High above the rooftops, the square and even the church spires towers Vimperk castle, a proud nobleman’s seat looking down on the crowded settlement of toil-worn townsmen below. It is not exactly a castle but also a chateau, or, more precisely, a picturesque and tasteful blend of the two, a result of human effort and the march of time spanning whole centuries in this corner of the Šumava region.
Some time in the second half of the 13th century, under the last members of the Přemysl dynasty, a castle was built on a prominent promontory, representing an outpost of colonisation in the vast expanse of the uninhabited primeval forest stretching for miles and miles to the south as far as the country’s frontier. It was probably founded by Purkart of Janovice, the burgrave of Zvíkov and a favourite of King Přemysl Otakar II, the “iron and gold” King. The Lords of Janovice used the castle as a centre for further expansion, creating a large domain by the mid-14th century that stretched as far as the border and, in the east, to the limits of the Prachatice estate, owned by the Vyšehrad Chapter in Prague. Their rights to the domain were acknowledged in a deed issued by King Charles IV in 1359. At the end of the 14th century, the Lords of Janovice left Vimperk. Among the new owners was Rotlev, a wealthy aristocrat from Prague, which indicates early investment in the Šumava region from the capital even before the Hussite period. Rotlev was succeeded by the Kaplířs of Sulevice, a strictly Catholic family, who were masters of Vimperk for a very important century during which they led the castle and the settlement below through the turmoil of the Hussite wars, and along with Jiří of Poděbrady fought the bishops of Passau, finally winning town-status for Vimperk in 1479. In the same year they enclosed the town within a system of fortifications, which connected it with the castle into a single fortified unit. At that time Vimperk was the home of their relative Václav Vlček of Čenov, a renowned warrior. At the very end of the 15th century the Kaplířs were succeeded by the Malovecs of Malovice and Chýnov, an extensive family of South Bohemia, originally from the area of Netolice. The following masters of Vimperk were in turn the two outstanding families sharing the rose in their coats of arms – the Lords of Hradec and the Rosenbergs. Under them the castle was extended and turned into a Renaissance chateau between 1530 and 1560. Their rule also marks the heyday of the town and of the Vimperk branch of the famous trade route, the Gold Trail, which flourished under the protection of the five-petal rose, matching in significance the older and better-known Prachatice branch. Both of the towns at the end of the separate branches were then under Rosenberg rule. This rise was unfortunately followed by the catastrophe of the Thirty Years’ War. Vimperk chateau, still brand new, was seized and plundered in 1619 by the army of the Estates, and consequently had to be restored by the Lords of Nové Hrady and Kolovraty, who had bought it from Petr Vok of Rosenberg in 1601. The reconstruction added a new wing to the chateau, while the present complex layout extending down the slope from the west to the east results from further reconstructions under the Eggenbergs and the Schwarzenbergs in the course of the 18th and the 19th centuries.
The layout of the original castle of the Lords of Janovice was an irregular oval determined by the outer defence wall. Its northern and eastern sections, which were the most vulnerable, were strengthened by one rectangular and two semi-circular towers with a wide moat in front of them. The safest western side had a rectangular donjon rising over a steep rock. It is now called Vlček tower, alluding to the above-mentioned warrior. Its ground floor has a four-section cross vault supported by a central column, while the first floor is topped by a barrel vault. The castle was complemented by a rectangular Gothic-style palace in the south-east. However, the exact original layout of the castle remains incompletely known, its picture beginning to emerge from archaeological research undertaken in the 1990s. Of the parts preserved to this day, only the Vlček tower is undoubtedly of the 13th-century origin, probably along with the outer defence wall and towers. Nevertheless, this is enough to put Vimperk castle into the context of royal castles with buildings concentrated along the perimeter (such as Zvíkov castle), which were constructed by the last members of the Přemysl dynasty in South Bohemia. It is therefore likely that Purkart of Janovice built Vimperk castle not only as his residence, but also as a symbol of the King’s interest in the area.
The original castle is now represented by what is called the Upper Castle (or Upper Chateau), around the second courtyard. It is entered through a gate bearing the date 1622, under a high tower. The courtyard of the Upper Castle is surrounded by buildings on three sides. The time of the major reconstruction of this part of the castle is indicated by Jáchym Novohradský of Kolovraty’s coat of arms, along with the date 1624, above the arcades. Further major reconstruction was undertaken under Duke Adam František of Schwarzenberg between 1728 and 1734. In the section facing the town, the long vaulted corridors on the first and the second floor were divided into a total of eight rooms, on the ground floor two vaulted carriage shelters were built, and the large hall next to the administrator’s residence, which was decorated with wall paintings in 1730, was also split into rooms. Josef Orient, the master painter who decorated the rooms, was paid 290 guldens and 30 kreutzers in 1741.
The Kolvrat section in the western side of the Upper Castle courtyard connects to the older northern wing through St. Joseph’s chapel, which includes oratories and a sacristy on both sides of the presbytery, as well as large wooden gallery. The altars and the pulpit are rough wooden structures in the pseudo-Romanesque style. On a 1731-plinth on St. Anne’s altar rests a wooden statuette of St. John of Nepomuk, with a Schwarzenberg-Lobkowitz alliance coat of arms. The original tower of the old northern wing includes a small ancient chapel with a cross vault.
The present shape of the Upper Castle results from the great fire of 1857, in which it was almost completely burnt down, having been struck by lightning on 20 July. The lightning first set fire to the roof, from where the blaze spread, devouring three storeys of the chateau, the entrance tower, the chapel, the theatre, and the Vlček tower. In vain did hundreds of Vimperk’s inhabitants struggle to get the fire under control; the last flames were not put out until 27 July. All of the structures above the ground were affected, with only the cellars left intact. The Schwarzenbergs restored the Upper Castle in the 2nd half of the 19th century, putting a clock on the entrance wall over the gate.
The original extensive outer section of the castle, which was to become the Lower Chateau, once contained a brewery run by the lords of the estate. In the 19th century it was converted into a residential and office block for the servants and administrators. This extended sloping section of the chateau changes into a Renaissance wing with two-storey arcades, running down the slope towards the town. The impressive setting of the terraces below the arcades has recently seen a number of social events. In September 2000 it hosted a celebration to mark the end of a pack-animal caravan march, the first in three hundred years to go along the whole route of the Vimperk branch of the Gold Trail, from the point where it separates from the Prachatice branch at Waldkirchen to its end under Vimperk castle.
The Upper Castle currently houses showrooms and depositories of the local museum run by the Šumava National Park Headquarters. Since the 1990s restoration and reconstruction work has been in progress. However, owing to the extent and variety of the castle complex, the results are still rather inconspicuous. The castle is in desperate need of a major reconstruction, which would once again bring it to life by making it a permanent venue for social and cultural activities. In this way, Vimperk might regain its historical unity, with the castle rising from ruin just as the town below already has.