Osek Monastery Diary

Osek Monastery 1

Note: No photos were allowed inside

I traveled to the picturesque region below the Krušné Mountains to see Osek Monastery in 2018. It was my second visit in eight years. I remembered shivering with cold as I wore my rather thin jacket during that first visit, probably in October of 2010. Feeling partially frozen, I waited patiently for the bus back to Prague after a wonderful tour. I had enjoyed my time there immensely, but what I remember most is the cold that seeped through my garments.

Osek Church 2

It was July when I came back for another look at the Cistercian monastery that was founded in the early 13th century, though monks had called the area home even at the end of the 12th century. This time, I arrived by car with a friend.

The Church of Our Lady at the monastery was a Romanesque creation, built as a three-aisled basilica in the shape of a Latin cross. The chapels and choir are rectangular. Measuring 76 meters long, during Romanesque days it was the biggest monasterial church in Bohemia.

The monastery was damaged during the Hussite wars of the 15th century during two years. The Hussites detested the Cistercians because, among other reasons, they were the wealthiest order in the Czech lands. The Thirty Years’ War brought devastation to the holy place. From 1580 to 1628, the monastery was closed.

Osek Church facade 2

In the early 18th century, the Abbot Benedict Littweig ordered Baroque reconstruction. Two cupolas, the façade, sculptural ornamentation and the main altar all hail from that time period. The main architect of the makeover was an Italian born in Bohemia, Octavian Broggio from the Litoměřice region. He favored radical Baroque style and had experience working in Prague and in the area where he was born.


During 1945 and 1946, the German monks who were living there were resettled in Germany for a while, and during 1961, they were sent to Germany again. At one point, the Salesians lived there, but the order was closed in 1950. The year 1950 would be the beginning of dreadful times. From 1950 to 1953, the monastery was used a detention center for priests. After that, it became a detention center for nuns. The Cistercian monks reclaimed the property in 1991 and left in 2010, when Abbot Bernard Thebej, who had overseen the monastery from 1991, died.


I waited for the tour as I gazed at the Baroque façade with a superb portico. Saints John, Mark, Luke and Matouš faced me. I saw Saints Peter and Paul above them. I thought of the other Cistercian monasteries I had visited. In south Bohemia, I had seen both Vyšší Brod and Zlatá Koruna. At Vyšší Brod, I was most enamored by the library of 70,000 volumes, the third Czech monastic library. The Theological Hall with one of the largest collections of Bibles in Central Europe had also captivated me. I recalled the elaborate Rococo stucco decoration and numerous Rococo wall paintings at Zlatá Koruna as well as the early Gothic Chapel of Guardian Angels. Near Kutná Hora, not far from Prague, Sedlec Monastery had amazed me with its Santini-created Baroque Gothic style interior and paintings by Baroque master Petr Brandl. Plasy in west Bohemia also came to mind. Santini had done his magic there as well, and the Baroque pharmacy had such superbly painted drawers. I had toured Plasy at least three times. I had been impressed by Velehrad in Moravia, but I had been there so many, too many, years ago.


The guide took us inside. The superb interior was pure Baroque with much stucco ornamentation. I was particularly drawn to one side altar because of its extremely morbid character. The altar featured Christ on the Cross, flanked by two angels, but the ornamentation made it feel creepy. It was adorned with figures of skulls and bones in Classicist style. At the foot of the Cross, there was a golden skull. I recalled the Cycle of Death murals at Kuks, a former hospital in splendid Baroque style. I had visited it on several occasions, so I was well-versed with the Baroque obsession for skeletons, skulls and bones. At the altar, there was a reliquary with remnants of Saint John the Baptist and other saints. All the chapels were impressive, but this one especially caught my attention.


Interior of the church, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

There were two Baroque cupolas. I saw painted windows on one – a trademark of the Baroque style. Two Baroque organs graced the church. One of them had 666 pedals, giving it a mystical quality.

The choir benches – Baroque, of course – were amazing, made with intarsia decoration of wood on wood. The inlays were breathtaking. Black spiral columns and gold ornamentation added to the Baroque ambience. The guide opened a cabinet behind a bench: Hymnbooks were stored there. I could imagine the Cistercian monks singing in celebration and could almost hear their voices resound through the church. In front of the choir, there were modern benches where services were currently held. Facing these benches, underneath the floor, was the tomb of the last abbot.


The main altar included impressive sculptures of the four apostles. Figures of angels also had prominent roles in the adornment. The painting of Assumption of Our Lady – the patron saint of the Cistercians – was the work of Jan Krištof Liška, a truly remarkable Czech artist. Václav Vavřinec Reiner, whose monumental painting I had seen at Duchcov Chateau a few months earlier, was responsible for the painting of the side altars as was Michael Leopold Willmann. Reiner also had created, along with Jan Jakub Steinfels, the ceiling paintings in the main nave and chancel. They portrayed scenes from the life of Christ and from the Old Testament.


