2017 Travel Review Diary

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Sassi in Matera, Italy

My travels during 2017 made my year very special. I went to Italy twice and spent time exploring the Czech Republic on day trips, taking jaunts to numerous chateaus and a basilica, for instance.

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Castle in Trento

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Treviso

During my first trip to Italy in 2017, I saw a wonderful Impressionist art exhibition in Treviso. I visited the impressive castle and picturesque streets of Trento. I also ransacked a few good bookstores in Treviso and picked up a year’s worth of reading in Italian. (I took advantage of the fact that we were traveling by bus.) I especially enjoyed discovering the charming town of Bassano del Grappa with its wooden Palladian bridge and, most importantly, its superb collection of paintings by Jacopo Bassano and others.

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

In June, I took one of my best trips ever, to the lesser known and lesser travelled regions of Puglia and Basilicata. Most of the sights were not so crowded. We saw many charming, sleepy towns, refreshingly not inundated with tourists. I was entranced with all the Apulian-Romanesque cathedrals. The intricate design of the main portal of the cathedral in Altamura and the rose window surrounded by lions perched on columns on the Cathedral of Saint Valentine in Bitonto are only two of the many gems designed in this rich architectural style. The bishop’s throne from the 12th century in Canosa di Puglia featured two elephant figures for legs and was a true delight.

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Altamura, cathedral

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Bishop’s throne in cathedral in Canosa di Puglia

Lecce with its Baroque wonders, Roman theatre and Roman amphitheatre left me speechless. The Baroque craftsmanship of Lecce’s most notable architect, Giuseppe Zimbalo, was breathtaking. The Cathedral of Our Lady the Assumption, one of many Baroque gems, had a stunning side façade and 75-meter tall belfry with balustrades, sculptures and pyramids. Inside, the structure was no less amazing. The gilt coffered ceiling over the nave and transept and the 18th century marble main altar decorated with angels were just a few of the awe-inspiring features of the interior.

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Ceiling of cathedral in Lecce

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Altar in church in Baroque Lecce

A castle buff, I was also more than intrigued by the octagonal Castel del Monte and the way the number eight was so symbolic in its architectural design. I was impressed with the French windows, Romanesque features and mosaic floor, for instance.

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

What fascinated me most of all on that trip was the rock town of Matera with its two “sassi” districts. I have never seen a place that is so unique and moving, except for Pompeii. I explored the Sasso Caveoso. Its structures were dug into the calcareous rock on different levels of a hillside. They were cave dwellings that had been turned into restaurants, cafes, hotels and sightseeing gems. It was difficult to believe that, until the 1950s, the sassi had been poverty-stricken, riddled with unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

The Rupertian churches especially caught my attention. They boasted frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries. The Santa Maria de Idris Church had a main altar made of tufo and chalk and decorated with 17th and 18th century frescoes. The rocky churches had actually been places of worship until 1960.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

I also explored two neighborhoods of Prague, parts of the city that I have always loved. In Hanspaulka I became more familiar with the various types of villas – Neo-Classical and Neo-Baroque, functionalist and purist, for example. I saw the villas where actress Lída Baarová had lived and where her sister had committed suicide as well as the villa where comedian Vlasta Burian had resided. I love the Art Deco townhouses in the area.

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Art Deco townhouses in Hanspaulka

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The villa where actor Vlasta Burian once lived, Hanspaulka

There are just as beautiful Art Deco townhouses in the nearby Ořechovka district, where I saw villas created by the well-known Czech modern architect Pavel Janák and many former homes of famous Czech artists. The Rondocubist dwellings with their designs inspired by folk art also excited me. I loved the folk art elements in Rondocubism. My favorite place in the quarter is Lomená Street. The 1920s townhouses are modelled after English cottages.

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Lomená Street in Ořechovka

I also visited the Winternitz Villa, designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos and his Czech colleague Karel Lhota, situated in Prague’s fifth district. Winternitz, a lawyer by trade, was forced to leave with his family in 1941 due to their Jewish origin. His wife and daughter miraculously survived Auschwitz. The villa features the Raumplan, Loos’ trademark, in which every room is on a different level. I also saw two apartments designed by Loos in Pilsen. The Brummel House with its bright yellow furnishings and Renaissance fireplace amazed.

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Exterior of Winternitz Villa, Prague

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Living room of Winternitz Villa

I took many day trips outside of Prague. Červený Újezd Castle, only built in 2001, looked like it belongs in a medieval fairy tale. The park and open-air architectural museum were just as appealing. Braving the D1 highway that is partially under construction, my friend and I made our way to Telč. I admired its Renaissance burgher houses lining the main square and its chateau that features a Renaissance gilded coffered ceiling in the Golden Hall, 300 Delft faience plates on a wall in the Count’s Room and an African Hall with a gigantic elephant’s ear.

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Červený Ujezd Castle

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Burgher houses on the main square in Telč

At Zákupy I was entranced by the ceiling paintings of Josef Navrátil. Its Chapel of St. Francis sparkled in 17th century Baroque style with frescoes on the ceiling. I finally made it to the Minor Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence in the tranquil north Bohemian town of Jablonné v Podještědí. The main altar is in pseudo-Baroque style while the pulpit and the baptismal font hailed from the 18th century. One chapel’s altar is Rococo, adorned with a late Gothic statue. The stained glass windows amazed me.

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Interior of chapel at Zákupy Chateau

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Interior of Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence

The chateau of Dětenice in late Baroque style had an interior that mostly dates from the 18th century with rooms small enough to give an intimate feel but large enough to hold many architectural delights. In the Blue Dining Room the wall paintings were made to look like works by Botticelli. The tapestries in the Music Salon were wonderful. The Golden Hall was unbelievably breathtaking.

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

My favorite chateau of this past year’s trips is Hrubý Rohozec, which I have toured many times. It is filled with original furnishings and objects – lots of them – that I found captivating. Most of all, I loved the lively history that made the chateau unique and unforgettable. Bullet holes can still be seen in the Main Library. A thief on the run had barricaded himself in the room, and the policemen had to shoot the door open. Before World War II, the two sons of the castle’s owner were caught reading erotic magazines in the Children’s Room. There were bars on the window to prevent them from throwing chairs into the courtyard at midnight.

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Organ in chapel of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

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Blue Salon of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

The Porcelain Museum at Klášterec nad Ohří held some delights. The Birth of the Virgin Mary Church in Doksany charmed in Baroque style with much stucco decoration. I admired many other chateaus as well, including Orlík and Březnice with its spectacular chapel.

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Interior of chapel at Březnice Chateau

The year was extra special because my parents were able to visit me. We toured the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, where I have season tickets for three cycles. The concert hall has played a role in Czechoslovak history. Democrat statesman Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected president three times in its large Dvořák Hall during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Rudolfinum was the home of Czechoslovak Parliament. The statuary and view of Prague Castle on the roof were splendid, and the Conductors’ Room boasted various styles of furnishings, black-and-white photos of well-renowned musicians and an impressive Petrov piano.

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Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum

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Rudolfinum, upper level

We also toured Nelahozeves Chateau near Prague, a place that has been dear to me for many years. For me the highlight of visiting this chateau is superb collection of art, especially Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting of a winter scene. The painting by Rubens was a delight, too. I also loved the small 18th century table inlaid with 20 kinds of wood. The exterior was captivating as well. The graffito on one wall and the Renaissance courtyard were two stunning architectural elements.

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Renaissance courtyard of Nelahozeves Chateau

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Sgraffito on wall of Nelahozeves Chateau

I took my parents on a trip around Hanspaulka and pointed out one of the Baroque chapels, the chateau and other sights. We admired the villas of various styles. We ate paninis in the local café.

