The First Republic Art Exhibition Diary

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Josef Čapek, The Sailor

A long-term temporary exhibition, the First Republic art exhibition in Prague’s Trade Fair Palace showcases mostly Czechoslovak paintings and sculpture from 1918 to 1938, when Czechoslovakia was a democratic state under the guidance of President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, and Masaryk, who had been living in exile, was welcomed back into the Czech lands with much celebration and fanfare. The Munich Agreement, signed in September of 1938, proved a dark and dismal event in Czechoslovakia’s history, as the country ceded its German-minority Sudetenland to Hitler’s Third Reich. On March 15, 1939, the Nazis would march into Prague, and Hitler would set up the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, starting a horrific chapter in Czech and Central European history.

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Josef Čapek

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Myslbek

The exhibition examines the flourishing of art in the various cultural centers of Czechoslovakia, first and foremost in Prague but also in Brno, the capital of Moravia. In Slovakia the cultural hubs were located in Bratislava and eastern Košice. Zarkarpattia was a section of Czechoslovakia from 1920 to 1938, and its city of Užhorod was the setting of some intriguing exhibitions. The exhibition not only features Czech art but also Czech-German production and Slovak artistic endeavors.

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Antonín Slavíček, House in Kameničky, 1904

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Adolf Hoffmeister, Bridge, 1922

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Bohumil Kubišta, Quarry in Braník, 1910-11

Some of the Czech and Slovak artists whose works shine in the exhibition are Antonin Slavíček, Max Švabinský, Josef Čapek, Václav Špála, Jan Zrzavý, Jan Preisler, Ľudovít Fulla, Martin Benka, Bohumil Kubišta and Josef Šíma as well as Toyen and Jindřich Štyrský. The German and Austrian artists represented include August Bromse, Max Pechstein and Oskar Kokoschka, a favorite of mine.

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin, Paul Cezanne, House in Aix, 1885-87

French art from the 19th and 20th century is also on display as the Mánes Association in Prague held an important exhibition of French art at the Municipal House during 1923. The dynamic renditions of Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin, Rodin, Rousseau and others are in the limelight, too. The paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso explore Cubist tendencies.

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Vincent Van Gogh, Green Wheat Field, 1889

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Henri Rousseau, Self-Portrait – Me. Portrait – Landscape, 1890

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Paul Cezanne

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Georges Seurat, Harbor in Honfleur, 1886

I was particularly impressed by the works of a Czech artistic group called the Obstinates, established at the Municipal House. It included artists who spent World War I in Prague. I liked to eat chicken with potatoes at the Art Nouveau Municipal House, and I sometimes would imagine what it had been like for those artists to discuss their ideas and theories of art there. Three of my favorite Czech painters belonged to this group of avant-garde art that had traits of Cubism and Expressionism: Josef Čapek, Špála and Zrzavý. The Municipal House at that time was one of the most prominent exhibition spaces. It still houses art exhibitions and nowadays also includes a concert hall.

On right: Jan Zrzavý, Lady in the Loge, 1918

I also tried to imagine the avant-garde Devětsil group having its first exhibition during 1922 at the Union of Fine Arts in the Rudolfinum, now the main concert house for the Czech Philharmonic. I have attended many concerts there, even seeing my favorite violinist Joshua Bell on its stage twice. I wondered what it had been like to see the works of Karel Teige, Adolf Hoffmeister and Štyrský in that majestic building during 1922 and 1923.

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Jindřich Štyrský, The Puppeteer, 1921

My favorite painting in the exhibition was called “Woman with a Cat” by František Zdeněk Eberl. I am a cat fanatic, and the woman in the painting is holding her cat on her shoulder so lovingly. You can sense that the cat is an important part of her family just as my Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová is for me. (My cat is named after President Masaryk’s wife, the First Republic’s First Lady of Czechoslovakia.)

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František Zdeněk Eberl, Woman with a Cat, around 1929

The exhibition also highlighted the importance of the Mánes Association of Fine Artists, which had been established by Prague students in 1887. It had many functions, organizing exhibitions and lectures as well as editing magazines, for instance.

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Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Village Square, 1920

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Václav Špála

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Vincenc Beneš, Behind the Mill in Písek, 1928

There were African art relics in the exhibition as well. I thought of Josef Čapek, who had been greatly influenced by African art. The exhibition informed museumgoers that Emil Filla’s paintings had been on display with African art at the Mánes in 1935. Filla had a strong interest in non-European art and was an avid supporter of the surrealist trends in Czechoslovakia.

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Another significant exhibition space during that era was the Dr. Feigl Gallery. Hugo Feigl made quite a name for himself as a private gallery owner. The exhibitions he put together did not only display Czech art but also highlighted Czech-German, Jewish and artists from around the world. He did not only organize exhibitions at his own gallery. One art show that interested me was Feigl’s exhibition of German and Austrian artists who had come to Prague as refugees, fleeing Hitler as the dictator amassed more and more power. Oskar Kokoschka, one of my favorite painters, was a refugee who had made his home in Prague. I loved his view of the Charles Bridge and his view of Prague on display. They captured the magical spell of Prague using avant-garde techniques.

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – View from Kramář’s Villa, 1934-35

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Oskar Kokoschka, Prague – Charles Bridge, 1934

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August Bromse, Descent from the Cross, before 1922

In 1937, Feigl even organized a daring exhibition of German Expressionist works from a German collection of which the Nazis were by no means fans. This exhibition encouraged people to protest against an exhibition in Munich, one that glorified the Nazi regime with its display of Nazi-approved art.

Václav Špála, By the River – Vltava near Červená, 1927, sculpture by Otto Gutfreund

I was also enthralled by the exhibitions that had taken place in Brno, Zlín and Bratislava. I had poignant memories of all three places. I had helped out at the first international theatre festival organized by the Theatre on a String in Brno many years ago. People in Brno had been so friendly, and my Czech really improved thanks to my time spent there. I had also visited some villas in Brno and knew the city’s sights well.

