In the distant past, it was known as the kingdoms of Moravia and Bohemia. Nowadays, although it has morphed into the rather more prosaic Czech Republic, acres of fairy tale castles still enthrall. In fact, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Czech Republic has the most castles per square mile of any country in the world
I visited one of these palatial piles in the town of Žďár nad Sázavou – no, I don’t know how to pronounce it properly either. Originally a monastery, over 200 years ago the building was transformed into a chateau housing museums, art collections, a school and even the local fire brigade. The courtyard and historic halls are popular settings for artistic performances and I saw an entrancing display of Baroque dancing there. The dancers even gave me a short lesson, although I’m sure I could have made a better show of it had I been wearing a pair of their buckled, low heeled Baroque dance shoes rather than my trainers….
The Estate belongs to the Kinskys, one of Bohemia’s oldest aristocratic families and Count Kinsky, clad in Barbour jacket and wellies showed me round. He explained that due to the family’s anti-Nazi stance during the Second World War, the Germans imposed receivership on the estate. It wasn’t until 1992 that a new chapter began for the family when the Kinský’s regained possession.
However, the town’s main claim to fame is not Kinsky’s castle but the UNESCO listed Church of St John of Nepomuk, one of famed architect Santini’s most admired works. Built in the shape of a five-pointed star, the symbolism of the mystical number five is obvious throughout. Santini incorporated this number because legend says five stars appeared above St John’s body after he was drowned in the Vltava River. The spiritual significance means people come in search of the Holy Grail while others turn up with divining rods to see what lies beneath.
But no time to ponder the mystical, next up was a visit to a National Stud Farm. Being a horsey sort I enjoyed touring the stables, fussing over the Old Kladruby horses, the breed chosen by emperors and kings, visiting the coach museum and being whisked through the countryside in a shiny black carriage pulled by two beautiful horses. I could have stayed there all day, but my rather bossy guide said it was time to move on to the town of Telc. I have to admit, I had never before heard of Telc (pronounced ‘Telch’) but I was impressed by my first sight of this picturesque place. It is UNESCO listed too, a worthy inclusion. Telc ‘lies where the bread ends and the rocks begin’ according to a local saying, but in modern day lingo is 30km from the Austrian border and halfway between Prague and Vienna. Its main square, awash with fancy fountains and lavish statues hemmed by pastel coloured medieval houses, has had a starring role in several Czech films.
My itinerary included a jaunt to Kutná Hora, another UNESCO Site, yes, they’re ten a penny here. It became the seat of Wenceslas II’s royal mint in the early 1300s, producing silver groschen, Central Europe’s hard currency then. After a demonstration of medieval coin minting by a guy wearing a maroon velvet frock coat it was off to the Bone Church. This macabre place is full of human remains, victims of the 1318 plague, records say between 40,000 and 70,000. They are crafted into chandeliers, candle holders and various other decorations dangling from walls and ceiling. A display case of skulls with wounds inflicted by medieval weapons stands in one corner. It was something of a relief to get outside into the sunshine again. Not too far away the town’s tiny Chocolate Museum offers a chocolatey respite from the bones. They offer tastings of all kinds of chocolate from ginger, chilli, peanut and green tea chocolate – well isn’t cacao good for you? The museum section of the shop is tiny, accommodating three people at one time with only a few machines and some early posters to see. Great chocolate though.
Speaking of food, the Czechs are generous hosts. Expect large portions – you’ll get a humdinger of a plate with enough food on it to satisfy two people. As a veggie, I ate a lot of pasta, vegetable soup, dumplings and smažený sýr – this thick chunk of local cheese is battered then deep-fried. Not a healthy choice for those with high cholesterol, but tasty. Mushrooms appear in most dishes too, my guide told me that there are so many kinds of mushrooms growing in the forests that going to pick them is a popular family outing. Having learned which to pick and which to avoid since childhood, means no nasty accidents when they are cooked. Next time I visit, I’ll probably go foraging too.
More on the area at www.czechtourism.com
Guided tours provided by: www.catguide.cz
Travel around the Czech Republic : www.idos.cz
Where to Stay: Hotel U Hraběnky, Telc – www.hotel-uhrabenky.cz/en/accommodation
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