Romantic Kokořín


Anyone longing to escape the Czech capital in the stifling summer months would do well to visit the nearby Kokořín region - only around 40 kilometres or so northeast of Prague. Kokořín - with deep forests, valleys, as well as characteristic sandstone cliffs and unique architecture, is remarkable. You'll feel you've travelled more than one short train or bus ride away. It's an escape back to nature, with numerous spots for swimming and excellent trails for hiking, all in quiet and peace.

Kokorin Castle,  photo: Jan Sovka / Creative Commons 3.0 Unported
And, then there is the history.

Kokořín boasts numerous castles, one of the most famous a stunning originally Gothic site that shares the region's name. Not long ago, when visiting the area I met with Marie Smutná, the castle caretaker there, who told me a bit about the site's rich past. It all began in 1320:

"Kokořín Castle was built on the edge of two royal domains: near both the castle Bezděz, as well as the royal town of Mělník, and it served as a sentry outpost for soldiers responsible for guarding the area, collecting taxes for the king, and similar such duties. When you travel through the Kokořín nature reserve, you'll notice that the castle is not visible from most points, but is hidden within the valley. That made it ideal from the point of view of defence. Regarding the structure itself, like most castles it houses tall ramparts, deep ditches, and a tower. The living quarters were then found in the small and large palace."

According to Mrs Smutná, the site served as a classic castle for most of its early history, but fell into demise in the 1600 and 1700s.

Photo: CzechTourism
"Castles during the Renaissance gradually lost their original purpose: they had become vulnerable to cannon fire and firearms - and most were either turned into Renaissance-style palaces or they were destroyed. Kokořín was left to collapse. It even appeared on a list of 'cursed' castles issued by Ferdinand III, which decreed that the castles' stone would be used in the construction of surrounding villages. But, Kokořín was left undamaged: this region is full of sandstone cliffs. People extracted sandstone from nearby rather than stone from the castle. Even so, Kokořín still fell into ruin. Over time it became a 'robber's hideaway', mostly home to men who had deserted from the military and now made a living by waylaying travelling merchants."

In fact, the revival of Kokořín Castle came at a much later date:

Kokořín Castle
"In 1895, the castle was bought by Václav Špaček, a businessman from Horní Počernice who happened to own stud farms and stables and rented his horses to the postal service. His horses helped the post deliver the mail all around Prague and that's how he made his fortune. He bought the castle and began to invest a lot of capital in this region. Not far away he built a famous swimming pool, tennis courts, a luxury hotel. Meanwhile, Kokořín was redesigned in the Neo-Romantic style, to be preserved as a cultural monument. Mr Špaček expected it to draw many out-of-town visitors and that clients would come to find relaxation and rest. He also expected it would open their wallets."

Marie Smutná says that Kokořín is famous for being one of the few Neo-Romantic castles in Bohemia and you won't find anything similar quite like it here: the atmosphere of the Romantic period is almost tangible. The area is pristine and there is nothing to ruin the impression: no business along the road to the castle like at many other well-known sites. Kokořín's caretaker once again:

Kokorin Castle,  photo: CzechTourism
"One person might pretend they're Romantic poet Karel Hynek Mácha, another that he's a knight on an ancient path. Someone else just wants to escape the big city. Around Kokořín there is only forest, as Goethe himself observed, the castle is 'a vessel on a sea of forest'. It's ideal for looking out and observing birds of prey."

Kokořín Castle
When you visit expect a bit of a climb onto the promontory including wooden steps among the trees, until Kokořín's majestic tower becomes visible. Then it's over a wooden bridge over a deep ditch, and you're there. Many have remarked that it is its placement within the landscape that makes it exceptional, rather than its interior, which boasts only a few rooms - though beautiful - accessible to the public. Many I spoke with agreed:

French tourist: "We are French tourists and it's our first time here of course. It's nice to walk all around because it's in a very nice wood and there is a very nice view. Oh yes, it's nice!"

Czech man: "We've been here before and something keeps bringing us back. The valley is gorgeous and the castle is fantastic. After the castle, we're going to hike on some of the trails, to the cliffs known as 'The Lids', where there is also a rock formation that looks like a giant frog! After that, we'll head to another nearby castle known as Houska, where legend has it there was once an entrance to Hell. It belched steam and smoke and after a man came back grey with fear from searching the area, they opted to build a chapel on the site, so that devils could come up no more!"

Czech lady: "It's my first time here. I admire the scenery, it's very beautiful. I'm curious about what comes next."

'Lids',  photo: Barbora Kmentová
What comes next depends only on what you prefer; but if it's hiking or even mountain biking, you can't do wrong. Countless marked trails wind up sharply along the sandstone cliffs, and at the top of one climb you will indeed find the so-called "Lids" - ancient stone slabs that rest on massive rock formations shaped by the centuries. The stone frog is there too, a petrified Jabba the Hutt. Then, there are beautiful mazes in the rock and points where one has to literally squeeze through and risk losing one's jacket buttons like Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit". From above one can see the landscape in all its magnificence, including unique architecture: many vine-covered country homes with hedgerows and English gardens, contrasted by rugged cliffs, swampland full of reeds, and hilly dark black forest in the distance. Kokořín is a truly gorgeous and inspiring visit, and, at the end of the day, the nearest town - aptly enough named "Ráj" - meaning Paradise - offers at least one excellent pub to visit and a number of bed-and-breakfasts nearby.

Kokořín: so close, yet a world apart.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 9, 2006.