The Emperor Wore a Hoodie
by Andrew Brokos | Published: Apr 26, '12
This is a continuation of my recent Czech Mates post, which you might want to read for context before beginning this one.
The idea of taking a regional train from Prague out to a small town and then finding our way on foot to a castle sounded intimidating, given that we collectively spoke barely a word of the local language. Emily seemed confident we could do it, though, and I’ve found that if I trust and follow her on things like this, I’m almost always glad that I did.
This was certainly one of those cases. The trip proved remarkably easy and well worth the effort. For one thing, Czech is such an obscure language – only about 2 million people worldwide speak it – that there isn’t really an expectation that visitors will know it. Not that we’ve had much difficulty in Germany, but it was in many ways even easier getting around Prague because English is so widely spoken and everything is so well-signed and -explained. So buying train tickets, determining the departure time and track, etc. presented no challenge.
Also, the town of Karlstejn turns out to exist largely for the sake of visitors. Though the castle itself was not visible from the trainstation, it came into view soon enough, its massive walls and towers looming over the street lined with postcard shops and restaurants with green Pilsner Urquell awnings. There was no question of not finding it.
The Emperor Wore a Hoodie
As it turned out, this was no ordinary castle. Charles IV ruled the Holy Roman Empire from Karlstejn! The inside was largely reconstructed to resemble its medieval origins, but there were some original artifacts to be seen as well, including dice and playing cards from hundreds of years ago.
Of most interest to the poker player in me, however, was the throne room where Charles received visitors. He sat on a raised chair flanked by two windows. During the day, the light from the windows would illuminate those seeking an audience while casting the emperor’s own face in shadow. This was to prevent his interlocutors from determining anything about what he was thinking or feeling by the expression on his face!
Lost and Found
Things really got adventurous when we left the castle. Our plan was to hike through a nature preserve to Srbsko, a nearby town that was the next stop on the same train line we’d taken out to Karlstejn. There we hoped to get dinner and then return to the city by train. Armed only with a topographical map downloaded to my phone and a list of departure times, we set out.
It wasn’t a remarkable forest in itself, but it felt very empowering and adventurous to be out in such a remote place in a foreign country. We found our way to an abandoned quarry before losing confidence that we’d taken the right path for our final destination. The very occasional signs in Czech were of no help. On the outskirts of the preserve were a few rustic houses, one of which, strangely enough, was flying an American flag.
Eventually it turned out we’d been on the right path all along. Marching through Srbsko, we found it largely empty, so we didn’t lingerfor dinner. We did, however, successfully catch the train back to Prague. All in all we felt quite proud of ourselves for navigating the train system, discovering such an amazing castle, finding our way in the wilderness, and making it back to the train before dark. We cut it a little close on that last point, but that only made it more exciting.
No doubt one could take a guided tour to Karlstejn, which it turns out is actually quite a significant landmark, but doing so would cost you more than just the money. The challenge of discovering it for ourselves, getting out of our comfort zone, and finding our own way was a big part of the experience and the reason why it was ultimately so rewarding.