[The following is educational, informational – hopefully fun to read. It is also a shameless plug to get you interested in visiting the Czech Republic using the services of Pathways sr.o., a small, family-run tourism company that creates personalized tours for personable people. But regardless of your… er, travelability or interest, read on and enjoy the article.]
Words are fun. Fun, I tell you! We can string them together to create and explain ideas; we can use their sounds and syllables to create a rhythm. Certain words bubble with imagery, others maybe not so much. (The word “beige” might link both ideas – a word pregnant with non-imagery)
But three words that engage the imagination? “Fort,” “Castle,” and “Palace.”
We might accuse Czechs of lacking an imagination: They don’t have to pretend at all. Seemingly, there’s a fort on every hillside; from one you can spy a castle; the castle is abandoned because its owners moved into a nearby palace. But of course, the Czechs have their fantasy world, except they can conjure up the battles, princesses, hearth-cooked feasts, and courtly intrigue while standing where such events really happened!
If you are perusing this article, you’re probably not standing in a fortified Czech building (The thick wall aren’t good for Wi-Fi signals); hopefully the following words and pictures will give you a tiny idea of the country’s architectural riches.
A fort (or fortification) is any military structure built for protection against attacks. Forts can be used as a base of warfare, or to “solidify rule” in times of peace (Wikipedia, 2015).
Given the convoluted and sad history of the Terezín fortress, that definition doesn’t quite stick. A fortress that became a town that became a concentration camp that became a town… I find it one of the oddest places in the country.
Covering nearly 4 square kilometers (2.49miles) of space, Terezín, or Theresienstadt as it was called at the time of construction in 1790, was designed for up to 11,000 soldiers during wartime (Wikipedie, 2015). Wartime for the fort’s purpose was Prussian aggression coming from the north and northwest. But those attacks never arrived: The Hlavní Pevnost (Main Fortress) garrison became a town witha a small barrack for soldiers by the mid-19th century while the attached Malé Pevnost (Little Fortress) remained a military base and prison.
During the German occupation of World War II, Terezín became a concentration camp, the town’s inhabitants expelled in 1941 to make room for the flood of Jews. The population expanded well beyond the tolerable limits of the fortified town, bloating to approximately 40,000 at worst. But within these confines some struggled heroically, and their stories reveal the quiet victories of kindness and love. Meanwhile, the Male Pevnost became a political jail. Not only Jews were imprisoned here, but anyone deemed dangerous to the Nazi occupation… all to solidify rule in a time of “peace.”
Directly following the end of the war, the Male Pevnost was used as a prison to house Czech Germans before they were expelled from the country. But by 1950, the Velké Pevnost had over 3000 inhabitants, and who knows how many ghosts. Today, about 2000 people in Terezín live in a conundrum. Understandably, they make attempts to beautify the place in which they live, but each coat of paint and newly-paved road diffuses the impact of the events that occurred there. Those that forget the past are condemned to repeat it, but those that live in the past might hardly feel alive…
Visiting Terezín is nearly a “must-see” if one visits the Czech Republic. Not because of the impressive structures (Flood gates, brick tunnels, heavy walls and the like) or the gruesome details (One can watch a horror movie to be grossed out), but in remembrance to what people can do to each other. In this fortress one discovers not only the depths of human cruelty, but the strength of human charity.
Ok. Trosky’s a ruin. I admit that. One could visit Karlštejn, or even just Hradčany in Prague to find immaculately restored structures oozing nobility. One will not be disappointed. But easily slipping out to a different realm, one can escape casual tourism and delve into Czech history and verdant nature at the same time.
Trosky isn’t just a ruin. It’s a ruin of a castle, “A large strong building, built in the past by a ruler or important person to protect the people inside from attack,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge Dictionaries Online). Usually, if not always, these were the homes of the local nobility or leader, and became prevalent with the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th and 10th centuries (Wikipedia, 2015). Indeed that was Trosky’s role, a defensible home that displayed its owner, Čeněk z Vartemberka’s, power.
This narrow fortress stretches out between and upon two basalt columns, the remnants of prehistoric volcanic activity, elevated high above the surrounding sandstone hills. A system of cisterns and paths to underground pools supplying fresh water made this castle particularly defensible – in its long history, only time has successfully sieged Trosky’s walls. Not that Lord Čeněk got to enjoy that security. He most likely paced the keep’s floor, unable to enjoy the beautiful view as an aide announced his debts. Trosky was his ruination and z Vartemberka had to sell it and other properties to King Vaclav IV in 1394 (Historie Hradu Trosky, 2015).
What a beautiful view he missed. People call the region Český Raj (Czech Paradise) for good reason. Rolling, wooded hills, pure water, and sandstone pillars make this a tranquil environment for locals and visitors alike. Some of Europe’s most dramatic rock climbing is located in the cool valleys of Český Raj, and stories of medieval brigands and vodníky ( supernatural watermen) abound.
Palace: Český Krumlov
This world-famous palace might look like a castle, it has been a castle, but don’t be fooled! What’s the difference? A palace isn’t built for defense; it just announces the wealth and power of its inhabitant(s). Český Krumlov certainly announces the glory of its best years under the Family Rožmberk. The lord of that golden age, Wilhelm von Rožmberk, was an intelligent man influenced by Italian culture; he spent no small sum remodeling his family seat in a more southerly style. His colorful Renaissance tower looks out over the eponymous town and the courtyards blend Christian and Classical thought. These embellishments imply a realization that stone walls would not hold long against the cannons of the 16th century. Wilhelm had turned the castle into a palace.
Further stately ossification occurred almost a century later, when the following rulers, the Eggenbergs, turned the wooden drawbridge into a permanent, covered corridor connecting the castle to the hillside and the delightful Baroque gardens upon it. Elaborate gardens and ornate bridges are not marks of a structure focused on defense.
Today, only tourists attack the castle, ogling the bears that have been a tradition since Wilhelm’s era. They hike up the tower (the tourists, not the bears); they take a one hour tour of the main rooms, they rarely explore the geometric hedges that slowly disorganize into a proper English garden. The castle deserves more time than just an hour, and the city more than just a half-day.
If you’ve read this far – congratulations. Wipe the sweat from your brow, and be proud that you did more than I usually do – simply skim an article. I do hope that by taking some minutes of your day, you’ve been able to learn some fun facts about the history of the Czech Republic. And if you’re interested in visiting, don’t hesitate – there are plenty of wonderful surprises in store.