Křivoklát Castle Diary

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I’ve been to this Gothic masterpiece many times as it is only about an hour from Prague. Usually I go there by bus and travel back to Prague by train. This time I went for the first time by car with a friend. However, that was not the reason I would always remember this visit. I would remember it because it was my first trip after stay-at-home orders had ended during the coronavirus pandemic. From mid- March until mid-May, I had only been out of my home for long walks through scenic neighborhoods. The first three weeks I hardly went out at all because I was so terrified of getting the illness.

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The tower

I was nervous as we parked near a restaurant not far from the castle. What if someone coughed on me? One thing I knew: everyone would be wearing a mask. Czechs did not have a problem wearing masks – unlike some Americans. As we approached the castle, I felt a sense of relief and comfort. I had waited for this day since the beginning of April, when castles normally opened for the season in the Czech Republic. Now it was May 26, the first day castles were accessible to the public during 2020.

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I was familiar with the history of Křivoklát Castle. The castle dates back to the 13th century, although there was a fort at a different location as far back as the 12th century. Křivoklát Castle was constructed during the legendary era of the Přemyslid Dynasty, the clan that reigned in the Czech lands during the 13th and 14th centuries. The three-level circular tower, inspired by a French style, harkens back to the original structure. This tower is a dominant feature of the castle today. The upper courtyard also hails from this period.

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During the reign of Wenceslas II, Křivoklát was a remarkable and extensive early Gothic castle boasting three towers. A fire in the 14th century proved a major setback, though the castle was rebuilt. Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was imprisoned there as a youngster and later would visit on many occasions despite his nightmarish childhood experience. Charles IV’s son Wenceslas IV had the castle reconstructed at the end of the 14th century and during the 15th century. That’s when Křivoklát became a very impressive structure holding a prominent position in the Czech lands.

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The Hussite Wars put an end to the castle’s glory. During this 15th century conflict, Křivoklát was conquered by both the Hussites and the Catholics. However, better days were to come as Czech King Vladislav II had Křivoklát reconstructed in late Gothic style, beginning in the 1470s. The chapel that has been preserved dates from this time. Also, Křivoklát was enhanced with topnotch defense features, such as semi-circular bastions, a battery tower and a triangular foregate with casements. Křivoklát Castle once again became a magnificent structure that was admired not only throughout the Czech lands but also all over Central Europe. Prominent people were imprisoned there. Some notable figures who were incarcerated there included Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren Jan Augusta, who spent 16 years in a cell without light. Alchemist Edward Kelly also did time at Křivoklát after killing a man in a duel.

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A fire in 1643 did much damage. It was sold to the Wallenstein clan during 1685. Then, in 1733, the Furstenbergs took control of the castle. After a devastating fire in 1826, the Furstenbergs had it renovated. The Furstenberg library was one of the highlights of the tour. Czech historian František Palacký used the library for his research. In 1929, the family sold the castle to the Czech state.

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The main altar, hailing from 1490

Because we went during the coronavirus epidemic, we had to wear masks, and only 15 people were allowed on each tour. However, it was not possible to stand two meters (six feet) apart from other castlegoers, which had me a bit concerned. On the tour, I learned that the original residential and defensive tower is 42 meters high. We saw three models of the castle from different periods. The model from the 13th century showed the tower at the castle’s unprotected side and a simple first courtyard. The second courtyard, though, looked as it did today. We toured the seven prison cells, and I tried to imagine living in one of them for 16 years without light as Jan Augusta did. I could not fathom it.

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The main altar in the chapel

Then we came to the chapel, my favorite room in the castle and one of the best preserved Gothic chapels in Europe. The winged main altar showing the crowning of the Virgin Mary dates back to 1490. It consists of four panels portraying the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I noticed one panel pictorially described the birth of Christ. I liked the prominent gold color of Mary’s halo in all four panels. I saw masterfully carved statues of the 12 Apostles on the walls. I loved the armrests on the pews with remarkably carved demonic monster-like creatures. While churchgoers were seated and gazing at the heavenly altar and 12 apostles, the “evil” armrests of the pews reminded them that there was also a Hell, which was readily accessible.

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Detail of the main altar

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A detail of a pew

We also saw a room dotted with Gothic art – altarpieces, statues and paintings that astounded. A triptych of Archangel Michael hailed from 1500. Illuminated manuscripts also caught my undivided attention. The Big Knights’ Hall measured 28 meters in length and eight meters in width. The statuary was splendid, the pillars elegant, the fresco remnants intriguing. From the oratory, I gazed down at the chapel and that dazzling main altar. The gilded pulpit was an architectural delight.

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From the chapel again

The library was another favorite room. I loved being surrounded by books, especially by 53,000 volumes. They were written in German, French, Latin, Italian and Czech. The guide pointed out the biggest book, called Hebrew Didactics and made up of 2,500 pages. Published during the 17th century, it weighed 11 kilos. Always a fan of paintings of castles, I liked the portrayals of the castles before the horrendous fire of 1826. A portrait of a young Franz Joseph I also was intriguing. In the Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs, the most important painting was also the smallest – a rendition of Albrecht Furstenberg from 1577. He had worked for Emperor Rudolf II. It was the oldest portrait in the collection.

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Another room showed off Baroque and Rococo sleighs once used for hunting, including one that had scenes of Amsterdam depicted on it. The Furstenberg museum included paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, knights’ armor, spears and a colorful Asian vase plus many other artifacts.

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Gothic art and illuminated manuscripts amaze.

I had been nervous about this visit because of the coronavirus epidemic, but it went quite smoothly, despite the lack of social distancing on the tour. I was glad to travel again, even if it was only an hour from my home. I realized how much I had missed my weekly day trips. Being cooped up at home, only getting outside for walks, had been at times agonizing as I longed for the old normal that would never exist again. Now, at least after visiting this castle, I felt as if I was following a more normal routine, though I was still terrified of getting the disease.

