Lány Diary

From TGM Museum, Lány

This was my third or fourth trip to Lány, a town about 35 kilometers west of Prague near the Křivoklat forest. I loved going to Lány to pay tribute to the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his family. I came by car this time, accompanied by a friend. First, I went to the TGM Museum, which told the story of Masaryk’s life and career. Then we went to the cemetery where Tomáš Masaryk and three members of his family are buried. After that, we strolled through one of my favorite chateau parks, part of the president’s summer residence. Masaryk had spent a lot of time in that majestic park and had died in the chateau.

Czechoslovak soldiers during World War I, from TGM Museum, Lány

First, the museum: I had been there once before and loved refamiliarizing myself with the history of the First Republic. If I could go back to any time in the past, I would travel to 1920s Czechoslovakia. The country was new, off to a fresh start as a democracy.

Besides exhibits relating specifically to Masaryk, the museum is home to period furnishings and paintings of his family members. There is a section devoted to the first World War, when he set up legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army, doing battle against the Habsburgs. First, we saw photos of Masaryk in a special exhibition. Then we went into the main part of the museum.

A philosopher, scholar and politician, Masaryk founded Czechoslovak democracy. He believed that small nations played a significant role in Europe and in the world. He also touted individual responsibility and religion as a source of morality. Masaryk came from humble beginnings. His father had been a Slovak carter, later a steward, while his German-Moravian mother had worked as a cook. At a German high school in Brno, Masaryk saw for himself the fraught tension between high-class Germans and oppressed, lower-class Czechs. He later concentrated on philosophy at the University of Vienna. While he was studying in a year-long program in Leipzig – a city I had loved visiting several years ago -, he met an American from Brooklyn, Charlotte Garrigue, and they were married in the USA during 1878. (I named my late cat the Czech version of Charlotte, Šarlota, after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia. My cat died suddenly in July of 2021 at the age of 11.) Tomáš took his wife’s last name as his middle name. They had five children, and their son Jan later became a prominent politician whom Communists pushed out a bathroom window, killing him.

Tomáš Masaryk was a university professor and a writer. He penned books about the deplorable conditions in Russia after visiting that country and in another grappled with the causes of suicide. His writings centered on politics as well.

A wall of the museum took up the theme of the scandals that had scarred the public opinion of Masaryk. He proved that epic poems, which supposedly dated from the Middle Ages and appealed to Czech nationalists, were forgeries. These nationalists branded Masaryk a traitor. Then, a Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner was sentenced to death for ritual murder. Masaryk insisted that the trial had been anti-Semitic. Hilsner was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Not all Czechs approved of Masaryk’s participation in this case, and the Masaryk family experienced anti-Semitic attacks.

An exhibit showing advertisements during the First Czechoslovak Republic

A section of the museum described Masaryk’s role during World War I. While Masaryk had fought for reforms with Austro-Hungary before the war, during World War I he became convinced that Czechs and Slovaks needed independence rather than autonomy. Masaryk was head of the government-in-exile in London. During a trip to the USA, he convinced President Woodrow Wilson that Czechoslovak independence was vital. Czechoslovakia was created October 28, 1918.

Pictures of the Masaryk family in the TGM Museum

Then there were the many exhibits about his presidency. Masaryk abdicated during his fourth term in office due to health reasons, after 17 years as head of state. During his presidency, the country was a democracy with all citizens equal, and minorities had rights to maintain their national identities. Freedom of the press and universal suffrage were other features. However, the country was not without its problems. German-Czech tensions and Slovak calls for separatism were two of the issues that caused him great concern.

Furnishings from the First Republic, TGM Museum, Lány

After his reelection in 1920, the country flourished, especially economically. However, personal tragedy hit the Masaryk family. His wife died in 1923. Three years into his third term, in 1930, he turned 80, and ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism had infiltrated the democratic country. During 1934, he was elected for a fourth term, yet his time in office was riddled with health problems. He resigned in 1935 and died at Lány on September 14 that year.

Statue of TGM in front of the museum

After admiring a statue of Masaryk outside the museum, we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs marked the graves of Masaryk and his wife Charlotte, son Jan and daughter Alice. The small grassy area was roped off. It was a modest yet eloquent commemoration to lives that had upheld democratic values even during troubled times.

I reflected on Masaryk lying in state at Lány. About 60,000 citizens came to pay their respects. When his wife died in 1923, thousands of Czechs paid homage to her by going to Lány chateau as well.

Modest graves of Tomáš G. Masaryk and three members of his family

I thought about Tomáš Masaryk’s funeral in Prague. Black flags had fluttered from downtown buildings. Busts and pictures of Masaryk had dotted the town and covered the front pages of numerous newspapers. Black banners reading “TGM” had adorned Saint Vitus Cathedral and buildings on Wenceslas Square. Thousands of soldiers and legionnaires had marched in his funeral procession September 21 as 146 military standards appeared. Draped with the Czechoslovak flag, his coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the city. On its last leg to Lány, the coffin had traveled by train, placed in a car covered in wreaths and flowers.

The headstones of the graves of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his wife Charlotte

I remembered seeing that gun carriage at a temporary exhibition in a Prague gallery a few years earlier. I recalled watching Václav Havel’s coffin travel by me while I waited on an Old Town Street in December of 2011. I was huddled in my LL Bean winter coat on that dark, dismal morning as the coffin made its way toward Prague Castle. My hero was dead; my heart broken; my mood solemn. I thought that it was the same way I would have felt if I had seen Masaryk’s funeral procession.

From the cemetery we made our way to a restaurant on a square, where I ate fried chicken steak and ice cream on that sunny May afternoon of 2021. We ate outside to be safer from coronavirus infection.

The next and last stop was much more upbeat – Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since 1921. While the residence was not open to the public (with several exceptions), the beautiful park was. I first set foot in this park during the summer of 1991, when I was a tourist seeing Prague and its environs for the first time.

That trip during the summer of 1991 was magical – walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery, gawking at Old Town Square with its superb architecture, making my way to Prague Castle via the Charles Bridge, where Russian soldiers sold their uniforms and fur hats. On the way, I walked up Nerudova Street, where, in a photography store, I found some prints of President George H.W. Bush with Václav Havel during that historic visit in 1990. There were also discounted posters of Gorbachev, but I wasn’t interested in buying one. Saint Vitus Cathedral had amazed me. On Golden Lane, a place in legends dating back to Rudolf II’s era, I got my picture taken with a man I had met on the train from Berlin to Prague. We were smitten with each other. Yet, we would part our separate ways a few days later, never contacting each other again. Life somehow had gotten in the way. I visited Karlštejn Castle, Konopiště Chateau, Hluboká Chateau, Kutná Hora and so many other places during that trip. Prague had felt like my true home, and the park in Lány was so special in my heart.

By this time, I knew the history of the chateau well. There was a structure here before 1392, when it was first mentioned in writing. Late in the 16th century, that edifice became a Renaissance keep. Rudolf II acquired the property in 1589 and did much hunting on the grounds at the game reserve. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops had occupied the residence. After Rudolf II acquired it, the residence was state-owned for 100 years. In 1685 Arnošt Josef Wallensteain bought it. When his daughter got married, the chateau and surrounding land became the property of the Furstenberg family and stayed in their possession until the state bought it in 1921. Then the chateau was modernized. Masaryk had the balcony built. During Ludvík Svoboda’s presidential term, the game reserve had been open to Western tourists, but later it was closed off again. Many other renovations had taken place throughout the decades. The chateau had been in poor condition after Gustav Husák’s tenure, when the Communist regime was toppled in 1989. Under Václav Havel and Olga Havlová – after whom I had named one of my cats – the chateau had been totally reconstructed into a beautiful work of art and architecture.

Near the park we perused the obelisk that Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had erected during Masaryk’s era to commemorate fallen soldiers during World War I. In the park I felt at home, so comfortable as if I was meant to be there, basking in the sun near the greenhouse or taking in the many landmarks. This was one of the few chateau parks that made me see not only the beauty around me but also the beauty inside me. The other park that gave me this feeling was at the chateau in Opočno in north Bohemia.

