Benesov, photo: Google Maps

Every year tourists from all over the Czech Republic and abroad get off a train in Benesov, however few with the aim to visit the Bohemian town. Almost all of them head for Konopiste Castle, one of the country's most attractive sites, which is just about a 2 km walk from the railway station. But in today's Spotlight, we take a look at the history of Benesov itself. The town has over 16,200 inhabitants today and lies just 37 km southeast of Prague between the Sazava river and Blanik - the hill where, according to legend, St. Wenceslas and his warriors are said to be sleeping ready to come to the aid of the Czech nation whenever called upon.

Benesov is a town with a very old history. It is believed, though not documented in writing, that it was founded in the 11th century. Dr. Eva Prochazkova heads the State Regional Archives in Benesov:

"Material that was drawn up in the 16th century to document the history of the Sternberg nobility suggests that Benesov existed as early as in 1070. Archaeological findings have confirmed that there was some kind of a settlement here at the time, atop a granite hill called Karlov where the parish church of St. Nicholas lies today. There was a manor or smaller stronghold, underneath which buildings sprung up to house the craftsmen who moved here to meet the needs of the nobility."

The settlement grew fast to include a town market, St. Elisabeth's hospital, and a Minorite monastery. The monastery was built in 1247, when Tobias of Benesovic was owner of the state:

"This suggests that the owners of the estate, the Benesovic nobility, were highly ambitious in introducing the feudal system. The town must have enjoyed economic development as the Franciscans rarely settled in areas that had no promising future because they lived off the economic activity of the place that they settled in. The monastery was consecrated to the Virgin Mary's Assumption. It had to be rebuilt when Benesov burnt down to its foundations at the end of the 13th century. The chapel and presbytery weren't completed until the rule of Charles IV."

The ruin of the monastery chapel's presbytery rises up high into the sky today and is one of the town's most significant monuments.

The ruin of the Minorite monastery,  photo: Petr1868,  CC BY 3.0 Unported
In the 13th century, the Sternbergs inherited the estate. The golden-yellow eight-pointed star of the noble family's coat-of-arms still figures on the town's emblem today. In the Hussite Wars, Benesov was attacked and suffered another fire in 1420. But for the century and a half that followed, the town became a thriving and vivant place of trade and tourism thanks to it lying on an important trade and travel route between Prague and Linz, Austria:

"In the second half of the 15th century a number of church assemblies were also held here. Aeneas Silvie Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II, held talks with Jiri of Podebrady here in the early 1450s. Benesov was a one-day horse or carriage ride away from Prague, so people naturally chose it as a stop-over. Farms offered horse stables, pubs offered food, and guesthouses offered lodging. Benesov also got its first Town Hall in the 16th century, raising its status in the region."

St. Anne's Church,  photo: Google Maps
But the Thirty Years' War saw Benesov plundered and marked by economic hardship, numerous attacks, and disastrous fires. In 1648 the Swedes burnt down half the town's settlement and it took Benesov a century to recover and regain its original size both in terms of population and number of buildings.

For two centuries, the ownership of the Benesov estate passed through several nobilities, many of whom were forced to give up their property, leaving a mark on the town.

It was not until the 18th century that Benesov rose again. Thanks to the efforts of Counts Frantisek Karel Prehorovsky and Jan Josef Vrtba, it became a centre of education and culture with the building of St. Anne's Church and the establishment of the Benesov Piarist College - the only pious grammar school in the region. The present day secondary school strives to continue with this old tradition - the last members of the Piarist Order still taught there in the early 1900s. Its concert hall is named after the great Czech composer Josef Suk, who was born in a nearby village and lived his last few years in Benesov.

Franz Ferdinand D' Este
The last aristocratic owner of Benesov was Franz Ferdinand D' Este, heir to the Habsburg throne, who acquired the estate in the 1880s. The Archduke founded the 220 hectare park that lies between Benesov and Konopiste Castle. He is also after whom the local brew Ferdinand beer is named. Petr Kouba is the mayor of Benesov:

"The brewery was originally in Konopiste and not here in Benesov. But when Franz Ferdinand acquired Konopiste in the 1890s he had the brewery closed and opened in Benesov. It was fully functional by the First World War."

Benesov served as a garrison town during the First World War and was evacuated in the Second World War for the Nazis to use the nearby land as a training field. Benesov's old Jewish cemetery, founded in 1883, now houses a permanent exhibition in memory of its fallen, tortured, and executed Jewish citizens.

Benesov,  photo: Google Maps
At the top of Benesov's Male Namesti or Small square lies an Art Nouveau building housing the district museum with exhibitions on the town's artists, history, and monuments. Benesov today looks entirely different than it used to thirty years ago. In fact, the historical ground plan has disappeared as heavy reconstruction work has shifted streets and altered the shapes of the town squares. Mayor Kouba:

"Since 1990, a lot has changed here because Benesov was an agricultural region and a very small town that had very little to offer. But in the last 16 years, a cultural centre was built, and much was done to make the appearance of the town more attractive. We're also hoping to offer the town residents a more comfortable life. Besides restaurants and cultural centres, we have a basketball and volleyball court and focus on offering a good variety of sports activities. We're now working with the motto - it's better to have our youth sweating on our courts than in the pubs."