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Chapel in Hanspaulka

Perhaps the highlight of their visit was seeing a Czech play in the Žižkov Theatre of Jára Cimrman. We laughed along to the music of Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, which focuses on the operatic works of the fictional legendary Jára Cimrman, who was an unlucky man of all trades – inventor, philosopher, teacher, self-taught gynecologist, to name a few of his many professions. The opera in the second half of the play involves a Czech engineer introducing the great taste of pilsner beer to India. The British colonel in the play is so impressed with the taste of Czech beer that he wishes he had been born Czech. It was terrific that I was able to introduce my parents to the character of Jára Cimrman, who has played such a major role in Czech culture and folklore, even though he is not real.

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Almost featureless bust of Jára Cimrman

I was thankful that I had my best friend, my black cat Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová by my side throughout the year. She is happy here, much happier than she was in a shelter four years ago.

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Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová

Every day I think of Bohumil Hrabal Burns, my feisty and naughty black cat who died three-and-a-half years ago. He remains with me in spirit every moment of my life. I know that somewhere in Cat Heaven, he is vomiting for fun on white rugs and playing with Fat Cat toys.

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Bohumil Hrabal Burns, 1999 – 2014

Those were my travels of 2017. I look forward to more adventures this year. I have planned one trip to Italy and will soon jot down a list of day trips I would like to take.

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

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Santa Croce Church in Lecce

 

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Rudolfinum Diary

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The Rudolfinum with the statue of Antonín Dvořák

Back in college, on a whim I took a classical music course, and soon I was hooked. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Dvořák’s New World Symphony enthralled me, but I became a fan of many other composers as well – Rachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Smetana, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Martinů, Mozart, Chopin, Bartók. Even the dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg captured my undivided attention. During my university years, I would take the bus from Smith College to Springfield, Massachusetts in order to attend Springfield Symphony concerts once a month.

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In Prague I would sometimes admire the statue of Dvořák in front of the Rudolfinum, and, occasionally, I would visit the art gallery in the building to see intriguing contemporary exhibitions. However, for some reason, I did not go into the concert hall of the Rudolfinum for a long time. I assumed all the concerts would be too expensive, and everything would sell out immediately.

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Then, a few years ago, in the midst of a classical music craving, I went to a piano recital in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum. I just had to go back. Again. And again. I went as often as I could, both to concerts in the large Dvořák Hall auditorium and to chamber concerts in the Suk Hall.  Dvořák Hall, one of the oldest in Europe, has the capacity of 1,148 places with 1,104 seats. Standing room is big enough for 40 concertgoers, and there are four places designated for the wheelchair-disabled.

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The following year I purchased season tickets to three cycles. Attending concerts not only allows me to hear worldwide acclaimed musicians but also to relieve stress and get my mind off any worries or concerns for a few hours.

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Although I studied piano for fun in college, my favorite instrument is the violin. In Prague, I discovered the masterful interpretations of Czech violinists Josef Suk, Jiří Vodička and Josef Špaček. The violin enchants me, all the more because it is an instrument I know I could never even hold properly let alone play.

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I did not know that there were tours of the Rudolfinum until I wrote to the box office and asked. I recommend all tourists interested in Czechoslovak history to take the tour, which is available in English. The story of the Rudolfinum is not only the story of Czech and Czechoslovak music but also the tale of Czech and Czechoslovak history. The Rudolfinum is not merely another music venue in Prague. It is a remarkable Neo-Renaissance building in which Czechoslovak history has been played out.

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The Rudolfinum opened its doors February 7, 1885. It was designed by architect Josef Zítek and his student Josef Schulz and named after Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg clan. The Crown Prince was present at the inaugural performance. The Czech Philharmonic played here for the first time on January 4, 1896, in a concert that Dvořák himself conducted. The Czech Philharmonic has called the building home since 1946.

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However, the Rudolfinum has not only been a captivating venue for concerts. From 1919 to 1939, the seat of Czech Parliament was here. In Dvořák Hall during 1920, 1924 and 1934, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected President of Czechoslovakia. Sometimes, waiting for a concert to start, I try to imagine the atmosphere of those elections playing out in the very same hall where I am seated.

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Because I like to know something about the history of the orchestra I am seeing perform, I looked up information about the various conductors of the Czech Philharmonic.

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After Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, Václav Talich became the main conductor and would serve in that capacity until 1941. His tenure lasted almost 1,000 concerts. Thanks to Talich, the Czech Philharmonic received worldwide acclaim. He first conducted with the Czech Philharmonic in 1917 at age 34.

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Talich’s personal history is colorful. He was put in jail after World War II, accused of collaborating with the Nazis, but there was no proof to support the charge. After the Communist coup in 1948, he found himself immersed in troubles again. The Communists forbid him from conducting in any public place until 1954.

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From 1942 to 1948, Raphael Kubelík worked as the main Czech conductor with the Philharmonic, but he also was known for his accomplishments as a composer and as a violinist. He was an expert on pieces created by Czech and other Slavic composers. He also was known for his interpretations of compositions by Gustav Mahler and Béla Bartók. He emigrated after the 1948 Communist coup, when the Communists took over the Czechoslovak government.

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Karel Ančerl’s biography is fraught with tragedy. He was making a name for himself as a conductor when World War II changed everything. The Nazis forced him to work as a forester, and then incarcerated him. During 1942, he was transported to Terezín, where even the depressing atmosphere of a concentration camp could not stop him from continuing musical endeavors. Two years later, Ančerl was sent to Auschwitz. He was the only member of his family to survive the war. Ančerl took over the Czech Philharmonic in 1948. He would stay for 20 seasons, until he emigrated after Russian tanks invaded Czechoslavkia, crushing the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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For the past few seasons, I had watched Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic. His interpretations of music received praise throughout the world. He worked with the Prague Philharmonic from 1994 to 2005 and then conducted with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2012. He first held the post of main conductor with the Czech Philharmonic from 1990 to 1992. He rejoined the Czech Philharmonic again in 2012. His interpretation of the third and fourth symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů earned him a nomination for a Grammy in 2005. In April of 2012, he received the medal of the British Imperial Order. Unfortunately, he died May 31, 2017. I am honored that I was able to attend so many of his concerts.

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The tour of the Rudolfinum takes music enthusiasts onto the stage of the Dvořák Hall where one can appreciate the rich decoration on the balustrades and painted ceiling with elegant chandelier. I loved the bright blue color in the superb ceiling painting. On the balcony, there is an intimate reception room for special guests. On the roof I saw many statues as well as beehives. (The National Theatre also makes its own honey, by the way.) I admired the superb views of Prague Castle.

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On the first floor, I took note of the busts of various Czech musicians and conductors. I took a photo of the bust of Karel Šejna, who was a double bassist with the Czech Philharmonic who served as main conductor in 1950. That year he led the Czech Philharmonic in concerts in England as well as East and West Germany. He was known for his interpretations of the music of Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

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The Conductor’s Room

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I was also entranced with the black-and-white photos of Czechs who made great contributions to musical history. Some of the photos were even autographed. I especially liked the Conductor’s Room. The blues and reds of the carpet appealed to me as did the various styles of furniture. I could imagine one of the former conductors playing a Mozart melody on the Petrov piano, deep in thought. The photos of musicians on the walls gave me the feeling the space was imbued with historical resonance.

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Seeing the building from a tourist’s perspective was enlightening. Still, I am most content as a concertgoer in elegant Dvořák Hall, listening to musicians warm up their instruments, anticipating the concert soon to come.

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

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Winternitz Villa Diary

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I had relished my visits to Prague’s Müller Villa, designed by Viennese Adolf Loos and Czech Karel Lhota. Therefore, I was very excited to be touring the Winternitz Villa, on which those same two architects cooperated from 1931 to 1932. The three-floor house is located at Na Cihlářce 10 in Prague’s Smíchov district, perched on a hill from which there are superb views of the city.

