2021 Travel Diary

Bust of first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk from TGM Museum in Lány

This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Czech soldiers during World War I

Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.

Furnishings from the First Republic period
Panels explaining architecture and construction during the First Republic

The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health  after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.

The Masaryk graves in Lány

Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.

Lány Chateau
The park at Lány

Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.

Červená Lhota Chateau
Interior of Červená Lhota Chateau

We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.

Interior of Červená Lhota Chateau

The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.

Jemniště Chateau

Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.

Park of Jemniště Chateau
Jemniště Chateau from the park

The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.

Český Šternberk Castle in the distance
View from Český Šternberk Castle

Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.

Interior of Český Šternberk Castle
Knights’ Hall

The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.

Karlštejn Castle from the picturesque main street

It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.

Entrance gate at Karlštejn Castle

Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel.  On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.

Blatná Chateau

Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.

The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.

Park at Blatná Chateau

In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive.  Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.

Děčín Chateau gate

We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century.  A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.

View from the chateau

The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.

Rose Garden
Statue in Rose Garden

The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.

The house where my family lived for almost 50 years

In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.

Šarlota on her cat tree
Šarlotka on her Prague castle
Šarlotka napping with her toys when she was 11

Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.

I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.

Olinka

Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.

Olinka on Christmas Eve, 2021
Olinka resting while I read on the couch

The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.

I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.

I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.

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

Italy – Puglia, Altamura
Puglia, Matera
Rome – Colosseum

Assisi
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2020 Travel Diary

View of Prague from the district where I live

This past year started with me looking forward to my trip to Milan, scheduled for May because I had had to cancel in November of 2019. I was assuming I would begin castlehopping around the country at the beginning of April. The last thing I expected was a pandemic. I never would have guessed that seeing people in face masks would become a familiar sight. I changed my trip to Milan to October, thinking the pandemic would be pretty much over by then. I would cancel for a third time, not feeling safe enough to fly or going sightseeing when a deadly virus was raging through the world.

A chapel in my home district

During the first three weeks of the pandemic, I only went outside to take out the trash. I felt traumatized. I watched CNN International whenever I had a free moment as the network provided nonstop coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. On TV, I was constantly confronted with death – so many deaths. I was convinced I would die soon of the coronavirus as did many of those featured on TV, so I did not go out. Then one day I had to go to the pharmacy. I was hyperventilating because I was so anxious to be outdoors. Soon, though, I started walking to the nearby park and spending time sitting on one of my favorite benches with the most stunning views of lush green hills that looked like they belonged in Vermont.

Křivoklát Castle

It all changed at the end of May, when the castles opened again. The number of coronavirus cases were low. My friend and I started going on day trips once a week, giving me a welcome respite from my endless fretting and CNN’s constant portrayal of tragic suffering and death.

The main altar of the chapel in Křivoklát Castle

We started at the Gothic Křivoklát Castle, which harkens back to the 13th century. My favorite room in this castle is the well-preserved chapel that was built in the 1470s. The winged main altar of the crowning of the Virgin Mary hailed from 1490. Masterfully carved statues of the 12 apostles added to the impressive décor. Another space was devoted to Gothic art with altarpieces, statues and paintings. Of course, we had to wear masks and try to stay apart from each other. No more than 12 people were allowed on a tour. Still, it was crowded in some spaces.

Painted decoration on a window in the Knights’ Hall at Žleby Chateau

Next came Žleby, a chateau I had visited years earlier with another friend. I loved the romantic 19th century appearance. The chapel boasted of a Neo-Gothic 19th century style. The Knights’ Hall was a real gem with 16th century knights’ armor, hunting trophies and weapons. However, what I liked best about it were the 188 painted glass pictures covering one wall. They had been created from 1503 to 1749. My favorite feature of the chateau was the leather wallpaper, for instance in the Prince’s Study, the Rococo Salon and the library. The Red Room also dazzled with gold-and-red leather wallpaper. Of great interest were the elaborate tiled stoves, some of the most beautiful I had ever seen. The armory was another delight. And who could forget those Renaissance arcades on the exterior.

Tiled stove at Žleby Chateau
Leather wallpaper lines the walls at Žleby Chateau.
Kačina Chateau

I also returned to the biggest 19th century Empire style chateau in the Czech Republic, Kačina. The representative rooms displayed 19th century Empire, Biedermeier and Classicist styles. But there was more. A 19th century library sported roundels with painted cupolas and stylized squares. The light streamed into the three sections. The small theatre was another treat, with two balconies of gold-and-black décor. The entrance room of the chateau had a 16-meter high roundel, which brought to mind the Pantheon in Rome.

