Segesta, Sicily Diary

 

The temple at Segesta

The temple at Segesta

 

Before I arrived at the ancient monuments of Segesta, Sicily, I acquainted myself with its war-riddled history, which I found fascinating. According to the Aeneid, Aeneas, the hero of the Trojan Wars, founded Segesta on his way to establish the future Rome, and the first settlers came from Troy. During the Greek era, the town fought again the Sicilian towns of Selinute and Syracuse.

View of the countryside from the amphitheatre

View of the countryside from the amphitheatre

The tyrant Dionysus – not the god – brought terror to Segesta when he took over. One tale that the people used to tell during his tenure as the horror-spreading leader: Dionysus knew that everyone in Segesta prayed that he would die, so his actions became even more ruthless. Then he found out one old woman always prayed that that he would be healthy. He invited her to his palace and asked her why she did not wish him to die as the others did. She told him, “Before you, your predecessor was bad. You’re much worse. So I’m thinking that someone who comes after you might be horrid. That is why I hope you live as long as possible!”

The amphitheatre at Segesta

The amphitheatre at Segesta

In 307 BC, when Segesta refused to give money to the tyrant of Syracuse, Agathocles got revenge on the town. He tied Segesta citizens to chariot wheels pulled by horses, launched inhabitants from catapults and cut off their heels, then ordering them to run. He also placed residents of Segesta on a bronze slab and roasted them alive. The survivors set fire to the city, opting to die by flames rather than by torture. The merciless leader was eventually poisoned with a toothpick and died at the stake after a 20-year tenure of terror.

During the Roman era, slave revolts threatened the stability of the republic. The Segesta leader Gaius Verres stole artistic masterpieces, such as a revered statue of Artemis (Diana). Cicero did not mince words and accused Verres of being corrupt and ruthless.

A view of the countryside from Segesta

A view of the countryside from Segesta

Clearly, Segesta had not had a rosy time in its heyday. Its history made the struggles in my own life seem petty and insignificant. I was worried about things that should not faze me; I felt stress when I should remain calm. I was thankful there were no tyrants like Dionysus or Agathocles in my life.

SicilySegesta3When I approached the Doric temple at Segesta, I was speechless. The limestone Doric columns, six on the temple’s short side and 14 on its long side, were crowned by a clear, blue sky as birds fluttered through the empty interior. The backdrop consisted of rich browns and greens, making the well-preserved temple at Segesta resemble a painting that had come alive. The elegant and majestic structure gave me a feeling of freedom, tranquility and independence. The Boston Marathon bombings, the death and destruction in Syria – for the moment it was as if these tragedies had never happened, and the world was a peaceful place.

The temple at Segesta

The temple at Segesta

I still cannot fathom that the temple dates back to 430-420 BC.  The barrenness of the inside cleansed me as the harmony of the Classical Age monument blended in with the natural beauty of the landscape. For a moment I closed my eyes and was convinced I was daydreaming. Then I opened them and realized that this beautiful temple from antiquity did really exist. I wanted to climb to the top of one of the columns and look down on the world with a fresh perspective on all the evils and dangers in the world today. Of course, that was not possible.

The amphitheatre at Segesta

The amphitheatre at Segesta

But the temple would not be the only sight in Segesta to make a profound impression on me. The Greek theatre, built in the third century BC, also boasted artistic mastery with a serene landscape offering views of the gulf of Castellmare. Towns also dotted the countryside. It was if the Greek theatre was one with nature. I could almost see the chorus conductor making a sacrifice to the deity Dionysus (not the tyrant!) on the altar before the plays began at dawn, when the trumpeter would blow his horn to announce the beginning of a full day of tragedies, comedies and satires. I could imagine the artists in their masks in front of painted scenery with the breathtaking landscape as a stunning backdrop.

Now, more than six months after my visit to Segesta, whenever I get stressed or worried, I think of these magnificent sights in Sicily, how they gave me a sense of freedom, as if I were floating over the world, gaining a new perspective. Visions of the Doric columns and amphitheater complementing the awe-inspiring landscape give me a sense of hope when I feel that a dilemma is futile and a sense of calmness when I feel extremely stressed.

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

A view of the countryside from Segesta

A view of the countryside from Segesta

Czech Caves Diary

 

Koněprusy Caves

Koněprusy Caves

When I finished touring the Bozkov Dolomite Cave (Bozkovské dolomitové jeskyně), I had achieved my goal: I had finally visited all 14 caves accessible to the public in the country. The plethora of caves fascinated me with rich stalagmite and stalactite decoration, often taking grotesque forms in an Alice in Wonderland type of setting. Breathtaking rock formations resembled waterfalls, castle ruins and owls, for example.  There are almost 3,500 caves in the Czech Republic. While not all of them excited me, in many cases, it was well worth exploring the depths that whisper about the long-ago past and even contain remains of prehistoric man.  First, a little cave vocabulary is in order: stalactites hang down from the roof of a cave, while stalagmites point upwards from the floor of a cave.

