Zlatá Koruna Monastery

 

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I traveled by a very comfortable train to the monastery of Zlatá Koruna (“The Golden Crown”) one summer morning. When I got off the train, I almost panicked. I was in the middle of nowhere. Soon, though, I got my bearings, found the village and made my way to my destination. The monastery is situated only six kilometers from the historical, romantic town of Český Krumlov, in a picturesque setting next to the Vltava River.

The monastery of Zlatá Koruna was founded by King Otakar II of the Přemyslid dynasty in 1263 for the Cistercian Order. Legend has it that King Otakar II promised to establish a monastery and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary if he won the Battle of Kressenbrunn in 1260. Though burned down by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars in 1420, the monastery was reconstructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Zlatá Koruna suffered again, though, when, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, it housed various factories.

It looks nothing like a factory now, I thought to myself as the tour of the three-aisled basilica, big and small convent buildings and chapel began.

The elaborate Rococo stucco décor and exquisite Rococo wall paintings throughout the monastery astounded me. I was impressed by the refectory, the former monastery dining room, which housed three early Baroque frescoes dating from 1685. The painting at the door of the refectory showed prophet Habakkuk with an angel. The middle fresco took up the Holy Trinity theme. Another fresco was devoted to Hagar with his son Ishmael and an angel. The entranceway to the refectory was decorated by a huge canvas that told the story of Josef in Egypt.

The Chapel of Guardian Angels was the oldest preserved part of this monastery, dating back to the late 13th century and, I soon realized, a gem of early Gothic architecture in the Czech lands. In 1763 painter František Prokyš adorned it with beautiful Rococo frescoes.

The Chapter Hall, built in 13th century Gothic style, featured Rococo paintings depicting religious allegories. In the Cruciform Passage area of the Big Convent, my eyes were drawn to the rich Rococo stucco decoration and stunning frescoes by Lukáš Plank. These works illustrated scenes from the history of the Cistercian Order, the guide told our group.

The Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary was also dominated by stucco ornamentation. The main altar dated from the late 18th century and was adorned with sculptures by Jakub Eberle. I did not miss the High Gothic rose window in the transept, either.

Other sights that enthralled me included the epitaph of Přemysl Otakar II.  An empty coffin was opened by the God Saturn, Pallas Athena standing at his side. Designed circa 1772 by Jakub Eberle, the epitaph showed off a black coffin surrounded by rich sculptural ornamentation and dynamic, twisting figures as well as white and gold decoration.

During the 1700s the monastery served as a school for children, and part of the tour highlighted teaching aids in the form of small pictures depicting significant personalities from Czech history. Other pictorial learning tools included pictures of a carpenter’s workshop and a blacksmith’s workshop, for instance. An exhibition about literature in southern Bohemia rounded out the tour. A Czech literature enthusiast, I was enthralled with the displays.

Afterwards, I took a walk across the bridge to the other side of the Vltava and relaxed on the embankment. I thought about many things – happy and sad moments, failures and successes – as I gazed at the monastery from the opposite embankment. It was a sunny summer day, the perfect weather for traveling. I watched many people canoe down the gentle river. Before long, though, it was time to get lunch and then head for the small shack that served as a train station. While waiting for my train back to Prague, I stared at the monastery in the distance. Then I boarded the train, and the monastery disappeared from sight. View from Zlata Koruna

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

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Rabštejn nad Střelou Diary

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After visiting the chateau in Manětín not far from Plzeň in west Bohemia, I had to go by car to get to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, the smallest town in the Czech Republic and allegedly the smallest in Europe. As I entered the town, I noticed a pub on the right-hand side. I think every town in the Czech Republic has at least one pub. I had tried to visit the town the week before, but the only road to the town had been closed due to construction work.

I expected to see four or five houses, maybe one church, but it was bigger than that. There was a yellow and white church on a hill and next to it a chateau behind a gate. A sign stated that it was private property. The façade was impressive and the lawn meticulously well-kept.  Situated next to the site of a former castle hailing from around 1260, the chateau was built in Baroque style in 1705. The castle originally had a high cylinder tower and walls around it but was severely damaged in the 16th century. Now some of the walls and the foundation of the tower are all that is left of the castle.

ImageThe road dipped down suddenly, and I came to the main square. About five men were struggling to put up a maypole as the May 1 holiday approached. Branches flaunted fluttering, colored ribbons. There was a decrepit building behind me and another one with an old, battered sign above the doorway in German. It read “LIEDFELDERHOF.” I wondered what it meant and if it hailed from World War II or even from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later I would find out that the word stood for “Sorrowfields’ Inn,” with “sorrowfields” probably being the surname of the innkeepers.

The sign in German attested to the influence that Germans had had on this town since settling in the region during the 12th century. Even the name of the town derived from the German words “rabe” for raven and “stein” for stone. The town was the property of Germans for many centuries. In 1631 military leader and politician Albrecht von Wallenstein became the owner. Wallenstein played a major role in the Thirty Years’ War, allying himself and his army with the Holy Roman Empire. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, he became supreme commander of the Habsburg armies. Wallenstein was assassinated in the west Bohemian town of Cheb after quarreling with Emperor Ferdinand and considering allying himself with the Protestants.

After World War II, when the Beneš’ decrees came into effect, most of the Germans were banished from the country, and Czechs came to live in the town. In 1930 Rabštejn had a population of 344. By 1950 it had dwindled to 77.

ImageI also wondered what the town had looked like in the Middle Ages. I was impressed that the history of this town could be traced all the way back to the 13th century. I had read that in medieval times two rows of houses surrounded an irregularly-shaped square. How had people lived long ago? I knew that in the past inhabitants had taken up making handicrafts, weaving, painting playing cards and glass as well as producing roof slate.

ImageFarther down were several timbered cabins, one painted black with green, another mostly white with black. They looked like they belonged to another century. It was strange when I saw a man open the door of one of these homes and go inside. It was as if a person from the 21st century was entering another time period.

