Český Šternberk Castle Diary

Steep steps took me to the top of Český Šternberk, a massive Gothic structure that has an interior just as exciting as its colossal exterior. I had been there more times than I could count – with tour groups, friends, alone. The castle loomed over the surrounding countryside as it was situated 350 meters above sea level. When I had been on a tour of churches in the Posazaví region, our bus had even stopped in front of the castle because it dominated the area. This time I had come by car with a friend. We donned masks during the tour because of rules concerning the pandemic.

Whenever I visited this castle, I thought of George from Australia, my sixtyish friend whom I had met on a tour here in 1993. We spent some time together during his stay in Prague that summer and then became pen pals. About a year later, I received a letter from his daughter saying that he had died unexpectedly. I hadn’t known him well, but it was shocking all the same. So, whenever I come here, I realize how important it is to make good of the time you have with friends because they won’t be there forever.

Soon I gave the castle my full attention. I focused on the exciting history of Český Šternberk. Inside, it was hard to miss the eight-pointed star that symbolized the Sternbergs (in English the dynasty is spelled Sternberg not Šternberk), a name that harkens back to the original owner of the castle. In the mid-13th century, Zděslav of Divišov was responsible for the construction of this castle. He changed his name to a combination of the German word for star (stern) and the word for hill (berk).

Armor-clad George of Poděbrody
Chapel off the Knights’ Hall

In the Knights’ Hall, the vast first room, a portrait of Czech King George of Poděbrady, who had been related to the Sternbergs, hung prominently. A coat-of-arms representing the marriage of George of Poděbrady to Kunhata of Sternberg featured prominently in the space along with many other intriguing coat-of-arms. Indeed, George of Poděbrady influenced the history of the castle. During the 15th century Hussite wars, Catholics including castle owner Petr Sternberg fought against Hussite Czech King George of Poděbrady, who promoted the Utraquist religion. In 1465 Zdeněk Konopistský Sternberg even fought against George of Poděbrady, who was victorious and even destroyed the castle. George of Poděbrady would be the only ruler to conquer Český Šternberk.

Jiří Sternberg

Reconstruction took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Thirty Year’s War caused much damage and other difficulties. Still, the castle survived. Due to early Baroque reconstruction in the second half of the 17th century, Český Šternberk could no longer be used for defensive purposes. When the last member of the Holič branch of the Sternbergs passed away, there was not an heir, and the Sternbergs lost the castle. However, they would make a comeback in 1841 when Zdeněk Sternberg purchased it. The castle would remain in the family until 1949. The Communists took over the castle in 1949, but owner Jiří Sternberg was allowed to reside at the castle with his family in two small rooms. Jiří worked as a castle guide during the totalitarian period. He died in 1964. Due to his diligence and attention to detail, a precise inventory was created. This is why it is possible to see many of the original possessions there. A few years after the Velvet Revolution, Zdeněk Sternberg received the castle in restitution. Some 20 generations of Sternbergs have worked and lived there since the castle was built.

The first room, the Knights’ Hall, has always been my favorite. Every time I stepped inside, I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the large space with 17th century stucco decoration and two Czech crystal chandeliers weighing 250 kilograms each. An eight-pointed Sternberg star decorated the floor. On the walls portraits of generals from the Thirty Years’ War stared at me. George of Poděbrady’s painting also made an appearance. A variety of chairs were situated in this space. Some cozy-looking seating dated from the early 20th century while others hailed from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. I especially was drawn to the 17th century Florentine cabinet. The semi-precious stones and pieces of marble decorating it were sublime.

You can see the eight-pointed star in the coats-of-arms above.

The Sternberg star was evident in the Dining Room, too, another of my favorites and the second largest room. A Bethlehem star was shining in the night sky of a painting of the Three Kings adoring Jesus. Of course, the star had eight points.