PUNKVA CAVES

I have visited the Punkva Caves (Punkevní jeskyně)in the southern Moravian Karst region twice, once way back in 1992 and again in 2008. (The Moravian Karst region is known for its breathtaking caves. There are about 1,100 caves in the area, but only five are open to the public.) The first time I went to the Punkva Caves a friend drove me. For the second visit I took the train from Brno to Blansko (a short trip) and then took a bus to the information center near the caves. Back in the early 1990s, it wasn’t necessary to make a reservation in advance, and tickets were sold at a small kiosk. Now it is essential for visitors to make a reservation.

Punkva Caves

Punkva Caves

These caves are the most popular in the country. They are mentioned in many guide books and swamped with tourists from around the world. Discovered between 1909 and 1933, the Punkva Caves took me to the bottom of the Stepmother Abyss (Macocha), from which I felt the power and strength of the chasm, as if I was being swallowed up by its size.

Punkva Caves

Punkva Caves

Not only did I see stunning ornamentation, but I also enjoyed a magical motorboat ride through the Masaryk Cave and others. To be sure, fairy tale settings and grotesque shapes abound. Some of my favorite moments during the hour-long tour include the decoration of the wall of the Front Cave; the stalagmites and stalactites in the Mirrored Lake boasting Two Owls, A Castle on a Cliff and a Turkish Minaret, and the fantastic decoration of the Angel’s Cave.

Punkva Caves

Punkva Caves

KATEŘINA CAVE

Located near the Punkva Caves is Kateřina’s Cave (Kateřinská jeskyně), a short distance from the information center that hadn’t been there when I first visited the area in 1992. The 45-minute tour covers 430 meters. The name of the cave comes from a legend that enthralled me: The shepherd Kateřina entered the cave looking for one of her sheep that had gone astray. Unfortunately, she got lost and never saw daylight again.

Kateřina Cave

Kateřina Cave

At the beginning of the tour, I learned that the Main Dome is the biggest publicly accessible natural underground space in the country; concerts are even held there, the guide informed our group. In this space I felt swallowed up by its vastness just as I did in the Stepmother Abyss. Some shapes of intriguing stalagmites that I saw included Two Owls and The Shepherd Kateřina. I noticed many exquisite, tall stalagmites and stalactites, especially in the part of the cave nicknamed the Bamboo Forest. I especially liked one formation, in which stalactites appear as an angry storm cloud with claws.

Kateřina Cave

Kateřina Cave

SLOUP-ŠOŠŮVKA CAVES

Not far, in the same region of southern Moravia, are the Sloup-šošůvka Caves (Sloupsko-šošůvské jeskyně). I took a bus there from Blansko; they run every hour. The bus dropped me off 200 meters from the cave itself. The short tour covers 890 meters, while the long tour covers 1,670 meters. The total length of the underground corridors reaches 4,200 meters. Of course, I took the long tour.

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

I was fascinated that remains of Neanderthal man have been unearthed there. I crossed a bridge that allowed me to gaze to the bottom of Nagel Chasm, 80 meters in depth. That was something to remember! Some of the decoration that awed me included the rich ornamentation of the stalactites in the Gallery and a four-meter high formation called the Waterfall.

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

I also saw cave bear bones, and a vertical abyss that is 64 meters deep. In the Big Three Hall three huge stalagmites resemble a snow mountain, a waterfall and a fortress. I also imagined shapes of a spiraled totem pole and a spiraled tower as well as a gigantic top hat and swords stuck firmly in the cave floor. 

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

BALCARKA CAVE

Also nearby in the southern Moravian Karst region, the Balcarka Cave (Jeskyně Balcarka) features two floors of unique stalactite and stalagmite decoration, such as that exhibited in the Gallery. Since I did not have a car, I could not combine this visit with my trip to the Sloup-šošůvka Caves, even though the two are not that far apart. I went by bus from Blansko to Ostrov u Macochy. Buses ran every hour, so I did not have to wait long.

Balcarka Cave

Balcarka Cave

I was in awe that stone and bone instruments dating back to the Stone Age as well as bones of Pleistocene animals have been discovered there. One shape in the cave looked like an elderly hand with knobby, long fingers pointing downward, as if it was about to gently touch something.

Balcarka Cave

Balcarka Cave

Shapes similar to ruined castles and towers fascinated me as well. Some lumpy forms reached out with tentacles to touch the stalactite quills above.  Other ornamentation took on the appearance of a spiraling tower with a steeple on top. I saw many fragile-looking stalactites hanging from the roof of the caves, too.

Balcarka Cave

Balcarka Cave

JAVOŘÍČKO CAVES

As fascinating as the Punkva Caves are the Javoříčko Caves (Javoříčské jeskyně) near Litovel and Olomouc in central Moravia. Discovered in 1938, these caves boast some of the most exquisite stalactite and stalagmite decoration in the Czech Republic. In all, 788 meters are accessible to the public. Visitors can choose from a 40-minute or 60-minute tour. The short route takes one 450 meters, while the long one covers all 788 meters.  I chose the 60-minute version.

