I’ve learned over the years that side trips can often mean the difference between a great trip and a trip that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve found myself reasoning to myself, “Well if I’m here I might as well…” If you’re already in a certain part of the world, making the hop, skip, and jump over to some other significant location doesn’t seem all that difficult. As paradoxical as it may seem, when you travel a fair bit, miles shrink. Compared to some of the day trips I’ve made, the twenty-kilometer train ride from Prague to Karlštejn, one of the most beautiful and famous castles in the Czech Republic, was nothing.
Karlštejn’s a piece of cake to reach from Prague. From the main train station (Hlavní nádraží) in Prague, you take the commuter train headed to Beroun. There are trains every half hour, so whatever time you show up to the train station, you won’t have to wait that long for a departure. The trip will run you 99 Czech koruna (just under 5 USD) each way and takes around forty minutes. Get off at the Karlštejn station, walk around twenty minutes, and voila! A gorgeous castle to gawp at.
Even by European standards, Karlštejn’s pretty old: it was founded in 1348 and completed in 1365 under the Holy Emperor-elect and King of Bohemia, Charles IV. Once upon a time, Karlštejn held the crown jewels of Bohemia, sacred relics, and your general run-of-the-mill imperial treasures. It’s got a long, esteemed history full of reconstructions and sieges. Regarding the latter, my favorite (Can one have a favorite siege…?) is an incident in 1422. (Shout-out to Mr. Rios in my high school AP European History class for imparting that knowledge.) Hussite attackers flung dead bodies and a few thousand cartfuls of dung over the walls in a smelly and effective example of old-school biological warfare. (And it worked, too.)
In addition to the main attraction of Karlštejn, there’s also some pretty spectacular hiking to be found in the surrounding forests. Unfortunately, I only found out about this after I’d been there, and I definitely would have loved to see a bit more of the area.
A secondary attraction near the castle is Svatý Jan Pod Skalou, which translates to “Saint John under the rock,” a pretty apt name for a monastery that’s at the base of a 100-meter cliff face. The monastery is about twelve kilometers from Karlštejn and can be reached by a marked hiking trail from the castle. Svatý Jan Pod Skalou consists of five natural caves, all of which have been converted for religious purposes.
Today, Karlštejn is one of the most famous examples of Gothic-Renaissance architecture in the Czech Republics and one the most popular tourist destinations after Prague. Unfortunately, the village below has definitely been affected by the huge influx of tourists. It’s full of expensive restaurants and souvenir shops bursting with Czech garnet (the authenticity of which should be taken with a gargantuan grain of salt), tacky T-shirts, Bohemian crystals, and wooden puppets. You’re better off just putting some blinders on when trekking the two kilometers from the station up to the castle.
The castle itself, thankfully, has none of the tasteless exploitation of the town below. Entry within the walls of Karlštejn is free, but if you want to gain access within the main building of the castle itself, you’ll have to fork over around 270 CZK (just over 13 USD) for a foreign guide. (If you speak Czech, it’ll be 100 CZK less for a native-language guide.)
It is definitely worth it the price. If memory serves correctly (no pictures are allowed inside, so I can’t verify this with my photos), some of the relics are still on display. One of the things that still sticks out in my memory was that our guide had to unlock the door of every room before we entered and then would immediately relock the door behind us. I’ve never seen that happen before or after Karlštejn. Additionally, only one group was in each room at a time. If we finished up with one room a bit early and there was a group ahead of us, we’d had to wait to move on. This wasn’t a drawback to Karlštejn by any means, but just a detail specific to the castle that stuck out to me.
It’s a stereotype prevalent in Gothic novels: an eerie, haunted castle, sitting atop a hill and nestled in the wild forest of Eastern Europe, backlit by a full moon on a dark night. Karlštejn fits that bill perfectly, and looking up at it, rising formidably above you, it’s easy to see why that image has remained an archetype through the ages.
As beautiful as Karlštejn’s interior is, I especially loved the views from the outer walls. We went in early November, so the surrounding hills were vibrant with leaves shifting into their autumn shades of cerise, fulvous, and orange. Their mirror reflections in the Berounka River only doubled the beauty.