Hrubý Rohozec Chateau Diary

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I usually visit chateaus and castles once every 10 years, but, after a seven-year interval, my trip to the north Bohemian chateau of Hrubý Rohozec was long overdo. Between 2005 and 2017, I have visited Hrubý Rohozec four times. Each time I learn so much more than merely the style of furniture in each room and the names of former owners. Every castle or chateau has its story to tell, and Hrubý Rohozec’s tales are some of the most fascinating.

The two one-hour tours are extra special because the many objects and pieces of furniture in the chateau are original thanks to the ingenuity of the last owner, Karel Bedřich Des Fours Walderode. When Bedřich knew he would lose the castle after World War II because he had German citizenship and was a member of the Sudeten German Party, he made an inventory of every item in the chateau. He tied cards to each object. Bedřich stored most of the furniture in the basement. Townspeople kept other pieces safe in their homes.

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The chateau became the property of the state after the war, as was stipulated in the Beneš decrees. During Communism the chateau was placed in the second category, which meant it was occasionally open to the public. If a chateau was designated a one, it was frequently open for visitors and served as a cultural landmark. When a chateau was listed with a three, it was bad news. It meant that the interior would be torn apart, and the chateau would be used for other purposes, such as stables, a warehouse or an educational institution.

I went by car with a friend for the 2017 visit, but I recalled the last time, in the fall of 2010, when I had taken the train to the chateau. I had been surprised to find new, comfortable seats installed on the formerly dirty and grimy train. The train had filled up fast. I think I was the only one with a seat reservation, and getting one had been a wise move. The journey took an hour and 45 minutes, and the train was on time. From the station to the chateau, it had been a pleasant half hour walk along sidewalks sprinkled with golden and brown leaves that looked like a kind of autumn mosaic.

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Back in 2010, I had arrived at the chateau too early for the next tour, so I had walked a bit in the English park that had originated in the second half of the 17th century and took its current appearance from the 19th century. A blanket of golden and brown leaves had covered the grass. I saw the statues of the five saints, including Saint Václav, Saint Barbara and Saint Marie. I had read that 40 kinds of wood grow in this park.

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Now, in 2017, I took my time gazing at the Gothic gateway. I knew that the chateau had originated as a Gothic castle around 1300, and the Gothic construction had finished in 1516. Above the gateway of the clock tower were three coats-of-arms – one belonging to former owner Johann Krajíř from Krajek; his name was inscribed above it. The coat-of-arms to the left stood for Konrád Krajíř from Krajek, another former owner, and the one to the right symbolized the Šumperk family. I stood on what were the remains of a stone bridge. I liked the two heads looking down like gargoyles from above the gate – Konrád Krajíř was on the right, Arnošt Krajíř, his son, peered at me from the left.

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I walked through the gate and into the courtyard of the four-winged building now in Empire style, the last renovation having taken place in the 19th century. I looked up at the tower clock and noticed that the hour hand was longer than the minute hand. I also noticed another figure of a head peering down below the Gothic balcony, which was decorated with various circular designs. The head belonged to Johanna Krajířová, Konrád’s wife.

Then I sat on a bench and gazed at the various styles on the exterior. There were Renaissance arcades on the lower level around me. I gazed at the Gothic gateway and the Empire style of the chateau itself. I also recalled a Baroque chapel and a Neo-Gothic dining room. During my visit in 2006, the second tour had showed off the eras from the Renaissance to Art Nouveau, but that had changed.

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First, a little about the history of the chateau. Hrubý Rohozec originated around the 13th century. The Krajíř from Krajek family owned it during the 15th and 16th centuries. It came into the hands of the Wartenbergs during the 16th century, and after 1600, this clan changed it from a Gothic castle to a Renaissance chateau.  During the 17th century, Jan Jiří from Wartenberg was on the losing side of the Battle of White Mountain, which took place November 8, 1620 and turned out to be the deciding battle in the Thirty Years’ War. During that conflict, the Emperor’s army and Catholics outdid the armies of the Protestant nobility. Still, Wartenberg escaped before he could be taken prisoner. The legendary military leader of the Thirty Years’ War, fighting on the Emperor’s and Catholic side, Albrecht von Wallenstein, bought the chateau in 1621. (By the way, he was murdered in the western Bohemian town of Cheb during 1633.) Wallenstein never even visited the chateau. He soon sold it to Mikuláš Des Fours, in 1628. Mikuláš had come to Bohemia as a military leader in the war. The chateau would remain in that family’s ownership until 1945.