Kačina Chateau library
Nebílovy Chateau
Dancing Hall at Nebílovy Chateau

We set off for West Bohemia to Nebílovy Chateau one weekday. It is comprised of a Baroque chateau with another building behind it. The structure in the background looked so dilapidated – as if it would fall apart before our very eyes. Yet both buildings were filled with great beauty inside. The Dancing Hall was the highlight with its idyllic ceiling and wall painting of palm trees, monkeys, birds and people. The Rococo designs amazed. Other rooms were stunning, too, with little details that made the spaces charming.

Průhonice Park

One beautiful morning I traveled to Průhonice Park with another friend. It included 250 acres of beauty with a Neo-Renaissance chateau. I admired the rose garden, the central lake with its stunning views, the open meadows dotted with haystacks, the waterfalls and the brook as well as the floral species.

Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau

I also paid a second visit to Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau, which featured rare 18th century furnishings. I loved the mural spanning three walls in the Italian Room. Naples and Venice loomed in the distance of the town represented. The Delft Dining Room proved to be a treasure. The porcelain from the 17th to the 19th century was all original and handmade. Giacomo Casanova worked in the library during the 18th century.

Koněprusy Caves

For some variety, we explored some caves about an hour from Prague one week. The Koněprusy Caves were discovered in 1950 and became open to the public nine years later. They measure 2,050 meters in length. The tour covers 620 meters and shows visitors part of the middle and upper floors. (There are three floors in all.) The middle floor is the longest, dotted with wide galleries and large halls. A special kind of limestone – Koněprusy limestone – has been mined from this area since the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the foundation stones for Prague’s National Theatre came from this quarry in 1868.

I loved the decoration of this cave system. The ornamentation was one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic. It is formed by stalactite and stalagmite structures made from calcite.

Peruc Chateau

I traveled to one chateau for the first time – all the other trips were return visits. Peruc had opened a month or so earlier after lengthy renovation. The elegant Rococo exterior had an interior that did not disappoint. The religious paintings and tiled stoves, mostly in Classicist style, were highlights of the tour. The outdoor toilets comprised of holes in the ground certainly were not very comfortable.

Manětín Chateau
Manětín Chateau

We made a lengthy journey mostly on country back roads to Manětín Chateau in west Bohemia. The ceiling frescoes delighted me. In the biggest room, a ceiling fresco from 1730 showed three figures representing Love, Strength and Fortune. The four seasons made appearances, too. Painted Baroque statues looked real. Mythological themes played central roles. The chateau was unique for its impressive collection of paintings of servants and clerks who had worked at the chateau. Thirty Baroque statues dotted the town, too.

Rabštejn nad Střelou

After visiting Manětín, we drove to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, which was once the smallest town in the country and possibly at one time the smallest town in Europe. It featured a Baroque chateau, a castle ruin and timbered houses that belonged in another century. The town was a quaint place, but since my last visit, many tourists had discovered it. During my first visit, I was one of the only people exploring. This time the town was crowded with Czechs taking advantage of the nice weather and low number of coronavirus cases.

Chapel at Lnáře Chateau
Lnáře Chateau

One of my favorite trips was to Lnáře Chateau. We ate at a restaurant where three stray cats begged for handouts. The black one received some of my macaroni and cheese. Then we headed to the 17th century chateau with an elegant courtyard boasting of arcades. Inside, the wall and ceiling frescoes were Baroque, and many dealt with mythology. The Baroque Chapel of Saint Joseph hailed from the middle of the 17th century.

Coat-of-arms in the Cat Museum
Copy of Egyptian goddess represented by a cat in the Cat Museum

What my friend and I loved most about Lnáře Chateau was the Cat Museum. We saw figures of cats, paintings, drawings and coats-of-arms of towns symbolized by cats. A two-meter high copy of an Egyptian goddess represented by a cat stood in one space. I also adored the cheerful painting of a feline by one of my favorite Czech artists, František Pon. It was one of my happiest days of the summer, and I often think back to that day when I want to capture that feeling of utter joy.