I loved the two ponds. One landmark that impressed me was a lion-headed fountain made by Plečník, who had superbly decorated parts of Prague Castle, too. With five Dorian colums and five lions’ heads, the fountain symbolizes the five lands of Czechoslovakia. Water from the five heads flows into a sixth head that spouts the water into the pond, symbolizing the unity of newly-formed Czechoslovakia.

Across the Masaryk stream I saw three bridges constructed in a simple design by Plečník. I remember visiting Plečník’s studio when I was in Ljubljana.  Communist president Klement Gottwald had contributed to the park as well. He had a small cottage with fairy-tale elements built for his grandson. There were also beehives from Masaryk’s era, again designed by Plečník. The Furstenbergs, who had owned the land with chateau for several centuries, were responsible for setting up the greenhouse. Three benches celebrated more recent events. One commemorated the Višegrad Four conference hosted in Lány in 2006, when Václav Klaus was the Czech president. Another was donated by Livia Klausová, a former First Lady, in 2012. The third was donated by current President Miloš Zeman. The Riding Stables were built in Neo-Gothic style during 1861.

We walked along the main chestnut-lined path and took in the various perspectives of the yellow, Baroque chateau. I knew something about the interior, even though it was not possible to go inside. The Blue Dining Room was decorated in Third Rococo from the beginning of the 20th century. The bright yellow wallpaper in the Yellow Salon harkened back to Husák’s era. After the Velvet Revolution, five Renaissance painting of Habsburg archdukes as children had been installed. There was a beautiful marble fireplace surrounded by superb woodcarving in the library. Masaryk’s Salon includes, thanks to the Furstenbergs, furniture made from black pearwood.

During Masaryk’s tenure, there was a movie theatre at the chateau where locals could watch the latest talkies. The films of Vlasta Burian, a comic actor whose work I knew well, often were projected there. This was where the Lány Agreement promoting cooperation between Austria and Czechoslovakia had been signed in December of 1921. So many presidents and dignitaries had graced the halls of that chateau.

I tried to imagine Masaryk riding his horses through the park. At Lány Masaryk had written many of his books and had met with legendary Czech author Karel Čapek to put together the nonfiction work Conversations with TGM. During the Nazi Protectorate, Emil Hácha had called the chateau home. I tried to imagine the Protectorate flag fluttering from the tower during the second World War. I recalled that Gottwald had tried to do away with all the monuments at Lány that were associated with Masaryk. There had been an assassination attempt on President Antonín Zápotecky in 1953, as a bomb went off under his car. One of the town’s inhabitants was killed in the blast. During Havel’s presidency, I used to love to listen to his Conversations from Lány radio broadcast.

The chateau and park made me think about Masaryk’s era and Havel’s 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic. After spending some time enjoying the sights in the park, it was time to go back to Prague. It was our first trip of the 2021 chateau and castle season, and it would always be one of the best ever.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

My late cat Šarlota, named after Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk

Červená Lhota Diary

From the moment I saw a picture of Neo-Renaissance Červená Lhota Chateau, I yearned to see it with my own eyes. Its cheerful red appearance cast a spell on me. Comprised of two stories, the pictured chateau dominated a rocky island surrounded by a pond. Červená Lhota looked as if it had jumped out of a fairy tale. How beautiful and romantic the reflection of the four-winged structure looked in the water! I read that a forest was situated nearby as was as a park with the Renaissance Chapel of the Holy Trinity.

There was only one problem: I had heard that the chateau was a 10-kilometer walk from the nearest public transportation, a train station. I was afraid I would get lost as I didn’t have a great sense of direction. I had no one to go with me and didn’t have access to a car. I wondered if I even could walk 10 kilometers. I loved playing sports, but 10 kilometers – was that even possible?

One afternoon I found myself at Prague’s main bus station, arriving home from a day trip. I decided to ask at a window if it was possible to travel to Červená Lhota by bus. I was in luck! It was! I got my bus ticket for the following Saturday. I would have to change buses at Jihlava, in Moravia. I hadn’t realized that the chateau was in Moravia, but I didn’t think any more about it.

I set off for Červená Lhota on a scorching summer day, enthusiastic, elated even, as I listened to the melodic singing of Slovak soft rock star Pavol Habera on my Walkman. I was sure nothing could destroy my ecstatic mood.

Two and a half hours later, I got off the bus at Jihlava and waited for another bus to take me – finally! – to Červená Lhota. Soon I would see that cheerful red façade that featured prominently on the craggy rocks! I would gaze at the sublime reflection of the chateau in the pond! It would be bliss! Before long, I walked to platform number 10, thinking that I could not have hoped for better weather and that nothing surely could go wrong.

Finally, the bus came, and on a sign behind the windshield I saw the words Červená Lhota. I was so close to my destination. It would not be long now.

The bus driver announced “Červená Lhota” when we came to a village. As I exited, I asked the driver, “How do I get to the chateau?”

The driver looked at me as if I was crazy.

“The chateau is near Jindřichův Hradec, in south Bohemia. This is another Červená Lhota.”

My face fell with disappointment.

The driver continued, “I’ll be stopping here again in an hour. Wait, and then you can go back with me to Jihlava.”

I thanked him, tempted to burst into tears. I sat on the bench at the bus stop, my mind reeling. How could I be so stupid? Hadn’t I read that the chateau was in south Bohemia? When I got my bus ticket, I had been so happy, so full of hope. Now I didn’t even know exactly where I was. Somewhere not too far from Jihlava in Moravia. I felt lost – in more ways than one. I didn’t like teaching with the agency full-time. I didn’t want to get up at five every morning and finish work at seven or nine at night. I wanted to do other things, to be able to sleep until seven am, at least several days a week. I didn’t like my housing situation. I felt like my life was just one disappointment after another, as if it was full of days spent in the wrong places. Is this all there was? Was this the only life I could live? I was in my early thirties. I wanted to make a change, but what? And how? I knew I didn’t want to move out of Prague. I felt that I was stuck at a crossroads.

No one else came to the bus stop during that hour. I was alone. It was quiet. I got myself together mentally, many thoughts going through my head. I had to persevere; I knew that. I had to move onward one small step at a time. During those 60 minutes of solitude, I decided that I wouldn’t let life get me down. The following Saturday I would take the train to Kardašovy Řečice, which was 10 kilometers from the right Červená Lhota. I was determined to see the chateau. I would walk the 10 kilometers alone. I could do it, I kept telling myself. When I saw the bus approaching, I breathed a sigh of relief.

From Jihlava I easily found a bus to Prague. When I got off in the capital city, I did not feel lost anymore. Instead, I was filled with purpose and determination.

The following Saturday I made it to Kardašovy Řečice in the morning. The weather was beautiful though very hot. I was so kanxious. What if I got lost in the middle of nowhere? Casting these thoughts aside, I started walking. Soon I came upon four adults in their twenties, two women and two men who had exited the same train.

“Is this the way to Červená Lhota?” I asked.

“Yeah. We’re going there, too. Come with us!”

We walked to Červená Lhota together, talking about their vacation in south Bohemia and their home in north Bohemia as well about Czech culture and literature. They recommended Zákupy Chateau near their hometown and Děčín Chateau, where I had been when it was still closed to the public in 1991. We talked about our respective travels, too. Our conversations were very pleasant, and I was glad to have met them. I had made four new friends.

I was tired when we arrived at the chateau. However, I totally forgot about my fatigue when I gazed upon that cheerful red façade and its reflection in the calm waters. The chateau was everything I imagined it to be. I almost pinched myself, not believing that the enchanting structure in front of me was real. I took photos on my disposable Kodak camera – I was saving to buy a digital one – while we waited for the tour. I also had a bite to eat in the chateau restaurant, sitting outside with a spectacular view of the red beauty.

The chateau rooms were small but intimate. However, the tour was crowded. Sometimes I had to almost push my way to the front of the large group so I could see because I was short. Still, I didn’t mind. I had reached my goal and met some nice people on the way. The furnishings and decorations were superb, in styles from Renaissance to Beidermeier. Each room had its own charm. I loved the intimate feel of the chateau. It really felt as if a family could live there rather than as a cold representative space.

