A labour of love – young German couple restore precious family legacy
Chateau Lobkowitz was once the seat of one of the most powerful noble families in Bohemia. Decades of communist rule have left it in a dilapidated state. But now, a young couple from Germany has moved in and plans to restore the chateau back to its former glory.
It is not uncommon in today’s world for young couples to escape the hustle and bustle of city life by moving into a country home, that they slowly plan to renovate. But rarely is the house a castle and the owner directly descended from a family of princes.
This is exactly the case with Max Mues and Carlotta Bastian. Max is descended from a noble family of Bohemian origin whose beginnings stretch back to at least the 14th century. Carlotta is his girlfriend. Both grew up and lived in Germany until they made their decision to start anew in a chateau that Max’s father got back through restitution.
The estate is located along the Elbe River within the town of Neratovice, less than 30km from Prague. It is the original seat of the Lobkowitzs, a family that produced several influential statesmen as well as a passionate lover of music to whom Beethoven dedicated his 3rd Symphony. During the 19th century, it was also briefly the home of František Palacký - one of the most prominent members of the Czech National Revival movement.
The chateau and its associated buildings take up several hectares of space and just the walk from the main entrance gate to the couple’s provisional living spaces takes us several minutes. But don’t let the size and history fool you. A single look at the buildings indicates that many are in a severely run-down state. Taken from the family after the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, the house was insufficiently maintained for decades. Damp walls, peeled plastering and empty interiors, often with exposed brick and stone, indicate that it has seen better days.
After we enter one of the few rooms that are currently liveable in an outhouse of the chateau, Max says that the estate was placed back into Lobkowitz hands during the 1990s.
M: “My father came back in 1989. He used to live in the Lobkowitz Palace as a child but was forced into exile at the age of five. After he came back, he fought for his restitution rights, especially for this castle.”
The chateau may not be as flashy as the Lobkowitz Palace, which is located within Prague Castle, but it is the original home of the Lobkowitz family. The chateau lies within the district of Lobkovice, once a village from which the founder of the dynasty - Mikuláš Chudý z Újezda – took the name Lobkowitz upon acquiring the estate in the 1400s. For Max’s father, getting back the chateau was not just a question of taking back lost property, but of returning to one’s roots.
M: “My father always told me how important and historically valuable this place is. As a child I didn’t understand of course, I was living in Germany. My father always saw himself rooted (Verankert) in this place. The older I got and the more I read about the history of the family, the more I understood him.”
Max visited the estate several times during his childhood, but it was only in 2020, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, that he and his girlfriend Lotta made the decision to settle within its walls.
M: “I knew I would [one day] be here and take care of it. I did not know in which role that would be, but I always knew I would end up here eventually. Last year, we were here during the summer. We visited spontaneously on the way to somewhere else. So we ended up here again.
“When we drove back to Germany we started brainstorming about the idea of settling down here and what we could do, what sorts of projects. That went on when we got back and it got more and more real. Towards the end of 2020, we decided that we would quit our jobs and move here.”
Carlotta, a native of Hamburg, originally met Max in Bremerhaven where the couple lived and worked for several years. Having studied tourism, she immediately saw the potential of the chateau.
C: “I never imagined I would end up here, because I do not have any connection to the Czech Republic. However, when he showed me this place for the first time, I saw it had so much potential. I was always a project kind of person. I need some vision and to work for it, rather than just daily business.”
The estate is made up of the chateau – a central “castle” composed of a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture – as well as several other buildings such as barns, stables and a small villa that the couple want to transform into a holiday let. Nevertheless, the sheer amount of internal and external space means that they are constantly coming up with ideas on what to fill it with. One thing is clear though – they want to keep the chateau rooted within the communal space of the town.
M: “We feel that the chateau itself is a sort of landmark of the town. It is in private hands, but we do not just want to keep it for ourselves. So we started connecting with people from Neratovice and nearby Lobkovice. There are lots of really great people here who are very ambitious and we are trying to make something out of that. We didn’t expect that. We thought we would come here and be seen as foreigners, but that is definitely not the case.
“We are certainly thinking of organising weddings. If the people of Neratovice could have their weddings here, that would be great.”
C: “Also exhibitions. We would like to have art here, so exhibitions would be a good idea, perhaps also in the chateau. We really want to include the people from the surrounding town and villages, especially from Lobkovice and Neratovice and try to create a sort of meeting point for idea exchange as well as for the local community.”
M: “Also artists from Prague. It is only a 45 minute drive. We are also open to things other ideas. We got offers of opening up a coffee shop or an apple wine store. We are in talks with these people and will see how things work out.”
It is not just the renovation but also the maintenance of the estate that costs a lot of money. The couple has sent requests for state and EU funding, but Carlotta has also used another modern hack to find helping hands.