Konopiště Chateau
Konopiště Chateau

Our last venture out of Prague was to the ever-popular Konopiště Chateau, known to most as the former home of Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophie Chotek, who were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered World War I. The couple lived there for 14 years. What I liked best was not the collection of hunting trophies that people always talk about but the chapel with its Gothic statues and Renaissance paintings. The light blue vaulted ceiling was studded with stars. Red designs also added to the elegance of the small space. I remembered my first visit here in 1991. I had imagined getting married in this chapel someday. Alas, I would never get married but would find happiness in being single. The first tour concentrated on the luxuriousness of the chateau furnishings while the second tour revolved around accounts of Franz Ferdinand’s family and how they had influenced his life as we explored intriguing furnishings.

Konopiště Chateau Museum of St. George

A museum addict, I enjoyed visiting the Saint George Museum with 808 paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces sporting Saint George fighting the dragon. Franz Ferdinand had amassed an impressive collection. The Shooting Hall was unique with moving targets painted in detail.

Konopiště Shooting Hall

Perhaps the best thing about that day was that there were only five or six people on each tour. Normally, there are 30 or more on a tour at Konopiště. It was wonderful to be there without the crowds. I had a three-scoop sundae in the chateau restaurant, a fitting end to our escapades for the year. By then coronavirus cases were increasing, and it was becoming dangerous to travel.

Rembrandt exhibition at Kinský Palace

I did manage to make it to one art exhibition this year. Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man exhibition took place in Kinský Palace on Old Town Square. The portraits and self-portraits spoke to me as Rembrandt evoked the soul of his subject and knew how to reveal the deepest depths of his own soul in his self-portraits. Modern work inspired by the great artist was on display, too.

Rembrandt exhibition

I missed going to restaurants and eating indoors, something I won’t do during a pandemic. I missed going to the theatre, going to concerts, taking the Metro and tram often and just feeling free to go wherever I wanted to without being concerned about catching a deadly virus. I really missed not being able to fly to the States and see my parents because it was too risky, and part of the time the borders were closed. And I missed spending time in foreign countries, exploring new places such as exciting art museums. I missed Italy specifically. I hope that, by the spring of 2021, I will be able to, at the very least, take trips to castles and chateaus around the country.

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

My dessert at Konopiště as I celebrated the short season of travel

Rembrandt Exhibition Portrait of a Man Diary

I had enthusiastically sought out Rembrandt’s works at various galleries throughout Europe. I had marveled at his masterful chiaroscuro at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, at the Louvre in Paris and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to name a few.

One of my favorite memories of traveling with my parents was visiting the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, which included a printmaking studio as well as some of his paintings and prints. Rembrandt lived there from 1639 until 1656, when financial woes forced him to move. None of the furnishings is original because he had sold them, but the 17th century interior still delighted and awed both my parents and myself. We were happy. I had recently turned 30 while my parents were still young enough to travel abroad without health concerns. Therefore, Rembrandt’s works had a personal meaning for me, evoking such memories of joy.

I was very excited when the Rembrandt exhibition of his portraits came to Kinský Palace on Old Town Square in Prague on September 25, 2020. The palace’s space for the exhibition took up one floor and was considerable in size. Even though it didn’t end until January 31, 2021, I was eager to see the masterpieces. I went there shortly after it opened, on September 28. Many of the works were normally displayed in Prague, Olomouc, Brno, New York, Antwerp, London, Dresden and Vienna while others had been loaned from private collections. The exhibition featured both his paintings and drawings as well as modern works inspired by the masterful artist. It was a good thing I went so soon after its opening because soon the gallery would be closed due to the high number of coronavirus cases. We had to wear masks, and it was quite crowded, even though only a limited number of people could be in the gallery at the same time. (The gallery would reopen in December.)

The highlight of the exhibition was the painting A Scholar in His Study, permanently housed in Prague’s National Gallery. The painting exemplifies how Rembrandt achieved great success at portraiture. His work shows not only the physical characteristics of the subject but also the psychological nature of the man in a dramatic way that is unique to Rembrandt’s style.

I was most entranced by Rembrandt’s portraits because they showed the soul of the person. The subject was not standing rigidly. The appearance was very lifelike. Moreover, there was much more to his paintings than the appearance. I felt as if I could look deep into the people in the portraits as his works narrated a visual story of the subject’s life. His portraits showed that he truly cared about the subject.

