A theatre and classical music aficionado, I was excited to tour the La Scala Theatre in Milan, where operas and ballets were staged. Classical music concerts by two orchestras also took place there. A chorus called the theatre home, too. I bought my ticket for the tour online before traveling to Italy. I was not disappointed.
First, I gazed at the exterior. The neoclassical building emphasized functionality. It blended in with other buildings on La Scala Square. I had assumed the famous edifice would stand out with an exterior featuring much ornamentation. When the theatre was built, the square was nonexistent, and La Scala did not have a dominant location on the street. It was one of many buildings. Still, it looked elegant. I gazed at the decorated tympanum with bas relief and stucco adornment. I also saw half-columns and two sides of an interrupted balustrade along with decorated parapets.
Once inside, I had some free time before the tour so I walked through the Theatre Museum. I saw many busts of famous members of the opera ensemble, statues, paintings and musical instruments, such as a piano that Franz Liszt had played. There was a special costume exhibition there, too. I am afraid that I am not an expert at opera, so I was not able to recognize all the names of those represented in the museum. A legendary conductor that had worked magic at La Scala was Arturo Toscanini. He had put into place many reforms and had staged works by Richard Wagner, for instance.
Numerous operas by Verdi had been performed at La Scala, and Verdi had made a name for himself with Nabucco, staged at La Scala in 1842. Maria Callas had sung on that stage, her amazing voice filling the auditorium. Herbert von Karajan had conducted concerts at La Scala. I was familiar with his work. I had some of the concerts he had conducted in various places on CDs.
In 1965 Claudio Abbado made his debut. He conducted operas as well as concerts. Riccardo Muti first conducted there in 1981. From 1989 to 1998, he created productions of masterpieces such as Rigoletto, La Traviata and MacBeth.
Operas by Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Karlheinz Stockhausen all had premiered at La Scala. The small museum was very intriguing and certainly a delight for opera lovers.
At the beginning of our tour, the guide told us about the history of the building. The city’s Teatro Regio Ducale burned down in 1776, and Milan needed a new theatre for operas. This edifice was constructed over the site of a demolished church called Santa Maria della Scala, from which the theatre got its name. The owners of the boxes at the destroyed Teatro Regio Ducale paid for the construction. It took two years to build.
Teatro alla Scala opened on August 3, 1778, staging Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa riconosciuta. The La Scale Theatre became an important meeting point for the upper class. At that time, there were no chairs on the main floor, so spectators had to stand during the performance. Also, there was no orchestra pit. Over 80 oil lamps provided light on the stage area while about 1,000 additional lamps were situated elsewhere in the building. Buckets full of water were stored in several rooms in case of a fire. Electric lighting was not installed until 1883. In the early days, the owners of the boxes decorated their spaces themselves, choosing various colors of wallpaper, for instance. In 1844, the boxes all were decorated in red. Today remnants of the original décor can be seen in some boxes. Some are adorned with ceiling frescoes or with mirrors and stucco ornamentation.
However, a casino was also located in the building during the initial seasons. There was a space in the theatre where much bartering took place. For example, people swapped horses. The voices in the foyer could be quite loud so that it was sometimes difficult to hear the performance.
Significant renovation took place in 1907. The seating area originally had 3,000 seats, but after reconstruction the number of seats decreased to 1,987. In 1938 movable bridges and levels were added to the stage, so it was easy to change sets immediately. The system was actually quite complex.
La Scala was badly damaged by bombs during World War II. The theatre was reconstructed and opened with much aplomb in May of 1946. More restoration work occurred between 2002 and 2004, and the ensembles had to perform elsewhere for those two years. Today the theater is divided into four sections of boxes and two galleries for a total of six levels. The backstage area was enlarged during that renovation. The new stage remains one of the biggest in Italy. (Looking at the stage, I was struck by how large and deep it was.) Architect Mario Botta had an electronic system installed next to seats so spectators could read the libretto in English, Italian or the original language of the production while watching the spectacle. This technological feature intrigued me.
In 2005 there were many problems with management. In 2006, during a performance of Aida, the audience was incessantly booing tenor Roberto Alagna. The actor left the stage and did not return. His understudy had to take up the role immediately. He didn’t even have time to put on a costume.
The interior style was neoclassical with gold and red colors dominating the seating area. Medallions and floral as well as animal motifs provided adornment inside. I was overwhelmed by La Scala’s beauty. We sat in the royal box for a short time and watched a rehearsal for Gioconda, which had had its premiere at La Scala centuries earlier. We weren’t allowed to remain there for long, but it was still one of the highlights of my visit to Milan.
Maybe next time I come to Milan I will be able to attend an opera or a classical concert at La Scala.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
Walking through the charming courtyard of the gallery, I noticed that the villa was in Neoclassical style as was the La Scala Theatre, which I had toured a few days earlier. On the other side of the main street was a vast park. In part of the courtyard was a posh, crowded restaurant. The edifice had two facades, one visible to visitors. Statues and reliefs with a mythological theme decorated the facades. The second façade looked out upon Milan’s first English landscape garden.