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The main altar in the chapel

The tales of the Des Four clan are fascinating. I especially liked hearing about Marie Des Fours Walderode. (In the 18th century, the family added Walderode as one of their surnames.) After studying medicine, she spent World War I helping the sick in the Balkans. Then she returned to her hometown in Moravia and treated patients for free, making house calls until she was 77 years old. During World War II, she even took care of injured American pilots whose plane had been shot down in Moravia. Marie was the first female doctor in the Czech lands to work in the countryside. She also was one of the first women to have a driver’s license. She was a woman I would have loved to have met.

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A window in the chapel

After Mikuláš Vladimír Des Fours Walderode, the second to last owner, died of cancer in 1941, the chateau became the property of Karel Bedřich. Following World War II, the state confiscated the chateau. Karel Bedřich died in 2000, and there is still an ongoing debate about whether Hrubý Rohozec should be returned to the family or stay in the hands of the state.

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The organ in the chapel

The chateau is now furnished according to photographs from the 1930s, when Mikuláš Vladimír, the second-to-last owner, had lived there with his wife and two sons, Ludvík and Maximilián.

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The main altar

First, our group visited the Baroque chapel of the Holy Trinity. The main altar, dating from 1670, was charcoal black, accented by much gold decoration, and a painting showed the Holy Trinity in the middle. The white side altars with gold décor hailed from the Rococo era. I noticed the monk Saint Francis in the center of one of them. Next to the main altar was a reliquary with a tooth of Mikuláš Des Fours, the first owner who bought the castle back in the 17th century from the famous Wallenstein. In the back of the church was a Madonna with Child statue, the baby almost squirming out of the mother’s arms. The lavish organ still worked, too.

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The Small Library

Then we headed for the two libraries. The topics of books in both libraries included military history, genealogy and Spanish history, to name a few. Plays by Shakespeare and even some 20th century works also make up the collection. The small library holds about 3,500 books. I noticed a big clock on one side table. It was decorated with gold and showed the date, month and phase of the moon as well as the time. Still functioning, it dated from the first half of the 18th century, The library was not without its secret door, either.

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Allegory of a Woman’s Life

The main library, containing about 10,000 books, also served as the Des Fours portrait gallery. My two favorite paintings hung above the two doorways in this room. Painted by Jan Hartl in 1656, they were “The Allegory of a Woman’s Life” and “The Allegory of a Man’s Life.” In “The Allegory of a Woman’s Life,” 12 women ascended and descended a staircase, showing the stages of life from birth through adulthood to death. A 60-year old had a goose. An 80-year old was paired with an owl while a woman of 90 years had a bat (the animal, not the baseball kind). The last lower right-hand level showed a woman dying. Below the figures a putti danced, and a skeleton appeared. A background scene of a church in the distance could be seen in the middle of the painting.

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Allegory of a Man’s Life

In “The Allegory of a Man’s Life,” there were 12 figures standing on stairs as well. The 40-year old man was accompanied by a lion, the 60-year old by a wolf. Age 70 symbolizes faithfulness, as the man appeared with a dog. The 90-year old was paired with a donkey.

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The Main Library

I took note of the bullet holes in the door that separated the main library from the dining room. I also saw bullet holes in the ceiling. During the summer of 1946, a thief named Karel Chlouba, while on the run, hid in the chateau, which was closed at the time. He holed up there for several days before he was discovered by an employee of the chateau. Chlouba locked himself in the main library and barricaded the doors. The policemen had to shoot through the doors to gain access to his hideout. Instead of surrendering to authorities, Chlouba shot himself.

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The Dining Room

Next, we entered the Neo-Gothic dining room. Helmets and much weaponry graced walls and display cases. Some arms hailed from the Thirty Years’ War while others dated from the 18th or 19th centuries. I noted the exotic weapons from Japan. The wine red color and the dark wood paneling of the room gave me a cozy feeling. I thought this would be a nice place to retire to on a cold, winter’s night. While the table was set for six people, it could hold up to 16. The superb porcelain hailed from the west Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, often referred to as Carlsbad. Large portraits of Mikuláš with the tooth and his son Albrecht, both sporting medals, dominated one wall. Albrecht held his hand on a skull, symbolizing that his father was dead when the portrait had been taken.

I could imagine women in the Green Ladies’ Salon perusing the paper, playing the piano and listening to an old-fashioned gramophone. The tour guide, who was clearly an expert in her field, cranked the handle of the record player, and we listened to a waltz. I also noticed a porcelain bowl with a floral pattern in white, yellow and pink. It added to the cheerfulness of the room.

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The Green Salon

We came upon a huge walk-in safe in one wall along the hallway. Then we were in the Hunting Salon, where, as the guide described, the men had smoked opium, which the owner’s younger brother Kun had brought back from Japan. Smoking cigars had been another favorite pastime.