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Max Švabinský, In the Land of Peace, 1922

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Otto Gutfreund, Business, 1923

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I had spent several days of one vacation in Zlín, where I had toured the fascinating Báťa shoe museum, which probably featured every kind of shoe imaginable. More than a decade ago, I had visited Bratislava once a month to help take care of my favorite Slovak writer’s grave. I had also visited the Slovak National Theatre, learning Slovak in part thanks to its performances. I loved the Slovak language and felt at peace hearing people around me speak it. I also felt this way when I heard Czech. I especially liked the works of Slovak painter Ľudovít Fulla. His use of bright colors, in his work “Balloons” for example, gave his paintings a dynamism and vitality that was unforgettable.

On right: Ľudovít Fulla, Balloons, 1930

Košice and Užhorod were featured as artistic centers, too. I had spent a lot of time in Košice during my travels to Slovakia as some of my ancestors had been from that region, and I had also used Košice as a starting point to visit other places in east Slovakia, such as Humenné and the Vihorlat. I had never been to Užhorod, which Czechoslovakia had begun to modernize during the early days of the country’s existence. I was surprised that architect Josef Gočár had designed some functionalist buildings there. I often walked by some of Gočár’s architectural achievements in the Baba quarter of functionalist individual family homes.

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Anton Jaszusch, Landscape, 1920-24

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Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Goblet, 1922

The exhibition also informed me that between 1933 and 1938, about 10,000 refugees from Germany and Austria had officially made their way to Czechoslovakia while the number of unofficial refugees was about the same. Many significant artists came to Czechoslovakia to flee Hitler’s hold on Germany and Austria.

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Caricature of Hitler, John Heartfield, Adolf the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk, 1932

I was surprised to discover that as early as 1934 an exhibition of caricatures and humor protested Hitler’s ascent to power. It took place at the Mánes Association of Fine Artists. The caricatures were not limited to Hitler and even included some of the “good guys.” For instance, artists also poked fun at Masaryk. I was very moved by Josef Čapek’s versions of the painting “Fire,” showing a person unable to escape the dancing flames, artworks providing a stark warning about the danger of Hitler’s ideology and reign. The caricature of Hitler was chilling. Hitler’s head was perched atop a chest x-ray. His spine was made up of coins. His heart was shaped like a swastika.

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A sculpture commenting on the Munich Agreement of 1938

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Josef Čapek, Fire, 1938

The exhibition ended with those works commenting Hitler’s control of the region, specifically on the Munich Agreement of 1938. While those paintings and the sculpture profoundly affected me, I preferred to concentrate on the avant-garde creations that had been featured in an artistically flourishing democratic Czechoslovakia, when artists boldly experimented with their artistic visions, during an era that I had always wanted to visit if I could go back in time. I would have loved to experience the atmosphere of the country when democracy was fresh, the state new and full of promise. Little did anyone know at its inception that the First Republic would not last long and that such a chilling chapter would follow.

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

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Furniture set from First Republic, Jan Vaněk

Stiassni Villa Diary

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I had heard that the Stiassni Villa in Brno had been open to the public since the end of 2014, but I did not have time to go there in 2015. When the Czech UNISMA travel agency offered a tour of the Stiassni and Löw-Beer villas in the Moravian capital, I immediately signed up. A prime example of modern functionalist architecture in the Czech lands, the Stiassni Villa had been under reconstruction from 2012 to 2014. During Communism renovations had taken place as well –during that time period furniture from various chateaus had been added to the interior. Still, the villa had original furniture, too.

I was entranced with the section of Brno where the architectural gem was located – in the villa-sprinkled Masaryk Quarter, a section that looked tranquil, so different from the hustle and bustle of the city center. It reminded me of the Hanspaulka section of Prague, where I enjoyed taking long walks along villa-flanked streets.

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I am not a big fan of the functionalist style, but the exterior was intriguing. Its spartan appearance reminded me a bit of the exteriors of Prague’s Müller Villa and Rothmayer Villa. Shaped like the letter L, the Stiassni Villa was designed by architect Ernst Wiesner, who made quite a name for himself in Brno during the interwar years. His work was influenced by Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who designed the Müller Villa in Prague. Wiesner created the plans for other buildings in Brno as well, such as the Moravia Palace and crematorium. Wiesner fled to Great Britain in 1939, the year the Nazis took over. The villa was completed in 1929 for textile entrepreneur Alfred Stiassni and his family – his wife Hermine and his daughter Susanne. The structure features rectangular windows and a massive cassette cornice, for example.

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The Stiassni’s tenure at the villa only lasted nine years. Because they were Jewish, the family fled Czechoslovakia in 1938, when they traveled to London and then continued to Brazil. Alfred Stiassni’s mother decided not to leave her homeland due to her age. She died at the Terezín concentration camp in central Bohemia during 1942, when she was 87 years old. The villa was taken over by the Nazis during World War II. During 1945, the Stiassnis obtained US citizenship. That same year Russian soldiers liberating the city would destroy furnishings in the villa. It was in good shape again when Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš stayed there later that year, on his first visit to Brno after the war. He and his wife would reside in the villa again the following year during another trip to the Moravian capital.

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Paintings of the owners of the villa, Alfred and Hermine Stiassni. The paintings are not part of the original furnishings.

From 1952 the villa was the property of the Regional National Committee and was used as accommodation for VIP guests, such as Fidel Castro. In 1961 Alfred Stiassni died in Beverly Hills, California. His wife passed away the following year. In 1964 leading Soviet Union politician Nikita Khrushchev spent time at the villa. From 1990 to 2005, the place served as a four-star hotel. Famous guests included Rudy Giuliani and Bill Gates. In 2005 Susanne, who had married an American, died in Beverly Hills.

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Soon it was time for the tour to begin. In the Large Dining Room I admired the copy of a Baroque painting by 17th century Flemish Baroque painter Jacob Jordaens showing merry people drinking and laughing. I thought I could see the influences of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder in the work. The onyx fireplace also caught my attention. My eyes were drawn to an elegant vase as well.

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Another room featured watercolor paintings by Hermine and original chairs with grey upholstery. The pewter chandelier was also intriguing. An exquisite table had been originally in Bítov Castle, one of the largest and oldest castles in Moravia, a sight I had toured twice. I also admired a Baroque commode. The stucco decoration on the walls and ceiling was stunning. Then we visited some small rooms, and I especially liked the Empire space with side tables and a bed in that style. The bathroom was made of green marble. It had obtained its appearance during reconstruction in the 1980s. It is not known what the bathroom really looked like during the Stiassni’s tenure there.

