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.

Rabi Castle has witnessed many turbulent periods in history and seen many dramatic events under a slew of different noble owners including the Ryzmberks - the family that left the most significant mark in Rabi's history in the 15th and early 16th centuries - to the castle's last owners the Lamberks, who held it for two centuries right up until the 1920s, letting the complex fall into dilapidation and disrepair. A hundred years earlier, after Rabi was hit by a devastating fire it was never restored but became a site for excursions. It was simply too expensive - even for a rich family like the Lamberks - to restore.

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."

Sight of Rabi township
Which might even be one of the links to the medieval castle's name, Michal Novak explains:

"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.

Jan Zizka
Ultimately, it did fall twice. During the Hussite wars the brilliant military tactician Jan Zizka of Trocnov led his forces against Rabi and succeeded in taking the castle both times. The first victory was in 1420, when Catholic forces loyal to King Sigismund gave up without a fight; the second was just a year later, Zizka's forces retook the castle after a siege and battle, after which Zizka had seven monks famously burned at the stake. The battle, however, proved fateful for the famous one-eyed commander: he suffered an injury that would lead to the loss of his remaining eye, leaving him now completely blind. It was a high price. One final note: the castle was far from complete in Zizka's time, and would only undergo major transformation over the next 200 years, under the ownership of the Ryzmberks, to whom the following charming legend is tied. Michal Novak again:

"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."

The third port
Monkey tax indeed, well you needn't worry, that tax is no longer enforced! Visiting the complex today you will be struck by the austerity of the remaining ruins, but impressed by its height, the fullness of the enclosure, making feel you are entering a secret past. As you enter the complex's surviving rooms, where a display shows decorative tiles from the 16th century you will marvel at the display of Saint George slaying the dragon, and other intricate items from metal and glass. Inside the castle's deepest surviving cellars, you may even see small sleeping bats, hanging from the ceiling upside down. But, now it's time to move on, we lock the way behind us. The winter wind blows, it is time to leave Rabi Castle behind.