The bedroom of Mikuláš Vladimír featured a 17th century Renaissance single bed. Mikuláš had kept in shape. We saw exercise equipment utilizing pulleys and rods, with which he strengthened his arms and legs. The story behind these objects is fascinating. The equipment had been on display in the chateau until sometime in the 1950s, when it was stored in the basement, dismissed as unimportant. The objects were only discovered again in 2010, when garbage was being removed from the basement.  The guide also mentioned that the chateau is located near train tracks, and there is some concern about how long it will stand because it is in such close vicinity to the railway.

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A 17th century bed

In another room, I saw one of my favorite objects in chateaus, a doll with a very wide, white dress that could be placed over cups to keep the tea warm. I remembered seeing some of these items in Mníšek pod Brdy Chateau a few years ago. The Meissen porcelain was also intriguing. One couple danced, two lovers kissed and another represented an elegantly dressed woman of high society. We also passed by a toilet that flushed. There had been seven in the chateau during Mikuláš Vladimír’s day as he had installed the latest technological inventions in his home. Now only two remained.

The last room on the first tour was the Waiting Room, where visitors could read the paper or peruse a book before the count appeared. There was also an old telephone looking like the devices I had seen in Czech actor Vlasta Burian’s movies from the 1930s. The count’s number was simple to remember – one.

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A doll as tea warmer

The next tour was no less intriguing as we made our way through the Private Apartments. The bedroom of handicapped Countess Marie Immaculata, the younger sister of Mikuláš Vladimír, was dominated by a wooden wheelchair. I thought about the many advances in technology since the 1920s or 1930s. There were no elevators in the chateau back then, so she had to be carried down the many stairs.

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The Children’s Room really captured my attention. I saw a model of a ship with sails that I could almost see fluttering and a toy train with tracks that worked on electricity. I recalled my many train trips to castles and chateaus in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Traveling by train was exciting; I always felt a rush of energy when I went somewhere by train. I especially liked the two-tiered City Elephant trains that ran from Karlštejn and other parts of Bohemia. The tiny skates on display reminded me of my ice hockey playing days, as I laced up the same Bauer Supremes since age 14. The Czech board game from the 1930s, Clovečce nezlob se!, is still popular. It brought back memories of playing Monopoly or Clue as a child. Had Colonel Mustard committed murder in the conservatory with a candlestick?

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The boys’ bedroom

The wolf’s mask made me think of my college years studying theatre, a subject I had relished. The previous year I had gone to a Czech performance at the Jára Cimrman Theatre to see a popular comedy about Czechs traveling to the North Pole. It had been the day after the November 8, 2016 US presidential election. Seeing that play and being able to laugh allowed me to face the harsh reality that Donald Trump would be the next US president and saved me from falling into a depression.

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The boys’ bedroom

Then the guide’s narration again captured my attention. The children’s governess, who was British and spoke English to Mikuláš Vladimír’s sons, once caught the curious boys reading erotic magazines in that room. English was not the only language the boys knew. They spoke in German with their parents and Czech with their friends. Learning several foreign languages was common in that day. We saw a picture of the English governess – a strict-looking, older bespectacled woman who looked like she did not put up with any shenanigans.

Upon entering the boys’ bedroom, I noticed that there were bars on the windows. They had been installed because the boys liked to throw chairs onto the courtyard around midnight. They competed against each other to see who could break the most chairs. With these kinds of colorful descriptions, the two boys came alive for me. I saw them not only as names in a family history, but as youngsters always up to mischief.

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They both met tragic fates. The boys joined the Hitler Jugend during World War II. The younger, Ludvík, died in battle at age 19. His older brother passed away soon thereafter from a diabetic attack. Maximilián was transported to the hospital, but, because he was wearing a Hitler Jugend uniform, no doctor would treat him. I wondered if the boys had really believed Hitler’s propaganda or if they had been forced to join.

A seamstress slept in the room next to the boys; she was in such close proximity to the boys because the two were always getting into scrapes and ripping their pants. This way, their clothes could be fixed immediately.

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The Blue Salon

After going through a few more rooms, we came to the Blue Salon, where the family used to celebrate Christmas. I could imagine the exciting and cheerful atmosphere as the two boys eagerly tore the wrapping paper off their presents. I could almost hear the tinkling of the piano keys as a joyful melody resounded in the room. The blue furniture and exquisitely painted blue walls gave the room a comfortable feel. It was a place I could easily celebrate a holiday. The blue-and-white porcelain was decorated with peaceful country scenes showing trees and a bridge, for example.

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The Blue Salon

Soon we came to another space, where the guide pointed out a portrait of Josef Des Fours, whom she called the black sheep of the family. He had married the 19-year old Johanna Köppe in the early 19th century. Eighteen years younger than Josef, she was a member of the burgher class rather than the nobility, and the couple did not get along well with each other. She had married Josef because she had yearned to mingle in Viennese society. I was not very surprised to hear that the two decided to call it quits after only several weeks of marriage. Johanna wound up as a courtesan, and one of her most famous clients was Austrian Chancellor Metternich. In her portrait her pose was seductive, her eyes pleading.