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The first floor was even more intriguing. Behind Alfred’s vast closet with moveable drawers was a space for more than 10 pairs of shoes. I recalled how the drawers in the dressing rooms of the Müller Villa were also moveable. In the bathroom the detail on the faucets was superb.

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From Hermine’s bedroom it was possible to see the sloping English garden with hills and other greenery in the background. Other villas could also be seen in scenery that would have made a remarkable landscape painting. Mirrors covered Hermine’s closet in her dressing room. Her bathroom was green marble because the architects had no idea what it had looked like originally.

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The daughter Susanne had the nicest rooms. Her playroom featured a dressing room, a bathroom and the terrace. I liked the yellow color of the rooms. It was my mother’s favorite color, and it brought back memories of my time spent with her in the yellow-painted kitchen of my parents’ house. So many discussions about so many topics, so many smiles, so many problems resolved. Susanne’s governess also had a small room.

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The Small Dining Room, where the Stiassnis usually ate, was very modest with a small table set for three. The garden was another highlight of the villa. It was established in 1927 and included many foreign woody species. I noted its symmetrical design. Each section had been assigned a different use.

The Stiassnis were athletes. They took up swimming, skiing and skating, for example. There had been a swimming pool above the villa, and there still were tennis courts on the property.

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I had enjoyed my tour of the villa, which contained some intriguing furnishings and was architecturally enthralling. I appreciated the functionalist design even though it was not my favorite style. I could imagine the villa in the early 1930s, when the family was settled there, not aware that their time in the villa would be cut short by the Nazis’ rise to power. From there we headed to the Löw-Beer Villa, which had a stunning Secession façade but only one piece of original furniture. Facing the famous Tugendhat Villa, the Löw-Beer Villa is now used as an exhibition space.

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

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Mělník Chateau Diary

 

The Renaissance arcades of Mělník Chateau

The Renaissance arcades of Mělník Chateau

This was my second visit to Mělník Chateau, located less than an hour from Prague by bus. I was enthusiastic about getting reacquainted with the interior that I had so admired during my first time here. Back then, there had been no guided tours. Visitors were given a text to read while they walked through the chateau’s rooms. This time I would have a tour, so I was excited about seeing the chateau from a new perspective.
I knew a bit about the history of the chateau already, and what I did not remember I perused in a booklet that I had bought at the box office, which also served as the souvenir shop. Mělník’s history is closely connected with Czech legends. Supposedly, Princess Ludmila often resided in the town while raising her grandson, Wenceslas (Václav), who would later become a well-respected duke of Bohemia and after his death the patron saint of the country. The original wooden structure was changed into a stone castle during the 10th century. Spouses of Bohemian princes owned the castle, which got a Gothic makeover in the second half of the 13th century.
The castle became home to Bohemian queens during Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV’s reign. Emperor Charles IV, who was responsible for building Prague’s New Town, the Charles Bridge and Charles University, supported winemaking in Mělník and the surrounding areas. He even imported burgundy grapes. Queen Elisabeth Přemyslid, the last wife of Emperor Charles IV, resided in the castle for a lengthy period and died there. She was responsible for building the chapel. The Přemyslid dynasty had ruled Bohemia from the 9th century to 1306.
The castle was given Late Gothic features in the late 15th century. During the following century, it was changed into a Renaissance chateau. The reconstruction was finished during the 17th century. While the castle became decrepit during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, it was soon repaired.

 

One wall of Mělník Chateau

One wall of Mělník Chateau

Then, in 1753, one of the most significant events in the chateau’s history occurred. Marie Ludmila Countess Czernin wed August Anton Eusebius Lobkowicz. The castle would remain in the Lobkowicz family until 1948, when it was nationalized after the Communist coup that instigated 40 years of totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia.
I envied the fact that the Lobkowiczs had played such prominent roles in Czech history. In the early 15th century Nicolas was given the village of Lobkovice nad Labem by King Wenceslas IV, and he took the name of the village. George Popel Lobkowicz of Vysoký Chlumec held the post of the highest chamberlain of Emperor Rudolph II. Zdeněk Vojtěch became the highest chancellor of the Bohemian Kingdom. His son, Wenceslas Eusebius, served as the highest chamberlain in the kingdom and as president of the secret services during the 17th century.
In the following century John George Christian was made a prince due to his military achievements. Anton Isidor was one of the founders of what is now Prague’s National Gallery. George Christian served as supreme marshal of the Bohemian Kingdom and was a member of the Bohemian Parliament during the 19th century.
But there would be dark, turbulent times for the Lobkowicz clan. During World War II the Nazis took over the chateau. The family took refuge in Prague. Then came 1948 and the Communist coup. The Lobkowiczs fled the country, and the chateau was put in the hands of the state. The present owner of the chateau, George John Prince Lobkowicz, moved to the homeland of his ancestors from Switzerland in 1990. He has been owner of the chateau since 1992 and currently resides there.
I also envied the fact that the Lobkowiczs could trace their ancestry so far back. I knew that my Slovak ancestors had been potato farmers in east Slovakia. I even met a few very distant relatives about 10 years ago, but, unfortunately, they do not keep in touch with me anymore. On the Czech side of the family, I know that my great-grandparents were from somewhere near Prague or from Prague itself. They had a common surname – Šimánek. I also know that I had ancestors from somewhere in Moravia, with the popular Czech surname Mareš.
I moved to Czechoslovakia in 1991 partially because I felt a strong association with the country of my roots and intuitively felt that it was a part of my personal identity. If only I knew more about my ancestors, and if only they had played such prominent roles in Czech history as had the Lobkowiczs! Yet, at the same time, I was not sure that I wanted to know more about my ancestors. I had visited the village in east Slovakia where my great aunt had come from, and I was going to look for an inhabitant with the same – not common – last name as my great aunt’s maiden name. But I decided not to because I was scared. While I wanted to meet long lost relatives, I was also scared of finding them. Scared they might not like me or that I might not like them. What if they had been Communists? What if they were mean people? What if they hated Americans or wanted money from me because they thought all Americans were rich?