I especially was keen on the self-portraits as Rembrandt showed his inner self, capturing his psychological state. It was as if he could be objective about himself. I could read the self-portraits as a sort of visual autobiography – as a young man Rembrandt looked a bit insecure, at the peak of his career he appeared successful and confident and finally I saw a sadness and resignation that was both touching and tragic. I recalled his sad fate – a poor man when he died, he was buried in an unknown grave in a church, and his remains were destroyed after resting there for 20 years.

I liked the portraits in which he was making faces. In one particular work, he looked surprised and amazed. I noticed his clothes from bygone eras in some works as he dressed as a historical figure for some self-portraits. A theatre major, I loved the sense of drama in these works.

The self-portraits were dynamic and powerful. This effect was in part achieved by his mastery of light and shadow. I also appreciated the details. His works featured great attention to detail, and that helped bring the portraits to life.

While I made sure I didn’t stand too close to anyone, I perused the works with a sense of enthusiasm that I had missed since early September, when my friend and I stopped visiting castles, chateaus and caves because the number of coronavirus cases had greatly increased. I reveled in that enthusiasm.

I thought I would have the chance to visit other exhibitions in the near future. Alas, soon the museums and galleries closed for a lengthy period, only opening again in December. I missed the excitement of peering at an artwork that spoke to me, that was powerful and poignant.

The Portrait of a Man exhibition was one of my favorite all-time exhibitions. Rembrandt’s works never cease to amaze me, and seeing so many in one place was phenomenal.

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

Shooting Hall at Konopiště Chateau Photo Diary

The shooting hall is located in the former stables of Konopiště Chateau, about an hour from Prague.  It hails from the time when Franz Ferdinand d’Este, an avid hunter, resided there. He bought the chateau in 1887 and carried out repairs from 1889 to 1894 so that the architecture resembled a Renaissance chateau in North Italian style with a partially medieval appearance. His penchant for hunting is well-documented as the chateau shows off 4,500 of his hunting trophies and 3,000 deer teeth.

The shooting hall includes painted moving targets of various figures rendered in great detail. One man holds out an open umbrella to fend off an angry dog. Another man brandishes scissors in one hand as if about to use them as a weapon against people gathered in front of a bank. There are targets of various animals, too. The shooting hall includes a section with many hunting trophies, too. Its meticulously portrayed painted scenes are unique, to be sure. This part of the chateau is free if tourists buy a ticket for any of the four tours of the interiors.

Franz Ferdinand was the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, the brother of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef I. After his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father passed away, Franz Ferdinand found himself heir to the Habsburg throne.

The emperor strongly frowned upon Ferdinand marrying Sophie Chotková because no one in her family was a descendent of a European ruling dynasty. Finally, the couple was allowed to marry, but there were strict conditions. The couple’s three children could never be heirs to the throne.

They only enjoyed 14 years residing in the chateau. Their tenure was abruptly cut short when, during the summer of 1914, as Inspector General of the Army, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie oversaw military maneuvers in Sarajevo, Bosnia. This region, along with Herzegovina, had been annexed by Austria in 1908. On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, an assassin affiliated with the Black Hand terrorist group, shot and killed the Archduke and his wife while they were in their car. Less than two months later, World War I began. 

People usually pop into the shooting hall for a quick look but the skillfully made moving targets deserve more attention.

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

Průhonice Park Diary

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I have been to Průhonice Park many times, exploring its 250 acres of natural beauty and admiring its Neo-Renaissance Chateau and its graffito façade commemorating the fight between St. George and the dragon. Some highlights of the English style park include open meadows dotted by haystacks, three lakes, brooks and waterfalls as well as many intriguing floral and woody species. I enjoyed the view from the lookout terrace of the chateau and always found myself awe-struck by the views of the chateau from the park. I particularly liked the chateau’s reflection in the lake.

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The views from this park near Prague are so calming, even more so as a pandemic ravages the world. While walking around the park with a friend, I thought of my parents in the USA, both in their eighties, and worried about them catching COVID-19. I always worried about them, ever since the coronavirus came to America. Somehow gazing at haystacks in an open meadow and seeing the chateau’s beauty from a distance made me less anxious. Of course, I also worried about friends in the States, here in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the world. I had friends in the States who were essential workers and worried about them not having suitable PPE, for instance.

