Look at a map of the area around the villages of Valtice and Lednice, and the thing that leaps out is the road connecting them. It’s 10km long and, in a hilly region of winding roads, it’s arrow straight. The road connects two magnificent palaces that once formed part of a vast estate covering 280 square kilometres of the surrounding countryside. The Lednice-Valtice Estate was owned by the Dukes of Liechtenstein, the same people who founded and still rule what is now the Principality of Liechtenstein.
If Moravia seems a long way from Liechtenstein, the tangled history of the European aristocracy explains everything. The Liechtenstein family arrived in Lednice in the 13th century. They bought Valtice in the 14th century, and added to their possessions over the centuries to become one of the most powerful families in Europe. The result is not only a couple of extraordinary palaces, but one of the largest artificial landscapes in Europe. The whole thing received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996.
The connection with Liechtenstein the (sort of) country? As a powerful dynasty, the Liechtenstein’s owned land and property across Central Europe, but they didn’t own any land that would qualify them as an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. Under the Habsburgs, the Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire were very powerful people. To qualify as Electors, in 1718 the Liechtenstein’s bought land between Switzerland and Austria and renamed it the Principality of Liechtenstein.
This was technically important but they didn’t move to Liechtenstein, remaining on their estates in Moravia. By the Second World War, the family had its base in ‘neutral’ Liechtenstein, but their Czech estates were left unmolested by the Nazis. The arrival of Russian troops forced them into ‘exile’ in Liechtenstein, and the confiscation of their property by Czechoslovakia’s communist government meant that they never returned. In an attempt to reclaim their lands, the family and Principality of Liechtenstein have been in legal disputes with the Czech Republic and Slovakia since 1992.
I was heading to the Moravian capital of Brno, so started at the more southerly Valtice about a kilometre from the Austrian border. It was early morning when I arrived and there was precious little activity in the village. I parked in the centre and walked past the church towards the palace. It’s an impressive building and immediately put me in mind of a French chateau. There was no one around as I passed a fountain at the front of the building. I walked through the main courtyard and into the landscaped gardens to the rear.
The building, like so much in the Czech Republic, was only accessible by guided tour. The next one was an hour away, so I decided to wander back to the pleasant village square before heading north through the former estate to Lednice. It was a holiday weekend and there were a few groups of people arriving on bicycles. This would become a theme for the day, and it was only later that I realised that this area was renowned for its network of cycling paths.
It didn’t take long to reach Lednice, but as I searched in vain to find a parking space, it quickly became clear that this was the more popular of the two palaces. If Valtice was a French chateau, Lednice reminded me of an English country estate. This isn’t especially surprising given that even the aristocracy followed fashion. The palace of Lednice isn’t as impressive as that of Valtice, compensated for by the gorgeous formal gardens and country park.
Yet again, my timing was off and I’d have to wait a couple of hours for the next tour of the palace. I chose to go for a walk through the gardens instead. There’s a 5km loop that takes you to a sixty-metre high minaret built between 1797–1804. Just to recap, there is an Islamic minaret in an English country park, in the middle of Central Europe, on an estate that was once owned by the people who run Liechtenstein. Not only that, it was designed by Josef Hardtmuth, the person who invented the graphite pencil.
Honestly, people wouldn’t believe you if you made this up.