 

The elegant Renaissance arcades

The elegant Renaissance arcades

I studied the impressive exterior of the chateau. I loved the elegance of the Renaissance arcades with decorations on the walls. A sundial also adorned the façade. There was sgraffito, too, which I adored. The other wing was built later, in the 17th century, in Baroque style. After admiring the Renaissance arcades for a while, I noticed that it was time for the tour to start and I entered the souvenir shop, ready for what I was sure would be an impressive walk through the ages of Mělník’s top sight.
The guide, a serious and well-dressed woman, described some of the background of the chateau and Lobkowicz family, and it was clear that she was very professional and knowledgeable. The first room was called the Bedroom of George Christian, named after a Lobkowicz who died tragically at the age of 25 in a racing car accident in 1932. I was reminded how we have to treasure each moment in our lives and see the beauty in daily life because we never knew when our time will be up.
I was captivated by a Baroque closet flaunting intarsia. The painted decoration high on the walls showed plant leaves with vases in green and brown. The colors seemed to go well with the 17th century Baroque furniture. On the headboard of the Baroque bed was a painting of a Madonna that appealed to me. I also took note of the richly carved wood of the bed. Portraits of the Lobkowicz family adorned the room, too, and one of the paintings had been executed by master Czech Baroque artist Karel Škréta.
August Longin’s Study was named after a Lobkowicz who had befriended Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a visitor of Mělník. The room featured two exquisite French desks – one hailing from the 17th century and the other from the 18th century. The older one was inlaid with tortoiseshell, plated brass and tin in ebony wood, made in the Boulle style. The 18th century desk, celebrating the Rococo style, was made of gilded bronze and plated brass. I particularly admired the gold decoration on the younger desk, the one that had been stolen during the totalitarian era. It had wound up in an office at the Ministry of Culture.
However, that was not all the room had to offer. An 18th century table with mother-of-pearl hailed from Japan and had designs of fans on its top. There was also a portable 18th century toilet near the room. Small portraits of Habsburg rulers hung on one wall. I spotted Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and Empress Maria Theresa right away.

 

The sundial on the facade

The sundial on the facade

The next room was the Children’s Room with toys from the 19th century, including dolls and a puzzle. Porcelain in a cabinet hailed from Hungary. The 18th century bed in the room was short, but it was standard size for adults at that time. People slept sitting up because they were afraid they would die if they lay down. I admired the rich, wooden carving of the bed and the Madonna on the headboard.
The Big Dining Room featured two Baroque bureaus from the 17th century. They were inlaid with tortoiseshell and adorned with gilded decorations. Some of the pictures painted on them focused on seascapes with ships. The chairs were upholstered with tapestries. The guide pointed out two valuable 17th century lunettes by Škréta; they were part of the story of the life and death of Saint Wenceslas, who, according to legend, had resided in Mělník when he was a child. Other breathtaking paintings rounded out the room’s décor.
The Grand Drawing Room featured 18th century furniture. I noticed two 18th century Rococo tables with gilded brass angels decorating the legs. Portraits of the prominent politician George Christian and his wife Anna were rendered by Czech painter František Ženíšek, who had also decorated the National Theatre. More astounding works of art adorned the walls, some portraits of the Lobkowicz family, others biblical paintings and still others sporting themes from antiquity. I spotted Helen of Troy in one rendition.
I was drawn to the white furniture and pale green walls. It looked airy and light and exuded an atmosphere filled with joy. Chinese and faience porcelain as well as ceramic vases from Asia made up the room, too.

 

Another view of the sundial

Another view of the sundial

The hallway was adorned with a bust of Parliament member George Christian. It had been created by Josef Václav Myslbek, a master of modern sculpture working in the 19th and early 20th century. Engravings featuring carriages decorated one wall, too. I was drawn to other works of art – the pictures of romantic 18th century Prague, especially to Old Town Square, my favorite part of the capital city. I remember the first time I stepped onto Old Town Square. I felt an unexpected electricity, a strong connection with the city and country. I was only a tourist at the time, but at that moment I knew I had to return to live in the homeland of my ancestors.
Perhaps the most astounding room was the Big Hall with Maps and Vedutas that came next. The maps and vedutas hailed from the 17th century. I noticed maps of Italy, France and the Netherlands. Then there were all the big vedutas of European towns on the walls. It was so breathtaking that it was almost overwhelming. The veduta of Prague featured only one bridge, the Charles Bridge, without any statuary decoration. Strasbourg, Nuremburg, Regensburg, Venice, Florence, Seville, Madrid and Brussels were just a few of the other cities represented. The detail of the maps and vedutas was more than impressive. Most of them were made in Amsterdam.
Perhaps I was so drawn to this room because I loved maps so much. I used to buy maps of Czech towns I had never been to and wondered what each building and each street looked like as I took a an imaginary walk through the town. Two large maps decorated my living room – one of the Czech Republic and another of Slovakia, as I treasured memories of Czechoslovakia. I often traced the routes from Prague to various chateaus and impressive towns and thought about my adventures there.
On the map of Slovakia I found Špišský Castle, below which some very distant ancestors were buried, and traced paths to Poprad, Kežmarok and Bratislava. I found Morské Oko in the Vihorlat, near my great aunt’s home village, and traced the path to Košice and Michalovice, where I had heard that some of my other ancestors had hailed from. I found more places I had visited – Humenné, Levoča and Trenčín, for example, and recalled moments of happiness and discovery.
Melnikchateauarcades5Back to the tour. The Knights’ Hall featured 16th century suits of armor on the walls. An 18th century oak table also caught my attention. In the Small Hall with Vedutas, various weapons from the 17th to 19th century were displayed. However, what really caught my attention where the black-and-white vedutas of European cities during the early 18th century. I was entranced by the vedutas of Prague and Brno. Some military equipment on display came from 17th century Turkey. I also admired the richly carved Chinese furniture. I have always been an admirer of wooden Chinese furniture.
The vast Concert Hall was still used for concerts, balls and other events. It was situated in the Baroque wing of the chateau, but the construction of this part had not been finished until 2005. There was an original 16th century wall with sgraffito decorations that delighted me. I’ve always been a big fan of sgraffito! The opposite wall was a copy made in this century, but, faithful to the original plan, it complemented the authentic side. I looked up and saw a painted coffered ceiling. Vedutas of Versailles and its park from the 17th century adorned another wall. Drawn to these works of art, I thought back to my visit to Versailles, during a warm February afternoon and how impressed I had been with the vast French chateau.
Then we went downstairs, passing by colored lithographs of Prague sights from 1792 and 1793. We wound up on the first floor in the lavish Grand Dining Room. Exquisite Baroque paintings adorned the walls. I loved the gold-and-white decoration on the pink-colored ceiling. The silverware hailed from the 18th century, and the guide pointed out Viennese porcelain as well as white Sèvres porcelain. The highlights of the room, though, were two paintings. One was another lunette from the cycle of Saint Wenceslas by Škréta. There was also a spectacular painting called “Christ with Veronica” by Paolo Veronese. It portrayed Christ on the cross with a self-portrait of the painter as the carrier of the cross.