ImageAt the end of the town was a restaurant with picnic tables outside. Seven bikers were sitting there, drinking beer while engaged in animate conversations. There was an old stone bridge, dating most likely from 1335-1340. Under it flowed the Střela River. The body of water meandered through a forest, gurgling softly. A thick forest made up the background. It appeared as if this could be the backdrop for a landscape painting, as if I were looking at a canvas rather than real life. The forest was romantic, but it felt comforting and dangerous at the same time.

ImageI had read about a former brewery that only put out 700 hectoliters of beer during a year, but I did not see anything resembling a brewery. I did not see a former monastery, either, but there had been several in this town over the centuries. One dated back to the end of the 15th century but was destroyed in 1532. A new one was built in the 17th century, but it was abolished in 1787. There were several churches in the town during the 19th century, and legend has it that one of them was damaged in 1856. Workers had to dismantle the cross from the top of the church and reinstall it. While they were doing this, people celebrated below.  The workers drank some wine in the tower and threw a wine glass down. It fell but did not break.

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Plasy Monastery Diary

 

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NOTE: I added photos of the interior from my third visit.

I have been to Plasy twice, both times changing trains in Plzeň (Pilsen). It is only 45 minutes from the home of pilsner beer. The exterior of the building did not impress me, but when I got inside, I was in for a treat.

First, a bit about the history of the monastery: Founded in the 12th century by Prince Vladislav II, Plasy was burned down by the Hussites, followers of the martyr and preacher Jan Hus, in 1421 during the Hussite Wars, which pitted radical Hussites against the more moderate ones teamed up with the Holy Roman Empire, Royalists, Hungary and The Pope. (The Radical Hussites lost, and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund put on the Bohemian crown.) In the 18th century architects J.B. Mathey, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel and Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer (the younger of the two Dientzenhofers, who hailed from Bavaria but worked in Bohemia during the 18th century) gave it a High Baroque appearance.

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Things took a turn for the worst, though, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II closed down the monastery in 1785. Austro-Hungarian Empire chancellor, diplomat and politician Klement Václav Lothar Metternich bought it in the early 1800s, and his family tomb is located in the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas) across the street from the monastery, Plasy is also associated with one particular composer: famous Czech Bedřich Smetana spent a week here. He was not the only Czech personality to set foot in Plasy, though: Czech King Václav I (Wenceslas I) also stayed here on several occasions.

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At the beginning of the tour, I walked along the 61-meter long Cloister Hallway, boasting eight ceiling frescoes by Jakub Antonín Pink. One tripartite fresco depicted the Virgin Mary offering food to monks while another showed the Virgin Mary helping monks work in the fields. I noticed the modern art on the walls of the hallway: All the paintings shared the theme of Saint Jan Nepomucký (whom English speakers might better know as John Nepomuk). The works of modern art seemed out of place, though.

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My group continued to the Chapel of Saint Bernard. Surprisingly, there was no furniture in this room. That was because Metternich sold all of it during his tenure there. Stunning, though, was the high wall painting of Saint Bernard, painted by premiere Czech Baroque artist Petr Brandl, whose works I greatly admired. Saint Bernard was leaning on a rock in a forest as angels flocked above. The ceiling fresco depicted Jesus Christ and the 14 disciples.

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The Chapter Hall, measuring 27 meters in height, was designed by famous architect Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer. This was where new monks used to be accepted, and where monks had cast their votes for new abbots. I glanced up at the ceiling and was impressed with what I saw – a fresco of the Virgin Mary and a gathering of monks. The tour guide told us to bang our fists on one of the wooden benches: The echo would last more than nine seconds, she claimed. She was right.

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One step into the first part of the library and I wondered where the books were: In the second part there were indeed three tall bookcases, though one was almost empty. There was a reason for this, the guide explained: Metternich had changed the library into a smoking room and theatre. The first section, the former smoking room, featured a ceiling fresco. What did it depict? Hard to tell. All the smoke that had lingered in the air had turned the fresco black. In the other area Metternich had installed a seating area and stage, but I saw a Secession bureau, the three tall bookcases and a ceiling fresco depicting an allegory concerning medicine, philosophy and theology.

The former circular Reading Room was intriguing, too. It was home to eight larger-than-life canvases by Pink. These 18th century Baroque paintings all dealt with themes about eating and drinking, taken from the Old Testament.

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When I walked into Winter Dining Room, I noticed that there were no tables or chairs. Instead, I saw an impressive sculptural grouping of Saint Luitgarda standing in the otherwise empty space. Created by legendary Czech sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun, its original could be seen on Prague’s Charles Bridge. On the far right-hand side, I peeked into a small window of the monastery prison, where monks were sent if they came late for prayer, for instance.

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I also viewed two foundation water basins set there because the monastery was so close to the Střela River. These were part of the elaborate water pressure system designed by Czech architect Santini-Aichel, who, in order to give the monastery a firm foundation, constructed the convent on 5,100 oak piles and also created a system of connecting channels as a sort of defense against flooding. He specifically used oak wood because oak hardens in water. It fascinated me that Santini also came up with a unique hydrological system for the monastery.

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I didn’t miss the Baroque toilets, which were composed of circular holes in wooden benches. I looked down through the toilet seat and saw water below. On the way to the Hospital Wing, our group stopped at a self-supporting, winding staircase designed by Santini-Aichel, who I knew for his unique Baroque-Gothic style in a church at Sedlec, near Kutná Hora. I stretched my neck to glimpse the ceiling fresco of Archangel Michael fighting a dragon.

Then we moved to the Hospital Wing, where the pharmacy exhibitions were situated. First, I came across the Baroque pharmacy: I noticed the hand-made, exquisitely painted pictures on the drawers. My eyes were especially drawn to the drawer marked “opium.” It was the only one with a lock on it, the guide said.

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The Classicist pharmacy featured a white theme: wooden shelves were stocked with white jars, and the glass jars had white labels. All the labels on the drawers were white as well. Before reaching the Secession pharmacy, I stopped in the small hospital chapel. The Virgin Mary and 14 saintly helpers stared down at me from the ceiling. The Secession pharmacy flaunted many decorations of flowers and plants on the walls and cabinets. A chandelier impressed me, too. I liked the glass jars with white labels and the red and green fancy trim.

