The sites that attract most visitors away from the city for Prague day trips are Bohemia’s picturesque medieval castles. Karlstein Castle stands in splendid isolation above wooded valleys that have changed little since the Emperor Charles IV hunted there in the 14th century. I have chosen four castles, very varied in character. There are regular organized tours to the major sites around Prague, to the historic mining town of Kutna Hora. If you have more time to spare, to the famous spa towns of Karlsbad and Marienbad in western Bohemia. Some day trips from Prague.
Veltrusy Chateau (Veltruskýzamek)
The small town of Veltrusy beside the River Vltava, is famous for the 18th century château built by the aristocratic Chotek family. The building is in the shape of a cross, with a central dome and a grand staircase adorned with statues representing the months of the year and the seasons. The estate was laid out as an English-style landscaped deer park, covering an area of 300 hectares (750 acres). Near the entrance there is still an enclosure with a herd of deer. The Vltava flows along one side and dotted around the grounds are summer houses. The Doric and Maria Theresa pavilions, the orangery and the grotto date from the late 18th century.
The park is planted with some 100 kinds of tree. Floods damaged the castle in 2002 and ongoing repairs mean that some rooms will remain closed to the public until 2008. Across the river, and accessible from Veltrusy by bus or train, is Nelahozeves Castle. This Renaissance castle houses part of one of the finest private collections of art in Europe, the Lobkowicz Collection, which includes works by Veronese, Rubens, Canaletto and Velasquez, as well as rare books and manuscripts. The highlight of the collection is "Haymaking", a painting by Brueghel the Elder. Part of the collection has moved to Lobkowicz Palace. The birthplace of Czech composer Antonin Dvorak is nearby.
Karlstein Castle (Karlštejn)
Charles IV founded the Karlstein Castle as a country retreat, a treasury for the crown jewels and a symbol of his divine right to rule the Holy Roman Empire. It stands on a crag above the River Berounka. The castle is largely a 19th century reconstruction by Josef Mocker. The French master mason Matthew of Arras supervised the original building work (1348 - 1367), followed by Peter Parler. You can still see the audience hall and the bedchamber of Charles IV in the Royal Palace. On the third floor, the Emperor’s quarters are below those of the Empress. The central tower houses the Church of Our Lady, decorated with faded 14th - century wall paintings. A narrow passage leads to the tiny Chapel of St Catherine, the walls of which are adorned with semi precious stones set in the plaster.
Though it dates back to the 13th century, this moated castle is essentially a late 19th century creation. In between, Konopiště Castle had been rebuilt by Baroque architect František Kaňka and in front of the bridge across the moat is a splendid gate (1725) by Kaňka and sculptor Matthias Braun. In 1887 Archduke Franz Ferdinand bought Konopiště, who later became heir to the Austrian throne. It was his assassination in 1914 in Sarajevo that triggered off World War I. To escape the Habsburg court’s harsh disapproval of his wife, Ferdinand spent much of his time at Konopiště. He amassed arms, armour and Meissen porcelain, all on display in the fine furnished interiors. However, the abiding memory of the castle is of the hundreds of stags’ heads lining the walls.
Marienbad (Mariánské Lázně)
The elegance of Marienbad’s hotels, parks and gardens has faded considerably since it was the playground of kings and princes at the turn of the century. The area’s health-giving waters – lázně means bath (or spa) – have been known since the 16th century, but the spa was not founded until the beginning of the last century. The waters are in use to treat all kinds of disorders. Mud baths are also popular. Most of the spa buildings date from the latter half of the 19th century.
The great cast-iron colonnade with frescoes by Josef Vyletěl is still an impressive sight. In front of it is a “singing fountain”, its jets of water now controlled by computer. Churches were provided for visitors of all denominations, including an Evangelical church (1857), an Anglican church (1879) and the Russian Orthodox church of St Vladimir (1902). Visitors can learn the history of the spa in the house called At the Golden grape (U zlatěho hroznu), where the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stayed in 1823. Musical visitors during the 19th century included the composers Weber, Wagner and Bruckner, while writers such as Ibsen, Gogol, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling also found its treatments beneficial. King Edward VII also came here and in 1905 he agreed to open the golf course (Bohemia’s first), despite hating the game. There are many pleasant walks in the countryside around Marienbad, especially in the protected Slavkov Forest.
Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary)
Legend has it that Charles IV discovered one of the sources of mineral water that would make the town’s fortune when one of his stag hounds fell into a hot spring. In 1522 a medical description of the springs was published and by the end of the 16th century over 200 spa buildings had been built there. Today there are 12 hot mineral springs – vary means hot springs. The best-known is the Vridlo (Sprudel), which rises to a height of 12 m (40 ft.). At 72° C, it is also the hottest. The water is good for digestive disorders, but you do not have to drink it. You can take the minerals in the form of salts.
The town is also known for its Karlovy Vary china and Moser glass, and for summer concerts and other cultural events. The race course is popular with the more sporting invalids taking the waters. Outstanding among the local historic monuments is the Baroque parish church of Mary Magdalene by Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer (1732-1736). More modern churches built for foreign visitors include a Russian church (1896) and an Anglican one (1877). The 19th century Mill Colonnade is by Josef ZItek, architect of the National Theater in Prague. There have been many royal visitors over the centuries. From Peter the Great of Russia in 1711 to England’s Edward VII in 1907.
The town Kutna Hora originated as a small community in the second half of the 13th century. When rich deposits of silver were found, the king took over the licensing of the mines. Kutňa Hora became the second most important town in Bohemia. In the 14th century five to six tones of pure silver were extracted each year, making the richest ruler in Central Europe. The Prague groschen, a silver coin that circulated all over Europe, was minted here in the Italian Court, so-called because Florentine experts were employed to set up the mint. Strongly fortified, it was also the ruler’s seat in the town.
In the late 14th century a superb palace was constructed with reception halls and the Chapel of St Wenceslas and St Ladislav, below which lay the royal treasury. When the silver started to run out in the 16th century, the town began to lose its importance. The mint finally closed in 1727. The Italian Court later became the town hall. On the ground floor you can still see a row of forges. Since 1947 a mining museum is in another building, the Hrádek, which was originally a fort. A visit includes a tour of a medieval mine. There is a museum in the Stone House (Kamenny dum), a restored Gothic building of the late 15th century. The southwest of the town stands the Church of St Barbara, begun in 1380 by the workshop of Peter Parler, also the architect of St Vitus’s Cathedral. The presbytery (1499) has a fine net vault and windows with intricate tracery. The slightly later nave vault is by royal architect Benedikt Ried. The murals show mining scenes.
Křivoklát Castle - Day trips from Prague
The Krivoklat Castle, like Karlstein, owes its appearance to the restoration work of Josef Mocker. It was originally a hunting lodge belonging to the early Přemyslid princes. It also was the seat of the royal master of hounds. In the 13th century King Wenceslas I build a stone castle here, which remained in the hands of Bohemia’s kings and the Habsburg emperors until the 17th century. Charles IV spent some of his childhood here and returned from France in 1334 with his first wife Blanche de Valois. Their daughter Margaret was born in the castle. To amuse his queen and young princess, Charles ordered the local villagers to trap nightingales and set them free in a wooded area just below the castle.
Today you can still walk along the “Nightingale Path”. The royal palace is on the eastern side of the triangular castle. The Great Tower dominates this corner, 42 m (130 ft) high. You can still see some 13th century stonework, but most of the palace dates from the reign off Vladislav Jagiello. On the first floor there is a vaulted Gothic hall, reminiscent of the Vladislav Hall in the Royal Palace at Prague Castle. It has an oriel window and a beautiful loggia that was used by sentries. Also of interest is the chapel, which has a fine Gothic altar carving. Below the chapel lies Augusta Prison, so-called because Bishop Jan Augusta of the Bohemian Brethren was in prison here for 16 years in the mid-16th century. The dungeon now houses a grim assortment of instruments of torture.