Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A trip to Třeboň

If you ask Czech people about visiting Třeboň often the first two things they will mention will be the local fishponds and that it's a spa town. The carp from the nearby ponds are certainly a local specialty worth trying but the spa is of no use to casual visitors. Treatments have to be booked weeks in advance, there's nothing interesting about the architecture and the spa patients add little if anything to the atmosphere and public life of the town.

Třeboň is as beautiful as any other small town in Bohemia and for foreign visitors the most attractive thing is not the fish or the spa, but the historic architecture of the compact old town. There's a lovely main square with a sprawling chateau complex at one end, a Neo-Gothic brewery complex that looks like a small castle and narrow cobblestoned back streets lined with colourfully painted two storey houses and the whole town is surrounded by either parkland or water.

At the highest point of the old town is a striking church with an unusual double nave. The church of St Giles was built in the late 1300's and became a popular model for churches in Bohemia and South Moravia for the cleanliness and simplicity of its architectural forms, clever lighting and high standard of craftsmanship. Three preserved altar panels painted by the otherwise unidentified Master of Třeboň similarly influenced the development of Central European painting.

Třeboň's main square is long and narrow; about four times as long as it is wide. At the eastern end a busy street swoops in from the side and leaves again through the old Gothic gate tower, but the rest of the square is a pedestrian zone. At the western end the buildings of the chateau hide behind two big trees and halfway along the southern side the 31metre high clock tower of the town hall dwarfs the two and three storey buildings around it. The other buildings around the edge of the square mostly house shops and other businesses and there at least half a dozen restaurants that set up outdoor seating areas in the warmer months.

The Třeboň chateau is a sprawling complex of connected and free-standing palaces separated by crunchy gravel courtyards. Originally a fortress and castle, the chateau was rebuilt by the lords of Rožmberk in the 16th century and added to by their successors, the Schwarzenbergs, in the 17th century.

The Rožmberks were a branch of the noble Vitkovice landowning dynasty, whose power and influence in South Bohemia rivalled or exceeded that of the Bohemian king, and in 1573 Vilem of Rožmberk was a candidate for the throne of Poland. After selling Český Krumlov to Emperor Rudolf II in 1601, the Rožmberks chose Třeboň as their main residential seat. Amongst other possessions they moved their family archive which, despite being partially looted by the Swedish army during the Thirty Years' War, remains one of the most extensive and valuable collections of documents from medieval Bohemia with documents dating back as far as 1184.

The last of the Rožmberks, Petr Vok, died heirless in 1611 and after the uncertainty following the Thirty Years War, the Schwarzenberg family emerged as owners of the Třeboň castle and estates, gaining thus their first possessions in the Czech lands. The chateau palaces are accessible to the public in two main parts; the renaissance palaces of the Rožmberks and the 19th century apartments of the Schwarzenbergs. Also within the chateau complex are two restaurants, a cafe and the grounds and parks are freely accessible for visitors to wander and explore at their own pace.

Just outside town and across the Svět pond is the other prominent historic site connected with the Schwarzenbergs. Their neo-Gothic family tomb was built in the 1870's to house the coffins of several generations of their ancestors. An essentially octagonal building surrounded by hedges, gravel paths and thick groves of mixed forest, the Schwarzenberg tomb is an impressive example of the precise 19th century neo-gothic style of architecture with its turrets, flourishes and decorative touches.

The upper floor is a chapel and beneath it down a short staircase is the crypt in which 26 coffins lie side by side. The walls and ceilings of both floors appear to be made of precisely fitted blocks of pale stone, but they're actually of fired brick covered with a decorative layer of carved and stamped plaster. The plaster used is a special cement-free mix that hasn't yet needed repair in the 130 years of its existence.

The detailed 40 minute guided tour of the Schwarzenberg tomb is something like a walk through the family's history, beginning with their roots in Bavaria, their arrival in Třeboň after the Thirty Years' War, and their long history of service at the Hapsburg imperial court in Vienna. The largest coffin in the crypt belongs to Felix Schwarzenberg, who was foreign minster of Austria-Hungary when he died in 1852. Apparently the size of the coffin has more to do with politics and prestige, because he was actually quite a small man.

In the 1940's the Schwarzenberg lands were confiscated by the Nazis and the family fled to exile in the United States. Shortly after returning to reclaim their ancestral lands, the Schwarzenbergs were dispossessed again, this time by the nationalisation policies of the new communist government. This time they went into exile in Austria, from where they actively supported Czechoslovakian political dissidents.

Some of their former possessions were returned to the family in the early 1990's after the fall of the communist regime, but the majority of it remained the property of the state. The Schwarzenberg tomb itself is Czech government property; only the coffins belong to the family. Like other major aristocratic landholdings, there are ongoing court cases involving the restitution of Schwarzenberg property and it seems likely that the tomb will be returned to the family eventually.

Walking back from the tomb toward Třeboň the path leads along the top of the Svět pond levee bank past a frightful statue of the Rožmberks' local governor, Jakub Krčín. This southern road into the old town is spanned by two stone gate towers about 50 metres apart. Between the two gates on one side are the two best fish restaurants in town and on the other is the local brewery.

The brewery produces Regent beer and was founded when the Schwarzenberg counts reconstructed the old Rožmberk armoury at the beginning of the 18th century. Tours of the brewery are available for groups of five people or more and there's a good beer hall on the premises. A meal of local fish washed down by a glass or two of unfiltered yeast beer is one of the more appetising regional specialties in the Czech lands. Try the carp fillet chips.

In late October or November every year, the fishponds around Třeboň are drained and the fish transferred to tanks until just before Christmas. The fish harvests (výlovy rybníků) are a cultural tradition that dates back centuries and the weekend celebrations usually feature live music and dance, beer, wine and other specialties to go along with all the fresh fish.

Třeboň's rich calendar of cultural events also includes the mushroom celebrations in September and the Festival of Animated Film in May which is, along with the Festival of Children's Films in Zlin and PIFPAF Olomouc, one of the best opportunities to see why Czech animation is so highly regarded across the world.

Public transport to Třeboň
Třeboň tourist information
Compare Třeboň hotel prices


Jameson said...

I wanted to go to the výlovy rybníků in Tovačov a few weeks back, but I did not make it. Hopefully next year.

Captain Oddsocks said...

I thought about going to the one at Uničov last weekend, but that didn't happen either. Maybe see you at Tovačov next year ;-)