Javoříčko Caves

Javoříčko Caves

Perhaps this system of caves is the most grotesque, appearing to be part of a horrific fairy tale filled with monsters. Yet it was difficult to get to; I went by car from Olomouc, the historic town where I was staying. I could not find any suitable public transportation.

Javoříčko Caves

Javoříčko Caves

Some intriguing formations featured a stalagmite shaped as a pagoda, with what appeared to be a Rococo doll seated on it. Pastel colored limestone spikes took on the appearance of waterfalls, named Niagara Falls and the Falls of the Elbe. The Curtain, which appeared to be fringed with lace and measured more than two meters in length, fascinated me the most. It looked as if the curtain was almost flapping, captured in a single moment. Crystallizing calcite surfaces made up the lace while the red tint came from ferrous compounds.

The Sacred Hole has a spellbinding history. Banned religious groups used to gather there in the Middle Ages; I saw black stains on the ceiling that had resulted from torch smoke. The most beautiful decoration I saw, though, was in the Scree Dome and the Dome of Giants. The Scree Dome featured a unique-shaped mound sprinkled with what looked like white icing or virgin snow. The breathtaking ceiling was a composite of fragile, thin exquisite stalactite spikes.

Javoříčko Caves

Javoříčko Caves

In the Fairy Tale Cave there was even more astounding decoration of stalactites pointing down from the ceiling. In the Dome of Giants one shape looked like a monster with a multi-layered crown on his head. Another formation I liked featured stalactites hanging from the roof, looking like a cloud with droplets of rain frozen in the sky. One more intriguing characteristic about these caves is that some stalactites and stalagmites called heliotites grow against the laws of gravity.

MLADEČ CAVES

The Mladeč Caves (Mladečské jeskyně) are also located near Olomouc, not far from the Javoříčko Caves. I went by car the same day I visited the Javoříčko Caves. It was not easy to get to these caves, either, and I was there on a weekend, which made it even more complicated to go by public transportation.

Mladeč Caves

Mladeč Caves

Remains of prehistoric man have been found here, including many skeletons of people from the Early Stone Age. I saw skeletal-like formations in the Cave of the Dead while Nature’s Temple was dominated by what looks like it was once a shimmering white waterfall. In the Virgin Cave the shapes took on forms of hills with towers and castle ruins. One figure that impressed me looked like a mummy.

Mladeč Caves

Mladeč Caves

KONĚPRUSY CAVES

The Koněprusy Caves (Koněpruské jeskyně), only an hour or so from Prague and seven kilometers from Beroun, boast the largest system of caves in Bohemia. The caves were discovered in 1950 and opened to the public in 1959. They are easy to get to as well. I took the train to Beroun, about an hour from Prague, waited about an hour and then went by shuttle bus to the caves. I was impressed that bones of prehistoric animals have been unearthed there. The stalactite and stalagmite ornamentation was thrilling; one cave even used to be a medieval money forgers’ workshop in the 15th century. According to the guide, between 5,000 and 10,000 fake coins were made there using copper sheets and an amalgam of silver. I saw copies of the equipment the forgers used.

Koněprusy Caves

Koněprusy Caves

I took note of some stalactites shaped like an organ; Eternal Desire is composed of stalactite and stalagmite spikes that are almost touching; and another formation appeared as white gushing water, stopped in time. Perhaps Prošek’s Dome astounded me the most. In this cave I set my eyes on the 1,500-year old Koněprusy Roses stalactite formation. It fascinated me that this is the only place in the world where this sort of ornamentation has been discovered.

Koněprusy Caves

Koněprusy Caves

In another cave a certain formation could depict a rock-made window frame overlooking a grotesque landscape of quills, resembling swords, pointing down from the roof. Nearby a stalagmite appeared to me as a sandcastle, seemingly so fragile that it could be broken with the slightest moment. A shape on the ceiling looks like a gaping mouth about to swallow the visitor.

Koněprusy Caves - The Waterfall

Koněprusy Caves – The Waterfall

In the waterfall I saw the droplets of water gushing down, stopped for eternity. Also, in the Organ Hall, I noticed stalagmites taking the form of a small town made of cliffs. Replicas of bones unearthed in Prošek’s Dome were exhibited in the Empty Dome; for example, I took note of the skull of a woolly rhinoceros and part of a human skull, both 13,000 years old.

BOZKOV DOLOMITE CAVE

There are other caves that I liked, too. I went by bus to Semily and then took another bus about one kilometer from the Bozkov Dolomite Cave, but it can be difficult to find public transportation that goes there. This cave, in the foothills of the Giant Mountains of northern Bohemia, boasts the longest cave system in the country formed on dolomite limestone as well as the largest underground lake in Bohemia in the Lake Cave. Discovered in the 1940s, it is the only publicly accessible cave in northern Bohemia.

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

For me, the underground lake of glinting green water framed by rock formations was the thrill of this tour. Some of the rocks even formed an archway through which the water seemed to flow into the horizon. I saw other rich stalactite and stalagmite decoration on the tour, too. For example, I imagined that a squid was moving sideways in a strong current when setting my eyes on one formation. I was a bit frightened when I peered down a chasm into the depths of darkness. In another cave I took note of a waterfall bulging at its bottom.

