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.
My 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.
Then 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.