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Adolf Loos and Karel Lhota

Lawyer Josef Winternitz and his wife, son and daughter lived there until 1941, when they were sent to concentration camps, eventually winding up in Auschwitz. His wife and daughter miraculously survived. (His wife, Jana, would die in 1979 while the daughter, Susanne, would pass away in 1991.) In 1943 the villa was transferred to the city of Prague and became the home of a kindergarten. It was used in this capacity until 1995.

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In 1997 the family’s request for restitution came through after a six-year battle. The villa underwent a three-year reconstruction period starting in 1999. Then the owners rented it to private companies because they needed the money. During 2017 the great grandson of Josef Winternitz decided to open the villa to the public for one week. The response was tremendous. About 5,000 people came to see it. The villa was open to the public on a permanent basis in April of 2017.

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Shelves designed by Adolf Loos

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Vacuum cleaner from 1930s

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Refrigerator designed by Loos

The exterior of the villa is similar to the Müller Villa. It is an austere cube-like shape without ornamentation of any kind, a trademark of Loos’ architecture. I admired the symmetry of the north façade and windows. However, for Loos the most important characteristic of this villa was not symmetry but incorporating the Raumplan, which involves each room being situated on a different level. There were six levels of complicated spaces.

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The living room

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Living room

Soon, it was time to go inside. I walked down a narrow, dark corridor that opened onto a light, airy living room. I recalled the living room of the Müller Villa, which also was airy, light and a big space. The living room of the Winternitz Villa was 56 meters squared in size with a high ceiling measuring four meters. It was on a lower level than the dining room and small salon, which were both smaller rooms. The wooden floor of the living room was original as were the fireplaces and heaters. However, the furniture throughout the villa was not original. It had been lost during the war. The Müller Villa, though, had original furniture.

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The small salon

The small salon had cabinets with small shelves inside. Both the small salon and dining room were symmetrical. Although the library was connected to the salon, it was not possible to go inside because it was a private space.

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The dining room

On the next level, I loved the yellow and blue doorframes. Loos so often employed bright colors in his designs. Even the bright yellow fence outside was its original color. I recalled the bright colors of the children’s room in the Müller Villa. The red floors of this space in the Winternitz Villa also appealed to me. The first floor terrace offered some intriguing views of Prague. This terrace, though, had only been used by the kindergarten, not by the Winternitz family.

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On the second floor, I particularly liked the small room where portraits of the family members hung. Seeing the faces of the family members made the experience of touring the villa more intimate. Thanks to the photos, I felt a certain connection to the family. I could imagine them in this villa, the kids coming home from school, the parents listening to the radio. One picture that was not a portrait showed the villa in 1995, at the time when the kindergarten was closed. It had been in such poor condition. I could not believe the difference between the condition of the building back then and the condition of the villa now. By the way, the grandson of Josef Winternitz designed the reconstruction that followed.

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The second floor terrace had been used by the Winternitz family. The stunning views were framed by horizontal beams that came out onto the terrace. There did not seem to be a reason for having these beams there. At one time, it was possible to see Vyšehrad hill from the terrace, but a big building now got in the way. From the terrace, I saw the large high-rise in Pankrác, an eyesore to say the least. I could also see the National Theatre and Týn Church on Old Town Square.

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Pictures of the Winternitz family

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The condition of the villa in 1995, when the kindergarten closed

The villa had been well worth visiting, especially after having toured the Müller Villa. Even though the furniture in the Winternitz Villa was not authentic, the pieces fit the style of the villa well. It was still possible to imagine the family members in those rooms, even without original furnishings. The villa was a perfect example of Loos’ Raumplan feature, so characteristic of his designs. The austerity of the outside contrasted the comfortable, intimate atmosphere of the interior. This was another trademark of Loos’ work. For those interested in modern architecture, this villa is sure to please.

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

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The second floor terrace

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View from the second floor terrace with Týn Church and the National Theatre in the background

Telč Diary

 

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I was excited about my second trip to Telč, a Renaissance architectural gem I had first visited back in 1992, the year UNESCO recognized the town as a cultural monument. I remember feeling so overwhelmed when I had first stepped onto the large triangular Zachariáš of Hradec Square. More than 20 years later, I still felt the same way.

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The Renaissance burgher houses were narrow, each with unique facades portraying various architectural styles. The arcading and arched gables were astounding. I saw Late Baroque and Classicist forms as well as facades that had retained many Renaissance characteristics. The House of Ambrož Šlapanovský at number 6 boasted of a simple Baroque and Classicist façade while the House of Nedorost Master Hosier at number 12 sported a façade harkening from Renaissance days. Its high attic and crenellation from the late 16th century appealed to me.

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I was especially drawn to the House of Osterreicher the Master Mason at number 15. The illusive sgraffito on the façade was complimented by the dynamic hues that made this house one of the most dominant on the square. I loved the shades of green, grey and white that combined to make a captivating façade hailing from the middle of the 16th century. The façade also sported the allegorical figures of Melancholy and the Crucifixion.

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The façade I fancied the most featured a gable in Venetian Renaissance style. Adorned with biblical figures, the gable hailed from 1555. I was entranced by the gable on the House of Jan the Baker at number 17, an edifice with a late Baroque appearance and stucco frame. In the middle, the depiction of the Holy Trinity was superb and elegant. I also was enthralled with the House of Plzák the Alderman at number 31 with its sgraffito decoration. Even though the Town Hall had been built during the 16th century, it clearly had taken on Classicist features when changes were made in 1811. The Marian Column in the center of the square was wonderfully Baroque, the same style of so many plague columns in the country.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. It’s time for a short history lesson about the town. Telč originated in the 13th century, and the first written document mentioning the town dates from 1366. Oldřich of Hradec was awarded Telč in the 14th century, and the town would remain in the family of the wealthy Hradec clan until 1604. The most significant Hradec owner was Zachariáš of Hradec, who took over the property in 1550. His biggest claim-to-fame was transforming what had been a Gothic castle into a Renaissance chateau. The structure still retains its Renaissance character and ranks as one of the best preserved Renaissance chateaus in the country.

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When there were no more men in the family to inherit the property, Vilém Slavata acquired Telč. He is best known as one of the two governors thrown out of Prague Castle in the Third Defenestration of Prague during 1618. He survived because he landed on a pile of manure. This event helped trigger the Thirty Years’ War and brought to a head the conflict between Czech Protestant nobles and the Catholic Habsburg ruling monarchy. Slavata was able to keep the chateau in his family for three generations. František Antonín Liechtenstein-Castelcorn took over at the end of the 18th century, when the property came into the hands of the Podstastský-Liechtenstein clan. They would retain ownership until 1945, when the chateau was nationalized.

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It was soon time for the first tour of the chateau. We started out in the medieval Chapel of Saint George. I was drawn to the superb carving of Saint George fighting the dragon on a wall. The vaulted ceilings on the ground floor were outstanding.

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The African Hall was one of my favorites, though I am not usually particularly drawn to rooms with hunting trophies. The gigantic elephant’s ear and the open-mouthed hippo’s head were striking. The Knights’ Hall was decorated with knights’ armor from the 16th century and had a superb coffered ceiling from 1570. It was decorated with painted scenes of Hercules’ feats. Its artificial marble checkered floor hailed from the same year. This only proved to be one of many remarkable ceilings in the chateau, however. The Japanese porcelain dishes and sgraffito ornamentation in the Banquet Hall were exquisite.

