A man’s home is his castle: for Czech ‘cultural activist’ Ondřej Kobza, it’s Pirkštejn of ‘Kingdom Come: Deliverance’ fame

Pirkštejn, photo: Miloš Turek

Prague café owner and ‘cultural activist’ Ondřej Kobza is the brains behind a bevy of cultural projects that have sprung up in recent years. He began by installing pianos outdoors, encouraging passers-by to tickle the ivories. He then fashioned old school desks into public chess tables and placed “poetry jukeboxes” on squares that literally pipe out verses, voiced by the likes of Jaroslav Seifert. While his latest project – opening the rooftop terraces of the Lucerna Palace built by Václav Havel’s grandfather a century ago – is making headlines, Ondřej Kobza has also been managing an ancient castle well off the beaten track.

I bumped into Ondřej Kobza at a local pub – one of a handful – in the central Bohemian town of Rataje nad Sázavou, while on holiday. He was not difficult to spot in this sleepy town, which the 14th century Pirkštejn Castle he now rents once served to protect. With his wiry frame and untamed locks, the owner of Prague’s popular Café V lese (and others) looks more the struggling artist than to the manor born.

As agreed, I visited him a couple of days later at Pirkštejn Castle, which he calls home for much of the year and in time hopes to turn into a cultural centre. A medieval-themed children’s event was underway in the courtyard when I arrived, and men dressed as foot soldiers or perhaps squires showed me the way to his chambers.

I began by asking Ondřej Kobza how he came to be lord of the manor, so to speak.

Pirkštejn, photo: Miloš Turek

“About six years ago, I was in Prague on the street in front of my café, and a friend stopped me and asked if I had minute. I was very busy, and said ‘It’s nice to see you, but I don’t have time. Sorry!’ He repeated, ‘Please, it will just take a moment’. So, I asked him ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘Do you want a castle?’ I told him of course I want one. Now! From tomorrow, please.”

The first written record of Rataje nad Sázavou dates back to 1156, when it was a border stronghold and thriving market town, though it is believed to have been settled two centuries earlier. Among the notables who once called Pirkštejn Castle home is Hynce Ptáček, who gained Rataje itself in 1420 an was an administrator of royal towns and a guardian of the future king of Bohemia, Jiří z Poděbrad (George of Poděbrady).

Six hundred years later, Ondřej Kobza leases the long-neglected castle for 10,000 crowns a month – less than one would pay to rent a studio apartment in Prague – provided that he invests about 150,000 crowns into it annually over the course of his ten-year contract.

“There had been a parish in this castle for 300 years, but the priests did not live here anymore and they wanted to rent it to someone who would behave suitably for this place and organize some actions.

“I live half in Prague and half here, during the winter as well. During the winter, I heat just one room using wood. I prefer winter because I love starting the day in a cold room, with a cold shower. I have three goats now, sometimes five. I have rabbits and a dog.

“I organize some events here, for example classical music or alternative music concerts, some lectures. Tomorrow, there will be a summer philosophy school with the philosopher Zdeněk Kratochvíl, an expert on Heraclitus. We will read some Greek texts outside with the goats by us.”

So just like in ancient Greece. But right now there’s some kind of children’s event outside, with knights and so on….

“Yes, a children’s camp came and are playing some medieval games... I prefer to organize classical music concerts here, for example Baroque, and not medieval music – I don’t like it much.

“I will show you another room... Here for example, it’s no problem to invite eighty people. It’s hard to get locals to come because classical music is not so popular. I get very good musicians – and it’s expensive, but I hold concerts for free. Still, almost nobody comes – mainly my friends from Prague.”

Pirkštejn, photo: Zdeněk Fiedler, CC BY-SA 3.0

Pirkštejn Castle, ‘Kingdom Come: Deliverance’

Although only sporadically open to the public now, it’s fair to say that Pirkštejn Castle is known to younger generations not just in the Czech Republic but across the world.

Along with Rataje nad Sázavou, the Sazava Monastery and other nearby locals, the castle features in the enormously popular action role-playing video game “Kingdom Come: Deliverance”, set in the 15th century, and developed by Prague-based studio Warhorse Studios.

Ondřej Kobza is not a gamer, had nothing to do with “Kingdom Come: Deliverance”, and was not the slightest bit interested in discussing that particular modern chapter of Pirkštejn’s long history.

Ondřej Kobza, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský, ČRo

He rather delights in the solitude the castle affords; in the simple pleasures of a foregone, pre-digital age, whether raising goats, reading books, stoking fires – or ringing bells. He recalls the unbridled joy he felt when he took over the literal keys to the castle and spent his first night here:

“The most common question is if I am scared here. I don’t know why so many people ask me this. I always answer, No – that I’m okay. Of course I was so happy and couldn’t believe it. I can’t imagine such an unbelievable situation like this – well, maybe a few! But it was maybe the happiest situation in my life, probably, my first day and night here.”

And part of that joy, I imagine, is not just to be in such a fantastic place and feel like you are living and breathing history but also in preserving the cultural heritage?

“Of course we are preparing some bigger reconstructions, for example, the rooftop of the tower. But it takes time. The repairs will be quite a quick part of this work. The preparations take much longer.”

Hynce Ptáček of Pirkstein: The man who would be king

“[Pirkštejn Castle] was built in the 14th century but rebuilt in the beginning of the 18th century, when a parish house was established here. An important person, Hynce Ptáček from Pirkštejn, lived here. He wasn’t king – but maybe if he had lived longer, he would have been. He helped Jiří z Poděbrad become ruler of the Czech kingdom.”

“In the tower there are two bells, and I started ringing them every Sunday at noon. It’s very sad that for 40 years there were these bells and no one was ringing them.”

Pirkštejn, photo: Palickap, CC BY-SA 3.0

You mentioned the bells, which are some of the oldest in the country – and you had to determine if it was even safe to ring them regularly, is that right?

“Yes, the bells are from the beginning of the 17th century. Sometimes other people come to the ringing, sometimes I’m alone – and it’s a really great Sunday here, to go there, be alone. I have a chair and a table in the tower and sometimes I read there. It’s a great occupation – to be a bellringer! Like Zvoník u Matky Boží [The Hunchback of Notre Dame].”

Not wishing to intrude on Ondřej Kobza’s solitude much further (or have too much of a “busman’s holiday” for myself), I asked if he would quickly show me one or two of his favourite spots in the castle – apart from the tower. One was not what I was expecting.

“This is not typical… We have this kind of a toilet, called a ‘privy’, which goes straight to the rocks. It’s an example of why the castle is special – there is normal life here. There’s no gothic roof or such… It’s a very special castle for the old details.”

So, it’s more special in how preserved it is and that it gives a sense of how people lived at the time?

“Yes. Yes.”

Part of Ondřej Kobza’s motivation for taking over the lease of the castle was to inspire others to consider the possibilities other empty buildings throughout the country may present. In short, he says, virtually everything goes – you just have to purse your vision and not give up when obstacles arise.