We all left the chateau feeling elated and set off for the 10-kilometer walk to the train station. Could I trek another 10 kilometers? I needn’t have worried. A bus came and took us to the train station in a five-minute journey. As I stepped off this bus, I felt so different from the moment I had exited the bus in the village of Červená Lhota the previous weekend. This time I felt triumphant, victorious, full of energy despite my weary legs.

My four friends were catching a later train, so we parted at the station, promising to keep in touch. We said our goodbyes, and I started my journey back to Prague. I knew I had to come back here one day.

And, 18 years later, I would.

My second trip to the right Červená Lhota took place during August of 2021, when the situation with covid cases was not too horrible. A friend drove me there. I often visited castles and chateaus with her. She had visited the chateau decades ago but had never seen it surrounded by water. It was much easier than walking 10 kilometers, that was for sure, though I knew I could use the exercise. During the pandemic I had become lax about fitness.

The moment I saw the chateau I was flabbergasted because the pond had disappeared. My friend was so disappointed. The chateau still had me in a trance with its bewitching exterior, but the lack of water made it seem more steeped in reality than in a fairy-tale. Later, we would find out that the chateau would not have water around it for at least two more years. It was simply too expensive to maintain. A garden area was set up on one part of the dry land below the rocky terrain, but it still didn’t make up for the appearance of yesteryear.

It had been a long 18 years. I had stopped teaching full-time about 11 years ago, and I had moved twice. Now I was happy with my work as I was doing more writing and content with my accommodation. I was excited to be back. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this chateau until I set my eyes on it again. It was scorching hot just like the first time I had visited. The guide told us that we had to wear masks. I was glad because when I was at Jemniště Chateau that rule had not been enforced. I was also pleased that only 20 people were allowed on the tour due to health concerns. I wouldn’t have to deal with a crowd like I had at Jemniště or Děčín chateaus, and there was less of a chance of catching covid during this visit.

I had refamiliarized myself with the chateau’s history before making the trip. The structure was first mentioned in writing during 1465 when it had been a Gothic fortress under the control of the sons of Ctibor of Zásmuk. During 1530 the knighted family of Káb from Rybňany became the owners. Jan Káb’s tombstone would be placed in the nearby chapel. Jan Káb’s two children had succumbed to the plague, so, after his death, his brothers took over. Then called Nová Lhota, the structure was transformed into Renaissance style from 1542 to 1555. A private chapel, now the Church of the Trinity, was built near the chateau in the 1550s. It would become known for its illusive fresco decoration that originated in the second half of the 16th century.

It got the name Červená Lhota (červená means red in Czech) during 1597, when it was painted the same color it is today. The chateau had changed owners again. Vilém Rút of Dírná had chosen this bright color for his residence. A legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had been killed. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend claimed that her blood had gushed over the chateau exterior, making it red, and the color could not be changed.

When the Catholics defeated the Protestants at White Mountain in November of 1620, the chateau was confiscated from the Rút family because they were Utraquists. It didn’t make a difference that they had not fought in the battle that would start the Thirty Years’ War.

During 1621 an Italian aristocrat named Antonio Bruccio took charge of Červená Lhota when the imperial army occupied it. After the war he made sure the chateau was not looted. The chapel was plundered, though, and Bruccio reconstructed it, so that the holy space could be reconsecrated in 1635. He founded a spa nearby, and it earned as much praise as the one in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), which has for centuries grabbed world-wide attention. Bruccio’s spa, alas, is no more. The stone bridge was built during his era, in 1622. He died in 1639, childless.

Vilém Slavata from Chlum and Košumberk purchased it after Bruccio passed, but he wouldn’t use the chateau as his main residence. I recalled that during the Third Defenestration of Prague, in 1618, he had been thrown out the window of the Castle. He didn’t die because he fell on a heap of dung. While looking after the chateau, he had some reconstruction completed. In 1641 the tower with distinguished portal was built. By 1678 the chateau sported a Baroque appearance. To this day the tower’s portal is decorated in Baroque style. Stuccowork seen in the chateau hails from this era.

Vilém Slavata from Epochaplus.cz

When the Slavata dynasty died out, the niece of the last of the Slavata clan was given possession of the chateau. Marie Theresa married into the Windischgratz family. Two owners in this clan accumulated a great debt due to their bad handling of finances. They wound up selling the chateau to barons, who started having construction work done. A fire damaged the chateau.

Two years after the fire, in 1776, Baron Ignác Stillfried bought the place. Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a composer and co-founder of the German opera, lived at the chateau from 1796 to 1799, when he died. Then the dukes of Schonburg-Hartenstein took control in 1835. They would own Červená Lhota for 110 years. During the second half of the 19th century, the chateau was given pseudo-Gothic features, inspired by Hluboká Chateau, one of my all-time favorites. From 1903 to 1913, the chateau got a Neo-Renaissance makeover, giving Červená Lhota the appearance it has today. The chapel was renovated at the beginning of the 20th century, too. In 1907 mass began to be held here again. (Services had been halted during the early 19th century.) After World War I, Johann, the then current owner who had been awarded Golden Fleece and Maltese Cross medals, lived there and added to the chateau’s splendor. When Johann died in 1937, he was buried in the chapel nearby.

Because the family was German, the chateau was handed over to the Czechoslovak state after the war. A children’s sanatorium was set up there in 1946, but its existence was short-lived. During 1949, Červená Lhota was open to the public. Some services, such as weddings, still take place in the former private chapel.

Soon it was time to tour the 16 rooms. So glad that we were in a small group, I was enamored of the interior, which once again felt like a home instead of mere representative spaces. The first floor showed off the life of the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan at the start of the 20th century. It was thrilling to see mostly original furnishings of various styles. Not many chateaus showed off authentic furnishings. At the beginning of our tour, we watched a flutist and pianist in period dress superbly play Renaissance music. The painted ceilings, elaborate clocks and stunning chandeliers all caught my undivided attention. Exquisite religious paintings and portraits, beautiful tiled stoves, furniture with intarsia, black-and-white graphics of various animals and fine porcelain also complemented the spaces. The intricate gilded headboard of a bed sported a hovering putti.

While we perused each room protected by our FFP2 masks, I recalled that Jan Káb’s two children had died of the plague, and I realized that, as the current coronavirus pandemic continued, I had learned how to live all over again. I had spent the first three weeks of the pandemic hiding in my apartment, tuned all day and night to CNN, only leaving to take out the trash. I had been that scared of catching the virus. I had kept my windows closed; my life closed off. Now I was doing things the best I could, being as cautious as I could, but still living rather than merely existing.

I thought back to those 60 minutes spent on that bench at the bus stop in another Červená Lhota, where I had mustered up the courage to face challenges and disappointments head-on, where I had become determined to make changes in my life, even if the changes meant sometimes taking small steps at a time. The tranquility of the hour that seemed to last for such a long time allowed me to get to grips with my present and helped guide me into the future.

Perhaps finding the village of Červená Lhota in Moravia had not been a mistake, but rather it had marked the beginning of a journey that had taken me here, for the second time, to this neo-Renaissance architectural wonder, visited during a pandemic that I had weathered the best I could, making changes along the way, directing my life story one day at a time as I came to new revelations about my journey and my destination. Perhaps it was only fitting that Červená Lhota would be the last chateau I would visit during the summer of 2021. After the tour, my friend and I promised to come back when the pond was restored. So, until then, I said my goodbyes to the place that has been close to my heart for several decades.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Jemniště Chateau Diary

I arrived at Baroque Jemniště Chateau for the third time during July of 2021. While I had traveled to the chateau by bus on previous visits, this time I came with a friend in a car.  The chateau was an hour or so from Prague.

It was a place I wanted my parents to see, but both of them were in their eighties, and they weren’t about to travel here during the pandemic. I doubted they would ever return to Prague.

I already was familiar with the history of the chateau, which had come into existence during 1725. However, a fire destroyed it in 1754. The front section of the chapel, which included the main altar and a ceiling fresco, was the only part of the place that wasn’t reduced to ashes. Then two master artists took control of the reconstruction – Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun. They made the structure an architectural gem. I recalled Reiner’s dramatic painting at Duchcov Chateau, which I had visited for the second time the two years earlier, the year before the pandemic hit. How I missed those times! Braun was best known for his sculptural groupings on Prague’s Charles Bridge.