C: “I have many friends who often work as volunteers and do things like whoofing (volunteering through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms programme). They go to a place that they really like, do work there and in return they do not pay rent.
“Many friends of mine were very enthusiastic about this concept, so I thought: ‘Why don’t we try to organise such a thing ourselves, especially during the summer when heating is not required?’ There is plenty of space here and so much work that we can’t handle it all ourselves.
“During the summer, we were really focused on small reparations and there was a lot of weeding to be done, all relatively easy jobs where no skills were needed. We also just wanted some people here, a community during the summer so that we have a bit of a creative exchange and meet new people. Especially after experiencing the pandemic we were looking forward to surrounding ourselves with other people and we did have great experiences during the summer, lighting bonfires and cooking together.”
The couple has set up a special page on their website, where potential volunteers can choose what sort of work they want to do. For now, these volunteering opportunities are only available during the summer months, but the estate also employs two full-time staff, says Carlotta.
C: “There is the groundskeeper – Volodya – who has been living here for over 20 years now and he is doing a lot of maintenance work as well as taking care of the wood from the forest. Then there is Lenka, who is in charge of the administrative work. It was good that we had so much support when we came back.
“However, they are just two people, so they could only take care of maintaining the property as it was. Now, we come in with our vision of the project, so every new task that comes up is taken on by us.”
Leaving future plans aside for a moment, the couple takes me on a tour of the main chateau building itself, beginning with the oldest, gothic, segment.
C: “This part was built during the 1300s. It was acquired by the [Lobkowitz] family in 1409. We originally thought we would have it restored by now, but we have a humidity problem and are still looking for solutions on how to get rid of the water [in the walls]. We are so close to the Elbe River that the water keeps coming back.”
As we continue our tour of the medieval part of the chateau, we are reminded of its origins as a fortified castle. The Gothic structure was built into a large rock, whose parts still protrude out of the walls, a reminder of the building’s long history but also a possible culprit in the search for the reason behind the humidity seeping into the walls.
Max and Carlotta’s renovation work becomes more evident when we enter the next room. Fitted out with a stove and several wooden tables, it looks like one of the many cellars housing restaurants in Prague’s contemporary Old Town. The room is dominated by what looks like a large stone bathtub. A poleaxe rests on its edge.
M: “Many people ask what this is. It was a fish tank. In the past, this room was part of the living quarters.”
C: “When the chateau got its renaissance makeover, this part became the kitchen. Laundry was also washed here by the servants.”
As we continue the tour, we pass the high tower, which was destroyed during the 30 Years War only to be rebuilt a century later. Renovated from the outside and decorated with rectangular sgraffito, it dominates the chateau’s exterior appearance.
Occasional concrete walls and chip board doors within the upper floors of the building betray that the previous owners once had plans for the chateau as well.
M: “During the Communist era, Charles University started renovating the chateau. Then, suddenly, in the middle of the renovation process, communism ended. So everything that was inside before was gone.”
Chateau Lobkowitz was intended to be used by the University’s Faculty of Philosophy and it is easy to see why this would have been a fitting place for aspiring thinkers to do their work. The Baroque rooms are far more grandiose and spacious in their design than the Gothic basement. But this is also the most run-down part of the chateau. It is not books, but exposed bricks that decorate these interior spaces. I ask the couple whether there is anything left from the original objects that would have been housed here.
M: “Everything that was inside before was gone. We are not looking for these things at the moment, since we have so much else to do. I guess it is lost, but I don’t know. We can also only guess what actually made up the interior of the chateau. We have some pictures from the time, but only a few. They’re black and white with low pixilation.”
So it’s just the memories of your grandfather and these pictures that you can use as leads?
M: “Yes. That is what we are looking into now…”
C: “It would be amazing if something did turn up which was originally in the castle, but there are no photos from the inside, only from the outside, and we have no indications of where the furniture would have gone.”
As we leave the main building, we are greeted by another set of inhabitants of the estate – sheep. These, along with the goats belong to the housekeeper Volodya. There are also chickens, rabbits and three peacocks hiding in the surrounding bushes – one of which is a peachick.
The other buildings hide many a curiosity within their walls, including various metal and woodworking machines left behind by the previous owners. Max opens up about his growing passion for woodworking, a craft he is eager to learn. Meanwhile, Carlotta tells me about the couple’s plans to host a major event in two months’ time.
C: “On February 19, we will host the Czech Masopust carnival here. It has been taking place on the grounds [of Chateau Lobkowitz] for many years already and we want to continue with this tradition, having a lot of people selling regional products, musicians and some games for children.”
Astonished by the couples ambitious plans, but also impressed with their eagerness and can-do attitude, I ask Max if he would have any advice for someone thinking of buying and restoring a castle in the Czech Republic.
M: “Don’t do it for the money. Do it for the passion. If you’re not passionate about it, it won’t work. It is not an investment that makes sense. Rather, it is a project from the heart.”