Italy Photo Diary

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

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

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

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Church in Ancona

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Assisi

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Basilica in Assisi

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Clock in Bassano del Grappo

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In Civic Museum of Bassano del Grappo

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Church in Bergamo

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Church of St. James Major in Bologna

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Capri

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Church in Vernazza, Cinque Terre

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Street in Vernazza, Cinque Terre

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Herculaneum

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Isola Bella garden

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Palace on Isola Bella

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House on Isola dei Pescatori

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Street on Isola dei Pescatori

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View from Isola Madre

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Black Madonna at Loreto shrine

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Cupola of Loreto

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Castle at Malcesine

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Cathedral in Modena

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View of Naples from Castel Sant Elmo

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Certosa Church in Naples

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Santa Chiara Church in Naples

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Padua, Palazzo della Ragione

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Last Judgment by Giotto in Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

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Perugia, Collegio

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Pisa

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Pisa

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Cemetery, Pisa

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Porteverre Church

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Cathedral of Altamura

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Street in Bari

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Cathedral crypt in Bitonto

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Cathedral in Ruva di Puglia

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House in Barletta

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Throne in church in Canosa di Puglia

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Castel del Monte

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Santa Croce Church, Lecce

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Sassi in Matera

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Otranto, mosaic on cathedral floor

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Street in Trani

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

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Pompeii

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Rainbow on way back to Rome

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Villa d’Este gardens

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Rovereto

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Spello

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Church in Spello

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Sant’ Apollinaire in Ravenna

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Sigurta Park

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Lake in Sirmione

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Trento

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Treviso

 

The Annunciation in cathedral in Treviso

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Udine cathedral

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Street in Urbino

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Venice

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Verona

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Arena in Verona

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Juliette’s balcony in Verona

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Russian icon in Galleria Italia in Vicenza

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Santa Corona Church in Vicenza

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False perspective in Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza

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Villa della Rotunda by Palladio

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Villa Emo

 

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

 

 

 

Misunderstandings Diary

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

Valentine’s Day

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

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

“To play in more games,” I responded.

“Wait for me after practice,” he said.

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

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

Odd or even?

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

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Václav Havel, from lifee.cz

Language problems

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

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

Experiences

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

Dealing with editors

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

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Bust of Lenin, from Antiques and Collectibles Paretski

Czech humor

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

 

Isola dei Pescatori Diary

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After visiting the palace and botanical gardens at Isola Madre, we set off for Isola dei Pescatori or the Fishermen’s Island in the Borromean Islands off Lake Maggiore. The only island inhabited year-round, as of 2018, Isola dei Pescatori had 25 permanent residents. The island has been inhabited for about 700 years.

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First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. While the Borromeos own the other two islands we visited, they never had possession of Isola dei Pescatori. They first gained control of the other two islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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At first glance, it was evident that this was not a place where I would find a luxurious palace or elaborate gardens. This was a fishing village, gritty and down-to-earth, with cobbled streets, cafes, stands and small boats near the lakefront. The houses were equipped with long balconies for putting dried fish.

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The island was just as picturesque as Isola Madre, even without a palace or lush gardens. Narrow alleyways led to gorgeous views of the sea and rocks on which one could sit down and contemplate life. It reminded me a bit of the views of the sea at Cefalu, when I sat down on the rocks and thought about nothing and everything at the same time. The island was picturesque, romantic even, with its tangle of alleyways and meandering, narrow streets. Many of the buildings housed shops with local goods, such as amaretto cookies in various flavors and many types of pasta. There were restaurants where you could have a proper meal as well as tacky souvenir shops where you could buy a variety of t-shirts and postcards.

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The most beautiful building I saw on the island was the modest yet elegant Church of St. Victor, which was built as a chapel in the 11th century. Now the only part of the Romanesque structure that still stands is the apse. While the church was expanded in the Gothic and Renaissance eras, it was also transformed into Baroque style during that particular period. It was first dedicated to Saint Victor when it took on the status of a parish church in 1627. Remnants of 16th century frescoes can be seen even today. The high altar included the busts of four bishops, a simple, modest affair that suits the church’s intimate atmosphere. The paintings in the church were also intriguing. I found the sense of intimacy that could be felt during prayer to be the most favorable characteristic of this church. It didn’t feel cold from an emotional standpoint, even for someone who was not especially religious. Wanderers could feel a palpable connection to the church, regardless of their relationship to religion.