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From Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs

We ate lunch in a quiet restaurant in Lány, the town where the president had his summer residence. We were seated at least two meters from the other diners. It was a fantastic feeling to be at a restaurant again after so many microwaved meals at home. It felt liberating, but I knew I still had to be very careful. We got back before 5:30 in the evening, so I was able to watch New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefing live. His briefings helped keep me sane while living through such crazy times.

The library and sleigh collection

While memories of all my other trips to Křivoklát blended together, this one would stand out because of the coronavirus pandemic. I had never imagined I would have to wear a mask while touring a castle. I did not understand why some Americans refused to wear them. After all, it could make all the difference between staying healthy and getting ill or even dying.

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During my trip to Křivoklát, the world seemed a little saner, a little less chaotic and less confusing. Admiring Gothic art and Baroque sleighs allowed me to – at least for an hour and a half – forget that the world was messed up, there were so many sudden changes to deal with on a daily basis. Visiting Křivoklát Castle helped me conquer my fears of going outside. And I knew that tomorrow would be another day as I had to take life one step at a time, always moving forward, never looking back.

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

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Views from the castle

 

Wallenstein Gardens Diary

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I have taken many strolls through Wallenstein Gardens in Malá Strana (the Little Quarter) to clear my head or bask in beautiful weather on a weekend afternoon. Once I met a friend whom I hadn’t seen for 10 years there, and it was an unforgettable reunion as we walked by all the remarkable features of the gardens. I also was thrilled to show my parents this gem situated behind the Malostranská Metro, near the Wallenstein Riding School, a building housing fantastic temporary art exhibitions. For me it has been an oasis of tranquility, a place of eternal wonder no matter how many times I set foot on its grounds. One minute I am on a busy street near the Metro, the next I am in a sort of paradise with Prague Castle in the horizon, giving the gardens a dreamy character. Whenever I saw the Castle in the distance, I thought back to my many morning walks there during 1991, when the sellers on the Charles Bridge were just beginning to set up their stands.

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The Senate occupies Wallenstein Palace in the gardens that date back to the original construction of the palace, between 1620 and 1630. The complex is named after Albrecht von Wallenstein, a military hero of the Thirty Years’ War who commanded the Catholic army. He only lived in that palace for about one year because he was assassinated in Cheb on the orders of Emperor with whom Wallenstein had serious disagreements.

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The Early Baroque Italian gardens feature a pond boasting a statue of Hercules, a Renaissance fountain, much statuary, a grotto wall, an aviary and a sala terrena with fantastic arches. Peacocks saunter on the grounds. The limestone wall has some grottoes and is situated next to an aviary that features an eagle owl. The grottoes and aviary date back to the original structure. Rows of bronze statues include the pairs Adonis and Venus; Apollo and Bacchus; Hercules and the Centaur; and Neptune and Laocoon as well as his sons. Sandstone statues also abound. A marble fountain displays a bronze statue of Venus and Cupid.

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The sala terrena, an open and arched structure, is the dominant feature of the gardens. I always spend a lot of time staring at the ceiling and walls. While the ceiling features mythological frescoes, three lunettes show pictorial narratives of the Trojan War, and medallions portray heroes of Trojan Wars.

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Major renovation on the gardens took place from 2000 to 2001. Then the floods of 2002 ravaged the gardens. It was reconstructed, though. Various types of trees adorn the gardens, such as English oak, honey locust, magnolias and figs.

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

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Velké Březno Chateau Diary

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I wrote about Velké Březno in an article for The Washington Post during 2005. A fellow castlegoer had enthusiastically recommended the chateau. Nestled in the Central Bohemian hills near Ustí nad Labem, Velké Březno is a hamlet with one of the smallest but most charming chateaus in the Czech lands. My second visit in 2009 was long overdue. From the moment I saw the Neo-Renaissance structure, which looked more like a large villa than a chateau, I was entranced. Because we had time before the tour, we spent some minutes on the beautiful terrace that overlooks the park.

First, a little background information. Velké Březno has been inhabited since the Mesolithic era, and the Slavs settled there in the 9th century. The oldest document mentioning the village dates from the second half of the 12th century.

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While many people owned the chateau at various times, the most notable family to inhabit Velké Březno’s chateau is the Chotek clan. Not satisfied with the old castle in the town, Karl Chotek moved into Velké Březno with his wife and six sons in 1844. The chateau was built from 1842 to 1845 in Empire style. Karl had made a name for himself in Prague, where he promoted Czech national identity. Renowned Czech historian František Palacký had tutored him in the Czech language. (Later, Palacký taught Karl’s children.) Chotek had chipped in financially for the repairs of Karlštejn Castle near Prague. He was a key figure in setting up industrial exhibitions in Prague. He also helped the Prague public transport system in its early days. One interesting fact is that, during the 1820s, Karl initiated the tradition of Czechs sending New Year’s greeting cards.

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Famous guests set foot in the chateau, too. A young Franz Joseph, who would later become emperor, visited in 1847. Composer Franz Liszt came to the chateau on three occasions. Sophie Chotek, who would be assassinated in Sarajevo along with her husband Franz Ferdinand d’Este, resided there in the late 19th century.

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Karl’s son Anton took control of the chateau after Karl died, in 1868. Karl Maria, their son, dabbled in politics and took up many hobbies – traveling, photography and gardening, for instance. From 1885 to 1910, the chateau was reconstructed. The new Neo-Renaissance look featured a four-sided tower, chapel and attic. Major additions included balconies, balustrades, parapets, turrets and dormer windows. The interiors included wood paneling. The ground floor boasted of coffered ceilings. Tiled stoves also made appearances. Stables, stalls and a coach house were also built. During the 1890s, the chateau park was founded. In 1910, the chateau got electricity.

