Zelena Hora church

By Annick Dournes


Bohemia is the largest of the three regions of the Czech Republic besides Moravia and Silesia. As in the rest of Europe, noble families built countless castles in these wild lands covered with forests. There are dozens of medieval fortresses, Renaissance castles and most of all Baroque style castles. Baroque style was a major artistic movement in Bohemia. After years of religious wars opposing Catholics and Protestant during the 17th century, there was an irrepressible art explosion. For 150 years Czech artists, distancing themselves from the Italian influence, created an original Czech Baroque style. Painters, sculptors and of course architects were able to set their imagination free, building and adorning palaces, churches or castles. Despite the vicissitudes of history but thanks to passionate people who carefully restore them with the help of funds provided by the European Community, they are today an inescapable reason to visit Bohemia.

Baroque style at – Jemniste castle

After World War I when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed a liberal, democratic and independent Czechoslovak Republic was created and Bohemia enjoyed a golden age. It came to an end with World War II and the post war period was a troubled one. At first the Czech communist party backed by the Soviet Union won free election, but when a strong opposition grew louder and louder the communists responded with a coup d’état and imposed a pro-Soviet authoritarian state. The castles’ owners were expelled and most of the time forced into exile. Dark times began for the Bohemian castles.

Panel ceiling in Telc Castle

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the Czech Republic became a separate state. Among many other changes that transformed the Czechs’ lives, it was decided to give back their properties to their former owners. Many of the Bohemian castles had been turned into schools, hospitals, summer camps or prisons and many more had just been abandoned.

Jemniste castle

All the furniture and pieces of art had been moved out of the castles and stored into a few big castles where senior members of the communist party could pick up whatever they liked. In all cases, both the buildings and the gardens were in poor conditions and needed extensive works of renovation. Depending on their financial resources, their owners were or were not able to afford them and many castles were sold to wealthy foreigners. Let me tell you the exemplary story of four of these castles and of their rebirth.

Jemniste castle tea room

Jemniste Castle is only a one-hour drive from Prague. It actually is not a problem to drive in Czech Republic where there is a good road network. So don’t hesitate to rent a car and discover Bohemia at your own pace. Jeministe castle was built in 1725 but completely burned down in 1754. It was soon rebuilt and refurnished in a typical Czech Baroque style according to the original plans made by a famous Czech architect of the time, Franz Kanka. Since then, no further major changes were made, giving us the possibility to see a typical aristocratic residence at the peak of Baroque period. The estate was bought by Count Sternberg in 1868 and the property remained in the Sternberg family ever since (except of course for the communist period).

Fabulous tea time at Jemniste castle

During World War II and the German occupation the Sternberg refused to take on German nationality and were exposed to all kinds of persecutions. However, this helped them stay in Czechoslovakia during the post war years as mere citizens, dispossessed of their properties. Jemniste estate was returned to the hands of the Sternbergs’ family in 1995, as well as the furniture and works of art. The present Count, Jiri, and his wife, Petra, opened the castle and its garden to the public after replacing the roofs, renovating the façades and, after recovering the furniture, redecorating all the rooms. Visiting Jemniste is visiting a family home where no barriers stop you from walking through the rooms as you please.

Zdar nad Sazavou Casle

The gardens, especially the rose garden, are superb and you are welcomed to picnic in the park. A lovely tearoom and a restaurant serving tasty Czech cuisine (including game, venison and mouth-watering desserts) have been set in the side wings surrounding the Baroque gardens. Petra and Jiri have created three romantic apartments partly furnished with historical furniture and turned them into romantic B&B. Their guests can enjoy a private tour of the castle with a glass of Champagne or a stroll in the gardens after all the tourists are gone, and a hearty breakfast served in a wicker basket at the door of their room…

For more information and to book an apartment: www.jemniste.cz

Baroque frescoe at Zdar nad Sazavou Casle

Zdar nad Sazavou originally was a Cistercian monastery dating back from the 13th century. It grew larger and larger through the centuries, until 1689 when it was struck by a major fire. When a new abbot took lead of the convent in 1705, he asked Jan Santini-Aichel, one of the most (if not the most) prominent architects of the Baroque period, to rebuild it. In 1826 the monastery buildings were bought by the supreme Marshal of the Bohemian Kingdom and turned into a private residence. Following several legacies and mariages, the Kinsky family, an illustrious ancient aristocratic lineage, received the property in 1930. Due to the Kinskys’ anti-Nazi attitude during World War II the Germans took possession of the estate. It was nationalized in 1948 and the Kinskis expropriated. The family members emigrated and resettled in France but came back to Bohemia in 1992 to take over the confiscated estate, bring it back to life and take up with their roots.