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I ate at a café on the lakefront, gazing at another island and the calm waters as I finished lunch with a pistachio gelato. And, yes, I did go into one of those tacky tourist shops and buy some postcards for relatives in the USA.

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

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Isola Madre Diary

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View from Isola Madre

On a tour of the Italian Lakes, we spent the last day at Lake Maggiore, visiting three Borromean islands – Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella.

First, something about the name Borromeo. Indeed, the Borromeo dynasty played a major role in the history of the islands. In fact, the Borromeo clan still owns the islands, except for Isola dei Pescatori, today. They first gained control of the islands back in the 1500s. The wealthy family worked as merchants during the 1300s until they took up banking in Milan sometime after 1370. The most renowned Borromeos were cardinals and archbishops. Carlo was even canonized as a saint.

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View from Isola Madre

First, we took a small covered boat from Stresa to Isola Madre. This island was the largest of the three and featured a botanical park with exotic plants and flowers as well as a palace that boasted an intriguing collection of 16th to 19th century furnishings and paintings as well as marionettes and puppet theatre sets. The palace especially showed off 17th century Lombard paintings.

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I did justice to the five-terraced garden before entering the villa. The rare birds were a real treat. White peacocks proudly strutted on the grounds. The flowers were striking. I spotted rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias, for instance. There was an entire section of camellias, a kind of flower that has been nurtured on the island since 1830. I loved the pond adorned with water lilies. It reminded me of the Monet paintings I had seen at The Orangerie in Paris so many years ago, on that warm February morning, shortly after it first opened following a lengthy period of reconstruction.

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I also saw a banana tree that measured more than three meters in height. Palm trees appeared in the lush park. On the Gobbi Lawn stood a conifer tree that was still rather young, only about 200 years old. These types of tree can have a lifespan of 4,000 years.

Perhaps my favorite sight in the park was the Cashmir cypress tree because it had a fascinating past. The cypress tree was brought here from the Himalayas, presented to the Borromeos by an acquaintance in 1862. Initially a packet of seeds, the tree grew and grew and grew, finally weighing a total of 70 tons and becoming the largest of its kind in Europe.

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Fate would put an end to the tree’s claim to fame. During the tornado of 2006, the cypress fell. Still, it was not destroyed. The tree was pulled up again, thanks to cables and winches. It is truly an amazing sight that astounded me.

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Later, I would read in depth about the history of the island, which was the first of the three to be populated. (No one lives there anymore.) A document from 846 provides written evidence of Isola Madre’s existence. It is not clear why the name Madre was chosen. Perhaps it was because the island was the first one that people called home. It is also possible that the name refers to Count Renato Borromeo’s mother. The appearance of the island has changed little since the end of the 18th century.

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Then I entered the palace with a double arcade that made it look light and airy. The furnishings of the palace had been transported there from homes owned by the Borromeo family. I noticed the mannequins dressed in intriguing uniforms from several centuries ago, attire relating to their professions.

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The Fireplace’s Room included Milanese paintings from the 1600s and octagons decorated with portraits of kings, but what I really liked were the two Lombard cabinets, intricate and detailed craftsmanship on display. The front panels looked like they were made from semiprecious stones, but it was actually a visual effect of the scagliola technique, which involves using a substance made with colored plaster. They hailed from the late 17th century.

Scagliola was also present in the Room of the Four Seasons in the form of an octagonal table dating from the 17th century. Its intricate decoration awed me. The Collector’s Room included impressionist landscape paintings that caught my eye. My favorite style was Impressionism, my favorite genre of painting landscape. I noticed some Buddha figures, too among the many, various artifacts.

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The Green Bedroom did not disappoint with its scagliola-adorned tabletop, hailing from the 17th century. The Yellow Bedroom was named after its four-poster bed with yellow damask lining. There was also a cradle shaped like a boat and a strange sculptural grouping on a table made from silver-plated terracotta. A baby, fast asleep, had placed one hand on an hourglass, symbolizing the countdown to death. The other hand was touching a skull. The 17th century object seemed so macabre, but the macabre had been in fashion during that era, I mused. It reminded me of the grotesque Cycle of Death frescoes at Kuks, a former hospital, which showed off many skeletons. The Baroque era was fascinated by death.