Aerial view of Osek, from http://www.mapio.net

The cloister surrounds a garden that is decorated with three tombstones from the 14th to 16th centuries. Eighteenth century paintings promoting the history of the order are features of the cloister. I could see Romanesque traits in the entrance portal to the cloister from the church.


Vaulted ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

We passed by Well Chapel. A well, the monks’ source of water for a lengthy period, was the central element of the chapel, as the name suggests. Sculptural decoration adorned the well. On the wall behind it, there was a bright orange sliver of glass. This piece was original, dating back to the Gothic era. At that time, the glass had been brightly colored.


Reader’s Lectern in Chapter Hall, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

The Chapter Hall was a Gothic delight. Constructed from 1225 to 1250, it was one of the first Gothic buildings in the Czech lands. The sandstone sculptures from this era were impressive. A Gothic statue of the Madonna hails from around 1430. Monks had frequented this area every day. In the middle of a room was a reader’s lectern from which monks would read aloud to those gathered in the space. A Gothic mechanism allowed the top of the lectern to swivel from side to side. In the chapel, the altar looked a bit flamboyant for late Gothic, with white and gold decoration. The wall paintings illustrating the history of the order were newer, dating from 1750.


Gothic ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

Near the entranceway to the chapter hall was a dog’s paw print. I wondered what kind of dog had made the imprint and if the dog had lived during the Gothic period or Baroque era.

I loved that the monastery’s architecture celebrated both spectacular Baroque and Gothic styles. After the tour, my friend and I found a busy restaurant with outside tables, where we had delicious food. The establishment seemed to be the popular place for lunch in the town.


Our stomachs filled with a satisfying lunch, we headed back to Prague. I had learned during the tour that the monastery would soon be closing for three years to have the entire interior renovated. I felt lucky I had had the chance to visit before the renovation and knew I had to come back in three years, to see an even more superb Baroque and Gothic creation.

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





Teatro Olimpico Diary


VicenzaTeatroOint17I cannot choose one place as the highlight of my trip to the magical world of Palladian architecture in Vicenza, but certainly seeing the Teatro Olimpico ranks right up there. Recognized by UNESCO, this is one of the three Renaissance theatres in existence. The 72-year old Andrea Palladio designed what is now the oldest covered theatre in Europe, and construction began in 1580. When Palladio died in August of that year, Vicenza-born architect Vincenzo Scamozzi took over.


Still, the theatre clearly features many Palladian characteristics. For instance, the plan for the theatre was based on classical architecture. As usual, Palladio had found inspiration in the writings of Roman architectural guru Vitruvius, who lived during 1 BC. Indeed, I felt as if I were seated in a theatre dating back to antiquity. The classical forms gave the Teatro Olimpico a very majestic quality.


The theatre held its first performance on March 3, 1585, as actors who were at the time well-known performed Oedipus Rex, a play chosen for its classical theme. The costumes were extravagant. About 1,500 spectators watched, and the play was a huge success. However, the theatre was only used for a few performances.


Palladio had had his work cut out for him. The theatre was built on the site of a former prison, which had a box-like shape. Palladio was able to turn the audience hall into an oval shape, and the seating was sloped steeply, as if it were a Roman amphitheatre. The amphitheatres I had visited in Taormina, Segesta and Syracuse, Sicily and in Arles, France came to mind. I also thought of the Roman amphitheatre I had seen the previous year in Lecce, Puglia.


The classical architecture and statuary captured my immediate attention. Three orders of columns decorated the proscenium. The 41 statues that adorned the theatre on the proscenium and in the wings looked as if they were made of stone. That was just one of the many illusions in this theatre. In reality, the statues were sculpted from swamp reeds, tow, earthenware and mortar. While the statues showed off aristocrats from the 16th century, these figures were clad in classical attire, often wearing armor or long gowns. Thus, they were not portraits but likenesses set in a past time period. Because Leonardo Valmarana had been an ardent supporter of the Habsburgs, his statue has a face similar to that of Emperor Charles V.


Notably, there were no women represented. Still, some of the men rendered had distinctive feminine features. Initially, some of the statues had been designed to show female figures, but they were changed into men. This produced some hilarious results. In the upper tier, the statue of Gerolamo Forni sports a beard but has a female body.