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Johanna and Josef

In one hallway we saw a miniature statue of a member of the clan who was known to be a bit crazy. He had wanted a life-size tiled stove to look just like him. While the original stove no longer existed, this small copy was one of several that the artist had made for his friends. Clad in a fur coat that enveloped his frame, in the stove’s rendition he appeared obese and unattractive. We also took a whiff of a men’s cologne from Mikuláš Vladimír’s era. It still had a pleasant fragrance. I thought of some perfumes today that lost their fragrance after a month if not sooner. We were in a room decorated with many Japanese items such as pictures of landscapes as well as a complete set of samarai armor and Japanese swords. Mikuláš Vladimír’s brother Kun had spent much time in East Asia, and these were souvenirs from his travels. While standing in this room during the 2010 tour, I had learned that a set of Japanese porcelain has only five pieces, not the usual six. I had also spotted one of the most beautiful tea kettles I had ever seen. It was dark green with a white and red pattern, decorated with gold, and I was sure that my mother, a tea addict, would love to add it to her collection. In the same room, I remembered seeing a toy Buddha. The guide had pressed on the glass protecting the toy, and it automatically stuck out its tongue and moved its arms and legs. The next room was the casino. Here men had smoked opium and played pool and card games.

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One feature I did notice during the tours this year and in 2010 was located in a servants’ room. By pressing a button on a panel, the number of the room in which they are needed. This way, they did not have to stand outside the nobles’ rooms in case they were suddenly called upon.

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I remembered one feature of the second tour from 2010 that we did not see this year. We had visited the cellar. In the first room I had noticed the high, small window slot for light and had realized how dark it must have been down there before electric lighting was introduced. One part had been a storage space for coal until 1945. Another space was where foodstuffs such as eggs and cream had been stored. Yet another room functioned as a big refrigerator of sorts.

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I thought back to how different the second tour had been in 2006 when the rooms had represented various styles from Renaissance to Art Nouveau in furniture, paintings, porcelain and historic dress, for instance. I remembered a Flemish tapestry from 1710 decorated with peacocks in a richly wooded landscape, lush green in the foreground with a light background. An exquisite marble jewel chest had been featured in the exposition as well.  Although I am not interested in fashion, the various styles of historic dress illustrated in the former exposition had been intriguing. I had seen Rococo hoops around dresses, bodices, and satin dresses in pastel colors. I remember how the Art Nouveau style involved a slender look at the waist and a wide skirt, hats and sleeves with lace. Still, I liked the design of the second tour better in 2017.

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The two tours had been magnificent, ranking among the best I had ever been on. The guide knew her stuff about the chateau and was enthusiastic about her work. The colorful descriptions of the family members and the fascinating tales had really brought the chateau’s history alive. The guide did not try to make the former owners into perfect people. She related tales about the boys misbehaving and told us that they had been members of the Hitler Jugend. Not making them perfect made the protagonists of this chateau human.

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I felt as if I experienced the history of the chateau while walking through the rooms rather than merely seeing objects that epitomized this history. In my mind, I could see women chatting while sipping tea from exquisite porcelain in the Green Salon. I could almost see Mikuláš Vladimír writing a letter or organizing bills at his desk. I could imagine the boys hurtling chairs out the windows in the pitch-black of night. This is exactly why I had come here for the fourth time. I could come here every year and not be bored by the guide’s superb narration.

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I highly recommend that any English speakers buy the brochure about the chateau because it is written in excellent English and brings to life the history of the chateau in colorful descriptions. It is not a book that merely explains the different types of furniture in various rooms or that tells the history of the family in a bland way. This publication is an excellent keepsake. I mused about how often I came across brochures about chateaus or castles translated into broken English, ones that described the history of the place in a boring way, just noting who succeeded whom as owners without making the people three-dimensional.

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

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The chapel from the oratory

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Bitonto Diary

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Once again, I was overwhelmed by the magical beauty of a Romanesque cathedral in one of Puglia’s charming towns – this time in Bitonto at the Cathedral of Saint Valentine. Dubbed “the City of Olives” for its abundance of olive groves in the vicinity, Bitonto is the largest single producer of olive oil in the country. As a Greek colony, it had its own mint. Among the intriguing symbols displayed on coins were those indicating a Mediterranean culture: an owl with an olive branch, a seashell, a crab, an ear of wheat, lightning and the head of goddess Athena. In the Middle Ages, the Bitonto cattle market was so famous that Boccaccio included it in one of his Decameron tales. It was the site of a famous battle during the War of Polish Succession. In 1734 Spanish soldiers celebrated a victory over the Austrians at the Battle of Bitonto. This outcome clinched the Kingdom of Naples for the Bourbons.

