At East Side Gallery
Despite battling illnesses and undergoing an operation, I did manage to do some exciting traveling last year. I returned to Berlin, a city that I had only a year earlier become reacquainted with after a 27-year absence. Last year I explored the Charlottenburg district and even found time to visit the East Side Gallery for the second time in 28 years.
Inside the palace on Isola Bella
In the summer, I spent a brief but bewitching time in the Lake District of Italy. Seeing the Borromean Islands off Lake Maggiore was the highlight for me, although Malcesine, Verona, Bergamo and other spots were all fascinating.
Baroque former hospital Kuks with its 24 statues of vices and virtues
I did not have much time to travel in the Czech Republic because I had an operation during the summer. I did travel to the Baroque former hospital Kuks – one of my favorite sights in the country – as well as Ploskovice Chateau. I also was glad to be able to spend time at the Azyl Lucky Cat Shelter in Černov, located about an hour from Prague. I adopted my beloved Šarlota from that shelter and since then, I have enjoyed visiting the owner of the shelter and the beautiful cats and dogs that await forever homes.
Cats at the Azyl Lucky Shelter
Let’s start with Berlin in May. The weather was coldish and windy, but the sights were as magnificent as always. There’s always something fascinating to see in Berlin.
The objective of my short stay was to visit Charlottenburg Palace. I stayed in the Charlottenburg district with its tranquil, wide streets. There were not many tourists in the area, which was very pleasant.
Charlottenburg Palace began as Lietzenburg, commissioned by then Electress and future Queen Sophie Charlotte. Frederick the Great renamed it after his wife when she died in 1705 at age 37. Under the guidance of Sophie Charlotte, the chateau had been a cultural hubbub.
I was overwhelmed by the Baroque and Rococo décor and especially by the chinoiserie ornamentation. My favorite room was the Porcelain Cabinet, which featured about 2,700 objects in a luxurious and elegant space. I also loved the white harpsichord decorated with chinoiserie features in the Golden Cabinet.
Several museums are located across from the palace. While one museum featuring Art Deco and Art Nouveau works was closed, I did get to explore the Museum Berggruen, where I excitedly perused paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Klee. Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and African art rounded out the exposition. The museum of surrealist art nearby also had some intriguing works by artists such as Goya and Klee.
I wound up having some time to revisit the politically motivated murals of the East Side Gallery that had entranced me so much when I was a tourist back in the summer of 1991. Back then, when I was visiting after graduating from college in the States, the Berlin Wall had fascinated me. Now I knew many people who had lived and suffered under totalitarian rule, and the Wall to an extent sickened me. But not this portion of the Wall. The murals represented an exuberant and vivacious celebration of freedom, a good riddance to the oppression that had darkened so many decades of life behind the Iron Curtain. I loved these bright and bold statements of euphoria and optimism. Sure, some murals portrayed fear and anxiety as a new era beckoned, but that was only to be expected. This was the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing. During my visit in 1991, so much more of the Wall had yet to be taken down.
My four-day jaunt to Italy was not without its disappointments. I fell ill shortly after the lengthy bus ride and five-minute breakfast that we were allowed. I went to Italy with my good friend, traveling with an agency that I had not used before.
Isola Bella palace interior
My favorite day was the one when I felt healthy, the last day of the trip, but it was also the most special to me because I saw the amazing Borromean Islands that had me bewitched. My favorite island was Isola Bella, the site of a magnificent palace and ten-tiered garden shaped as a truncated pyramid. Shaped as a boat, the island boasted a luxurious palace along with six grottoes. The Music Room included 80 paintings by Pieter Muller the Younger, who was known for his renditions of stormy landscapes and thus had earned the nickname “The Tempest.” I was awed by the harpsichord in golden cypress wood, too. The Throne Room featured Lombard Baroque art. The gilded, wooden throne hailed from the 18th century. I also liked the two large cabinets made with tortoiseshell. The Tapestry Gallery was remarkable for its six Flemish tapestries. I have always loved tapestries! Visiting the Italian Baroque gardens topped off a great day.
Garden of Isola Bella
Before experiencing the glamor of Isola Bella, I had been engrossed in the beauty of Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori or Fishermen’s Island. Isola Madre was a botanical park dotted with white peacocks and rare birds. The largest of the three islands, it boasted a palace with 16th to 19th century furnishings, including Lombard paintings, marionettes and puppet theatre stage sets, such as a grotesque one punctuated by dragons, devils and skeletons. I also liked the machinery for making thunder and lightning as well as terrifying noises. The five-terraced garden also showed off a pond of water lilies, among other delights.
Birds on Isola Madre were plentiful.
Church on Isola Madre
In Palace on Isola Madre
In Palace on Isola Madre
View from Isola Madre
Isola dei Pescatori was the only of the three islands with permanent residents – as of 2018 there were 25 people who called the small place home year-round. The cobbled streets and narrow passageways that led to gorgeous views of Lake Maggiore were postcard-perfect. The modest yet elegant Church of St. Victor was furnished in Baroque style, though it had been built as a chapel during the 11th century. I also saw the picturesque town of Stresa, a wonderful place to relax after a day of island hopping.
House on Isola dei Pescatori
Street on Isola dei Pescatori
Church of St. Victor on Isola dei Pescatori
I spent one day in Malcesine during the scorching heat of the early summer. Even though I started to feel ill while riding the funicular to Mount Baldo, which is 1,800 feet above sea level, I appreciated the amazing views from the first cable car installation in the world with an all-rotating cabin. (It did not help my dizziness, though!) On Mount Baldo it was cold and windy at 8 am, so I did not spend much time there. I preferred to explore the picturesque town of Malcesine and chill out at cafes, drinking mineral water to ward off the effects of the harsh hot weather. The castle ruins were romantic and offer superb views of Lake Garda. Goethe was even briefly imprisoned there because the authorities thought he was a spy. There are several medieval frescoes in the castle complex.