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Then our group left the main building of the monastery, crossed the street, passed the bust of Smetana in the small park and entered the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas), where Metternich’s family tomb was located. Originally a Gothic church, it had been reconstructed in Baroque style. Richard Metternich, Klement V. L. Metternich’s son, was the last of the family to be buried in the tomb, during 1938. Several abbots were also buried here.

After the remarkable tour I went to a restaurant nearby and had my usual, chicken with peaches and cheese. Then it was time to return to Prague, so I set off for the small train station. The numerous works of Baroque art had been stunning. Two paintings by master Karel Škréta, a creation by Esther I. Raab and six more canvases by Jan Kryštof Liška also helped to represent the rich Baroque art in the monastery. I better appreciated the differences among the three artistic styles by visiting the pharmacies. The Baroque ceiling and wall frescoes were unforgettable.Image

Karlovy Vary Diary

ImageI had not properly visited the west Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, sometimes referred to as Carlsbad or Karlsbad, since 1991, when I was a tourist mesmerized by Czechoslovakia and the Czech language. True, I had changed buses and trains here many times – on the way to Bečov nad Teplou Chateau and Loket Castle, for instance, but I had never devoted an entire day to the town that boasted five impressive colonnades with 13 curative springs. So, I decided to travel by a comfortable Student Agency bus to see the city that Emperor and Bohemian King Charles IV founded during the mid-14th century, after one of his hunting dogs was burned by a hot spring.

From the Market bus stop it was only a short stroll to the center of town. I stopped at the main post office, erected at the turn of the 20th century, to stare at its incredible façade. It was dominated by large, allegorical sculptures. One stood for a telegraph while another represented the postal services. I also spotted sculptures depicting sea and rail transportation. The remarkable sculptures seemed to jump out at me, compelling me to gape in awe at the Renaissance style building’s ornamentation.

ImageNext I came to the hideous structure called the Hotel Thermal, a tall building made of steel and concrete. Its architecture reminded me of the stagnation of the totalitarian era, during which it was built. The building marred the cityscape. The hotel did not fit in with the majestic buildings and elegant colonnades but rather appeared as a permanent scar in the town. Just looking at it almost made me nauseous. Inside the monstrosity there was a hotel and sanatorium plus halls used for festivals. A big banner announced the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival that was going on during my visit, and a red carpet led into the hotel. I wanted to see the hotel’s outdoor pool that was carved into a rock above the building, but the receptionist said it was closed that day.

ImageI did not plan to come to Karlovy Vary during the International Film Festival. That just happened to be when I had time. Still, it was nice to see the town boasting such an electric atmosphere.

From there I went straight to the Hot Spring Colonnade, where I had an appointment to tour the underground area below what used to be a stunning, 19th century wrought-iron pavilion. That former structure was designed by the Viennese architectural duo of Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, who were responsible for many buildings in the town. I walked by the other colonnades, but I decided to devote time to them after lunch.

The Hot Spring Colonnade, made of glass and concrete, hailed from 1975, when it took on an appearance that was almost as hideous as the Hotel Thermal. Like the hotel it was an eyesore, not at all meshing with the romantic buildings surrounded by woods.  I tried to imagine it as it had been during the 19th century, when Fellner and Helmer had done their architectural magic. Then I went inside. A geyser gushed from the Hot Spring, sending 2,000 liters of water into the air per minute to a height of 12 meters.  I just stood there, not moving, entranced by the geyser’s movement. It was an incredible thing to see.

ImageThe underground tour gave me insights into the workings of the thermal springs. I learned that because the springs spewed out so many tons of minerals per day, there were small outbursts that could not be totally controlled. I saw an object created by the seeps. It looked like an abstract tower perched on a cliff. The guide also explained how souvenirs – such as pieces of porcelain or paper roses – were covered with mineral water.

Behind the Hot Spring Colonnade was the Baroque Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, but it was only possible to peek inside. I wish I could have seen the interior of this sacral building designed by prominent Baroque architect Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer from 1732 to 1737.

From there I headed to the town theatre, designed in Third Baroque style. It was the magnificent work of Fellner and Helmer, erected during the late 19th century.  I was impressed by the many sculptural creations on the exterior, especially the angel and cherubs making music on the parapet. One pudgy putti figure held a horn. The theatre was not open, but I did get to go into the foyer where stunning stucco work greeted me.

I wanted so badly to see the auditorium! I knew that Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernest and their friend Franz Matsche had created the ceiling fresco and the curtain, which showed an idyllic setting. Called “The apotheosis of the art of poetry,” the curtain scene was focused on a poet and beautiful women representing muses of the arts. Chubby cherubs also joined in. The entire curtain was rendered to resemble a banknote. I would have to come back to see it with my own eyes.

ImageDisappointed that I could not see these masterpieces, I decided it was time for rest and a snack. I sipped green tea and ate a croissant at the Café Elephant, which actually was adorned with a golden elephant. Later I would read that the building had been built as a late Classicist building with Italian Neo-Renaissance features during the 19th century. The foyer was lined with unique, straw tiles. It had the atmosphere of an elegant café where customers could peruse the paper for hours or scribble notes about philosophy in their diaries.

From my table outside, I peered at the charming buildings exuding an elegance that characterized the town, despite the Hotel Thermal and the Hot Spring Colonnade. A forest was set in a hilly background. I tried to imagine Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who spent 13 spa seasons here, strolling down the main street or Franz Kafka brooding in a café.  What had been Russian Czar Peter the Great’s impressions of Karlovy Vary when he had visited this popular spa resort? I knew that Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven had also graced the colonnades.

ImageThen it was time to explore the Grandhotel Pupp. The world famous hotel took its name from Johann Georg Pupp, a confectioner who, along with his wife, bought what were then individual buildings. During the 19th century the hotel prospered, and near the turn of the 20th century, Fellner and Helmer reconstructed the buildings into a single Neo-Baroque complex. Many notable figures had stayed there. English King Edward VII, Empress Maria Theresa and Karl Marx were just a few. Casino Royale and Last Holiday were two of the films shot here. I wanted to see the casino that had been featured in the James Bond thriller Casino Royale, but it was closed. Just by gazing at the exterior, I sensed the luxury and grandeur that were associated with this top-notch accommodation.