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Built from 1175 to 1200, the cathedral is modelled after Bari’s Basilica of Saint Nicholas, which I saw on my first day in the region. The façade of the Bitonto cathedral was breathtaking, especially the rose window surrounded by lions perched on columns and griffins. Divided into three parts with three portals, the west façade was riveting. The central portal was adorned with scenes from the Old Testament. The main portal’s lintel and lunette showed off scenes from the Revelation. The cathedral also featured six elegant arcades. The reliefs of the tympanum also left me speechless.

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The interior of this Romanesque structure was based on a Latin cross plan. The sculpture was impressive, especially the carving on the ambo from 1229. The combination pulpit-lectern had been made using a special encrusting technique. It certainly was an Apulian masterpiece.

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What fascinated me about this cathedral in particular was that it really was three churches – the cathedral, a pre-Romanesque structure underneath that had been in use during the 11th century and a Paleochristian basilica, perhaps from the 9th or 10th century, below that. It could hardly believe that the foundations and fresco fragments of the Christian church still existed. A mosaic of a griffin dominated the crypt, where the pre-Romanesque church had stood. The artistic masterpiece had once been located in a tower. I was astounded at how well-preserved the mosaic was. In awe, I stared at the detailed representation.

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Seeing three churches in one structure made the history come alive. History seeped into my soul. Each Romanesque church I entered in Puglia allowed me to feel the history, but, in Bitonto, the feeling was even stronger.

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There is more to see in Bitonto than just the cathedral. Sylos Sabini Palace boasts of a Gothic-Catalan portal and a Renaissance loggia; the Gothic Church of St. Francis of Assisi has an impressive interior and the Abbey of St. Leo hails from the 9th century. Though modest in size, Bitonto consists of seven towers and nearly 60 churches, chapels and religious institutions. For over 300 years, a Holy Week procession enacting the moments of Christ’s Passion has drawn visitors from Italy and abroad. It also has an opera and a jazz festival. It was a pity we did not have time to see everything, but, even if you just have time to see the cathedral, you are certain not to be disappointed. The Cathedral of Saint Valentine ranks as one of the most impressive cathedrals I have ever seen.

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

Canosa di Puglia Diary

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The Cathedral of Saint Sabinus

When I think of Canosa, this is what immediately comes to mind: the cathedral, archeology and Bohemund. A quiet yet dazzling city, Canosa can trace its history back to the seventh millennium BC, if not farther. Its name most likely derives from the word “cani,” which means dogs.

Canosa’s relationship with the Romans went through drastic changes. In 216 BC, when Hannibal defeated the Romans in the battle at Cannae – I saw this battlefield as well – the Romans were allowed to take refuge in Canosa. Later the city joined the opposition in a revolt against Rome. Then, under the guidance of Marcus Aurelius, Canosa achieved the status of a Roman colony.

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In 3 BC the city’s production of pottery received accolades. At that time, Canosa flourished as a rich city that minted its own coins. Construction thrived – many temples and thermal baths were built as well as an amphitheatre. An aqueduct was erected in 141. Canosa became a bishop’s seat under the Byzantines, but then was destroyed.

Under Norman rule, Bohemund of Antioch, whose original name was Bohemund d’Hauteville, took charge and revived the city. He held the titles of Prince of Taranto from 1089 and Prince of Antioch from 1098 until his death in 1111. This hero of the First Crusade gave the city treasures he had picked up in conquests at Antioch and Jerusalem, such as icons and reliquaries. During his reign, the Cathedral of Saint Sabinus was completed.

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Normal control of the city would come to an end, and the city would experience many hardships over the centuries, such as numerous earthquakes. The earthquake of 1689 destroyed the cathedral, for instance. Canosa was conquered quite a few times, too. While the First World War did not bring destruction to Canosa, an earthquake in 1930 did. Another tragedy followed 13 years later. There were 57 fatalities when the city was bombed during the Second World War. Canosa officially was given the title of City in 1962. However, the 1980s certainly did not start off well in Canosa. That’s when another earthquake struck. Now the economy derives mainly from agriculture and textiles.

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The images of Canosa that remain foremost in my mind are those of the cathedral. It enthralled me that every town in Puglia seemed to have an amazing cathedral. While I had not been a big fan of the Romanesque before this trip, I began to see dazzling beauty in the severity of the style. Architecturally, Apulian Romanesque structures were fascinating. I was only a few days into my week-long adventure in Puglia and already I had set my eyes on so many breathtaking gems. Each place had its own story to tell, and each story proved to be unique and riveting.