 

The town hall on the main square

The town hall on the main square

The chapel was last. It hailed from the 14th century, built by Queen Elisabeth, the fourth wife of Emperor Charles IV, and was originally dedicated to Saint Louis. During the Thirty Years’ War, the chapel was so badly damaged that it had to be rebuilt, and this time it was consecrated to Saint Ludmila. A painting of Saint Ludmila’s baptism adorned the main altar. Impressive paintings dotted the chapel. Two portraits – of Saint Andrew and Saint Bartholomew – by my favorite Czech Baroque artist, Petr Brandl decorated the space. There was even a painting of an apostle, created by Peter Paul Rubens.
Then the tour ended, and I was thankful that I had been led through the chateau by such a professional guide who had given such detailed information about each room. I was very impressed with her knowledge and enthusiasm. I knew how disappointing tours could be if the guides were not good, though most of my experiences with tour guides in this country has been positive. It was much better to have a tour guide than to be given a text and walk through the chateau by yourself, I mused. The guide helped bring the chateau alive. Her words gave life to the chateau that had played roles in Czech history and legends.
I think it was possible to tour the wine cellars as well, but I do drink much alcohol and am not very interested in wine. However, there are three floors of historical wine cellars below the chateau: Emperor Charles IV had them built. The Lobkowiczs have a family tradition of presenting a new-born with a new wine barrel. The barrel would be filled a year before the young Lobkowicz turned 18. It was remarkable that wine had played such a prevalent role in the family history.
Winetasting tours were available, and if I had liked alcohol, I would have been enthusiastic about taking one of these trips to the cellars with original, wooden barrels.
Instead of sampling wine, I ate a delicious meal in the chateau’s restaurant, though they did not offer my beloved chicken with peaches and cheese. Still, I was pleased with the food and the service.

 

The picturesque houses on the main square

The picturesque houses on the main square

I walked around the town and noticed the impressive Renaissance and Baroque houses on the large main square, especially the town hall, which hailed from the late 14th century. Next to the chateau was the Gothic Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Unfortunately, it was closed, but the ossuary was open. I found out that the next tour of the ossuary would not start until after my bus left for Prague. What a pity. I knew I would have to come back someday, to tour the chateau again and to visit this ossuary that I had not known about before this trip.

 

The Gothic Church of Saints Peter and Paul

The Gothic Church of Saints Peter and Paul

Soon I walked through the decorated gate from 1500 and made my way to the bus station. I immediately caught a bus bound for Prague. When I disembarked at the Holešovice bus station in Prague 7, I was truly happy. I had had another positive experience at another impressive Czech chateau. My day had been filled with making new discoveries and gathering new perspectives on the Lobkowicz family history, the history of the chateau and my own personal history.

 

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

The gate dates back to 1500.

The gate dates back to 1500.

Rájec nad svitavou Diary

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The train trip from Brno to Rájec nad svitavou took about an hour. I chatted with four young women from Vancouver during the short ride. They got off at Blansko, heading toward the Punkva caves in the Moravian Karst region. I recalled waiting for that same bus during my exciting journey to the most beautiful caves in the region. Other astounding caves were accessible by bus from Blansko, too. By now I had seen all 14 Czech caves accessible to the public. Today I was enthusiastic about visiting Rájec again. Ten years ago I had been bewitched by the chateau’s interior. I expected to be enamored again.

I found my way from the train station in Jestřebí to the chateau in Rájec without getting lost, for a change. One glance at the rectangular courtyard decorated with blossoming orange flowers, and I recalled my thrilling visit all those years ago. I saw flashbacks of the big library, Hall of Ancestors and the Big Dining Room. Then I gazed straight ahead at the three-winged, elegant building, its entranceway sporting a balcony passage. The chateau was crowned by a high mansard roof. A dormer window and a clock tour made up other significant architectural features. To my left was the chateau’s chapel.

I was psyched by the time I entered the box office. I introduced myself and told the dark-haired, frowning woman manning the computer that I was a journalist writing about the chateau, that I had set up a 90-minute tour by email and that I had sent a confirmation a few days earlier.

Her belligerent response caught me totally off-guard. “I don’t care if you are a journalist. You have to wait until there are 10 people interested in a tour before you can see our chateau,” she screamed at me. There were circles under her eyes. I wondered if she had gotten enough sleep the previous night. This woman clearly had anger issues she was not dealing with. An older, smiling woman stood next to her, and a teenage boy in a scruffy T-shirt and jeans organized some pamphlets behind the belligerent brunette, ignoring her outburst as if it was nothing new to him.

“But I reserved a tour. I contacted you a month ago and sent you a confirmation on Saturday. I will be happy to wait up to an hour, but it is customary for journalists to get private tours if there is no one else interested in a tour at that time.” I spoke calmly, careful not to make the woman angrier.

“I never got any email from you.” Her tone was aggressive, vehement even, as her eyes bore into me. The boy kept his back to her, and the round-faced woman with short, grey hair kept smiling.

“If you did not get it, why did you answer it?”

