Just 50 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Czech Republic, Konopiště Castle sits high atop a hill, surrounded by a thick forest. Built as a Gothic fortification towards the end of the 13th century, it was a huge and sprawling rectangular edifice with plenty of towers, seven in all, for the most effective defense. Over the centuries, the castle passed through the hands of numerous owners and was the site of sieges, revolts, occupations and plundering. It’s appearance also changed through the centuries with a stone bridge replacing the drawbridge, the demolition of some of the towers and after 1725, the transformation of the castle into a Baroque style château. Frescoes were painted on the ceilings, marble fireplaces with carvings installed, gardens planted and statues scattered about the grounds. At the time of its purchase in 1887 by its most famous resident, the estate was vast, its densely wooded forests filled with abundant wildlife stretching almost as far as Prague.
And here’s where our story starts, with the purchase of Konopiště Castle by the Duke Frantisek Ferdinand d’Este. Better known as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was a man with an immense fortune inherited from the last reigning Duke of Modena (now part of Italy) and an eye for only the best. Employing the services of architect Josef Mocker between 1889 and 1894, he refurbished Konopiště Castle into a luxurious residence fit for a king or, in his case, fit for an emperor and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Among some of his innovations were the installation of electricity and modern plumbing, including a new-fangled flush toilet, along with one of the first electric elevators. The extensive grounds became an English-style park; more statues were brought in and placed about the terraces and rose gardens (a passion of the Duke’s) were planted and lovingly tended. And then he filled the castle with furnishings of museum quality: collections of the finest antique furniture, paintings, tapestries, crystal chandeliers, Meissen porcelain, and ivory carvings in addition to his hunting trophies and an armory – one of the best in the world – filled with antiquated weapons and medieval suits of armor.
Not that we weren’t blown away by the immense luxury and the fantastical display of the best that money could buy a century ago, but it was the hunting trophies that caught our attention. Because, competing with the priceless furnishings and countless artifacts, are an estimated 4,000 hunting trophies. And all those headless antlers arranged like patterned wallpaper, stuffed animals whose glass eyes followed our movements, birds of prey with wings outstretched and animal skins stretched out across walls and floors moved our tour into our favorite category of “This is plain weird and just a little creepy.” Now here was a side to the Archduke that piqued our interest!
History hasn’t been kind to Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Described as “not a very likable man,” he had a reputation for a hair-trigger temper. In fact, his rants and raves were so terrible that many questioned his very sanity. He was an obsessive collector and his passion for trophy hunting around the world or in his own well-stocked forests was extreme, even by the trophy-hunting elites’ standards of the time. Wikipedia says that, “In his diaries he kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer.” According to our guide, the Archduke kept twelve taxidermists in his employ full-time, ready to stuff at a moment’s notice so-to-speak, and his hunting collection of trophies ranks as one of Europe’s largest collections. And when he wasn’t hunting live animals, he amused himself by doing a little plinking on his indoor shooting range, a unique and elegant toy with moving targets.
However unpleasant and arrogant the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s reputation may have been, there is no denying that he loved his wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, who he met in 1894. Franz Ferdinand’s wish to marry his beloved Sophie was unfulfilled for several years because he was a member of the Imperial House of Hapsburg and she was neither a member of a reigning or formerly reigning European dynasty. Franz stubbornly refused to even consider marrying anyone else and the Archduke’s uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, finally gave his permission for the couple’s marriage in 1899 but not without some stipulations. Any descendants from the marriage would not have succession rights to the throne nor would Sophie share her husband’s rank, title or other privileges. In fact, whenever the couple was required to spend time with other members of the imperial family, Sophie’s inferior royal status forced her to stand apart from her husband, with the lesser mortals. The couple agreed to the humiliating conditions and were married in July of 1900.
No doubt, the Imperial family’s disapproval of their marriage and the snobbish treatment of Sophie led the couple to spend as much of their time away from the royal court as possible. Konopiště Castle, far away from Vienna and private, became their favorite residence. It was there that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, by all accounts, lived happily devoted to each other and their three children.
And so, Konopiště Castle is most famous, not for its own magnificent history and beautiful setting, but because it was the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Duchess Sophie. Their visit to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their subsequent assassination on June 28th, 1914, led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the Great War, World War I. By the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more. Maps were redrawn enlarging Italy and Romania and creating the new countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Republic of Austria and the newly reestablished State of Poland. However, the peace was tentative and resentments and violence flared again only a couple of decades later into an even more devastating war, World War II. And the rest, as they say, is history.
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash
Note: We were not allowed to take photos inside the castle but wanted to share an awesome video that we found online of a tour that Rick Steves made. Click here. It’s just a little over 2 minutes and will give you a glimpse of what makes this castle such a must-see if you find yourself in Prague.