Intimidate & Inspire – Sizing Up Cesky Krumlov’s Castle (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Four)

What is the difference between a castle and a chateau? To my mind, the former has battlements, crenellations, perhaps a moat, a multitude of portholes, menacing spires and was sculpted out of stone. A chateau evokes images of a palatial manor house that is meant to be both impressive and inviting. The castle was largely made for defensive purposes and as a power base, the chateau for relaxation and enjoyment. I am sure an official dictionary definition would be a bit different from my highly personalized conception of what each of these structures should be. Nonetheless, the difference between the two is one of degree rather than nuance. Castles were built for survival, chateaus for pleasure. At least that was what I believed before arriving at Cesky Krumlov.

A Castle Complex - Cesky Krumlov's Magnificent Castle

A Castle Complex – Cesky Krumlov’s Magnificent Castle

A Complex Situation – Defeated At A Glance
An incredibly well preserved and spruced up medieval townscape in Cesky Krumlov is home to the second largest castle in the Czech Republic or as some prefer to call it, the Chateau. It literally stretches the meaning of either word. At first glance, mostly due to its massive walls and infectiously stylized bell tower, I deemed the structure worthy of the castle moniker. While visiting I also noticed it had similarities with chateaus. Calling it a castle is something of misnomer because that designation is not plural. A more apt title might be the Cesky Krulov castle complex. That is because referring to it as a chateau happens to be a massive understatement. There are multiple structures inside the grounds that are worthy on their own of chateau status. The official name when translated is the State Castle of Cesky Krumlov. This officious title has all the appeal of bureaucratic necessity. The most appropriate designation I found was “castle complex”, a description which incorporates both the main structure and all associated ones.

Upon my first glance at the castle complex, in a haze of snow and floodlit illumination, the words formidable and impressive both came to mind. Here was a structure meant to intimidate while inspiring potential conquerors to retreat. I was not surprised to find that in the structure’s long and rich history it seems to have suffered little damage in warfare. Any potential conqueror would have likely been defeated by its appearance. My first encounter with the castle complex came, like that of most visitors to Cesky Krumlov, during a walk to the Old Town, passing beneath the Upper Castle’s covered bridge. This was the most massive thruway I have ever had the awe-inspiring pleasure of passing under. The covered bridge is so high above ground level that it is not easily discernible from below.

A Strategic Situation – Massive Castle, Crooked Meadow
Imagine walking beneath a towering railway viaduct or entering a massive Roman arena. Such examples come closest to explaining the effect of entering Cesky Krumlov’s Old Town beneath the covered bridge. At that point I was not in the castle or anywhere close to the main point of entry, but that fact was lost on me. There was so much to take in that I lost awareness of the immediate surroundings. This was due to the huge shadow cast both literally and figuratively by the complex over the rest of Cesky Krumlov’s Old Town which I would soon enter. I could not shake the massive edifice that loomed well above everything else. The outsized effect of the castle complex makes the rest of the Old Town seem even more quaint than it looks, as though it has been preserved in miniature.

The castle complex is so large that it is hard for the mind to grasp its sheer size and length. Much of this has to do with how it stretches for a kilometer along the Vltava River. Its situation, atop a large rock outcropping bordering Bohemia’s most important waterway, is easy to overlook. That is because the rock looks more like an appendage than a foundation due to the huge structures that have been overlaid atop it. The history of both Cesky Krumlov and the castle has been informed by the Vltava going all the way back to its very beginnings. It is even expressed in the town’s name, which is a translation of the German “Krumme Aue”, which means crooked meadow. The town and castle wrap around an S-shaped bend in the Vltava. This bend in the river was one of southern Bohemia’s most important strategic points going all the way back to the late Middle Ages.

Bending to the Rivers Will - Cesky Krumlov's Castle complex & Old Town border the Vltava River

Bending to the Rivers Will – Cesky Krumlov’s Castle complex & Old Town border the Vltava River

A Textbook Of History – Sculpted Out Of Stone
The first of the castle’s constructions took place during the 13th century when a tower was built to protect a river ford on an important commercial trade route crossing the Vltava. The castle really began to develop when the powerful Rozmberk family took control of it and the surrounding lands in the early 14th century. This was the beginning of a residency that would last for exactly three hundred years. It was during the Rozmberk’s (Rosenberg’s) reign that the Upper Castle area was first constructed and the structure that still exists today began to truly develop. Across the centuries, two other families, the Eggenberg’s and the Schwarzenberg’s, provided their own constructions, reconstructions and embellishments. The structure mirrors the military, economic and cultural history of southern Bohemia. It went from being a fortress, to a castle, economic engine and massive residence, to a plaything of the aristocratic nobility over the course of seven centuries.

The architecture is also reflective of a diverse range of styles with Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements standing side by side, piled atop each other or fused together. The Cesky Krumlov castle complex can best be understood as a textbook of history written in stone, a grand work that reveals more and more of its treasures upon close study. I found that approaching it not in the singular, as a castle or chateau, but as a multi-volume work was the best approach. The sections of this work could be divided by building or style, historic era or historical personages. It was that last one which most appealed to me, primarily because those who developed a work of art and architecture this compelling could only have done so by marshaling incredible amounts of imagination and ambition. This was the material that Cesky Krumlov’s castle complex was made of.

Click here for: A Tale Of Two Brothers – The Great Creator Of Cesky Krumlov: William Rozmberk (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Five)

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