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The Normans had consecrated the cathedral to Saint Sabinus in 1101. Some elements of the original structure remain. The ambo dates back to the 11th century and has an austere appearance. In contrast, the bishop’s throne from the 12th century is by no means severe. It is decorated in Oriental style. I was mesmerized by the throne. Two elephant figures served as its legs, and other ornamentation included griffons, eagles and sphinxes. The attention to detail was astounding. For me this was the highlight of the cathedral and one of the highlights of my trip.

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The crypt was also intriguing with its three naves. The capitals on its columns once topped Roman monuments. The cathedral had undergone many changes during the centuries. In the 19th century, the façade was reconstructed, and one nave was extended in a Latin cross model.

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Another feature that had me in awe was the mausoleum of Bohemund, who was buried in a tomb in an adjacent square-shaped, domed edifice that featured one apse. It looked out-of-place next to the cathedral with its strange shape, but it definitely stood out. My favorite elements of this mausoleum were the two doors and their symbolism. One door had arabesque ornamentation and an inscription that praised Bohemund.

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The other boasted engraved figures. One showed Bohemund while another depicted his brother and rival, Ruggero Borsa. Two other figures symbolized their sons, Bohemund II and William, who had promised to end the family feud. By depicting Bohemund and his brother, they hoped that the siblings could resolve their differences in Heaven. The historical account rendered by the figures was intriguing, to say the least, and the plea for peace between the quarreling brothers was compelling. The attention to detail on the doors was amazing. I stared at those doors for a long time, unable to take my eyes away from the superb craftsmanship.

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The Mausoleum of Bohemund

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We also visited the Archeological Museum, home to some 2,000 artifacts found in Canosa. These objects included sculptures, marbles, coins, jewelry and pottery from Roman, early Christian and medieval Byzantine eras. The vases from around 3 BC especially caught my attention. It astounded me to think that this city had existed so long ago with so many ancient civilizations. To be sure, a sense of history seeped through the town. We also had a break, which I used to savor some gelato and a cappuccino.

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That’s not all there is to Canosa. Our schedule did not permit us to explore everything the city has to offer. There are also palaces, churches, a theatre, a castle ruin, temples and catacombs, for instance. However, we did get a firm grasp on the historical context of the city, the significance of the cathedral and Bohemund’s influence on the town. Then we were off to another destination, and I knew I would forever hold this city and the tales it told through its architecture close to my heart.

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

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Altamura Diary

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We were to start our Tuesday in Altamura, but I was really looking forward to the next destination – the rock town of Matera. I thought that Altamura would be a place I would want to go through quickly in anticipation of our visit to Matera, which I had dreamed of seeing with my own eyes ever since receiving a postcard of the unique sight some years ago.

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It turned out that Altamura was not at all a place I wanted to visit quickly. I could have gazed at the cathedral the entire day.

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The door of the cathedral

Before our trip to Altamura, I had only heard in passing about the Altamura Man, the only complete skeleton of a Neanderthal, discovered as recently as 1993. I had read that around Altamura were the so-called masserie or large farmhouses, some even with turrets and watchtowers. Almond trees and vineyards were commonplace in the region.

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A sign asserting that bread has been made there since 1423

Altamura is not only famous for its archeological finds and cathedral but also for its bread, which has been produced there for centuries. Originally, each loaf had the mark of the family that had baked it. The Roman poet Horace was a keen admirer of the city’s bread. He praised it in his writing, too. “Their bread is so fine, the smart voyager makes sure he buys enough for his journey. . . .” We saw a small bakery where bread was being made, café tables set outside.

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Then we were ushered to the Church of Saint Nicholas of the Greeks with its simple façade. At one time, there had been a thriving Greek Orthodox community in Altamura. The simplicity of the design and large rosette dominating the façade gave the edifice a sort of intimacy. The portal was decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament, an adornment dating back to the 16th century. It was not open, but I was informed that inside there was one nave, some paintings from the 17th century and a baptismal font hailing from the 13th century.

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While gawking at the cathedral’s stunning facade, we learned more about the history of the city. Altamura was built on the remnants of a settlement hailing from 500 BC to 300 BC. During its Greek period (5 BC – 3 BC), the city’s high walls or “alta mura” were so wide that a chariot could be driven on top of them. In 1232 Emperor Frederick II, nicknamed “Stupor Mundi” or “Wonder of the World,” added to the population thriving colonies of Greeks, Arabs and Jews, so Altamura became a multicultural community. Plagues riddled the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 18th century, the city thrived, making a name for itself in the Kingdom of Naples.

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Then it was time devote all our attention to studying the exterior of the cathedral, an exquisite example of Apulian-Romanesque style with an exquisite portal of bas-relief figures that illustrated the life of Christ. Frederick II had the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption built in 1232, but disaster struck in 1316, when an earthquake destroyed it. Robert of Anjou was the leader who ordered the reconstruction of the three-nave structure, and one of the portals, hailing from the 14th century, bears his name. I was awed by the main portal with its intricate design. This is architecture at its finest, I said to myself. This is exactly what I came to see in Puglia – architectural gems that dazzled both the eyes and the mind.

