Český Šternberk – Stronghold on the Sázava

A Gothic Gem 

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View of Český Šternberk castle from near the Sázava river.

Perched above the Sázava river, which runs through Central Bohemia, Český Šternberk castle is an imposing presence overlooking the surrounding market town with which it shares the name.

Built in the mid 13th century, the castle is considered to be one of the Czech Republic’s best preserved examples of early Gothic architecture. While the interiors were converted to more comfortable living quarters through the late 1600s, after the castle’s defensive purposes had diminished, and remodeled to reflect Baroque tastes; the exteriors remained in Gothic style.

Unlike many castles and chateaus that one can visit in the Czech lands, Český Šternberk is not a state run facility; it remains in the hands of the original owners, the Sternberg family. It is one of two historic properties still owned by the Sternbergs in the region; the other being Jemniště chateau, a short distance to the south-west.

The Sternbergs 

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The cylindrical tower which was added to the castle during reconstrctions in the early 16th century.

In the context of Czech nobility, the Sternbergs are a truly ancient line. As they are still a living family and actively use Český Šternberk, one can’t get a full picture of this castle without a look at the family that has made it what it is.

The Sternberg name came into use in the mid 1200s when Zdeslav of Divišov, the builder of the castle, changed his surname to Sternberg to reflect the eight point star featured in his family coat of arms.

Historic Sternberg ownership of the castle lasted from the mid 1200s to 1712, when the branch of the family which owned it died out. In this period, the family briefly lost possession of the castle through a seige in the late 1400s. The castle was returned to the family in a ruined state; by the early 16th century, they had rebuilt and improved the castle as well as expanded it.

The second era of Sternberg ownership began when the surviving branch of the family purchased it in 1841. It remained in their hands until 1949, when it was seized by the Communist government and nationalised.

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An example of the Baroque influenced interiors which stand in contrast to the Gothic exteriors.

It is in this period that a very important chapter of the castle’s life took place. The owner of the castle, Jiří Sternberg, agreed to work as a steward to the building. He carefully inventoried the castle and acted as a guide to visitors. His act of creating an inventory of the castle property would ensure that when the family reclaimed the castle after the fall of Socialism, any missing items could be reliable located and recovered by the family.

Jiří died in 1965 and the Sternberk family left the Czech lands in 1968; first to Germany and then to Austria. The family returned in 1992 and reclaimed their historic properties under a set of laws put in place to return historic homes to their rightful owners when posible.

Ownership of the castle is currently in the hands of Zdeněk Sternberg, Jiří’s son.

A Living Castle 

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One of a number of birds of prey that can be seen in the castle courtyard.

The continuing relationship between the Sternbergs and this castle give it a unique quality and feel that many other castles and chateaus lack; that of having continuity.

While there is much history in the walls of this place, it does not carry the feel of a place that has been restored and approximated. Rather, it feels much more maintained and intact; more a time capsule than a museum.

Another aspect of contemporary Sternberg influence is the presence of a display of  live birds of prey in the courtyard of the castle. The birds are from a nearby wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre; for a donation which goes to pay for the feeding and care of the birds, visitors can photograph them. The presence of this display at the castle has roots in Zdeněk Sternberg’s own interest in birds of prey prior to the family leaving in 1968.

Visiting the Castle 

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The view of the Sázava river and surroundings that rewards visitors to the castle.

Getting to Český Šternberk is not particularly difficult as the townsite is easily accessible by bus, car or train. There are also nature trails in the area that will take you to the castle if you’re the trekking type.

There are several pubs and restaurants in the town, so refreshment after a tour of the castle is close at hand.

Český Šternberk is open year round for visitors though the hours are variable depending on time of year. From October to March, for example, one can only visit by prior arrangement.

This link to the castle website will give you more information about open hours and so forth:

http://www.hradceskysternberk.cz/introduction.html

This article, while a bit dated in places, is an interesting account of a journalist’s visit to the castle. It’s particularly interesting for exerpts from an interview with Zdeněk Sternberg that give first hand insight into what growing up around the castle was like:

http://www.radio.cz/en/section/spotlight/the-castle-of-cesky-sternberk-persists-through-the-centuries

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