I loved the wall painting of idyllic landscapes in the Yellow Salon. I also was captivated by yellow because it had been the color of my mom’s kitchen, where I grew up. The color symbolized for me my mother’s optimism and calming voice telling me my problems would soon be solved, the sun would soon be out. The ceiling was captivating, too. The 18th century stucco ornamentation was amazing. In the Ladies’ Lounge, the ceiling was no less spellbinding. I was enamored by the Baroque frescoes above me. It intrigued me that the 18th century Rococo chairs lacked armrests. Ladies had donned such wide and huge dresses that the armrests were not needed. I would have loved to have been seated at the writing desk hailing from the second Rococo period. What kind of letters would I have written at that desk decorated with carved ivory? Perhaps letters to my parents and friends in the USA.

Dutch Baroque style grandfather clock

I also was excited to find some Dutch Baroque furniture in another space. The furnishings had a floral theme. Some paintings showing the Thirty Year’s War were on display here, examples of battle scenes from the 545 paintings in the Sternberg’s collection that depicted the conflict. My favorite of these renditions is the one showing the Charles Bridge. Back then, it was the only bridge joining both banks of the Vltava River.

Painting supposedly by Petr Brandl

The main altar in the chapel was home to the painting called The Passion of Saint Sebastian as the religious space is dedicated to that saint. What I liked best about the library was a painting that was said to be Apostle Peter, though he is depicted without attributes. The surprised expression on the face of the figure with the thick beard intrigued me. It was probably created by my favorite Baroque painter, Petr Brandl. I recalled his paintings in the cathedral of Sedlec near Kutná Hora. I had been enamored by so many of his works throughout the decades.

I was also astonished at the beauty of the Oriental Antechamber, which was decorated in furniture made from mother-of-pearl and ivory. I have always loved visiting Oriental rooms in castles and chateaus because they remind me of my mother’s fondness for antique Chinese porcelain and how I had come by pieces in various cities in different countries.

Battle of Hradec Králové

A painting that interested me in the hallway that showcased a variety of artifacts at the end of the tour was one by Filip Sternberg, a talented artist who had studied under the tutelage of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. My parents and friends always enjoyed visiting the Mucha Museum when they came to Prague. The rendition by Sternberg showed the Battle of Hradec Králové (also known as Koeniggraetz), which is situated in east Bohemia. During that 1866 conflict, the Austrians were defeated by the Prussians. Filip had painted the scene masterfully even though he had only been 14 years old when the actual battle had been fought.

Pipe collection

I always leave this castle realizing it is one of the most beautiful castles in the Czech lands if not the most beautiful. This time we retreated to the restaurant below and had a delicious lunch before making our way back to Prague.

Rest In Peace, George.

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

Blatná Chateau Diary

I had visited Blatná twice before, but not during the last five years. Those first two trips I had traveled to the south Bohemian town by bus, but now I had the luxury of going by car with a friend. Blatná is a chateau that makes an everlasting first impression as it is surrounded by water. By the summer of 2021, I knew very well that its romantic exterior was matched by an enthralling interior. Unfortunately, it was prohibited to take photos inside.

I already knew the history of the chateau, which harkened back to at least the  13th century, when the name first appeared in writing. Benedikt Reid, the acclaimed 15th century architect who helped designed Prague Castle, worked his magic on this chateau as well. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Late Gothic art. The Sternbergs featured in the story of Blatná, as they had in the history of Český Šternberk Castle and Jemniště Chateau, which we had also visited during that summer of 2021. This family bought Blatná in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace.

Another clan played a major role in the chateau’s long and vibrant life. During 1798, Baron Karel Hildprandt purchased Blatná, and it remained his property until 1948. Even after the chateau was nationalized by the Communists that year, the Hildprandts were allowed to live there, albeit in two small rooms. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviets took charge in the 1970s. From there, the Hildprandts’ journey continued to Spain and West Germany. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that triggered the end of Communist rule, the family got the chateau back. During 1992, the descendants returned to the chateau and later made their home there.

