Anyone visiting the area of southwest Bohemia throughout May to October shouldn’t miss a tour of Švihov Castle, one of the country’s most significant water castles found not far from Plzeň. Founded in the late 16th century, the castle featured the best defence system in its day – a combination of high fortifications and moats that put off the most obstinate of would-be attackers. Today the castle offers two tours, which include a look into its inner courtyard, a private chapel and the armoury.
The end of April means two things in many parts of the Czech Republic: one, Witches’ Night on the 30th – sweeping away any remaining vestiges of winter and two, the resumption of regular daily tours at many of the country’s castles and chateaux. Švihov Castle, between Plzeň and Klatovy is no exception, a splendid example of gothic and Renaissance architecture which still retains most of its original fortifications and surrounding moat. From first sight, the castle is impressive; David Růžička, a representative from Plzeň’s branch of the National Heritage Institute, agrees.
“Part of the defence system survived to this day, so the castle is surrounded by a water channel and original moats, some of which are without water or with, such as near the entrance tower. The system was quite brilliant, allowing inhabitants to flood the surrounding moats during attacks by their enemies.”
Those defences repeatedly persuaded the Swedes to leave Švihov Castle untouched during the Thirty Years’ War, although the surroundings and town were plundered and burned. “Conquering” Švihov today is far easier: all it takes is 70 crowns. Marie Machová is a guide who has kindly agreed to show us around.
“The first tour is the basic tour where you can see rooms which were used by nobility, by the Ryzmberks, and the second tour is more about life in the castle, the black kitchen and so on. The first tour is more about history, about development of the site, about the architecture.”
You have a huge set of keys there... ?
“Yes, there’s about 20 keys but the most important one is the biggest!”
We are just getting ready to go in now...
“Here we are, and on your right you can see a sign showing everything that is forbidden inside.”
The usual! No smoking... well I promise you we won’t smoke anything inside! At this point I should also mention that I am not here alone today but am with my wife and little boy, who is almost two. Hey, are you ready to go into the castle?
Inside, the first thing that you notice is that each of the rooms is freezing; the warm spring day that is outside is quickly forgotten, so - as often is the case when visiting old castles – throw a sweater over your shoulders, so you can concentrate on the interiors and not on the cold.
“This is the entrance hall and there you can see a relief of Půta Švihovský welcoming new visitors. It’s the only depiction of the founder anywhere inside.”
According to legend, Půta Švihovský... well, let’s just say he wasn’t the nicest of noblemen... The story goes that he set fire to a barn where he had invited masons and carpenters who had built Švihov, trapping them inside. For that, legend has it, the Devil later seized him, dragging him to Hell. There is even a room in the castle where that was supposed to have taken place – but that is luckily off limits. Instead, we head for the bedroom that was used by the Lady of the Castle. Marie Machová leads the way:
“This is one of the coldest rooms – the bedroom that was once used by the Lady of the Castle.”
I see a small but richly-made bed and two bear rugs...
“The rugs are just decorations.”
What about the bed: is that an original piece?
“It dates back to the 17th century but it isn’t actually from Švihov because most of the furniture here was destroyed in the 19th century. What’s interesting is that it is only 180 centimetres long.”
I’ve heard about that the nobility apparently slept half propped-up when sleeping. Otherwise, I have no idea how anyone would fit on that bed!
From there we move to the private chapel, of all the rooms at Švihov Castle, one of the most impressive.
“This is the chapel. Inside there are four original statues and a wall painting on the left.”
The painting shows a knight attacking a griffon or dragon or something like that.
“It’s a depiction of St George and the dragon. In the background you can see an artists’ rendition of Švihov Castle.”
Not only that: there are dramatic Alp-like mountains shown in the distance which of course don’t exist here at all.”
Looking out from a window from another part of Švihov, in fact what we see are not mountains, but a serene, rolling countryside, which would be completely undisturbed expect for the single highway in the distance. Below the castle window, from which artillery once fired, you can see the ramparts. From there, we head to still other rooms including a magnificent banquet hall and a large former armoury - complete with original and newer weapons. There, you’ll also find an original 16th century paved floor – with one tile including the original paw imprint of a small animal, which my son enjoyed.
Švihov Castle is worth visiting not only for the fascinating interiors but also for events held on the grounds. Since this is April 30, that means that preparations are underway for a special evening, so-called Witches’ Night. David Růžička, the National Heritage Institute representative who we spoke to at the beginning, explains it is just one more reason to visit this famous castle.
“There are always performances here of witches dancing around the fire and sometimes the Devil himself appears. It is something a lot of people enjoy every year.”
Photo: Martina Schneibergová
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