Furthermore, all of the statues were not of the same quality. That’s because the quality of the statue depended on two factors – how influential the man represented was and how much the man had paid to have the statue sculpted. It would have been interesting to be able to inspect each one and learn who was most valued in Renaissance society. There were other statues, too. These included renditions of Olympic deities and one of Palladio himself, designed after the masterful architect had died.


Hercules held a prominent position in the décor of the theatre. This legendary figure was the focus of stucco-clad bas-reliefs that told the story of his life. The artistic narration included scenes in which Hercules takes over for Atlas holding up the world, the Hercules – Antaeus encounter in which Hercules was victorious and Hercules’ successful fight against the Cretan bull. Thus, another classical theme was portrayed. The bas-reliefs by no means stagnant. There is a strong dynamic quality to the episodes that are brought to life in a vivacious way. So, while the theme stems from the classical world, the bas-reliefs provide a much livelier look than that expressed in the classical world. The figures even have a Baroqueness about them.


One feature that enamored me was the illusive architecture, the false perspectives utilized in the design. The set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage far into the horizon, but it was really painted so that it created a fake perspective. I couldn’t believe that it was all an illusion. I could see myself meandering down the streets. It was architecturally amazing. I thought of the basilica at Hejnice and how the main altar was really painted on the wall, while it appeared three-dimensional. This feature of the theatre was designed by Scamozzi, who was known for his talent using false perspective. Via Theatres showed spectators a world of illusion. The world of the play was not the real world. This theatre also was a place of illusion itself.


Another illusionary feature was the false sky above. It looked like the theatre was not covered at all, as if it were open and light under a clear sky. The likeness to a real sky was incredible. I did not sense I was in a closed space. This feature was designed at the beginning of the 20th century.


The lighting played a major role in producing the illusive perspectives due to their location. Originally, the lights consisted of colored oils inside glass bulbs or wicks in metal boxes. They were hidden within the architecture featuring false perspective, so no one could tell where the source of the lighting was. It was a masterful idea, I thought. Scamozzi was responsible for the lighting. I wondered if my friend and former college lighting professor had ever been here. She would have a field day studying the lighting features.


The theatre soon became an entertainment venue. During the 17th century, the theatre was used for receptions of VIPs the town was hosting. Fencing tournaments also took place there. Until recently, graduation ceremonies were held there. It is still used as a theatre on occasion, but only 400 spectators are allowed to watch performances for safety reasons.


I appreciated the classical features of the theatre that had a distinguished feel. The statues added a classical elegance, and the bas-reliefs gave the theatre’s décor a vivacious character. I also was enthralled by the false perspective. Both the scenery and the fake sky were unbelievable.


When it was time to leave, I did not want to go. I could have stared at the proscenium, wings and false sky for hours. It certainly was a unique structure. It would prove to be one of most bewitching sights I visited in Vicenza.

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


Church of Saint Corona Diary






The first place our guides took us in Vicenza was the Church of Saint Corona, a three-nave Gothic structure with many treasures inside. The church harkens back to 1261, when it was constructed to house a Holy Thorn that the bishop of Vicenza had received as a present from French King Louis IX.






I loved the interior with its paintings, frescoes, superb choir, ceiling and chancel. The artwork included a masterpiece by Paolo Veronese, “Adoration of the Magi.” The main altar featured Giovanni Bellini’s “The Baptism of Christ” while Bartolomeo Montagna’s “Magdalen and Saints” also made an appearance. I was especially entranced with Giabattista Pittoni’s “Enthroned Madonna and child venerated by Saints Peter and Pius V,” though all the paintings greatly impressed me. I loved art, and seeing these paintings filled me with joy and excitement as if I were at a renowned art museum.






The choir in the apse was another wonder. The carved, inlaid decoration on the wooden choir was so delicate and detailed. The frescoes in the Thiene Chapel hailed from the early 15th century. The chancel was also of Renaissance origin. The painted coffered ceiling with stucco decoration was another jewel.  The superbly adorned main altar also appealed to me. The stained glass windows amazed.





Of course, we could not take a good look at the church without paying close attention to the Valmarana Chapel, designed by Andrea Palladio around 1576 and located in the crypt. The Valmarana clan had been buried in the church, so it was no surprise that Antonio Valmarana had chosen to be interred there. The chapel was simply designed as a balanced space with a square space. The two niches in the chapel were simple yet helped give the space a sense of elegance. I liked the symmetry, and I would appreciate this characteristic of Palladio’s architecture in many other works that day and in the following days of our trip.





Every element of the church seemed unique. The paintings each told a powerful story. The Gothic characteristics, the ceiling, the chancel, the choir, the chapel designed by Palladio – everything fused together to make this an architectural gem, just one of the many architectural gems that awaited me in Vicenza.














