Imagine the only way some invaders think they can get into your castle is by flinging cartloads of human excrement and dead bodies over the walls? But yet, you carry on, defending the keep even though you're wading waste deep in crap. That's the stuff legends are made of. Legends of Karlstejn, that is.
My wife’s cousin recently came to visit, which meant we had to go along the tourist route around town again. No big deal, but this one included loads of shopping and yet another visit to Karlstejn (pronounced Karl-shtein), the massive, scenic fortress that sits about 45 minutes south of Prague and protected the treasures of kings and emperors.
a view from the castle
A bit of history
Karlstejn was built in the mid-14th century by the guy responsible for building most everything famous in Prague, Emperor Charles IV, King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire. If there were other Holy Roman Emperors, that fact would be entirely irrelevant in the history of Prague, and I wonder if Czechs could even name other Holy Roman Emperors, since it seems that every building you point at had something to do with Charles IV and no one else. Seriously, did Rudolf or Frederick the Redbeard never build anything around here?
a bed fit for kings, but never used
a dining room fit for kings
an office fit for kings
The castle served as the storage for the crown jewels for 300 years or so, and was built in three phases. First the well tower, clock tower, the Burgrave’s residence, and the king’s palace, then the Marian Tower, and finally, the Great Tower.
Karlstejn from the side
The first section is pretty to easy to guess what the functions are. One to draw water, the next to tell time, the next to serve as the regional administrator’s place, and finally, where the king lived. The king’s palace also includes the Knight’s Hall and in the upstairs, the Queen’s residence (there's a secret door from the King's room up to the Queen's room, can you guess what for?). In the Marian Tower is a massive chapel and the treasure room for the crown jewels and holy relics, and in the Great Tower was the new place for the crown jewels and armory.
those paintings hold bones of saints
the walls of the throne room
Each tower was, in the old days, only accessible from a wooden bridge from the previous tower, and the Marian only accessible from the King’s palace. In case of an invasion, the wooden bridges could be easily collapsed, which made it nearly impossible to get into the next section and the crown jewels would remain safe until reinforcements arrived.
the wood bridges are now stone
The fortresses defenses were only tried twice. First when the Hussites came roving in in the 15th century. They weren’t able to do much, and attacked with little purpose since the crown jewels had already been removed to Hungary. They rolled up a catapult on a hill nearby and launched a bunch of dead bodies and 2000 carriage loads of shit over the walls, but that was about all they could accomplish.
Then the Swedes came along in the 1648 during the 30 Years War. Seeing much of Europe ravished by civil strife, the Swedes decided to clean up the mess and take over everything in the name of Protestantism. This was Sweden’s last stand as a great power, once as Vikings and the next as evil Protestants, they would fall into a politically distressed world of whimsical men, IKEA, and feminists in the centuries to follow. That’s what happens when a great power is defeated by Russians, but that’s neither here or now.
model of tower
Anyways, the Swedes rolled up and attacked Karlstejn Castle. As an organized and professional army, they were to do much more damage than the drunk Hussite mobs did a two centuries previous. They were able to take the palace and the Marian Tower, but due to the collapsed bridge, were never able to seize the Great Tower.
How to get there
This last weekend when we visited, we didn’t feel like driving so much, so we took the train, which actually ended up being easier than driving anyway. The train left from the main station and we bought tickets via the CD app on my phone. The tickets were just 56 crowns one way and the ride takes about 30 minutes. The train drops you right at the river, at almost the same distance as where you’d have to park anyway.
the train station
It's then just a matter of walking up the souvenir-selling village and to the castle. The restaurants there are actually pretty reasonably priced with good beers, and the souvenirs I found to actually be cheaper there than anything I found in Prague.
You can do three tours up at the top, or just walk around and look at all the great views from the different courtyards. You can’t go into the buildings without a tour, though.
a view from one of the courtyards
The first tour you can go on, which is open year round, is of the king’s residence and a part of the Marian Tower, where the treasury once was. I’ve done that one half a dozen times. There’s an English tour every thirty minutes. There’s no need for a reservation, as even if the next one’s booked, you can always take the one after and wait around drinking beer. Historical tours are always more fun with beer.
looking back up
Then there’s one of the sacred rooms, which includes the much decorated Chapel of the Holy Cross and the St. Catherine Chapel over in the Great Tower, the bathhouse, and exhibition on the building of the castle. It’s best to call ahead about the scheduling of that one in your preferred language, +420 311 681 617.
Finally, you can visit the Great Tower without all that hokey religious stuff. That’s tour 3.
the village and the high castle
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how great the second and third tours are, as I’ve only been on the first. The second and third ones are only open in the summer, and on such a schedule that seems to dodge every one of my visits, annoyingly enough.
If you’re in Prague for three days or more, then a trip to Karlstejn is definitely worth the effort. It’s huge, it’s beautiful, and it’s probably the most historically significant castle—and best preserved—in the region outside of Prague Castle.
souvenir shops in the village
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