Waiting for Saint Martin at Loučeň château

Photo: Masha Volynsky

This past weekend, many people around the Czech Republic celebrated the feast of Saint Martin’s day. Some baked a goose and shared it with family, some waited to see if Saint Martin will really come on a white horse and others just enjoyed the copious amounts of young Saint Martin’s wine overflowing in wine shops and street fairs all over the country.

Saint Martin ona white horse
Although Saint Martin’s day is not a very important holiday for me normally, this year I decided to get a taste of the folk and the wine tradition all in one go and headed over to Loučeň chateau, just some 60 kilometers away from Prague. The celebration at Loučeň combines many traditional elements and some original ideas as well. To begin with, Saint Martin’s day is on November 11th, while at Loučeň, the welcoming of Saint Martin was held on the eve of that day. And although for most people waiting to see if Saint Martin comes on a white horse is a figurative experience and refers to the olden tradition of welcoming the first snow, at Loučeň Saint Martin literally comes on a white horse.

This is how Jiří Senohrábek, the castle manager and head of marketing, described the main event:

“Despite the late date in the calendar, and the weather not being as good in November, this is the most popular event of the year. The pinnacle of the day’s celebration has always been the same, and many visitors come back to see it. They come to see Saint Martin who arrives at dusk on a white horse. It is quite a mystical moment. He blesses the Saint Martin wine, and after about ten minutes disappears in the chateau grounds. The children then go to look for him with their lanterns, and once they find him, he lights their lanterns and they walk back to the chateau in the dark, but now with the lanterns lighting their way.”

Loučeň château
But it was not time yet for the most awaited part of the day, and as families moseyed around the little fair in front of the baroque chateau, children got their faces painted and learned how to be proper knights, I got a chance find out more about Loučeň walk around the English park spreading out around it.

The first chateau was built at Loučeň in the early eighteenth century by the Waldstein family. In 1809 its last noble owners acquired it through marriage. Maxmilián Thurn–Taxis - a member of the famous European postal noble family – became the new lord of Loučeň, or Lautschin in German. Although Maxmilián spent most of the time in the family’s official seat in Regensburg, his son Karl Anselm settled more permanently in Loučeň and the Bohemian branch of the princely family began to grow.

Although seemingly hidden from the main routes today, in the early nineteenth century, Loučeň and its masters saw its share of big historical events. Jiří Senohrábek explains:

“In 1813, the troops of the Russian army gathered here during the campaign against Napoleon’s army, on their way to Leipzig. Besides the battle at Waterloo, the so-called Battle of the Nations at Leipzig was also very important and the Russian troops assembled here at Loučeň into a large whole.”

Jiří Senohrábek,  manager and head for marketing at Loučeň
In times of piece, the Thurn und Taxis family was quite instrumental in the development of the surrounding region. As industrialization took root in Bohemia, Karel Anselm founded a sugar factory in the nearby Dobrovice, which actually produces sugar to this day under the protected trademark TTD – Thurn-Taxis Dobrovice. The family also generously gave up a part of their land for the construction of the essential railway link between Mladá Boleslav and the nearby Nymburk.

Various family members were also great supporters of the arts and the Czech national cause. Writer and poet Rainer Maria Rilke was a frequent guest at Loučeň. The famouse Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, a close friend of the family, dedicated his piano and violin concerto “Z domoviny”, or "From the Homeland" to Alexander Thurn-Taxis and his wife Maria. Other luminaries of late 19th early 20th centuries Czech lands who were supported by or simply visited the family at Loučeň were revolutionary politician Karel Sladkovský, writers Eliška Krásnohorská, Božena Němcová, F.X. Šalda, and many others. Legend has it, even Mark Twain visited Loučeň once on his tour around Europe.

Half a century later, though, the castle was confiscated from the Thurn und Taxis family in 1945 by the state. Under Communism, the chateau was used by the Transport Ministry, ironically by the railroad department. Kateřina Šrámková, the CEO of the company which now owns the chateau and the surrounding grounds, told me a bit more about that:

The boxwood labyrinth
“It was a training center of the Ministry of Transport. So, many of the people who ran the trains and were working on the railway were trained here. The castle was put up for sale in 2000 and our company acquired it and came up with the new plans.”

It took a few years, but the newest owners were determined to bring Loučeň back to its former glory, renovating the chateau building, the small chapel next to it, as well as a hotel and the English gardens. Ms Šrámková again:

“The castle was opened on the 7th of July 2007. We wanted to have the castle open all year around, and were trying to come up with ideas for events for the winter season. So Saint Martin’s arrival was a good way to start the winter season in 2007. We had over 400 visitors. That was an incredible number. And we are very happy that the number of visitors in growing every year.”

The grass labyrinth
The past two years have seen the number of visitors for the Saint Martin’s weekend climb into the thousands. In addition to running a luxury hotel, as well as tours around the chateau and weekly events for the public, the company Loučeň a.s. decided to add a special element that would set this old country seat apart from the many baroque chateaus across the country.

“In 2007, we opened the park with ten labyrinths and mazes. In 2011 we opened the 11th labyrinth. And this year, on the 12th of December 2012, we will be opening the 12th labyrinth. Of course, in 2013 we will open the 13th labyrinth and this will be the end of the labyrinth story.”

The Labyrintarium created by a UK designer Adrian Fisher come in all shapes and sizes – made of shrubbery, stone, wood, rope or simply grass. An obvious draw for the many children visiting Loučeň this Saturday, the parents had time to try some young wine from Czech vineyards, have a taste of the Saint Martin goose and wait for the arrival of Saint Martin and his men.

Children waiting with lanterns for Saint Martin's arrival
As a procession of shining lanterns trod through the forest back to the chateau Ms Šrámková and Mr Senohrábek were probably already thinking of the next big event of the winter season – the opening of the 12th labyrinth at Loučeň, on, of course, December 12th. And maybe, Kateřina Šrámková hopes, this lucky dozen will also attract the interest of the Thurn und Taxis family:

“We hope that one day they’ll call and they’ll come [to see the castle] and they will be happy that we have been taking care of the place that was owned by their great grandfather and they will be happy with the work we have done here.”

Photo: Masha Volynsky