Moravia’s Stunning Ride of the Kings

Traditional folk songs can be heard throughout The Ride of the Kings festival.
Traditional folk songs can be heard throughout The Ride of the King’s festival in Vlčnov Moravia. Donnie Sexton photos.

The Ride of the Kings in Vlčnov, Moravia

By Donnie Sexton

David Chaloupka was chosen to be the King in 2019.
David Chaloupka was chosen to be the King in 2019.

If they gave Academy awards for best costumes at worldwide festivals, The Ride of the Kings would win hands down!

This annual festival takes place the last Sunday in May in Vlčnov, a village located in the southeast region of the Czech Republic known as Moravia.

To say it is a colorful celebration is an understatement.  Naturally, I was curious as to the reason for this elaborate festival, and that’s where things got murky.

I quizzed a few locals, including our guide, and the responses felt like an obscure fairytale.

Folklore and Legends

Some say The Ride was initiation rights for young men, proving their horsemanship as they moved into adulthood.

As they became accomplished riders, they were recruited to protect the king and secure presents for him from the villagers.

Another theory has The Ride being a carryover from Whitsuntide, a festival held in spring to ensure a good harvest and prosperity for the villagers.

Another tale revolves around the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, who was fleeing with his entourage from Czech king George of Poděbrady.  He disguised himself wearing girl’s clothing with ribbons obscuring most of his face and kept a rose in his mouth so he wouldn’t speak.

This last account seemed reasonable as I watched the day unfold during my first visit to the festival.

This group of young men entertain the crowds with traditional folk tunes.
This group of young men entertains the crowds with traditional folk tunes.

The Ride is a Sunday only event, but Vlčnov wasted no time on Saturday getting the celebration going with food, music, and dancing. Moravia produces some of the best wines in Europe, so there was plenty on hand to keep the festivities lively, along with Slivovice, a tart plum brandy that will put the hurts to you if you over imbibe.

First Impressions

No expense is spared in the creation of the costumes that feature a most unusual sleeve detail worn by the young women.
No expense is spared in the creation of the costumes that feature a most unusual sleeve detail worn by the young women.

Our group of five women arrived early to Vlčnov not wanting to miss any part of The Ride of the Kings. We joined hundreds of others waiting at the church doors for the young men and women participating in The Ride to emerge from the mandatory church service.

When the doors opened, out came a group of boys and girls (ages 12-18), dressed in elaborate costumes that grabbed my attention.

From the church, these young kids surrounded by the onlookers walked down Masarykova Street to the city hall where the mayor gave his approval for their participation in The Ride.

It would take a few hours to get the horses and the riders prepped for The Ride behind a locked gate at the “king’s house.”

While waiting, folks were indulging in the food and beverage options on-site, checking out craft vendors and toe-tapping to musicians entertaining the crowds.  Various ethnic dances were underway in the amphitheater along the main street to help fill the time.

The city of Vlčnov located in Moravia, the southeast region of Czech Republic, is best known for its production of wines.
The city of Vlčnov located in Moravia, the southeast region of Czech Republic, is best known for its production of wines.

Shouting Insults

I parked myself near a group of lively musicians singing traditional tunes when I heard some riotous shouting in the street.  The commotion was worthy of a closer look.

A few of the king’s attendants were on their horses, shouting and pointing into the crowds.  The crowd would respond with bursts of laughter.

Moving in closer, one young man pointed his finger repeatedly at me as he screamed in Czech as onlookers laughed.

Was my zipper down on my pants?  Did I have toilet paper stuck to my shoes?  I crept back into the crowd, feeling a bit uncomfortable.

I would later learn from our local guide that one of the duties of the king’s entourage is to mingle with the crowds and bark out jokes and insults at them.

The person being singled out with the pointed finger was then expected to put a small donation into the wooden box attached to the horse.  The money collected was used to help fund The Ride.

To Be the King

The participants in The Ride of the Kings gather after the mandatory church service for photos. The young boy chosen as the king stands in the middle, flanked by his parents.
The participants in The Ride of the Kings gather after the mandatory church service for photos. The young boy chosen as the king stands in the middle, flanked by his parents.

Every year a young man age 12 is chosen to play the King.  While it’s an honor for the family to have their son chosen, it involves both a time and financial commitment with costumes, parties, and dressing up the horse.

When The Ride got underway around noon, the locked gates opened, and the King rode out on a horse led by his father.

Flanked by an attendant on either side, the three of them were dressed as girls.  The young king’s face was barely visible, hidden mostly by strands of red ribbon, along with a rose held tightly in his mouth.

The Ride of the Kings was underway, with more horsemen trailing behind the king, and the young women falling into step as well.

They made their way slowly through the village, frequently stopping so onlookers could take photos.

Once the king and his court returned to the king’s house, a sizeable parade followed.  Residents of various Czech villages marched down the street, each group distinguished by festive folklore costumes that represented their ethnicity.

boys dressed as girls
Boys dressed up as girls during the Ride of the Kings.

These same groups would appear on the dance floor of the amphitheater throughout the day, entertaining the crowd with their unique dances accompanied by folk music.

Bedazzled by Costumes

Festivities get under way Saturday night with food and drink in Vlčnov's wine cellar neighborhood.
Festivities get underway Saturday night with food and drink in Vlčnov’s wine cellar neighborhood.

From the moment I first laid eyes on the participants in the festival, I was transfixed by the costumes, especially those worn by the young women.  They wore knee-high black boots, red embroidered puffy skirts, and stark white blouses.

The sleeves of the shirts ballooned out near the elbow into a bell-shaped form, made of tiny stiff pleats.  I became fixated on those sleeves, wondering how on earth they were crafted.

Their elaborate headdresses were a combo of beads, jewels, and tiny cloth flowers, with long strands of embroidered red ribbons attached at the back. I couldn’t fathom how much work would be involved in creating the costumes, which was the responsibly of the women of the village, or so we were told.

In 2011, The Ride of the Kings was added to the UNESCO representative list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
In 2011, The Ride of the Kings was added to the UNESCO representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

A Sea of Crepe Paper Flowers

The horses for the king and his court were draped in blankets of crepe paper flowers – we’re talking thousands of these handmade adornments.

These same flowers hung from doorknobs, window boxes, and railings throughout the streets.

It became abundantly clear that Vlčnov spared no expense in making this day-long celebration a spectacular event.   The Ride of the Kings oozed of community pride in carrying on a tradition whose roots were obscure at best.

The Czech Republic has no shortage of historical cities teeming with gorgeous churches, dazzling palaces, exquisite gardens, and stunning bridges over iconic rivers.

If you’re planning a visit to this Central European nation, the time it to coincide with The Ride of the Kings. www.rideofthekings.com

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