By Melinda Brasher
If you were a rich 17th-century aristocrat, out to prove yourself above your peasant background, what else would you do but build an elite spa, complete with racetracks, Italian operas, and fountains spewing wine?
That’s what František Špork did at Kuks in the Czech Republic, near Hradec Králové. His efforts to impress his rich peers paid off, turning Kuks into a popular watering hole until after his death when in 1740 a flood washed most of it away.
The remaining building was later turned into an infirmary for war veterans. The imposing structure, situated on a hill across from the village, is all that’s left to be visited.
From Humble Roots
The Špork family was not always rich. František’s father, Jan Špork, came from an immigrant family.
He hired himself out as a mercenary and worked his way up from drummer boy to general in the imperial cavalry. After a spectacular defeat of the Turks, he was granted estates and titles.
His son became an important aristocrat, a patron of the arts, a supporter of new schools of thought, and a self-proclaimed “true Christian” who tangled not just with secular powers but with the Church.
He hated the nearby Jesuits so much that he placed a sculpture of himself dressed as a little Christian warrior right on the border of their land as if defending good Christians from their menace.
The Hospital Now
A tour of the infirmary includes portraits of the fascinating Špork family, a model of the spa during its heyday, and a couple of the remaining statues of dwarves which Count Špork commissioned — all with faces of his enemies.
During peak season, you might be lucky enough to hear a short performance by local musicians in the chapel.
The beautifully-restored 18th-century pharmacy alone is worth the entrance fee, but the highlight is a trip to the Lapidarium to see the statues of the twelve vices and virtues. Most tours are in Czech, but you can borrow an English text when you buy your ticket.
Vices and Virtues in Kuks
The Lapidarium contains Matthias Bernard Braun’s original sculptures of the twelve virtues and the twelve vices. Copies of these sculptures now line the front of the infirmary, but the originals are here, their closeness making the artwork even more impressive.
Braun (1684-1738) studied in Italy, but much of his finest work is in the Czech Republic, such as that on Charles’ Bridge in Prague. The prolific sculptor finished his collection of twelve vices and twelve virtues in only two years.
The sculptures are mixed up, so try to figure out the symbolism for yourself before you sneak a look at the English explanations in your text.
They’re not all clear at first, like Avarice with a frog, because avaricious people sit on their money “like a frog in the spring,” or Hope with an anchor because anchors symbolize travel, thus expectation and hope.
Some are a little disturbing, not least of all Frivolity, who looks like the only really happy one there. But it’s all a fascinating look into the religious and cultural beliefs of the time.
You’ll need a separate ticket to get into the Pharmacy Museum, but it’s a fascinating look into the trials and errors (mostly errors, it seems) of historical medicine.
The restored pharmacy on the Infirmary tour is impressive: old-fashioned scales and mortars, shelves and shelves of matching bottles, and elegant wooden canisters of medicine, all labeled with such pearls as “dragon’s blood” or “powder from the skull of a hanged man.” All quite artistic, in a rather morbid way.
The Pharmacy Museum, however, takes it one step further, explaining why you need that beautifully packaged powder from the skull of a hanged man. Human bone was thought to be good for epilepsy, and it was best from the temple of a man who had died by the noose.
The price for this remedy went down during wars, where you could get all the bone powder you wanted from fallen soldiers. Good news for epileptics. Bad news for 18th-century drug companies. Even worse news for the soldiers.
The museum also talks about theriacs, mixes of various drugs, many of which exotic, originally used as a cure for poisons and bites of venomous animals. They eventually became cure-alls.
The theory was that the more drugs in it, the better. Also on display: bonelets from a stag heart, beaver’s teeth, crayfish eyes, and cockroach powder, all thought to be good for various conditions.
The unicorn horn on display is, in all probability, not from an actual unicorn. If it were, it would supposedly be good for all known poisons. A unicorn, however, can apparently only be caught when it sees a virgin. When tamed, it puts its head in the virgin’s lap and can be captured. The written museum guide states that there are “no reports that this has been successful.”
The museum is a fun place to gawk at the beliefs of those who paved the way for modern medicine. But it’s also fun to play like you’re an 18th-century pharmacist. You can work a beautiful old-fashioned ringing cash register and try your hand at various sizes of mortar and pestle, including one that makes you feel like you really mean business.
There are pill pressers, pill rollers, percolators, and other mysterious machines, some of which you get to try yourself, molding play dough into pills. Kids and kids at heart will love it.
Branuv Bethlehem (Braun’s Nativity)
Three kilometers from Kuks is Branuv Bethlehem, another creation of the sculptor of the twelve virtues and vices. This one, however, is open air. The collection of statues and carved grottos in the middle of the woods is a little eerie: hermits, saints, headless bodies, and more than a few skulls.
You can take the green trail from the gardens at the infirmary, but the trail is quite exposed to the sun, through fields and patches of woods where you might find more ticks and dead ends than you ever wanted to find. A much nicer route is the red one from the village.
On a nice summer day there will be plenty of tourists, but mostly Czechs. It’s not always a picnic getting to and from Kuks by public transport, so be sure to check carefully with idos.cz before you go, so you don’t end up hitch-hiking back.
Braun Betlém is always open, but the Infirmary/Pharmacy Museum is closed during winter. See the opening hours and prices below. As the sites of Kuks are easy to see in a day, it’s best as a side trip from somewhere else in Eastern Bohemia. Pleasant Hradec Králové makes a good base.
Kuks is an interesting place. Some find it creepy, with its faintly abandoned air, its odd history, and its sometimes gruesome art. Others just think it an oddity, such grandeur off by itself on a hill above an unassuming village. Whatever your opinion, it’s a place that sticks with you, long after you’re gone.
April and October—open only weekends and holidays 9-17
May, June, Sept—open 9-17, except Monday
July and Aug—open 9-17 daily
Infirmary: 60kc/40kc—About $3/$2
Pharmacy Museum: 30kc/20kc—About $2/$1
Crypt: 20kc/15kc—About $1
Branuv Bethlehem: free
Direct buses from Hradec Králové take about 45 minutes but aren’t very frequent. Other connections require changes. Be aware that if you have to change from train to bus in Jarom??, the train and bus stations are quite far apart (30-40 minutes on foot).
Melinda Brasher has taught English in Poland, Mexico, the US, and the Czech Republic, and travels every chance she gets, trying to pick up words in the local language and usually ending up speaking something like Pol-Czech-Deutsch or Franglish.
Read Melinda Brasher’s story: Wallachian Rocks: Off the Beaten Track on the Czech-Slovak Border
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