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The Golden Hall was the highlight of the tour, that’s for sure. It measured 30 meters, but the main feature that took my breath away was the Renaissance gilded coffered ceiling decorated with painted biblical subjects. The woodcarving on the ceiling was exceptional, the likes of which I had never seen before. The Blue Hall was magnificent, featuring another remarkable ceiling, this one adorned with figures of the four elements – water, earth, fire and air. The Renaissance stove also captured my attention. The ceiling in the Men’s Parlor was yet another gem, painted wine red with gold. These colors gave it a certain warmth and intimacy. Circular medallions also decorated the ceiling.

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The next tour featured the Podstastký Private Apartments, adorned in 19th and early 20th century styles. What enamored me the most were the 300 Delft faience plates in the Count’s Room. Two distinctive closets stood out in one space – a Baroque closet with rich decoration and a shorter Renaissance closet featuring intarsia. The guide showed us a green trashcan decorated with a picture of Napoleon because the family despised the French ruler. I also saw the most beautiful Italian jewel chests made with ebony. Other adornment included Oriental vases as well as Meissen and Viennese porcelain.

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The Red Drawing Room appealed to me due to the warm red color of the armchairs and sofa. A gold clock and huge white tiled stove also stood out. The library held 8,416 volumes, including Czech books such as Jungmann’s dictionaries and national songs. There were also British novels as well as volumes in German, Latin and French. I also adored the big sky blue-and-cream colored tiled stove in the space. Another artifact that enticed me was the tiny table from India.

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Telč’s chateau was certainly one of the most impressive I had ever seen, ranking up there with Vranov nad Dyjí, Hrubý Rohozec and Lysice, a few other favorites. I left the chateau with an even deeper appreciation for the Renaissance style. I had always been keen on the Renaissance, but now I was even more enthusiastic. The intricate, breathtaking ceilings appealed to me the most. They literally took my breath away. Rarely have I set my eyes on something that awe-inspiring. The park was amazing, too, with many rare woody species. The garden was another delight.

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We ate outside in the square at the hotel restaurant. It was an awful choice, as I had never experienced such slow and inept service. Even when there were few customers, the waiters were so slow. We were there two hours, one hour or less eating, the rest of the time waiting for the bill, which we were constantly promised. Finally, I went inside, where I actually found a waiter at the cash register. He asked me why I was in a hurry but allowed me to pay, luckily. Sometimes the waiters would just disappear. They were not inside or outside, nowhere to be seen.

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As we were leaving the town, we spoke with a long-time resident, who confirmed that the hotel was an awful place to eat. Our food was fine, but she said the meals were usually bad. People had come away with a terrible impression of Telč due to the service at that hotel.

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I saw many touristy shops on the square, but we did find one store selling wonderful ceramics. I bought some ceramic cat figures that are beautiful. Another shop had pretty, handmade mugs with colorful designs.

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The problem with getting to and from Telč is the D1 highway, which is under construction with only two lanes until at least 2020. It was a nightmare with so many trucks taking up both lanes, as we had no chance to pass them. Once a truck suddenly swerved into our lane, and my friend was able to break just in time to avoid an accident. The truck drivers were arrogant and aggressive.

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If there had been an accident when we were on the highway, the journey one-way could have taken up six hours or more. Luckily, we only had a half-hour delay on the journey to Telč. The big problem was, as always, the traffic in Prague. I had investigated how to get to Telč by bus, but the journey takes about six hours with Student Agency because the buses make stops elsewhere. I was not about to spend six hours or more on a bus.

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So, I look forward to 2020, when I will certainly go back to Telč to experience the splendor of the Renaissance once again.

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

 

 

 

Hrubý Rohozec Chateau Diary

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I usually visit chateaus and castles once every 10 years, but, after a seven-year interval, my trip to the north Bohemian chateau of Hrubý Rohozec was long overdo. Between 2005 and 2017, I have visited Hrubý Rohozec four times. Each time I learn so much more than merely the style of furniture in each room and the names of former owners. Every castle or chateau has its story to tell, and Hrubý Rohozec’s tales are some of the most fascinating.

The two one-hour tours are extra special because the many objects and pieces of furniture in the chateau are original thanks to the ingenuity of the last owner, Karel Bedřich Des Fours Walderode. When Bedřich knew he would lose the castle after World War II because he had German citizenship and was a member of the Sudeten German Party, he made an inventory of every item in the chateau. He tied cards to each object. Bedřich stored most of the furniture in the basement. Townspeople kept other pieces safe in their homes.

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The chateau became the property of the state after the war, as was stipulated in the Beneš decrees. During Communism the chateau was placed in the second category, which meant it was occasionally open to the public. If a chateau was designated a one, it was frequently open for visitors and served as a cultural landmark. When a chateau was listed with a three, it was bad news. It meant that the interior would be torn apart, and the chateau would be used for other purposes, such as stables, a warehouse or an educational institution.

I went by car with a friend for the 2017 visit, but I recalled the last time, in the fall of 2010, when I had taken the train to the chateau. I had been surprised to find new, comfortable seats installed on the formerly dirty and grimy train. The train had filled up fast. I think I was the only one with a seat reservation, and getting one had been a wise move. The journey took an hour and 45 minutes, and the train was on time. From the station to the chateau, it had been a pleasant half hour walk along sidewalks sprinkled with golden and brown leaves that looked like a kind of autumn mosaic.

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Back in 2010, I had arrived at the chateau too early for the next tour, so I had walked a bit in the English park that had originated in the second half of the 17th century and took its current appearance from the 19th century. A blanket of golden and brown leaves had covered the grass. I saw the statues of the five saints, including Saint Václav, Saint Barbara and Saint Marie. I had read that 40 kinds of wood grow in this park.

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Now, in 2017, I took my time gazing at the Gothic gateway. I knew that the chateau had originated as a Gothic castle around 1300, and the Gothic construction had finished in 1516. Above the gateway of the clock tower were three coats-of-arms – one belonging to former owner Johann Krajíř from Krajek; his name was inscribed above it. The coat-of-arms to the left stood for Konrád Krajíř from Krajek, another former owner, and the one to the right symbolized the Šumperk family. I stood on what were the remains of a stone bridge. I liked the two heads looking down like gargoyles from above the gate – Konrád Krajíř was on the right, Arnošt Krajíř, his son, peered at me from the left.

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I walked through the gate and into the courtyard of the four-winged building now in Empire style, the last renovation having taken place in the 19th century. I looked up at the tower clock and noticed that the hour hand was longer than the minute hand. I also noticed another figure of a head peering down below the Gothic balcony, which was decorated with various circular designs. The head belonged to Johanna Krajířová, Konrád’s wife.

Then I sat on a bench and gazed at the various styles on the exterior. There were Renaissance arcades on the lower level around me. I gazed at the Gothic gateway and the Empire style of the chateau itself. I also recalled a Baroque chapel and a Neo-Gothic dining room. During my visit in 2006, the second tour had showed off the eras from the Renaissance to Art Nouveau, but that had changed.

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First, a little about the history of the chateau. Hrubý Rohozec originated around the 13th century. The Krajíř from Krajek family owned it during the 15th and 16th centuries. It came into the hands of the Wartenbergs during the 16th century, and after 1600, this clan changed it from a Gothic castle to a Renaissance chateau.  During the 17th century, Jan Jiří from Wartenberg was on the losing side of the Battle of White Mountain, which took place November 8, 1620 and turned out to be the deciding battle in the Thirty Years’ War. During that conflict, the Emperor’s army and Catholics outdid the armies of the Protestant nobility. Still, Wartenberg escaped before he could be taken prisoner. The legendary military leader of the Thirty Years’ War, fighting on the Emperor’s and Catholic side, Albrecht von Wallenstein, bought the chateau in 1621. (By the way, he was murdered in the western Bohemian town of Cheb during 1633.) Wallenstein never even visited the chateau. He soon sold it to Mikuláš Des Fours, in 1628. Mikuláš had come to Bohemia as a military leader in the war. The chateau would remain in that family’s ownership until 1945.