Founded in 1903, the modern art gallery was initially housed in Milan’s Castle. In 1921 it moved to its current location, the Villa Reale. Built by Leopold Pollack from 1790 to 1796, the building was originally named Villa Belgiojoso and was used as a private residence. Later, when Napoleon’s adopted son lived there, many famous people gathered at the villa, which was notable for its lavish ornamentation. On August 6, 1849, the Pace di Milano treaty was signed there, making Milan part of Austria.
Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radez, a Czech noble and Chief of General Staff for the Habsburgs during the Napoleonic Wars, even called the villa home for one year in the 1850s. At one point Radetzky was even knighted for his bravery. Johann Straus composed the Radetzky March after him. His troops appreciated his valor and fairness. He died in Milan during 1858.
When the various states merged into the Kingdom of Italy, the building was no longer used. It was nationalized in 1920 and was refurbished so the Modern Art Gallery could open there the following year. Still, the gallery had to wait until 2006 before they could use the entire building for their exhibits. Before that the gallery had shared the building with other institutions.
The permanent collection started on the first floor. The first six spaces covered Neoclassical art. The works of Antonio Canova were represented there. Two rooms were dedicated to portraiture, including the renditions of Francesco Hayez. His Portrait of Matilde Juva Brunea from 1851 was one of the gallery’s masterpieces. A luxurious ballroom and the Parnaso Room with its astounding 1811 fresco had come into being during Napoleon’s era. After gazing at these two luxurious spaces, I continued to peruse artwork from the Romantic, Divisionist and Symbolist periods. There was also a temporary exhibition of Italian designer Joe Columbo’s 20th century furnishings on that floor.
The second floor housed the Grassi Collection and Vismara Collection. The Grassi Collection covered both Italian and foreign works ranging from the 14th to 20th centuries. Eduard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were all represented. Oriental art was on display, too. The Vismara Collection showcased 40 works of art from the 20th century. The paintings and sculptures included creations by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.
Some significant paintings on display included Paul Gauguin’s Donne di Tahiti from 1891; Vincent Van Gogh’s Breton Women and Children from 1888; Giuseppe De Nittis’ Breakfast in Posillipo from 1878; Eduard Manet’s Portrait of M. Arnaud from 1875 and Umberto Boccioni’s The Mother from 1907. The sculpture was just as impressive as the paintings. A bust of a madwoman caught my attention. It showed not only unique facial features but also delved into the psychological being of the woman. Via the sculpture, it was possible to see into the woman’s soul. Other busts were just as revealing. A small statue by Rodin was exquisite, too. A bust of Beethoven was very expressive and innovative.
I was thrilled to see so many amazing paintings and sculptures and looked forward to my next stop at another nearby villa, which was devoted to modern art of the 1930s.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
These three palaces, located on the Piazza della Scala near the Scala Theatre, displayed extraordinary artworks of the 19th and 20th century. In the 19th century sections, I was amazed at the vedutas of Milan Cathedral, the system of canals in Milan called Navigli and the Alpine scenes. I found myself thinking of vedutas I had seen in the Czech Republic, such as the masterful ones at Mělník Chateau near Prague.
The landscapes from the second half of the 19th century gave me a tranquil feeling. I especially liked the landscape with a magnificent yet mysterious castle perched in the mountains. The painting of the Colosseum reminded me of showing that sight to my parents some years ago, watching them gaze with awe and amazement at the historic monument. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.
The paintings of Milan’s Duomo allowed me to appreciate the exterior and interior of that sight to an even greater extent. I recalled walking down from the roof to the ground floor of the cathedral. I had been worried I would fall because I had nursed a bad leg for nine months not long before my trip.
The bas reliefs of Antonio Canova were delights as well. They were inspired by the works of Homer, Virgil and Plato. I remembered seeing Canova’s works at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.
The Lombard painting of the 19th century showed Milan as a vibrant artistic hub and often told pictorial tales of a rapidly changing society. I saw works by Francesco Hayez and other Romanticist artists. Giovanni Migliara focused on ancient monuments.
Works representing Symbolism, Pointillism and Futurism also made up highlights of this museum’s collections. The historical paintings of fight for the unification of Italy profoundly expressed this political and social movement called the Risorgimento, which led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy. Genre painting showcased people’s daily lives.
The Divisionism of Neo-Impressionist painting that separates colors into dots played a large role, too. The works falling into the Futurism category centered on technology and modernity, for instance. Often cars, airplanes and the industrial city figured in works of this nature.
A special exhibition displayed the Torlonia Marbles, a very significant private collection of Roman statuary with many busts. I loved how the busts, though dating back many centuries, brought out the character of the person sculpted.
