Question: Who are Cesky Krumlov Castle’s most famous residents and what part of the palace do they live in?
Answer: Vok, Katerina, Hubert, and Marie Terezie—four bears who live in the moat.
When the Rosenberg family, of the mighty Bohemian Vítkovci clan, built Český Krumlov Castle in 1240, it was meant to be a display of their power and wealth. At first, the castle was decorated with a coat of arms featuring a five-petaled rose. As centuries passed, the Rosenbergs created (pretty much out of thin air) a mythology that their roots could be traced back to the powerful Orsini family of ancient Rome. They added two ursine figures to the family crest (Orsa being the Italian word for “bear”), hoping to cement this notion in the minds of the populace.
Perhaps thinking that wasn’t enough, actual bears were introduced to the castle in the late 16th century. At first, they were restrained indoors. Official record of the bears living in the moat dates to 1707, with a quartet of bears roaming the depression for most of that century. In 1857, after a period with no bears, a formal position of bear-keeper was established and new bears were introduced.
Sometimes the bears would reproduce and sometimes they would not. As they died off, the bear-keeper was tasked with acquiring new bruins, often from the private holdings of aristocrats (for whom, apparently, large animal collection was a common pastime). For the last century, it has been a tradition to always have four, in honor of the first set to live in the moat. The oldest bears alive, Vok and Katerina, had two cubs, named Daxi and Hubert by Czech citizens in a popular vote. When Daxi died young, Marie Terezie was introduced so that Hubert would still have a companion his age.
The tradition is not without controversy. Animal activists decry the forced captivity as causing suffering and aggression, pointing to an incident in which overzealous tourists who entered the enclosure were mauled. Castle authorities have responded by trying to increase the similarity of the moat to the landscape of the mountain ranges where the bear species once lived and making sure that the moat remains inaccessible.
There is one exception: on Christmas Eve, children are allowed to bring apples, honey, and other treats into the enclosure, while the bears are safely restrained. After the gift-givers leave the space, the bears are released to feast on their goodies under the eyes of a happy crowd. Today, the Rosenbergs have been totally eclipsed by the creatures they chose to represent themselves.
10 Fascinating Facts About Bears in Czech Life
- Bears were the largest predator in the former Bohemia (the territory in which the Czech Republic now sits) for centuries, but bear hunting became a sport in the 16th century, which decreased the population dramatically.
- In the 19th century, hunting bears was no longer considered poaching; a law was passed encouraging the shooting of all wild animals in the kingdom.
- The effect was immediate: A bear shot in 1856 in the Sumava mountains was considered to be the last native bear.
- Nonetheless, the bear plays an important role in Czech culture. Czechs use their words for bear (medvěd) and growl (bručoun) to describe anyone grumpy or complaining.
- Because the Czechs consider bears awkward and clumsy (despite their actual speed), Czech people also use medvěd as an adjective to describe someone who is klutzy.
- If you have big hands with meaty fingers, you may be teased as “má pracky jako medvěd”–someone who has bear paws.
- Doing someone more harm than good is known as medvědí služba (“bear service”), after a fairy tale in which a bear is hired to swat flies away from a sleeping man, but ends up crushing the man’s head in the process.
- Bears are beginning to return to real life, instead of mere idiom; a pair of bears reportedly migrated from Slovakia into the Czech Republic in 2006 and settled down.
- As of 2019, researchers had identified five bears that have taken up permanent residence in the Beskydy Mountains—the first time in 150 years that there were more Czech bears in the wild than in the moat at Cesky Krumlov.
- The only bears threatened now are two-legged; the mayor of Prague introduced and passed legislation banning street performers who wear inflated bear costumes for tourist photos, calling them “a stupid attraction that only pollutes the public space.”
Visit Cesky Krumlov and see its quartet of bears during your Jewels of Bohemia: Czech Republic, Slovakia & Hungary adventure.