This was my third or fourth trip to Lány, a town about 35 kilometers west of Prague near the Křivoklat forest. I loved going to Lány to pay tribute to the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his family. I came by car this time, accompanied by a friend. First, I went to the TGM Museum, which told the story of Masaryk’s life and career. Then we went to the cemetery where Tomáš Masaryk and three members of his family are buried. After that, we strolled through one of my favorite chateau parks, part of the president’s summer residence. Masaryk had spent a lot of time in that majestic park and had died in the chateau.
First, the museum: I had been there once before and loved refamiliarizing myself with the history of the First Republic. If I could go back to any time in the past, I would travel to 1920s Czechoslovakia. The country was new, off to a fresh start as a democracy.
Besides exhibits relating specifically to Masaryk, the museum is home to period furnishings and paintings of his family members. There is a section devoted to the first World War, when he set up legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army, doing battle against the Habsburgs. First, we saw photos of Masaryk in a special exhibition. Then we went into the main part of the museum.
A philosopher, scholar and politician, Masaryk founded Czechoslovak democracy. He believed that small nations played a significant role in Europe and in the world. He also touted individual responsibility and religion as a source of morality. Masaryk came from humble beginnings. His father had been a Slovak carter, later a steward, while his German-Moravian mother had worked as a cook. At a German high school in Brno, Masaryk saw for himself the fraught tension between high-class Germans and oppressed, lower-class Czechs. He later concentrated on philosophy at the University of Vienna. While he was studying in a year-long program in Leipzig – a city I had loved visiting several years ago -, he met an American from Brooklyn, Charlotte Garrigue, and they were married in the USA during 1878. (I named my late cat the Czech version of Charlotte, Šarlota, after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia. My cat died suddenly in July of 2021 at the age of 11.) Tomáš took his wife’s last name as his middle name. They had five children, and their son Jan later became a prominent politician whom Communists pushed out a bathroom window, killing him.
Tomáš Masaryk was a university professor and a writer. He penned books about the deplorable conditions in Russia after visiting that country and in another grappled with the causes of suicide. His writings centered on politics as well.
A wall of the museum took up the theme of the scandals that had scarred the public opinion of Masaryk. He proved that epic poems, which supposedly dated from the Middle Ages and appealed to Czech nationalists, were forgeries. These nationalists branded Masaryk a traitor. Then, a Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner was sentenced to death for ritual murder. Masaryk insisted that the trial had been anti-Semitic. Hilsner was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Not all Czechs approved of Masaryk’s participation in this case, and the Masaryk family experienced anti-Semitic attacks.
A section of the museum described Masaryk’s role during World War I. While Masaryk had fought for reforms with Austro-Hungary before the war, during World War I he became convinced that Czechs and Slovaks needed independence rather than autonomy. Masaryk was head of the government-in-exile in London. During a trip to the USA, he convinced President Woodrow Wilson that Czechoslovak independence was vital. Czechoslovakia was created October 28, 1918.
Then there were the many exhibits about his presidency. Masaryk abdicated during his fourth term in office due to health reasons, after 17 years as head of state. During his presidency, the country was a democracy with all citizens equal, and minorities had rights to maintain their national identities. Freedom of the press and universal suffrage were other features. However, the country was not without its problems. German-Czech tensions and Slovak calls for separatism were two of the issues that caused him great concern.
After his reelection in 1920, the country flourished, especially economically. However, personal tragedy hit the Masaryk family. His wife died in 1923. Three years into his third term, in 1930, he turned 80, and ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism had infiltrated the democratic country. During 1934, he was elected for a fourth term, yet his time in office was riddled with health problems. He resigned in 1935 and died at Lány on September 14 that year.
After admiring a statue of Masaryk outside the museum, we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs marked the graves of Masaryk and his wife Charlotte, son Jan and daughter Alice. The small grassy area was roped off. It was a modest yet eloquent commemoration to lives that had upheld democratic values even during troubled times.
I reflected on Masaryk lying in state at Lány. About 60,000 citizens came to pay their respects. When his wife died in 1923, thousands of Czechs paid homage to her by going to Lány chateau as well.
I thought about Tomáš Masaryk’s funeral in Prague. Black flags had fluttered from downtown buildings. Busts and pictures of Masaryk had dotted the town and covered the front pages of numerous newspapers. Black banners reading “TGM” had adorned Saint Vitus Cathedral and buildings on Wenceslas Square. Thousands of soldiers and legionnaires had marched in his funeral procession September 21 as 146 military standards appeared. Draped with the Czechoslovak flag, his coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the city. On its last leg to Lány, the coffin had traveled by train, placed in a car covered in wreaths and flowers.
I remembered seeing that gun carriage at a temporary exhibition in a Prague gallery a few years earlier. I recalled watching Václav Havel’s coffin travel by me while I waited on an Old Town Street in December of 2011. I was huddled in my LL Bean winter coat on that dark, dismal morning as the coffin made its way toward Prague Castle. My hero was dead; my heart broken; my mood solemn. I thought that it was the same way I would have felt if I had seen Masaryk’s funeral procession.
From the cemetery we made our way to a restaurant on a square, where I ate fried chicken steak and ice cream on that sunny May afternoon of 2021. We ate outside to be safer from coronavirus infection.