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The main altar in the chapel

The tales of the Des Four clan are fascinating. I especially liked hearing about Marie Des Fours Walderode. (In the 18th century, the family added Walderode as one of their surnames.) After studying medicine, she spent World War I helping the sick in the Balkans. Then she returned to her hometown in Moravia and treated patients for free, making house calls until she was 77 years old. During World War II, she even took care of injured American pilots whose plane had been shot down in Moravia. Marie was the first female doctor in the Czech lands to work in the countryside. She also was one of the first women to have a driver’s license. She was a woman I would have loved to have met.

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A window in the chapel

After Mikuláš Vladimír Des Fours Walderode, the second to last owner, died of cancer in 1941, the chateau became the property of Karel Bedřich. Following World War II, the state confiscated the chateau. Karel Bedřich died in 2000, and there is still an ongoing debate about whether Hrubý Rohozec should be returned to the family or stay in the hands of the state.

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The organ in the chapel

The chateau is now furnished according to photographs from the 1930s, when Mikuláš Vladimír, the second-to-last owner, had lived there with his wife and two sons, Ludvík and Maximilián.

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The main altar

First, our group visited the Baroque chapel of the Holy Trinity. The main altar, dating from 1670, was charcoal black, accented by much gold decoration, and a painting showed the Holy Trinity in the middle. The white side altars with gold décor hailed from the Rococo era. I noticed the monk Saint Francis in the center of one of them. Next to the main altar was a reliquary with a tooth of Mikuláš Des Fours, the first owner who bought the castle back in the 17th century from the famous Wallenstein. In the back of the church was a Madonna with Child statue, the baby almost squirming out of the mother’s arms. The lavish organ still worked, too.

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The Small Library

Then we headed for the two libraries. The topics of books in both libraries included military history, genealogy and Spanish history, to name a few. Plays by Shakespeare and even some 20th century works also make up the collection. The small library holds about 3,500 books. I noticed a big clock on one side table. It was decorated with gold and showed the date, month and phase of the moon as well as the time. Still functioning, it dated from the first half of the 18th century, The library was not without its secret door, either.

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Allegory of a Woman’s Life

The main library, containing about 10,000 books, also served as the Des Fours portrait gallery. My two favorite paintings hung above the two doorways in this room. Painted by Jan Hartl in 1656, they were “The Allegory of a Woman’s Life” and “The Allegory of a Man’s Life.” In “The Allegory of a Woman’s Life,” 12 women ascended and descended a staircase, showing the stages of life from birth through adulthood to death. A 60-year old had a goose. An 80-year old was paired with an owl while a woman of 90 years had a bat (the animal, not the baseball kind). The last lower right-hand level showed a woman dying. Below the figures a putti danced, and a skeleton appeared. A background scene of a church in the distance could be seen in the middle of the painting.

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Allegory of a Man’s Life

In “The Allegory of a Man’s Life,” there were 12 figures standing on stairs as well. The 40-year old man was accompanied by a lion, the 60-year old by a wolf. Age 70 symbolizes faithfulness, as the man appeared with a dog. The 90-year old was paired with a donkey.

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The Main Library

I took note of the bullet holes in the door that separated the main library from the dining room. I also saw bullet holes in the ceiling. During the summer of 1946, a thief named Karel Chlouba, while on the run, hid in the chateau, which was closed at the time. He holed up there for several days before he was discovered by an employee of the chateau. Chlouba locked himself in the main library and barricaded the doors. The policemen had to shoot through the doors to gain access to his hideout. Instead of surrendering to authorities, Chlouba shot himself.

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The Dining Room

Next, we entered the Neo-Gothic dining room. Helmets and much weaponry graced walls and display cases. Some arms hailed from the Thirty Years’ War while others dated from the 18th or 19th centuries. I noted the exotic weapons from Japan. The wine red color and the dark wood paneling of the room gave me a cozy feeling. I thought this would be a nice place to retire to on a cold, winter’s night. While the table was set for six people, it could hold up to 16. The superb porcelain hailed from the west Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, often referred to as Carlsbad. Large portraits of Mikuláš with the tooth and his son Albrecht, both sporting medals, dominated one wall. Albrecht held his hand on a skull, symbolizing that his father was dead when the portrait had been taken.

I could imagine women in the Green Ladies’ Salon perusing the paper, playing the piano and listening to an old-fashioned gramophone. The tour guide, who was clearly an expert in her field, cranked the handle of the record player, and we listened to a waltz. I also noticed a porcelain bowl with a floral pattern in white, yellow and pink. It added to the cheerfulness of the room.

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The Green Salon

We came upon a huge walk-in safe in one wall along the hallway. Then we were in the Hunting Salon, where, as the guide described, the men had smoked opium, which the owner’s younger brother Kun had brought back from Japan. Smoking cigars had been another favorite pastime.

The bedroom of Mikuláš Vladimír featured a 17th century Renaissance single bed. Mikuláš had kept in shape. We saw exercise equipment utilizing pulleys and rods, with which he strengthened his arms and legs. The story behind these objects is fascinating. The equipment had been on display in the chateau until sometime in the 1950s, when it was stored in the basement, dismissed as unimportant. The objects were only discovered again in 2010, when garbage was being removed from the basement.  The guide also mentioned that the chateau is located near train tracks, and there is some concern about how long it will stand because it is in such close vicinity to the railway.

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A 17th century bed

In another room, I saw one of my favorite objects in chateaus, a doll with a very wide, white dress that could be placed over cups to keep the tea warm. I remembered seeing some of these items in Mníšek pod Brdy Chateau a few years ago. The Meissen porcelain was also intriguing. One couple danced, two lovers kissed and another represented an elegantly dressed woman of high society. We also passed by a toilet that flushed. There had been seven in the chateau during Mikuláš Vladimír’s day as he had installed the latest technological inventions in his home. Now only two remained.

The last room on the first tour was the Waiting Room, where visitors could read the paper or peruse a book before the count appeared. There was also an old telephone looking like the devices I had seen in Czech actor Vlasta Burian’s movies from the 1930s. The count’s number was simple to remember – one.

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A doll as tea warmer

The next tour was no less intriguing as we made our way through the Private Apartments. The bedroom of handicapped Countess Marie Immaculata, the younger sister of Mikuláš Vladimír, was dominated by a wooden wheelchair. I thought about the many advances in technology since the 1920s or 1930s. There were no elevators in the chateau back then, so she had to be carried down the many stairs.

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The Children’s Room really captured my attention. I saw a model of a ship with sails that I could almost see fluttering and a toy train with tracks that worked on electricity. I recalled my many train trips to castles and chateaus in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe. Traveling by train was exciting; I always felt a rush of energy when I went somewhere by train. I especially liked the two-tiered City Elephant trains that ran from Karlštejn and other parts of Bohemia. The tiny skates on display reminded me of my ice hockey playing days, as I laced up the same Bauer Supremes since age 14. The Czech board game from the 1930s, Clovečce nezlob se!, is still popular. It brought back memories of playing Monopoly or Clue as a child. Had Colonel Mustard committed murder in the conservatory with a candlestick?

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The boys’ bedroom

The wolf’s mask made me think of my college years studying theatre, a subject I had relished. The previous year I had gone to a Czech performance at the Jára Cimrman Theatre to see a popular comedy about Czechs traveling to the North Pole. It had been the day after the November 8, 2016 US presidential election. Seeing that play and being able to laugh allowed me to face the harsh reality that Donald Trump would be the next US president and saved me from falling into a depression.

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The boys’ bedroom

Then the guide’s narration again captured my attention. The children’s governess, who was British and spoke English to Mikuláš Vladimír’s sons, once caught the curious boys reading erotic magazines in that room. English was not the only language the boys knew. They spoke in German with their parents and Czech with their friends. Learning several foreign languages was common in that day. We saw a picture of the English governess – a strict-looking, older bespectacled woman who looked like she did not put up with any shenanigans.