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

Bozkov Dolomite Cave

NA POMEZÍ CAVES

I stayed in the spa town of Jeseník in northern Moravia when I visited the Na Pomezí Caves (Jeskyně Na Pomezí). I took the bus from Jeseník, but times were irregular. The Na Pomezí Caves have the largest cave system in the country.

Na Pomezí Caves

Na Pomezí Caves

While exploring the 530 meters of these caves, I saw a curtain-like formation that appeared to be made with coarse material. Cascades and large stalactites adorned the caves. I imagined one grotesque shape as someone’s dentures about to bite into two muffins. Some of the caves that enchanted me here included the Ice Dome, the Weeping-Willow Cave and the Roman Bath corridor.

Na Pomezí Caves

Na Pomezí Caves

There are other caves in the country, but those are the ones that excited me the most. Whenever I descended the steps and walked into the depths of a cave, I felt as if I was looking deep into my soul. When I listened to the legend of Kateřina getting lost in the cave of the same name, I thought about feeling lost myself, how I didn’t want to be an English teacher anymore, but for the time being couldn’t find another job that suited me. I felt that I had yet to find myself, and I was nearing 40.

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

Sloup-šošůvka Caves

In other caves I mused about my life as well.  I pondered over whether I should have had children. I wondered if I would be happy being single all my life as the few men I had loved hadn’t loved me. I thought about many things during those visits to caves, and I always felt enlightened by the time I exited each cave, leaving the darkness of my musings for the joyous light of day.

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

 

Looking up at the Macocha Abyss from the Punkva Caves

Looking up at the Macocha Abyss from the Punkva Caves

Žleby Chateau Diary

Zleby7

Miraculously, I made the train connection in Čáslav with four minutes to spare and not long afterwards found my way from the train station in the village of Žleby to the chateau. To say Žleby is majestic and romantic is a vast understatement. The chateau looks as if it has emerged from a fairy tale. I inspected the fountain in front of the chateau. It dates from 1860 and shows a member of the Auersberg family, who owned the chateau for over 200 years, grappling with a bison. As I bought my ticket, I was a bit disappointed, though. A 90-minute tour was available, but a third tour did not open until May. So, I would miss the chateau theatre and lower floor library, unfortunately.

ZlebyfountainWhile I waited for the tour to begin on that freezing April morning, I familiarized myself with the history of the chateau as described in a booklet I had purchased. Žleby was first mentioned in writing during 1289. The Lichtemburks owned Žleby until 1356, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV gave it to Markvart from Vartenberk. During the Hussite wars, which pitted the radical Hussites and Taborites against the moderate Hussites, Holy Roman Empire, Hungary, the Pope and others, the castle was razed, sharing the same fate as many other places in Bohemia during that bloody time period. Then Jiří from Dubé and Vizmburk restored the castle in Late Gothic style. It was changed into a four-winged Renaissance chateau with an arcaded courtyard at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century under another owner. During the first part of the 18th century, Baroque renovations began.

In 1746, while the Schönfelds owned the chateau, their daughter Kateřina married Jan Adam from Auersperg. When Kateřina died, the Auersberg line took over ownership of the chateau, and the family would retain Žleby for 200 years. Baroque restorations continued, and the Auersbergs also designed Rococo interiors. Some years later, owner Vincenc Karel Auersberg and his wife Princess Vilemína Colloredo-Mansfield would become responsible for many changes that gave the place a romantic makeover as they were influenced by English architecture from the first half of the 19th century.

Thus, from the 1840s Žleby took on a more romantic air. The Auersberg couple wanted to give the chateau more of a Gothic character and added a prison and bastions. They fitted the interior with leather wallpaper, wood furnishings, weapons and historic furniture, all of which can be seen in the chateau today. In 1849 Vincenc bought land for the future park. In 1942 the chateau changed hands, and after the war it was nationalized.

Zleby5The chapel was first on the list. Upon entering the tiny, quaint two-floor chapel, the narrow, high and oblong stained glass windows behind the altar of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary caught my attention. The windows bewitched me with their dynamic, bright colors. I then studied the main altar and was drawn to the bright red of an angel’s cloak. The chapel was the youngest part of the chateau, in 19th century Neo-Gothic style, the guide – probably a university student – explained. It dated from 1853 to 1858. Still, there were a few items that went back farther than the 19th century. For instance, a side altar hailed from the 15th century. The triptych showed the Virgin Mary with a sculptural grouping of a Pieta in the middle of two statues. I noticed the trickles of blood on Jesus’ crossed hands. The oldest item in the entire chateau was here – a 15th century richly engraved baptismal font. Statues of saints were positioned high on the side walls of the chapel. I spotted the flapping drapery of Saint Elizabeth.