“I did not get any email from you. I certainly did not get any confirmation,” She said, skirting the question.

“I sent you the confirmation on Saturday. It is Wednesday. Surely, you have received the email by now.”

“I will go look at our computer and call the caretaker, even though she is on vacation. Give me your email address.” I wrote it down for her, and she left the building. I gathered it was not possible to look it up on the computer in the box office.

Her calm, forever smiling colleague said that of course everything would be all right, and I would get a private tour if no one else was interested in seeing the chateau now. I found the email confirmation on my mobile phone and showed it to her. The teenager, who I assumed was a summer tour guide, answered the phone next to the cash register and announced, “She already found your email. Everything is okay.”

If everything was okay, why did it take the woman another 10 minutes to return?

ImageFinally, she stood behind the computer, which once again became the imposing physical barrier between us. The smiling woman left the room as the chateau leader in her forties announced, “I did not get any email from you. I called the caretaker, and she knows nothing about you.” I showed her the email confirmation that her colleague had seen. I noticed that her hair looked unwashed and uncombed. The young man was placing brochures in a drawer.

“I never got any email from you.”

“Then why did you answer the email I sent you a month ago and write me that you were looking forward to my visit?” I persisted.

“I do not even know what publication you are writing for.”

“You just read the name and link two seconds ago.”

The calm woman had returned and dared to speak up, stating that the guide should give me a tour, but the belligerent woman interrupted her, yelling, “We have decided you can spend 60 minutes in our chateau, but no more. You cannot spend all day with our tour guide.”

 “I requested the 90-minute tour, and I do not want to spend all day with your tour guide. I just want the 90-minute tour.”

“Sixty minutes. That’s all.” She said, her gaze threatening me to challenge her.

I set off with the young man, disappointed that I would only get a 60-minute tour. We were both silent until he opened the main entrance. “What do you want to take pictures of?”

“I never said I wanted to take any pictures. I said I wanted the 90-minute tour.”

“Oh, then that’s different. I have to go back and ask them if that is possible.”

About to give up and return to Brno, I waited another five minutes for the scruffy teenager. “If you want the 90-minute tour, you need to wait 10 more minutes.”

Why not? I had already waited 30 minutes. What did 10 more minutes matter? I felt as if I was a character in an absurd play.

At the designated time, a small group gathered around the entrance, and the guide introduced himself. There were seven people in our group. The woman had told me that there had to be at least 10 visitors for a tour to take place.

I knew I should be angry. No one had spoken to me so rudely for a long time. No administrator of any monument I had visited during my 21 years here had treated me so badly. I inferred that the people running Rájec did not make an effort to encourage tourists to visit their chateau and did not care what impression they made on journalists. The entire experience was so Kafkaesque, so typical for this country.

I recalled other Kafkaesque experiences, such as when I had to go to customs in Prague to pay tax on a package my mother had sent me. She had written that the cat litter box liners cost 11 USD, and the customs officer was convinced it read 1,100.00 USD. While I was able to persuade her it was not that expensive, she still made me pay tax. Each time it became my turn at the five customs counters, the officers on duty went on coffee breaks.

I tried to concentrate on the tour. First, the guide gave some insight into the history of the chateau. The community of Rájec was established during or before the 12th century while a stronghold was situated at the settlement probably from the 13th century, though it had not been on the site of the current chateau. The seat of the Lords of Rájec was destroyed twice – during the 14th century and again during the Hussite wars of the 15th century. 

The most significant clan to own the chateau was the Salm-Reifferscheidts, who obtained it in 1763. They would remain the owners until 1945. This chateau was built in 1769. The member of the family who would most influence the chateau was Count Hugo František Salm-Reifferscheidt, who became the owner in 1811 and was responsible for furnishing the interior. He expanded the library and the chateau gallery. However, dark days came to Rájec when the Nazis took control of the chateau during World War II – the reason why the state confiscated the building in 1945 under the so-called Beneš’ decrees. Now the chateau mostly flaunts the style of 19th century Romanticism.

ImageThe tour began. The Neo-Renaissance Dining Room featured a carved cassette ceiling supported by two Corinthian columns. I marveled at the colorful handsewn tablecloth sporting 126 coats-of-arms. The colorfully upholstered chairs also lent a certain charm and energy to the room. A closet from 1667 featured rich woodcarving.

After passing by impressive Oriental vases – there were a lot of them at this chateau -, we came to the Corner Room, which displayed the prince’s crown trimmed in white fur above a blood red color. It was given to the Salms on the coronation day of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II during October of 1790. The guide showed us the bronze door knocker featuring the god Neptune. This was the only furnishing in the chateau that hailed from its Renaissance days.

The Engravings Cabinet enthralled me. The wooden wall panels were decorated with engravings inspired by works of prominent artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens. Each wall showed off engravings with a different theme. I was especially drawn to the works dealing with life in the Vatican, though the ones focusing on French rulers also grabbed my attention. I was especially impressed with the 18th century Holland Baroque furniture with floral and plant motifs. I recalled admiring this style in the Český Šternberk Castle not far from Prague.

The stunning Hall of Ancestors contained 40 portraits of former owners and their families. I knew that each portrait told the story of a life, of dreams that did or did not come true, of love, of troubles and of pain. As I gazed around me at the portraits, I wondered what each person’s story was. I also noted the blue and white Meissen porcelain decorating the room. A jewel chest and two tables glittered gold.

The octagonal Ceremonial Hall featured Classicist illusive wall painting that covered the 18th century Rococo frescoes with mythological themes. I wondered what exactly the frescoes had looked like. A chandelier gave the illusion that it was gold.

The Rájec library, covering three rooms, contained 60,000 volumes, making it the largest chateau library in Moravia. Its possessions included medieval manuscripts pertaining to black magic. It dated back to the 1770s and was adorned in Empire style. What really caught my attention were the three standing skeletons in the second room. Two skeletons had one arm on each of their skulls. I wondered if they were scratching their skulls because they were puzzled by the box office brunette’s behavior.  The other skeleton was headless.