After the death of Karl Maria in 1926, his son Karl became the owner of Velké Březno. When the Sudeten lands, part of Czechoslovakia with a German majority, were annexed to the Third Reich, Karl took German citizenship and was able to keep the chateau during World War II. After the war, under the Beneš decrees, the chateau was nationalized as his property confiscated by the state because he had taken German citizenship. When Karl and his wife died during the same week in 1970, the Chotek line died out.

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Then the chateau was used for various purposes. In the 1950s, it became a school focusing on politics. During the 1960s, the chateau was utilized as a remand home for children.  In 1963 it became a cultural monument. Then the army made it into a storage facility. The chapel was demolished in 1965 because it was in such bad condition. The stables and coach house were sold. The chateau was in very dilapidated state. Reconstruction started at the end of the 1960s. Many of the original artifacts were returned. It was opened to the public in 1970.

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During the tour, I especially liked the Meissen figures and Meissen mirror with porcelain from Berlin in one of the first rooms to be viewed. The low furniture and dark pink and wine red carpet gave the space a charming appearance. I loved the wood paneled floors. A blue-and-white English tiled stove also stood in the room.

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The library was in a small but cozy room, containing 2,200 books on two floors. It dated from the second half of the 19th century. The lower level held magazines. I also saw a jewel cabinet made with intarsia.

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In another space, I liked the Italian landscapes, as Italy is one of my favorite countries. At that point, I had visited Italy at least 12 times. The Smoking Salon featured a grandfather clock hailing from 1700. It was masterfully carved and richly decorated. I also saw a round table with intarsia, various stones used to make a mosaic with birds.

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One unique oddity was a large silver candlestick presented to a Chotek owner from 78 nobles. The coats-of-arms of the nobles were featured on the lower part of the candlestick. It weighed 28 kilograms. The Japanese chairs were small but charming. A Japanese cabinet featured hidden drawers.

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I saw a high ironing board that doubled as a bed for servants. I also liked the last owner’s bedroom adorned with many family photos. I found out that when the chateau was seized by the state, he was told he could only bring two suitcases with him.

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In a boy’s room, there was a painting of Prague Castle. I remember my daily walks to the Castle from Old Town during 1991, as I crossed the Charles Bridge at 9 am, when the sellers were just readying to display their wares. An Edison phonograph and small piano also were in the room.

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In the last room, the bathroom, we saw a toilet that was richly decorated with painting of brown leaves on the inside and outside. The top of the toilet was adorned with flowers and leaves. The sink was decorated with blue floral ornamentation. I had never seen a sink and toilet decorated in this way. It was certainly unique and intriguing.

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View from the tower

We walked around the English park that included magnolias and rhododendrons as well as red, scarlet and English oak and five species of sycamore. Some of the trees were 160 years old. The 110-year old white rhododendrons in front of the chateau were striking.

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View from the tower

We had a delightful lunch at the restaurant next to the chateau. In the restaurant an advertisement promoted the local beer as a brewery was in the town. I left Velké Březno Chateau very satisfied as the rooms, though modest in size, had exuded charm and elegance. The table with the mosaic of birds, the candlestick, the decorations on the toilet and sink, the grandfather clock from 1700 and the quaint two-storey library were all highlights that helped make this chateau a real delight.

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Advertisement for beer from the local brewery

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My dessert at the local restaurant, going off my diet for one day

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

Puglia Photo Diary

During this terrible pandemic that is devasting Italy, I have decided to post some photo diaries of memories of Italy in its glory, as it was and as it will be again. My trip to Puglia with arsviva travel agency was one of the best vacations I have ever had. I was fascinated by the simplicity and elegance of the Apulian Romanesque style as I discovered churches and cathedrals in sleepy towns with picturesque, narrow streets. I loved the balconies of houses, adorned with plants or with architectural elements that I admired. Lecce was a Baroque gem. Its churches and cathedral were breathtaking, overwhelming with their beauty. Matera’s sassi quarters were so unlike anything I had ever witnessed – the sassi were some of the most intriguing sights I had ever set eyes on. Bitonto, Grottoglie, Canosa di Puglia, Ruva di Puglia, Barletta, Castel del Monte, Ontranto, Taranto, Trani – all these places and more became dear to my heart and filled me with so many perfect memories.

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Altamura, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta ceiling

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Door of Cathedral of S. Maria Assunta, Altamura

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Exterior, Cathedral, Altamura

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Interior, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta, Altamura

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Exterior, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta, Altamura

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Tympanium, Cathedral S. Maria Assunta

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Stained glass window from cathedral in Altamura

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Street in Altamura

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Balcony in Bari

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Balcony in Bari

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Cathedral of S. Sabino, Bari

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Church of Saint Nicholas, Bari

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Street in Bari

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Barletta Cathedral S. Maria Maggiore

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Cathedral in Barletta

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Cathedral S. Maria Maggiore, Barletta

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Cathedral S. Maria Maggiore, Barletta

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Cathedral S. Valentino, Bitonto

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Romanesque mosaic in 12th century crypt of Cathedral S. Valentino, Bitonto

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Street in Bitonto

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View from Canne de Battaglia, ruins of ancient town Cannae and site of famous battle, August 2, 216 when Carthingians with Hannibal defeated Romans. About 130,000 men took part, and 60,000 died, including 80 Roman senators.

