King Charles and his queen Elizabeth of Pomerania walk past in their regal velvet and gold costumes. Knights in armour on horses decorated with vivid coat of arms follow the royal couple. It's a medieval fashion show — up next are some tall jugglers and stilt walkers who play to the gallery and twirl around till everyone gets a good camera shot... belly dancers sway to peppy polka music, snake charmers, fakirs, this is an eclectic procession. There is a man in a medieval costume with a large basket of green grapes — he offers me some as I aim the camera at him. This 250-member procession has people of all ages, even toddlers and babies, and is truly a journey back in time and a celebration of history and wine. There are jousting competitions and court magicians who entertain the crowd with their tricks. It takes you to the days of the Czech King Charles IV, a multi-lingual king with four wives, who is credited with the introduction of viticulture in this country.
Karlstejn Castle was built in 1348 by Charles IV to safeguard the royal treasures, especially the holy relics and the crown jewels as well as important court documents, behind four doors and nineteen locks. The castle went through several stages of reconstruction and changes in style between Gothic and Renaissance. Perched on a steep hill overlooking a village and the Berounka River, this powerfully evocative cluster of turrets, high walls and looming towers has a picturesque fairy-tale setting. The castle and the village below is the venue of a Vinobrany or Wine Festival, an autumn celebration of Burcak or ‘young wine'.
This Moravian wine has a short shelf-life and is generally homemade. In early autumn, the wine is straight from this year's harvest, which tastes very smooth and sweet like fruit juice and continues to ferment in the stomach. It is bubbly and our guide tells us that sometimes it can cause explosions in the bottle due to the fermentation. Cloudy young wine in huge bottles and large white drums is guzzled by thousands at the Festival and we are warned that this wine can get a little heady! There is a smorgasbord of traditional Czech food to wash down the young wine with. My favourite is the Trdelnik-dough wrapped around hot rollers with sugar, vanilla and almonds. There are huge chunks of roast pork, dough with cheese and tomato, fried cheese as well as mounds of smoked cheese. If you want medieval costumes, coat of arms or coloured wigs, this is the place to pick them up.
We trek up the steep hillside to the castle. In the castle's courtyard, there is some lively medieval music, with traditional bagpipes and an appreciative audience. We take a private tour of the castle interiors to take a break from the wine and medieval atmosphere that we are steeped in. The young guide has a huge set of Gothic looking keys and a no-nonsense manner. “No photography inside the castle”, she says, marching us into the guard's room. This was where the guards occupied themselves with board games and there is a medieval toilet based on the ‘free fall' principle! What makes the tour special is the Church of Our Lady, which has an original medieval apocalypse scene violently splayed on its walls. Though some has been destroyed in various sieges, there are nine headed dragons and ghouls, all creating a medieval horror movie.
The Czech Republic's Sistine Chapel is the Chapel of the Holy Cross with its famous panel paintings, by Master Theodoric. This underwent a laborious 19-year restoration and was re-opened recently. Today, not more than 12 visitors are allowed at a time to preserve the unique treasures here. We gazed in awe at the collection of 129 ornate paintings, which depict saints, popes, bishops, holy rulers and religious teachers. Semi-precious stones set in gilded plaster, a gilded, vaulted ceiling studded with Venetian glass to create the illusion of a star-spangled night sky, this is an atmospheric place to be in.
The only people allowed here for many years were the king himself and the archbishops. In the alcove behind the altar is a niche, where the crown jewels were once kept. The walls of the castle are thick and keep the insides as cold as a refrigerator — we see remnants of the old walls, decorations, cannon balls and a spiral staircase which used to lead from Charles IV's bedroom to the queen's bedroom. Our guide says that it only opened on the king's side; if the queen wanted to enter, she had to knock!
Back in the village, the Festival is still lively and raucous — some people are learning the moves of a period dance, the king and queen relax amongst their subjects and the sale of Burcak continues unabated. It's been a journey through the pages of a history book coupled with great wine and food. It's on days like this that you fall under the spell of a country…
Published in the Hindu Business Line , 2011