Kroměříž, Czech Republic: Formal Gardens Go Wild
Formal gardens the world over are one of man's greatest attempts to combine the majesty of nature with the authority of man, turning gardeners into gods of their own little domain. The gardens of Kroměříž, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are a stunning example of how man can mesh the ordered precision of a baroque garden and the wild beauty of un-landscaped green.
Hidden away in Moravia, the quieter, eastern part of the Czech Republic, Kroměříž offers not just two separate gardens and parklands, but a selection of historic buildings, the impressive Archbishop's Chateau, and a pleasant square.
The Chateau Gardens (Podzámecká zahrada)
Originally, the gardens provided fruits and vegetables for the chateau, but now you won't find much in the way of orchards or beanpoles. Instead, these sixty-four hectares of grounds, an area bigger than the whole historic old town, are now dedicated solely to recreation.
Near the chateau you'll see a few formal gardens, including an intricate shrub design so vast it is best viewed from the balcony at one side of the chateau. Hang around quietly at the various fountains, and in summer you might hear a frog's disturbingly loud ribbit (or “kvak kvak,” for Czech-speaking frogs).
Kids — and kids at heart — will enjoy the enclosures with various deer, goats, ponies, exotic birds, and even a baboon. In the big enclosure, some of these hoofed creatures come right up to the fence, allowing you to photograph them up close or even touch them. Fuzzy pet-shop-type rabbits wander free on the grounds, along with ducks and peacocks, and you can watch fish feeding in the ponds.
Once out of the formal area, the grounds give way to a wilderness of towering trees, fields of high grasses, lawns sprinkled with pagodas, and footpaths crossing streams on decorated bridges.
The only flowers you'll find here are wild. Benches and arbors make a nice place for a bit of poetry-writing or a quiet moment with a companion.
Musicians often perform at the cafe on the grounds, where you can idle away an afternoon on the terrace at the edge of a tree-lined pond. During summer, there is also a series of classical music concerts in the chateau and park.
The pace is slow. Local families have picnics or play sports on the vast lawns, and retired couples take long strolls on the forking paths. It remains the kind of place where "mowing" the grass might involve an old man and a scythe.
The Archbishop's Chateau (Arcibiskupský zámek)
Between the 12th and 19th centuries, Kroměříž played host to the Archbishops of Olomouc, many of whom were more political than religious, and a corresponding amount of scheming and intrique took place here, some of which is documented in the various tours on offer.
The entrance fees, rather steep for the Czech Republic, allow you into different rooms and galleries with valuable art and rococo trimmings.
You can explore an old library and grand halls used for filming movies such as Amadeus. The tower gives a nice view of the square. If time or money are limited, however, consider spending your visit in the gardens, which is why most people come to Kroměříž.
The Large Square (Velké náměstí)
Kroměříž's main square is open and pretty, the facades ranging from Renaissance and Baroque to Art Nouveau and traditional graffitto, where geometric designs or folk figures are etched right into the plaster. The plague column, like so many in the Czech Republic, was built after the epidemics of the late 1600s.
During summer, you can dine at a selection of pleasant sidewalk cafes ringing the square. Look for the good-value lunch specials (called 'menu') which usually involve one of the excellent Czech soups as a first course.
Wander the adjoining cobblestone pedestrian streets, where you'll find colorful houses once belonging to church canons and rich citizens alike.
The Church of St. Maurice was rebuilt after fires and wars in a perfect imitation of the original gothic style, tall and airy. Take a short walk to contrast that with the baroque Church of St. John the Baptist, ornate and full of marble and dramatic ceiling frescoes.
Flower Garden (Květná zahrada)
From the center, follow the raised metal arrows in the sidewalk to the Baroque Flower Garden, once called the "Orchard of Delights." High hedge walls divide the Italian-style garden into geometric sections, and low hedges swirl with flowers, herbs, and plants from nature’s palette of colors.
Each section has a different feel. In the center is the Italian Rotunda, often used as a symbol of Kroměříž.
Although it's now closed up, the outside, viewed from any angle, is perfect for photography. Along one edge of the Flower Garden runs the colonnade, watched over by sculptures of mythical and historic characters.
Climb the staircase on the right side to access the top of the colonnade, from which you get the best views of the garden.
Back by the entrance, step into the greenhouses for a peek at their collection of subtropical and tropical plants: palms, cacti, colorful succulents, and flamboyant tropical flowers.
Don't miss the back two sections of the gardens. Here, as in the Chateau Park, the manicured perfection of the formal gardens abandons itself to a wild unkept bit of wilderness: dark, overgrown arbors; wild grasses as tall as your shoulders; a marshy pond.
A lonely tree stands atop a beshrubbed hill, like something once cared for, now abandoned: a secret garden. But it's a calculated abandonment, as if the designers were admitting publicly that man is not, after all, master of nature.
The Kroměříž town museum focuses mostly on history and archeology, but contains a collection of paintings by Max Švabinský, one of the more famous Czech painters, and Kroměříž’s native son. The Archbishop's wine cellars, in use for more than 700 years, are open to the public. If you're lucky, or reserve beforehand, you might also get in on a guided tour and wine-tasting.
Try to go during one of the town festivals, such as the Easter Fair of Folk Crafts, the Harvest Festival, or the Christmas Market. These festivals usually offer free entertainment, from historical military parades to folk rock concerts and fireworks.
Between performances, you can explore the booths in town square, selling local handicrafts such as gingerbread Christmas tree ornaments, figures made from straw, hand-carved wood vessels, or wax-decorated Easter eggs.
Even better, you might see demonstrations by the amazingly adept artisans. Fair food is also a great treat.
Try local specialties, such as smoked (and sometimes fried) cheese, heavy potato pancakes flavored with carraway, goulash (gulaš) soup, a variety of sausages with mustard, and Stramberk ears (Štramberské uši).
Stramberk ears are sweet ginger cookie cones, best served with fruit and cream. The name commemorates a great victory over the Tatars, who had the nasty habit of cutting off their victims' ears to send home to their leaders as proof of their success.
When to go
Kroměříž is a summer destination, with many sites closing or reducing hours from mid fall to late spring. The gardens are at their full and changing glory between May and September. Even though it's a popular place, the parks are big enough that it doesn't feel overrun, and the majority of tourists are Czech or Slovak.
Many people visit as a day trip, the locals from their homes, the tourists from Brno or Olomouc, so spending the night will give you more of a glimpse into the locals' way of life. If you decide to stay the night, the tourist office can help arrange accommodations in private rooms or pensions, many of which are quite affordable, especially if you're not traveling alone.
Lovely Kroměříž deserves its UNESCO status. With a good program of cultural events, a well-preserved center, and the historic Archbishop's Palace, Kroměříž shows off its civilized side in style.
But for anyone who loves formal gardens, the real attraction is the dynamic living beauty of the Flower Garden and the Chateau Park, where the wild power of nature meets the tenacious will of man, and somehow everyone wins.
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Melinda Brasher:
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