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Cathedral S. Sabino in Canosa di Puglia

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Bishop’s throne from 11th century in S. Sabino Cathedral, Bitonto

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Exterior of Cathedral S. Sabino, Canosa di Puglia

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Stained glass window in Cathedral S. Sabino, Canosa di Puglia

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

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View from Castel del Monte

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Grottaglie, Ceramics Museum at Castello Episcopio

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Grottaglie, Ceramics Museum

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Amphitheatre in Lecce

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Cathedral S. Maria dell’ Assunta, Lecce

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Cathedral S. Maria dell’ Assunta, Lecce

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Lecce, Cathedral S. Maria dell’ Assunta

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Stained glass window at cathedral in Lecce

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Church in Lecce – Sorry, I don’t remember which one.

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Church in Lecce

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Church in Lecce

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Roman theatre in Lecce

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S. Croce Church in Lecce

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S. Croce Church in Lecce

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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Cathedral Madonna della Bruna in Matera

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View from Sasso Caveoso in Matera

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Sasso in Matera

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Sasso in Matera

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Sasso in Matera

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In Sasso Caveoso in Matera

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View from Sasso Caveoso in Matera

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Molfetta

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Molfetta

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Calm sea in Molfetta

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Molfetta, Cathedral S. Corrado, built from 1150 to end of the 13th century

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Otranto, Basilica S. Pietro

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Otranto, Cathedral S. Maria Annunziata

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Mosaic floor from 1163-1165 of cathedral in Otranto

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Interior of Cathedral S. Maria Annunziata, Otranto

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Rosette window of Cathedral S. Maria Annunziata, Otranto, from 16th century

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Ruva di Puglia

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Ruva di Puglia, S. Maria Assunta Cathedral

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Castle, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral S. Cataldo, Taranto

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Cathedral interior, Taranto

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Street in Taranto

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View from Taranto

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Trani, Cathedral S. Nicola Pellegrino

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Trani, Reliefs on door of cathedral, from 1179

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Trani, 12th century reliefs on cathedral doors

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Port in Trani

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Street in Trani

 

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

 

Sicily Photo Diary

As Italy suffers from the coronavirus, I am looking at my photos from past trips to that beloved country, remembering better days. This time I took a look at my photos from my trip to Sicily some years ago. This trip had special meaning for me because it was my first group tour. Previously, I had always travelled alone or with family members. I was so nervous! I went with the art and history-themed travel agency Arsviva that offers tours in Czech. It turned out I had nothing to be nervous about. The group was made up of wonderful people who made me feel like I belonged, even though I was the only foreigner on the trip. I even made three good friends. Our tour guide was spectacular, and her insights about each magical place made the sights even more special and bewitching. Unfortunately, my photos of the interior of the cathedral in Monreale were on an old Samsung phone, and they did not transfer to my next phone. Somehow two photos of Cefalu got lost in a phone change as well. I thought I took pictures of the interior of the church in Tindari, but I cannot find them. Anyway, here are some of my special memories of that exciting time one May:

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Agrigento

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Agrigento

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Cefalu

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Cefalu

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Mt. Etna

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Mt. Etna

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Church in Messina

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Tower in Messina

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Monreale

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Monreale

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Monreale

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Noto

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Palermo

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Norman church in Palermo

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Crypt of cathedral in Palermo

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Palace in Palermo

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Street in Ragusa

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Church in Ragusa

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Segesta

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Amphitheatre in Segesta

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View from amphitheatre in Segesta

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Selinute

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View from Selinute

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Grotto in Syracuse

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Theatre in Syracuse

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Amphitheatre in Taormina

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View from Taormina

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Amphitheatre in Taormina

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Amphitheatre in Taormina

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View from Tindari

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Roman ruins in Tindari

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Church in Tindari

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View from amphitheatre in village of Polina

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View from amphitheatre in Polina

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Amphitheatre in Polina

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On the way to the amphitheatre in Polina

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Villa Romana

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Villa Romana

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Villa Romana

 

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

Italy Photo Diary

I was supposed to go to Milan for my birthday in November, but I came down with whooping cough. So I changed my trip to May, reasoning that I am usually fit in the spring. I could never have imagined the turn of events, that Italy would be hit so brutally by the coronavirus or that a pandemic would break out in the world. Now I hope to travel to Milan in October, but I wonder if I will have to cancel that, too. I cannot fathom the day-to-day tragedy that Italy has been experiencing, all the suffering of the friendly, bubbling Italian people who have made me feel so blessed to be in their country during my 12 or more visits.

I was going to write a long article about Italy, but I have decided to make this a photo diary of my travels in Italy, showing the country that is so dear to me during its better days. May those bright days return in the not-to-distant future.

NOTE: Sicily will be represented in a different photo diary.

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Church in Ancona

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Assisi

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Basilica in Assisi

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Clock in Bassano del Grappo

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In Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappo

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Church in Bergamo

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Church of St. James Major in Bologna

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Capri

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Church in Vernazza, Cinque Terre

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Street in Vernazza, Cinque Terre

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Herculaneum

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Isola Bella garden

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Palace on Isola Bella

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House on Isola dei Pescatori

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Street on Isola dei Pescatori

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View from Isola Madre

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Black Madonna at Loreto shrine

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Cupola of Loreto

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Castle at Malcesine

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Cathedral in Modena

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View of Naples from Castel Sant Elmo

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Certosa Church in Naples

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Santa Chiara Church in Naples

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Padua, Palazzo della Ragione

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Last Judgment by Giotto in Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

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Perugia, Collegio

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Pisa

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Pisa

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Cemetery, Pisa

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Porteverre Church

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Cathedral of Altamura

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Street in Bari

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Cathedral crypt in Bitonto

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Cathedral in Ruva di Puglia

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House in Barletta

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Throne in church in Canosa di Puglia

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Castel del Monte

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Santa Croce Church, Lecce

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Sassi in Matera

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Otranto, mosaic on cathedral floor

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Street in Trani

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One of the best memories of my life was showing my parents the Colosseum in Rome.

