Brandýs nad Labem-Stará Boleslav - a place of pilgrimage

Church of St. Wenceslas, photo: Hana Němečková, CC BY-SA 4.0

September 28 is the Feast Day of St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia. The son of a duke, Wenceslas ruled the country from 922, when he was 15, to his untimely death at the hands of his brother Boleslav on September 28, 935. The day is celebrated as 'Czech Statehood day', and is a public holiday. In this special program Dominik Jůn visits the town of Brandýs nad Labem-Stará Boleslav, where Wenceslas was murdered on his way to mass. His guide is Petra Fialová from the town’s Information Centre.

Brandýs nad Labem - Masaryk Square,  photo: Dominik Jůn
Thank you very much, Petra, for agreeing to do this.

“You’re welcome. I will do my best!”

So we are currently in the town square of Brandýs nad Labem - Masaryk Square. And we are in the town hall.

“That’s right.”

And just so we are clear, please explain to me why this town has two names. There are two separate parts on either side of the Elbe river.

“It used to be two separate towns until 1960. Then, the communist authorities undertook a programme of reorganising and renaming areas around the country. Many town names were changed. There was a risk that the new joint name could be something entirely new and different. But we didn’t want a change because of the histories of the parts of both towns. So we kept our names and had a joint hyphenated name instead – which today is the longest town name in the Czech Republic.”

Do locals feel like it is one town? Or do some people proudly say they are from Brandýs nad Labem and others say they are from Stará Boleslav?

“Sometimes. For example in the recent Olympic Games, (bronze medal winning) rower Ondřej Synek – he is from Stará Boleslav. But the reporters would often shorten the name of where he was from, saying ‘he is from Brandýs’ and he would make a point of correcting them and saying ‘No, I am from Stará Boleslav.’ So sometimes you have questions asked, for example ‘why is there only a cinema in Brandýs?’ and things like that. But we are one town and we keep it together; but sometimes, like everywhere, the parts make their voices heard.”

Photo: Dominik Jůn
And this town is most famous for being the place where Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia was murdered by his brother Boleslaus I the Cruel in, it is believed, AD 935. And Stará Boleslav is named after Boleslav I. And this is also a pilgrimage site, right?

“That’s right. One of the oldest in the Czech Republic – in fact, the oldest one!”

Catholics come here...

“It takes place on 28th of September. Next week (from the day of our recording). Because that is St. Wenceslas Day (Sv. Václav) and it is a national holiday. And the biggest part of these events takes place in the centre of Stará Boleslav.”

OK, so we have just arrived at the Brandýs nad Labem chateau. And we can see the garden grounds on one side. We can also see some peacocks roaming freely around.

“All of the oldest buildings in Brandýs are in the Renaissance style.”

And the chateau is on the banks of the Elbe river. We are just walking under an arched bridge.

“That leads towards the park. And there is a gallery inside the corridor.”

And now we are heading towards an old stone bridge in front of the chateau. So these two towns are connected by a long bridge. But that bridge doesn’t look historical or special in any way. There used to be an older bridge there, right?

Brandýs nad Labem chateau,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“There used to be older bridges. But at the start of the 20th century they built a new metal one. But it didn’t go all the way across the Elbe, but just half way, because they were building a hydroelectric dam. And then in 2010 or 2011 they built a new bridge.

So they built a new one. And the old one, dating back to the 1910 or thereabouts, was demolished...

“Yes. It wasn’t enough to handle the traffic.”

So now we are on the banks of the river on the stone bridge with an old mill building to our right. To try to describe it, it basically looks like a miniature Charles Bridge. It crosses just a section, or outlet, of the Elbe, up to a half-island of sorts. It can’t even be 100 metres long. And there is an old stone statue in the middle on one side.

“This is one of the oldest stone bridges in the Czech Republic. It kind of looks like it leads from nowhere to nowhere, but on the other end there is actually a bicycle path on which riders can follow along the Elbe. The statue is of St. John of Nepomuk.”

In one direction we can see towards the Elbe. And if we turn around we have a great view of the entire Brandýs nad Labem chateau up above us, including a tower with a clock on top.

“The river channel at the end of the bridge is also used by sports clubs for canoeing.”

Looking out across the Elbe we see a large hydroelectric dam to our right.

“That is from the 1930s. And it is still in operation – with the original turbines and everything inside.”

Brandýs nad Labem chateau,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
And you mentioned that there is one bridge, or a number of bridges – because you can cross sections of the Elbe here. We’ve just crossed the stone bridge, and now there is another bridge. So to get from Brandýs to Stará Boleslav there are a number of bridges...

