In the easternmost part of the Czech Republic is the ancient kingdom of Moravia, rich in castles, châteaux and culture.
The dark forest felt familiar enough, alternating raggedy oaks and silver beech trees in the dense array found throughout Central Europe. Along the trail, the ubiquitous woodland plants of the Old World — nettles, burdock, fennel and sorrel — grew in their standard summertime abundance.
But when we rounded a corner into a meadow, we suddenly seemed to have entered another country, if not another era. Above us soared a stone triumphal arch, perhaps 100 feet tall, topped with life-size nudes. Four immense decorative columns faced us, with ornate bas-relief plasterwork and a mysterious inscription reading “Has tibi, blanda soror Phoebi, sacravimus aedes. Intactus semper crescat tibi lucus honori.” It looked like an ancient Roman monument, but of far more recent vintage and located about 700 miles too far north.
So where were we, exactly? In the easternmost part of the Czech Republic, at the southern edge of the 8,600-square-mile region known as Moravia.
Despite the praise it earned in 19th-century travelogues, the ancient kingdom of Moravia is relatively unknown today, upstaged by the country’s western half of Bohemia, home to the capital of Prague. Wedged between Austria, Poland and Slovakia, Moravia lies in a pronounced travel shadow.
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Even after living for more than a decade in the Czech Republic, I knew relatively little about the region. I was aware that it was a land of traditions. Driving through Moravia a few years ago, I’d snapped a photo of a girl in a beautiful “kroj,” or folk costume — a fluffy white blouse and an ornately embroidered, bright red skirt. The local dialect, too, was something I knew to be regarded by many in Bohemia as a more correct version of the Czech language, with crisper consonants, shorter vowels and numerous archaisms.
But what most attracted me was the architectural landscape of South Moravia — its surprising profusion of castles and châteaus, built between the 12th and 19th centuries, many of them designated by UNESCO as sites of cultural significance. With my wife and two children, I wanted to wander through this storied countryside where the Liechtenstein noble family had made the landscape lousy with reproductions of arches, colonnades and other structures.
We also wanted to explore the twin Baroque towns of Valtice and Lednice, which were built around thousand-year-old castles. To the northeast, we would visit Kromeriz, with its warrens of cobblestone lanes, where a local prince-bishop had assembled a collection of works by the greatest painters of his day in his own custom-built castle.
In short, I wanted to get a sense of Moravia through its architecture, and along the way, imagine how it might feel to live somewhere grand. If the role of a house is to allow one to dream in peace, as the philosopher Gaston Bachelard once put it, visiting the lavish buildings of South Moravia seemed perfect for a bit of daydreaming about a more beautiful way to live.
My first stop was the ancestral seat of the aristocratic Dietrichstein family in the tiny hilltop town of Mikulov, known to German speakers as Nikolsburg. Like many of the German-speaking families in Czechoslovakia, the Dietrichsteins and the Liechtensteins, who had lived in the region for centuries, were expelled from the Czech lands after World War II. Their property was confiscated by the state, whichremains the owner of much of it today.
As we came into Mikulov, we passed the high chalky outcroppings known as the Palava Hills, whose white cliff faces reflected the fading sunlight toward the town’s 300-year-old castle. Down the slopes, grapevines radiated outward like the spines of a saintly nimbus. It reminded me of a quote I’d seen from the Czech poet Jan Skacel, that Mikulov is “a piece of Italy moved to Moravia by God’s hand.” And like villages I’d seen in northern Italy, it was remarkably quiet in the late afternoon, the silence interrupted only by distant strains of music, which I recognized as “dechovka,” or Czech polka music. Village streets threaded around the hillside, eternally watched over by the superjacent castle.
After unpacking in our hotel room — a renovated stone building with low, Gothic-style arches on the ground floor and beautiful exposed beams in our small suite — we set out to find something to eat. Just off the square, we came across a small cafe inside a shaded courtyard. Above, neighbors gossiped beneath the arches of an ivy-covered loggia. Taking seats on a table under a linden tree, we ordered crepes, made with nutty buckwheat flour, as well as the slightly gooier local equivalent, called palacinky, cooked from plain wheat flour. My crepe, with two kinds of cheese, egg, bacon and spinach, was better than almost anything I’d ever had in the hinterlands of the Czech Republic, though it was surpassed by the cafe’s table wine: a flinty veltlinske zelene, produced from local grapes and far better than one could reasonably expect for less than $1 per glass.
Satiated, we finished the day with a walk up the hill into the castle gardens. At nearly dusk in midsummer, the light took on the enchanted mood of a Shakespeare play. As we walked through an overgrown corner of the garden on the way back to our hotel, I half-expected Titania to step out from behind the huge wrought-iron gate, or Robin Goodfellow to dance among the shadowy sculptures along the far wall.
The next day, I took a Czech-language castle tour and learned that the Dietrichsteins had been avid social climbers, using their enormous home to cement their status among the high society of the day and to reinforce their rule over their vassals, famously displaying in their armory the great sword used for beheadings as a sign of the family’s power. A painting of the wedding — presided over by Emperor Maximilian — that had helped ensure their ascent into nobility in 1515, served to remind guests of their significance. Dozens of life-size portraits hanging on walls supposedly 9 feet thick testified to the family’s importance. Outside, a broad balcony overlooked two facing hills, with the ocher rooftops of the town’s much smaller peasant houses and a few church spires filling the space between them.