In 1868 Zdeněk Sternberg bought the chateau, and this family would own Jemniště for many decades. In fact, the Sternbergs currently owned the chateau, and Jiří Sternberg even lived there with his family. Filip Sternberg inherited Jemniště when Zdeněk died. A talented artist, he created renditions of children and horses that were exhibited in the chateau. He had been taught by the best Art Nouveau artist of the day – Alphonse Mucha. I recalled visiting the Mucha Museum with my parents, who loved Mucha’s art. I had also seen some of the Slav Epic canvases in the Municipal House and, years before that, in the chateau at Moravský Krumlov. The Sternbergs held on to the chateau until the Nazis took it away from them in 1943 because the family would not accept German citizenship. The Nazis gave the Sternbergs two weeks to move, and they were able to move original furniture. During Communism, Jemniště Chateau was controlled by the state. Jemniště wasn’t returned to the Sternbergs until 1995, six years after the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime.

We had about an hour before our tour so we walked through the charming park, which featured goats, a kangaroo, a donkey and exotic birds. It was tranquil. I found wondering if I would get back to the USA for a trip this year or if the pandemic would keep me in Prague. I wondered if there would come a day when I could show my parents Jemniště and maybe Kozel Chateau as well. While perusing the park, we did not have on our masks because we did not have to wear them outside. Inside, though, it was strictly forbidden not to wear a mask. I firmly believed that wearing masks inside was the right decision.

Then it was time for the tour. There were about 40 people there. I was surprised that so many people were allowed on the tour. Most chateaus I had visited during the pandemic had limited the number of participants on each tour. I was also surprised that the tour guide said that we didn’t have to wear masks. Only my friend and I wore them. Some of those on the tour were children under twelve, definitely unvaccinated. The Delta variant was gaining ground in the Czech Republic. I was dismayed that so many people didn’t seem to take the virus seriously.

I tried not to stand close to anyone, but it was not possible to social distance. Still, the tour was just as breathtaking as I remembered it. In the Sala Terena two of Braun’s statues portraying cherubs were a highlight of the space. The entrance hall featured watercolors of a castle and two chateaus that the Sternbergs own – Jemniště, Častolovice and Český Šternberk. I mused that I hadn’t been to Český Šternberk and Častolovice for some years and would like to go back there. The tour guide also mentioned that Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sofia Chotek had visited the chateau in 1909. I recalled the three impressive tours at Konopiště Chateau, where Franz Ferdinand d’Este had lived with his family before he and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914. In fact, Konopiště was the last chateau we had visited last year before more and more people came down with the coronavirus.

I liked the three painted windows in one Baroque room. They were painted across from three real windows, and it made for a pleasant contrast. In the Small Dining Room, I was entranced with the intarsia furnishings. A Delft tiled stove caught my attention in the Study. I would also be enthralled with miniature figures of furnishings in the Delft style later in the tour. The red upholstered chairs made the space look cozy and warm for a winter evening. Intriguing porcelain, including Meissen, was exhibited throughout the tour.

The Main Hall was a delight. Portraits of four Habsburg rulers dominated the walls. The gods of Olympus were displayed on the ceiling. Gods from antiquity and the three allegories of the four seasons were other painted creations that stunned viewers.

The last space we visited was Saint Joseph’s Chapel with its thrilling frescoes. Reiner was responsible for the fresco sporting the Holy Trinity. Another showed off allegorical figures. The main altar dazzled with gold décor, portraying Christ crucified as well as statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint John of Nepomuk.

After the tour, again I wished my parents could have joined me on this visit. I had taken them to many chateaus and castles, and they always enjoyed seeing an impressive chateau. I think my mom would have especially liked the porcelain and Delft objects. I wondered if my dad would have been most moved by the frescoes.

Soon, we left Jemniště Chateau and searched for a restaurant. We found a nondescript one after the railroad tracks, near Benešov. The food was excellent, but I wouldn’t remember this place for its food. My keys, in a padded container, dropped out of my rucksack.

When I got home, I realized I did not have my keys! Luckily, my friend had my extra set of keys in her car. One of the keys could not be copied. If I didn’t find them, it would mean a great deal of trouble for me financially and for my landlord, who would have to get new keys made. Luckily, the restaurant owner informed me that he had the keys when I wrote him a text message.

The restaurant was about an hour from Prague, so I asked them to send the keys to me cash-on-delivery. They sent them the next day by regular, standard mail not cash-on-delivery, so there was no receipt. It took eight days for the keys to travel from the Benešov environs to Prague. During those days, I was so stressed and panicked. I should have gone back there to get the keys in person. When they arrived, I noticed that the envelope was open, but the keys were still inside. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Bílek Villa Diary

This museum of Art Nouveau artist František Bílek’s works is one of the most underrated art collections in Prague. The many times I have been there it has not been crowded, making it easier to appreciate fully the emotions triggered by Bílek’s sculptures, furniture, drawings, sketches and book illustrations. The symbolism is religious and mystical and seeps into my soul as I am overcome by emotions. Art Nouveau is a style I cherish, too. I am especially drawn to his dynamic wooden sculptures.

František Bílek, born in 1862, initially wanted to become a painter but switched to sculpture because he was colorblind. He would wind up making a name for himself not only for his evocative sculptures but also for his prints, architectural designs, ceramics and books, for instance. A man of many talents, he was very religious, and the works of the Catholic Modernists greatly influenced his works. He later worshipped at a Czechoslovak Hussite Church, inspired by the teachings of Czech martyr Jan Hus who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1415.

Bílek Villa in Chýnov
Bílek Villa in Chýnov
Bílek grave in Chýnov

I had also visited Bílek’s hometown of Chýnov in south Bohemia, where his villa there housed more of his fascinating creations. It was easy to find his grave in the cemetery there – a huge sculpture marks the spot. Bílek passed away during the Nazi Occupation, in 1941.

Exterior of villa in Prague

While I waited for the museum to open, I perused the exterior of the building, which was just as intriguing as the inside. It has huge columns that resemble an Egyptian temple as Bílek brings religion to the fore. The irregular shape of the former home also caught my attention. I liked the inscriptions on the side of the building, too. Indeed, Bílek incorporated inscriptions into some of his works. There were several sculptures in the quaint garden.

Jan Amos Comenius from statuary grouping in garden

Dominating the garden was a sculpture that featured Czech national figure Jan Amos Comenius, who contributed greatly to the education system in the Czech lands and had to leave his native land because of threats of persecution on more than one occasion. The sculptural grouping shows the 17th century religious and educational reformer forced to escape his native land. He lived in many countries, including Poland, Transylvania, the Netherlands, Sweden and England. I recalled the play version of his novel The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart at Goose on a String Theatre in Brno many years ago. I remember the stunning performance of Petr Oslzlý as the protagonist.

I noticed the elegant Art Nouveau doors as I waited for the museum to open. Soon, it was time. I entered the first room, my personal favorite. It contained numerous sculptures made of wood. I was always overcome by emotion as I perused all the sculptures.

Astonishment
Astonishment

I was most impressed with “Astonishment,” which showed an amazed figure looking up to Heaven. I see the figure as being enthralled by what life has to offer, and it brings me back to my first year in Prague, the last quarter of 1991 and 1992, when my hero, the former dissident and playwright Václav Havel, was president of Czechoslovakia. I was learning Czech, which I consider to be a magical language. I also frequented the Czech theatre where Havel had once been resident dramaturg and playwright as I tried to improve my listening comprehension. A theatre major, I was enthralled by the plays, especially by Havel’s The Garden Party. I met Havel at the premiere of one of his plays, which was a big thrill. I had read the English translations of his books in the USA and had done much research on the Velvet Revolution during university. At that time, I yearned to read his books in Czech.

Look at the details of Christ’s disheveled hair.