The 20th century was highlighted as well. Five halls housed artwork from the 1950s to 1980s. Abstract art between the 1940s and 1950s stood out, too. The Sixties were emphasized with a focus on signs, words and images. Kinetic art also was displayed.
While I was most impressed by the landscapes and pictures of Milan’s cathedral, I gazed at each and every piece of art with awe and wonderment. This was truly a great museum.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
This 19th century shopping gallery, the oldest in Italy, holds the distinction of being one of the first iron and glass buildings. It was also the first edifice in Italy to have electric lighting installed. The structure has four storeys and boasts a double arcade. It is located smack in the center of Milan, connecting the Piazza del Duomo with the Piazza della Scala. The roof is notable for its large glass dome over an octagonal space. It gets its name from the first king of the Kingdom of Italy.
The architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, had it built between 1865 and 1877. It was his claim to fame. Unfortunately, it also brought about his death. One day before the opening of the galleria on December 30, he fell while inspecting the structure’s roof. Four million people attended his funeral, showing their appreciation of his monumental design. Famous Italians were in attendance, too. For example, painter Francesco Hayez was present at Mengoni’s funeral.
The decoration of the galleria is noteworthy. On the floor, four mosaics depicting the coat-of-arms of Turin, Florence, Rome and Milan add elegance to the structure. The mosaics of the four major continents dazzle passersby near the dome. While I was walking through the space, I saw an Italian teenager spin around three times, standing on the bull’s private parts of Turin’s coat-of-arms. This was for good luck, I later learned.
The edifice was badly damaged in World War II but has since been restored to its former glory after solving some problems with its complex roof structure. In 2015, it was repaired in time for the Expo Milano event.
I was already familiar with this type of structure because, during my visit to Naples some years ago, I walked through its Galleria Umberto, a shopping arcade very similar to Milan’s building. The space in Naples opened in 1890 and is named after the then current King of Italy. The entire historic center of Naples, including the Galleria Umberto, has been recognized by UNESCO.
In the Milan galleria, there were shops selling luxurious goods, such as Gucci. Several cafes boasted stellar views of the Duomo. I made my way enthusiastically to a vast bookstore in the galleria and spent much time there perusing the wonderful collection of books.
Tracy A. Burns is an editor, writer and proofreader in Prague.
I hadn’t been to Veltrusy since 1992 even though it was a mere 25 kilometers from Prague. I had been hoping to see the Baroque chateau again in 2001, but then that year the floods did major damage to the structure and the vast park. Reconstruction took 19 years. The chateau and park reopened with a flourish in July of 2021. I finally had a chance to visit during May of 2022.
The chateau was built in High Baroque style during the first half of the 18th century by František Maxmilián Kaňka as a summer residence for Václav Antonín Chotek, whose family would own the chateau until it was nationalized in 1945. Prague native of Italian origin Giovanni Battista Alliprandi worked magic on the chateau, too. In the courtyard I saw the Baroque statues by an unknown sculptor from the workshop of Matyáš Bernard Braun – some showed the months of the year, others were allegories of the four seasons. It was no coincidence that I thought of Braun’s statues of vices and virtues at the former hospital, Kuks. Inspired by Viennese architecture, Alliprandi had designed the east Bohemian jewel Kuks, although many of his projects had been built in Prague. I recalled that Alliprandi had designed Opočno Chateau, too. I hoped to set my eyes upon the elegant arcades of Opočno again sometime soon.
The interior did not disappoint. Both tours started off in the grotto with its exquisite painting of people and animals. Then we proceeded to the main hall with its stunning ceiling fresco and large portraits. One of the two monumental fireplaces in the room was artificial. One of the two elegant balustrades was also fake, though it was difficult to tell.
Rudolf Chotek, who had inherited the chateau from his father Václav Antonín, had worked for Empress Maria Theresa who spent a night in this chateau. This was a rare event because she usually stayed at Prague Castle or in a building the Habsburgs owned when she traveled. Her elegant bedroom was on display. Portraits throughout the chateau paid homage to the long-time ruler. Maria Theresa had come to Veltrusy for the trade fair, the first of its kind in the world. This large event took up space from the parking lot through the chateau grounds and promoted Czech manufactured goods. The empress was so impressed that she awarded Rudolf the Order of the Golden Fleece.
The first tour displayed mostly Baroque and Rococo styles. The tiled stoves were beautiful, especially one decorated with the body of a white serpent. What I liked best was the Chinese wallpaper that adorned a room. I also was impressed with other wallpaper that displayed red, blue and yellow designs as well as green foliage on a white background.
During the second tour we saw private rooms of the owner Jindřich Chotek and his family from the early and mid-19th century. Some décor harkened from the Renaissance era, too. Another highlight of my visit was looking at the paintings of Venice. I loved Italy, and the paintings brought back memories of my trip to Venice in 2005, when I wandered the romantic streets early one Sunday morning, practically having the city to myself. Some black-and-white etchings also captured my undivided attention.
