Monday, 25 May 2009

Castles of the Český ráj

The Český ráj is a natural reserve in East Bohemia and a favourite weekend getaway for city-bound Praguers. It’s often among the first destinations suggested to any foreign traveller who asks local advice about places outside Prague.

The name translates as “Bohemian paradise” and while pleasant, ‘paradise’ is probably being a bit generous. Travellers from the Antipodes or North America probably won’t find Czech national parks or natural reserves measuring up to the ones they know from home, but a redeeming feature of the Český ráj is that, within an area approximately 30km by 20km, there are literally dozens of castles, chateaux and castle ruins that are accessible to the public. Some of the more frequently visited ones are:

Trosky castle ruins are probably the most recognizable symbols of the Český ráj. Their twin towers can be seen for miles around and provide some of the best views in the region. Apart from climbing to the lookout platforms there’s little to do though, so don’t; plan too long. (Admission: 50Kč; closest public transport: Train station at Rovensko pod Troskami)

Valdštejn castle was for me the nicest surprise in the Bohemian Paradise. Tucked away in thick forest, it’s not visible until you’re almost on it, but consists of four different sections; the gate house and entrance, the renaissance palace, the chapel and the old castle built into the rocky outcrops of the ridge that runs for miles south from Turnov. The palace is accessible only in the presence of a guide, but visitors are free to wander the rest of the grounds at their own pace. (40Kč, walk from Turnov)

Hrubá Skála chateau is now used as a luxury hotel, but the reasonably priced restaurant is open to everybody and the large courtyard offers sweeping views over the lowlands to the east. There are good views back towards the chateau from the nearby Marianska lookout and a trail through a narrow gully leads down to the old spa buildings and train station at Sedmihorky. (Grounds Free, Bus or train to Sedmihorky then 1km walk)

Kost castle was the least rewarding of the seven or eight castles I visited. The castle itself is interesting and impressive but it’s not possible to roam around even the grounds by yourself, and the tours cost too much and take too long to show too little. (Half-tours 100Kč each or 170Kč for both, 100Kč surcharge to take photographs, 200Kč for video; Bus to Sobotka and 2km walk from there)

The Pantheon above Malá Skála is made up of two parts; the ruins of a stone castle perched atop a rocky cliff, and the neo-renaissance chapel that is visible from across the valley. Exploring the ruins is part castle tour-part rockclimbing and the chapel now houses a refreshment stand and a small gallery. (35Kč, 2km walk from Malá Skála)

Sychrov chateau is a huge complex of luxurious two and three storey palaces surrounded by wide lawns and formal gardens. My enthusiasm for Czech architecture is as high as anybody’s but having been to six or seven castles within a few days I baulked at the entrance prices for Sychrov and used the money to have an excellent lunch at the chateau restaurant. (Czech tours 100Kč each, foreign language 180Kč each, 100Kč surcharges for photography or video, Chicken schnitzel in mushroom sauce with french fries 135Kč)

Frýdštejn castle is a complex of clifftop ruins with a tall round lookout tower that offers views as good as any other castle in the Český ráj. The lower castle area features staircases, tunnels, rooms and small cellars cut into the rocks. (40Kč, 4km walk from Malá Skála or 2km from the Pantheon)

Related Posts:
Czech Switzerland National Park
The Adršpach-Teplice Rocks

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