I went inside, but there was not much to see. I saw a dining room filled with late risers and people with the festival. At reception I asked if I could see a typical room, but there were no vacant rooms. I looked at a price list and discovered that one night in the presidential suite costs 40,000 Czech crowns. I gathered that I would never have enough money to be a guest here, but who knows? In the Neo-Baroque Festival Hall films were being shown, so that was off limits to me. The other lavish lounges were now offices. I would have to come back when the hotel was not full, I told myself.

ImageNext I walked back up the main street and took a left onto an uphill road that took me to a tranquil, tree-dotted quarter. The atmosphere was so different from the hustle and bustle of the town’s center. The leafy, winding street led to the Russian Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, its four blue domes and golden central dome dominating the horizon. I stared at the remarkable paintings of saints on the façade of this shrine built in the second half of the 19th century. The architecture had been influenced by 17th century churches in Russia.

The interior was breathtaking, too. I marveled at the impressive woodwork at the main altar. Icons were sprinkled in the sacral space, and I noticed altar crosses as well. It reminded me of those churches I had entered in Saint Petersburg, where I had spent a week absorbing art at the Hermitage and seeing the other major sights. I knew that Karlovy Vary had a large Russian population, and I had dreaded that I would have to resort to my very basic Russian to make myself understood. Luckily, all the people I had met in Karlovy Vary spoke Czech.

ImageLunch was the next priority. I found a quaint and almost empty restaurant in a cellar of a hotel on a leafy street.  While reflecting on what I had seen so far, I had tasty potato soup and delicious chicken. The prices were reasonable, too.

Then I explored the colonnades. First, I was off to the Market Colonnade, my favorite because the façade looked like a Swiss chalet with delicate, white, lace motifs. The light and airy appearance appealed to me. It had a sense of fragility as if the façade would break if someone touched it. The romantic colonnade was yet another masterpiece by Fellner and Helmer from the late 19th century. I also noticed the gabled roof and columned arcade sprinkled with wood décor. I spotted the relief portraying the founding of the town as Emperor Charles IV’s hunting dogs wandered upon the Hot Spring.

ImageThe Castle Colonnade was situated above the Market Colonnade, but the Upper Castle Colonnade seemed to be closed. The Lower Castle Colonnade was only accessible to guests of a spa there. The tower that once was part of a Gothic castle loomed above the main promenade.

The Mill Colonnade, composed of a nave and two aisles, was next on the agenda. The pseudo-Renaissance style building was characterized by an elegance totally different from that of the Market Colonnade. The Mill Colonnade took me back to antiquity with its 24 elegant Corinthian columns on the roof. There were also 12 allegorical statues above the portico, each standing for a month of the year.  I admired the stone reliefs in the orchestra pit. They illustrated scenes from the town’s rich past.

ImageLast but not least I visited was the Park Colonnade, situated in a small park. I walked down the veranda and admired the wrought-iron ornamentation in Neo-Renaissance style. I liked the Snake Spring with its water spout shaped as a snake’s head. I also saw the nearby Liberty Pavilion, which also had a Swiss-style design, too.

I had time to pop into the Karlovy Vary Museum, where I saw Madonna statues, historical weapons and armor from the 17th century Thirty Years’ War. Blue and gray jugs flaunted grotesque reliefs forged in the 1600s. A Renaissance intarsia chest dated from 1600. There was also an admirable collection of clocks. A Meissen porcelain figure played a lute while another looked for inspiration with an easel and paintbrush. A bureau decorated with intarsia was adorned with a picture of the Karlovy Vary landscape. The 19th and 20th century colored and Moser glass designs intrigued me, too. I loved town museums because they often held an array of delights from archeological finds to present day objects. Their contents were always diverse and often held hidden treasures. Placards explained the history of the town, but I thought it was a shame that they were only in Czech. English-speaking tourists could not learn about the town’s history by visiting the museum.

ImageI decided to return to the Café Elephant for a snack before I made my way to the bus station. Sitting outside again, I watched passersby get their photos taken with people who I assumed were film stars, though I did not recognize them. One female tourist paused at a stand selling all sorts of porcelain drinking cups. She deliberated over whether to buy one shaped as a pink cat or one adorned with a picture of the town panorama. A thirty-something man licked an ice cream cone, chocolate on his chin.

I wanted to visit the Becher Museum, dedicated to the Czech herbal bitters Becherovka, which was made in Karlovy Vary. With a strong cinnamon-like flavor, it is considered therapeutic for digestive ailments and arthritis. I had read that the museum featured the original factory cellars and acquainted visitors with the beverage’s history and manufacturing. I did have a few minutes to admire the rustic, brick masonry of the façade, though.

Practically across the street from the museum was the bus station. Yes, Karlovy Vary had exceeded my expectations. I was most impressed by the diverse architecture. The Neo-Renaissance Mill Colonnade and the Neo-Baroque Grandhotel Pupp were only two examples of the architectural richness of the town. The renovated facades of many buildings on and near the main street also sported various architectural styles.

There were other sights I did not have time to visit. I would have loved to have ridden the funicular from Theatre Square to the Hotel Imperial. It dated from the early 20th century. There was an underground funicular, too. It took people to a lookout point where there were spectacular views of Karlovy Vary.

Next time. There would definitely be a next time.

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Nové Město nad Metují Diary

ImageThe journey was easy. It only took two and a half hours on a direct bus from Prague to get to this small town in the foothills of the Eagle Mountains, not far from Poland. It was sunny, almost too hot. From the stop I had to walk straight for about 10 minutes and turn left onto the large, impressive main square on which buildings of various architectural styles were erected. I noticed the remains of chiaroscuro decoration on the facade. Because I had been here 10 years earlier, I knew the interior was truly a sight to behold.

First, a little history about the chateau itself: Built during 1501 in late Gothic style, the chateau underwent Renaissance renovation thanks to the Stubenberg family owners during the second half of the 16th century. More renovation work took place during 1651 to 1660, when early Baroque style made its way into the chateau.  A historical event took place here in June of 1812, as Russian Tsar Alexander I stayed at this chateau during his trip to meet with leaders of the Prussian and Austrian governments. (He wouldn’t be the only historical figure to spend the night in the chateau. During 1926 first democratic president of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk slept here.)