Everything was new, and the world seemed full of possibilities. To me Havel symbolized hope. I felt this sense of hope in my personal life as I made new friends and started writing for a weekly English language newspaper, interviewing former dissidents and other fascinating Czech personalities.

Grief
Grief

Another sculpture that deeply affected me was called “Grief.” I could feel the sorrow seep through my body as I stared at the female figure clearly devastated by death. It brought to mind moments of sadness when I had felt a deep pit in my stomach. Gazing at the statue, I let myself experience the sadness, not trying to stave off the painful emotions.

A charcoal drawing that spoke to me was “The Blind,” portraying a blind man leading a blind woman, perhaps on a path to knowledge. (I apologize for not having a picture of this one. The reflection of light on the glass didn’t allow for a decent photo.) The blind man is clearly upset that he cannot see as evidenced by his hand gesture. While they cannot see, they have an inner vision that is necessary to develop as one goes through life, experiencing trials and tribulations. It made me think of the many times I had made mistakes and how I learned from them. I also had learned not to be niave and not to trust everyone or take everyone at their word.

I also marveled at Bílek’s massive furniture, created with light and dark wood. Much of the furniture sported religious motifs as a desk even resembled an altar. I also saw family portraits that reminded me that the villa had once been a home. It gave the place an intimate quality. I wondered what kind of conversations had taken place in that villa when the Bílek family resided there. What had they worried about? What had made them happy?

After a while, I left, feeling so much stronger mentally. This was a museum I could visit often and still be greatly affected by the works of art.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Nebílovy Chateau Diary

We approached the yellow-and-white Baroque chateau that was located about 16 kilometers south of Pilsen. Nebílovy had two horseshoe-shaped sections, a front and a back wing. The front part of the chateau boasted a beautiful yellow exterior. However, the outside of the back chateau was in bad condition. When my friend saw the back wing, she asked me if the chateau was open.

Because this was my second visit, I was able to explain to my friend that the building in the back sported some beautiful interiors of representative rooms, including a dazzling dancing hall and an impressive chapel. Unfortunately, finances had not yet permitted the exterior of the back wing to be restored. Many rooms in the back wing had to be renovated, and it would take a long time. Czech chateaus and castles just didn’t have the money to do repairs quickly. I wished I was a billionaire and could donate money to cats and the restoration of chateaus and castles in the Czech Republic. Alas, this was not to be.

I was familiar with the history of Nebílovy. The chateau came into existence during 1706 thanks to Count Adam Jindřich from Steinau, who had it built for residential purposes. The Viennese architect who made this possible was Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Count Adam Jindřich would be a major player in the chateau’s history. He had made a name for himself as imperial general and field marshal of the Venetian Republic. However, Adam Jindřich passed away in 1712, before construction was completed.

Then Nebílovy was sold to the Černín family, and construction was finished before 1720.  Count Vojtěch Černín from Chudenice, an accomplished hunter, had it reconstructed in the late 18th century, when master artist Antonie Tuvora painted the interiors. Unfortunately, most of his painting had not survived. It was still visible, though, in the 18th century Dancing Hall due to a lengthy and complicated restoration process.

The Wallenstein-Vartemberk clan then had possession of the chateau, but they lived at Kozel Chateau nearby. I had visited Kozel with its one-floor unique architectural style several times. Later, Nebílovy became decrepit and would remain in bad condition for 100 years. From 1816 it was no longer inhabited. It was used for agricultural purposes. After World War I, parts of the property were divided into plots and sold. Restoration didn’t start until 1968, when the state got control. It was open to the public in 1998.

We walked through the park, which had many flower arrangements and an intriguing fountain. One side was fenced off. Sheep, rams and goats called that part home.

Soon it was time for the tour of the front and back wings. Even the hallway of the front wing was impressive with its delightful paintings of herbal flowers. I especially liked one painting near the beginning of the tour – it showed two hamsters eating grapes. I hadn’t seen many hamsters in paintings in chateaus.

One feature I loved during the tour was the presence of impressive Venetian chandeliers. The Oriental porcelain and furnishings also captured my attention. The porcelain in general was also worth praising, especially the Meissen works. An avid tea drinker, I especially liked a white tea cup decorated with painting of ivy and red flowers. It had a cheery, Christmasy feel. I loved Christmas Eve. It was my favorite holiday. Another piece that interested me was a blue porcelain peacock adorned with real feathers. I also was drawn to a black jewel chest, its drawers sporting floral, plant and bird motifs. The pianos in the chateau were another delight.

While we were examining the back building, we saw the Dancing Hall. I stood in the middle of the 180 meters squared room and stared at the wall and ceiling frescoes of an exotic landscape with Classicist and Rococo elements. It almost made me dizzy with glee.

The frescoes were dotted with monkeys, peacocks, birds and ancient ruins as well as a few people in 18th century attire. The palm trees started at floor level and reached to the ceiling. The doors and fireplace became parts of the landscape, surrounded by trees and architecture from antiquity. I particularly liked the painting of the monkey praying. The faux window, made using illusive techniques, was another thrill. A temple stood in the idyllic landscape, where several people relaxed. Broken statues and pedestals added to the motif of antiquity. I was awed at how Tuvora’s delicate work really drew the viewer into the setting. I was even more fascinated by the restoration process of the fresco. They had arranged it into 650 parts and restored each piece during a lengthy process that was not ready until 2013. The fresco restoration had been even lauded by the National Monument Institute.

After the tour, we entered a small doorway from the courtyard of the back building. It didn’t look like it would be anything special. But inside there was a chapel dedicated to Saint Anthony, an impressive Baroque creation with gilded altars that included wonderful statuary. On the other side of the back building, there was a modern art exhibition that was interesting to see.

We soon left the chateau, full of awe at the 18th century interiors and intriguing architecture of the exteriors. Images of the Dancing Hall kept popping through my mind. It was definitely exceptional, a true work of art – precise and masterful. We came back to Prague, knowing our trip was a great success.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Konopiště Chateau Diary

I had been to Konopiště Chateau at least seven times. The tours were always packed with 30 tourists or more, which could be a bit disconcerting. About 40 kilometers from Prague, Konopiště is a popular sight for day trips from the capital city and is usually swamped with tourists.

This time, though, there were only about five of us on each tour. It was during the coronavirus pandemic, at the beginning of September of 2020, when the situation was just starting to get worse. (It would be our last day trip during 2020 because of the steady increase in coronavirus cases.) The courtyard was almost empty. A few tourists waited on benches and fiddled with their cameras. No tour buses traveled there at that time because of the pandemic. We wore our masks and were able to social distance from each other on the tours.

By my 2020 visit, I knew the history of Konopiště well. The chateau of four wings and three storeys came into being as a Gothic fort with stellar defense features in the 1280s. The Šternberks took control of the castle in 1327, and it remained their property for more than 275 years. Konopiště survived the 15th century Hussite Wars without a scratch, a much different fate than so many other Czech castles that were plundered and even destroyed. Konopiště got a Gothic-Renaissance makeover during the late 15th century thanks to George of Šternberk. It became a Renaissance chateau when the Lords of Hodějov owned it in the 17th century. The Lords of Hodějov rebelled against the Habsburg monarchy in 1620, and the chateau was confiscated from them, placed in the possession of military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein.

While Konopiště had experienced good fortune during the Hussite Wars, the same could not be said about their fate during the Thirty Years’ War. The Swedes plundered it in 1648, and throughout the war, the chateau suffered serious damage. After Adam Michna acquired the chateau, the serfs rebelled against his repressive measures and conquered Konopiště in 1657. The Czech kingdom’s highest burgrave, Jan Josef of Vrtba, purchased Konopiště when it was in a decrepit state and transformed it into a luxurious Baroque chateau. Later, the chateau’s interior would also feature some Rococo elements.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este – Photo from Dotyk

During 1887 Franz Ferdinand d’Este purchased the chateau. He was the oldest nephew of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and later would become the heir to the Habsburg throne. He made a multitude of changes to the chateau, reconstructing it as a Renaissance residence with North Italian features. One part of the chateau was remodeled to look medieval. Architect Joseph Mocker carried out the renovations between 1889 and 1894. The archduke founded the 225-hectare English style park with the exquisite rose glarden. He established what is today the third largest European collection of armory and medieval weapons. Perhaps what stood out the most was his impressive collection of hunting trophies that are seen in the hallway at the beginning and throughout the tour.

