Baroque Pearl of Bohemia
Plasy is a small town in West Bohemia that sits roughly in the centre of a triangle formed by the cities of Karlovy Vary, Plzeň and Prague.
The centrepiece of the town is the expansive former Cistercian monastery that sits near the Střela river that runs through the town. This monastery is considered to be one of the best preserved Baroque style structures in the Bohemian regions.
While the current look and layout of the monastery dates largely to the 18th century, the monastery at Plasy was originally established in 1144. Misfortune befell the monastery and Plasy during the Hussite Wars when the monastery was burned to the ground in 1421.
The monastery and surrounding community didn’t really begin to recover until after the end of the Thirty Years’ War. A constant program of rebuilding and expansion began in 1661 and lasted until the monastery’s abolition in 1785.
The former monastery was taken into private hands in 1826 when Austrian Empire Chancellor Klement Václav Lothar Metternich purchased it in order to expand his existing land holdings in the region. Under Metternich’s ownership, the monsatery’s prelature building was converted to a chateau for he and his family to live when they were there.
Several of the other former monastery buildings were also repurposed and converted during Metternich’s tenure there. This period of the monastery’s history ended in 1945, when it was seized and taken under state control.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the buildings were further altered and repurposed. Work on restoration of the monstery would not begin until the 1970s.
In 1995, the monastery was declared a National Cultural Monument.
Today, the monastery is still very much a work in progress as far as restoration is concerned. However, much has been accomplished and some buildings in the structure are open to the public for tours.
An Unconventional Convent
Of the eight buildings that comprise the monastery site, the convent is really the heart of the place and the subject of the main tour when you visit.
The convent was constructed between 1711 and 1740, many prominent Czech artists and craftsmen of the day were contracted to create the convent’s structure and decorations.
Notable among the people involved with bringing the convent into reality was Jan Blažej Santini Aichel (1677-1723). A Czech architect of Italian ancestry, he holds a special place in the nation’s architectural history for his flexibility and inventiveness within the Baroque Gothic style. A number of his works went against ideas of the time, yet still retained key hallmarks of the style.
The first problem Santini had to overcome when designing the convent was how to support the massive structure’s weight on the marshy soil of the Střela river’s floodplain. His solution was to give the building a deep foundation on a system of wood pilings.
Approximately 5,100 oak pilings were driven into the soil and topped with an oak beam grate. To this day, the weight of the convent is supported on that system. While the pilings and grate are kept completely submerged and can’t be seen, there are two water testing pools in the convent that you can see on the tour. Water quality is tested a number of times per day at these pools.
Sanitin Aichel also created a series of underground canals and a water pressure system to ensure that the wood foundation would stay completely submerged to protect it from rotting. The same system also provided some protection to the monastery from flooding.
Santini Aichel also contributed a complex series of self supporting staircases and an intricate spiral staircase to the convent’s structure.
Santini Aichel died before the convent was completed and his work was seen to completion by Kilián Ignác Dientzenhoffer (1689-1751), who spent some time studying under Santini Aichel, in 1740.
Paintings and Plasy Powder
Beyond the architectural qualities of the convent, the more artistic and academic aspects are also well covered on the tour.
The convent contains a number of fresco paintings on the ceilings of the corridors and in two chapels. a number of notable local painters of the day were contracted to do these frescoes. Among these painters were Petr Brandl (1668-1735) and Jakub Antonín Pink (1690-1748).
Also in the convent, you’ll find the winter refectory, former monastery library and study hall as well as the large Capitular Hall. The Capitular Hall was where new monks were accepted into the monastery and where new abbots were elected.
In its day, the monastery at Plasy was well regarded for the quality of medical care it provided, the monastery pharmacy was particularly well reputed and produced a stomach medicine that became much sought after for its effectiveness. Known as “Plasy Powder”, the monastery kept its recipe a tightly guarded secret. As popular and lucrative as their invention was, it was certainly within the monks’ interest to protect it.
Paying a Visit and Learning More
As mentioned earlier, the convent is the main tour at the monastery. As with most historic sights in the country, the bulk of tours are in the Czech language though it is possible to obtain texts in other languages to help non-Czech speakers follow along. Tours in English or German can be arranged as well. The convent tour lasts around an hour.
It is also possible to tour the clock tower building though tour options for it are a bit more limited.
The monastery is not difficult to access by road or rail from Plzeň. As the Plasy townsite is also on a number of of local cycling and walking trails, it can be accessed by those means as well.
If you choose to visit the monastery during summer high season, you may want to pack snacks with you or eat before you embark on your trip. We arrived in Plasy around the noon hour and somewhat hungry to find that there are only two restaurants near the monastery and they were very popular and busy at lunch time. We had to wait a bit for seats to become available.
This link will take you to the monastery website where you can find more specific information about how to get there and tours available.