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©2019 Shawn Basey | Tbilisi | Prague | Travel blog and tips

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An Escape to Country Castles

July 23, 2017

There's not much room for comfort these days in Prague. Every spare inch of shade is taken by someone in yearning for a cooler place. The bars and restaurants are sweltering, unless you find some multinational corporation like Costa or Starbucks that took the expense to put in some air conditioning. All the old white trash "herna" bars that were always stocked with air coolers were shut down in a popularly suspected anti-money laundering action a couple of years ago and nobody's house has anything remotely resembling a reasonable air conditioning system. This wouldn't be a problem if not climate change. 

Having spent many summers visiting family in Louisiana, I hate to complain about a bit of heat. In Louisiana, it's paired with unbreathable humidity, the kind where you step out of the car and fall back because the moisture just whacked you in the chest like a vengeful mafioso and now you have to adapt to breathing in water. Nothing compares to Louisiana heat, except maybe Florida heat I suspect, but I've never been there. I'm in Prague now anyway and it's pretty damned hot here.

 

 Vitkov Castle


There are few things to do to escape the absurdity of the temperature. One can hit a movie, since they're almost always air conditioned. One can go to one of the few public swimming pools in town, like Podoli, but we tend to avoid those knowing how ridiculously over-crowded they ought to be with such a climatological extreme. The last option is to just get out of town. Around Prague, there are many lakes, creeks and rivers where people have adapted into beachfronts and places for pleasure-boating. I've yet to find a boat rental place outside of Prague though - you can rent boats on the Vltava on the embankment in the city - but they must exist. 

 

For our outing, we decided to go to two beautiful Disneyesque castles we had scene last winter - Orlik and Zvikov. Both of the castles sit on the Vltava River, connected by about an hour long boat ride. We noticed the boat availability when we were there in November, but they only operate from June to August, so we decided to take advantage of the weekend and check it out. Orlik is only about an hour and a half drive, so going on the spur of the moment wasn't a problem for us. When we got to Orlik, we found the castle gates open this time, but instead of going in, we circled around and followed the coast a little back where the docks were. There was a small beergarden on the bank with an excellent view of the river. The Vltava had been dammed a bit further up making it almost like a really long lake with steep cliffs on every side. 

 

 The entrance to Orlik


The tour at Orlik is definitely worth it. There is a room with some of the most remarkable woodwork on a ceiling you'll ever see, and a very creepy sight of a thousand or so deer heads, then you get to see all the rifles used to get those deer heads. It's 120 czk and in Czech, but they give you a handy guide book in English to follow along. Outside of the tour, there's a small nature trail skirting the river and the beergarden.

Orlik in Czech means "small eagle" or "baby eagle", and before the dam, it would have been high up on a rocky promontory overlooking the then much smaller river. Now it sits almost on the river, but still amazingly scenic, as more water never seems to take away from a sight. It was originally built as a royal property in the 15th century and like most major castles in Bohemia, passed hands to the Eggenbergs and then to the Schwarzenbergs. For a time it was the main residence of the Schwarzenberg family, and the most famous resident was Karl Phillipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, who led the victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig. 

 

 Orlik standing over the water


We waited at the beergarden for about an hour for the boat. In such a heat, we didn't really have energy to do much else, but sit and drink and dodge the swarm of bees that took up residence there. Since we had arrived only in time for the last boat, it meant that we would only spend 15 minutes at Zvikov, which was fine since we had seen it before. However, Zvikov would have been a much better place to wait around, as there's a lot more shade as well as beach where one could relax and swim. Not so much was possible at Orlik. The boat though was a nice ride and had a bar serving up sort of cold refreshments. The ride was 240 czk round trip, which seemed to be pretty reasonable for such a beautiful and hassle free ride. Tickets are purchased first come first serve on the boat. There was also a boat that went to the damn and one that simply circumnavigated the immediate area too. All of them can be foundhere (unfortunately only in Czech, but there are no reservations anyway, so just come as you are).
 

 Inside the Zvikov courtyard

 

Zvikov Castle is more of the traditional castle ruins that one might envision the Fellowship of the Ring coming upon while running from the Nazgul. Like Orlik, it also used to be high up on the rocks, but with the water rising up, now sits on a narrow peninsula formed by the convergence of the Vltava River and Oltava River. In a fashion, it's one of the oldest castles in the Czech Republic and much of Europe, in that there has been a fort there in one form or another since the Celts fortified the place in the 1st century AD. The current construction dates back to the 13th century, built under the orders of King Otakar I. It was under royal possession until the 1400s when it was sold to the Rozmberks, who sided with the Protestants during the 30 Years War and suffered a major siege there before capitulating. The Habsburgs proceeded to loot it and destroy it and it sat as a ruin for a few hundred years. The lands eventually passed, as all Czech lands eventually pass, to the Schwarzenberg family, who restored the castle.

 

 

Being in the middle of a major empire is really the worst place for a military fortification, and as the Schwarzenbergs were using Orlik as their primary residence, they let Zvikov slip away into memory. It was used for storing grain for awhile, until it was finally taken by the Communists and turned into a museum in 1948. Wandering the outside of Zvikov is amazing as it is, as there are few chances to freely walk around semi-preserved ruins. For the buildings that are left - which do have some interesting murals remaining - a small fee of 70 czk gets you in and wandering on your own. The most interesting room is the remains of a grand bedroom that half fell into the river below from age and disrepair - don't worry, it's safe now! 

Make sure you go early so you have plenty of time to explore both castles!

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