Then we left the interior and walked through the courtyard with its breathtaking Renaissance arcades to another entrance. The inside hallway was dominated by a 16th century knight in armor on the model of a horse cloaked in red. The guide said that the knight weighed 40 kilograms, the horse 20 kilograms. On the walls were very wide moose antlers. I also noticed slits for eyes in some helmets, the shoulder boards and the neck guards of armor, a two-handed sword and a rapier.

Zleby1As we made our way up the Renaissance stairway, the young man leading our group pointed out that the chateau had the second most weapons after Konopiště, a popular chateau located about an hour from Prague. Indeed, on the walls leading up to the next floor I saw many weapons. Ancient rifles covered one wall, and in another place I spotted a white ivory horn with detailed engravings, once used by Polish King Jan III. Sobiesky, who liberated Vienna from a Turkish threat in 1683.

We entered the Knights’ Hall, which was decorated with 14 knights’ armors from the 16th century, hunting trophies, pistols and swords –  one with red and green gem decoration in the hilt caught my eye –  as well as 188 painted glass pictures covering one wall. These glass paintings hailed from 1503 to 1749 and were decorated with allegorical figures, biblical scenes and coats-of-arms. I spotted the coat-of-arms of the Auersberg family above the doors. Three paintings from the beginning of the 16th century showed tournament and banqueting scenes. The ceiling featured stucco designs. An intarsia-designed credence was a delight, too.

We went through the Emperor’s Room with its white swirls and flowers on brown wallpaper and dark brown table with white swirl decoration on the top. Then we moved on to the bedroom, where a brilliantly colored triptych from the 15th century entranced me. The gold and red colors complemented each other. A huge Baroque bed featured columns and a canopy. On the white tiled stove I saw scenes in nature. I noticed the sea, cliffs and a castle in the landscapes. A black and gold jewel chest was riveting as was an intarsia brown table. The golden wallpaper made an everlasting impression on me. Made with leather, it showed flowers with greenery and golden grapes. Little did I know that even more fascinating leather wallpaper awaited me in other rooms.

Zleby9The Prince’s Study was next on the agenda. The velvet leather wallpaper, colored dark blue and decorated with flowers, also heated the room. An intarsia closet was exquisite. In the small Travel Room, historic clothes covered the small bed and also hung on a rack. I noticed the detailed embroidery on the shoulder of one shirt. Silverware was packed in a box that fit into a portable chest that could be lugged around during journeys. The bed itself was enthralling – it could be packed up, appearing as a closet with intarsia design. A travel toilet in a box resembled a crate.

The Rococo Salon was dominated by a tapestry featuring fountains, trees, apples, peacocks and well-dressed women taking a stroll through the idyllic scenery. Again, the wallpaper amazed me. This time it was decorated with flowers and birds. The leather wallpaper in this chateau brought to mind that fascinating leather wallpaper at Šternberk Castle in central Moravia.

Zleby10Soon we came to the Small Men’s Study with its daiquiri tiled stove that boasted coat-of-arms – just one of many tiled stoves that would bewitch me with its beauty. I noticed a postcard of an Austro-Hungarian soldier on the desk that featured intarsia design. The leather wallpaper above the desk consisted of royal blue and brown swirls. I also peered at ancient books with delicate, brown and gold bindings. The Green Changing Room included a sink, bucket and towel rack that closed up into a table so one could take it on journeys.

From there we entered the representative rooms. In the hallway the chairs had carved, wooden figures in their backs, and the bench also had a finely carved back displaying coats-of-arms. In the Thirty Years’ War Room the walls were covered in Late Gothic carved wood paneling with swirls cut into the wood. Elegant, dark chairs complemented ivory rifles and swords as well as helmets. There were two secret doors in the room – one led to a dry toilet and the other to the downstairs library.

Zleby11The upper floor library consisted of 6,000 books and 6,000 engravings. The big books had beautiful spines. Smaller books were set on shelves high on the walls. The Gallery enthralled as well. Engravings made up one display case. Paintings on the walls included those with animal scenes and a delicate still life of fruit. The leather wallpaper came from 72 deer. The walls were decorated with wood paneling featuring the geometric motif of the Auersberg “A”. There was also a Renaissance dagger that caught my attention. The coronation sword of Emperor Ferdinand I was compelling, too. A Baroque ebony bureau was made of ivory and tortoiseshell.

The Red Room, though, had the most enticing wallpaper, with its gold and red ornamentation. A painting on the ceiling showed fluttering cherubs.  The Late Renaissance tiled stove from the 16th and 17th century featured Old Testament scenes in the upper part and New Testament scenes in the lower section. The green and brown colors made it attractive as well. The door with intarsia dated from the Renaissance, from 1573 to be exact, and used to be part of the Jihlava town hall. Above me was a beautiful, coffered ceiling.

The Tyrol Room boasted a Baroque tiled stove from the Tyrol region that was just as captivating as the one in the Red Room. The brown stove showed scenes from mythology in white relief. The swirling, white columns on the stove were complemented by the swirling, pine wood columns in the wood paneling hailing from the Tyrol. A wooden Rococo sleigh for children looked precious. A Delft fajan vase was exquisite, and on the walls were impressive fajan plates.