We walked through the idyllic park, which is one of the oldest in Europe. At one time, boats had floated down a canal that had gone through the park. By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the condition of the park and chateau had deteriorated. Now it has been revitalized, dotted with four Classicist and Empire style pavilions, many statues and rare wooded species. Forests, meadows, gardens and fields all made up the park that spans 300 hectares.
After a delicious lunch at the chateau restaurant, we made the short trip back to Prague.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
It was my first visit to Chudenice. The first thing that caught my attention was the tranquility of the village. It was truly peaceful there. I felt calm in a way I was not able to feel in a busy metropolis.
I took a good look at the exterior of the chateau. One section was beautiful while another was in a dilapidated state. I thought of Nebílovy Chateau near Pilsen and how that chateau badly needed money to restore the façade of one of the buildings.
We went inside. First, we visited a museum dedicated, in part, to Chudenice native Jaroslav Kvapil, who had been a poet, playwright, translator, dramaturg and director. The museum also showcased other Chudenice natives and village life. Kvapil worked with the National Theatre and Vinohrady Theatre for many years. In 1901 he wrote the libretto for Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. He was involved in the resistance during World War I as he supported the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. During World War II, he founded an organization of resisters. Then the Nazis learned of the existence of his group. Kvapil was imprisoned for 11 months. When the Communists were taking control in 1948, he signed a petition, attempting to save democracy in Czechoslovakia. He died in 1950 and is buried in Chudenice.
Kvapil’s career was impressive indeed. From 1893 to 1937, he directed or co-directed 205 plays at the National Theatre. Later, he took up a position with the Vinohrady Theatre. Plays by Jaroslav Vrchlický, Alois Jirásek, the Čapek brothers, William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen, for example, were staged under his guidance. In the small museum, I saw family photos, posters of the plays he worked on and his typewriter, for instance. I hadn’t known much about him before visiting the museum, even though I had taken a great interest in Czech theatre over the years.
Soon the tour began. The guide told us about the history of the chateau and town, which had been connected to the Černín family since the end of the 13th century when Drslav from Chudenice took possession of the village. A Gothic fortress originated in the 14th century. The first time the chateau was mentioned in writing occurred during 1603, after Humprecht Černín died, when his property was divided between his two sons, Jindřich and Adam, who got control of the chateau.
Even though Adam was Catholic, he sided with the nobles in the uprising of the Protestant nobility against the Catholics. Catholicism was the official religion of the Habsburg Empire, controlled by the Germans. Adam was punished for his involvement. Soon afterwards, he died, and his widow Johanka from Loksan and five children lived there. Jindřich took control of the chateau until 1629. During the Thirty Years’ War, there were periods when the chateau was filled with soldiers.
The chateau was transformed into Baroque style during 1776 and now has a Classicist appearance. After World War II, it was nationalized, and the Forest Institute took control. In 1948 the town took over, and the chateau served various functions. At one time, it included a movie theatre, library and Socialist Youth Union club. There had been apartments here, too. Later the Museum of Josef Dobrovský opened on the site, named after the historian because he had spent some time there. We even saw the bedroom where Dobrovský had slept. In 2009 the Černín family moved back to Chudenice and now live in the other chateau in the town, the Empire style Lázeň, which they are reconstructing along with its English park. The guide said the Černíns often visit Chudenice Chateau and even give private tours on weekends.
The most intriguing space was the Angel’s Room, which was connected to a legend about Humprecht Černín, who worked as an imperial advisor to Emperor Rudolf II and caretaker of Prague Castle. He was also a knight of the Golden Fleece. One night during 1601, when Humprecht was 76 years old, an angel came to him and told him he would die within three days. The angel directed him to have a mass in Wolfgang Chapel above Chudenice. The prediction came true.
Now there is a fresco of a red-clad angel with silver wings on the arched ceiling. I also liked the part of another ceiling that was painted in Art Nouveau style. The porcelain in the Oriental Salon was exquisite. An Empire clock stood out as well. The Hunting Salon showcased paintings of dogs and a green tiled stove plus trophies from forests near Chudenice. There were noteworthy paintings and graphic works on display, too. A blue porcelain peacock was impressive. Some unique chandeliers were exquisite, and one Classicist tiled stove captured my attention. Old shooting targets were painted with intriguing bullet-ridden scenes. Still, I would occasionally notice that a piece of furniture needed to be repaired– for example, the upholstery of some chairs was in need of restoration. The chateau just didn’t have the finances at this point.
