Colorful costumes, brightly decorated horses, and angry-seeming young men yelling greeted us as we walked into the center of Vlcnov, a small town in Slovacko, Czech Republic. Right away, we were accosted by a colorful man riding a horse decorated in streamers and ribbons. Red-faced, he bellowed out some Czech phrases which we found out later was traditional poetry. The victim, or selected audience, is then required to pay the horseman. He had a wooden change box near his boot just for this purpose. Most of the festival goers were Czech, and they gamely put in the required penance. A few minutes earlier, we had left the main highway and upon reaching the border of the town were stopped to pay our 150 Czech Koruna (crowns). As we hiked downhill into town, we passed a couple houses where they were decorating the horses and had already started having a good time.
A Colorful and Cultural Czech Festival
The Ride of the Kings dates back to at least the early 1800s when not long after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, the Hungarian king had to escape. Matthias Corvinus dressed up as a woman, and held a rose in his mouth so that his voice wouldn’t betray him to his father-in-law, the King of Bohemia. He escaped with nothing and relied on his serfs to feed him. Nowadays, this scene is portrayed with a ten year old boy playing the king. He is dressed in women’s traditional clothing and still keeps a rose in his mouth. While accompanied by many horsemen cum poets, his horse is the only one that is white.
The Ride of the Kings used to be reenacted all over the country until World War II, and now only a handful of villages still uphold the tradition. UNESCO inscribed it on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011, and the reenactment of the ride takes place the last Sunday in May. However, the town of Vlcnov hosts the festival for the entire weekend. There is a traditional handicrafts fair where handmade items such as embroidery and wooden toys are sold, and of course there are vendors selling food as well.
For most of the day, starting at 11:00 the outdoor amphitheater hosts a folk music and dancing program. Groups from the surrounding villages perform well-known songs and dances. Each one was a little different, but all were colorful and energetic. Many of the dances started with a broom or the broom played a role. It was used to sweep, beat the intruder, or just as a dance partner. Many of the dances were contests between men, seeing who could kick the and jump the highest or perform a number of intricate steps. One of my favorite performances had the men lifting and twirling their partners, even carrying them on their shoulders as they danced. Since the majority of the audience was from the area, there were plenty of people murmuring the words to the songs along with the performers.
At 2:00 in the afternoon, the King rides one last time through the town accompanied by his guards (still shouting out their well rehearsed lines of poetry) and several hundred richly dressed people from surrounding villages, all showing off their traditional costumes. The costumes are so well-known and intricate. The village has been recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records for having the most people in traditional dress. For the best seat in the house, find a spot in the shade at the amphitheater; all of the groups will parade through the town and end up with one last performance on stage. The king, of course, will be last to arrive, ushered in and well protected by his colorful guardsmen and knights.
The Ride of the Kings was one of the most enjoyable small festivals we’ve been to in some time. It was so different and colorful.
This year, the Ride of the Kings festival will be held from the 25-27th of May, 2016, and the dancing will by on Sunday. If you are going, I would stay in Brno which is about one hour drive from the fest. Read our post on Brno here for suggestions of things to do and places to stay.
Where is a festival that you recommend?