He also installed modern technical features, such as a hydraulic elevator, central heating and electricity. His vast collection of items dedicated to Saint George are located in the former orangery. After his assassination in Sarajevo during 1918, the First World War took place, and the chateau was plundered. During World War II the chateau served as a headquarters for the Nazis. It was nationalized in 1945, after World War II.

Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophie Chotek – Photo from Pinterest.

To know the history of Konopiště, it is necessary to know more about Franz Ferdinand d’Este. The oldest son of the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I, he became heir to the Habsburg throne after his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father died. The Crown Prince, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I, committed suicide along with his mistress, Mary Freiin von Vetsera, at Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Franz Ferdinand achieved much success in the military. However, he often disagreed with Emperor Franz Josef and was by no means a favorite of the emperor.

Sophie Chotek – Photo from Alchetron.

He was smitten by Sophie Chotek, a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella. The two were secret lovers for two years because Sophie was not descended from the Habsburgs or any other European ruling dynasty, something that caused much tension between Franz Ferdinand and Emperor Franz Josef. The emperor did eventually allow the couple to wed, but he set rigid conditions. None of their children could be heirs to the throne. Also, Sophie was forbidden to sit in the royal carriage or royal box.

Zákupy Chateau

They were married at Baroque Zákupy Chateau in northern Bohemia, a place I had visited a few years earlier. I recalled the many portraits and pictures of members of the monarchy at Zákupy. Franz Joseph had used the place as a summer residence for some time in the second half of the 19th century. I remembered what I liked best about Zákupy’s interior. I loved the delicate, decorative painting of Josef Navrátil on the upper walls and ceilings of many rooms.  A fantasy-inspired painting of the four continents had also held my attention. The 17th century Baroque chapel was amazing with ceiling frescoes portraying scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Interior of Zákupy Chaptel
Interior of Zákupy Chapel

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had three children and were married for 14 years. The couple was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand terrorist group, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. Franz Ferdinand and his wife had travelled to Sarajevo because Franz Ferdinand wanted to oversee military maneuvers. Less than two months after their tragic deaths, World War I broke out.

Soon it was time for the tour. One characteristic that has always enthralled me is that the chateau has 96 percent of its original furnishings. So many original furnishings of castles and chateaus had been destroyed or lost. Photographs of Konopiště’s interiors from Franz Ferdinand’s ownership of the chateau made it possible to see the spaces as they really had looked during that time period.

As we admired the luxurious spaces on the first tour, I recalled that Franz Ferdinand and Konopiště were mentioned in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, an anti-militaristic, satirical novel sprinkled with anecdotes in which Švejk, a gung-ho soldier serving in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, appears to be an idiot. It is not clear if he is pretending to be an idiot. Originally published from 1921 to 1923, the book was never finished as Hašek succumbed to a heart attack while writing it. The Good Soldier Švejk, as it is often called, holds the distinction of being the most translated book in Czech literature.

Photo from booktook

The first tour showed off some 5,000 numbered hunting trophies, many of exotic animals, as Franz Ferdinand had travelled all over the world on hunting expeditions. Many trophies consisted of exotic animals. I saw bears, antelopes and wild cats, for instance. The archduke had also killed 12 Indian tigers. There was also a collection of 3,200 pairs of deer teeth. But Konopiště is much more than its seemingly ever-present hunting souvenirs.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his family – Photo from Franz Josef

One of the most impressive spaces is the Rose Room, which has an exquisite pink ceiling and shows off 19th century Rococo furniture. Its Czech crystal chandelier is another delight. I was especially drawn to an Empire style table adorned with gemstones. I loved the three Italian marble cabinets that sported drawers decorated with leaves, fruit, animals and birds. I noticed the delicate ruddy cheeks of Marie Antoinette in one portrait. The Grand Dining Room stood out for its Baroque ceiling that portrays the four seasons and a Czech crystal chandelier weighing 170 kilograms. The 15th century paintings in William II’s Bedroom caught my undivided attention. An exquisite Spanish tapestry of a forest with people on horseback hung in one room. A beautiful yellow, blue and white tiled stove stood out in the Guest Bedroom. A Venetian mirror showed off a picture of Saint George. Many artifacts on the tours were decorated with likenesses of Saint George.

The second tour of the chateau included rooms specifically meant for Crown Prince Rudolf, though he died before he could visit his cousin. Franz Ferdinand had been very close to the Crown Prince and had taken his death very hard. On this tour we learned many interesting facts about Franz Ferdinand’s life. The guide told us that Franz Ferdinand’s brother encouraged him to keep Sophie as a mistress instead of marrying her. Franz Ferdinand never spoke to his brother again.

I marveled at the 16th century Renaissance vaulting throughout the rooms. These spaces make up the oldest part of the castle. My favorite room was the chapel, one of my favorite chapels in the country. It was a place where I could have imagined having my wedding if I had found someone to marry. I was awed by the 19th century blue vaulted ceiling speckled with gold stars, symbolizing the sky. The 15th and 16th century sculptures also amazed. The main altar was Gothic, featuring the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Saint Hubert and Saint George (of course!) also made appearances. Instead of an organ, the chapel was equipped with a harmonium, and it still worked. I loved the bright colors of the chapel – they had such a distinctive vibrancy that gave off positive energy. Also, the small chapel had an intimate feel.

Even though I was not a big fan of weapons, the armory was very impressive. I saw 15th century weapons from the Hussite wars, executioners’ swords and complete armor for a horse and knight hailing from 1560. Renaissance armor for a musician from 1600 was exquisitely decorated with pictures of instruments. A rifle made of ebony hailed from the beginning of the 16th century. Cannons on display had been used during the Thirty Years’ War. Some shields were decorated with mythological themes. One showed a fighting Hercules. I also saw rifles and pistols made in the 16th and 17th century.

A look at the countryside around the chateau

There was even more to admire on that tour. An electric elevator with plush seats looked like a small, luxurious train compartment. Franz Ferdinand had equipped the chateau with the most modern technology of the time period. I liked the ashtray made of part of an elephant’s foot. In the Smoking Salon, a 16th century tapestry portraying King of Macedon Alexander the Great caught my attention. Also, the 17th century monumental fireplace adorned with figures of lions and coats-of-arms was carved from rare Italian Carrara marble. Toward the end of the tour, we saw a stuffed bear that had lived in the chateau’s moat until 2007. Now another bear, named Jiří (George), resided there, though I hadn’t seen him when I had looked over the moat during this visit.

We didn’t have a chance to go on the third tour, but I had been on it during previous visits. It consisted of Franz Ferdinand’s private apartments. Furnishings of various styles exuded charm and luxury. A hunting theme dominated the décor.

Museum of Saint George in the former orangery

I also visited the Shooting Hall in the former stables, which hailed from Franz Ferdinand’s time at the chateau. I was impressed with the astounding detail of the painted moving targets of various people and animals.  The museum of 808 objects depicting Saint George killing the dragon in the former orangery was another delight. Franz Ferdinand had collected these paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces with the hopes that one day Britain’s King George would visit the chateau. That dream was cut short by Franz Ferdinand’s death.

Target in the Shooting Hall

Then there was the vast park, which we only had a little time to visit. The rose garden had always been my favorite part of the park along with its numerous Italian sculptures. I also had an affinity for the greenhouse and its intriguing plants. I had been at the park during the spring and summer previous years, so I had seen it in full bloom.

Chateau park

Then it was time to eat. We were the only customers in the cozy chateau restaurant. I had chicken and couldn’t resist a large sundae for dessert. I loved treating myself to ice cream on my day trips. It made them even more special. I would remember this sundae more than others because it would be my last at a chateau for the season. I can still savor the vanilla and chocolate. . . .