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The park was the masterpiece of Arnošt Emanuel Silva-Tarouca, who married Marie Antonie Countess Nostic-Rieneck and moved to Průhonice, where he created the park and had the chateau undergo a transformation in neo-Renaissance style.

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I loved the flowers, too, especially the rose beds. Other flowers seen in the park include dwarf iris, Chinese Sargent hydrangea, Dog’s tooth violet, Asian skunk cabbage, primroses, rhododendrons and woody yellow peonies. My mother’s favorite flowers – tulips – were present as well. Woody species feature English oak, Nikko maples, Norway spruce, Douglas fir trees, Bosnian pine and copper beeches.

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I was glad to visit the park with a friend as often I had come there alone previously. While I like to walk through parks alone and mull over life’s trials and tribulations, I also needed occasionally to travel with someone, to share the experience and make animated conversation.

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We found a terrific restaurant away from the central drag, which boasted pizzerias rather than Czech or international food. We were the only people in the restaurant, seated on the scenic terrace, when we arrived. I had beef with dumplings, one of my favorite Czech foods. It was a delightful way to end a day trip that had featured calming thoughts and amazing scenery.

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

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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.

Cookies hearts love.

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.

2019 Travel Diary

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Charlottenburg Palace

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Birds on Isola Madre were plentiful.

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Church on Isola Madre

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In Palace on Isola Madre

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In Palace on Isola Madre

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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.

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House on Isola dei Pescatori

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Street on Isola dei Pescatori

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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.

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Castle in Malcesine

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Castle ruins in Malcesine

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sigurtà Park

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.

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Dance of Death Baroque frescoes at Kuks

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Braun’s statues in the lapidarium at Kuks

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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.

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Ploskovice Chateau

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Painting by Navrátil at Ploskovice

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Theatre Review Diary: The Act

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Ben Bradshaw as Mrs. Žila dances in The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

I have decided to add theatre reviews to my blog. Most, if not all, of the plays reviewed will be understandable to an English-speaking audience or will somehow enhance an English speaker’s knowledge of the Czech Republic’s culture and history.

Humor is in full force in the Cimrman English Theatre’s production of The Act, a witty and hilarious comedy brought to life in English translation by British, American and Czech thespians. I thought the group performed well when I saw the second performance they ever staged, The Stand-In, three years ago, but now the professional ensemble performs even the minutest gesture seemingly with ease.

The play is expertly written in Czech by the co-founders of the Jára Cimrman Theatre, Zdeněk Svěrák and Jiří Šebánek as well as Ladislav Smoljak. The Act was the first play in the Czech group’s repertoire, premiering in 1967. It introduced Czechs to the unlucky fictional master of all trades, Jára Cimrman, who was chosen as the Greatest Czech in a survey during 2005. Cimrman was not only a prolific writer of plays and works of other genres but also an inventor, self-taught gynecologist, dentist, world traveler, composer, criminologist and philosopher, among other professions. Many of the plays take place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s reign over the Czech lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries, though The Act is set in the 1960s.

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The dancing and singing are two excellent reasons to see The Act. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

Cimrman was definitely unlucky: Alexander Graham Bell made it to the patent office just before he did, so Cimrman did not get credit for inventing the telephone. Famous composters stole pieces of Cimrman’s seven-hour operetta Proso and incorporated them into their own works. Cimrman’s writings were discovered during 1966, when a dynamite explosion of a chest in the village of Liptákov scattered his papers, and his creative endeavors were appreciated for the first time.

All the Cimrman plays are divided into two parts. In the first act, the actors play themselves, posing as experts of Jára Cimrman’s life, love of animals, philosophy and inventions, for instance. The actors perform a hilarious scene from Cimrman’s horror play, The Electric Stool, an invention that has a heating spiral and utilizes 360 volts. They perform the skit in witty verse, which is excellently translated into English. An inventor tries to trick his tailor into sitting on the stool so he can find out if it works. His plan backfires, though, and the inventor winds up sitting on the stool and dying.

In the first act spectators also learn of Cimrman’s failed attempt to teach his pet hen Zora to tie his shoes and about Zora’s tragic death. Cimrman the philosopher is the theme of one lecture. His philosophy consists of the idea that the external world exists, but he does not. The actors also explain why spectators will see a big hole shaped like a person in the set’s back wall during the second act. That’s how Cimrman escaped the one performance of this play in his lifetime as it was greeted with a very negative response.