“Yeah, it’s like seven bridges. But if you pass over the main traffic bridge it just feels like one. It’s one way, but actually seven bridges.”

We are joined now by Petr Enc, who is a guide at the Brandýs nad Labem chateau. He has agreed to show us around and explain some of the history.

Petr: “The first written mention is from 1307, when a small chamber chateau (Komorní Hrádek) stood here. Which connected an important route from Lužice to Prague. A larger Gothic castle was here by 1420, before the Hussite Wars reached here, which is basically preserved inside the walls of the structure which stands today.”

And then it served as a seat for the Hapsburgs...

Petr: “In 1548, the chateau was seized from the Krajířové z Krajku family, who opposed the Hapsburgs. Since then it remained in the hands of the Hapsburgs. The first Hapsburg owner was Ferdinand I. And the last owner was Charles I of Austria, the last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.”

And did Charles IV ever come here?

Petr: “He didn’t come here too much. But he did have his chateau only two kilometres from here in the spa town of Toušeň.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
And the current appearance of the chateau is from which era?

Petr: “The current appearance is from the Renaissance era, around the time of Rudolf II in 1608. The early 17th century. By which time it was already an opulent hunting chateau.”

And some of the features here decorating the walls of the courtyard are similar to those which one might see in Prague Castle. The graphical-like painting on the walls.

Petr: “That is found on all Renaissance buildings. Some of the paintings celebrate hunting.”

There are also these painted-on brick shapes.

Petr: “It is inspired by Italy.”

So we are now leaving the courtyard and going inside. There is a big crest, or coat of arms, on the wall.

Petr: “That is the coat of arms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That is the Austrian eagle.”

Petra: “With two heads, so it has to be male. They had double heads.”

Petr: “Specifically this is the crest of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, Charles I.”

Petra: “The personal crest of Charles I.”

Petr: “The newlywed couple (Charles and Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma) bought this as a hunting chateau in 1916. Their last visit here was in August 1918. Two months later we were a republic.

Before Masaryk became president. So what happened to them?

Brandýs nad Labem chateau,  photo: Dominik Jůn
Petra: “They had to run away.”

Petr: “They left for Switzerland, then to Madeira. And that is where he died in April 1922 aged just 34 (as a result of pneumonia). He was then beatified by the Catholic Church in 2004.”

So he could even become a saint one day?

Petr: “It is the beginning of such a process.”

Even though Czechs are more proud of Masaryk?

Petr: “There is a paradox here, because Brandýs nad Labem-Stará Boleslav would then have two famous figures. St. Václav in Stará Boleslav and Charles I here. And they would only be separated by the river Elbe.”

Now we find ourselves in a room surrounded by paintings of former Hapsburg monarchs and family members.

Petr: “All the notable members of the Hapsburg family came to Brandýs chateau. They partook in hunting. Or they slept over here.”

Petra: “Some also came en route to get their crowns in Prague. For example Maria Theresa (18th century Hapsburg ruler).

Petr: “Brandýs nad Labem and Stará Boleslav were significant Austrian military towns. Dragoons were situated here – horse-mounted infantry. Even the current US army has dragoons.”

We are in a room where we can see some of their uniforms inside glass display units. Petr has just explained, I believe, that later on, in 1938, Czechoslovak dragoons were abolished as the country came under Nazi rule. A year later in 1939, the Polish cavalry’s failure in the face of German tanks proved that this form of combat to be somewhat obsolete...

Brandýs nad Labem chateau,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
There is a person who plays a big role in the reconstruction and renovation of Brandýs...

Petra: “That’s right. His name was Milan Novák. He served as director of the chateau for ten years, finishing only last year.”

It is quite clear that a major renovation has happened here recently. It all looks old but new...We are now in a corridor full of hunting trophies. The skulls of countless deer mounted on the walls...

Petr: “Milan Novák was honoured by Pope Benedict for his work, named a Papal Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great in 2009.”

Petra: “It was during the Pope’s visit.”

Did the Pope come here to the castle as well?

Petr: “Yes. He was here on the occasion of St. Wenceslas Day.”

We’ve just arrived in the chapel, which is full of regular-looking chairs. And it is used as a meeting place, but not as a chapel anymore...

Petra: “That’s right. It is used for weddings, concerts, and events such as these.”