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

Regensburg Diary

A view of the town from the Stone Bridge

A view of the town from the Stone Bridge


My boss at a languageschool where I had taught had praised Regensburg back in 1997. Ever since then, I had wanted to visit the historic town, but the trip kept being postponed. Then I went on a one-day excursion with arsviva to Bamberg, Germany and got my first taste of the wonders of Bavaria. (I only have faint memories of my visit to Munich when I was nine years old.) I was so enthralled with Bamberg that I just had to explore other towns in Bavaria. So, during October of 2013, the next time I had a few days off work, I took the train to Regensburg.

The direct train only took a little over four hours to get to the only preserved medieval town in Germany. On the train I acquainted myself with the history of this architectural gem. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, Regensburg did not experience much destruction during World War II, enabling it to keep its medieval character. A Roman military camp was located there as far back as 179 AD, and the Romans would greatly influence the town for 300 years. During the Middle Ages, emperors, dukes and kings had frequented the town. After it became a part of the Carolingian Empire, Charlemagne visited Regensburg three times. Regensburg acquired the status of a Free Imperial City in 1245 and also was a bustling trade center. The town lost its independence and became part of the Duchy of Bavaria in 1486, but soon the tables turned again, and Regensburg regained its independence.

The facade of an architecturally intriguing building in Regensburg

The facade of an architecturally intriguing building in Regensburg

When the Turks overtook Constantinople, this Bavarian city was no longer a gateway to the East, triggering financial hardships. As a result, according to the unwritten law that blamed minorities for economic difficulties, the Jews were expelled in 1519. During 1542 Regensburg became a Protestant town. The town became a household name once again when the Imperial Diet political gatherings took place there for 150 years, from 1663 to 1806, when the assembly of estates held conferences at the Old Town Hall. Electors and princes were among those present for the meetings.

During Napoleon’s reign the town found itself in dire straits. The Imperial Diet was cancelled in 1806, and Regensburg was stripped of its independence once again. In 1810 it became a part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. From 1945 to 1949, the town was the site of the largest displaced persons’ camp in Germany, with mostly Ukrainians in residence. And to think that throughout all those centuries, throughout all those trials and tribulations, Regensburg never lost its medieval flavor!

The Hotel Kaiserhof across from the cathedral

The Hotel Kaiserhof across from the cathedral

My hotel, the pistachio-colored Hotel Kaiserhof, was situated across from St. Peter’s Cathedral, a Gothic wonder. The clean, no-frills, comfortable room sported a double bed, even though I was paying for a single room. I had stayed in other singles the size of a closet in various hotels throughout Europe. It was refreshing to find myself in a room that was spacious enough, though not large.

After unpacking the necessities, I headed straight for the St. Peter’s Cathedral. The first cathedral in the town had hailed from the end of the eighth or ninth century, but it fell victim to a fire in 1273. Then this cathedral was erected in a Gothic style inspired by France.  However, there were interruptions, and the cathedral was not completed until 1872, some 600 years later. The west façade boasts two towers while the cathedral has a triple-choir design. The nave is short and has five bays. I had read that the architectural design of the cathedral had influenced Peter Parler’s plans for Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral, my favorite cathedral in the world.

St. Peter's Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral

The medieval sculptural decoration on the façade, which dated from around 1400, was breathtaking.  On the train I had learned that this sculptural adornment ranked among the most impressive artistry of the Middle Ages. I gazed up at the main portal with its stunning tympanum and the 22 reliefs focusing on the Virgin Mary’s life.

On the south portal I was awed by a scene showing St. Peter being scooped out of prison by an angel.  I could hardly believe that the relief hailed from 1320. The tympanum of the south façade boasted plentiful rich sculptural ornamentation as well. Reliefs decorated the buttress fronts, too. I spotted St. Peter in a boat, a rendition that I knew appeared on the current coats-of-arms for the cathedral chapter.

However, it made my stomach churn when I saw a sculptural figure of Jews suckling from a pig. I recalled reading that Jews had been expelled from the town in the 16th century. The anti-Semitic artwork reminded me of the anti-Semitic and racist portraits of a Jew, an Arab and a black man stricken with diseases in the library of the Hrádek u Nechanic Chateau in Bohemia. I also recalled eating in a pizzeria in downtown Prague a few years ago, when a waiter told me that Neo-Nazis were marching through the Jewish Town. I also thought of the prejudice against Roma in Czech society today. So many centuries later and religious and racial tolerance were still serious concerns.

