of Dětenice in late Baroque style had an interior that mostly dates from the 18th century with rooms small enough to give an intimate feel but large enough to hold many architectural delights. In the Blue Dining Room the wall paintings were made to look like works by Botticelli. The tapestries in the Music Salon were wonderful. The Golden Hall was unbelievably breathtaking.

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

My favorite chateau of this past year’s trips is Hrubý Rohozec, which I have toured many times. It is filled with original furnishings and objects – lots of them – that I found captivating. Most of all, I loved the lively history that made the chateau unique and unforgettable. Bullet holes can still be seen in the Main Library. A thief on the run had barricaded himself in the room, and the policemen had to shoot the door open. Before World War II, the two sons of the castle’s owner were caught reading erotic magazines in the Children’s Room. There were bars on the window to prevent them from throwing chairs into the courtyard at midnight.

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Organ in chapel of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

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Blue Salon of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

The Porcelain Museum at Klášterec nad Ohří held some delights. The Birth of the Virgin Mary Church in Doksany charmed in Baroque style with much stucco decoration. I admired many other chateaus as well, including Orlík and Březnice with its spectacular chapel.

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Interior of chapel at Březnice Chateau

The year was extra special because my parents were able to visit me. We toured the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, where I have season tickets for three cycles. The concert hall has played a role in Czechoslovak history. Democrat statesman Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected president three times in its large Dvořák Hall during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Rudolfinum was the home of Czechoslovak Parliament. The statuary and view of Prague Castle on the roof were splendid, and the Conductors’ Room boasted various styles of furnishings, black-and-white photos of well-renowned musicians and an impressive Petrov piano.

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Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum

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Rudolfinum, upper level

We also toured Nelahozeves Chateau near Prague, a place that has been dear to me for many years. For me the highlight of visiting this chateau is superb collection of art, especially Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting of a winter scene. The painting by Rubens was a delight, too. I also loved the small 18th century table inlaid with 20 kinds of wood. The exterior was captivating as well. The graffito on one wall and the Renaissance courtyard were two stunning architectural elements.

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Renaissance courtyard of Nelahozeves Chateau

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Sgraffito on wall of Nelahozeves Chateau

I took my parents on a trip around Hanspaulka and pointed out one of the Baroque chapels, the chateau and other sights. We admired the villas of various styles. We ate paninis in the local café.

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Chapel in Hanspaulka

Perhaps the highlight of their visit was seeing a Czech play in the Žižkov Theatre of Jára Cimrman. We laughed along to the music of Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, which focuses on the operatic works of the fictional legendary Jára Cimrman, who was an unlucky man of all trades – inventor, philosopher, teacher, self-taught gynecologist, to name a few of his many professions. The opera in the second half of the play involves a Czech engineer introducing the great taste of pilsner beer to India. The British colonel in the play is so impressed with the taste of Czech beer that he wishes he had been born Czech. It was terrific that I was able to introduce my parents to the character of Jára Cimrman, who has played such a major role in Czech culture and folklore, even though he is not real.

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Almost featureless bust of Jára Cimrman

I was thankful that I had my best friend, my black cat Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová by my side throughout the year. She is happy here, much happier than she was in a shelter four years ago.

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Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová

Every day I think of Bohumil Hrabal Burns, my feisty and naughty black cat who died three-and-a-half years ago. He remains with me in spirit every moment of my life. I know that somewhere in Cat Heaven, he is vomiting for fun on white rugs and playing with Fat Cat toys.

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Bohumil Hrabal Burns, 1999 – 2014

Those were my travels of 2017. I look forward to more adventures this year. I have planned one trip to Italy and will soon jot down a list of day trips I would like to take.

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

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Santa Croce Church in Lecce