The development of stone castles was significant in the thirteenth century Bohemia - in what is today the Czech Republic. The Castle of Cesky Sternberk is a classic example: it is a long string of early gothic buildings and is wonderfully situated in the scenic countryside of Central Bohemia, southeast of Prague. It is also extremely unusual in that through the centuries it has been under the almost continuous ownership of the Sternberk family. The castle embodies eight centuries of Czech history and for me what brought to life early historical events was the integration of the Sternberk family's more recent history into the castle's decor.
Erected on a stone promontory, the castle nestles between the Sazava River on the one side and a creek in a narrow gorge on the other. Before going up a long set of winding stairs I'm standing at the foot of the castle in front of a three story stone tower added in the 14th century coupled with a strong fortification system. The structures managed to outlast two major attacks during the Thirty Years War. It's time to go and see what it looks like up there.
The reward for making it to the top of the steps is entering the castle's inner courtyard.
...that sound was a Peregrine Falcon, a little afraid of the microphone. A group of majestic birds are being displayed in the courtyard. These birds are from a nearby wildlife rescue and preservation centre.
Frantisek Adamek from the rescue centre explains that various birds are presented for educational purposes as visitors enter the castle grounds. The Centre has been active at the Castle of Cesky Sternberk for the past ten years and all funds earned by the exhibit go directly to serve their cause. Their mandate is to eventually release the animals back into the wild once they make a full recovery. The falcon is in good company with an Eagle Owl, a Buzzard and a Golden Eagle.
The initiative for such an exhibit stems from the interests of the young Zdenek Sternberk, who founded an owl club in Czechoslovakia in 1967. Today he is eighty years old and the current owner of the Castle of Cesky Sternberk. He tells me what it was like to grow up in such surroundings.
"Well, there were in total eight siblings in our family so we always had company, full of activity for children. It was a memory of ultimate freedom growing up in such a large estate, plenty of space without a sense of confinement."
But his boundless sense of freedom came to an abrupt end in 1948 when the estate was nationalized and the family were moved to a small flat in Prague. Zdenek's father, Jiri Sternberk, agreed to work as a steward on the property and gave tours for what became a sightseeing spot.
The Sternberk family then emmigrated to Austria in 1968.
"So we are now in the Yellow Chamber and this room served as a room for gentlemen. So, ladies were not allowed to go here, although we can see three portraits of ladies. This one depicts Francesca of Sternberk. She was the wife of the Sternberk called Manderscheid, who established the National Art Gallery in Prague as well as the art academy. On the largest portrait you can see Carolina of Sternberg and Carolina was the grandmother of the current owner Zdenek of Sternberk. Zdenek Sternberk restored this castle in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution."
This is Petra's third summer being a guide at the Castle of Sternberk, while the rest of the year she pursues her law degree in Prague. The Castle had been much altered over the centuries. In fact it was originally Gothic in style and then transformed into Baroque in the 18th Century. Jiri Sternberg and his mother Carolina also restored the castle at great expense at the beginning of the 20th Century. Through his extensive travels around the world he collected many items that are seen in the castle today, including a stuffed crocodile he hunted and brought back from Sri Lanka, a step in the other direction from his son's preservation initiative. I was also surprised to see amongst antique rococo furniture a metallic stove with "American Heating" engraved on the front. But as Petra tells me on the inside of the stove there is another inscription that says:
"Made in Czechoslovakia. It is funny because this heating system was founded in the town of Kolin which I think is thirty kilometres far away."
One of the most significant Sternberks was the scientist-botanist Casper Maria Sternberg founder of the Czech National Museum. Casper-Maria attracted the cultural and scientific elite such as: the Czech scholar Josef Dobrovsky, French engineer Joachim Barrande and German poet, novelist and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to name just a few. Petra showed me an instrument that Casper Maria Sternberk used to examine some of his plants.
"This is called a vacum pump and it was used to preserve flowers. When he put a flower inside it, the vaccum acted as such that it would stay fresh for days and he could observe it longer."
The name of Sternberk goes all the way back to the castle's foundation when a new castle was constructed for Zdeslav of the Divisov family in 1242. The Zdeslav coat of arms includes a gold eight-pointed star, and this is where then name Sternberk derives. "Stern" means star in German and "berg" means castle. The heraldic symbol was also accompanied by a family motto. "The star that never falls down". Zdenek of Sternberk continues to live in a section of the castle. He reflects on the return of his family's property after the revolution in 1989 and says that he has every intention to keep the integrity of the castle's historic past while being conscious of the present.
"Well, I am really like the rest of the country in that I never expected the changes of 1989. So when it finally happened we still didn't know what would happen to our former property and it was a long path before its return in 1992. But I was determined to retrieve the property. As a member of a Noble family it is my duty to maintain the legacy of my ancestors and preserve our tradition."
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