Czech History A Greeting from Castle Hill: an insider’s look into Prague Castle’s forgotten era
Prague Castle is considered one of the symbols of the Czech state. Once the seat of Bohemian kings, it now houses the Office of the Czech President, and its museums and galleries annually attract millions of visitors. But for over a hundred years, Prague Castle was half-forgotten. With the imperial court residing in Vienna throughout the 19th century, the castle only served as a luxurious hotel for the royal family and their relatives and friends. A recently published book of memoirs entitled A Greeting from the Castle Hill now offers an insider’s look into those times. In this edition of Czech History, I discussed the book with one of its editors, Martin Halata from Prague Castle archives.
In the 19th century, Prague Castle was an interesting place. You say its history was hidden because the Habsburg court no longer lived here. So what was it used for? What function did it have?
“Prague Castle was one of 19 residences owned by the royal family. In the language of the court, it was referred to as Administration, building of residence for the royal family when they were present in Prague or in the Kingdom of Bohemia. It was common for many European royal families to have residences around their realms which they used as hotels.”
It does look from the memoirs that it served as an upscale hotel for Habsburgs and their relatives and friends. The author, Joseph Rudolf of Wartburg, describes various visits, for instance one court from Italy came here to escape an epidemic of cholera. Why did these people usually come here?
“They often came for significant events such as coronations, burials, for various church festivals. Sometimes they also wanted to escaped from their main residence due to diseases like cholera, or they came because of wars. Whenever they needed to leave their home cities, they used Prague Castle for some time.”
“Ferdinand’s case is different. He was under pension, so he was provided with a private residence to that he could spend the rest of life comfortably, in a nice environment. He was quite well off, and he also lived in the chateaus of Ploskovice and Zákupy in northern Bohemia.
“And what he did here? Not much. He was fond of Czech music, he liked music by Bedřich Smetana and Ladislav Škroup, and he spent most of his days in various social functions.”
Were there any members of the royal family who like coming here more than others?
“Not in the 19th century. Before that, Rudolph II and Leopold like Prague. They really enjoyed living at Prague Castle.”
So what was life at Prague Castle like for a boy? The author of the memories captured his life there in mid 19th century. How did he like growing up there?
“Well, the environment was very attractive. It was a magnificent building, and the boy was in touch with members of the royal family and other aristocrats who were close to the court. So he was quite privileged: imagine spending your days there, in the castle, in the cathedral, and the whole area. So his life was very different from an ordinary boy’s life.”
Was the building empty, besides the homes of the administration employees?
“Most of it was empty, and the castle came to life only when someone’s court arrived. But on the other hand, it was – and still is – a very large building which had to be maintained so the employees took day-to-day care about the gardens, the roofs, about the horses in stables, and so on. So it was probably much livelier than today.”
At one point, the author says how much he was looking forward to another of these visits. He’s very happy; he says the castle will again fill with people, the gates will open, and so on. He says when no royal visitors were present, very few people from the city below actually came to the area. Was it regularly open to the public at those times?
“It was. But the entire area was known as Prague Castle District, and there were people living there. The district closed each day at 9 PM and opened again at 8 in the morning. But during this time, it was open for anyone, it was in fact a town of its own. It had its stores such as a tobacconist’s, and other small shops. Even the royal gardens were open but not for free; visitors had to pay to get in.”
How was Prague Castle different architecturally from today?
“Not really. All you can see today is nearly the same as it was in the 19th century. One big difference originated in the 1920s when Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš Gariggue Masaryk, began remodel the castle to make it ‘democratic’. They changed the gardens, the courtyards were rebuilt to suit the different needs, and so on. But overall, Prague Castle has not changed much since the 19th century.”
Could people also rent rooms here or sections of the castle, or was it exclusively for use by the royal family and their guests?
“It was not common. Bu for example, the Vladislavský Hall was used for workshops and course by the Academy of Fine Arts. But that’s all I know about the so-called commercial use of the premises.”
People still live today in the castle; there are some employees of the president’s office who have apartments here. A former aide of ex-president Václav Klaus recently said he had been looking forward to leaving because he felt isolated here, with no services available and so on. How do you feel working here – and would you like to live here?
“Living here in the 19th century was probably better because you could use all kinds of top quality services, from food to laundry, and so on. There were many kitchens here, many servants. But now, it’s very different, it really only houses the president’s office. So that’s the difference.”