The main square of the town

The main square of the town

But it wasn’t until the chateau was bought by the Bartoň family that perhaps the most significant renovations were carried out. Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič and Czech architect Pavel Janák did many renovations in Art Nouveau, Art Deco and functionalist styles in this chateau also known for its collection of Czech and Slovak art from the 17th to 20th centuries. While Jurkovič concentrated on Art Nouveau, Janák took over the Art Deco and functionalist styles, his last renovations taking place from 1940-41. Jurkovič also was responsible for redesigning the two-tiered chateau gardens. Though the Bartoň family emigrated to Canada in 1949, they got the chateau back in 1992 and are its present owners.

The stunning facade of a building on the main square

The stunning facade of a building on the main square

Before the tour I had time to visit the gardens and see Jurkovič’s outdoor masterpiece for myself. Terraces and flower beds punctuated the upper gardens while a quaint wooden bridge led me to the lower section. The sculptures of the stone dwarfs caught my attention immediately. They were the skilled work of famed Czech sculptor Matyáš Braun from the first third of the 18th century. I also noticed a statue of legendary Czech composer Bedřich Smetana and Baroque statues of the God Poseidon and the Goddess Demeter as well as two statues of bears. A Baroque fountain was situated in the garden, too. I felt like reading in the sun for a while here, but the tour was going to start soon and anyway, there was a wedding procession about to cross the wooden bridge and head in my direction. The gardens seemed to be the perfect place to bring a book and relax, occasionally glancing at the stone dwarfs and Baroque fountain.

ImageOne of the first places we visited on the tour was the Rising of the Holy Cross Chapel from the 17th century. The fresco on the ceiling and the white stucco decoration had me gaping in awe.  But more about that later. Then, in the hallway, I was overwhelmed by a 15th century Gothic altarpiece as we walked toward the Winter Garden. It was absolutely exquisite, depicting Saints Peter and Paul with an icon of Jesus Christ.

The Winter Garden was one of my two favorite rooms, designed in the decorative style by Jurkovič in 1910. Plants abounded, and there was lovely white wicker furniture as well as many ceramics in the space. The walls looked to be made of rock inlaid with a tree design in brown. I thought how much I would love to sip a cup of green Eilles tea at the white table, surrounded by so many thriving plants and intriguing ceramics.

NoveMestonadMpark4My other favorite was the Coffer Room, a Jurkovič masterpiece from 1913. The wine red carpet and dark brown leather and oak furniture contrasting with a light and airy ceiling made me feel comfortable. There was also leather wallpaper on the ceiling and a huge green and brown marble fireplace made of ceramic tiles. A brass chandelier decorated the room as well. An avid Czechoslovak history fan, I loved the portrait of former President Masaryk, set in a gold frame. The room, with all its couches and tables, appealed to me as a place I would like to come and read on a cold winter’s night, while sipping hot chocolate.  I somehow felt safe there, away from the worries of my life and the world.

We also entered a room full of Cubist furniture designed by Janák. A hundred coats-of-arms of Czech towns were painted on the walls. On the ceiling I noticed pictures of the towns of Náchod, Český Krumlov and the Black Tower in České Budějovice.

Some of the other rooms that particularly impressed me included: The Baroque bedroom, redesigned by Jurkovič in 1913. Swirling patterns decorated the arched ceiling, and there were three circular Renaissance frescoes on the wall above one bed.

The Gentleman’s Study had an Art Deco interior forged by Janák in 1924. The central fresco was by František Kysela, who also painted many other frescoes in the chateau. Renaissance paintings hailing from the 16th century lined the walls. Textile art work and ceramics also punctuated the room. The space had a romantic flair, and I felt safe here. A sense of warmth exuded from the room. Dark wood mingled with a bright green color, with green upholstery on the dark wood chairs. The brown and white frescoes on the ceiling complemented the choice of furniture.

ImageWhat caught my attention in the Zodiac Room or Summer Dining Room was the exquisite handmade carpet. Inside an orange and light blue circle was another circle, this one in blue and orange, showing a proverb for each month. This Art Deco room, a 1923 creation by Janák, with brown wood furniture also boasted frescoes by Kysela.

I had a ticket for the long tour, so I followed the guide, a tall, bespectacled man in his forties, to the second floor, where the frescoes in the rooms all showed scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. In the Hall of Victors, which was really a Baroque dining room, I noticed the neo-Baroque interior and Flemish tapestry from the 16th and 17th centuries. Still lifes also decorated the walls which were a light yellow color. The frescoes sported sea blue and dark green. The white and blue porcelain was ravishing.

I cannot leave out the St. Hubert Room or the Hunters’ Room. This 17th century bedroom also boasts a ceiling fresco of Hypnos, the god of sleep. I was impressed with the vibrant colors of the fresco. Neo-Gothic and neo-Renaissance furniture from the 19th century contributed to the stunning look, too.

From the Oratory there was a fantastic view of the chapel. There were vibrant ceiling frescoes and white stucco decoration on the ceiling. The left-hand side of the altar was decorated with a painting of Saint Barbara, forged by the Baroque master Petr Brandl, one of my favorite Baroque painters. The black with gold columned altar was flanked by statues. The small size of the chapel gave it a sense of intimacy. What awed me in the Oriental Dining Room was its luxurious, long and sleek chandelier with the bottom shaped as a Chinese pagoda.

NoveMestonadMpark1Before the tour ended, the guide told us the legend of the Black Lady, who haunts the chateau. From 1624 to 1629 Marie Magdalena was one of the owners of the place, and she was called “Evil Manda” for a very good reason. She was exceptionally cruel to animals, and the townspeople were fed up with her. They rebelled in 1628. Soldiers put down the uprising, though, and proceeded to treat the rebels cruelly. Many men were killed in a gunpowder explosion in the tower, leaving many widows and orphans in the town. “Evil Manda” died in 1633, but she still walked the halls at night because she was looking for the two or three bodies of the farmers who were never found after the gunpowder explosion. She wanted them to be buried.  One could hear her footsteps at night, and sometimes paintings fell off the walls.

