Regal revellers

Bohemian fest

Regal revellers

lndulge in the merry medieval fest of ‘vinobrani’ in central Bohemia to get an insight into Czech culture and tradition, writes tanushree Podder.

Pageantry is fun! Add to that some alcohol and high spirits — you have a great blend. It is with that belief we drove into Karlštejn for a medieval fest, known as vinobrani by the locals, and fine wine. Showcasing Czech culture and traditions, these fairs are a riot of colours and flavours. Associated with wine and food fests, they provide a taste of the best of Czech wine and cuisine, apart from the local culture.

All roads led to Karlštejn that morning. Everyone was heading to the tiny town for a taste of the finest Czech wines while enjoying the pageantry of the traditional wine harvest. The crowd was swelling as we drove into Karlštejn. Men, women and children — many of them dressed in costumes of the yore — were in high spirits even before they had tasted the fruits of the harvest. With more than 20,000 visitors, finding a spot to park the car proved to be a task.

 That done, we embarked on a steep hike to the Karlštejn Castle, which loomed up like a giant palace in the midst of a pristine forest. Poised on a precipitous knoll, the castle looks down on the quaint town. There couldn’t have been a better setting for the medieval festival.

A stop for shoppers 

Lined on both sides of the cobbled street, which wound steeply up an incline, were stalls selling everything from tacky souvenirs to tantalising steaks and robust wines. It was celebration time for the Czechs. They wined and dined, danced and pranced on the street as they waited for the festivity to begin. 

The place was pulsating with cumulative energy. Huffing and puffing up the street, we halted several times to taste the famous Moravian wine. What took my fancy was the delicious Burcak (pronounced boorchaak) — the partially fermented ‘Young Wine’. This particular wine is available only for a few weeks around the harvest time. 

I went a bit berserk. Tossing my reticence away, I downed a couple of shots of the cloudy, mustard-coloured liquid before Georgina, our guide, warned me — “Don’t be fooled by the fruity taste, it is quite high in alcohol.” It tasted like a delectable fruit juice with a slight tinge of acidity.

Since there was another hour before the pageantry began, we decided to gorge on some local Czech speciality at the village below the castle. We ordered knedlíky (steamed dumplings) with traditional roast pork, another speciality of the region. The sauerkraut that came with it was simply delicious. 

Even before we had finished our feast, the sound of distant music had us running to the street to watch the procession.  There were couples dressed as courtiers, fiddlers and other musicians playing folk tunes on their medieval instruments, fire-eaters, court jesters, serpent charmers, belly dancers and court magicians. Attired in Gothic costumes, the 250 participants waved a magic wand, transporting the street into its medieval past. 

In the midst of the pageant were the actors dressed as King of Bohemia — Charles IV— and his young wife Elizabeth of Pomerania. Clad in a floor-sweeping, resplendent velvet gown, hair caught in meshed gold, she threw us a flying kiss, while he waved majestically at the cheering crowd.

It was Charles IV who constructed the lofty Karlštejn Castle as a place to hide the royal treasures, which included his priceless collection of relics and coronation jewels. The castle proved to be an impregnable one because of its strategic location. Breaking into this imposing five-floored palace proved a daunting task for the invaders during the infamous Hussite wars.

A close look at royalty

Trailing the pageantry, we trudged towards the imposing castle. In the Castle Courtyard, King Charles IV announced the opening of the Wine Harvest Festival, and the ceremonies began. Feasting and drinking began in all earnestness as the crowd greeted the announcement with enthusiasm. 

I, however, had to tour the castle to sample its treasures. Hidden inside the rock-solid, thick wall is the gilded Chapel of the Holy Cross with a collection of 130 priceless panels dating back to the 14th century by Master Theodoric. That he was one of the greatest painters of Bohemia is clearly evident from the stunning work on the walls. The gold-plated walls and ceilings are studded with thousands of pieces of semiprecious stones. The ceiling was meant to replicate the illusion of a starry sky, the guide informed. A tad dazzled, my eyes took in the replica of St Wenceslas’s crown. 

Walking past the ancient murals on the walls of the staircase, I knew why Karlštejn is one of the most-visited castles in Czech Republic. Whether it was the wine at work or the ambience, I don’t know, but I almost felt like a damsel from the 14th century and began the steep descent to the courtyard once again.

The boisterous and vibrant crowd got tipsier by the minute. Then there were dozens of photo ops as we posed with the costumed men and women, even an executioner and a bard.
 Weaving our way through the clapping and dancing locals, we began trotting down the cobbled street towards the car park. We halted many times to watch the comic skits and the medieval court-dances and to taste the food in the stalls. 

However, I couldn’t resist quaffing one last tot of the delicious ‘Young Wine’ before starting the drive back to Prague.

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