Upon entering the boys’ bedroom, I noticed that there were bars on the windows. They had been installed because the boys liked to throw chairs onto the courtyard around midnight. They competed against each other to see who could break the most chairs. With these kinds of colorful descriptions, the two boys came alive for me. I saw them not only as names in a family history, but as youngsters always up to mischief.

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They both met tragic fates. The boys joined the Hitler Jugend during World War II. The younger, Ludvík, died in battle at age 19. His older brother passed away soon thereafter from a diabetic attack. Maximilián was transported to the hospital, but, because he was wearing a Hitler Jugend uniform, no doctor would treat him. I wondered if the boys had really believed Hitler’s propaganda or if they had been forced to join.

A seamstress slept in the room next to the boys; she was in such close proximity to the boys because the two were always getting into scrapes and ripping their pants. This way, their clothes could be fixed immediately.

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The Blue Salon

After going through a few more rooms, we came to the Blue Salon, where the family used to celebrate Christmas. I could imagine the exciting and cheerful atmosphere as the two boys eagerly tore the wrapping paper off their presents. I could almost hear the tinkling of the piano keys as a joyful melody resounded in the room. The blue furniture and exquisitely painted blue walls gave the room a comfortable feel. It was a place I could easily celebrate a holiday. The blue-and-white porcelain was decorated with peaceful country scenes showing trees and a bridge, for example.

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The Blue Salon

Soon we came to another space, where the guide pointed out a portrait of Josef Des Fours, whom she called the black sheep of the family. He had married the 19-year old Johanna Köppe in the early 19th century. Eighteen years younger than Josef, she was a member of the burgher class rather than the nobility, and the couple did not get along well with each other. She had married Josef because she had yearned to mingle in Viennese society. I was not very surprised to hear that the two decided to call it quits after only several weeks of marriage. Johanna wound up as a courtesan, and one of her most famous clients was Austrian Chancellor Metternich. In her portrait her pose was seductive, her eyes pleading.

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Johanna and Josef

In one hallway we saw a miniature statue of a member of the clan who was known to be a bit crazy. He had wanted a life-size tiled stove to look just like him. While the original stove no longer existed, this small copy was one of several that the artist had made for his friends. Clad in a fur coat that enveloped his frame, in the stove’s rendition he appeared obese and unattractive. We also took a whiff of a men’s cologne from Mikuláš Vladimír’s era. It still had a pleasant fragrance. I thought of some perfumes today that lost their fragrance after a month if not sooner. We were in a room decorated with many Japanese items such as pictures of landscapes as well as a complete set of samarai armor and Japanese swords. Mikuláš Vladimír’s brother Kun had spent much time in East Asia, and these were souvenirs from his travels. While standing in this room during the 2010 tour, I had learned that a set of Japanese porcelain has only five pieces, not the usual six. I had also spotted one of the most beautiful tea kettles I had ever seen. It was dark green with a white and red pattern, decorated with gold, and I was sure that my mother, a tea addict, would love to add it to her collection. In the same room, I remembered seeing a toy Buddha. The guide had pressed on the glass protecting the toy, and it automatically stuck out its tongue and moved its arms and legs. The next room was the casino. Here men had smoked opium and played pool and card games.

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One feature I did notice during the tours this year and in 2010 was located in a servants’ room. By pressing a button on a panel, the number of the room in which they are needed. This way, they did not have to stand outside the nobles’ rooms in case they were suddenly called upon.

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I remembered one feature of the second tour from 2010 that we did not see this year. We had visited the cellar. In the first room I had noticed the high, small window slot for light and had realized how dark it must have been down there before electric lighting was introduced. One part had been a storage space for coal until 1945. Another space was where foodstuffs such as eggs and cream had been stored. Yet another room functioned as a big refrigerator of sorts.

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I thought back to how different the second tour had been in 2006 when the rooms had represented various styles from Renaissance to Art Nouveau in furniture, paintings, porcelain and historic dress, for instance. I remembered a Flemish tapestry from 1710 decorated with peacocks in a richly wooded landscape, lush green in the foreground with a light background. An exquisite marble jewel chest had been featured in the exposition as well.  Although I am not interested in fashion, the various styles of historic dress illustrated in the former exposition had been intriguing. I had seen Rococo hoops around dresses, bodices, and satin dresses in pastel colors. I remember how the Art Nouveau style involved a slender look at the waist and a wide skirt, hats and sleeves with lace. Still, I liked the design of the second tour better in 2017.

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The two tours had been magnificent, ranking among the best I had ever been on. The guide knew her stuff about the chateau and was enthusiastic about her work. The colorful descriptions of the family members and the fascinating tales had really brought the chateau’s history alive. The guide did not try to make the former owners into perfect people. She related tales about the boys misbehaving and told us that they had been members of the Hitler Jugend. Not making them perfect made the protagonists of this chateau human.

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I felt as if I experienced the history of the chateau while walking through the rooms rather than merely seeing objects that epitomized this history. In my mind, I could see women chatting while sipping tea from exquisite porcelain in the Green Salon. I could almost see Mikuláš Vladimír writing a letter or organizing bills at his desk. I could imagine the boys hurtling chairs out the windows in the pitch-black of night. This is exactly why I had come here for the fourth time. I could come here every year and not be bored by the guide’s superb narration.

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I highly recommend that any English speakers buy the brochure about the chateau because it is written in excellent English and brings to life the history of the chateau in colorful descriptions. It is not a book that merely explains the different types of furniture in various rooms or that tells the history of the family in a bland way. This publication is an excellent keepsake. I mused about how often I came across brochures about chateaus or castles translated into broken English, ones that described the history of the place in a boring way, just noting who succeeded whom as owners without making the people three-dimensional.

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

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The chapel from the oratory

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Kladsko Borderland and Božena Němcová Diary

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I went on a UNISMA tour of the Kladsko Borderland area, the region where 19th century Czech writer Božena Němcová grew up. In this post I will refer to her as Barunka, her nickname, as I felt I got to know her well during the excursion. There were about 40 women on the tour, traveling to commemorate this Czech patriot, who was one of the most influential prose writers in the Czech National Revival. During this movement, Czechs tried to promote the Czech language and culture while they lived in the Habsburg Empire, where Germanization was enforced.

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Božena Němcová from http://www.bozena-nemcova.cz

Barunka was an inspiration for women trying to make names for themselves as writers, too and for women in general. Barunka’s most famous literary creation is the novel The Grandmother, about an idealized grandmother and her family living in the countryside of the Kladsko Borderland region. Written during a tumultuous time of her life, The Grandmother was inspired by Barunka’s happy, carefree childhood. We would also visit the Ratibořice Chateau as Barunka had spent joyful days in Ratibořice during her youth. Also on the itinerary was Barunka’s home in Červený Kostelec, where she lived for six months after she got married. We would admire the countryside from a lookout point that commemorated the prestigious writer.  First, though, we would travel to Česká Skalice, the town where Barunka went to grammar school and got married.

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The Grandmother or Babička by Božena Němcová from http://www.radio.cz

The Kladsko Borderland region includes 13 towns, such as Nové Město nad Mětují, which boasts a chateau that I wrote about in another post. It also consists of the Broumov area. I spent a weekend in Broumov – see my post about it – where I toured the impressive monastery and visited the wooden Church of the Virgin Mary, the oldest wooden building in the country. The unique rock formations of Adršpach also belong to this area. I was there one cold, depressing day in November years ago and have always promised myself I would return sometime during the summer.