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The interior of the cathedral was just as impressive. The ground plan of the three naves has a basilica model. The walls and columns boast rich ornamentation. The Neo-Gothic style plays a major role. The stunning wooden ceiling hails from the 19th century, and coats-of-arms representing emperors and kings decorate it. The marble altars feature paintings from the Neapolitan School. The carvings of the wood relief on the choir are splendid. Side chapels date back to the 17th or 18th centuries. One of the most significant chapels shows off two paintings that are some of the finest examples in south Italy. One depiction takes up the theme of Mary Magdalene, a work by Francesco Netti from 1877. Domenico Morelli’s Conversion of St. Paul is the other masterpiece on display.

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Of course, there is more to Altamura than its cathedral. We gazed in wonder at San Michele al Corso Church, built by the brotherhood of Purgatory in the 17th century. We marveled at the skulls and skeletons giving its simple façade a grotesque and macabre appearance. I later learned that inside the high altar and presbytery were Rococo gems.

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San Michele al Corso Church exterior decoration

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The Palazzo Vito De Angelis dates back to the 15th century and includes a Renaissance portal as well as a superb loggia. The Palazzo Filo hails from the 16th to 18th centuries and celebrates St. Philo, who was revered by Greek families. The Filo clan has made significant contributions to Italian history. The chapel and the arched portal are two of the architectural delights of this palace. I had ancestors named Filo on the Slovak side of the family, but, alas, they had nothing to do with the Altamura nobles. Most likely, they had been poor potato farmers in east Slovakia.

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A typical street in Altamura

Unique to Altamura, the claustri hold significant meaning for the city. These claustri take their name from the Latin claustrum, which means “closed space.” The claustri feature stairs, balconies, terraces, galleries, arches and loggia. They are certainly a treat for architecture buffs.

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The main altar in the cathedral

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Fantastic decoration in the cathedral

The history of the claustri can be traced to the settling of various ethnic groups during Emperor Frederick II’s reign in the 13th century. At that time, the various ethnic groups lived side-by-side, peacefully in a diverse, tolerant community. I reflected on how there is such a lack of tolerance in America, for instance, but not only in America. Many people hate Muslims and label them all as terrorists. Also, there is so much racial tension in the USA. I remembered the Bosnian War, when ethnic hatred ran rampant in former Yugoslavia. Would the world ever learn to live as the ethnic groups in the claustri had? I somehow doubted it, but, unfortunately, I am a pessimist.

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Back to the gems of Altamura. The north gate of Porta Bari took on a 17th century Baroque appearance. Saints Irene and Joseph made appearances on the stunning structure. Other religious sites in the town include the Church of San Dominico with a faced of limestone coated with majolica. North of the center is San Michele delle Grotte, a church dating from the 10th century. A 14th century fresco in the crypt is noteworthy.

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I left Altamura, not only excited about my next destination but also enthralled by the city’s charms. I would never forget that cathedral. It remains etched in my mind for eternity.

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

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Grottaglie Diary

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During the arsviva travel agency’s tour of Puglia, we stopped in the Ceramics Quarter of Grottaglie, a town famous for its superb ceramics made in artisans’ studios. What impressed me the most was the Museum of Ceramics in the 13th century Castello Episcopio. I loved discovering small, captivating museums during my trips. This museum only had three rooms, but they were three rooms with dynamic designs from the eighth century to the contemporary age. Creativity abounded.

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Some of the 400 objects were archeological while others were made of majolica. There were traditional ceramics on display alongside abstract constructions. Nativity scenes also held a prominent position in the museum’s content. Through these objects, I got a sense how ceramics played a role in life, how ceramics depicted the age in which they were made. I particularly liked one abstract work that reminded me of a sculpture by Alexander Calder, whose art was well-represented in the National Gallery of Art of Washington, D.C., near my hometown.

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That’s not all there was to see in Grottaglie, but we did not have time to see more of the town. The main church, Chiesa Matrice, was built in 1379. Princes and dukes once called the Palazzo Cicinelli home. Another palace, the Palazzo Urselli, sported a Renaissance façade and an impressive 15th century gate. The Monastery of San Francesco di Paolo was said to be a Baroque gem.

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

Molfetta Diary

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While traveling with a group through Puglia, we stopped in Molfetta for lunch. I was famished, so I could not spend all my time exploring this gem on the Adriatic. What I did see, though, impressed me a great deal. I meandered through the streets of the old town and gazed at the remarkable exterior of the Cathedral of San Corrado, for instance.