The park at Žleby Chateau

The park at Žleby Chateau

The stunning Blue Salon was decorated with the biggest tiled stove in the chateau, a blue, white and mustard yellow piece hailing from Bavaria and featuring grape harvest scenes from that region. A rare black desk was complemented by gemstones. A Spanish-Moorish bureau from the 17th century graced the room as well. A  Baroque ebony cabinet hailed from 17th century Germany. The walls in the lower half of the space were decorated with light wood panels while the upper part included blue and gold leather wallpaper. The pool table hailed from St. Petersburg, Russia. I looked up at the wood, coffered ceiling. It was astounding.

The Knights’ Dining Room did not disappoint, either. The biggest space in the chateau included an intarsia closet and rare hand-painted goblets with colorful figures. Swords and hunting trophies covered the walls. Another bureau in the room was decorated with an ivory engraving of a man on a horse, spearing a boar.

The park at Žleby

The park at Žleby

Blue-and-white porcelain dominated the space where meals were prepared, and rare rose porcelain from Slavkov in Moravia was exhibited in the kitchen itself with its huge, astounding brickwork. Blue-and-white English porcelain was displayed on a table. A unique, 19th century, cylindrical grill stood out. The kitchen smelled like a bakery. Chateau employees in historic dress were baking bread. A boiling house and smoke house were attached, too. The stove dated from the 19th century.

After the 10 of us on the tour sampled some homemade Easter bread, the eloquent and enthusiastic guide said goodbye. I took a few more photos of the romantic, fairy tale façade with elegant gate before heading to the park. Then I walked down the street to a pub for a fattening, yet tasty, lunch of beef and dumplings. From the pub window I gazed at the chateau. I felt as if I was a trance. I was so drawn to the chateau. I knew that soon I would have to wake up from my trance and get on the train to Čáslav, where I would switch to a Prague-bound train. Looking out the window at the chateau, I decided that I had had a great day. I just wished that more tourists would visit the chateau that was located only 18 kilometers from Kutná Hora, a major attraction.

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

Zleby3

Bauer Villa and Czech Cubism Diary

 

Bauer Villa

Bauer Villa

 

I had traveled with Arsviva, a Czech tour company that specialized in trips that emphasized art and architecture, to Sicily for 11 days in May and had enjoyed a thrilling experience full of breathtaking sights, all made more fascinating thanks to a terrific guide. This time I was on a day trip to sample Cubist architecture in central Bohemia. As we started out at seven in the morning, I thought to myself how I had always been attracted to Cubism and to the way the style assembled shapes in abstract forms utilizing many perspectives. I had found the Pablo Picasso museums in Paris and Barcelona to be breathtaking. Georges Braque’s work also bewitched me, especially in the Centre Georges Pompidou. In terms of Czech Cubism, I was most drawn to the paintings of Josef Čapek, who had also, along with his exceptionally talented brother Karel, scribed some impressive plays.

First, we went to the Evangelist church in the village of Pečky. The monument to Jan Hus near the church reminded me of the first time I had seen the monument to the 15th century martyr on Prague’s Old Town Square, a place where I immediately felt a sense of belonging during my visit as a tourist in 1991. Hus had been a Czech priest, reformer, philosopher and teacher who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415 for not preaching according to the doctrines of the Catholic Church; he stands out as a leading light of the Bohemian protestant reformation.

Evangelist church interior

Evangelist church interior

Designed by Oldřich Liška, the Cubist interior dated from 1914 to 1919. The church was adorned in new modern style with Cubist features. The pews, the pulpit and the organ all exhibit Cubist tendencies.  Inside the church I was especially captivated by the four Cubist chandeliers and the star patterns engraved on the sides of the wooden pews. The Cubist elements blended in with the relatively stark interior, not making a glaring, loud appearance but rather embracing the church in a subtle, sensitive style.

Cubist chandeliers

Cubist chandeliers

Next, the bus took me and the other 40-some passengers to another village called Libodřice, where, all of a sudden, a Cubist villa magically appeared.  No other Cubist villa was located in the Czech countryside, I would find out. I was instantly reminded of a Cubist villa in the Vyšehrad district of Prague. I had walked by it every day on my way home from the when I lived below Vyšehrad hill. Passing by such an architectural wonder every day made me feel calm, momentarily at peace with the world and all the wonders it brings.

I was especially drawn to the framed windows of the Bauer Villa, decorated in star patterns. The large mansard roof blended into the design as well. The abstract, broken shapes appealed to me.  The villa boasted block stereometric articulation. Stereometric encompasses forms such as the cone, cube, pyramid and sphere – geometric shapes. Three polygonal buttresses were combined on one side of the villa. I was impressed with the slanted form of the main cornice, too. There were not just Cubist elements apparent inside and outside the villa; the entire building embraced the style in a form that did not disturb the tranquil landscape.