The rich ornamentation on the facade of the cathedral

The rich ornamentation on the facade of the cathedral

Upon entering the cathedral, I was instantly transported back to the Middle Ages. It was dark and gloomy except for the light that the stained glass windows let in, giving the cathedral an airy quality. Made from 1300 to 1370, the windows had a mystical aura. I felt as if the light cleansed me spiritually, as if it cleansed my soul. I was so entranced. I could not believe I was looking at original Gothic stained glass. I had read that one window portrayed scenes from Christ’s childhood while another showed scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. Pictures of saints decorated the windows, too. Some of the stained glass came from the original cathedral that had burned down. That part was in Romanesque style, dating from 1230.

The vibrant colors inside the cathedral

The vibrant colors inside the cathedral

Then I took notice of sculptural figures of St. George and St. Martin on horseback. They were remarkable works of art hailing from the 14th century.  I also saw something I had never seen before – creepy creatures with human heads in niches near the main entrance. Called the Devil and his Grandmother, the figures supposedly kept away any evil spirits that might try to wander inside. Bishops’ tombs also made up the interior. A stone sculpture of a Madonna and Child above one altar was created in 1320. A huge colored wooden crucifix dated from the 16th century. The main altar was silver and was made glorious by busts of St. Mary and St. Joseph as well as Saints Peter and Paul.

On one section there was a relief of St. John of Nepomuk, a Czech saint who was thrown into Prague’s Vltava River from the Charles Bridge on the order of Bohemian King Wenceslas IV, who was married to Joanna of Bavaria. The Queen’s confessor, John of Nepomuk would not tell the king what his wife had said to him in confidence. I thought of the many times I had walked by the five-haloed statue of St. John of Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge. Once again focusing on this cathedral, I was amazed by the ribbed vaulting designed with crossing piers. There was a Late Gothic pulpit, and exquisitely carved Baroque stalls adorned the nave.

One of the side altars in the cathedral

One of the side altars in the cathedral

Another highlight of the interior for me was the Smiling or Laughing Angel, one of the Annunciation figures. Enthusiastic about bearing exciting news for Mary, the angel was absolutely jubilant, and the sense of pure happiness that emanated from the sculpture made me joyful and thankful for everything I had in life. The joy was characterized by a sense of innocence, and it brought to mind the happy moments of my childhood. Opening Christmas presents in my grandparents’ house as Grandpa pretended to be Santa Claus, striking out batter after batter in Little League baseball, riding my sleigh in the fresh snow near our townhouse, reading Paddington the Bear books over and over, holding my Paddington and Snoopy stuffed animals, receiving an autographed picture from one of my favorite baseball or ice hockey players, hugging my mother and knowing that everything would be okay. I was amazed that a sculptural figure from the late 13th century could depict emotions so poignantly.

Downtown Regensburg

Downtown Regensburg

Then I walked around the center of the town, admiring the large patrician houses, some even with towers. One building dating from the 14th century even had a fresco of David and Goliath, created from 1570 to 1580. Dating back to the 12th century, the Stone Bridge measures 30 meters in length and includes 15 arches. I tried to imagine knights of the second and third Crusades marching over the bridge on their way to the Holy Land. The views of the river and town from the bridge were incredible. I loved the small street called Kramgasse, next to my hotel. Once home to shops of grocers and junk dealers, now it flaunted luxurious shops. The oriels on the buildings intrigued me. 

There were other delights in this colorful, vibrant town, too. The Fountain of Bishop’s Court was built in 1980 and showed a priest giving a sermon to geese while a fox nabbed one goose by the neck.  In the tale the priest is an impostor, the Devil pretending to be a man of the cloth. It made me think of the false friends I had known through the years, the times I felt betrayed by people I had trusted.

View from the Stone Bridge

View from the Stone Bridge

I explored Neupfarrplatz, where the homes of 500 Jews had once been located until their expulsion in the early 16th century. The homes were gone now, and stylish shops lined the square. A reminder of the Jewish presence in the town, a relief showed the floor plan of a Jewish synagogue that had once stood near the middle of the square. I felt an emotional connection with the relief. It was modern and fresh, yet also represented the lost history of the town.

The Goldener Turm, built from 1250 to 1300, included the highest patrician tower in the city. Part of the Old Town Hall dated from the 13th century and had a tower, too. I was intrigued by its Gothic windows. Patrician houses also lined Haidplatz Square. Emperor Karl V had been a guest at the architecturally captivating Goldenes Kreuz building. I also gazed at the Porta Praetoria Roman gate from 179 AD with its stone arch and side tower. As I walked through the center of town, I was surprised that Regensburg had so many tea shops and bookstores. A teetotaler and a literature addict, I wandered through each one. The varieties of teas offered were astounding.

