For the first ten kilometres, I wondered why I’d embarked on this madness. My stomach heaved; twisting shoots of pain speared my legs and a film of sweat slid across my brow. I bit my tongue and pushed down on the pedals as I mounted the hill. Around me lay the vast, rolling expanse of the Bohemian countryside, coloured by polychrome grass: yellow and green, streaked with golds, purples, and reds the shade of clotted blood. Lining the horizon were dark woods, shaded by a high armada of clouds. I sucked in air with heavy wheezes of effort.
Yet once I’d crested the hill and could sail down the long, sloping road, a wave of bliss swept over me. I had borrowed the bicycle from the Czech castle where I’d been working for the summer and had made a number of weekend outings, exploring the seemingly infinite land of the southern Czech Republic. In my fantasies, I imagined setting out and cycling all the way across central Europe, through Poland and Ukraine, and not stopping until I reached Moscow – 2000 kilometres away. In a landlocked nation, every road seemed to lead somewhere important.
I was being employed by an old, aristocratic Austro-Hungarian family to help develop promotional possibilities with their moated castle, but it left a large amount of time to loiter around the country. Yet without a car to hand, and with the railways clearly reluctant to undertake any trip outside of Prague, I was left cycling across Bohemia.
It was a strange, peripheral existence, living in a small town where people spoke a language I didn’t recognise. The Baroness’s energetic young son who ran the castle day-to-day was an Anglophile, and indeed his upbringing – in Athens, London, and Prague – was a testament to the history of a wandering, nationless aristocracy. Austria-Hungary, overseen by the benevolent Emperor Franz Joseph, had chosen the wrong side in the First World War and consequently ceased to exist in 1918, its territories carved up to form a bewildering series of new countries, one of them being the nascent Czechoslovakia. Yet the newly emancipated Czechs and Slovaks had no wish for another monarchy and its attendant aristocracy, preferring instead a republic, which left many families with castles and chateaus but no official titles – only honorifics such as ‘Baron’ remained.
The remnants of the vanished empire of Austria-Hungary are now spread out across half a dozen countries, many of them a little unsure of what to do with a past they are reluctant to claim. The staff at the castle confided in me that the Baroness and her family didn’t speak Czech with a native accent. Still, the old divisions of an empire dissolved over a century ago linger, like an illness borne by the flies which hovered above the still green waters of the moat.
The air had been cool that summer in Bohemia. Often I’d awake to the patter of rain against the windows and walk beneath the trees, past peacocks and deer, through the castle park and into its antique courtyard. It was a good summer to be cycling.
“If only the whole journey cycling to Orlík Castle could be downhill,” I idly wished, resting briefly by the roadside. Still another twenty kilometres to go until I reached my destination, a castle overlooking the Vltava River. There were long stretches of empty road as I made my way towards it, my only company the occasional hare or squirrel darting along the banks of shrub. I had set off late and already the sun was high in the sky, flattening everything into a shadowless landscape. I passed through a succession of small villages – in one, a group of men sat around an old Land Rover with guns and hunting dogs by their sides, flat caps pulled low over their foreheads. The dogs barked at me, but I was already sailing down a steep, winding slope, the village disappearing behind.
Over a main road, past train tracks, through a forest, up a hill, down a hill, birds singing, gasping breaths, screaming legs, a fat red fox with long whiskers staring at me as I passed, and then, there, above the treeline, a glimpse of castellation, before I was plunging down, down, down to the rocky outcrop – the dazzling white walls of Orlík Castle.
Orlík Castle belongs to the Schwarzenbergs, restored to the family after the fall of the USSR in 1989. The Czech Republic, of all the former satellites in the Eastern Bloc, has had the largest programme of property restitution, partly out of economic necessity – it was impossible for the new democratic government to maintain the thousands of crumbling chateaus and castles in the early 1990s. The current head of the House of Schwarzenberg, Karel, was a close ally of Václav Havel, the pivotal figure in ending Communist rule who became president in 1991. Karel served as both chancellor and foreign minister and in 2013 narrowly lost the presidential election to Miloš Zeman. A century of republicanism and four decades of communism have not been enough to sweep away the vestiges of Austria-Hungary and its nobility. The old families are still here.
Karel Schwarzenberg has opened Orlík to the public and now it’s stalked by tourists speaking German, Slovak, Polish, and Russian. I rested on a bench outside the castle gates and watched families squabble over ice cream. Beyond, boats had come down from Prague and cut swathes of white spray across the Vltava River. My legs throbbed, overworked machines registering their complaints with the operator. I pulled a large water bottle out my satchel and took a long drink – it tasted warm and stale. I measured my gulps carefully; I needed to preserve it for the return journey.
The tour of the castle was in Czech, but I didn’t mind. I wandered around the edges of the crowd, looking at the thousands of stags’ heads hanging from the walls in-between rifles and ornately-worked swords. Each head had its shooter’s name attached, tracing friendships amongst the Austro-Hungarian elites: there was Schwarzenberg, of course, and the family employing me, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, too, the man whose murder changed Europe forever and irrevocably.