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Pompeii

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Rainbow on way back to Rome

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Villa d’Este gardens

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Rovereto

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Spello

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Church in Spello

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Sant’ Apollinaire in Ravenna

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Sigurta Park

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Lake in Sirmione

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Trento

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Treviso

 

The Annunciation in cathedral in Treviso

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Udine cathedral

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Street in Urbino

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Venice

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Verona

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Arena in Verona

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Juliette’s balcony in Verona

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Russian icon in Galleria Italia in Vicenza

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Santa Corona Church in Vicenza

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False perspective in Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza

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Villa della Rotunda by Palladio

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Villa Emo

 

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

 

 

 

Misunderstandings Diary

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An American who has been living in the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia since 1991, I have had numerous misunderstandings with Czechs – some concerned traditions, others had to do with language.

Valentine’s Day

As a child growing up in the USA, my classmates and I made Valentine’s Day cards for each other. When I became an adult, I would habitually send Valentine’s Day greetings to good friends. They would understand that I was wishing them love in their lives and that I was not in love with them. In the Czech Republic this special day has become popular with younger generations. Street vendors sell gingerbreads shaped as hearts on this occasion. One February 14th in the Czech Republic, I gave a Valentine gingerbread that said “For the boss” to the head of the English department where I taught. He was American and thanked me for it. Then I made the mistake of giving a heart-shaped gingerbread with “Don’t smoke” on it to my ice hockey coach who was trying to quit smoking. I wanted to show my appreciation because he allowed me to train not only with the women’s team but also with a boys’ team so that I could practice four times a week. Little did I know that he was unhappily married.

“I know what you want,” he told me, smiling mischievously, after I gave him the Valentine.

“To play in more games,” I responded.

“Wait for me after practice,” he said.

At first I thought there would be a team meeting, and then it suddenly occurred to me that he was under the impression that I wanted to have an affair with him. I had not realized that in this country Valentines are only given to show feelings of physical love. I did not wait for my coach, and he wound up dating the best player on our team. I was relieved he had found someone else.

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Valentine gingerbreads, from http://www.123rf.com

Odd or even?

That was not the only Czech tradition that confused me. During 1991 I was at a premiere of an absurd comedy written by then President Václav Havel, the playwright-turned-president. I wanted to show my appreciation to my hero, so I bought President Havel six roses that the ushers gave him when he took his bow on stage. Only later did someone inform me that you only give an even number of flowers to pay homage to someone who has died.  The living always receive an odd number. Nevertheless, Havel took the roses and bowed modestly to the crowd.

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Václav Havel, from lifee.cz

Language problems

I have also had many linguistic misunderstandings, especially during my first years in Prague. A male friend wrote me a text message that said, “Mám tě rád,” which I thought meant, “I like you.” I knew I could say, “Mám rada hokej.” (“I like hockey.”) And if I used the third person with this verb, I could say, “Mám ho rada,” which could translate as “I love him,” but I thought also could mean, “I am fond of him.” Convinced I was communicating that I liked this kind, friendly man, I wrote back, “Mám tě rada,” not realizing I had just professed my love to him. This proved quite the dilemma. After explaining to him that I only wanted our relationship to be platonic, he refused to speak to me. I never heard from him again.

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One misunderstanding took place at school. Photo from classics.phil.muni.cz

Experiences

That would not be my only encounter with a language mix-up. My first year teaching English, in 1991, I was trying to impress students that I knew some Czech. I asked a boy if he had had any “zkušenosti,” which I thought meant “experiences.” I had no idea that it was used to refer to sexual experiences. The dimpled, red-haired teenager responded, “I am only 16 years old. I have not had any zkušenosti.” The entire class burst into laughter, and I wondered what was so funny.

Dealing with editors

Other misunderstandings have concerned communication or rather the lack of it.  A writer penning articles in Czech as well as English, I have sent my writings to editors of various Czech publications. Some editors did not answer. I did not mind if it meant he or she was not going to use the piece, but occasionally an editor planned to publish the article at a later date and just did not bother to inform me. After receiving no response to an article I sent out to a newspaper and no answer to my follow-up letter, I sent one particular writing to a magazine. The piece wound me being printed in both publications.

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Bust of Lenin, from Antiques and Collectibles Paretski

Czech humor

Yet more misunderstandings revolved around Czech humor – a witty, black humor filled with irony, sarcasm and a love of the absurd. During 1991, I went to the pub with advanced students after our English lessons. The first time I entered the pub, I suddenly stopped, in shock. The bar area was filled with busts and paintings of Vladimír Ilyich Lenin. “This is a Communist pub,” I said, in a panicked tone, to my students.

They laughed. “Don’t you get it? It’s funny. It is mocking Communism, not supporting it.” Later I would discover that a lot of good Czech films made during the totalitarian era would tackle the depressing era with humor – a key element for Czechs in dealing with life during those dark 40 years.

So, I got the gist of Czech humor when it comes to busts and images of Vladimír Ilych: I just hope I don’t stumble into a pub or café where a 10-foot statue of Stalin is staring at me!

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

The Jára Cimrman Theatre Diary

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Bust of Jára Cimrman, from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

My way of dealing with stress and keeping my blood pressure textbook perfect is going to hilarious plays performed by the Jára Cimrman Theatre in the gritty, down-to-earth Žižkov district of Prague. For me it is a sort of home, a cozy theatre with a little more than 200 seats on a steep, cobblestoned street. I go as often as I can get tickets, usually between once and four times a month.

The plays have helped me cope with life’s trials and tribulations. On November 9, 2016 I was in shock and despair because Donald Trump had just been elected president of the USA. I just happened to have a ticket to the Czech version of The Conquest of the North Pole (It is performed by different actors in English, too.)