Windows of the Bauer VillaLegendary Czech architect Josef Gočár, who made a name for himself during the early 20th century in the Czech lands, designed the Bauer villa early in his career, between 1912 and 1914. Later, this pioneer of architecture would devote time to the styles of Rondocubism, Functionalism and Constructivism. His works are scattered throughout the Czech landscape, featured in Prague, Pardubice and Hradec Králové, for instance. Gočár had studied under the tutelage of famous Czech architect Jan Kotěra, who had was influenced by late 19th century styles along with Modernism. In 1911 Gočár chaired the Cubist Group of Visual Artists. Its members included Pavel Janák (who had also worked with Kotěra); the Čapek brothers; Otto Gutfreund, a renowned sculptor who also fought in the Foreign Legion during World War I; and Vlastislav Hofman, who was accomplished in architecture, painting, graphic art, furniture design and writing. Hofman even designed about 400 sets for plays, including 200 for Prague’s National Theatre.  A year later Gočár helped set up the Prague Art Workshops, designing Cubist furniture with Janák, who is best known for designing the Baba colony residential area in Prague’s sixth district.

Gazebo at Bauer Villa

Gazebo at Bauer Villa

Gočár’s first major projects included a staircase for the Church of the Virgin Mary on a square in Hradec Králové during 1909 and 1910. In 1910 he also designed the living quarters of a cavalry barracks in Bohdaneč. In Pardubice during 1909 to 1911 he designed the Winternitz automated mill and also concentrated on the Wenke department store in Jaroměř.  In 1912 he was one of many Czech artists to convert to Cubism, utilizing simple geometric shapes juxtaposed without illusions of classical perspective. He teamed up with Janák to build the first Czech Cubist building in Prague – the reinforced concrete House of the Black Madonna, which featured angular, bay windows, a Baroque double roof and Cubist ironwork on the balcony. Like the Bauer Villa, the House of the Black Madonna did not interfere with the atmosphere. Instead, it complemented the historic environment of downtown Prague.

The Bauer Villa was constructed for Jewish entrepreneur Adolf Bauer, who owned the manor farm estate. The investor and his family lived there from 1914 to 1929, when Bauer died of diabetes. Bauer’s widow remarried and moved to Prague with her two daughters, and from 1931 Antonín Illmann took care of the villa and the farm. The Jewish Bauer family was sent to their deaths during World War II. In 1941 Nazi Augustin Juppe moved in to what had been the Bauer family home. After the war the villa was occupied by administrative offices of the City Council. A hairdresser’s salon, a library and a few apartments also took up space in the villa.

The back of the Bauer Villa

The back of the Bauer Villa

Finally gaining recognition, the Bauer Villa was accorded the status of a cultural monument in 1987. Despite that, it became more and more dilapidated. Its poor condition finally led the municipality to sell it in 2002 to the Foundation of Czech Cubism. Extensive reconstruction costing approximately 25 million Czech crowns took place, and the Cubist creation was open to the public during 2008.

The expositions in the villa featured Cubist furniture, ceramics, paintings and sculptures as well as informative displays about the Bauer family, Gočár and about Czech Cubism in general. Today there is not much original furniture in the villa, though a few pieces had been salvaged – the fireplace, a wooden closet and the bathroom tiles.

The central staircase hall had been inspired by British villa architecture. I was reminded of the staircase hall in Dušan Jurkovič’s villa in Brno. At the beginning of the tour, I was impressed with a unique coat rack in Cubist style and two chandeliers, one made by Janák and another by Ladislav Machoň, who would become a prominent exponent of Art Deco and Functionalist styles. Machoň’s designs dot Prague. His interior of the Law Faculty of Charles University is probably his best known work. There was also a dark, gloomy painting of Faust on one wall of the Bauer Villa. I wondered how the theme of Faust fit in with the Cubist movement, if indeed it did.

 In the bedroom I noticed a still life painting with a goblet by František Volf and a bewitching, black Cubist chandelier. The bedroom was joined with a bathroom on the ground floor. Usually, during that period, the bedroom and bathroom would be situated on the first floor. The living room featured furniture made by Hofman in 1911 and 1912, a wall clock and chandelier. I was especially intrigued by the Cubist flower pot with its cover in the same style. Then, again in the hallway, I admired the linocuts by Václav Špála and Josef Čapek, two of my favorite Czech Cubist artists.

The Bauer Villa

The Bauer Villa

Then we went upstairs via a  beautiful staircase. Exhibition Room II featured furniture by Gočár and sculptures by Gotfreund. In his sculpture “Anxiety” I was aware of a certain tension permeating from the female’s drapery. This work, made between 1911 and 1912, was considered the first Cubist sculpture, though the one in the room was not the original. Other objects on the first floor included tea cups, metal and brass boxes and vases designed by Hofman and Janák. The bedroom was Hofman’s design from 1912 to 1914 with a black Cubist bed, more sculpture by Gotfreund and a chandelier hailing from that era. The study featured the style of Rondocubism, an offshoot on Cubism born after the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Rondocubism featured folk and nationalistic themes with curls, circles and folkloristic elements. I was especially impressed with Janák’s green chair made of walnut.