In the morning I ate croissants in the hotel’s quaint breakfast room and headed for the Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Alte Kapelle. A farmer’s market was in progress in the square where the church was situated. All the fruit and vegetables looked delicious. 

The interior of the Alte Kapelle

The interior of the Alte Kapelle

I knew the church dated from 875, when a grandson of Charlemagne had it erected. The medieval sculptures decorating the main portal did not prepare me for the strikingly different interior. I gaped at the 18th century Baroque and Rococo ornamentation. This was definitely one of the most beautiful chapels I had ever seen.  It was light and airy, full of vibrant colors that emitted joy and hope. The main painting depicted the Pope handing Holy Roman Emperor Henry (Heinrich) II a picture of the Virgin Mary.  It was only possible to see the two naves and six bays through an iron grille, unfortunately. I longed to walk through the chapel and peer closely at each decoration.

The Alte Kapelle

The Alte Kapelle

The stucco work was astounding, and the white walls were adorned with putti. The frescoes narrated described the legend of how the church came into being. They also celebrated the Virgin Mary as the patron saint of the church and glorified the founders of the church, Emperor Henry II and Empress Cunigunde of Luxembourg. Emperor Henry II had believed in centralized authority and had strongly supported the Catholic Church. Due to his devotion to the Catholic Church, Pope Eugene III canonized him in 1146. He was the only German bestowed this honor. His wife Cunigunde was involved in politics, participating in the Imperial Diets in Regensburg. She is said to have performed miracles, such as walking over flaming irons. One fresco showed the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, surrounded by angels and saints. The main altar was decorated in rocaille and focused on the Virgin Mary. God the Father was perched on a globe above her, and a dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost also appeared.

It fascinated me that this church retained elements of the Middle Ages and at the same time celebrated the Baroque and Rococo periods with a flourish. I could not get over how the 18th century styles gave the chapel a sort of weightlessness and airiness that so poignantly represented joy and hope for me.  It was uplifting. I was in an ever better mood when I left the chapel, after staring through the grille for at least a half hour.

Next I found my way to the Emmeram Abbey. I would be touring the Thurn und Taxis Palace adjacent to it later in the day. The monastery had gained independence from the bishopric in 975 and did not lose its independence until 1803. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the abbey was secularized. The King of Bavaria gave the Thurn und Taxis family the monastery because the postal services that they had managed for centuries had been nationalized. I had read that the stone reliefs on the north portal, dating from the Middle Ages, were the oldest north of the Alps.

Religious ornamentation on the facade of a building

Religious ornamentation on the facade of a building

The complex was named after the bishop Emmeram, who had lived in Regensburg in the 700s. Inside frescoes told his exciting life story: He had worked as a missionary for Theodo I, the Duke of Bavaria and was much respected throughout the realm. Then the duke’s unwed daughter confided in him that she was pregnant, and she did not want to tell the duke who the father was. Emmeram advised her to lie and say that he was the father. Then he set off on a pilgrimage to Rome.

When the duke’s daughter told her father the news, he had his son and followers chase Emmeram. When they caught the pious missionary, the duke’s followers tied him to a ladder and chopped him into pieces, slowly torturing him. Then the duke found out that Emmeram was not the father of his daughter’s child and ordered his body to be bought back to Regensburg. Emmeram was made a saint.  I also saw fascinating altars and a crypt dating from 780, showing off masterful Romanesque architecture.  The high altar hailed from 1669.

My next stop was the palace. I had to use an audio guide at the palace because the tours were only in German.  I was disappointed that the Electors’ Fountain was covered in scaffolding. I wanted to see the sculpture of Emperor Arnulf bearing a scepter and shield and the eight coats-of-arms standing for the Holy Roman Empire and the seven electors who selected the emperor.

The architecture of Regensburg

The architecture of Regensburg

Upon entering the palace, we came to a monumental marble staircase. The guide spoke animatedly for some minutes before my audio guide started. The German-speaking tourists were enthralled with whatever he was saying. Then we went up one of the 14 marble staircases in the complex that was the largest residential palace in Germany. It included more than 500 rooms. A ceiling  painting looked as if it was about to burst with color above the staircase.

The Thurn und Taxis clan dated back to the 13th century when the family was named Tasso. During the end of the 15th century, Francesco Tasso created the first postal system going from Innsbruck to Brussels. It took a week for the mail to reach its destination. The key to its success was that the rider and horse were changed at each postal station. For his ingenuity, Tasso was given nobility status by Emperor Maximilian I and thus became Franz von Taxis in 1512. By the end of the 18th century, the postal system was flourishing.

