Hrad Karlštejn [Karlstein Castle], an imposing Gothic fortress surrounded by wooded hills, stands in magnificent isolation on a cliff above the market town of the same name. It is one of the most visited historic sites in the country.
The castle was founded in 1348 by Karel IV (reign: 1346 – 1378), Bohemian King and Holy Roman Emperor. The castle was used to guard the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and the Crown Jewels of Bohemia, as well as the state archive, works of art and the emperor’s large collection of holy relics. The devout Catholic Emperor collected relics from all over the Empire.
After the outbreak of the Hussite Wars (1419 – 1434), series of wars fought between the followers of the Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus and the Catholic Crusaders, the Imperial Regalia were evacuated in 1420. Later, in the 16th century, the 14th-century Gothic castle was remodeled in the Renaissance style. The current look of the castle is due to the restoration work carried out in the 19th century by the architect Josef Mocker, who restored the building to its original appearance. It was then that the castle received its ridge roofs as a characteristic feature of medieval architecture.
The core of the castle consists of three parts, the Imperial Palace, Marian Tower and the Great Tower. In the Imperial Palace, visitors can see the State Rooms, the Emperor’s Bedchamber and the Treasury, which includes a copy of the St. Wenceslas Crown, the medieval crown of the Bohemian kings.
Marian Tower houses the Church of the Virgin Mary, which is decorated with 14th-century murals. Two murals in the church depict Karel IV as he receives relics from the French Dauphin: two thorns from the crown of Jesus and a piece from his cross. In another mural, the Emperor places the piece of the cross in a reliquary. The tiny Chapel of St Catherine, accessible through a narrow passage, was used by Karel IV as a place for meditation. The walls of the chapel are richly decorated with semi-precious stones set in plaster.
The central area of the Great Tower is the Chapel of the Holy Cross. In the safety of the chapel, behind four doors with nineteen locks, the keys of which were guarded by separate individuals, valuable documents of the state archive and the symbols of state power were kept. The walls of the chapel are decorated with a collection of 129 portraits of saints and monarchs – works by the Emperor’s court painter, Master Theodoric.
The surrounding hills, which have barely changed since the Emperor hunted there in the 14th century, offer great hikes with splendid views of the castle.
Know Before You Go
Admission is only possible with a guided tour – three main tours are available and photography is not allowed inside the castle.