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The Conquest of the North Pole, Dobytí severního Polu

One of my two favorite plays, The Conquest of the North Pole  focuses on an expedition to the North Pole, led by Czech Karel Němec (then played by the late Bořivoj Penc), whose common Czech surname translates as “a German.”  The play takes place during the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Germanization was enforced throughout the lands. At one point, when they think they are out of food, the Czechs even consider eating one of their fellow travelers. Although the Czechs are the first to conquer the North Pole –one day before the Americans -, the feat goes unrecorded because the Czechs do not want hated Austria-Hungary to get credit for their accomplishment.

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Blaník

That performance saved me from falling into a deep depression. I watched the Czech expedition overcome a bout of pessimism and other obstacles to go on to conquer the North Pole, and I thought that I, too, could get through four years of Trump’s presidency. I thought I could keep my sanity as I watched the events in the USA unfold from Europe. That play provided me with an outlook that wouldn’t allow me capitulate to negative thoughts. At the theatre that evening, instead of crying over Trump’s victory, I laughed. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

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Pub in the Glade, Hospoda Na mýtince

Significant contributors to Czech culture and Czech national identity, the 15 plays performed by the all-male Jára Cimrman (pronounced Tsimmerman) Theatre ensemble feature an unlucky fictional Czech character living in the Austrian part of the oppressive Habsburg-controlled Austro-Hungarian Empire in which German was the official language. (Several plays do not take place during the monarchy’s rule. For instance, The Act is set in the 1960s.) The ensemble, which even includes two octogenarians, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October of 2016, and all performances from its inception have been sold out. Many spectators know the plays by heart. Most actors have been with the theatre for decades. In Murder in the Parlor Car, two father-and-son acting teams (one for each cast) performed until one of the fathers (the talented Václav Kotek) died in 2019.

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The Plum Tree, Svěstka

Humor is how the Czechs have come to terms with a past punctuated by oppression. Czechs found themselves living in the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during World War II and later in Communist Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years, before the Velvet Revolution of 1989 brought democracy to the nation. The plays were written by co-founders of the theatre Zdeněk Svěrák (who is perhaps best known for his 1996 Oscar-winning performance in Kolya) and the late Ladislav Smoljak, who made a name for himself as an actor and director in both theatre and film.

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The Long, Short and Sharp-sighted, Dlouhý, krátký a bystrozraký

The productions are divided into two parts. The first hour is a seminar in which the actors, as themselves, discuss various aspects of Cimrman’s fictional life and work. After the intermission, the ensemble performs the play itself.

Chosen the greatest Czech in a survey conducted during 2005 (though disqualified because he isn’t a real person), Jára Cimrman was a Czech nationalist who was adamantly anti-Habsburg. An inventor who came too late to the patent office with his creations, Cimrman is presented as an unlucky outsider whose feats go unrecognized until 1966, when Svěrák and his cousin discover Cimrman’s posthumous papers and bust at Liptákov 12, a cottage in a hamlet nestled in the Jizera valley.

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The Stand-In, Záskok

Born to an Austrian actress and a Czech tailor, Cimrman was much more than an inventor. He was a prolific writer of plays, operas, fairy tales and novels as well as poetry and amassed the largest collection of stories in the world. He was also an avid traveler who visited six continents, including the North Pole. The man whose parents forced him to dress as a girl for the first 15 years of his life was also a philosopher, teacher, filmmaker, psychologist, builder, self-taught gynecologist and physicist, among numerous other professions. He did time, incarcerated for two months because he told a joke about the emperor. While in prison, Cimrman formed a choir and orchestra with the inmates and organized contests in Morse Code. At another time, he worked as a travelling dentist, lugging with him a foot-operated drill on wheels and a dentist’s trolley.

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Czech Heaven, České nebe

Perhaps what makes this theatre unique is the sense of mystery that pervades Cimrman’s identity. The only photos of Cimrman are group shots taken too far away to make out his features. Cimrman’s bust is so damaged that it is only possible to decipher two eye sockets, two ear holes and two chins. No one even knows when exactly he was born or when he died.

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Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, Cimrman v říši hudby

In Cimrman in the Kingdom of Music, another of my favorites, the actors discuss how Cimrman entered a contest for best operetta with his seven-hour, 96-scene creation but, because he did not send it registered mail, famous composers stole his ideas. In that same play, the group performs Cimrman’s operetta The Success of a Czech Engineer in India. The plot revolves around a Czech engineer (Miloň Čepelka or Petr Reidinger) tinkering with a broken machine that is supposed to make sugar. He fixes the apparatus so that it makes Czech beer. At the end, a British Colonel (Svěrák) sings that he wishes he had been born Czech. A small orchestra plays superbly during this play, and Čepelka’s singing is a true delight.

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The Act by Cimrman English Theatre

For the last five seasons, the character of Jára Cimrman has been introduced to English speakers. The popular Cimrman English Theatre performs four of the plays – The Stand-In, The Conquest of the North Pole, Pub in a Glade and The Act – in English at the same theatre. These plays are perfect for theatregoers who don’t speak Czech but want to experience Czech culture and understand Czech history. The translations are top-notch. The acting and singing by the professional ensemble are amazing.

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The Act, Akt, Czech production

In a world that often seems overwhelming, I keep my sanity and balance in life by going to the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre on 5 Štítného Street, where I can always count on humor to give me a fresh perspective on my problems and the world’s troubles.

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

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Blaník, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Conquest of the North Pole, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Africa, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Names of Important Czech Historical Figures with Cimrman also listed, from Museum of Jára Cimrman

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Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

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View from Museum of Jára Cimrman, north Bohemia

 

Ploskovice Chateau Diary

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I first discovered Ploskovice Chateau in 2005, and I wrote about it in an article about chateaus of north Bohemia for The Washington Post. My second visit was long overdue – not until 2019. I remembered being very impressed by Josef Navrátil’s delicate ceiling and wall painting that exhibited painstaking detail.

