Karlštejn, and its accompanying castle, are located about half an hour’s drive outside of Prague. It’s a nice trip through the countryside, which starts abruptly just a few kilometers from our house. One minute you are looking at paneláky, those lovely Communist high-rises covered with graffiti and dripping with laundry and geraniums, and the next you are looking at cow pastures, interrupted by the occcasional mining operation. The road twists and turns, taking you several hundred feet higher into the rocky hills which surround the Vltava river valley.
On the way I was startled to see a white concrete building sporting a Confederate flag! A few yards further down the road a big tractor trailer rig was also decorated with the same flag in miniature. How utterly bizarre. My theory is that the owner of both must have a cousin living in Atlanta or somewhere who has mailed him these flags as souvenirs.
Karlštejn itself is rather unimpressive, albeit quite well-run. The entire town seems to be devoted to the tourist trade. Cars are banned from the center of town, which simultaneously improves the atmosphere and provides a lot of business for the cabs and horse-drawn carriages which stalk tourist as they leave their cars. The kids wanted to ride in a horse-drawn carriage, but we were turned off by the price: 400 Czech crowns to ride about one kilometer, and we’d have to wait for enough people to fill the carriage. Bit of a rip-off, really.
The main road snakes through the town leading up to the castle itself. From a distance it really is pretty, perched on top of a rocky outcropping and totally dominating the landscape for miles around.
The town itself is OK, but awfully touristy. I was just remarking to my husband how it reminded me of Panajachel, Guatemala, when I spotted a rack of Guatemalan handwoven purses for sale. Several stores had these displayed–if I had enough Czech I would have loved to have known how they made it all way from the shores of Lake Atitlan to Karlštejn, Czech Republic! The stores also displayed puppets, china items, a gazillion postcards, and various other trinkets. It was all pretty schlocky, and the creek running alongside the road stank somewhat of sewage, however, the town was typically clean and litter-free, and the shopowners unfailingly polite.
The castle itself looks better from a distance. There is nothing actually wrong with it, but extensive renovation work in the nineteenth century has given it a bland, Disneyesque feel. There is no ancient graffiti, no tumbledown chapel to climb around, and no freedom of movement whatsoever. Tourists are herded into the castle in language-appropriate groups, and as each group enters a room, the guide pulls out a large key and locks them in. The guide did her best to liven up the largely bare castle rooms with tales from it’s history, but there just wasn’t all that much to work with. I suppose it depends on how you like to experience your castles, but, for my part, I like to know more and see more about the people who actually gave it life.
It was a long walk for the kids, but they held up OK. They did enjoy looking over the ramparts and giving their Mom palpitations–a favorite occupation of castle-bound kids since the first turret was built, I expect. Rachel listened to the guide’s stories, but I was involved in keeping Liam quiet and happy the entire time. He did enjoy the “dragon’s head” displayed in one of the last rooms–a crocodile’s skull.
At the end of the day we were rewarded with a well-deserved snack in the parking lot cafe. Liam, of course, refused to eat the Czech hot dog “because it has skin on it.” He may not be very adaptable food-wise, but he has picked up a few Czech words on his own without our pushing the language at all. He can say “dobrý den” (hello), dobře rano (good morning), na shledanou (goodbye) and dekuju (thank you). The kid apparently has a good ear for languages!
Oh well, we’ll try for a more exotic castle next time.