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Ben Bradshaw’s character shines brilliantly in the play. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

In the first act, actors are seated in simple chairs on the stage while one of them speaks at a podium. While the man at the podium tackles a topic concerning Jára Cimrman, the actors in the background also are often interacting with each other silently using gestures and facial expressions as they react to what is being said. Thus, this sort of action in the background complements the action in the foreground, making the lecture part of the play more dynamic and lively. Spectators see how well the actors interact with each other. This is true of the plays in Czech as well.

The second part is the play itself. The plot of The Act revolves around three men who do not think they know each other and seemingly have nothing in common visiting the home of Mr. and Mrs. Žila, who have invited them in order to explain why Mr. Žila (Peter Hosking) never was able to finish his painting of a nude. Their lives are changed forever as they learn secrets about their pasts. Mrs. Žilová (Ben Bradshaw) steals the show with his gestures, facial expressions, dancing and ability to belt back beer. In fact, all the dances are well-choreographed. It is evident that the actors have painstakingly rehearsed the dances. Not only the dancing but also the singing is expertly performed.

Bedřich (Adam Stewart) is very convincing as a man who has done three stints in jail, someone who at first only stays to scarf down the chicken that Mrs. Žilová has prepared for her guests. His thick British accent seems to suit his character.

The other actors are just as convincing – there’s Pepa, the sexologist (Brian Caspe) whom Mrs. Žilová mistakes for a barber because he dons a white doctor’s coat; Mr. Žila, who hit his wife on the forehead with a mallet so she would lose her memory; and Láďa (Curt Matthew), who defecates in his pants whenever he gets very emotional. It is clear that director Michael Pitthan has studied the Czech version down to the minutest detail.

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Mr. Žila and Mrs. Žila with the nude painting. Photo from http://www.zdjc.cz

During the past several years, the ensemble has gelled into a group that works masterfully together. Teamwork is the key to the success of this production, as the actors seem very comfortable performing with each other. The translation, especially the dialogue in verse and the lyrics of the songs, is top-notch, bringing out the humor of the Czech original.

The Cimrman English Theatre also performs in English three other plays from the Czech Jára Cimrman Theatre’s repertoire – The Stand-in (Záskok), Conquest of the North Pole (Dobytí severního Pólu) and Pub in the Glade (Hospoda na mýtince). My review of the latter play is on www.czechoutyourancestors.com. The English-speaking ensemble has received accolades for their performances in America as well.

The Act

Cimrman English Theatre

Žižkovské Divadlo Járy Cimrmana

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Prague 3 – Žižkov

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Bedřich, played by Adam Stewart, has everyone’s attention. Photo from @CimrmanTheatre.

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The dancing is brilliant. Photo from prague.tv.

 

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

Jaroslav Weigel Diary

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Zdeněk Svěrák and Jaroslav Weigel. Photo from Divadelní noviny.

I’ve decided to focus not only on places but also on people in my blog. Unfortunately, this post takes the form of an obituary as Jaroslav Weigel passed away September 5, 2019 in a Prague hospital at the age of 88. I saw Weigel act in many of the 15 plays performed at the theatre I love to frequent, The Jára Cimrman Theatre. This theatre is unique because it only showcases plays about the fictional character Jára Cimrman, who lived during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All 15 plays take place at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th century. The comedies employ witty and often history-related jokes as well as language-oriented puns.

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Jaroslav Weigel from the play Africa. Photo from style.hnonline.sk

They all center on the genius Jára Cimrman, whose talent remained undiscovered until his posthumous papers were unearthed in a cottage in the Jizera Mountains of north Bohemia during 1966, according to the playwriting duo of Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak, two of the creators of the Cimrman legend. Cimrman was a man of many trades: an inventor, a playwright, a collector of fairy tales, a traveling dentist, a composer of operas, a gynecologist, a criminologist and a world traveler, to name just a few of his professions. The tales of Jára Cimrman have become national folklore that to no small extent defines the country’s culture.

Over the years, this theatre has helped me deal with stress and hardships, making me laugh when I dearly needed a reason to smile. Seeing the performances allows me to achieve a mental balance in my life, so that I can think more clearly and solve problems more easily.

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Miloň Čepelka and Jaroslav Weigel in The Act. Photo from zpravy.aktualne.cz.

