The Prince Is a Pauper
We drive through a little town square, and eventually a large structure comes into view. “There’s the castle—there’s Roudnice,” William says, as if it needs pointing out. It is big. Big. William’s lineage is through what people call the Roudnice Lobkowiczes; the family’s other castles were used like summer homes, but this is the castle where they really lived. We’re sitting right in front of it now, in his silver Volvo SUV. It’s a lot like watching a movie from the front row: There is no way to see it all without turning your head, without feeling surrounded. The rectangular fortress of 250 rooms is magnificent and stern despite its warm peach color. A moat, now dry, leads to a tall steeple in the front.
We enter through the courtyard—which these days serves as a parking lot—and make our way into the castle itself. The place, shaken by war and ravaged by thieves, remains majestic only in its scale. Some walls are crumbling, the rooms are a mess, windows are broken, and there’s graffiti left over from the days when the Nazis used it as a Hitler Youth center. The family chapel has been reduced to a large, gutted space, filled only with dim sunlight. Although it’s been 15 years since William reclaimed the castle, he still hasn’t come up with a financial plan to restore it. Just keeping the structure standing has been a costly proposition. Fixing its once ragged roof, for instance, took seven years and $500,000—a questionable investment for a property with limited revenue potential considering its location a half-hour from Prague, in a land where few tourists venture. Like so many of his reclaimed properties, then, Roudnice has become an inverse treasure, costing a fortune rather than providing one. “We’ve spent millions of dollars” on various renovation efforts, he says, much of it from bank loans. “I don’t even like to think how many millions of dollars, because it’s so much.”
A music school run by the Czech military has been based in Roudnice since the 1950s. William let them stay after he took over, if only because they pay rent. But budget cuts will force the school to move out at the end of the year, leaving William scrambling for new revenue sources. He’s invited local investors to pitch him ideas, and has a few of his own. “Could you see this turning into a beautiful little bed and breakfast?” he asks as we step over chunks of rock and metal, and peer into uninhabitable rooms. “A little hotel? And having a little museum next door that you can visit?”
He sounds delusional, but William has overcome the odds before. The winery and brewery he got back, for instance, were inefficient operations, bloated with Communist appointees collecting paychecks for doing nothing. He had to learn, from scratch, how to run these complex businesses, and eventually resolved to cut staff in order to turn a profit. They’re now among the few of his operations that make money.
Other ventures have required repurposing his possessions in a way his ancestors had never intended. Nelahozeves, the first castle William and Sandra turned into a museum, now is like one of those old mansions you tour in the Berkshires, with rooms set up as if still occupied, and when Lobkowicz Palace in Prague opened last spring, it, too, was as a museum—with an audio tour narrated by William. Stˇrekov Castle, on the German border, features a nice bonus: It’s partially a ruin, so William can sell plenty of tickets to tourists but with less upkeep.
To solicit donations for their work (mostly for restoration of reclaimed artworks), William’s parents have started the nonprofit American Friends for the Preservation of Czech Culture. Also generating income are the regular music festivals at William’s castles. Then there’s the Lobkowicz Events Management company—the outfit that makes the castles available for weddings and corporate gatherings—he was promoting when I first met him in Boston. (When the international law firm White & Case wanted to bring 430 of its worldwide partners to the Czech Republic, for instance, William personally wooed the lawyers, who ended up throwing three big dinners at Nelahozeves.)
But none of this has made enough of a positive impact on William’s bottom line. Clients pay tens of thousands of dollars to rent out one of his castles, for instance, but that barely covers the overhead. The money woes also extend to his museums, which are only breaking even. The Czech Republic’s economy has improved since the country joined the European Union in 2004—good in some ways, but also problematic for William. Rising wages and increased costs of goods and services have made his properties even more costly to fix up and staff. William, in fact, has been forced to sell cheap, or just give away, entire castles where his forefathers once held court—places they took for granted but that today’s Lobkowiczes, whom William calls “the richest poor people,” simply cannot afford. “Ten years from now,” he says, “you may come back, we may be bankrupt. Who knows? I hope not.”