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Božena Němcova from http://www.martinus.cz

Because I find Božena Němcová’s life to be so intriguing, I am going to go into some detail about the trials and tribulations she faced. Born in 1820 as Barbora Panklová in Vienna, she spent her childhood in Ratibořice. In 1825 her grandmother settled in with the family. Her grandmother played a major role in Barunka’s upbringing. During 1837, Barunka tied the knot at age 17 in an arranged marriage. Her husband, Josef Němec, was a 32-year old customs officer. They had four children, three sons and a daughter.

Josef was a Czech patriot, but he was a rude, outspoken man. He was transferred many times, so the family moved from place-to-place. When they were living in Polná, Barunka started to read books and newspapers in Czech, even though it was an era of Germanization. After they moved to Prague in 1842, she published poetry in a well-respected periodical.

In 1848, while the family was living in Domažlice, Josef was accused of treason, which brought about more transfers in his job. When he moved to Hungary in 1850, Barunka and the children lived in Prague, where she met with literary figures who were Czech nationalists. The family had severe financial problems and was often in debt. Then Barunka and her husband joined the Czech-Moravian Brotherhood, which promoted the idea of a utopian society, but the Brotherhood fell apart.

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Božena Němcová and her children from cs.wikipedia.org

Barunka was no saint. She had several lovers. When her son Hyněk became gravely ill, she was the mistress of Hyněk’s doctor. Then one day Josef came across a love letter and put an end to her affair. Josef’s job then took him to Hungary again, and this time Barunka and the children accompanied him. They visited Moravia and Slovakia, two places where Barunka picked up many folk tales from people living in the countryside.

While they were living again in Prague during 1853, Hyněk died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 15. The family had other problems, too, as Josef found himself unemployed. It was while the family was in such dire straits that Barunka wrote The Grandmother, as she mentally transported herself back to the cheerful days of her youth, when she had lived with her grandmother in Ratibořice. In the book the grandmother figure stands for goodness, love and moral values.

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The Kladsko Borderland

The following year Barunka had an affair with a young medical student, but the man’s parents found out and forced him to move from Prague to Poland, ending the relationship. During 1856 Barunka attended the funeral of influential writer and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský. She paid tribute to him by placing a crown of thorns on the casket as a symbol of martyrdom.  That same year Josef was accused of embezzlement. Barunka and Josef had heated arguments about the children’s future, and Josef filed for divorce. He beat her, and Barunka called the police. They got back together, but they fought so often that Barunka eventually left him.

During 1861, she moved to Litomyšl, where she worked for a publisher as Josef was no longer supporting her. However, illness and the resulting financial problems forced her to honor society’s rules and return to Prague and to her husband. The first installment of the second edition of The Grandmother was published the day before she died on January 21, 1862.

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A portrait of Božena Němcová from the Božena Němcová Museum in Česká Skalice

First, we visited Česká Skalice, where the Božena Němcová Museum was situated. The school that Barunka attended and the Baroque church where she was married in 1837 are nearby. Coincidentally, her parents had married in the same church, during 1820.

Česká Skalice has an impressive history. It was first mentioned in writing during 1086, but a settlement existed there even earlier. It obtained the status of a town in 1575. During the Thirty Years’ War, Česká Skalice was occupied by both Swedish and the Emperor’s troops. During the 18th century, the town concentrated on agriculture and textile production. The 19th century was fraught with floods and fires, yet the town still expanded. In 1866, during the Prussian-Austrian War, a significant battle took place nearby. The Austrians lost, amassing over 5,000 casualties. It was a hint of what was to come as the Austrians would go on to lose the war.

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from the Božena Němcová Museum

The 19th century was also a time when Dahlia Festivals took place. They were held from 1837 to 1847. Dahlias were plentiful in the region, and the festival took on a nationalistic tone. At the first festival in 1837, Barunka was voted Queen of the Ball. Composer Bedřich Smetana participated in the festival during 1839. Factories for textile production cropped up during that century, too.

Many citizens of Česká Skalice died during World War I, but life in independent, democratic Czechoslovakia was good. A statue called “Grandmother with Children,” based on the book The Grandmother, was unveiled in 1920 in Ratibořice. The sculptors were the well-renowned Otto Gutfreund and Pavel Janák. A museum dedicated to Božena Němcová was opened in 1931. During the Second World War, times were bleak. Many inhabitants lost their lives in resistance fighting.

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Statuary inspired by The Grandmother, Božena Němcová Museum

We could only peek through the iron grille of the Baroque church, but I read that the chapel dates back to 1350, and the baptismal font hails from 1450. The interior became Baroque in 1825.

The Museum of Božena Němcová gave me an overview of her life. I saw her writing desk and tried to imagine her sitting there, composing a story. Photos and documents were on display as well as many editions of her books. A book fiend, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the various editions and noticed how the books’ designs differed. I also peered at some of her favorite paintings. I learned that Barunka admired English literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens and that she was deeply interested in the fate of textile workers, servants and clerks, for instance. She had even visited textile factories in order to get a sense of the grueling work and long hours that prevailed. I admired a richly decorated fan she had owned. The part of the exhibition dedicated to The Grandmother in film and drama also caught my attention. I had seen the popular film, and I had attended a performance of her literary masterpiece, on stage at the Goose on a String Theatre in Brno.

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From the Textile Museum in Česká Skalice

Adjacent to the literary museum was a textile museum, founded in 1936. Česká Skalice is home to the only museum in the country that focuses on the history of textile production.

We also visited Barunka’s timbered school, which she attended from 1824 to 1833. While it is not known when it was built, legend says that it dates from the 13th century. It was first mentioned in writing during the early 15th century. The school was destroyed by the Swedes in 1639, but, four years later, a new one was built. In 1771, some 280 children were registered at the school. However, only about 80 pupils showed up for lessons. Until 1790 there was only one grade. Later, when Barunka attended, there were two grades. Now it looks like it did from the 1830s and 1840s. The building last served as a school in July of 1864.

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The teacher’s desk in the school that Božena Němcová attended

I tried to imagine Barunka going to this school every day. Each row in the classroom consisted of one long bench. I could not imagine how painful my back would be if I had to sit on one of those hard benches all day. A sentence written in 19th century Czech using correct penmanship was on the blackboard. An edition of Barunka’s story, The Teacher, was on display, as she described this school in that work. While I could not imagine going to classes in such a claustrophobic, though quaint, space with uncomfortable seating, some of my fellow seventyish travelers reminisced that the grammar schools they had attended had looked similar. I had spent my elementary school days at a small, modern, private school in the town where I lived in northern Virginia. We had strict rules and a dress code. If students went to their lockers between classes, they were punished. However, we had great teachers and a terrific theatre program. How different my childhood had been from the childhoods of these seventy-something women who had grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia!

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The benches where the students sat in the school Božena Němcová attended

The wall in the atrium of the building was richly decorated with ceramics and paintings. Quotations from Barunka’s books adorned the wall, too. I admired the bright colors and cheerfulness of the display.

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The display of ceramics in the atrium of the school

The highlight of my trip was visiting Ratibořice Chateau, where I had been only once, more than a decade earlier. The village of Ratibořice was first mentioned in writing during the 14th century, when a fortress had stood on the site. The chateau has its origins in the early 18th century, when the then owner, Prince Lorenzo Piccolomini, had it built as one of his residences. It has the appearance of an Italian countryside summerhouse, an architectural style that was popular during the 16th century.

Its golden age took place when Kateřina Frederika Vilemína Benign – the Duchess Zaháňská – inherited the place at the turn of the 19th century. Barunka even based one of the characters in The Grandmother on this former owner of Ratibořice. She made the chateau her permanent residence and was responsible for reconstruction that took place from 1825 to 1826. The chateau was transformed into Classicist style. Also, the park was founded during her tenure as owner. Kateřina was married and divorced on three occasions. The duchess loved children, but her only child was taken away from her in 1801 because she was illegitimate. Then Kateřina was unable to have more children. So she helped educate girls and helped them find rich husbands. She treated them as if they were her own children. One of these girls became a character in The Grandmother, fictionalized as Countess Hortense.