ImageNext we ascended to the first floor. The blue and white Meissen porcelain in the Dining Room was exquisite, and in the Big Hall I admired the detailed woodcarving on the gramophone from World War I. In a bedroom there were two intriguing maps – one showed Central Europe in the 1830s while the other was an administrative map of the Czech lands, delineating the different districts, from 1720. I was disappointed we did not get more time to peruse the maps.

In the study three African shields entranced me. On a desk from the 1830s there was a model of a hand that could be used as a paperweight. The Oriental Antechamber included a 17th century jewel chest with Chinese landscapes painted in detail on the drawers. In another bedroom I saw a tapestry decorated with 120 coats-of-arms and some seascapes with raging waves.

Last we visited the chapel, in another building. The Empire style painting of the Virgin Mary was the only intriguing piece inside. Otherwise, it was barren and depressing.

I took a short stroll through the English park, established in 1767, with ponds and a waterfall. I was still puzzled by the anger the woman had unleashed at me as I walked on a narrow path, thick with trees. I pondered on how all my life I had always taken the path less traveled by, the path to adventure, the path that would lead me to get to know myself better as a person. Growing up I had played baseball and ice hockey with boys, for instance.

At a university in America shortly after the Velvet Revolution, I had become enamored by Czechoslovak theatre and the life and works of playwright-turned-president Václav Havel. After graduation I moved to Czechoslovakia, with a modest job teaching English, not knowing the language and not knowing anyone in the country. So much had changed since then. I was not even the same person anymore.

Then I wondered if my memory of this chateau would forever be associated with the rude remarks of that nasty woman at the box office and the Kafkaesque absurdity associated with it. Most probably it would, unfortunately. I remembered reading one travel blogger’s post about how unfriendly and cold Czechs had been to her in Prague. She ended the article by stating she would never return to the Czech Republic. I hoped that someday I would return here, have a positive experience and be full of the enthusiasm I had felt when I first visited this chateau some years ago.

I noticed dark clouds hovering in the sky and glanced at my watch. It was time to head back to the train station.

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

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Lysice Chateau Diary

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When I first set my eyes on Lysice’s chateau and garden 10 years ago, I knew that someday I would be back. The two exceptional tours and extensive park enhanced by colonnades had captivated me.  I was certain that this chateau was one of the most underrated sights in the Czech Republic.

It had been a short bus ride from Brno, and the bus stop was near the chateau. As usual, I had written to administrators at the chateau, informing them that I would be arriving at 9 am on this Wednesday to take the tours and write about them. The woman at the box office greeted me warmly, and soon I was starting the first tour, guided by an enthusiastic, young man with a contagious smile.

ImageThe guide filled me in on the history of the chateau and its owners. Its history may go back as far as the 13th century, and there was a fortress at Lysice in the 15th century. It became an early Renaissance water fortress in the 16th century. At the end of that century, the country house there had been transformed into a castle with arcades in the courtyard and a terraced park.  Baroque changes had occurred in the 18th century. At this time a grotto had been created in the park along with allegorical figures representing the months of the year.

ImageWhen Antonia Piattis married into the Dubský  family, the Dubský dynasty at Lysice had begun. They owned the chateau from 1807 to 1945, when it was taken away due to the so-called Beneš decrees because the family had had Austrian citizenship during World War II. Count Emanuel Dubský was a significant member of the clan and made a name for himself in industry. His wife Matylda of Žerotín established the first children’s hospital in Moravia. It still exists today. Tragedy marked their lives as three of their sons were killed in military action, and another was murdered. Yet another died at the age of 45. Only Ervin, the second eldest, remained. He had distinguished himself as a Vice Admiral of the Austrian Navy. Ervin had also traveled all over the world. Many exhibits at the chateau came from his travels.

ImageThe interior of the chateau underwent much reconstruction in the 19th century under Emanuel’s guidance. In the 1830s the elegant colonnade was built in the park. Disaster struck at the beginning of the 20th century when, in 1902, the chateau theatre burned down. It was never rebuilt. After the chateau was confiscated by the state in 1945, much reconstruction took place. It became a national monument in 2001.

Now it was time for the tour to begin. First, we came to the Baroness Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s library, named after the prominent Austrian author who was related to the Dubský clan. She had been known for her psychological novels and was considered one of the most significant German-language writers of the late 19th century. The space established during the 1860s now housed many manuscripts of plays that had been performed at the chateau’s former theatre. There were impressive busts of artists on one wall. Those representing William Shakespeare, Alighieri Dante and Friedrich Schiller caught my attention immediately. The richly carved wood paneling of the veined bookshelves hid the 7,000 volumes in this Pseudo-Renaissance style room. I looked up at the ceiling, dizzy with delight. The carved cassette type ceiling was stunning, inlaid with silver and gold.

ImageThe Grand Dining Room flaunted Second Rococo style, and I was drawn to the wooden, gilt chandelier that could hold 30 candles. The guide instructed me to look down, too. The parquet floor was deeply inlaid with the intarsia woodworking technique that involved fitting together wood pieces to give a mosaic appearance and an illusion of depth. The Small Dining Room was Classicist in style with two exquisite, white marble tables.  Bohemian glassware and plates made of aragonite from Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and Belgian marble stood out in the room. The Meissen candlestick that could hold four candles was an exquisite pink and white color combination.

ImageThe Grand Representative Parlor featured illusive stucco painting on the ceiling. Japanese and Chinese colorful vases in the space were souvenirs from Ervin Dubský’s travels. The Neo-Gothic chapel hailed from the 1870s, but the Baroque altar featuring the Virgin Mary and Jesus was from the beginning of the 17th century. A richly carved rendition of the Holy Trinity caught my attention. The portable Baroque organ weighed 100 kilograms.

The highlight of the Ladies’ Parlor for me was the large Meissen porcelain clock, featuring flowers that represented nature and dating from the second half of the 19th century. It represented human life and the transience of time. Gazing at the clock reminded me of how I had changed as a person since I had moved to Prague in 1991, when I had been much more extroverted and had taken more chances. Sometimes I wanted to go back to that time, when everything in what was then Czechoslovakia was new and fresh. Other times I was glad I was wiser and no longer naive.