Then bad times came. At the beginning of the 19th century, most of the postal service was nationalized. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Thurn und Taxis’ control of the postal service in 1815. After the Napoleonic era, the family managed the postal service once again, but only until Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of the North Germany Federation in 1867. A very conservative politician and nationalist who did not favor democracy, the prominent Prussian statesman was responsible for forming the German Empire in 1871.

A fascinating facade in downtown Regensburg

A fascinating facade in downtown Regensburg

I was intrigued by the grotesque figures on the ceiling of the Conservatory, also called the Winter Garden. Female figures represented the seasons, though winter was conspicuously absent. I noticed that a sickle and grain stood for summer. The Brussels’ tapestries in the Large Dining Room were astounding. The Throne Room featured a throne from the 18th century and tapestry decoration. The Ballroom took my breath away. Its wall paneling, frames, balustrades and stucco ceilings boasted Rococo and Neo-Rococo styles. Faience Neo-Rococo stoves were present, too. The Ballroom, created in 1730, had been transported from Frankfurt to Regensburg in 1890, when the Thurn und Taxis clan moved to Regensburg. Even the glass chandeliers had been equipped with electric lighting at the end of the 19th century. I liked the idyllic landscape paintings hung high on the walls and the rich white decoration that included garlands and putti as well as plant and ribbon motifs.

I noticed a portrait of Elizabeth of Austria, often called Sisi, in the Balcony Room. Because her sister Helene was married to Crown Prince Maximilian Anton von Thurn und Taxis, she had often stayed here. The sisters’ father had been a Bavarian Duke while their mother was the daughter of the Bavarian King. I had read how uncomfortable Sisi had felt around the ceremony of royal life and how she had been a free spirit who had traveled around the world. I thought about Franz Joseph intending to propose to Helene but changing his mind and asking for Sisi’s hand in marriage instead. And I thought of Sisi’s assassination in Geneva, when an Italian anarchist stabbed her while she was taking a walk. And I remembered reading about the lavish funeral with all the pomp and ceremony that she had despised.

The gate to the Stone Bridge

The gate to the Stone Bridge

The Silver Room featured a silver chandelier with cupids holding candles. The tapestry with a battle theme in the Gobelin Salon got my attention as well. The Yellow Salon exploded with color. It was decorated in Rococo style and dated from about 1740.  I tried to imagine members of the noble family playing music here, the tinkling of piano keys or rich melody of a clarinet. I was happy whenever I saw yellow because it was my Mom’s favorite color and the color of the kitchen walls in my parents’ house. I recalled all the earnest conversations I had with my Mom, seated at that circular kitchen table, sipping green or black tea.

The Green Salon had served as a bedroom for Princess Therese from 1812. I was mesmerized by the bed decorated with four swan figures on its legs. I loved the detail of the feathers and long necks of the swans. A curtain was adorned with gold bees. Both the swans and bees were characteristics of the French style that dominated this room. In the Czar Nikolaus Salon a portrait of Princess Theresa von Thurn und Taxis showed the 37-year old clad in a chemise dress and wearing pearls in front of a forest. I noticed an exquisite blue with gold tea set in another room.

Then we came to a contemporary art exhibition of portraits of the living family. The portraits of four women and one young man had blinking eyes. I thought it was a good idea to put portraits of the current family in the exposition, but I did not understand why their eyes were blinking. I guess it was meant to emphasize that they were living, that the tradition of the family continued, but it seemed out-of-place with the décor of the other rooms. Then I saw the House Chapel that had once been a bedroom for Crown Princess Helene. After the Princess’ death in 1890, her son Prince Albert I had it reconstructed into a chapel. The alloyed coats-of-arms decorating the windows impressed me.

Regensburg's cathedral dominates the skyline.

Regensburg’s cathedral dominates the skyline.

Next we entered part of the cloister. I imagined monks walking through the round Romanesque arches while singing hymns. I saw statues dating back to 1200. I imagined how the room had looked in the Middle Ages with its then colorful decoration depicting biblical stories. I admired a Neo-Gothic tomb chapel as well. Another wing featured high and thin Gothic arches. The cloisters were certainly full of architectural wonders!

After touring the palace, I visited its museum. I saw a Japanese lacquered cabinet from 1690 and took special notice of the exquisite Asian landscape scenes on the front. White gold porcelain featured floral motifs. A ceremonial carrying chair also caught my attention. Medals from the chivalry Order of the Golden Fleece that was founded in 1430 and 55 richly decorated 18th century snuff boxes also made up the exhibition. One room was decorated with Biedermeier furniture, dating from 1815 to 1848. The furniture was not positioned against the walls in order to encourage communication. The highlight, though, was the white with gold porcelain service set from the early 1700s, made by a Viennese manufacturer that had only been in existence for 30 years. It was the only complete service of this manufacturer in the world.