The Baroness, in her early 70s and sharp as a tack, had told me a story one evening about the Archduke while we had a drink on the castle’s loggia after work. Ferdinand used to come and stay to hunt deer at their castle, sitting on the loggia overlooking the park with rifle in hand. One day he shot a white deer, an act of grievous bad luck in Bohemia (and virtually all hunting cultures); shortly after, he was assassinated in Sarajevo. It is part of the collective culture of this land to believe that amidst these tranquil fields of central Europe, the fate of a continent was cast.
The Schwarzenbergs have been amongst the most successful in reclaiming their former land and properties; most families, however, do not aspire to such a height. Many have returned to their chateaus and live in them, or in the Baroness’ case, in a summer house in the park grounds, while opening the castle to tourists. Her parents had fled Czechoslovakia in the early 50s, going first to East Africa, then to a Mediterranean island, before finally settling in Greece to wait patiently for the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism. They were itinerant years, which spoke to their lack of ‘rootedness’; now they feel at home in their castle, but their relationship with the nascent Czech Republic (only twenty-six years old) is more ambiguous. The people who surround them in towns and villages are often the descendents of the Party cadres who expelled them from their homes seven decades before. The countries change, but the people remain the same.
After the tour of Orlík, I wandered down the steps which slid around the castle walls and towards the water. A dam had raised the water level significantly, so that it now lapped against the fortress’ edges, yet in the clear light the immense body of water seemed calm, even inviting. My body wanted to give out, rather than contemplate the exertions needed to return home; to fall into the cool river and be cocooned by it until I disappeared from view altogether.
A white sailing ship passed, its sails unfurled and pressed gently taut by the low breeze down by the lakeside. A barefooted man stood on the bough wearing sandy shorts, watching me beadily as he glided by. In the castle’s immense shade, I crouched on my haunches and threw a few pebbles back into the water, then wearily stood up and made my way back to the bicycle, chained to a tree at the top of the road.
The first time I went cycling in Bohemia I had become hopelessly lost threading my way through small country lanes. I had tried to ask directions from a couple of bored-looking children hanging around an empty village square, but they left me none the wiser. I had only reached home as the darkening blue of the sky began to envelope the silhouette of the castle in gloom. However, I had armed myself for my journey to Orlík with a map, and retracing my route back was not difficult – I had only to trace the falling sun on its journey through the western sky.
Up the hill, neck burning, tongue itching, legs roaring like waves breaking on rocks, and then the flat expanse of yellow Bohemian fields, low hedgerows marking my progress, the sweat sticking to my back and bag chafing my shoulder. But the pleasure of my whole body as I flew down a gently sloping road, wind in my ears, legs hardly having to move, my head clear, was immense and somehow gorgeous. Yet when I reached the inevitable vertical curve to the brow beyond, I slipped off the bicycle and pushed it by the roadside for a little while, until I mounted it again and kicked off, wobbling at first before gradually picking up speed and summoning the strength to crest the hill.
If I kept on west I would hit Germany, although many of the towns on the Czech side of the border spoke German anyhow and boasted bilingual signs. The spa town of Mariánské Lázně is perhaps better known by its German name of Marienbad, and idle shopkeepers there would enquire, ‘Sprechen Sie Deutsch?’ The cultural border lay far further into the Czech Republic than the line on any map. In a way, only a polyglot country like Austria-Hungary made any sense in central Europe, because it refused to cut hard divisions amongst ethnicities which were geographically interspersed. The nobility which had survived from that forgotten country were a living testament to that old history – their very presence repudiated the narrow-minded nationalisms which had infiltrated so much of the region.
Before I reached home, I had to plot a course through a forest high above a clammy lake, then along a series of switchback turns before finally coming onto the wide plateau above the town. In the distance, below the horizon, I could see the castle tower. I paused; I let my bicycle be cradled by the long grass and I drank my final dregs of water. Across the road was a small shrine, stone and whitewashed. On each side of it was a niche with the image of a saint, hand raised in benediction. It had a slate tile roof, to keep the hail and the rain off the holy images. It was ageless, neither new nor old, emerging out of the landscape.
I took a photo of it. I circled around it, almost warily. I didn’t want to touch it – that felt sacrilegious in some strange way. This small, humble structure exerted an enormous power whose origin I could not ascertain.
The air was fresh, the clouds high up above, the land huge and empty, and I was very small. There, by the roadside, I rested.
I thought of the armies that had traversed this land, the kings who had claimed ownership of it, the landlords who had ridden through it in horse and buggy, the peasants who had lit the candles in this shrine and their descendents who continued to do so. The borders containing these yellowed fields have changed with each century – who am I to believe they won’t do so again in my lifetime? But for now, they are at peace, and still people move through them. The actors change, but the roles remain the same. ∎
Words by Altair Brandon-Salmon.