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Kateřina had influential friends. She was on friendly terms with Russian Czar Alexander I, Klemens von Metternich, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and poet Lord Byron. In June of 1813, a significant political meeting took place at the chateau. Czar Alexander I and representatives from Prussia and Austria formed a coalition after the defeat of Napoleon in order to establish the divine rights of kings and Christian values. The alliance focused on preventing revolutions, democracy and secularism. The duchess died during 1839 in Vienna.

Other major reconstruction took place from 1860 to 1864, when Prince Vilém Karel August from Schaumberg-Lippe gave the chateau a second Rococo style makeover. The chateau remained his family property until 1945. The Nazis occupied the chateau during World War II, and after the war, the interiors were changed into Classicist, Empire and Biedermeier styles, which decorate the chateau today. Ratibořice now appears as it did during the first half of the 19th century. In 1978 it obtained the status of a national cultural monument. From 1984 to 1991, there was much restoration work.

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In the chateau I was enthralled with six Italian paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. The pictures showed people in landscape settings. How I loved Italy! I had been there nine times and would soon be visiting that country again. I loved the Italian language, too. I wanted to see all the towns in Italy, to visit everything noteworthy. Rome, Arezzo and Pompeii were my three favorite places in Italy.

The Men’s Salon was designed in Empire style. In this space I took note of the elegant Empire style bookcase on top of which are busts of the members of the Holy Alliance – Russian Czar Alexander I, Austrian Emperor Franz I and Prussian King Frederick William III along with a bust of Metternich. I loved the paintings of Italy in this room, too. The Social Salon featured a pool table along with Empire style card tables that boasted intarsia designs and a large painting of a biblical scene. I also admired a wooden gilded clock from the first third of the 19th century.

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There was a portrait of a woman who was 46 years old, my age at the time of my visit. I thought she looked so old. Suddenly, I felt so old. I had lived in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia for half my life, 23 years. Time went by so fast, and that scared me. Before long, I would be 50. I wondered if I looked that old to other people. Some younger people on trams and Metro gave up their seats for me, an act of respect to elders.

A painting in the Music Salon, which was decorated in Napoleon Empire style, caught my attention. The large canvas portrayed a carnival parade in Naples during 1778. There were 2,338 people painted in the picture. I admired the attention to detail. I thought back to my trip to Naples the previous year. The museums, the pizza, the picturesque streets in the historical center, the opera house, the churches and the cathedral – it had truly been a wonderful experience. And Naples seemed so different from the other towns and cities I had visited in Italy.

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In another room I admired a statue of a Dancing Fawn on a column, an artwork based on a statue unearthed in Pompeii. I recalled seeing the original in the Archeological Museum in Naples. Visiting that museum was certainly a highlight of my trip to southern Italy.

Ornate gilded clocks also decorated interiors. I loved the paintings of two lakes in Italy. I had wanted to visit Lake Garda and surroundings this year, but the trip was not offered at a time when I was free. I also would love to see Lake Como and the surrounding area. I recalled flipping through a book I have about the region and feeling overwhelmed by the beautiful photos. A desk in the room was exquisite, too. I loved the Klimt-style candlesticks in the bright, dynamic blue, gold, and red. What looked like a pile of books was really a trash can. That was an object I wanted in my own home.

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On the first floor I was enthralled with the Servant’s Room. The servant slept on a high, wooden bed that he also used for ironing. My back started to hurt just looking at the hard bed. On the lower floor I loved the coffee service that included cups with pictures of three chateaus on them. One of these was Amalienburg, which I fondly recalled visiting in Munich, although the day had been so rainy that it had not been pleasant walking in the park. The elegant Biedermeier furniture in the Schaumburg Room caught my attention. I especially liked the dark green couch and the room’s warm colors. The Graphics Cabinet was impressive, too.

I also liked the Second Rococo style adornment of the Men’s Parlor, where there were black-and-white portraits of various monarchs, including Russian Czar Nicholas II. In the Women’s Salon I was drawn to an elegant fan picturing cats. A cat lover, I dreamed of having my own shelter for black cats or of owning a mansion where there was enough room for 15 or 20 black cats. I liked black cats best because they are often overlooked. People are prejudiced against them because of their color. Some people consider them to be unlucky, but, to me, they are not unlucky at all.

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I imagined Czar Alexander I seated in the Big Dining Room along with many guests at a lunch honoring the Russian leader. I admired the English Copeland service on the table as well as a green tiled stove. Other appealing rooms had Neo-Baroque and Second Rococo décor.

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Near the chateau was the Grandmother Valley, where old buildings, some from the 16th century and others from the 19th century, stood among beautiful scenery. The Rudr Mill hails from the second half of the 16th century. It has two floors, and one room is decorated with folk-style furniture. There is an exposition about the processing of flax, too. The statue of the grandmother with her grandchildren was inspired by Barunka’s novel. A timbered pub from the second half of the 16th century impressed me, too. I also saw a timbered cottage covered with shingles. It was built in 1797. I liked the folk-style furniture inside. Finally, I reached Viktoria’s Weir, originally made of wood but redone in concrete during the 1920s. The valley was tranquil and idyllic. I walked at a leisurely pace on that windy day, enjoying the landscape.

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The Winter Kitchen in the house where Božena Němcová once lived in Červený Kostelec

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The house in Červený Kostelec

 

We visited the small house where Barunka had lived with Josef for six months, shortly after their wedding, when she was only 17 years old. In the small town of Červený Kostelec, she had written the book Poor People and had posed for her first portrait. She had also become pregnant with her first child, Hyněk. The three rooms on display included the Winter Kitchen, where the landlady sometimes cooked for Barunka and her husband. Barunka did not cook. The couple often ate at a nearby pub. Across from the house was an orange church, an interesting structure, but we could only peek inside, barred from entering by an iron grille.

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The house in Červený Kostelec

Then we came to Barunka’s Lookout Point commemorating the region where the well-known writer grew up. The views of the countryside are spectacular. It was a wonderful way to end our trip.

When we got back to Prague, I felt enlightened and invigorated. I had learned a lot about Božena Němcová and the region of her happy childhood. The chateau interested me the most, but everything was intriguing. I thought of how she had been physically abused and how she had to return to her husband in the end, and I became sad. What a life she had lived and what magical books she had produced!

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

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The Kladsko Borderland from the lookout point

Dance of Death Paintings at Kuks Diary

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NOTE: See my Kuks Diary for more information on Kuks hospital.

I visited the former Baroque hospital Kuks for the third time last year, soon after reconstruction. In the early 18th century, a spa had been situated across from the hospital, but it was destroyed by a flood in 1740. At Kuks visitors can admire 24 Late Baroque statues of vices and virtues by master sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun, a Baroque pharmacy, a pharmaceutical museum, a lapidarium, a chapel, a church and a crypt. Lining one hallways are 50 Dance of Death paintings that were beautifully restored during the recent reconstruction.

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The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre genre in art was revived during the Baroque age and not only at Kuks. It began during the Late Middle Ages in 15th century France. The artistic renderings show death personified summoning people from all walks of life to dance. No one – neither kings nor beggars – could escape death. During medieval days the plague had ravaged Europe, and this was one artistic way to try to come to terms with so many deaths riddling the continent. Dances of death also played roles in religious plays presented in churches. People looking at these paintings during the hospital’s Baroque heyday were supposed to dwell on the fragility of life. Thus, the Dance of Death emphasized a certain mentality, a specific outlook on both life and death.

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

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