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Then we came to my favorite rooms, the three displaying puppet theatre settings, puppets, machinery and plays. In the first room, the curtains and wings did a good job of hiding the machinery from the audience. The stage seems much more spacious than it really is. The wings and backdrop were created by Alessandro Sanquirico, a scenic designer who created stage set for more than 300 productions for La Scala Opera House in Milan. His sets were made in the Romantic style. He even designed the decorations for the crowning of Ferdinando I of Austria as king of Lombardy and the Veneto and was responsible for some ceiling adornment in the cathedral of Milan.

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The next room focused on marionettes and machinery. One puppet had a metal head, allowing it to breathe fire through its mouth like a grotesque attraction of a circus performer or a mythical dragon. Some creative machinery included pipes that could simulate fog and lamps that were used for fire, lightning and thunder. It fascinated me how such objects could simulate sounds used in plays. It was ingenious to use these contraptions to make the sounds seem real.

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The stage setting in the third room was grotesque, to say the least. Dragons, devils and skeletons all made appearances in this ghoulish design. There also was an organ with three pipes that served the purpose of creating terrifying noises. I could easily imagine the audience being frightened by a play with this hellish stage set. I wondered about the plot of the play for which it had been used. Maybe it was for something Dante-ish in which the marionettes wound up in Hell.

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In the hallway, I saw more stage sets, including one of a Chinese temple and another showing a Renaissance building.

Because I had studied theatre in college and often went to the theatre in Prague, I was very interested in the history of theatre on the islands. The drama tradition of the islands can be found in writing as far back as 1657, when a theatre – for people, not for puppets – was built in the gardens of Isola Bella. Then a theatre building where comedies were presented was constructed in the garden. The thespians put a halt to their theatre activities in 1690. The puppet theatre tradition was initiated at the end of the 18th century.

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I soon came to Federico VI’s Bedroom. While other Federicos in the family had become cardinals and archbishops, this one contributed to the cultural sphere in Milan during the 1700s. Playwright Carlo Goldoni even dedicated his play The Antiquarian’s Family to Federico. The room included a 17th century four-poster bed, but I found Federico more fascinating than any of its furnishings.

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The Dining Room was elegant. I loved the delicate decoration of ivy leaves on the 19th century set of Viennese china adorning the long table. Some paintings included three landscapes of architecture that showed off ruins and neglected terrain.

In The Family Drawing Room, there were portraits of the dignified Borromeos. The portrait of Gilberto Borromeo and his wife Maria Elisabetta Cusani featured the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background. It made me think back to my fortieth birthday, when I walked to St. Peter’s Basilica at sunset. Seeing the sun rise over the dome was stunning and gave me strength to be positive about turning forty and to look ahead and move onward rather than look back and get depressed. Another portrait that caught my eye showed four children and dog, the kids immersed in a game of backgammon. It brought back memories of playing board games – Monopoly, getting a get out of jail free card or buying up hotels and chess, which I took up briefly to impress a boy I liked in grade school. The room itself was not without impressive décor. Lunettes at the top of walls showed off allegories of youth, old age, honor and nobility, for instance.

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Besides the puppet theatre rooms, my favorite was the Venetian Drawing Room. The painted decoration on the walls made it resemble a pavilion with columns sporting plants and flowers. The door panels were adorned with vines as well. Even the mosaic flooring boasted a detailed pattern. The Rococo décor gave it a certain elegance. It was a light and airy room, perfect for morning tea, pondering over daily life and setting the world to rights as well as jotting notes for a new story or essay. It was a tranquil space where one could relax and get away from the stress and problems of the outside world. It was a sort of haven in which only my dreams and I existed.

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In the gardens near the palace, I also peaked into the family chapel, simple yet elegant. The small space included only one room, yet it had a certain charm and appeal.

I walked through the garden to the exit and joined my friend at a café with a terrific view of the lake. Throughout the gardens I had seen breathtaking views of other islands and the calm waters. I had a pistachio gelato while we waited for the boat to Isola dei Pescatori, a fishing village that now was filled with shops, stands, restaurants and cafes.

Tracy A. Burns is an editor, proofreader and writer.

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View from Isola Madre