Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 9, 23 August 1999

The Czech Republic is thick with castles K A L E I D O S C O P E:
Thick with Castles

Vaclav Pinkava

Some say that an Englishman's home is his castle. A few years ago, however, the Guiness Book of World Records determined that (aside from Liechtenstein) Czechoslovakia was the "most densely castellated" country in Europe. In other words, Czechoslovakia had the most castles, chateaux and palaces per unit area (including ruins).

Logically, Czechoslovakia's two successor states, the Czech and Slovak Republics are both likely to be candidates for the title of most densely castellated country in Europe. Let them squabble over that. Inevitably, one will win the title. Personally, I reckon it will be the Czech Republic, because Slovakia's mountainous regions make unsuitable terrain for conquest or castle-construction. This implies that Czechoslovakia was not uniformly castellated (if we discount castles in the air, that is). Density can be either uniform or patchy. Uniform and homogeneous density is like the density of raisins in a well mixed fruitcake - the same in any slice of the cake. With a separate history for 700 out of 770 years, the Czechoslovak fruitcake was not mixed well and long enough.

The density of castles in a landscape stems from geography and from years of squabbling over land. In Central Europe, squabbling is a national pastime. Just as each landowner in fairytales was master of all he surveyed, each castle was dominant only as far as the eye could see. Where there were castles, there were serfs and subjugation. Like a range of volcanoes, the densely castellated landscape represents the petrified residue on top of a rumbling underclass or the watchtower over a confined, seemingly docile prison population. Welcome to the heritage trail of Central Europe.

Treasure maps

A densely castellated country is a challenge for cartographers.

The most detailed kind of map is a "touristicka mapa" - nothing to do with tourism, rather it means a hikers' map, comparable to the British Ordnance Survey series. On such a map, everything is marked, including castle ruins you can't find even when you are standing directly on top of them. On the reverse of these maps are neat descriptions of anything highlighted (in Czech only). Each comment is almost exactly overleaf to its right place on the map.

Since a picture paints a thousand words, proper tourist maps try to draw your attention to what the Germans call Sehenswuerdigkeiten, or the more noteworthy sights, by using little symbols and pictures. Pictures take up space and obscure the map. This is significant, because in a densely castellated country, you have to be selective. Unsuspecting tourists may be led astray by these "incomplete" maps. So, I encourage you to buy several alternative ones.

You might think that the right tactic is to visit anything shown on all the maps. That is a bit like going to the most well-advertised beach. Go off the beaten track and you get a few nice surprises. My own rule of thumb in determining whether a tourist map is "my sort of map" is whether it shows the little castle of Rostejn, North-West of the UNESCO-listed town of Telc in Southern Moravia. It was recently immortalised on celluloid in the appropriately named fairytale Z Pekla Stesti (The Devil's Own Luck).

You might throw away the tourist map and just drive around, following the hiking map. The flipside is, when you drive to some random chateau, you may find it is being used as a sanatorium or a home for the elderly. The idea of living in a castle or chateau in your old age is rather nice, isn't it? If they won't let you into the grounds, try again in a few more years when you don't look out of place.

Old age meets New Age

If you've ever read any New Age mumbo jumbo, such as the giga-hit Celestine Prophecy, you will be familiar with the idea of Synchronicity - the idea that there is no such thing as coincidence, that there are only "clues." This is nothing new ; even Homer's Odyssey contains the idea that the gods are leaving clues for us to notice. But the millennial world is coming round to this idea once again. Clues are out there, and I found one in a chateau. What does it mean?

Years ago, as an Oxford student, I co-founded a rock band. When we were thinking up a name, I decided to take a stab at "status quo" (from status quo ante, meaning "as before" or "business as usual," if you prefer). After conferring with my erudite father, I coined a similar name in order to warn the educated that our music was much of a muchness - in case they'd rather go and listen to some Vivaldi or Telemann instead. My mates in the band didn't get the self-deprecating joke.

Imagine my surprise and New Age sense of wonderment when I discovered that the sanatorium chateau in Jevisovice, southern Moravia has a crest bearing "my" evergreen Latin motto, cast in stone since well before the chateau became a retirement home. "Semper idem" - "always the same" or , if you prefer, "uniform," "consistent," "constant," "never wavering."

Let us, too, waver no more and cut short this sightseeing, circuitous route.

Back to Prague

Prague Castle is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest Castle in the world in terms of area.

Beneath it in the Lesser Quarter (Mala Strana), there are many chateaux and palaces. Significant among these is the Waldstein Palace which houses the Czech Parliament's Upper Chamber.

With less than 15 percent support among the general public, the Senate's existence is very unpopular; but, the Constitution requires it, and you can't very well have a Senate in an apartment block, can you? One reason for the Senate's unpopularity may be that a lot of money had to be spent restoring the Waldstein Palace to accommodate it. Compared with the US Senate - and given the vast difference in population size - the Czech Senate is far too extravagant. When Caligula made his horse a senator, I bet he never expected that the Czech Senate would reside in refurbished stables.

"Senate" comes from the Latin word for old age. Nevertheless, when it comes to average age, the present government of Premier Milos Zeman may have the upper hand. Either way, it seems that the Czech Republic's less accessible chateaux are bursting with senility.

Prague Castle, with its none-too-fit President, is the exception that proves the rule - as the saying goes. That particular saying is also from Latin: exceptio regulam probat. Hence, it should really read: it is the exception that probes the rule. For all I know of Latin, it might mean that the rulers probe the pockets of the exceptional. But despite my above-mentioned motto, sayings do change over time, and every exception proves that particular rule.

What will happen to the ruins?

The age profile of the Czech population is changing. Despite the record number of potential mothers and the decreasing rate of abortions and infant mortality (15 percent below the European average), the Czech birth-rate is still 30 percent less than ten years ago. The young are making more space for the old but won't be there to look after them.

At the last election, the Pensioners for a Secure Life party surprised everyone with its initial 11 percent in the polls, but following an eye-opening media campaign, it received only 3.5 percent of the vote. There are no sure things in life, after all.

Where they have gone to is anyone's guess - by underground, to Prague's Lesser Quarter, perhaps?

With so many provincial chateaux vying for the public purse, soon the only remaining palatial sanatoria might be in Prague's Lesser Quarter. (If you want New Age clues, look up the other meanings of Mala Strana - fittingly ranging from '"small political party" to "taking a pee").

According to Senator Falbr's latest estimate, Zeman's government entourage of advisors has grown threefold to 450. Advisors will no doubt turn into politicians, in effect, shadowing the population age curve. An upper-Upper house? There must be another palace to invest in - somewhere nearby in Prague's Lesser Quarter, surely?

Let us take a continued interest in the exhibits within the Lesser Quarter palaces but, at the same time, turn our attention outward.

By doing up the more run-down castles, chateaux and palaces all over the country - better known as old people's homes - we might keep the elderly and infirm out of politics.

This is where you, dear reader, can help. Visit out-of-the-way palaces, and leave a generous donation for their upkeep. Thank you.

Vaclav Pinkava, 23 August 1999




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