There are two very good reasons why you should visit Lipnice. The small town, lying south-east of Prague, is dominated by a romantic castle that is a favorite setting for international filmmakers. It was also the last home of Jaroslav Hašek, the author of Good Soldier Švejk, the most translated novel by any Czech writer.
It is like taking a trip back in time: I am walking around the courtyard full of men in medieval mail armor. Some are practicing fighting positions, sword in one hand and shield in the other, their helmets glistening in the sun. Obviously, they are getting ready for battle.
But then I spot one of them checking something on his smartphone, another with an iPad in his hands. And that brings me back to the 21st century. Yes, they are just extras in an American TV history fantasy series. So famous and popular, that before I was even allowed anywhere close to Lipnice Castle I had to promise not to divulge the name of the series. This place is very popular with international filmmakers for its authentic yet romantic look that it managed to preserve over the centuries even though the castle was owned by many different aristocratic families. Marek Hanzlík is the present manager appointed by the Czech National Heritage Institute:
“First, there was the House of the Lichtenburg who actually founded this castle at the beginning of the 14th century. One of them, Raimund of Lichtenburg, was the royal chamberlain at that time and that was one of the highest offices. He was, in fact, managing the king's property all over the land. And since he did not have a castle of his own he decided to build this one. While building it, Raimund got into some financial problems as often happened and still happens with construction projects of this size. So he had to sell the unfinished castle to his king John of Luxembourg – also known in Western Europe as John of Bohemia –who then immediately gave this property to Henry of Lipá in exchange for the Zittau region in present-day Germany. Because King John was most of the time absent from Bohemia, fighting various wars, it was Henry of Lipá who was running the affairs of the kingdom.”
But why build a castle right here? In the hilly, thinly populated and heavily forested region on the border of the historical lands of Moravia and Bohemia?
“At the beginning when this region was being colonized in the 13th century there was a real silver and gold fever. The landlords were usually absent and they needed to build a network of fortified posts to secure the holdings that were making them wealthy. Some of these posts developed in new towns but there was also a need for strategically located castles. Since there wasn’t one in the vicinity Raimund of Lichtenberg decided to build one on a rocky bump between two hills. The silver-mining town of Německý Brod is nearby and there was an important road passing through it. That is most probably why Raimund selected this place for his castle.”
In the Middle Ages, a small town with defensive walls grew up around the castle. It actually got town privileges from the King of Bohemia and Roman Emperor Charles the Fourth. One of the privileges was to build the defensive stone walls. But what was life like when you lived here back then? And who actually stayed here?
“Besides members of the nobility, there were their personal servants staying at the castle. There was also a military detachment but in peace times it would not be very strong – usually around ten soldiers. Of course, when there was some kind of threat the number of troops would multiply. Later, during the Thirty Years‘ war, this castle was actually occupied by the Swedish army. They made it their base and there were hundreds of them harassing the civilian population and causing a lot of trouble far and wide.“
As the centuries went by, the castle changed hands many times over. With warfare becoming more and more mechanized and artillery stronger, its original defensive role was losing in importance. In 1869, a great fire destroyed most of the town and severely damaged the castle. It was only gradually renovated and today most of it is accessible to the public. As any other respectable castle, Lipnice inspired folk legends. The most popular concerned sex, violence, and sacrifice. Lipnice Castle castellan Marek Hanzlík told me about it:
“There was a knight living in the tower and he was a man of a passionate and very lecherous nature. His lust made him search nearby villages for young innocent girls. He would capture them and bring them here to the castle to ravish them. Once his lust was satisfied he used to lock them up in a room down in a dark cellar beneath the tower with a door that could be opened only from the outside and let them die there. That went on until one young girl managed to escape and lured him into the very room where all her hapless predecessors had died. Once they were both inside she shut the door. Thus, she sacrificed herself for all the innocent girls who would have become victims of this evil knight.”
But Marek Hanzlík would not let me leave without mentioning a completely different kind of story whose author also found inspiration here. The best parts of Good Soldier Švejk, a novel by writer Jaroslav Hašek, were written when he moved here after WWI. In case you have not heard about this most translated Czech literally work, it is considered one of the classical anti-war novels of the 20th century. Notably, Joseph Heller, the American author of another famous novel Catch -22, said he would not have written it if he had not read Good Soldier Švejk. Jaroslav Hašek spent the last years of his life here in Lipnice. He was famous not only for his writings, but also his Bohemian way of life and a peculiar, mischievous sense of humor. Marek Hanzlík explains:
“For example, he would pay a street organ player to play the same song over and over all day under the windows of the local priest. Which was fun for Hašek but not so much for the priest and his neighbors. The townspeople of Lipnice simply didn‘t have much understanding for his little pranks and practical jokes. Hašek’s actions were probably not meant to insult or do any real harm. But we have to bear in mind that Lipnice is a very small provincial town and its people were not ready for or interested in that kind of humor and they did not find it funny, so Hašek soon had to stop that behaviour.“
Be it as it may, Jaroslav Hašek’s house stands very close to the castle and remains one of the main reasons why people visit this charming place. It is open on weekends but groups can arrange a special visit if they call the local town-hall. Lipnice is easily accessible by road from the main highway connecting the capital Prague with the second biggest city of Brno. Since it is often used as a film set and may be closed to tourists, it is advisable to plan ahead and register your visit on the castle’s website at www.hrad-lipnice.cz