Partying in a 14th-Century Czech Castle

It was late afternoon, and a crowd was slowly gathering in the main courtyard. Pivo stands doled out beer for 25 crowns a cup under a clear blue sky. I made the mistake of referring to the event as a festival, and Aran politely corrected me. “We don’t...

A few weekend’s ago was the summer solstice—high time to shed your seasonal depression and leave the apartment—so I journeyed forth to attend Silver Rocket Summa Summa, an annual music event thrown by the Czech record label Silver Rocket. The Prague-based label has been around since 1997, and has been throwing a yearly summer bash since 2003. This was the tenth anniversary of the Summa parties, and to celebrate—or perhaps to put those ten years into a relative temporal context—the organizers rented out a 600-year old castle to party in.

Točník castle, located on a hill above the tiny village of Točník, was built in the 14th century under King Vaclav IV, a contentious and embattled ruler. Crowned king of Bohemia in 1363, Vaclav IV was jailed twice during his long and chaotic reign, and at one point was dethroned under charges of “futility, idleness, negligence and ignobility.” He was reputed to be a serious alcoholic, and when he died of a sudden heart attack in 1419, it plunged the country into decades of crisis and war. The castle at Točník never found a new owner, and slowly fell into ruin. Its rubble-strewn remains finally came into the hands of the Czech Association of Tourists in 1923. 

Castles are ubiquitous to the landscape of the Czech Republic, constantly looming on hilltops in the distance. As I drove through the countryside outside of Prague on the way to the Silver Rocket event, I found myself riveted by the rolling landscape. It was easy to squint and imagine the middle ages. The castles are what provide this effect: always elevated, presiding over a small cluster of hamlets in the vicinity, the social and economic ordering of medieval times expresses itself, even centuries later, in this clear visual metaphor.

Arriving at the castle gate in Točník, I met Aran Nenadál, one of the organizers of Silver Rocket Summa Summa. Bearded, well over six feet tall, and dressed in the all-black attire of the contemporary heavy music listener, Aran presented an imposing physical presence, though his demeanor was cordial and soft-spoken. He showed me around the castle grounds, pointing out the vast stable where an indoor stage had been erected, as well as the various courtyards and alcoves with food and drink stands. We ended the tour on an elevated outdoor platform with a panoramic view of the village of Točník and the surrounding countryside.

It was late afternoon, and a crowd was slowly gathering in the main courtyard, pressing up against the cool stone walls or sitting cross-legged in the shade to avoid the blistering summer sun. Pivo stands doled out beer for 25 crowns a cup under a clear blue sky. I made the mistake of referring to the event as a festival, and Aran politely corrected me.

“We don’t use the word festival,” he explained. “To us it embodies the very worst of music.” He did not explain exactly why he was so against this word. I could imagine either that the phrase “festival” conjured up the soulless commercial forces driving the music industry, or that he was trying to avoid Renaissance Fair connotations. But it was hard for me to escape my primary association with the word, which is festivity. Indeed, despite the hundreds of people of various sub-cultural affiliations happily mingling everywhere, there was something deeply gloomy about the Točník castle itself. The ruins represented the erosion of time, the fleeting nature of power– I thought of poor Vaclav IV, who built this place as a refuge after his other castle mysteriously caught fire. I imagined the isolated, lonely king drinking himself to death within these crumbling walls. The bricks themselves seemed to exude woe, to contain all the ancient, unlearned lessons of time.

As dusk approached, the music began, an open-air stage in the main courtyard providing a venue for punk and post-punk bands, while the cavernous interior hall hosted eclectic acts such as the banjo player Tim Remis and the Brooklyn-based DJ team MRC Riddims. The line-up was diverse and the crowd seemed to shift their attention effortlessly and enthusiastically from genre to genre. The German punk band Auxes headlined the outdoor stage, whipping the crowd into a fist-pumping frenzy, while MRC Riddims finished up the evening with trance-inducing electronic dance beats that rattled the centuries old stable walls.

I caught up with Aran again, who explained the concept behind Summa Summa to me in more detail. “We do this thing, or event– we do this for 10 years, and each year it’s in a different location, a different name, and a different date,” he said. That seemed like a recipe for confusion, I thought. But for Aran the amorphousness was all part of the plan. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves. One year we did it only for the smallest bands from all over the Czech Republic. One year we did only spoken word. One year we did only solo artists, no bands. So each year it has a different meaning, a different approach. In 2005 we did it here in Točník castle, and since this is our 10-year anniversary, we wanted to do it somewhere where we knew what to expect. And it’s a beautiful place...”

That was certainly undeniable. I asked Aran to free-associate on castles. What came to mind when he thought of them?

“Knights, dragons, princesses,” he said, after a short, thoughtful pause. “All the mystery that surrounds them.” It was a much more fantasy-based answer than I had expected. What about history? What about the Vaclav IV? I asked Aran whether he knew much about the original owner of the castle. “Yes,” he replied. “Vaclav IV was the son of one of the most famous Czech kings, Charles IV, who built the Charles Bridge. Vaclav built this place to have his time off from Prague and from the duties of being king. He had many enjoyments here– women, wine. I can imagine....” His voice drifted off, and he smiled serenely, looking over my head at the revelers around us. “I know it all looks effortless,” he said, “but it was very hard to make this happen.” He looked weary, but quite happy. All the hard work and organizational headaches had paid off. Despite his protestations, he had achieved his goal: the atmosphere was festive.