Castle in Malcesine
Castle ruins in Malcesine
Views from rotating cable car from Malcesine to Mount Baldo
Bergamo was another town that will always be close to my heart. We only had time to explore the Upper Town, so I was not able to visit the Accademia Carrara art museum in the Lower Town, but it gave me a good reason to make a trip back there someday. Just standing on the Piazza Vecchia was awe-inspiring. The Palazzo della Ragione, located on this square, was built in the second half of the 12th century and boasted elegant arches and three-mullioned windows as well as porticoes. The most amazing architectural delight was the Colleoni Chapel, which was closed, unfortunately. Still, the façade sporting delicate colors of marble exuded such a sense of harmony and balance plus a vivaciousness that overwhelmed me. It is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in northern Italy. The sculptural decoration did not disappoint, either.
Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo
The cathedral, which was not completed until the 19th century, was impressive with a Baroque altar that featured a carved Episcopal throne. Unfortunately, the Diocese Museum was not open, but that was another reason to come back to this bewitching town.
What I liked best about Bergamo were the romantic, narrow, hilly streets that reminded me of those in Urbino. Walking by medieval houses or houses with facades from the 16th or 17th century was magical. The best thing about Bergamo’s Upper Town was that there were no souvenir shops. There were shops selling local delicacies and bookstores, but no shops promoting crazy t-shirts and gaudy objects. It was so refreshing. I wish the Old Town of Prague had banned souvenir shops.
Juliet’s balcony in Verona
We were only in Verona for half a day, so we did not see much of the city. After several minutes there, I know I would be yearning to come back for a longer stay. We saw Juliet’s House, the balcony that was said to be famous for the Romeo and Juliet scene in Shakespeare’s play. In reality, Verona created a tourist trap when they bought the house from the Cappello family. No one named Capulet had ever lived there. The house’s façade is impressive, in Gothic style, dating back to the 13th century. The balcony hails from last century. A statue of Juliet stood in the small courtyard. It is said to be lucky to rub her left breast, but I didn’t try it.
The main drag in Verona
I also saw the exterior of Romeo’s House, which never belonged to the Montague family. It was only given this name for sightseers. The building is medieval, in Gothic style and includes an archway with crenelated walls.
Then we saw a few of Verona’s main squares. Piazza Brà is one of the largest in Europe and boasts palaces, a museum and the city hall. Piazza delle Erbe was once the site of chariot races. During the Roman era, a large market took place there. Now visitors see palaces, a tower and a remarkable fountain dating from 1368. We walked down Via Giuseppe Mazzini, the central shopping street that was, during medieval times, dirty and lined with warehouses as well as barracks. Now expensive shops call the stunning renovated houses home.
I loved the arena, though I did not get much time there. Built in the first century AD, it is the third largest area, measuring 140 meters in length and 110 meters in width. The original seating capacity was 30,000, back when it was used for games and gladiator events. It became dilapidated after Emperor Honorius banned events there in 404 AD. For centuries, it was abandoned. At one point, prostitutes used the arena. Now, though, the arena is a remarkable sight that should not be missed.
We also visited Sigurtà Park with its extensive, beautiful grounds. I loved the water lily ponds and many monuments plus views of the villages beyond. You really needed a full day to explore the vast grounds properly.
Dance of Death Baroque frescoes at Kuks
Braun’s statues in the lapidarium at Kuks
The pharmacy at Kuks
I also visited several places in the Czech Republic last year. Kuks, a former hospital in gushingly Baroque style, is famous for its twenty-four 18th century statues of virtues and vices, sculpted by Matyáš Braun. In the lapidarium I was almost in a trance while peering at Love, Despair, Sloth and Hope. I also was enamored by the grotesque Dance of Death frescoes, as the figure of Death intruded on people’s lives. The pharmaceutical museum and one of the oldest pharmacies in the country were also very intriguing. There’s a lot to love about Kuks.
Painting by Navrátil at Ploskovice
The Main Hall at Ploskovice
Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 11th century. The chateau was born in the 16th century. The vestibule was decorated with sculpture, frescoes and stucco ornamentation. The Knights’ Salon is Rococo in style. Vedutas of French kings’ castles and French parks hung on the walls. The Ladies’ Bedroom showed off the Rococo style as well while an early Baroque jewel chest was decorated with bas-reliefs and inlaid with various kinds of woods.
The painted ceiling in the Ladies’ Study was the work of the renowned Josef Navrátil, whose masterful work I had also witnessed at Zákupy Chateau a year earlier. His remarkable and delicate painting was evident on the ceiling of the Dining Room as well. The Main Hall has 12 pilasters and shows off stucco works of Hope, Motherhood, Bravery and Nature. The painting on the cupola was remarkable, showing the four continents, created by masterful Czech artist V.V. Reiner. I had seen his masterpieces at Duchcov Chateau a few years earlier. Navrátil painted 36 oval medallions in the Main Hall.
I also liked the grottoes at the chateau. They originated during the Baroque era. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. Perhaps what I loved most about Ploskovice were the peacocks fluttering around the grounds.
I wish I had had more time to explore the Czech Republic last year, but my health and occasionally the weather prevented me from doing so. This year I am planning to go back to Italy and to take more trips in the Czech Republic. I also hope to see art exhibitions in Berlin and Vienna.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.