National Heritage Institute promoting country’s “hidden treasures”

Kratochvíle, photo: Barbora Kmentová

With the start of the tourist season in April hundreds of castles and chateaus around the Czech Republic open their doors to visitors. In addition to their historical value these sites have become cultural hubs, providing a wonderful backdrop for the concerts, theatre performances, craft fairs and historical fencing shows that are regularly organized to attract visitors.

Kratochvíle,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
I spoke to Simona Juračkova of the National Heritage Institute about the historic sites the institute administers and what is in store for tourists this year.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of historical sites in the Czech Republic and the National Heritage Institute administers more than one hundred of these castles, chateaus, country houses, monasteries etc.”

You annually prepare novelties to attract visitors. What have you got in store for this year?

“We try to attract visitors not only to the historic site as such, but also to a lot of side activities and events taking place there – for instance there is flower binding, costume tours, theatre performances, concerts and craft fairs. However that is nothing special, we organize these activities every year and you can find them on our website. But this year we picked a special theme to promote our castles –we want to remind our visitors that for 25 years now we have been taking care of these sites in a democratic regime and the changes that were undertaken over that time are enormous.”

Can you explain what those changes involved?

“Yes, the whole outlook on how to present these castles has changed. In the past (in the communist era) castles were not presented as residences of the aristocracy. This was simply skipped and passed over in silence, no one talked about it and the sites were treated as important landmarks and trade destinations. This has really changed and huge progress has been made in the manner of administering those monuments. We give preference to the concept of originality and authenticity.”

So you tell visitors who the castle belonged to, how they lived there and I understand that sometimes there are even table arrangements of what it may have looked like at Christmas time…

“Yes, exactly, we focus on everyday life at the site and depict the life of the nobility who lived there -which is a relatively new concept in presenting these monuments. And in order to show our visitors the changes at these sites we use pictures – before and after – because we put a lot on money into it and a lot of effort. We also want to take the public behind-the scenes –i.e. show them how we prepare the installation, how we use old inventories and pictures from the beginning of the 20th century which depicts the place as it was used by the last owner.”

Konopiště,  photo: Miloš Turek
Do you cooperate with some of those noble families in bringing this about –because they would have photos and family paintings and so on….

“We have huge collections of items. Our castles and chateaux are full of authentic stuff which is wonderful. But of course we try to stay in touch with the previous owner where it is possible. Sometimes it is difficult for both sides, since those castles were confiscated by the state and sometimes it still hurts.”

So which of the sites you administer are the most popular?

“Well, I would like to mention Kratochvíle which is a beautiful hunting lodge in southern Bohemia built by the famous Vilém of Rožmberk (Wilhelm von Rosenberg) in the late 18th century. Its transformation was a complex project – we can call it rebirth of the Renaissance and in the space of six, seven years the villa was very sensitively restored and a completely new installation was prepared. And now it has regained its appearance under the last of the Rožmberks, so you get a glimpse of everyday life there 400 years ago. It is amazing. “

What can foreign visitors expect when they come to these places? I assume there are tours in a number of languages? Are there events they can find on your web page if they want to attend a food festival or a fencing event, see period costumes, that kind of thing?

“It really varies depending on where you want to go. We try to keep the service on an equal level at all our sites, but of course the most visited castles like Český Krumlov, Lednice, Hluboká or Karlštejn are much better prepared to welcome foreign visitors. They have foreign language guided tours at special times of day and so on. So it is easiest for visitors to go for the well-known popular sites, but they don’t hold a big surprise, you know them from the guidebooks and so on. But each site has a guided tour and if there is no audio guide then visitors will get a written text in the foreign language of their choice. We are working on it, but we do not have guided tours in foreign languages everywhere. “

“We have a list of “hidden treasures” for tourists to discover”

I understand there is a campaign – a sort of trail to highlight the country’s undiscovered treasures. Can you tell us what that is about?

“We have 105 sites all around the Czech Republic and a lot of them are not –how should I put it - around the corner. All of them are available by public transport but often it is quite far, logically so because the nobility looked for hidden places, places of retreat where they could rest undisturbed far from Prague. So we have picked some 30 country houses to put on our list of “hidden treasures” and we would love for visitors to rediscover them. So it’s a kind of invitation to go to smaller, out-of-the-way places which are quieter, no so crowded, not so frequented and enjoy what they have to offer.”

I understand that you even have a raffle, is that right?

“Yes, we have a special programme where for five stamps at places you have visited you get a sixth ticket for free, you can send us the ticket and you may win some very nice prizes such as two days at one of our castles, a night somewhere with a nice meal and so on. I think it is quite attractive.”

This country is extremely rich in historic castles and chateaus and many Czechs visit them repeatedly - what is it that attracts them over and over again? What is it that they go in search of?

Český Šternberk | Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová,  Radio Prague International
“I would love to know that myself. But you know, we live with those castles, we grew up with them and we usually first visited them with our parents. So these places evoke memories. Czechs have this saying that our castles are our sea. Touring castles is popular and everyone loves it.”

But still, I assume it means attracting people by the events that are held there, not just the castle itself. Does that mean you have to work hard to bring the place to life?

“Yes, there are a lot of activities taking place, thousands of them really. And people usually make trips to nearby castles for a day’s outing –so the people managing it have to always show something new, to prepare events, concerts, performances to draw the crowd. So all our castles are very much alive with a lot of activities throughout the tourist season.”

What are some of the most popular events organized there? Period stuff –fencing, jugglers, dancing or is it things like food festivals and flower shows?

“Food festivals are growing and flower shows are very popular as are live music performances and concerts. Also, children love our guided tours in costumes or period dress. So these are the most frequently organized activities…”

When you say guided tours in costumes –what exactly do you mean?

“It is like a performance for visitors. The guides are actors and they act scenes from the life of the noble family, they use the language of the times ….and make it all come to life.”

“Everyone wants to get married at a castle or chateau and we try to make a lot of brides happy”

I understand that you also organize weddings at some of these historic sites –is that right?

“Yes, we organize a lot of weddings because everyone wants to get married at a castle or a chateau so we make that possible and try to make a lot of brides happy!”

Give them a fairy-tale wedding …..

“Yes, exactly.”

Is this service for foreigners as well –and how much in advance do people need to arrange it?

“We arrange weddings for foreigners as well and all the necessary information is on the web page of the given historical site.”

And I understand there are also night events at some of these places - is that right?

“The special guided tours, costumes and night events are all extremely popular and make up a third of our activities. And on one night of the year –the last Saturday in August – we have a nationwide event called Castles and Chateaus at Night when these sites are open until midnight and that is very popular. “

Which of your monuments is currently right there at the top – something you would recommend seeing?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Oh, you are killing me! I can’t say that I love every place. But I think that for this year I would pick Kratochvile because it is so beautiful. It is 16th century and it feels like time has stopped. Walking around you almost expect to come face to face with the nobility who resided there. You can smell the Renaissance at Kratochvíle. “

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