Back to Jaroslav Weigel. Ever since I started attending performances some years ago, I have been fascinated by Weigel’s accomplishments, by his stellar resume of talents and achievements. While I thought of him as an actor, he also made a name for himself as a painter, graphic artist, scene designer and costume designer. He was a member of the theatre ensemble since 1970. His association with the theatre started in the 1960s, when he worked as an editor with the influential magazine Mladý Svět (Young World). There, he came across a story by a young Zdeněk Svěrák, who co-founded the theatre. That marked the beginning of cooperation that would span five decades.

Weigel studied to be an art and history teacher at Charles University, and one of his mentors was the acclaimed Cyril Bouda, a much-acclaimed illustrator and painter. The talented student sometimes visited Bouda at his unique family house in the functionalist Baba quarter, a section of Prague six through which I often take walks. I sometimes try to imagine a young Weigel walking with a determined gait through the streets of Baba on the way to see his professor.

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the Secession-like covers of the DVDs of the plays.

 

Weigel designed the theatre’s distinctive Secession style publications such as the DVD cover of České Nebe or Czech Heaven. Photo from mksvyskov.cz.

Weigel’s talent as a graphic artist has greatly influenced the theatre’s artistic image. He designed all the printed matter for the theatre, including posters and programs, which have a charming and elegant Art Nouveau quality and are artistic works themselves.

However, his contributions did not stop there. He also designed the costumes and the stage sets, which bring the stories to life, helping to shape a fictional world in which the spectators can become engrossed.

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Jaroslav Weigel and Zdeněk Svěrák in Lijavec. Photo from topky.sk.

Weigel also designed postage stamps dedicated to Jára Cimrman, one of which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the theatre that took place several years ago. It shows Cimrman’s practically featureless bust.

The artistic guru also acted on television and in films written by Zdeněk Svěrák, including Svěrák’s first screenplay, Run, Waiter, Run! He last appeared on the big screen during 2007, when he had a role in the much-acclaimed Empties, directed by Jan Svěrák and written by Zdeněk Svěrák.

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The long-time actor’s achievements do not stop there. He also designed covers for records and illustrated books and magazines as well as calendars. He even co-designed a comic strip with Kája Saudek.

What I will remember Weigel for most is his acting. Over the decades, he had performed in all 15 plays, taking on roles as the baron leading an expedition to Africa in a hot air balloon and as the 15th century religious martyr Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415. In Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played major roles in two short plays. In the Messenger of Light, he played the father of a son who decides to turn his parents’ home into a factory to make flashlights, with plans to have his parents walk 30 kilometers to a retirement home in the mountains. Weigel’s character, who often acts confused, winds up outsmarting his son, hitting him over the head with a flashlight. Then the mother and father make sure their son will not be able to ruin their lives.

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Jaroslav Weigel in Messenger from Liptákov

In the other play of Messenger from Liptákov, Weigel played Hlavsa, who sees into the future by peering into his huge wood stove. A coal baron named Ptáček asks him to find out which suitor is right for his daughter, and Hlavsa tells the wealthy man that he sees the name Petr Bezruč on the gate of one of Ptáček’s mines. The baron, played by the very talented Miloň Čepelka, assumes he sells his mine to the poet Bezruč, not realizing that the mine will be taken away from him during the totalitarian era and that Bezruč’s writings will become a mouthpiece for the Communist regime.

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Jaroslav Weigel as Jan Hus and Petr Brukner as Saint Wenceslas in Czech Heaven. Photo from Třebíčský deník.

The character of Smrtka, personifying death, wears a black suit with black hat and holds a scythe. He waits for Weigel’s character to finish his prophesies in order to lead him to Heaven because it is the day that Hlavsa is scheduled to die. It turns out that Smrtka misses his chance to take Hlavsa to Heaven as the designated time passes, and he has to hurry to his next customer. Smrtka tells Weigel’s character that he has two more years before another younger Smrtka comes along to escort him to Heaven.

I guess that September 5 was the appointed time for Jaroslav Weigel to go on his last journey, ending an illustrious career that helped form the image of the Jára Cimrman Theatre and that helped the ensemble survive more than 50 years.

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

 

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Jaroslav Weigel designed the cover of the collected plays

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A stamp celebrating the 50th anniversary of the theatre ensemble, designed by Jaroslav Weigel.

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The book celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jára Cimrman Theatre. Cover designed by Jaroslav Weigel.