The next morning we drove 30 minutes to the towns of Valtice and Lednice, known as Feldsberg and Eisgrub in German and once the principal stomping grounds of the Liechtenstein family. The modern town of Valtice combined the rough feel of a farm village with a manic bicycling culture — rusty Zetor tractors rumbled down narrow roads, and tricked-out mountain bikes spun down cycling trails.
Although it had once been a noble home, the sprawling Valtice Castle, which dates at least to the 12th century, now houses the Czech Republic’s National Wine Center, including tasting rooms dedicated to the country’s best wine. Though the main castle, a set of buildings in an immense U-shape, is filled with ballrooms, lavishly decorated private chapels, gilded chairs and elaborate frescoes, I wanted to focus on what a clerk in the town’s information center told me: that Valtice is the country’s capital of wine.
While “Czech Republic wine” might sound as appetizing as prison cuisine to some, I knew that a number of Moravian winemakers had recently earned awards for their steely, dry whites. As I walked up the huge stone staircase and crossed over the moat, I remembered that a New Zealand winemaker had once told me that South Moravia could also produce good pinot noir and other reds.
“Our red wines are usually quite thin, light and fruity,” a young woman at the castle’s ground-floor wine shop said in English. “But they do have character.”
While we tasted our samples, groups of Czech visitors wandered in and out, many in cycling outfits; in the late summer heat they seemed deeply appreciative of the high-ceilinged room and its cool, thick stone walls.
Tasting Moravino, Valtice’s late-harvest 2009 frankovka, I picked up on the “thin” part right away. But after sampling the same winery’s selected-grape 2008 rulandske modre, the local name for pinot noir, which mixed sweet cherry and red currant notes, I could agree with the “character” assessment, too.
Leaving the tasting rooms behind, my wife, Nina, and I put Jonas and Mary into their strollers and followed a dirt trail over fields and through forests, eventually coming to the meadow where we found the Rendezvous, also known as the Temple of Diana. This supposedly “ancient” piece of architectural whimsy was created around 1810 by Johann I Joseph, prince of Liechtenstein, as a folly, a decorative, extravagant creation, for the purpose of entertaining his friends and hosting parties. A cheat sheet provided me with a translation of the Latin inscription that had seemed so strange to me when I first entered the meadow: “We have dedicated this house to you, oh shining sister of Phoebus, and as an honor to you may the undisturbed forest always grow.”
This was only one of many strange and beautiful follies and re-creations that litter the countryside.
( Now on the last leg of our trip, we drove north to Moravia’s main city of Brno, about a half-hour away, and continued for another hour to the town of Kromeriz. Trapped in something like rush hour as we approached, it was busier than we expected, with throngs of pedestrians trying to fit into the narrow streets of the old town. Instead of a quiet Saturday afternoon surrounded by stately Gothic and Baroque buildings, we discovered that a classic car show had filled the square in front of our hotel with vintage cars, many of which were from the former Eastern bloc. Several of the attendees were even dressed in period clothing, including the owners of a late-’60s Tatra 603.
The main attraction of Kromeriz, however, is a collection of a different kind: the area’s 17th-century bishop, Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, had assembled an entire museum’s worth of great oil paintings in his own palace.
I climbed the massive stone staircase to the château’s third floor, passing statues of allegorical figures nestled in alcoves. In the room dedicated to the big-headed portraits of the Gothic era, the standouts were famous works like Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “The Beheading of John the Baptist” and ghostly, nearly life-size diptych portraits of St. Catherine and St. Barbara. But beyond the well-known names — like Titian, whose “Flaying of Marsyas” has pride of place in the main viewing room — I found that many of the most interesting paintings were from lesser-known artists. Jan van Kessel’s “Still Life With Lemon,” for instance, practically came alive in the corner of the room dedicated to Dutch and Flemish artists, revealing hidden caterpillars and other insect life that hardly seemed to be still at all.
But most impressive was the building itself, which dominated the landscape. The park outside — effectively the former bishop’s backyard — contained rivers and bridges, aviaries and sculptured hedges. I thought about how lonely it would feel to live alone in such a vast space, and how deafeningly silent it would be for just a single resident. After an hour or so, I caught up with Nina and the children outside. As the evening fell, we stood on the football field-size main square of Kromeriz. The crowds and the classic car show had disappeared. Around us, arches hid long, empty galleries. From the distance, we admired the prince-bishop’s castle, while Jonas ran circles around the central fountain. Fading sunlight glimmered in gold bursts on the windows of the castle facade; above, a copper-green cupola soared high above the town.
Such a magnificent sight, I realized, would be lost on someone inside the castle itself, while his own panorama would be that of the much smaller houses of much poorer people. And while we would probably never own a castle, and might never know what it means to sleep in a palace, or to possess a collection of priceless artworks, that seemed like a fair trade for those of us with simpler lives.