The portraits and photos of the family gave the chateau an intimate feel. The Černíns had made a name for themselves in Czech history, to be sure. I recalled that a famous palace in Prague, now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was named after the Černín family, specifically after Humprecht Jan, who had it built. An employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had showed me around the building, and I was particularly interested in the window out of which Jan Masaryk was pushed to his death by the Communists. Jan Masaryk, the son of son of the founder of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk, had been pushed out the window by the Communists after the coup of 1948, on March 10th of that year. He had refused to resign as minister after the Communist coup. Humprecht Jan also had constructed the small chateau Humprecht near Kost Castle in the Czech Paradise. I mused that I hadn’t been there since the late 1990s or earlier.
Humprecht Jan was the most prominent member of the Černín family. The imperial count had made a name for himself as a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Venice for three years and serving Habsburg Leopold I for many years. He had inherited much property in the Czech lands, including Kost Castle, Krásný Dvůr Chateau and Mělník, all of which I had visited. While working for Czech and Austrian King Leopold I, Humprecht Jan became good friends with the Habsburg leader and even was present at Leopold I’s coronation as Roman Emperor in Frankfurt. He was a secret advisor to Leopold I and in 1675 was honored as a recipient of the distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece. He also purchased territory in Lnáře that year. I remembered Lnáře fondly as I had not only toured the chateau with its stunning frescoes but had also visited its Cat Museum, where I admired many feline-related artifacts.
While stationed in Venice, Humprecht Jan had developed an art collection. By 1663, he owned about 300 paintings. After building Černín Palace in the 1660s, he made part of the palace into a gallery for his paintings. (Unfortunately, under his heirs the collection became dilapidated due to a lack of finances.) Humprecht Jan died when he was only 54 years old. He is buried in Černín Chapel at Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral.
After the tour, we went to the only restaurant in the village, where there were two entrees left on the menu at 2:30 in the afternoon. We had a tasty lunch. I noticed the peace and quiet, the calmness that pervaded in the village. It was wonderful to experience such tranquility in a world that can be so chaotic and troubling.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
Steep steps took me to the top of Český Šternberk, a massive Gothic structure that has an interior just as exciting as its colossal exterior. I had been there more times than I could count – with tour groups, friends, alone. The castle loomed over the surrounding countryside as it was situated 350 meters above sea level. When I had been on a tour of churches in the Posazaví region, our bus had even stopped in front of the castle because it dominated the area. This time I had come by car with a friend. We donned masks during the tour because of rules concerning the pandemic.
Whenever I visited this castle, I thought of George from Australia, my sixtyish friend whom I had met on a tour here in 1993. We spent some time together during his stay in Prague that summer and then became pen pals. About a year later, I received a letter from his daughter saying that he had died unexpectedly. I hadn’t known him well, but it was shocking all the same. So, whenever I come here, I realize how important it is to make good of the time you have with friends because they won’t be there forever.
Soon I gave the castle my full attention. I focused on the exciting history of Český Šternberk. Inside, it was hard to miss the eight-pointed star that symbolized the Sternbergs (in English the dynasty is spelled Sternberg not Šternberk), a name that harkens back to the original owner of the castle. In the mid-13th century, Zděslav of Divišov was responsible for the construction of this castle. He changed his name to a combination of the German word for star (stern) and the word for hill (berk).
In the Knights’ Hall, the vast first room, a portrait of Czech King George of Poděbrady, who had been related to the Sternbergs, hung prominently. A coat-of-arms representing the marriage of George of Poděbrady to Kunhata of Sternberg featured prominently in the space along with many other intriguing coat-of-arms. Indeed, George of Poděbrady influenced the history of the castle. During the 15th century Hussite wars, Catholics including castle owner Petr Sternberg fought against Hussite Czech King George of Poděbrady, who promoted the Utraquist religion. In 1465 Zdeněk Konopistský Sternberg even fought against George of Poděbrady, who was victorious and even destroyed the castle. George of Poděbrady would be the only ruler to conquer Český Šternberk.
Reconstruction took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Thirty Year’s War caused much damage and other difficulties. Still, the castle survived. Due to early Baroque reconstruction in the second half of the 17th century, Český Šternberk could no longer be used for defensive purposes. When the last member of the Holič branch of the Sternbergs passed away, there was not an heir, and the Sternbergs lost the castle. However, they would make a comeback in 1841 when Zdeněk Sternberg purchased it. The castle would remain in the family until 1949. The Communists took over the castle in 1949, but owner Jiří Sternberg was allowed to reside at the castle with his family in two small rooms. Jiří worked as a castle guide during the totalitarian period. He died in 1964. Due to his diligence and attention to detail, a precise inventory was created. This is why it is possible to see many of the original possessions there. A few years after the Velvet Revolution, Zdeněk Sternberg received the castle in restitution. Some 20 generations of Sternbergs have worked and lived there since the castle was built.
The first room, the Knights’ Hall, has always been my favorite. Every time I stepped inside, I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the large space with 17th century stucco decoration and two Czech crystal chandeliers weighing 250 kilograms each. An eight-pointed Sternberg star decorated the floor. On the walls portraits of generals from the Thirty Years’ War stared at me. George of Poděbrady’s painting also made an appearance. A variety of chairs were situated in this space. Some cozy-looking seating dated from the early 20th century while others hailed from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. I especially was drawn to the 17th century Florentine cabinet. The semi-precious stones and pieces of marble decorating it were sublime.
