Rabi Castle: some facts and legends surrounding the Czech Republic's most majestic ruins
In this edition we shall not be looking at the life of a single historic figure but an historic site - south western Bohemia's Rabi Castle - the country's most majestic surviving ruins, with a past that reaches all the way back to the 12th century. Anyone who has ever travelled by car or bus to the town of Susice near the Czech Republic's Sumava region will most likely remember the sight of Rabi, the castle's broken white masonry sharp against a blue sky or pelted by rain on an overcast day. A rich past, a history of survival and dilapidation, the facts and legends of Rabi Castle shall be looked at today.
Still, for our purposes it is perhaps the foundation of Rabi that draws the most historic interest: early Romanesque masonry of the grand tower makes it clear the oldest part of the castle predates its first mention in records from 1380. Michal Novak, the complex's warden, explains that to this day the exact founding of the castle remains something of a mystery. Its original commission and owners remain a matter for speculation even now.
"The latest theory states that in all likeliness the castle was commissioned by Bavarian princes at a time when the whole Susice region was itself under Bavarian rule. According to this view Bavarian princes commissioned the construction of the castle as part of border fortifications. Under this theory it is believed to have been completed at some time at the turn of the 13th century. Earlier, opposing views, stated the castle was only built in the 14th century, constructed by Czech nobility, the Lords of Velhartice, who had estates nearby. But we can not know for certain. At the time of the surviving records - the first mention two years after the death of Charles IV - the castle was already in the hands of the Ryzmberk family."
As for what purpose Rabi might originally have served? Aside from being a possible border fortification, other uses come to mind:
"Rabi Castle is located at a site that used to be found on the so-called Golden Route - a trade route important not in gold but in salt which was a very lucrative business at the time. However, another theory does see gold come into the picture, and that is gold from the nearby Otava River, which flows just below the castle complex. The Otava has always been famous for its gold, though its vein was far richer in the Middle Ages. It is equally plausible that Rabi was built to protect the river's riches."
"One explanation might be that the name comes from the German raben which means "raven" - it could suggest something like Raven's Peak. Another is the expression Rabiri, vernacular for gold-surveyors then, and a final explanation might be a derivation from another bird's name: vrabec, or vrabci vrch, which would mean sparrow's peak."
My personal inclination is that the name comes from one of the fowl - an impression you may find reinforced when you trudge up the path to the castle and hear a lonely bird's cry on the wind. Incidentally, it may interest you to know that the majority of Czechs mispronounce the name Rabi - reading it with a long "A" instead of a long "I" - a linguistic mystery that is unlikely to be solved any time soon!
Finally, what about the castle complex and its appearance through the ages... Without a doubt Rabi is one of the most excellent examples of Gothic architecture in all of Bohemia. The whole complex gives the impression of so much scarred white stone and broken masonry rising up like impressionistic blocks, broken up by tiny black windows. Surrounded by the odd curve in a wall dotted with slits from which arrows once rained down. Its sheer size remains imposing even now: not only is Rabi surrounded by a deep ditch but its massive outer and inner fortifications still guard the castle's inner most sanctuary. One can only imagine having to storm such a castle with dread - there was a time when Rabi was believed to be unconquerable.
"One of the members of the Ryzmberk family was well-travelled and from his travels he once brought back a monkey, which of course was a real rarity in these parts at the time. He left the monkey at Rabi when he once again departed for travels abroad - and the creature managed to escape its guards. It is said it hid out in the local forest, where local woodcutters mistook it for a devil! They chased it up a tree and called on the whole town to come try and capture the creature, throwing rocks until eventually they hit it and the creature fell and died. When its noble master discovered what had been done he levied a tax against the locals called the monkey tax - opici dan. However, it is more likely it was in fact - opicni dan, which sounds similar, but means something completely different: a tax on baked goods, namely bread. So you see how legend and facts can meet, who knows how it really was."