Then I left the chateau and went to a nicely decorated restaurant across the square. The restaurant was decorated in orange and yellow and had a cheerful appearance. It served good food as well, and I was able to eat my favorite food on my excursions – chicken with peaches and cheese plus a diet Coke.

Then it was time to get the bus back to Prague. When I made it to the stop about 20 minutes early, I was the only one there. Before long, about 10 people had joined me. We waited. And waited.  And waited. The elderly women standing next to me grumbled to themselves about how it did no good to complain in this country. A teenager with hair dyed pink read a book on the bench. Finally, the bus arrived – 45 minutes late. The bus driver did not offer an excuse or an apology. I was just glad the bus came.

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

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Rychnov nad Kněžnou Diary

 

 

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My journey started at 6:30 a.m. on a bus from a Metro station on the other side of Prague, about an hour from my home. We arrived in the east Bohemian town of Hradec Králové, where I was to change buses, on time at 7:45. Then I had to wait. But for how long? The information on the Internet stated that the bus to Rychnov nad Kněžnou would leave at 10 a.m., but the woman at the information desk in Hradec Králové confirmed that the time of my next departure was 9:30 a.m.

It took another hour and a half to get to Rychnov nad Kněžnou, situated in the foothills of the Orlické (Eagle) Mountains northeast of Prague, near the Polish border. While it was a sunny day in Prague, in the mountainous terrain it was much cooler, though still pleasant. The bus station was only minutes away from the chateau, so I didn’t have to worry about getting lost on my way back to the 15:05 bus to Hradec Králové. (Actually, I did get lost. I was about two streets away from the bus station on my attempt to return there. I always seem to get lost!)

I had already visited Rychnov once, about 10 years earlier. While the chateau may not have outdone those nearby in Častolovice and Opočno, it certainly ranked right up there. The chateau had an intriguing past.  The town had been home to a castle or fortress as early as 1258, but it became a ruin, and a church was built over it in the late 16th century. This chateau was built between 1670 and 1690, under the guidance of František Karel Kolowrat. The well-known noble Kolowrat family had purchased the estate during the Thirty Years’ War in 1640, and their descendants even live in the chateau today. (It was returned to the family in 1992.) The residence underwent a Baroque transformation between 1713 and 1727. The architect of what was once the riding hall was the well-renowned Gothic Baroque master Jan Blažej Santini Aichel. In the late 16th century a bell tower had been constructed in the town. It was the third biggest in Bohemia, weighing almost seven tons.

As I approached the chateau, I noticed the column with the Virgin Mary, dating from 1692 to 1694. Soon I was one of three people on the 60-minute tour. The first thing I saw was the coat-of-arms of an eagle on the hallway floor. Above the red and silver eagle was the word “faithfully;” below it, the word “always.” I paid special attention to the crown above the eagle; Emperor Charles IV gave the Kolowrat family the crown on their coat-of-arms after one member of the family had saved the ruler’s life during an assassination attempt in Pisa, Italy.

ImageMy favorite room was the picture gallery. The chateau boasted more than 300 paintings on display and furniture from as far back as the 17th century.  The picture gallery’s collection of about 400 paintings consisted mostly of portraits of the Kolowrat family members, still lifes and hunting scenes by Dutch and Italian masters, and there were also landscapes. Some works took up religious themes as well. The dark-haired, tall man who was giving the tour mentioned that at one time, the collection held 1,218 paintings. This gallery also traced the development of the nobility in portraiture from the 16th to the 19th century. The biggest delight for me was the masterpiece by legendary Czech artist Karel Škréta – his portrait of Ignác Vitanoský of Vlčkovice. However, not only paintings abounded in the chateau; decorated ceramic stoves were situated in each room, dating from the 17th to 20th century.

Other paintings of note included “Esther before Ahasuerus” from the South Netherlandish School of the 16th century. I noticed the luxury of the palace, where the scene took place. In the background, through an open door, I could see greenish-blue mountains and a winding stairway leading up to a mysterious building. What intrigued me the most, though, were the loud, red stockings of Ahasuerus.

In one room a large painting showed the execution of noblemen on Prague’s Old Town Square during 1621, after the Protestant Bohemian States lost to the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and the Catholic League in the Battle of White Mountain during November of 1620. Edison light bulbs were featured in a chandelier decorating another space.

One of my favorite artifacts was a painting of a winter landscape with figures on the ice in a quaint village scene. Several people rode a sleigh, and another was falling down. It reminded me of the wintry creations by my favorite Dutch master, Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

The Škréta portrait was certainly a highlight of the tour. Ignác Vitanovský of Vlčkovice had a gentle yet determined look in his eyes as he gazed at the viewer. I also saw Baroque furniture employing a green and tan leaf motif. In one space a pink and white Venetian chandelier greeted me. The guide pointed out that there was an engraving in the middle of one bureau. It showed Boleslav murdering his brother, the future Czech patron saint Václav (Wenceslas), in Stará Boleslav on September 28, 935.

ImageThen we came to the Knights’ Hall with life-size portraits of members of the Kolowrat family. The chapel was quaint with its ceiling fresco and altar featuring a very pensive Saint Mary of the Snow. Another room was filled with various fans of different colors, some of them made of silk. The guide explained how fans had been used to set up meetings or ask someone out on a date. For example, a gesture with a fan could tell a man if the woman was single or married. A Buddha also decorated that room. The head and hands could move, and it stuck out its tongue at the viewer.

In the Dining Room I saw Viennese, Empire style, Meissen and other styles of porcelain. What interested me the most were the paintings of dead animals on the walls. It seemed to be inappropriate décor for a place where people ate. Looking at those paintings during dinner would certainly ruin my appetite.

The tour was over too soon. Then I went to lunch on the main square, where I had my favorite chicken with peaches and cheese. I also checked out the Holy Trinity Church, erected on the site of what was once a castle or fortress. The church was closed, but I did see an intriguing fresco on one wall.

There was even more to see at the chateau. The Hladík Gallery featured statues of former Prague professor of the arts Karel Hladík, who lived from 1912 to 1967 and hailed from the Rychnov area. I was impressed. His busts, torsos, decorated totem pole-like sculptures and figures in agony spoke to me as they relayed strong emotions. I felt as if I really knew the people whose busts I saw, as if I almost could understand them. Another intriguing work was his portrait of a gaunt Franz Kafka.