Our guide had been informative and enthusiastic, and I was excited that I discovered another gem in the Czech Republic. I thought this would be a good half-day trip from Prague for foreigners visiting the capital city, but I doubted any tour agency offered such an excursion.  The arsviva tour company’s excursions were in Czech, so it would only appeal to foreigners who were fluent in the language. I understood why Karlštejn Castle and Konopiště Chateau drew so many crowds, but still it was, I felt, highly regrettable too that such an extraordinary Cubist villa in the countryside should remain relatively unknown.

Kotěra Chateau

Kotěra Chateau

Next on the itinerary was the Ratboř Chateau, also called the Chateau Kotěra, built between 1910 and 1913 for Bernard Mandelík, who owned a manor farm estate and sugar refinery. The new chateau (as opposed to the old chateau also on the estate) was designed in Czech modern style by Kotěra and served as a restaurant and hotel.  It is notable architecturally for its vestibule, staircase and entrance to the restaurant as well as for its guest rooms. The building is frequently used for weddings and conferences, too, and it had its own parkland.

A large, circular fountain stands in front of the façade. The cupola is decorated with two statues by legendary Czech sculptor Jan Štursa, who founded Czech modernist sculpture and was also an influential pedagogue. He began his career inspired by the symbolism of the Viennese Secession, and after World War I concentrated on depicting the horror and tragedies of wartime. He created a Cubist relief for the Mánes Bridge in Prague.

Fountain at the Chateau Kotěra

Fountain at the Chateau Kotěra

In the first guest room we saw a bookcase that had been designed by Adolf Loos, who was known for his lack of ornamentation. A severe critic of the Viennese Secession when the movement had been in full swing, the Brno-born architect who had spent much time in Austria had focused on purism and minimalistic design. The walls were decorated in green and blue with a lovely plant motif.

Cubist furniture

Cubist furniture

Another space featured original furniture, including a bed with canopy, table and bookcases. From the terrace there was an impressive view of the fountain and surrounding greenery with sculptures. It was also possible to see the statues on the cupola from a riveting, close perspective. A medallion sporting the letter “M” standing for the Mandelíks in green with dark brown wood decorated the railing. In another bedroom I was impressed with a Cubist bedframe and a Cubist chandelier that spoke of simplicity with a sense of style.

Cupola of Chateau Kotěra

Cupola of Chateau Kotěra

After lunch we visited Cubist creations in Kolín and Poděbrady. In Kolín I saw the main square for the first time, and the Neo-Renaissance town hall caught my attention as did the Baroque facades, plague column and fountain. We gazed at Rondocubist apartment buildings dating from 1921 to 1923, the former town savings bank from 1926, the municipal theatre dating from 1937 to 1939 and a high school with magnificent Cubist elements, especially the windows, designed in 1924. The bridge across the Labe River was architecturally impressive and had been built during the 1920s.

Cubism in Kolín

Cubism in Kolín

In the spa town of Poděbrady, we walked through a beautiful park and a neighborhood rich with villas with Cubist elements. At our second to last stop, in Poděbrady, we were able to admire the Amálka Villa from 1910, the Kouřimka Villa from 1909 to 1910 and the Obereigner Villa from 1898. We also took in the spa buildings on the promenade, fascinating structures designed by František Janda from 1907 to 1911. Previously, I had only changed trains or buses in Poděbrady, never realizing how much there is to see here.

Cubism in Poděbrady

Cubism in Poděbrady

While we were in Poděbrady, we had extra time to spend in a café famous for its desserts. Unfortunately, it was also famous for its poor service as it took the waiters an agonizingly long time to fetch coffees and cakes. I was joined by a friendly and interesting family, an adult son with his parents.  He had given his parents this trip as a Christmas present the previous year. I talked to them about my baseball and ice hockey careers growing up, attending Jaromír Jágr’s summer training camp in Slaný and sights I had seen in the Czech Republic.  The father and I reminisced about Czech and Slovak hockey players who had defected to the NHL some decades ago. For me the names Peter Šťastný and Milan Nový brought back childhood memories. In my opinion, the highlight of any tour was meeting nice people, no matter how exciting the particular excursion might be. I have had some negative experiences in the country over 21 years, but meeting kind Czechs always has always made the hardships worthwhile.

Cubist facade in Poděbrady

Cubist facade in Poděbrady

On the way back to Prague, we stopped at the Beniesova Villa in Lysá nad Labem. The villa, created by Emil Kralíček for the owner of a sugar refinery, is known for its big entrance hall with light roof window in the shape of the Star of David and crystal motives that denoted the process of manufacturing sugar. It was sad, though, to find the villa in such a dilapidated state.  The villa was fenced off; there was no possibility to see what sounded like a ravishing interior. If only someone had donated enough money to restore it to its original beauty. . . . If only. . . . It depressed me to think that people could let such architectural wonders fall into such poor condition, that there was not enough money to restore significant buildings to their former splendor.

My depression ceased by the time we returned to Prague around seven in the evening.  I felt grateful that I had had the opportunity to make new friends and to go on such a fascinating excursion.

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

 

Beniesova Villa

Beniesova Villa