My last dessert at a chateau restaurant in 2020

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

2020 Travel Diary

View of Prague from the district where I live

This past year started with me looking forward to my trip to Milan, scheduled for May because I had had to cancel in November of 2019. I was assuming I would begin castlehopping around the country at the beginning of April. The last thing I expected was a pandemic. I never would have guessed that seeing people in face masks would become a familiar sight. I changed my trip to Milan to October, thinking the pandemic would be pretty much over by then. I would cancel for a third time, not feeling safe enough to fly or going sightseeing when a deadly virus was raging through the world.

A chapel in my home district

During the first three weeks of the pandemic, I only went outside to take out the trash. I felt traumatized. I watched CNN International whenever I had a free moment as the network provided nonstop coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. On TV, I was constantly confronted with death – so many deaths. I was convinced I would die soon of the coronavirus as did many of those featured on TV, so I did not go out. Then one day I had to go to the pharmacy. I was hyperventilating because I was so anxious to be outdoors. Soon, though, I started walking to the nearby park and spending time sitting on one of my favorite benches with the most stunning views of lush green hills that looked like they belonged in Vermont.

Křivoklát Castle

It all changed at the end of May, when the castles opened again. The number of coronavirus cases were low. My friend and I started going on day trips once a week, giving me a welcome respite from my endless fretting and CNN’s constant portrayal of tragic suffering and death.

The main altar of the chapel in Křivoklát Castle

We started at the Gothic Křivoklát Castle, which harkens back to the 13th century. My favorite room in this castle is the well-preserved chapel that was built in the 1470s. The winged main altar of the crowning of the Virgin Mary hailed from 1490. Masterfully carved statues of the 12 apostles added to the impressive décor. Another space was devoted to Gothic art with altarpieces, statues and paintings. Of course, we had to wear masks and try to stay apart from each other. No more than 12 people were allowed on a tour. Still, it was crowded in some spaces.

Painted decoration on a window in the Knights’ Hall at Žleby Chateau

Next came Žleby, a chateau I had visited years earlier with another friend. I loved the romantic 19th century appearance. The chapel boasted of a Neo-Gothic 19th century style. The Knights’ Hall was a real gem with 16th century knights’ armor, hunting trophies and weapons. However, what I liked best about it were the 188 painted glass pictures covering one wall. They had been created from 1503 to 1749. My favorite feature of the chateau was the leather wallpaper, for instance in the Prince’s Study, the Rococo Salon and the library. The Red Room also dazzled with gold-and-red leather wallpaper. Of great interest were the elaborate tiled stoves, some of the most beautiful I had ever seen. The armory was another delight. And who could forget those Renaissance arcades on the exterior.

Tiled stove at Žleby Chateau
Leather wallpaper lines the walls at Žleby Chateau.
Kačina Chateau

I also returned to the biggest 19th century Empire style chateau in the Czech Republic, Kačina. The representative rooms displayed 19th century Empire, Biedermeier and Classicist styles. But there was more. A 19th century library sported roundels with painted cupolas and stylized squares. The light streamed into the three sections. The small theatre was another treat, with two balconies of gold-and-black décor. The entrance room of the chateau had a 16-meter high roundel, which brought to mind the Pantheon in Rome.

Kačina Chateau library
Nebílovy Chateau
Dancing Hall at Nebílovy Chateau

We set off for West Bohemia to Nebílovy Chateau one weekday. It is comprised of a Baroque chateau with another building behind it. The structure in the background looked so dilapidated – as if it would fall apart before our very eyes. Yet both buildings were filled with great beauty inside. The Dancing Hall was the highlight with its idyllic ceiling and wall painting of palm trees, monkeys, birds and people. The Rococo designs amazed. Other rooms were stunning, too, with little details that made the spaces charming.

Průhonice Park

One beautiful morning I traveled to Průhonice Park with another friend. It included 250 acres of beauty with a Neo-Renaissance chateau. I admired the rose garden, the central lake with its stunning views, the open meadows dotted with haystacks, the waterfalls and the brook as well as the floral species.

Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau

I also paid a second visit to Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau, which featured rare 18th century furnishings. I loved the mural spanning three walls in the Italian Room. Naples and Venice loomed in the distance of the town represented. The Delft Dining Room proved to be a treasure. The porcelain from the 17th to the 19th century was all original and handmade. Giacomo Casanova worked in the library during the 18th century.

Koněprusy Caves

For some variety, we explored some caves about an hour from Prague one week. The Koněprusy Caves were discovered in 1950 and became open to the public nine years later. They measure 2,050 meters in length. The tour covers 620 meters and shows visitors part of the middle and upper floors. (There are three floors in all.) The middle floor is the longest, dotted with wide galleries and large halls. A special kind of limestone – Koněprusy limestone – has been mined from this area since the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the foundation stones for Prague’s National Theatre came from this quarry in 1868.

I loved the decoration of this cave system. The ornamentation was one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic. It is formed by stalactite and stalagmite structures made from calcite.

Peruc Chateau

I traveled to one chateau for the first time – all the other trips were return visits. Peruc had opened a month or so earlier after lengthy renovation. The elegant Rococo exterior had an interior that did not disappoint. The religious paintings and tiled stoves, mostly in Classicist style, were highlights of the tour. The outdoor toilets comprised of holes in the ground certainly were not very comfortable.

Manětín Chateau
Manětín Chateau

We made a lengthy journey mostly on country back roads to Manětín Chateau in west Bohemia. The ceiling frescoes delighted me. In the biggest room, a ceiling fresco from 1730 showed three figures representing Love, Strength and Fortune. The four seasons made appearances, too. Painted Baroque statues looked real. Mythological themes played central roles. The chateau was unique for its impressive collection of paintings of servants and clerks who had worked at the chateau. Thirty Baroque statues dotted the town, too.

Rabštejn nad Střelou

After visiting Manětín, we drove to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, which was once the smallest town in the country and possibly at one time the smallest town in Europe. It featured a Baroque chateau, a castle ruin and timbered houses that belonged in another century. The town was a quaint place, but since my last visit, many tourists had discovered it. During my first visit, I was one of the only people exploring. This time the town was crowded with Czechs taking advantage of the nice weather and low number of coronavirus cases.

Chapel at Lnáře Chateau
Lnáře Chateau

One of my favorite trips was to Lnáře Chateau. We ate at a restaurant where three stray cats begged for handouts. The black one received some of my macaroni and cheese. Then we headed to the 17th century chateau with an elegant courtyard boasting of arcades. Inside, the wall and ceiling frescoes were Baroque, and many dealt with mythology. The Baroque Chapel of Saint Joseph hailed from the middle of the 17th century.

Coat-of-arms in the Cat Museum
Copy of Egyptian goddess represented by a cat in the Cat Museum

What my friend and I loved most about Lnáře Chateau was the Cat Museum. We saw figures of cats, paintings, drawings and coats-of-arms of towns symbolized by cats. A two-meter high copy of an Egyptian goddess represented by a cat stood in one space. I also adored the cheerful painting of a feline by one of my favorite Czech artists, František Pon. It was one of my happiest days of the summer, and I often think back to that day when I want to capture that feeling of utter joy.

Konopiště Chateau
Konopiště Chateau

Our last venture out of Prague was to the ever-popular Konopiště Chateau, known to most as the former home of Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophie Chotek, who were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered World War I. The couple lived there for 14 years. What I liked best was not the collection of hunting trophies that people always talk about but the chapel with its Gothic statues and Renaissance paintings. The light blue vaulted ceiling was studded with stars. Red designs also added to the elegance of the small space. I remembered my first visit here in 1991. I had imagined getting married in this chapel someday. Alas, I would never get married but would find happiness in being single. The first tour concentrated on the luxuriousness of the chateau furnishings while the second tour revolved around accounts of Franz Ferdinand’s family and how they had influenced his life as we explored intriguing furnishings.

Konopiště Chateau Museum of St. George

A museum addict, I enjoyed visiting the Saint George Museum with 808 paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces sporting Saint George fighting the dragon. Franz Ferdinand had amassed an impressive collection. The Shooting Hall was unique with moving targets painted in detail.

Konopiště Shooting Hall

Perhaps the best thing about that day was that there were only five or six people on each tour. Normally, there are 30 or more on a tour at Konopiště. It was wonderful to be there without the crowds. I had a three-scoop sundae in the chateau restaurant, a fitting end to our escapades for the year. By then coronavirus cases were increasing, and it was becoming dangerous to travel.