The upstairs portion of the Orlická Gallery awaited me. There I saw the landscapes by Jan Trampota. These were landscapes in bright pastels, mostly of scenes in the Orlické Mountains. One of Trampota’s works showed the beautiful countryside with gentle hills and lush trees. The terrain was sprinkled with a few cottages. This watercolor “At the End of Summer” was executed during 1928-29 in soothing pastels and greens and browns, and was my favorite of his paintings on display. In another room landscape paintings by one of my favorite Czech artists, Antonín Hudeček, were hung. I wanted to take Hudeček’s field of pink flowers home.

There were many rooms in the gallery, all boasting intriguing paintings, plus a temporary photography exhibition. By the time I got through the gallery, it was time to hurry back to the station to get the bus back to Hradec Králové. I did get lost during what should have been a five-minute trek, but I still made it in time.

On the bus I noticed a sign stating that passengers must fasten their seat belts. But I didn’t have a seat belt. In fact, the other seats near me didn’t, either. Both buses coming to Rychnov nad Kněžnou had been equipped with seat belts. Luckily, there was no accident and upon arriving to Hradec Králové, I immediately got on a 16:30 bus to Prague. Image

Vranov nad Dyjí Chateau Diary

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It was my second visit to Vranov nad Dyjí, one of my favorite chateaus, located near Znojmo in south Moravia. Its façade was a hodgepodge of at least three architectural styles. Some medieval elements of the Baroque chateau had been preserved. The Crow’s Tower and the building in the first courtyard harkened back to the Middle Ages. The Baroque fountain was spectacular. I had to stop to admire the garden bursting with color as I walked toward the chateau. The white and yellow Baroque church with belfries was perched on a cliff to the left and below the chateau. It looked to me that it was positioned precariously, as if it would fall off the edge at any moment.

The chateau, part of Podyjí National Park, blended in with the cliffs and picturesque countryside, a characteristic that I found attractive. Vranov nad Dyjí did not disturb nature but rather complemented it. I felt comfortable here in this stunning, natural environment. The rooms were small and intimate (except for the vast Ancestors’ Hall) and were filled with exquisite objects. All the items gave the chateau a unique identity without one artifact overwhelming the others.

I was already familiar with the history of the chateau. Vranov was first mentioned in the Kosmas Chronicle during 1100. Originally, it served as a fortress made of wood and became a stone castle at the end of the 13th and during the 14th century. There were additions made in the 15th century, but in 1665 it succumbed to flames. When Michal Johann II von Althann bought it in 1680, the chateau stayed in the family for more than a century. Michael Johann II made it into a Baroque chateau. Under his guidance the astounding Hall of Ancestors and the chapel were built. Later, the chateau became a three-wing residential palace. Neo-Gothic and Romantic style elements were added during the 19th century. During that century, it was the property of two Polish clans – the Mniszek counts and the Stadnickis. The state took control of the chateau after 1945.

Vranov7Waiting for the tour to begin, I was overwhelmed by the two-flight Baroque main stairway decorated with sculptures. Hercules battled the giant Antaeus. Prince Aeneas carried his feeble father from burning Troy. Then 15 young children scampered toward me. It was my worst nightmare. I was worried that all these children would accompany me on the tour of my beloved chateau, and I would not be able to hear the guide over their cries. At least that had been my experience when visiting other chateaus with groups of young children.

Finally, the tour began. The guide, a tall, lanky, serious blond woman in her early twenties, ushered me and the children as well as a few other adults into the Hall of Ancestors. It took eight years to complete the lush décor of this space with its walls and ceiling covered in breathtaking frescoes celebrating the Althann family. Its stunning beauty made me dizzy. I looked up and noticed a golden chariot floating on the clouds. The female charioteer symbolized the Earth’s fertility, the guide explained. Between the oval windows I could make out the figures of Hercules, Orpheus, Theseus, Odysseus and Perseus praising the Althann ancestors. The family members’ statues decorated the niches of the hall. I was amazed by something else, too. None of the children were misbehaving. Some mumbled to themselves, but they were all fairly quiet and seemed interested in the guide’s descriptions. Maybe they would not be so badly behaved, after all.

Next we went outside onto the terrace, created at the end of the 18th century. The children loved the cannon balls there. The guide explained that the Swedes tried to take over the chateau twice during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, but failed to do so. I peered at the valley and romantic landscape that surrounded the chateau. The scenery was postcard perfect. It was so peaceful and tranquil. I could have stared at the landscape forever. Standing there, looking at the countryside of south Moravia, I found inner peace. Perhaps that is why I loved this chateau so much. Here, I found a sense of inner peace, calmness and strength to take on future trials and tribulations.

Then it was time for the residential rooms, furnished as they were at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century. In the tiny entrance to the Pignatelli bedroom, a space that could not fit all the children, I saw a painting of Vranov five years before it was engulfed by flames in the 17th century. I was especially drawn to the scraggly cliffs and the meandering river in the picture as well as to the stone bridge that I walked on earlier today. Then we entered the main room, which was once the private chapel. A moustached man told a few rambunctious children to be quiet. The room exuded a sense of symmetry so typical of the Classicist era.  I noticed the exquisite fabric texture of the wall hangings, decorated with hunting themes and picturesque landscapes. Two statues inspired by antiquity flanked a canopy bed and stood on pedestals. I was enamored by their exquisite green leaf motifs.

The next space had been a dining room since the 1720s. The printed stoneware on the table featured the Italian town of Ferrara and came from the prominent Vranov earthenware factory founded in the 19th century. I was filled with awe as I took in the pictures on the wall. The hand-painted canvas showed landscape views of a park with ancient, medieval, Chinese and Egyptian structures. The guide pointed out a scene showing the Park Monceau in Paris. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, whose tenure on the throne lasted from 1711 to 1740, made an appearance in the scene. No stranger to the Althann family, Charles VI was a close friend of Marie Anna, who was an owner of the chateau in the second half of the 18th century. The emperor had even visited Vranov. Two children were scolded for pushing each other.