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The city can trace its roots at least as far back as the Neolithic age. In 4 BC it was a small fishing port. During the 10th century, the city was first mentioned in writing as Melphi. During the Crusades, the town flourished and greatly expanded. Pilgrims stopped in the city on their way to holy destinations. One of these pilgrims, Conrad of Bavaria, was in awe of the city. He became San Corrado, the saint who protects the city. During the 12th century, the town became a bishop’s seat. The port town also played a significant role in trade. Today it is one of the biggest ports on the Adriatic.

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The port dotted with small boats was so tranquil and peaceful. I looked out at the sea and felt at peace with myself and with the world. I was in the midst of making a difficult work-related decision. Gazing at the boat-speckled sea, I knew that, by the end of the trip, my head would be clear, and I would be able to do the right thing, to embark on the path that was best for me.

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The Cathedral of Saint Corrado, in Apulian Romanesque style, dates back to 1150, though it was not completed until the 13th century. The edifice has three domes of different heights. It is an example of a basilica model with contracted transepts. There are two bell towers, each 20 meters (66 feet) high. We learned about the interior, even though we could not go inside. The cathedral features three naves divided by four cross-shaped pillars. Round arches connect the pillars. Rich sculptural adornment abounds. A precious stone relief of Christ is situated above the main altar. Much of the decoration hails from the 16th century.

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Once again, the Apulian-Romanesque style took my breath away. I loved how the austerity of the exterior exuded such remarkable beauty. Before this trip, I had liked the Romanesque style, but it certainly had not been one of my favorites. During my time in Puglia, I gained a deep appreciation for the style that I had once thought to be too severe. During this vacation, I found myself in awe of every cathedral we saw.

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The Cathedral of Saint Corrado is not the only cathedral in the city. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption hails from the 17th century and has a splendid Baroque façade. The single hall lined with side chapels features exquisite paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Town Hall is also to be admired, situated in a 16th century palace.

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I recalled a story I had heard from my friend who lives in Italy. A lighthouse was built off Molfetta in 1853 to help ships navigate along the coast. A new wharf was constructed especially for this lighthouse, but, due to stormy winds, it caused an unexpectedly strong current. Many lives and vessels met tragic fates. Then, in 1857, the city built a lighthouse on the opposite (west) side of the harbor. It became the first lighthouse on the Adriatic.

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After eating a delicious lunch of spaghetti with tomatoes, I wandered down the narrow, charming streets of the old section. Some dwellings were being repaired; I saw some scaffolding along the way. I particularly liked the bright green shutters on one building and laundry fluttering in the gentle breeze.

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Molfetta was a place I would definitely have to visit again. It was one of the many stops that filled me with awe and wonder. Molfetta certainly was a place I would never forget.

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

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Bassano del Grappa Diary

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During my four-day excursion to north Italy with the arsviva travel agency, we visited the picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa, located 65 kilometers from Venice. It is known not only for its vineyards and Venetian villas but also for its Palladian wooden bridge and for the impressive collection of paintings by Jacopo Bassano (also referred to as Jacopo dal Ponte) in its Civic Museum.

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First, a bit about the town: Bassano del Grappa was first mentioned in writing as far back as 998 AD. The symbol of the city, the Ponte Vecchio was designed by the renowned architect Palladio in 1569. A wartime casualty and a victim of floods, the bridge has been rebuilt several times, but the current structure remains faithful to Palladio’s original design.

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The town does not lack a castle or a cathedral, either. Ezzelini Castle has not been in use for six centuries. Hailing from 998 A.D., the cathedral now boasts a 17th century appearance, Two of Jacopo’s paintings adorn the interior. Historical monuments abound. The Civic Tower was constructed around 1312. The Loggia of the Mayor dates back to the 15th century. The elegant blue clock has decorated its façade since 1430, though the current one was built in 1747. The loggia features frescoes. The squares of the town are picturesque, though there was a large market on the main square while we were there. Intriguing churches of various architectural styles also dot the town.

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The Civic Museum captured my undivided attention for more than two hours. The museum boasts the largest collection of renditions by Jacopo in the world. There was much more to see than Bassano’s masterpieces, however. The art gallery displays some 500 paintings from the 13th to 20th century. Sculptures also delight. There is a 17th century cloister, too.

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Jacopo Bassano lived from 1510 or 1515 to 1592. He was a Renaissance Venetian painter whose later works fall into the category of Mannerism. Born in Bassano del Grappa, he resided in Venice during the 1530s before returning to his hometown for good in 1539. Often experimenting with various styles, Jacopo was influenced by Titian, Tintoretto, Durer, Raphael and Roman art, for example. The painting guru is known for his religious paintings rendered in natural landscapes. He also studied the role of light and created significant nocturnal scenes.

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Here are some examples of the artwork in the Civic Museum that kept me entranced for two hours. Some of the paintings, but not all of them, are by Jacopo Bassano.

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