Cities / Towns Visited: 30
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 28,330
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,207,460
Starting our day as the others, with sunlight to the face and questionable hostel breakfast we bumbled towards the train station. We were heading out of town for the day to a little place called Karlstejn, to visit their mountaintop castle (you know, because we still haven’t had enough of medieval royal residences).
After a smooth ride, we stepped off the train onto the tiny platform; the kind you only see in small regional villages (we’re talking you have to walk across another set of tracks to get to the actual station). Walking out onto the street, and following both a combination of the signs and the crowd of other tourists who had alighted the train with us, we made our way down the shady road. As we turned and began to cross the bridge, which spans the river cutting through the town, we looked up and saw what we’d travelled all this way for; Karlstejn castle, sitting proudly amongst the mountainside forest. The sun was beating down, and it was a steep ascent, winding back and forth, but we eventually reached the castle gate, albeit sweatier than desirable.
Ducking beneath its imposing stone arch we joined the plethora of other tourists milling around in the courtyard. Now I’m assuming it is for both preservation and capacity restriction reasons that it is only possible to visit the interior of the castle by way of a guided tour, of which they offer three; one of the interior of the main castle, one of the ornate chapel, and one up the tower of the keep. Reasoning that the chapel one was almost twice the price of any of the others we crossed that off the list. We decided we would go on the castle interior tour, then if we felt like we’d missed out on really enjoying the view we would come back to the ticket desk and join one of the tower tours. The next English tour wasn’t for about half an hour, so we wandered off to see the areas which are accessible to all, those being the ramparts, and the well house.
The view from the ramparts, down over the quaint little town below was stunning, all nestled amongst the trees and winding its way along the valley. The well house was equally as impressive, although I did reason that it wasn’t that hard to build an astoundingly deep well when you start it from halfway up a mountain and have to get to the groundwater below the base level of the valley. Still, as the lady working there poured some water into it and we watched it free fall down into the well until it was consumed by the darkness without having reached the bottom yet, it was hard not to marvel at human innovation and will-power to dig something that deep in a time when the only way to do so was by hand.
Finally we hopped in line for our tour, and as the clocked ticked over to midday our friendly and energetic guide arrived, pulling aside the chain barricade and directing us up the stairs and into the castle. As we moved from room to room she explained the long history of the tower, including some of its former royal residence, including King Wenceslas, who later went on to be murdered by his overly headstrong brother, and was posthumously granted sainthood. He still remains one of Prague’s, and the Czech Republic’s most important saints. One of the best features has to be the placement of the throne between two bay windows, causing it to be shrouded in darkness, so that the king could observe the facial expressions and responses of his visitors, but they could not make out his reactions at all. We were then shown the great hall in which stands massive portraits of all of the past kings, and one solitary queen who managed to achieve impressive enough feats in battle (much against the norms of the times) that she was given a place amongst the patriarchs of the realm decorating the walls.
We wandered across one of the two enclosed passages (one stone, and one the original wood from the 1300’s which we did not cross) which connected the three separate buildings; an ingenious design technique they used in order to make the fortress more secure in case of a siege. The two bridges were originally both wood, and meant that if the first building was taken, the king could move to the next building and the guards could destroy the bridge in order to protect him, and the same if the second building was taken. At which point I assume they figured that they would have either stopped the enemy, or all hope was lost anyway and they would just haul up in the keep for as long as they could.
Eventually we ended up in the last room, which houses a number of replicas of the more than a hundred medieval portraits of saints which hang in the chapel (which as I’ve said, we had opted not to visit), along with the old crown jewels of the kingdom. The last fun fact being that for a period of time when Prague was at risk, the crown jewels were stored here, as it was a strong fortress and the location was somewhat removed from the capital, in this unsuspecting valley.
The tour came to a close, and we were, of course, spat out through the gift shop, and back into the ramparts. On our way back down to the courtyard we paused briefly in the old bell tower to admire the massive bell which hangs within it. We figured we had had a fairly impressive view of the town, and decided to save our money and forgo climbing the keep tower on the tour as it was a little pricey for what is essentially access to some stairs and a spiel about the castle, most of which we would have already have just heard. With this in mind we bid farewell to this giant stone beauty and began our trek back down the hill. Again, as it was rather hot, we stopped halfway down to purchase another serve of our new favourite snack; you guessed it, chimney cake. With a final stop at the bottom of the mountain to purchase a slushie to take the edge off the harsh afternoon heat, we wandered back to the station and waited for the next train back into Prague.
When we finally pulled into the station, we still had a little time to kill, and thus headed away from our accommodation and towards the Vysehrad Fortress; an old fortification on the edge of where the old town walls used to lie, protectively encircling the people within. The old walls of the fortification are still quite obvious, however the interior is now filled with landscaped parkland, an old church, and a small cemetery. Weaving our way along, we found ourselves at the casemates and on the spur of the moment decided to buy tickets to the last tour of the day, which was only ten minutes off starting. The tour was brief but we did learn that the casemates (which are built to house soldiers so that they can move into formations without the enemy being able to view them, and thus makes a counter-attack rather troublesome), although built for their normal purpose, were, in fact, never used by any soldiers. This was because by the time they were completed the city had ceased to be its own medieval entity and had become part of the sovereign state, and thus no longer required protection from surrounding villages and countries as it was under the protection of the Austro-Hungarian armies instead. The largest hall in the casemates (where the soldiers would have practised and grouped for defence) now houses a number of the original statues which decorated the famous Charles Bridge in the city; the ones on the bridge now are all replicas, and the remaining originals are in the Prague Museum.
The sun was starting to dip low on the horizon and thus we slowly wandered out through the gardens and trudged, exhausted, back to the hostel. After a quick homecooked meal we were happy to collapse into our bunks. As I thought about the historic defences we had spent our day visiting, I tried to imagine how it must have been to live in a time when it was necessary to surround every major town with a wall and build fortresses and casemates, simply to protect it. But as I began to think about how obscure it seemed, the constant warring of the middle ages, it was hard not to notice that aside from methods of warfare, nothing has really changed all that much. There is still always a war going on somewhere, and it was less than 30 years ago that Berlin had a wall running right through it. That’s not to say we haven’t made improvements in attempting to keep the peace. We have the UN which has some power to impose sanctions on countries endeavouring to stir trouble, most of western Europe’s land borders have remained virtually unchanged since the end of the second world war, and eastern Europe’s seem to be almost stabilised, save for a couple. However when you consider the weapon capabilities we now have, it seems almost idealistic to need nought but a wall to stop your enemies. I doubt we will ever cease to stop bickering and fighting as a species, as power and greed seem to be the overwhelming human condition, which is a rather depressing thought. I suppose all we can do as individuals is try and lead the most peaceful and tolerant life possible, in the hope that if enough of us do it, the world may one day unite.