TELC, Czech Republic - According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the Czech Republic has the most castles per square kilometre of any country in the world. Many of these chateaux, dripping in history, offer not only tales of romance, murder and shady goings on but also interesting year-round programs, luring visitors with Easter fairs, summer musical festivities, autumn wine festivals and Advent fairs.
I visited one of these palatial piles recently in the heart of Bohemia and Moravia in a tucked-away town — its name is something of a tongue twister — Žďár nad Sázavou.
It was originally a monastery, but two centuries ago was turned into a chateau, which now houses museums, art collections, a school and the local fire brigade. The courtyard and historic halls are popular settings for business events and artistic performances and I saw a display of Baroque dancing there.
The estate belongs to the Kinskys, one of Bohemia’s oldest aristocratic families and Count Kinsky showed me around. He explained that due to the family’s anti-Nazi stance during World War II, the Germans imposed receivership on the estate.
Above: The Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelena Hora.
It wasn’t until 1992 that a new chapter began for the family when the Kinsky’s regained possession. The count is proud of what he has achieved, even though the castle is still a work in progress.
Besides the castle, Žďár is known for the UNESCO listed pilgrimage church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelena Hora. It is one of the 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.
In a detour from visiting castles and churches, I went to a National Stud Farm, one of the world’s oldest. I enjoyed touring the stables, fussing over the Old Kladruby horses, the breed chosen by emperors and kings and one of which was offered as a wedding gift to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Unfortunately, protocol decreed they could not accept. A visit to the coach museum preceded being whisked through the countryside in a shiny black carriage pulled by two beautiful horses. I could have stayed with the horses all day, but time was of the essence and it was off to visit the UNESCO listed town of Telc, which lies halfway between Prague and Vienna. It is a delightful place with fountains, statues and sculptures, hemmed by pastel coloured medieval houses. Its piece de resistance is the glorious Renaissance Chateau with gilded silver furniture and beautiful wooden panel ceilings. It houses a fine display of historical weapons and collections of art.
My itinerary also included a jaunt to the town of Kutná Hora, one of the country’s most historically important cities. Its centre, with the Cathedral of St. Barbara and the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was designated a UNESCO site. Yes, UNESCO sites are commonplace in this part of the world.
Kutna Hora became the seat of Wenceslas II’s royal mint in the early 1300s, producing silver groschen — in those days the hard currency of Central Europe. It remains in fine fettle and after a short demo of medieval coin minting it was off to the Bone Church, a macabre place brimming with human remains — records say up to 70,000 — who died in medieval plagues and wars. They are crafted into chandeliers, candle holders and various other decorations dangling from the walls and ceiling. A display case of skulls with wounds inflicted by medieval weapons stands in one corner. Not for the squeamish.
Left: The town is dotted with some colourful buildings. Right: It's home to the national stud.
But close by the town’s small Chocolate Museum offers a chocolatey respite from the bones. They offer tastings of every kind of chocolate you can think of, from ginger chocolate, chilli chocolate to green tea chocolate, coconut and strawberry and caramel chocolate — well isn’t cacao supposed to be good for you?
And on the subject of food, the Czechs are generous hosts. I don’t eat meat, a staple in these parts, but consumed plenty of pasta, soups, fish, dumplings and smažený sýr — a large, thick piece of local cheese covered with a flour, egg and breadcrumb batter then deep-fried. Mushrooms appear in most dishes too. My guide said there are so many varieties of mushrooms growing in the forests that it’s a popular family day out to go and pick them. 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.
Above: The Chocolate Museum makes this town a sweet treat.