The Sternberg star was evident in the Dining Room, too, another of my favorites and the second largest room. A Bethlehem star was shining in the night sky of a painting of the Three Kings adoring Jesus. Of course, the star had eight points.
I loved the wall painting of idyllic landscapes in the Yellow Salon. I also was captivated by yellow because it had been the color of my mom’s kitchen, where I grew up. The color symbolized for me my mother’s optimism and calming voice telling me my problems would soon be solved, the sun would soon be out. The ceiling was captivating, too. The 18th century stucco ornamentation was amazing. In the Ladies’ Lounge, the ceiling was no less spellbinding. I was enamored by the Baroque frescoes above me. It intrigued me that the 18th century Rococo chairs lacked armrests. Ladies had donned such wide and huge dresses that the armrests were not needed. I would have loved to have been seated at the writing desk hailing from the second Rococo period. What kind of letters would I have written at that desk decorated with carved ivory? Perhaps letters to my parents and friends in the USA.
I also was excited to find some Dutch Baroque furniture in another space. The furnishings had a floral theme. Some paintings showing the Thirty Year’s War were on display here, examples of battle scenes from the 545 paintings in the Sternberg’s collection that depicted the conflict. My favorite of these renditions is the one showing the Charles Bridge. Back then, it was the only bridge joining both banks of the Vltava River.
The main altar in the chapel was home to the painting called The Passion of Saint Sebastian as the religious space is dedicated to that saint. What I liked best about the library was a painting that was said to be Apostle Peter, though he is depicted without attributes. The surprised expression on the face of the figure with the thick beard intrigued me. It was probably created by my favorite Baroque painter, Petr Brandl. I recalled his paintings in the cathedral of Sedlec near Kutná Hora. I had been enamored by so many of his works throughout the decades.
I was also astonished at the beauty of the Oriental Antechamber, which was decorated in furniture made from mother-of-pearl and ivory. I have always loved visiting Oriental rooms in castles and chateaus because they remind me of my mother’s fondness for antique Chinese porcelain and how I had come by pieces in various cities in different countries.
A painting that interested me in the hallway that showcased a variety of artifacts at the end of the tour was one by Filip Sternberg, a talented artist who had studied under the tutelage of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. My parents and friends always enjoyed visiting the Mucha Museum when they came to Prague. The rendition by Sternberg showed the Battle of Hradec Králové (also known as Koeniggraetz), which is situated in east Bohemia. During that 1866 conflict, the Austrians were defeated by the Prussians. Filip had painted the scene masterfully even though he had only been 14 years old when the actual battle had been fought.
I always leave this castle realizing it is one of the most beautiful castles in the Czech lands if not the most beautiful. This time we retreated to the restaurant below and had a delicious lunch before making our way back to Prague.
Rest In Peace, George.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
The moment I saw a picture of this majestic and riveting chateau dramatically perched on a cliff, I knew I had to go see it with my own eyes. A snapshot of Děčín Chateau adorned the cover of a guide to Czechoslovakia, a publication I had picked up at the many Prague bookstores I regularly visited. On a whim, during Easter Sunday of 1992, I took the train to Děčín. It was cold and raining. The chateau was closed as it was still under reconstruction, being transformed into a tourist spot from soldiers’ barracks. However, I was able to walk through the rose garden that dreary day, and I was determined to come back.
I did return, several times. My last visit took place during the pandemic, in 2021. By then, I had thoroughly familiarized myself with the history of the chateau. A Gothic castle had been located there as of the second half of the 13th century. Until 1511, the well-renowned Vartenberk clan had owned it. However, during the Hussite wars, in 1444, the structure was conquered and razed. It was rebuilt, and during the second half of the 16th century, the Knights of Bunau transformed the castle into a Renaissance chateau.
The Thun-Hohenstein clan’s tenure as owners of the chateau lasted from1628 to 1932. Hailing from south Tyrol, the Thun-Hohensteins had made a name for themselves in politics and religion. They were also responsible for renovating the chateau on two occasions. The first time, at the end of the 17th century, owner Maxmilián Thun, an ambassador and diplomat, gave the chateau a High Baroque makeover.
He also had the Long Drive built. This was a steep, Baroque driveway that measured 270 meters long and 9 meters wide. The walls surrounding it were seven meters high. Blind arcades with 64 columns added to the elegance of the approach to the chateau. On one side there was the rose garden with a gloriette and statues of mythological gods as well as a sala terrena. The last major renovation took place from 1783 to 1803 in Baroque-Classicist style, which gave the chateau its current appearance.
