Who needs Disney World when you live in the Czech Republic?
Growing up in a land of castles isn’t something every child can boost about. Paying regular weekend visits to ancient ruins, medieval castles and renaissance chateaus certainly wasn’t a part of my childhood repertoire. Apart from a few childhood trips to Walt Disney’s commercialized Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, I never toured a castle until my high school years when I traveled with my family to Germany. I remember staying overnight in an old castle-turned-hotel and feeling very worldly and cozy in my small stone room.
It was only when I moved to the Czech Republic in 2002 that I got my first real taste of touring historic castles. By the end of my first year here, I remember feeling proud that I’d visited nine castles. My elation faded when I realized that at that modest rate, I’d never see even half of the thousands of castles scattered throughout the Czech Republic. Although it takes only four hours to travel across the country, I knew that I could dedicate a lifetime to castle hopping and never run short of new sites to explore.
Anxious to further my castle education and hoping to keep the details about specific castles straight in my mind, I purchased a book written in English entitled Czech Republic – The Most Beautiful 88 Castles (2003). In the book’s preface, the authors emphasize what a difficult decision it had been to select the country’s top 88 castles for inclusion, alluding to the thousands of other worthy Czech castles that didn’t make the book’s final cut. Eighty-eight castles is still a lot, but at least the book gave a framework to my castle education.
Now each year as soon as the castles open their gates after the winter pause, our family spends as many spring and summer weekends as possible out of Prague traveling the Czech countryside. During the prime castle touring season (April to October), we often stay in pensions or camp, with the intent of combining our castle touring with a bike ride or a hike. Since we’ve visited many of the well-known castles like Karlstejn, Český Krumlov and Prague Castle on numerous occasions, we try a get out to a few more remote, but no less interesting, locations.
As the years pass, I’ve come to realize that my castle touring adventures should be taken in the same stride as my Czech beer tasting experiences. Mainly, quality wins out above quantity. Visiting too many castles in a weekend makes my head spin like one too many Krušovice beers. Since the castle tours are typically offered in Czech (usually with the option of a written handbook in English), by the end of each guided tour, I often have a linguistic as well as a cultural overload.
Although we usually try to take a guided tour at each new castle, I’ve learned to enjoy just being in the historic spaces and trying to imagine how life might have unfolded within the castle as well as fortress walls. Seeing castles through the eyes of my children has also helped me focus on the sensory aspects of history.
The children delight in running over cobblestone drawbridges or peering down into empty moats, and they revel in the vast green spaces and lakes or ponds enclosed within the castles’ grounds. They experience the castles with all five senses: wrinkling their noses at the musty air, shivering in the tall-ceiling rooms, humming along with chords from an ancient organ, marveling at the shiny treasures and cautiously touching the animal skins displayed in the hunting halls. Although the history isn’t lost to them, dry facts take a back seat to first-sensory exploration.
Over the past 3 years, Anna Lee (4) has become an avid castle visitor. Now that she’s big enough to absorb some of the information on the tours, I’ve watched her interest in castles increase as well. She entertains herself spinning tales about her favorite princesses and frequently calls upon the rest of our family to join in acting out her fantasies.
This past weekend, we took our inaugural trip of the season, visiting the renowned Bouzov castle, 35 kilometers from Olomouc. Nicknamed the “fairy tale” castle since it has been used in filming many traditional Czech fairytales, the well-preserved Bouzov castle and grounds and the dry moat surrounding it certainly fit the part of a historic fairytale castle.
It was the first day of the 2009 touring season, and we counted ourselves lucky to have avoided the crowds by visiting the castle on the cusp of the season. As we walked up the winding path to the castle, Anna Lee and Oliver (2) slipped into their characteristic fairytale personalities, Cinderella and Gus Gus, her chubby mouse friend.
We had to stop twice before we reached the castle’s entrance so that Cinderella-turned-Sleeping Beauty could fall asleep leaning against the castle’s wall, and Gus Gus could lead the Prince (aka Daddy) to her side to awaken her with a kiss. While I’m embarrassed to admit I often groan when Anna Lee gets into one of her princess moods, perhaps because I’m usually focused on the next task at end, and her role-playing seems like a timely side-track. However, on this most recent morning the play-acting suited our surroundings perfectly. Radek encouraged Anna’s imagination by pointing out “Cinderella’s” small broom on the stoops of a house leading up to the castle, and by the time we started the tour both children were in the mood for magic.
While Anna busily examined each room for traces of her favorite princesses, Oliver became a bear and growled at the bear skins carpeting the castle’s floors. When we entered one small room filled with old military weapons, Anna exclaimed, “This is it, the room where Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger!” She was fascinated by the old cannons, mistaking their large wheels for spinning wheels, and memorized by the painting of the lady of the castle, all dressed in white, insisting that she’d seen her before.
Upon exiting the castle, we headed for the adjacent children’s playground, where a large wooden Trojan horse loomed in the sky above us. After we’d climbed the numerous steps to the tip top of the horse’s head, we settled down below on the benches below and watched as two green-clad Robin Hoodesque rangers demonstrated how weaponry worked in medieval times. Since we were the only family watching the exhibition, the rangers asked Anna Lee to demonstrate shooting a soccer ball from a wooden catapult.
Shy, at first, she gamely participated, and by the time they asked her to shoot the cross-bow, she was grinning and asking to try it again. Although I had some reservations letting the children handle weapons, even though they were carefully supervised, both Radek and my mother, who was visiting, told me to calm down and let the children enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the end, everyone in our family tried the crossbow, including myself.
As we headed back to the car to drive to our next destination, Rožnov, Anna Lee and Oliver chatted happily about their castle experiences. I don’t know what effect, if any, growing up visiting castles might have on their future lives, but I like to think that by exposing them to this part of their cultural heritage, they’re getting a valuable first-hand history lesson, as well as some great fodder for their ever-expanding fantasies. At the very least, these experiences will challenge their imaginations and weave another layer of experience into the richly woven fabric of their childhood.