In the Family Salon the owner’s relatives and guests would discuss private and public topics after a meal. They played cards or chess, read books, listened to music and sipped coffee, tea or hot chocolate. A samovar tea urn from Russia’s Tula town attested to this ritual. The white-grey and pistachio colors of the wall fabrics entranced me. They showed Pompeii and other ancient towns. A young girl with bright blue eyes giggled.

The Blue Salon, the ladies’ living room, exuded a Classical style with its blue wall hangings and two sculptures of Aphrodite on white stoves. The furniture, an elegant blue mahogany, hailed from the 19th century and was made in Empire style. There were various kinds of porcelain – Viennese and Meissen, for example – in the room as well. The children began to appear restless, no longer paying much attention to the exhibits.

Vranovview2The Respirium was where the family relaxed after taking a bath. The wall and ceiling décor fascinated me. The Classicist relief stucco and ornamentation featuring carved wood was so elegant, and I felt so comfortable in this space. The white columns had hidden compartments where toiletries were kept. I loved the stucco decorations above the door. In one scene, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was being watched by Actaeon, who happened to be hunting in the forest when he saw her naked. Artemis turned him into a deer that her dogs devoured. I was glad that I was able to hear the guide as the children talked and argued among themselves. One girl with long chestnut-colored hair who would someday turn into a very beautiful woman began to cry.

Next we saw the Classicist bathroom, hailing from the 18th century. Artificial marble lined the walls. I loved the four black columns that appeared so elegant without being extravagant.  The guide, her voice a bit hoarse now, explained that the central pool had been used as a bathing area, but now visitors threw coins in the water for good luck. The children became excited and pleaded with the adults to give them some change. The chaperones shook their heads.

Hailing from the 18th century, a Rococo screen with Chinese motifs took precedence in the Oriental Salon. On the screen I could make out oriental gardens with bodies of water and paths. An aristocratic couple was celebrating around exotic figures. I was fascinated by the three unique sections of a 19th century Chinese scroll preserved in three rectangular frames. The scroll depicted a poet who had lived in the third century. The scribbler was coming home after being captured by the Huns. The scrolls showed her Hunnish escort, musicians and a general riding under a canopy while the poet held a child under a royal standard. This time a few of the children appeared interested in the scenes on the scroll as they talked among themselves about ancient battles.

Next came the Pompeii Salon with graphics on the walls depicting interiors of ancient palaces and villas. Vranov stoneware made a prominent appearance here. My eyes wandered to a pink vase with green décor. How I would love for my mother to be able to see that! She would love that vase! Maybe some day she would, I told myself. I wanted to show my parents so much of this country, but I would never have the chance to show them everything. The children showed no interest in the space.

The Althann Salon was another delight. Many of the paintings depicted members of this family, so significant to the development of the chateau. I admired the Baroque traveling altar. Brightly colored Vranov stoneware from the 19th century could also be found throughout the salon. By now the children were whining, restless, ready to leave.

The Gentlemen’s Salon hailed from the 19th century, and the decorations were inspired by spiritual alchemy. The scene above the door showed two female figures sleeping. Naked figures above four landscapes held torches. The symbols under the landscapes were focused on the Freemasons. The compasses and the square represented the meeting of heaven and earth, the guide remarked over a din of children’s cries. I admired the four landscapes on the walls, especially the depiction of the waterfall. I could almost hear the cascading water. The youngsters were not able to sit still.

The Swiss Rooms with 19th century landscape paintings on the walls were the next stops. I recognized Hercules in the midst of a battle. A black-stained cabinet was inlaid with marble depicting castles, towns, and rocks. The Picture Gallery included paintings by Dutch and Austrian artists from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Study was decorated with 19th century symbols of alchemy.

Last but not least came the library rooms. Created at the beginning of the 19th century, they now housed some 10,000 volumes. The black cabinets with geometrical designs looked sleek. Most of the books were written in French, German and Polish and hailed from the 18th and 19th centuries. The volumes consisted of both fiction and non-fiction that included subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, geography, theatre and history. I gazed at Voltaire’s collected works in cabinet 13.

Soon the tour was over. The children and their escorts scrambled away, and I took off toward the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in its romantic setting on the edge of the cliff below the chateau.  It was hard for me to believe that this impressive structure was completed within two years (1699-1700). Relieved that the children were not going to the church, I turned out to be the only one on the tour. I overheard a couple above the stairs leading down to the chapel.

“Do you want to see the chapel?”

The answer: “No, it does not seem so interesting.”

Vranovchurch1That couple did not know what they were missing. Architecturally, the interior had a central cylindrical nave with six oval rooms. There were three altars. Notably absent from the main altar was a picture or any kind of centerpiece. I had never seen a main altar like that before. I liked it because it was unique. I could see the Holy Trinity, and a pigeon represented the Holy Spirit. Angels also appeared in the Baroque creation, and golden rods shot out of the work.

The fresco in the cupola celebrated Archangel Michael, the defender of the Catholic Church, wielding a sword as he defeated Satan. Victorious, he placed his foot on his opponent’s chest. Angels danced and swirled around him. One side altar showed Saint Sebastian struck with arrows and Saint John the Baptist accompanied by sheep. The other altar portrayed Saint Barbara with a tower and Saint John with an eagle, holding a book. The Virgin Mary wore golden, flowing drapery.

Oval panels above the altars dealt with themes such as Heaven, Paradise and the Last Judgment.  The panel depicting the Last Judgment featured skeletons. One skeleton’s gesture seemed to be saying, “What? Me?”

After the tour of the church, I gazed at the romantic countryside and at the elegant chateau that blended with its surroundings, becoming a part of nature yet still retaining its own identity. Yes, I felt at peace here, even when among the rambunctious children on the tour. This place gave me strength that I often lacked. In the countryside here I also found a sense of hope.  The panorama gave me energy and a sense of optimism.

I left, reluctantly, to walk down the steep hill to the village below. From there the bus would take me back to Znojmo, where I would see a castle with magnificent interiors, a stunning rotunda, a spectacular church and several picturesque squares. I would stay in that intriguing south Moravian town overnight before heading back to Prague.Image

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