During the middle of the 18th century, a comprehensive library was founded. Czech writers and historians František Palacký and Josef Dobrovský came there to do research. At that time, it had held 90,000 books and had taken up the biggest room. Now this room is adorned with the elegant Czech crystal chandeliers and is used for celebrations. During the Soviet army’s tenure, a gym had been located there. At present, the library is housed in a smaller room. Because no one wanted to buy the complete library, the Thun-Hohenstein family had to sell books by the pound, and many museums acquired the volumes. Only about 4,500 books have been returned to the chateau.
During the 19th century, Děčín Chateau blossomed culturally and politically. Frédéric Chopin paid a visit in September of 1835. The Thuns had met him previously in Paris. All their children played the piano. Chopin even wrote a waltz dedicated to Děčín – waltz As-dur op. 34 no. 1. Holy Roman Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife “Sissy” came to town in 1854, three weeks after they were married.
Later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este would become a frequent visitor because he was friends with František and Jaroslav Thun. Jaroslav married Marie Chotek while Franz Ferdinand married Maria’s sister, Sophie Chotek. Franz Ferdinand had met Sophie at a ball when she was lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabela. The two were smitten. They kept their relationship a secret for two years because she was not considered worthy of marrying an archduke. No one in her family had been descended from any European ruling dynasty. Finally, they did get married, but Emperor Franz Joseph I made some conditions. Their children could never be heirs to the throne. Sophie was not allowed in the royal carriage or royal box. In fact, Ferdinand d’Este’s three children lived at Děčín for a while after their parents were assassinated at Sarajevo in June of 1914. The children’s aunt had married a member of the Thun-Hohenstein family.
Inspired by a trip to England, František Thun, who promoted sporting activities, brought the rules of tennis to the Czech lands in 1911. Another interesting tidbit is that Miroslav Tyrš, the co-founder of the Sokol gymnastics movement, was born at the chateau because his father worked there as a doctor. He would live there for four years. Many Czech patriots took part in the Sokol organization that was created in 1862. The following year, more than 2,000 Czechs belonged to Sokol. Besides doing sports, the association offered lectures and field trips, for instance. Tyrš was not only known as a leader in Czech sports. He was an acclaimed art historian and university professor.
Unfortunately, in 1933, the Thuns had to sell the chateau, hindered by a high inheritance tax and other financial troubles. That year, the Czechoslovak army took control of the chateau. The Thun-Hohensteins moved to a nearby town called Jílové and eventually to Vienna. When this property was located in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the chateau came into the hands of the Nazis. German soldiers lived there. Then the Czechoslovak military once again called the chateau home. From 1968 to 1991, the Soviet army occupied it. In March of 1991, the last Soviet soldier left. That year it was sold to the city of Děčín.
Astounded by the two tours of the chateau, I particularly liked the Blue Hall with its two exquisitely painted blue walls depicting classical landscapes. In the foreground I saw people doing various activities, such as rowing boats. Trees and temples dotted the idyllic landscape. I was amazed that the wall painting had only been uncovered during a renovation in 2001. This space had once been a dining room, and the flooring was original.
At the beginning of the tour, I saw Egyptian drapes that were 3,000 years old. Some puppets in a children’s room hailed from 1906. A historic painting of Děčín showed the same streets that are in the town today.
In past centuries, the tower room served as a tranquil place for tea, coffee or meals. The view from the tower, at the confluence of two rivers, was spectacular. I could see the rough-hewn cliffs and the zoo from there. Tourists often climbed the cliffs or went boating to nearby Germany.
A painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms and showed the origins of the clan. The Floral Salon with blue flowers painted on the walls had been the bedroom for Franz Ferdinand d’Este’s children.
I saw a short, wooden bed where ladies had once slept. In centuries past, women had slept half-seated because they feared that they would die if they lay down. Also, it was easier this way to keep their hairstyles looking good.
Paintings punctuated the chateau’s décor. One disturbing work showed the building with boars killing dogs in the foreground. At weddings in past centuries, guests had entertained themselves by watching such gruesome events. I noticed the paintings of the town by Karel Graff, whose 26 renditions of Děčín were exquisite. I especially liked a painting of an Italian market by Francesco Bassano. It triggered memories of my many trips to Italy, a place I longed to visit again. I was hesitant to travel there during the pandemic. Another unique and dramatic painting called “Cross in the Mountains” depicted Christ on the Cross with a background of cliffs dotted by evergreens adding vibrancy to the work. I saw other black-and-white paintings of scenes from the Battle of Waterloo. The last room we visited was the elegant Baroque Chapel of Saint George with a main altar featuring a painting of this saint. Exquisite tiled stoves dotted the numerous rooms.
