Karlstejn, Czech Republic
Karlstejn Castle is the legendary and romanticized fortress of the Czech Republic. A royal castle of the Holy Roman Empire for many centuries, this storied keep was once the treasury and storehouse of the Imperial Regalia, the Crown Jewels of Bohemia, and countless other priceless objects. Its mountaintop setting and architectural style is reminiscenct of its contemporaries in Bavaria, and Karlstejn may have been yet another inspiration for the design of Neuschwannstein. After Prague Castle, it is the most visited castle in the Czech Republic, and one of the most popular in all of Eastern Europe.
Karlstejn Castle was constructed in the mid-14th century as a project of Charles IV, a prominent Holy Roman Emperor, as an imperial treasury building. Charles directly oversaw the castle’s construction, or at least its later stages, and according to tradition used a workforce of Palestinian Muslims to finish the fortress. Another legend associated with the castle’s construction suggest that some of the miners who devised the underground passages were put to death right after its completion in order to protect the secrecy of the fortress defenses.
After its completion in 1352, the Holy Roman Imperial Regalia were moved here for storage. Except during periods of conflict, the jewels remained here for many centuries. Karlstejn frequently played a role in the many wars that wracked Bohemia between the 15th and 17th centuries. One of the most famous incidents took place in 1422, when the castle was besieged during the Hussite Wars. The Hussites used unconventional methods to take the castle, notably the catapulting of dead bodies and animal dung into the fortress in order to spread disease among the defenders.
During the 15th century Karlstejn Castle was renovated several times, including after a fire in 1487. Karlstejn became a major strategic prize of the Thirty Years War. In 1620 it was annexed by the Catholic forces of the Hapsburgs. It remained in their possession almost to the very end of the war. In 1648 the fortress was taken and sacked by Protestant armies from Sweden.
After the conflict ended, the castle was left in a state of disrepair. The crown jewels, which were evacuated during the wars, have never been returned and are currently kept in Vienna. Towards the end of the 19th century, when the wave of Romanticism that was sweeping Europe reached Bohemia, Karlstejn Castle was finally restored to its former glory. It is now one of the most popular and visited castles in all of Eastern Europe.
Karlstejn Castle is one of the best examples of a concentric mountaintop castle in Eastern Europe. Built in three stages up the mountainside, each level boasts outer and inner defenses, with no fewer than four easily defended gates between the main entrance and the inner keep. The white walls and buildings are capped with high-peaked roofs shingled with blue-grey tiles that are highly distinctive. The highest level of the castle is the site of the original keep, under which is the well in addition to a secret tunnel to the Berounka River nearby.
The lower buildings consist of the royal residence, where the Holy Roman Emperors would stay when in Karlstejn. Highlights include the great Knight Hall on the lower floor and the imperial rooms on the upper floor. The middle level of the castle is home to the Marian Tower and the Chapel of St. Catherine. It was in these buildings that the Imperial Regalia and other treasures were stored. Most of the castle’s museum exhibits are located in this level, including the castle art gallery and library.
Karlstejn Castle towers over the red-roofed houses of the town of Karlstejn, approximately twenty miles southwest of Prague. It is one of the most popular tourist sites in the Czech Republic, and is easily reached in a daytrip from the capital. Karlstejn is generally open every day except for Mondays from March through Mid-November, and is usually open on weekends only for the rest of the year. Days and hourly times vary month-to-month throughout the year, so check ahead. Admission is Czk270. Web: www.hradkarlstejn.cz (official website).
The Czech Republic boasts some of the best castles in Europe east of Germany, many of which, like Karlstejn, date from the Holy Roman Imperial era. Probably the two most popular after Karlstejn are Konopiste Castle and Krivoklat Castle, both also located just outside of Prague.