Špilberk castle offers the brave a night in its infamous dungeons

Špilberk, photo: Jakub Hritz, ČRo

The casemates of Brno’s castle Špilberk, once the most feared prison in the Habsburg Empire, will be open to sleep in for one night this Saturday. The offer is part of weekend celebrations of the 369th anniversary of the defence of Brno against the Swedes during the Thirty Years War. The project is in its pilot stage but, if successful, organisers plan to make it a permanent part of the castle experience.

Špilberk,  photo: Jakub Hritz,  ČRo
Dark, wet and chilly, for those who like to get a real taste of history or simply feel like an adventure castle Špilberk’s infamous dungeons will be available to sleep in for one night this Saturday. With electricity turned off, participants will only be allowed candlelight and will sleep on wooden boards covering the floor of the casemates. Those hoping that alcohol will get them through the night are in for a bad surprise – drinks and cigarettes are forbidden. The organisers are intent on keeping the atmosphere as authentic as they can.

I asked Martina Šmídtová from the castle’s department for communications and external relations about what made the organisers come up with such a plan.

“The idea is part of the modern trend of making castle and museum visitors more actively involved and thus make the experience more memorable instead of simply watching and listening passively. It is also a bit of a test where we want to find out if there’s serious interest in such an offer. If it were to pick up, and from the feedback we have received since the announcement we can already say there is much interest, we will continue to work on it and perhaps make it a permanent part of our selection.”

Špilberk’s casemates,  photo: official website of the Museum of Brno
Being a pilot project, capacity will be limited to 25 sleepers, each paying 250 CZK for the night. Participants are required to bring their own sleeping bags and will have to sign a health and safety declaration before they are allowed to spend the night. Warm clothing is also advised, the underground dungeons get cold in the evenings.

The pilot will not be opened to non-Czech speakers, mainly due to the uncertainty about the reaction it will get and the fact that much of the staff does not speak English, but if responses to the project are positive the organisers will consider extending it to foreigners as well.

The dungeons were originally built as casemates – vaulted chambers without windows where soldiers and equipment were housed, but during the reign of Emperor Joseph II in the late 18th century, they were converted into the empire’s hardest dungeons, where criminals sentenced to life were chained to the walls. Ms Šmídtová said chaining participants to walls is not part of the offer, but did state that some of the casemates have been reconstructed to look as they would have during the infamous period:

Špilberk’s casemates,  photo: official website of the Museum of Brno
“Visitors today can see both. Parts of the casemates have been reconstructed to look like they used to at the time when they housed troops during the Seven Years War and others are made in the fashion of Joseph II’s dungeons and are dedicated to showing visitors the history of the prison system in general.”

The casemates belong to some of the most visited attractions in Brno. Built in 1742 as part of a general conversion of the castle into a baroque fort, they used to serve as barracks and munition stores until being made into a prison. They would go on to hold many political prisoners of the Habsburg Empire during the 19th century. After a brief return to terror in the Second World War, when the casemates served as a Gestapo prison, the spaces were reconstructed in the 1990s and are now part of the castle museum.