ImageI was also I was captivated by the copy of the Black Madonna of Saint Tome above the Baroque bed. Ervin Dubský had installed a ship telephone that one blew into. The Girls’ Room was dominated by stunning lithographic prints of Vienna and its surroundings. It soothed me to see pictures of Vienna. I felt comfortable there and always enjoyed my visits to the Austrian capital that reminded me a bit of Prague. I was intrigued by a doll of a nun on a shelf. I had read that dolls dressed as nuns were often devotional and given to young girls to try to convince them to take the veil when they grew up.

ImageThe highlight of the first tour was the Oriental Salon with its treasures from Turkey, Japan and China and other places. Four small Turkish tables were inlaid with pearls. I also saw Islamic prayer rugs plus Chinese and Japanese vases. Part of the display emphasized Japan. Imari porcelain was bright blue and orange, a pleasing color combination, I mused. A partition decorated with motifs of flowers and plants was made of silk on silk.

The Samurai armor intrigued me. I knew that armor plates were attached to cloth or leather and that it was considered to be lightweight. It looked like the armor had hand-woven, colorful cloth padding protecting its front and sides. The bright colors made it vibrant. A Chinese chandelier was exquisite, showing off painted scenes of everyday life in a home. What really grabbed my attention were the four black-and-white paintings by an unknown Chinese artist. The figures had such grotesque features and reminded me of commedia dell’arte characters.

We stepped onto the first floor outer hallway, from which I had a stunning view of the courtyard with its arcades below. I noticed the coats-of-arms decorating the walls facing the courtyard. We walked by frescoes celebrating hunting themes. Next on the itinerary was the armory, featuring a collection of weapons dating from the late Gothic era to World War I.  One sword was made of sawfish bone.  It was interesting that the execution swords had blunt points. There were also swords that had been used by the Swedish Guard in the Vatican. The oldest sword in the collection hailed from the 14th century and had been found near Lysice.

ImageThe Ervin Dubský Secession style library, the biggest space in the chateau, was impressive. Even though it was larger than the other library, it contained fewer books with 5,000 volumes, mostly concerned with military and nautical themes. I hovered over the miniature portraits in frames. Sailors had taken them on their journeys to remind them of the loved ones they had left behind. I was sure that behind each portrait there was an exciting story, perhaps for a short story or even a novel. Inspired by his navy days, Dubský had the cassette style ceiling built to look like a ceiling on a boat. Ervin had been not only a traveler but a painter as well. In the room Dubský had depicted himself on canvas as a wise man from the Renaissance period.

The second tour, covering the second floor, was next. The Hall Staircase had once been the theatre, the former home of the largest costume collection in Central Europe. I wondered what that theatre had looked like before it had burned down. On one wall I spotted an Oriental raincoat made of bamboo, something I had never seen before.

ImageThen we entered the private apartments.  I noted the low ceiling, which gave the spaces a more intimate feel. The Biedermeier furniture, which was the rage from 1815 to 1848, was exquisite. The style emphasized simplicity and elegance with minimal decoration. In the Count’s Parlor I was intrigued by a quill shaped as a green and white snail. The 19th century games in a display case included a wooden card shuffler. There was also a drawing of Pernštejn Castle, one of my all-time favorites, which I had visited last year.

I was drawn to the painting of Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican in the Gentlemen’s Social Parlor. Women had been banned from this room. I recalled spending my fortieth birthday touring the Vatican and Saint Peter’s. I remembered walking to Saint Peter’s on that wintry morning around 7:30 am, watching the sun come up. The sunrise had looked so romantic, yet I had been alone.

ImageThe Small Shooting Gallery contained 13 hand-painted shooting targets, the oldest ones hailing from the 18th century. One target had a butterfly in the middle, others were decorated with crowns and still others showed off landscape scenes. The Reception Room was another space featuring Biedermeier decor. I loved the paintings showing Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife, fondly called Sisi, at the celebration of their Golden Wedding anniversary. 

ImageIn the next room the guide drew my attention to a June 1906 issue of Simplicissimus magazine and showed me an advertisement for an operation to make ears smaller. I was surprised that such surgery had existed so early in the 20th century. The Tapestry Salon featured tan furniture with a pink and green floral motif. The room got its name from the tapestries used to upholster the furnishings that had even been used in the shooting of Miloš Forman’s legendary film, Amadeus. The furnishing had been transported to Barrandov studios in Prague for the filming.

The last room was the Big Shooting Gallery, where there were 40 targets along with figures. Most of the inscriptions were German or Latin rhymes or proverbs. Only one target had Czech writing on it. I noticed that on a figural target of a scantily dressed woman there was a bullet hole through her left nipple.

I had been totally enthralled during these tours. The guide said that many foreigners have visited the chateau, but very few of them were Americans. I thought it was such a shame that Americans did not take the time to come to such an amazing chateau. I would recommend that Americans stay a week or five days in Brno and take day trips to various castles, chateaus and caves. I was also glad that my tour guide had been so enthusiastic, interesting, energetic and proud of the chateau.

ImageThen it was time to see the terraced park that I had fallen in love with during my last visit. It had been drizzling earlier, but it was no longer raining. Since there were no guided tours at this time, I walked around by myself, dazzled by the flowers, colonnades and bridge that offered excellent views of the park and gardens. On the lower terrace I saw a romantic so-called kitchen garden, based on geometric patterns and hailing from the 19th century. I loved the sunflowers and pink roses, though in late August some were wilting. A pond was decorated with allegorical sculptures of America, Asia and Europe.

In the middle terrace I was bewitched by the colonnade, raised flower beds and terracotta vases that dotted the terrain. I took note of the paint-chipped columns making up the colonnade. If I were a millionaire, I would donate money to restoring castles and chateaus in the Czech Republic.

ImageThe romantic upper terrace hailed from the 19th century. Decorating a wall niche was a Madonna statue. I also discovered a grotto that hailed from the 18th century. I spotted sculptures representing the months of a year. I did not go into the castle hothouses and orangery this time, but I remembered how stunning they had been. This park was tied with the castle parks in Kroměříž and Opočno as my favorite, I decided.

I left the chateau hesitantly. I wished I had more time to spend in the park, but the bus back to Brno was to leave soon. I knew that someday I would be back again.

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