The history and mysteries of Zbiroh Chateau
Zbiroh Chateau has stood on its hill between the Křivoklátské and Brdy Forests since the 12th century, a beautiful thing, wistfully recalled in the famous melody by Václav Vačkář, “A Memory of Zbiroh”. Until recently, memories of Zbiroh were just about all anyone had, because the chateau and its many treasures and mysteries were strictly sealed off for most of the 20th century. The memory of its illustrious history is only resurfacing today.
“This is the largest privately-owned chateau in the Czech Republic, and one of the largest chateaux in the country. I’ve never counted it up in square meters, but I can say we have some 228 rooms, it takes four and a half hours to open all the windows and four and a half hours to close them, so just airing out the rooms is an entire day’s work for one person.”
Size is by no means the only superlative thing about it. With the oldest free-standing tower in Bohemia and the deepest well in Europe, Zbiroh Chateau – the oldest aristocratic castle in the Czech Republic – sets several records for its grandeur and of course age, which stretches back to the year 1193. Since that time it has been owned by numerous people with lofty titles, but none loftier than Emperor. Markéta Lorencová, who works on exhibitions at Zbiroh, told me why Zbiroh bills itself as the “Castle of Three Emperors”:
“One of the emperors was Charles IV, who was the most important king for all Czechs. After him the castle was owned by the Rosenberg dynasty, which was here for 100 years. In the 15th century the castle was bought by Sigmund of Luxemburg, the son of Charles IV and the second emperor of our castle. And the third was Rudolf II, who owned the castle in the 16th century.”
After Rudolf came the first of the chateau’s claims to infamy, just after the history-changing Czech defeat at White Mountain in 1630. A Bohemian Protestant rebellion was crushed by the Austrians, and after the battle, the Czech protestant lords were rounded up, and many were imprisoned in the dank dungeons at Zbiroh.
“This prison was found by a worker who fell through a hole while they were laying pipes for the chateau. After that we found something like beds made of straw there. Here you can see hand shackles and there in the rock leg shackles.”
So these shackles have been hanging here since the last person had an arm in one.
“Yes. But nobody died in our prison, the prison was for pushing the prisoners to write letters to give up all their property and to give up their faith. Just one person died there, because he got a cold. So he died from illness not by punishment.”
The castle stayed in Hapsburg hands for over 200 years, until it was purchased by the Jewish German railroad industrialist Bethel Henry Strousberg. Strousberg started a glorious restoration of parts of the castle (while destroying others, filling up the underground tunnels and prisons with construction debris to avoid having to pay for its removal). Many reminders of Baron Strousberg remain, including this one, that Miss Lorencová showed me:
“We have here a cane that belonged to Henry Strousberg, and if you open it there is a blade inside. He always had this cane with him at meetings because he didn’t trust Czechs.”
And did he ever use it?
“No we don’t think so!”
The next famous resident – indeed the most famous resident – of Zbiroh Chateau was the master painter Alfons Mucha. Mr Pácha told me how he ended up in Zbiroh.
“It was just a coincidence, Mucha came here to visit with a friend and found out that there was a hall upstairs with a skylight, and it suited him for painting large canvasses. His family became very close friends with the Colloredo-Mannsfeld family, which owned the chateau at the time. So he kind of headquartered himself here and stayed here for 19 years. His son Jiří Mucha was born here and spent his entire childhood here.”
The “large canvasses” included Mucha’s life-long dream and arguably greatest work – The Slav Epics – a cycle of 20 enormous paintings honouring Slavic history. He also created almost all of his oil paintings here. And one could speculate that it wasn’t good light alone that drew him to the place. There might have been other things that the "founder of Czech Freemasonry" and Grand Master of the Paris Lodge appreciated in his surroundings.
“We have found Templar symbols here, and it’s certain that the mysterious history of Freemasonry here goes back a long way. There is a Masonic Hall here in the castle that is a tribute to Alfons Mucha. The Grand Masters and the rest of his lodge used to meet here, so in honour of that the hall is decorated with Masonic motifs as it once was.”
A decade after the flowery epoch of Mucha at Zbiroh, a whole new era emerged for the castle – an era of secrecy that began with WWII and ended only a few years ago. In that time, hardly anyone who was not a top-clearance soldier saw or heard anything from within the walls of the hilltop fortifications until Mr Pácha purchased the building in 2004 and discovered what all the secrecy was about.
“During the Second World War the Wehrmacht had an automobile repair station here, and once, purely by chance, some radio surveillance equipment was brought in to be fixed. Once it was working they found that instead of its original 30-kilometre range, they could listen to all of Europe from here. The hill is made of chert rock and semi-precious jasper, the silica in which amplifies sound. So the Wehrmacht was immediately moved out and the SS high command was moved in towards the end of the war.”
The Nazis made Zbiroh their “ear of the world” and it maintained that function for the Warsaw Pact armies in Czechoslovakia. Modern-day legend tells that when president Vaclav Havel was on his first trip to America, he was asked “What do you plan to do with the radar at Zbiroh,” and he had no idea what they were talking about. “The one watching our stealth fighters", they said. And thus the Americans let the Czech president in on the clandestine affairs of his own country, and Zbiroh started to be stripped of its secrets large and small. And the water-well was one of them.
“That well was a mystery right from the end of WWII, because it was filled to the top with rubble and for some reason no one tried to dig it out. So we wanted to make the well a well instead of a junk heap, and after digging for about 40 metres we found eight cases of SS documents that were carted off by the Ministry of the Interior the very next day. And under them were various weapons and other historical objects.”
“There is no false bottom. There is some sort of passageway into the side of the well that was plastered over with china clay, and it’s hermetically sealed so that water can’t get in. And when we did a radar survey it showed a regular network of metallic objects a few metres in. No one knows what it is, but it could well be a defensive array of explosives, so no one dares look deeper.”
The present owner, Gastro Žofín, is less interested in treasure-seeking at the risk of blowing the castle to smithereens, and more interested in taking advantage of Zbiroh’s many other wonders. It now hosts a grandiose hotel complete with peacocks on the window ledges and a tavern, a huge expanse of gardens and forest and more, with almost all the castle’s secrets open to the public.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 26, 2009.