Zelena Hora church

The castle is a very big place and one needs to think big to manage it. Two Kinsky brothers, Constantin and Nicholas, are in charge now and spare no efforts to make the castle great again. They have created an interactive museum with immersive AV techniques dedicated to the monastery life through the ages and to the Baroque renewal of the place. The Assumption of the Virgin Mary church transformed by Jan Santini-Aichel in the 18th century, an outstanding example of Czech Baroque style, a museum dedicated to this amazing architect, an Art Baroque exhibition and the castle itself which renovation is not yet complete, a Czech Café and three B&B guest rooms set in the Baroque Tower will make your visit a memorable one.

Heralec Castle

But if there was only one good reason to go to Zdar nad Sazavou it would undoubtedly be the visit of St Jan Nepomucky’s church in Zelena Hora. It was built in 1722 by Jan Santini Aichel next to the monastery, on a low hill called Zelena Hora (the Green Mountain). It is said to be Santini’s masterpiece. This amazing building has the shape of a five-pointed star and this symbolic number 5 is to be found everywhere inside and outside the church: five altars, five corridors, five aisles, five stars and five angels on the main altar. The church enclosure that’s surrounds it on all sides has five chapels and five gates forming a ten-pointed star. Since its construction the church has been a worshipped place of pilgrimage. Even today, each year in May Zelena Hora celebrates St Jan Nepomucky and his pilgrimage. http://www.zamekzdar.cz/en/

Heralec Castle lounge

Heralec Castle has a totally different story. It originally was a medieval fortress of the 13th century, later turned into a Renaissance castle before finally being renovated into neo-gothic style in early 19th century. It had many different owners through the centuries before being nationalized in 1945 and turned into a textile factory, then into a school of textile and later into a special education centre… When the present owners, the Kaspers bought it in 2004 the castle had been stripped of almost all its contents. There were no more doors, or windows, or floors, or wood panelling… only the beautiful staircase was still there! No need to say that it took a lot of energy, hard work and a lot more of money to give it back all its past beauty. After 30 months of extensive restoration works Heralec Castle looks better than it ever did before.

Heralec Castle dining

The castle now is a 5-star all-inclusive boutique hotel and to define it in one word, it would be “space”. The 19 suites and rooms are more than spacious and there are huge lounges with large comfortable sofas. The entire ground floor of the south wing is dedicated to the spa set under the original medieval arches and to the indoor swimming pool. Heralec Castle has received many awards since its opening in 2011 and was recently ranked in the top ten castle hotels of the world. A well deserved recognition! http://www.chateauheralec.travel/

Telc castle

Don’t leave Bohemia without going to Telc, a village where both the castle and the central square have been listed World Heritage UNESCO Sites. The Zacharias of Hradec square is one of the most beautiful ones of the all country and is quite unique. The town was built on a commercial road halfway in between Prague and Vienna and has been a wealthy trade hub since the 16th century. Rich traders were able to build beautiful houses on the central square and we still can admire their colourful façades adorned with stuccoes and frescoes and topped with high gables. On the ground floor arcades surround the whole square giving a nice shaded space in hot summer days. Going up the roman tower of the Holy Spirit church you will get a great view over the square and the castle.

Beautiful facades on Telc main square

Not much remains of the original gothic fortress that was completely rebuilt as an elegant Renaissance castle by an Italian architect during the 16th century. The last owners, the Podstatsky-Lichtenstein had to leave the castle in 1945. The castle now is a museum and is in very good conditions. The Renaissance halls have remarkable wooden panel ceilings richly painted with allegoric scenes. The rooms where the Podstatsky-Lichtenstein lived still have most of their original furniture and are a significant testimony of the way noble interiors looked like in those days.

Zelena Hora church

These four castles are just a few examples among all the beautiful Baroque castles open to the public in Bohemia. Discovering them also is a wonderful opportunity to discover this picturesque region easily reached from Prague and to meet genuine Czech people.

More information: https://www.czechtourism.com/home/

Text and photos ©Annick Dournes