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The name Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 12th century. A fortress used to be in the settlement, but the defensive structure was replaced by a Renaissance chateau in the 17th century, and that building was given a Baroque makeover in the 17th century. The current chateau hails from the 18th century, when grottoes, a decorative garden and statuary were all added to make it the superb architectural work that it is today. The architect was most likely the renowned Kilián Ignatius Dientzenhofer.

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Ploskovice became the summer residence of Ferdinand I after he had abdicated from the throne in 1848. This was the era when the brilliant Navrátil did his magic. After the founding of Czechoslovakia, the chateau was nationalized. It was made into a private summer residence for the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, who had promoted independence while living in exile during the First World War. He made frequent visits during the 1930s.

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However, after the Munich Agreement ceded the land of the Sudeten region to the Third Reich, German soldiers took over the chateau. A school for young Nazis was on the premises. During 1945, after the end of World War II, the chateau became state property again. In 1952 renovation began, and Navrátil’s frescoes were restored to their original beauty. During the 1960s, the chateau was opened to the public.

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The tour started in the hallway that boasted beautiful arcades. The entrance hall was stunning with frescoes, stuccowork and statues of the four elements and four seasons. We then saw 11 rooms.

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The Engraving Salon featured a large collection of engravings and mid-18th century Rococo decorations with white-and-gold furnishings. Meissen porcelain enhanced the beauty of the room. I loved the vedutas of Paris, French chateaus and French parks. In the Rococo Ladies’ Bedroom, the small crucifix that can be opened and closed was made from ivory. An early Baroque jewel chest dated from the 17th century, hailing from Cheb. The small opening in the jewel chest held an altar. A gilded Rococo mirror also added to the elegance of the room. Paintings from late Baroque and Rococo periods also hung in the space.

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The Dining Room boasted Czech porcelain service from the days of Ferdinand I. The four seasons were personified on a ceiling that included superb medallions. The Emperor’s Salon boasted second Rococo furnishings and appeared as it had when Ferdinand I had used the chateau as a summer residence. Navrátil’s delicate floral designs on the ceiling were other delights. A second Rococo chandelier adorned the space. I saw portraits of Empress Marie Theresa and her son Joseph II. They looked like they were made of stucco but were really paintings. A superbly decorated white tiled stove also impressed me.

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The Dancing Hall was the highlight of the chateau. Large figures representing the four continents dominated the ceiling, painted in Navrátil’s cheerful colors. A Turk with a camel represented Asia while a crocodile stood for America. The room even had a delightful balcony. An antique vase was painted on one wall. The colors were dynamic, the painting in the room powerful and bold.

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The Emperor’s Bedroom featured furnishings of the second Rococo style, dating from around 1850. The ceiling was colorful, adorned with bouquets of flowers. In the corner, medallions showed allegories of the times of day. A rooster represented morning, a relaxing hunting dog portrayed noon while a drinking deer stood for evening and an owl personified night. I loved the dark blue cups for coffee or hot chocolate. They came from Karlovy Vary. Two paintings of a Madonna and Child also adorned the space.

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In another space there were sofas on which the people would be seated back-to-back. The ceiling boasted scenes from the Italian countryside. It brought back fond memories of my day trips from Florence to Tuscan towns and many other places in Italy, a country I loved dearly.

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The Emperor’s Morning Salon was also worth mentioning. The wooden chandelier was stunning as were the small wooden cups and kettle. They looked so delicate and quaint. In another space an artificial marble table featured a design with shepherds. An 18th century Biedermeier clock also adorned the room. The chandelier was made of alabaster.

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I loved the paintings on the wall of the Emperor’s Study, showing scenes from a Roman market. It also included French bronze clocks. Because Ferdinand I had been a passionate collector of clocks, there were many clocks of various styles in the chateau. A portrait of Napoleon’s handsome son hung on one wall. He had died of tuberculosis when he was 20 years old. I thought of my family friends who had lost a child when she was 20. I sometimes wondered what her life would have been like if she had lived, what she would have done for a living, whom she would have married, how many kids she would have had. I always thought of her donning that contagious grin, which could light up every room.

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Another space showed off Late Empire style furniture with a stunning circular table made of artificial marble. Paintings of Apollo and the muses also astounded. I was especially interested in the two colored lithographs of a banquet in Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle in honor of the coronation of Ferdinand I becoming Czech king in 1836. I was very passionate about Czech and Slovak history, having studied this field in graduate school, when I got my master’s in Czech literature. Vladislav Hall was seeping with history. I felt it whenever I meandered around the Castle and visited the architectural masterpiece.

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The second floor of the chateau consisted of masterful 19th century Czech paintings, such as those by Jaroslav Preiss, Navrátil, the Mánes brothers and Chitussi. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. I loved the small landscape scenes best.

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Six ground floor spaces had been made into grottoes – artificial water caves – in second Rococo style. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. One fountain was adorned with motifs of Hercules’ deeds. Allegorical figures of the four seasons also stood out. The coats-of-arms of all the past owners of the chateau adorned one wall. The ceiling decoration was also breathtaking.

The chateau park consisted of eight hectares with a four-tiered terrace punctuated by marble fountains. It dates from the 19th century era that promoted the second Rococo style. One of the features I liked best about this chateau was the presence of peacocks. Peacocks flaunted their colorful plumage throughout the grounds.

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I was also very pleased that the local restaurant offered my favorite meal: chicken with peaches and cheese. It used to be on the menus in many restaurants during the 1990s but then for some reason disappeared from the lists of entrees. The meal was delicious, and my trip had been a great success.

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

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Bergamo Diary

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I was only in Bergamo for a short time, but it stole my heart just the same. We only had time to explore the Upper Town for part of a day, so I did not get to visit the Lower Town’s Accademia Carrara with its fantastic art collection.