A legendary 19th century Czech scientist was connected with the chateau, too. Jan Evangelista Purkyně had lived and studied at Blatná. The library where he spent much of his time now holds 13,000 volumes. Acclaimed worldwide, he excelled as a physiologist, botanist, anatomist, poet and philosopher. He also contributed to the art of animated film. Purkyně translated poetry from German and Italian to Czech, especially the works of Friedrich Schiller. Other writings focused on slavistic studies and autobiography. He joined the Piarist Order when he was young, but he left and became a tutor to noble families. Later, he joined Prague’s medical faculty of Charles University as a professor. Holy Roman Emperor Franz Josef knighted him in 1868. I recalled that as a youth he had lived at Libochovice Chateau, where his father had worked. Libochovice was a marvelous chateau, one I had visited several times and had described in several articles.

Two spaces in Blatná made the chateau most notable. The Ethiopia Room was a delight with souvenirs from the Hildprandts’ tenure in that country. Unfortunately, during our 2021 tour, we did not see this room, although it was listed on our ticket.

The other remarkable space was the Green Chamber with Late Gothic frescoes. I saw plant motifs and coats-of-arms of well-known Czech noble families painted on the walls of this small space. There were many religious scenes as well. The birth of Christ and St. George fighting the dragon were the subjects of two frescoes that captured my undivided attention. I recalled the numerous Saint George relics housed at Konopiště Chateau, where my friend and I had been the previous summer. I had written articles about that chateau and the Saint George Museum as well. In the Green Chamber, Saints Wenceslas (Václav), Barbora and Markéta made appearances in religious scenes, too. One painting showed a landscape with Blatná in the background. I have always been mesmerized by this small space. It was so well-preserved, and the wall paintings were astounding. The Green Chamber was always the highlight of my visit.

The chapel was a thrill, too. It included Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my former parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again because my parents had moved.  I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery included a portrayal of a vast landscape on one wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it. I imagined strolling along the Charles Bridge sans the Baroque statues it was known for.

In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. I recalled that during a previous visit, a guide had told our group that a chandelier had fallen during one of Ferdinand d’Este’s visits, but I didn’t remember anything about anyone being hurt.

In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive.  Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry, and four paintings of the Italian seaside decorated a wall.

Drawings of Venice also captivated me. I remembered walking through Venice on an early Sunday morning some years ago when I practically had the city to myself. That was one of my favorite experiences in my travel adventures. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space as did other Empire furniture, including the black-and-gold chandelier made in that 19th century style.  In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmitál, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. A 1720 map of Bohemia in another space caught my attention, too.

The tours were comprehensive. We had all worn masks, so I had felt protected from coronavirus, and there were not many cases in the country at the time. Afterwards, my friend and I went to a hotel for lunch, the same restaurant where I had eaten during my previous visits. We both had the fried chicken steak, a popular meal in the Czech Republic. We talked about where we would travel the following week. Life was good.

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

2021 Travel Diary

Bust of first President of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk from TGM Museum in Lány

This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
Czech soldiers during World War I

Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.

Furnishings from the First Republic period
Panels explaining architecture and construction during the First Republic

The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health  after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.

The Masaryk graves in Lány

Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.

Lány Chateau
The park at Lány

Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.

Červená Lhota Chateau
Interior of Červená Lhota Chateau

We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.

Interior of Červená Lhota Chateau

The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.

Jemniště Chateau

Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.

Park of Jemniště Chateau
Jemniště Chateau from the park

The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.

Český Šternberk Castle in the distance
View from Český Šternberk Castle

Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.

Interior of Český Šternberk Castle
Knights’ Hall

The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.

Karlštejn Castle from the picturesque main street

It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.

Entrance gate at Karlštejn Castle

Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel.  On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.

Blatná Chateau

Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.

The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.

Park at Blatná Chateau

In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive.  Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.

Děčín Chateau gate

We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century.  A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.

View from the chateau

The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.

Rose Garden
Statue in Rose Garden

The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.

The house where my family lived for almost 50 years

In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.

Šarlota on her cat tree
Šarlotka on her Prague castle
Šarlotka napping with her toys when she was 11

Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.

I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.

Olinka

Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.

Olinka on Christmas Eve, 2021
Olinka resting while I read on the couch

The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.

I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.

I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.

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

Italy – Puglia, Altamura
Puglia, Matera
Rome – Colosseum

Assisi