The Old Town Hall

The Old Town Hall

I had a late lunch at an otherwise empty café near the monastery. It was decorated plainly and appeared to be a place for locals as the menu of five entrees was written only in German. I imagined that the restaurant would be packed on weekdays. I chose the Wiener Schnitzel and received a generous portion. It was delicious. I had dessert at the oldest coffeehouse in Germany, the Café Prinzess, where I managed to find a free table despite the crowd. I ordered almond cake and green tea. Surprisingly, service was not slow. The cake and the green tea were excellent.

Soon it was time for the English tour of the Old Town Hall across the street from the coffeehouse. I got a free ticket because I have a press pass and would be writing about the exhibition. However, only the torture chambers in the cellar were open that day. The lavish rooms once used for the Imperial Diet were closed for a conference. Two tourists complained that they had to pay full price for their tickets, even though the Imperial rooms were off limits that day. They decided to come back the following day when both parts of the tour would be open. I was leaving the next day, so I had no chance of seeing the Imperial rooms on this trip.

For almost 150 years from the 17th to the beginning of the 19th centuries, the Imperial Assembly had held political meetings in this building. But the Imperial history of the town was above, in those lavish rooms that I could not see. I descended into the torture chamber, which helped paint a portrait of the history of the town. I peered down at a dungeon that was three meters deep with no light. A Jewish gravestone served as the toilet seat, another reminder of the rampant anti-Semitism that had riddled the town. Once again, I recalled the 1519 expulsion of the Jews.

An ancient door at the Old Town Hall

An ancient door at the Old Town Hall

I also saw a so-called spiked rabbit, consisting of spikes on a wooden chair. I could not imagine the pain a person would feel seated on those spikes. It was too awful to think about. Some prisoners were locked in a neck iron, exposed to the public in a pillory. I also saw a timber cell without any light.  Prisoners sentenced to death stayed in the Dead Man’s Cell, where there was light and fresh air. An opening allowed family members to touch the incarcerated’s hands before the execution. A big beam balance from the 16th century kept the merchants honest. If merchants cheated customers, they went to the pillory.

The instruments had been used from 1530 to 1781, during three centuries. It was difficult for me to imagine that such horrific methods had been used for such a long time. Then again, in in today’s world there is waterboarding. When the accused was detained, he or she might have heard a concert taking place in one of the Imperial rooms above, but the prisoners were never tortured to musical accompaniment.  

The Romanesque portal at St. James' Church

The Romanesque portal at St. James’ Church

I walked around town for the rest of the day, the history of the town seeping into my soul. The next morning I had a little time before I headed to the train station. I was disappointed that I did not have a chance to visit any of the museums, especially the Historic Museum that told the tales of the town from as far back as Roman times.

First I walked to the Church of St. James, which was built by Scottish monks in 1150. The church still retained its Romanesque style. The entrance portal was pure Romanesque, richly decorated with sculptural figures and grotesque symbols. The architectural gem was encased in glass, so there was a physical barrier between the viewer and the object. I could understand the need to protect such an ancient treasure, but the glass barrier restricted the visual communication with the viewer. I gaped at the entrance portal for about a half hour. The interior was austere but beautiful.

Next, I headed for Dachauplatz, trying to find the remnants of the Roman wall as they were marked on my map. A small section of the wall that did not even come up to my knees disappeared into a parking garage. Modernization had destroyed some of the historical roots of the town, replacing significant reminders of the past with an eyesore common in the contemporary world. I was very disappointed that a car park had been built in the historical center of the town, marring the cityscape. I had read that in the past a monastery had been on the premises.

The decoration on the Romanesque portal

The decoration on the Romanesque portal

As I had made my way to Dachauplatz, I had taken note of all the various architectural styles of the buildings and the artwork adorning the facades. Standing on the square, facing the Historic Museum, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have been present in 1945, near the end of the war. Residents had taken part in a demonstration, eager for the Americans to take over the city. Some protestors were executed in that same square.

Soon it was time to take the train back to Prague. I yearned to visit the town again and to get to know Bavaria even better. On the train a pleasant surprise awaited me. I began chatting with the woman seated across from me, an American world traveler in her sixties on her way to Prague. It turned out that she also loved reading mysteries and adored cats. As we discussed many topics, I realized that the best thing about traveling is the people you meet on the way to your destination. We would keep in touch, for sure.

I returned to Prague, elated, ready to face the long winter ahead with energy and enthusiasm and ready to plan a spring trip back to Bavaria.

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


Another look at the Romanesque portal of St. James' Church

Another look at the Romanesque portal of St. James’ Church