The Upper Town was magical. What I loved more than the sights were the winding, narrow, hilly streets – so romantic and picturesque. I felt as if I had time-traveled back centuries while walking down those streets. In fact, the entire Upper Town made me feel as if I had gone back in time. I saw medieval houses and houses with 16th and 17th century facades. The atmosphere reminded me of that in Urbino, where I had visited a fabulous art gallery and Raphael’s birthplace as well as strolled down hilly, narrow streets.

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First, a few things about Bergamo’s history. Bergamo was founded as Bergomum by the Celts. It was given the status of municipality under the Romans in 49 BC, but then it was destroyed in the fifth century. It was rebuilt and blossomed into a significant town in Lombardy. I found out that Bergamo had been one of the stops on the mail courier route created by the Thun and Taxis dynasty during the 13th century in what was considered the first modern postal service. I remember hearing about this when I visited the palace in Regensburg.

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Bergamo was under Venetian domination as of 1428. During the period of Venetian rule, the middle class came into being, and Bergamo flourished artistically. Peace – something we experience little of in the world today – reigned over the awe-inspiring city for no less than three-and-a-half centuries. During the 16th century, the Venetians had defense systems built around the city. These structures have been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

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Then came Napoleon. The French troops took over the city on March 13, 1797. The Austrians didn’t take control of the territory until June of 1814. Some Italians were not satisfied with Austrian rule, and, in 1848, they rebelled against the monarchy. During 1861 Bergamo joined the Kingdom of Italy. The 20th century saw a major increase in industry. Three years ago, in 2017, Bergamo hosted the G7 summit. That’s when the Charter of Bergamo came into being, a proclamation focusing on reducing hunger in the world and helping agricultural development in Africa.

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We went to the Upper Town by funicular and headed for Piazza Vecchia, the main square. I admired the Baroque fountain in the middle, studying its adornment of tritons and lions. One of the most impressive buildings was the Palazzo della Ragione, constructed in the second half of the 12th century and housing administrative offices during the Middle Ages. The porticoes were elegant while the arches and three-mullioned windows above them were remarkable. I also admired the 18th century sundial on the pavement. The Torre Campanaria or Tower of the Big Bell harkened back to the 11th century. Every evening it tolls 100 times.

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The Palazzo del Podestà Veneto (Palace of the Mayor of Venice) is another architectural gem, built in the 14th century and now serving as a university. The Civic Library across the street was erected according to plans by Vincenzo Scamozzi, whose name I remember from my tour of Vicenza and its Palladian architecture. This structure in Bergamo dates from the early 17th century. The town hall was located on its premises from 1648 to 1873.

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The cathedral and Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore are situated on the Piazza del Duomo, a small square where markets took place during the Middle Ages. The Baptistery includes eight bas-reliefs portraying the life of Christ. The basilica dates from 1137 and still has some Romanesque features. The loggias are very elegant. The interior was refurbished in the 16th and 17th centuries.

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What impressed me most of all was the Colleoni Chapel, where the sarcophagi of Bartolomeo Colleoni and his daughter Medea rested. Colleoni had been captain-general of the Republic of Venice and hailed from the Bergamo area. The church-mausoleum was built between 1472 and 1476 and is one of the most intriguing Renaissance structures in north Italy. The façade overwhelmed me with its tarsia and polychrome marble in red, white and black. The marble designs on the facade exuded a feeling of vivaciousness and a sense of harmony.

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The rose window took my breath away. I recalled the rose window in the cathedral of Altamura in Puglia – it had also put me in a sort of trance. Unfortunately, the Colleoni Chapel was closed when we were there, so I could only admire one of the most beautiful facades I had ever seen. I later read that inside there were remarkable ceiling frescoes by Giambattista Tiepolo from the 1730s.

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The cathedral was built in the 17th century on the site of another cathedral. The façade on the west side was Neoclassical, a 19th century renovation. The cathedral got major makeovers in the late 17th century and in the 19th century. With a Latin cross ground plan, the interior was impressive, each altar enthralling in its own unique way. There was only one nave. A painting by Tiepolo adorned the apse. The baptistery dated from the Middle Ages with a font from 1340. On the upper level a colonnade included 14th century statues of virtues. The Diocese Museum was closed, unfortunately.

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The medieval houses that we passed on the way to the fortress included walled-up areas that are referred to as the doors of the dead. These entrances are opened only for a funeral of a family member. The fortress was built for John of Bohemia in 1331, and the tower, which we did not have time to go up, was sure to offer spectacular views. We also saw a 12th century tower. We did not have time to see San Michele al Pozzo Bianco, a 12th century church with impressive frescoes. I had also heard that the botanical garden was worth visiting.

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As I sat with a friend at a café on the main square, she told me it was her birthday. What a fantastic place to spend a birthday in! The evening was tranquil, the weather pleasant, without crowds as we had experienced in Verona in the morning. It was as if time stood still in Bergamo, as if peace momentarily reigned in the world just as it had in Bergamo for three and a half centuries.

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While we only had time to sample the city’s atmosphere, Bergamo made a distinct impression on me. One of the most admirable features of the Upper Town was the absence of souvenir shops. I wish Prague’s Old Town would ban souvenir shops. I remembered Prague of the early 1990s, when there were not so many souvenir shops and the center had yet to be overrun by tourists. Bergamo’s streets sported shops with local delicacies – I bought some tasty biscotti in one of them. There were also bookstores and stores for paper goods, for instance.

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What first comes to mind when I think of Bergamo are those streets, small and narrow yet romantic and poetic. I could walk down those streets for hours, around and around and around from dawn until dusk, getting lost and finding my way and myself over and over again.

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

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