Life in a castle can be a noble pain

SUN JOURNAL

Czechs: Descendants of noble families who inherited their families' properties also inherited problems, one of the big ones being lack of money to maintain the rundown estates.

September 08, 1999|By Eva Munk | Eva Munk,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Who hasn't dreamed at one time or another of living in a castle?

For many Czechs, that dream came true after 1989, when the government gladly unloaded dozens of rundown castles and chateaux on their original owners -- nobles it had disinherited or run out of the country more than 40 years before.

But with repair and maintenance costs, damp walls and drafty halls, the inheritors are finding out that being lord of the manor isn't as much fun as it used to be.

Take Adam Bubna-Litic. For 42 years, he was happy as a school headmaster in Perth, Australia. Then 1989 rolled around, and he became Count Adam of Buben and Litice, the descendant of one of the oldest noble families in the country.

Along with the title, he got back the family seat, Doudleby, a jewel of a Renaissance chateau, decorated with an intricate graffito (black and white stucco with a scraped pattern), the likes of which would be hard to find north of the Alps.

But Count Bubna calls that graffito "the bane of my existence. The whole west wall is coming down, and the historical society won't give me a penny to fix it."

Like most of the country's nobles, Bubna fled the country when the Communists seized power in 1948. Those who stayed behind were evicted and their chateaux were turned by the state into schools, hospitals, military barracks or worse. Doudleby, which was turned into a lace museum, fared relatively well.

When the original owners reclaimed their estates, what they got back was a far cry from what they had left 40 years earlier.

Not even a dishrag

"They didn't even leave a dishrag," Bubna says.

Most of the chateau's rooms are filled with historic furniture borrowed from the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. To fill space, Bubna, with the help of a local collector, turned part of the chateau into a museum of World War II memorabilia. Touring guests walking through a Renaissance door are surprised to come face to face with Adolf Hitler.

"I'm not saying I like it, but ever since we opened the exhibition, visitors to the museum have increased by a third," Bubna says. "You have to give the public what it wants."

The few thousand crowns he takes in from tours don't come close to paying the bills of about a thousand dollars a month. Most of the money for repairs and maintenance comes from wood harvested from the chateau's 3,800 acres of forest.

"We live from the forests," he says. "In fact, if it weren't for this damned chateau, I could live comfortably off of the forests for the rest of my life."

When he is not busy making ends meet, Bubna battles the State Historical Society.

"Heating is a big issue. The chateau was a summer residence built on the layout of a Florentine villa. It was very cold in the winter until the family put in tile stoves in the 19th century," his son, Dominik, says. "The Communists knocked them out. They also plugged up the fireplaces, because no one was ever going to live there again, right? Now they won't let us put in heating because it's not `original.' "

The upshot is that Bubna makes do with an electric heater during the long winter, while he ponders what to do with his chilly chateau.

Six miles up the road, at Countess Diana Sternbergova-Phipps' Renaissance chateau, Castolovice, things look more heartening.

Strains of Tchaikovsky pour from an open window as visitors lunch in the courtyard cafe or stroll in the park, which contains a game preserve that is home to a herd of white deer.

Sternbergova-Phipps lives quietly in one wing of the 85-room chateau and admits tourists to the Renaissance halls where kings and emperors were once frequent guests.

Waiting in the cafe for her salad Nicoise, she tries to control her exasperation. Her staff has just politely informed her that she may not make her lunch in the cafe's kitchen.

"I have three kitchens, and I can't cook my spaghetti in two of them," she says, elegant even in an old T-shirt and tennis shoes. It is hard to imagine her wallpapering the luxury suites, which she lets out to a select group of customers.

During her 44-year exile in London, she was an interior decorator, and she has used her skills to give the Renaissance chateau a vaguely Laura Ashley flair.

Managing a chateau of this size is no sinecure.

`Not a penny'

"The easiest part was getting it back," she says, adding that she gets "not a penny" for upkeep from the government.

The difference between Doudleby and Castolovice, says Milu Cadova, who has been trying to sell her chateau, Straz nad Nezarkou, for five years, boils down to "money, money and more money."

Sternbergova-Phipps had money to invest from the sale of property in London. Bubna, a headmaster, had none.

Cadova, an Ottawa real estate agent, has put $143,000 into repairs and wants a million dollars for the castle and estate. But she is not going to sell to just anybody.

"Not every idiot can buy a castle and go to it," she says. "I've had at least a hundred offers for the place, mostly from lunatics who want me to go in on some far-fetched hotel plan. I don't need anybody's stupid plan. I've got stupid plans of my own."

Most chateau owners say they would be willing to sell, but to whom?

"Who would buy this money pit?" Bubna makes a gesture of hopelessness toward his flower-filled, arcaded courtyard. Then he takes a closer look and says, "You know, I could rip out the cobblestones -- they aren't original anyway -- and make an outdoor cafe."

If pressed hard enough, these reluctant lords of the manor will say chateau ownership has its advantages. In the evenings, Bubna hunts in his forests. Sternbergova-Phipps watches over her growing menagerie. Cadova has big hopes for her Straz nad Nezarkou.

"You need an idea, money and a will, especially money," Cadova says. "If you have that, it can be gorgeous."

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