Rembrandt exhibition at Kinský Palace

I did manage to make it to one art exhibition this year. Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man exhibition took place in Kinský Palace on Old Town Square. The portraits and self-portraits spoke to me as Rembrandt evoked the soul of his subject and knew how to reveal the deepest depths of his own soul in his self-portraits. Modern work inspired by the great artist was on display, too.

Rembrandt exhibition

I missed going to restaurants and eating indoors, something I won’t do during a pandemic. I missed going to the theatre, going to concerts, taking the Metro and tram often and just feeling free to go wherever I wanted to without being concerned about catching a deadly virus. I really missed not being able to fly to the States and see my parents because it was too risky, and part of the time the borders were closed. And I missed spending time in foreign countries, exploring new places such as exciting art museums. I missed Italy specifically. I hope that, by the spring of 2021, I will be able to, at the very least, take trips to castles and chateaus around the country.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

My dessert at Konopiště as I celebrated the short season of travel

Rembrandt Exhibition Portrait of a Man Diary

I had enthusiastically sought out Rembrandt’s works at various galleries throughout Europe. I had marveled at his masterful chiaroscuro at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, at the Louvre in Paris and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to name a few.

One of my favorite memories of traveling with my parents was visiting the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, which included a printmaking studio as well as some of his paintings and prints. Rembrandt lived there from 1639 until 1656, when financial woes forced him to move. None of the furnishings is original because he had sold them, but the 17th century interior still delighted and awed both my parents and myself. We were happy. I had recently turned 30 while my parents were still young enough to travel abroad without health concerns. Therefore, Rembrandt’s works had a personal meaning for me, evoking such memories of joy.

I was very excited when the Rembrandt exhibition of his portraits came to Kinský Palace on Old Town Square in Prague on September 25, 2020. The palace’s space for the exhibition took up one floor and was considerable in size. Even though it didn’t end until January 31, 2021, I was eager to see the masterpieces. I went there shortly after it opened, on September 28. Many of the works were normally displayed in Prague, Olomouc, Brno, New York, Antwerp, London, Dresden and Vienna while others had been loaned from private collections. The exhibition featured both his paintings and drawings as well as modern works inspired by the masterful artist. It was a good thing I went so soon after its opening because soon the gallery would be closed due to the high number of coronavirus cases. We had to wear masks, and it was quite crowded, even though only a limited number of people could be in the gallery at the same time. (The gallery would reopen in December.)

The highlight of the exhibition was the painting A Scholar in His Study, permanently housed in Prague’s National Gallery. The painting exemplifies how Rembrandt achieved great success at portraiture. His work shows not only the physical characteristics of the subject but also the psychological nature of the man in a dramatic way that is unique to Rembrandt’s style.

I was most entranced by Rembrandt’s portraits because they showed the soul of the person. The subject was not standing rigidly. The appearance was very lifelike. Moreover, there was much more to his paintings than the appearance. I felt as if I could look deep into the people in the portraits as his works narrated a visual story of the subject’s life. His portraits showed that he truly cared about the subject.

I especially was keen on the self-portraits as Rembrandt showed his inner self, capturing his psychological state. It was as if he could be objective about himself. I could read the self-portraits as a sort of visual autobiography – as a young man Rembrandt looked a bit insecure, at the peak of his career he appeared successful and confident and finally I saw a sadness and resignation that was both touching and tragic. I recalled his sad fate – a poor man when he died, he was buried in an unknown grave in a church, and his remains were destroyed after resting there for 20 years.

I liked the portraits in which he was making faces. In one particular work, he looked surprised and amazed. I noticed his clothes from bygone eras in some works as he dressed as a historical figure for some self-portraits. A theatre major, I loved the sense of drama in these works.

The self-portraits were dynamic and powerful. This effect was in part achieved by his mastery of light and shadow. I also appreciated the details. His works featured great attention to detail, and that helped bring the portraits to life.

While I made sure I didn’t stand too close to anyone, I perused the works with a sense of enthusiasm that I had missed since early September, when my friend and I stopped visiting castles, chateaus and caves because the number of coronavirus cases had greatly increased. I reveled in that enthusiasm.

I thought I would have the chance to visit other exhibitions in the near future. Alas, soon the museums and galleries closed for a lengthy period, only opening again in December. I missed the excitement of peering at an artwork that spoke to me, that was powerful and poignant.

The Portrait of a Man exhibition was one of my favorite all-time exhibitions. Rembrandt’s works never cease to amaze me, and seeing so many in one place was phenomenal.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Shooting Hall at Konopiště Chateau Photo Diary

The shooting hall is located in the former stables of Konopiště Chateau, about an hour from Prague.  It hails from the time when Franz Ferdinand d’Este, an avid hunter, resided there. He bought the chateau in 1887 and carried out repairs from 1889 to 1894 so that the architecture resembled a Renaissance chateau in North Italian style with a partially medieval appearance. His penchant for hunting is well-documented as the chateau shows off 4,500 of his hunting trophies and 3,000 deer teeth.

The shooting hall includes painted moving targets of various figures rendered in great detail. One man holds out an open umbrella to fend off an angry dog. Another man brandishes scissors in one hand as if about to use them as a weapon against people gathered in front of a bank. There are targets of various animals, too. The shooting hall includes a section with many hunting trophies, too. Its meticulously portrayed painted scenes are unique, to be sure. This part of the chateau is free if tourists buy a ticket for any of the four tours of the interiors.

Franz Ferdinand was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, the brother of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef I. After his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father passed away, Franz Ferdinand found himself heir to the Habsburg throne.

The emperor strongly frowned upon Ferdinand marrying Sophie Chotková because no one in her family was a descendent of a European ruling dynasty. Finally, the couple was allowed to marry, but there were strict conditions. The couple’s three children could never be heirs to the throne.

They only enjoyed 14 years residing in the chateau. Their tenure was abruptly cut short when, during the summer of 1914, as Inspector General of the Army, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie oversaw military maneuvers in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This region, along with Herzegovina, had been annexed by Austria in 1908. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, an assassin affiliated with the Black Hand terrorist group, shot and killed the Archduke and his wife while they were in their car. Less than two months later, World War I began. 

People usually pop into the shooting hall for a quick look but the skillfully made moving targets deserve more attention.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Saint George Museum at Konopiště Chateau

This museum is located in the former orangery of Konopiště Chateau, about an hour from Prague.  Franz Ferdinand d’Este bought the chateau in 1887 and carried out repairs from 1889 to 1894 so that the architecture resembled a Renaissance chateau in North Italian style with a partially medieval appearance. It is known for its 4,500 hunting trophies, a chapel with 15th and 16th century paintings and sculptures, a bear residing in its moat and an armory that holds the distinction of being one of the largest in Europe.

Franz Ferdinand collected paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces, among others, sporting the theme of Saint George killing the dragon because he dreamed of hosting King George of England at the chateau and of surprising him with his vast collection. Alas, no such visit took place.

According to legend, Saint George slayed the dragon that was going to devour a princess whom Saint George saved. It was a popular literary theme during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Supposedly, the event took place in Libya. The legend appears in writing for the first time in a Georgian document from the 11th century. The story has been rendered in famous paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens and Salvador Dali. It is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Richard III and in King Lear.

Franz Ferdinand was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, the brother of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef I. After his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father passed away, Franz Ferdinand found himself heir to the Habsburg throne.

The emperor strongly frowned upon Ferdinand marrying Sophie Chotková because no one in her family was a descendent of a European ruling dynasty. Finally, the couple was allowed to marry, but their three children were forbidden to be heirs to the throne.

During the summer of 1914, as Inspector General of the Army, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie went to oversee military maneuvers in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which, along with Herzegovina, had been annexed by Austria in 1908. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, an assassin affiliated with the Black Hand terrorist group, shot and killed the Archduke and his wife while they were in their car. Less than two months later, World War I began.  They were buried in the crypt of their country home at Artstetten Castle in Austria.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.