Flash forward after about 15 minutes walk. We’ve crossed over the bridge to Stará Boleslav. We are now by the Church (or basilica) of St. Wenceslas. It’s current design features a 12th century Roman basilica and the small adjacent Romanesque Church of St. Clement chapel.

Petra: “The church is built on the original first grave of Duke Wenceslas. The original church is built under the one we see. Originally, this church was also Romanesque like the chapel we see next to it. But the structure we now see is a from a renovation which occurred in the 16th century.”

Church of St. Wenceslas,  photo: Hana Němečková,  CC BY-SA 4.0
And this is a the place where it is believed that Wenceslas was murdered by his brother Boleslav (the actual killing is believed to have been carried out by three of Boleslav’s accomplices likely named Tira, Česta, and Hněvsa). And he was then also buried here (later moved to Prague Castle).

Petra: “Yes. If you go inside you can see a sculpture which depicts the scene of the murder.”

Unfortunately, we are not allowed inside the church today because some kind of repairs are underway.

Petra: “What is special about this church is that up on one corner wall you can see a depiction of a devil. But he is cast down and above him is another statue of the Archangel Gabriel.”

So the angel is triumphant looking down on the devil. And there is a date next to the devil – 1593...

“That was the end of the reconstructions.”

We’ve managed to come at a time when a service is taking place in the small chapel. It appears to be an Orthodox Christian service. And Petra is telling me that Milan Novák – the man we mentioned before – was also responsible for the renovation of this site.

“He and his wife were very devout believers. And they worked on St. Wenceslas day celebrations from the start, and also oversaw the church reconstruction.”

And there is work happening here as we speak.

“The churches are in the hands of the Catholic Church, but the Novák’s helped out of a sense of personal interest.”

St. Wenceslas,  photo: Dominik Jůn
And now we have come up to a stone statue of a lion in the church courtyard. It’s quite large and the lion appears to be grasping at some kind of stone. And this is a symbolic place, Petra, isn’t it?

“Yeas. In the past it was said that this was the middle of Bohemia.”


“Perhaps just the spiritual centre.”

Can you describe to me the ceremony that takes place here every year? There is a pilgrimage. The remains of Wenceslas are brought from Prague Castle...

“It starts on September 27 in the evening. They bring the remains from Prague Castle to the St. Wenceslas Church here. The remains stay there until the following day. A morning mass takes place here. And then from 10 am, another large-scale service takes place in the main square, Mariánské náměstí, just next to here. 5,000 people can end up observing at that event. But in 2009, when the Pope was here, it was more like 50,000 people.”

We are now standing in Mariánské square where the pilgrims come and assemble. And in the distance on the other side of the square we can see another church. Distinctly very red looking, that is the 17th century Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Let’s go an have a look at this church.

So we are now by the church. One unusual sight right in front of us outside the church is a copper statue of Christ. Usually one sees other figures depicted in such statues – it is quite unusual to see. And then looking up, right at the top facade of the church we can see a depiction of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in a gold plaque, streams of light emanating from them.

Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“This is a representation of the so-called Palladium Of Bohemia. It is believed to be a depiction, which Catholics say provides a special form of protection for the Czech people. Originally it was created as an icon – a medal – for St. Wenceslas’ grandmother Ludmila as a gift from Cyril and Methodius. And then later Ludmila gave it to her grandson and it was his personal icon.”

And it is supposed to protect the Czech people.

“Yes. There are actually two supposed originals. One is here and one is in Prague Castle. They are both priceless. The original palladium was worn by St. Wenceslas when he was killed. That’s hard to imagine given its size.”

It would have provided good protection against murderers, no?

“Not good enough!”

They say three people were involved.

“Yes. Perhaps one held him down. No-one knows for sure. Then St. Wenceslas’ servant actually took the palladium and ran away. But they caught him. He was hanged where today’s bus station is found.”

And the church here shows a much enlarged copy. We can see a poster featuring the version brought out here on September 28th. It’s in a very ornate metal frame. Jewels. Gold. Copper covered in gold.

Now we are having a peek inside the church.

“It’s Baroque.”

Alas, we’ve reached the end of our tour. Petra, can you please briefly sum up some of the things we didn’t get a chance to see in this town today?

Palladium,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Brandýs also has a Synagogue and Jewish cemetery. It from the 15th century and one of the oldest in the country. On this side the two churches are the most important sight. These and the chateau are national monuments. And in a few weeks the palladium will also become a national monument.”

Petra Fialová, thank you so much for guiding me around Brandýs nad Labem-Stará Boleslav for this special programme.

“It’s been a pleasure.”