My friend and I left Děčín that day enamored by the two tours that had given a comprehensive and detailed look at the vast chateau’s interiors and exteriors. We were hungry, but we didn’t find a restaurant in Děčín, so we went by car to Ústí nad Labem, another city in north Bohemia. We wound up parking near the center, around the block from an establishment whose sign just read “Restaurant.” In a nook at the back of the restaurant where only locals were seated, I ate one of the best hamburgers I ever had. It was proof once more that one did not need to go to an expensive, modern restaurant to find excellent food in the country. I loved discovering local eateries that catered to people living in the respective towns. It was always a delight to have a delicious lunch after a remarkable visit to a Czech chateau. Then we headed back to Prague.
Tracy A. Burns is an editor, writer and proofreader in Prague.
I had visited Blatná twice before, but not during the last five years. Those first two trips I had traveled to the south Bohemian town by bus, but now I had the luxury of going by car with a friend. Blatná is a chateau that makes an everlasting first impression as it is surrounded by water. By the summer of 2021, I knew very well that its romantic exterior was matched by an enthralling interior. Unfortunately, it was prohibited to take photos inside.
I already knew the history of the chateau, which harkened back to at least the 13th century, when the name first appeared in writing. Benedikt Reid, the acclaimed 15th century architect who helped designed Prague Castle, worked his magic on this chateau as well. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Late Gothic art. The Sternbergs featured in the story of Blatná, as they had in the history of Český Šternberk Castle and Jemniště Chateau, which we had also visited during that summer of 2021. This family bought Blatná in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace.
Another clan played a major role in the chateau’s long and vibrant life. During 1798, Baron Karel Hildprandt purchased Blatná, and it remained his property until 1948. Even after the chateau was nationalized by the Communists that year, the Hildprandts were allowed to live there, albeit in two small rooms. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviets took charge in the 1970s. From there, the Hildprandts’ journey continued to Spain and West Germany. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that triggered the end of Communist rule, the family got the chateau back. During 1992, the descendants returned to the chateau and later made their home there.
A legendary 19th century Czech scientist was connected with the chateau, too. Jan Evangelista Purkyně had lived and studied at Blatná. The library where he spent much of his time now holds 13,000 volumes. Acclaimed worldwide, he excelled as a physiologist, botanist, anatomist, poet and philosopher. He also contributed to the art of animated film. Purkyně translated poetry from German and Italian to Czech, especially the works of Friedrich Schiller. Other writings focused on slavistic studies and autobiography. He joined the Piarist Order when he was young, but he left and became a tutor to noble families. Later, he joined Prague’s medical faculty of Charles University as a professor. Holy Roman Emperor Franz Josef knighted him in 1868. I recalled that as a youth he had lived at Libochovice Chateau, where his father had worked. Libochovice was a marvelous chateau, one I had visited several times and had described in several articles.
Two spaces in Blatná made the chateau most notable. The Ethiopia Room was a delight with souvenirs from the Hildprandts’ tenure in that country. Unfortunately, during our 2021 tour, we did not see this room, although it was listed on our ticket.
The other remarkable space was the Green Chamber with Late Gothic frescoes. I saw plant motifs and coats-of-arms of well-known Czech noble families painted on the walls of this small space. There were many religious scenes as well. The birth of Christ and St. George fighting the dragon were the subjects of two frescoes that captured my undivided attention. I recalled the numerous Saint George relics housed at Konopiště Chateau, where my friend and I had been the previous summer. I had written articles about that chateau and the Saint George Museum as well. In the Green Chamber, Saints Wenceslas (Václav), Barbora and Markéta made appearances in religious scenes, too. One painting showed a landscape with Blatná in the background. I have always been mesmerized by this small space. It was so well-preserved, and the wall paintings were astounding. The Green Chamber was always the highlight of my visit.
The chapel was a thrill, too. It included Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my former parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again because my parents had moved. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery included a portrayal of a vast landscape on one wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it. I imagined strolling along the Charles Bridge sans the Baroque statues it was known for.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. I recalled that during a previous visit, a guide had told our group that a chandelier had fallen during one of Ferdinand d’Este’s visits, but I didn’t remember anything about anyone being hurt.
In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry, and four paintings of the Italian seaside decorated a wall.
Drawings of Venice also captivated me. I remembered walking through Venice on an early Sunday morning some years ago when I practically had the city to myself. That was one of my favorite experiences in my travel adventures. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space as did other Empire furniture, including the black-and-gold chandelier made in that 19th century style. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmitál, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. A 1720 map of Bohemia in another space caught my attention, too.
The tours were comprehensive. We had all worn masks, so I had felt protected from coronavirus, and there were not many cases in the country at the time. Afterwards, my friend and I went to a hotel for lunch, the same restaurant where I had eaten during my previous visits. We both had the fried chicken steak, a popular meal in the Czech Republic. We talked about where we would travel the following week. Life was good.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.
Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.
The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.
Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.
Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.
We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.
The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.
Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.
The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.
Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.
The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.
It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.
Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel. On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.
Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.
The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.
We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century. A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.
The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.
The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.
In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.
Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.
I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.
Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.
The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.
I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.
I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.