The next and last stop was much more upbeat – Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since 1921. While the residence was not open to the public (with several exceptions), the beautiful park was. I first set foot in this park during the summer of 1991, when I was a tourist seeing Prague and its environs for the first time.
That trip during the summer of 1991 was magical – walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery, gawking at Old Town Square with its superb architecture, making my way to Prague Castle via the Charles Bridge, where Russian soldiers sold their uniforms and fur hats. On the way, I walked up Nerudova Street, where, in a photography store, I found some prints of President George H.W. Bush with Václav Havel during that historic visit in 1990. There were also discounted posters of Gorbachev, but I wasn’t interested in buying one. Saint Vitus Cathedral had amazed me. On Golden Lane, a place in legends dating back to Rudolf II’s era, I got my picture taken with a man I had met on the train from Berlin to Prague. We were smitten with each other. Yet, we would part our separate ways a few days later, never contacting each other again. Life somehow had gotten in the way. I visited Karlštejn Castle, Konopiště Chateau, Hluboká Chateau, Kutná Hora and so many other places during that trip. Prague had felt like my true home, and the park in Lány was so special in my heart.
By this time, I knew the history of the chateau well. There was a structure here before 1392, when it was first mentioned in writing. Late in the 16th century, that edifice became a Renaissance keep. Rudolf II acquired the property in 1589 and did much hunting on the grounds at the game reserve. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops had occupied the residence. After Rudolf II acquired it, the residence was state-owned for 100 years. In 1685 Arnošt Josef Wallensteain bought it. When his daughter got married, the chateau and surrounding land became the property of the Furstenberg family and stayed in their possession until the state bought it in 1921. Then the chateau was modernized. Masaryk had the balcony built. During Ludvík Svoboda’s presidential term, the game reserve had been open to Western tourists, but later it was closed off again. Many other renovations had taken place throughout the decades. The chateau had been in poor condition after Gustav Husák’s tenure, when the Communist regime was toppled in 1989. Under Václav Havel and Olga Havlová – after whom I had named one of my cats – the chateau had been totally reconstructed into a beautiful work of art and architecture.
Near the park we perused the obelisk that Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had erected during Masaryk’s era to commemorate fallen soldiers during World War I. In the park I felt at home, so comfortable as if I was meant to be there, basking in the sun near the greenhouse or taking in the many landmarks. This was one of the few chateau parks that made me see not only the beauty around me but also the beauty inside me. The other park that gave me this feeling was at the chateau in Opočno in north Bohemia.
I loved the two ponds. One landmark that impressed me was a lion-headed fountain made by Plečník, who had superbly decorated parts of Prague Castle, too. With five Dorian colums and five lions’ heads, the fountain symbolizes the five lands of Czechoslovakia. Water from the five heads flows into a sixth head that spouts the water into the pond, symbolizing the unity of newly-formed Czechoslovakia.
Across the Masaryk stream I saw three bridges constructed in a simple design by Plečník. I remember visiting Plečník’s studio when I was in Ljubljana. Communist president Klement Gottwald had contributed to the park as well. He had a small cottage with fairy-tale elements built for his grandson. There were also beehives from Masaryk’s era, again designed by Plečník. The Furstenbergs, who had owned the land with chateau for several centuries, were responsible for setting up the greenhouse. Three benches celebrated more recent events. One commemorated the Višegrad Four conference hosted in Lány in 2006, when Václav Klaus was the Czech president. Another was donated by Livia Klausová, a former First Lady, in 2012. The third was donated by current President Miloš Zeman. The Riding Stables were built in Neo-Gothic style during 1861.
We walked along the main chestnut-lined path and took in the various perspectives of the yellow, Baroque chateau. I knew something about the interior, even though it was not possible to go inside. The Blue Dining Room was decorated in Third Rococo from the beginning of the 20th century. The bright yellow wallpaper in the Yellow Salon harkened back to Husák’s era. After the Velvet Revolution, five Renaissance painting of Habsburg archdukes as children had been installed. There was a beautiful marble fireplace surrounded by superb woodcarving in the library. Masaryk’s Salon includes, thanks to the Furstenbergs, furniture made from black pearwood.
During Masaryk’s tenure, there was a movie theatre at the chateau where locals could watch the latest talkies. The films of Vlasta Burian, a comic actor whose work I knew well, often were projected there. This was where the Lány Agreement promoting cooperation between Austria and Czechoslovakia had been signed in December of 1921. So many presidents and dignitaries had graced the halls of that chateau.
I tried to imagine Masaryk riding his horses through the park. At Lány Masaryk had written many of his books and had met with legendary Czech author Karel Čapek to put together the nonfiction work Conversations with TGM. During the Nazi Protectorate, Emil Hácha had called the chateau home. I tried to imagine the Protectorate flag fluttering from the tower during the second World War. I recalled that Gottwald had tried to do away with all the monuments at Lány that were associated with Masaryk. There had been an assassination attempt on President Antonín Zápotecky in 1953, as a bomb went off under his car. One of the town’s inhabitants was killed in the blast. During Havel’s presidency, I used to love to listen to his Conversations from Lány radio broadcast.
The chateau and park made me think about Masaryk’s era and Havel’s 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic. After spending some time enjoying the sights in the park, it was time to go back to Prague. It was our first trip of the 2021 chateau and castle season, and it would always be one of the best ever.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.