2019 Travel Diary

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At East Side Gallery

Despite battling illnesses and undergoing an operation, I did manage to do some exciting traveling last year. I returned to Berlin, a city that I had only a year earlier become reacquainted with after a 27-year absence. Last year I explored the Charlottenburg district and even found time to visit the East Side Gallery for the second time in 28 years.

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Inside the palace on Isola Bella

In the summer, I spent a brief but bewitching time in the Lake District of Italy. Seeing the Borromean Islands off Lake Maggiore was the highlight for me, although Malcesine, Verona, Bergamo and other spots were all fascinating.

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Baroque former hospital Kuks with its 24 statues of vices and virtues

I did not have much time to travel in the Czech Republic because I had an operation during the summer. I did travel to the Baroque former hospital Kuks – one of my favorite sights in the country – as well as Ploskovice Chateau. I also was glad to be able to spend time at the Azyl Lucky Cat Shelter in Černov, located about an hour from Prague. I adopted my beloved Šarlota from that shelter and since then, I have enjoyed visiting the owner of the shelter and the beautiful cats and dogs that await forever homes.

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Cats at the Azyl Lucky Shelter

Let’s start with Berlin in May. The weather was coldish and windy, but the sights were as magnificent as always. There’s always something fascinating to see in Berlin.

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Charlottenburg Palace

The objective of my short stay was to visit Charlottenburg Palace. I stayed in the Charlottenburg district with its tranquil, wide streets. There were not many tourists in the area, which was very pleasant.

Charlottenburg Palace began as Lietzenburg, commissioned by then Electress and future Queen Sophie Charlotte. Frederick the Great renamed it after his wife when she died in 1705 at age 37. Under the guidance of Sophie Charlotte, the chateau had been a cultural hubbub.

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I was overwhelmed by the Baroque and Rococo décor and especially by the chinoiserie ornamentation. My favorite room was the Porcelain Cabinet, which featured about 2,700 objects in a luxurious and elegant space. I also loved the white harpsichord decorated with chinoiserie features in the Golden Cabinet.

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Several museums are located across from the palace. While one museum featuring Art Deco and Art Nouveau works was closed, I did get to explore the Museum Berggruen, where I excitedly perused paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Klee. Sculptures by Alberto Giacometti and African art rounded out the exposition. The museum of surrealist art nearby also had some intriguing works by artists such as Goya and Klee.

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I wound up having some time to revisit the politically motivated murals of the East Side Gallery that had entranced me so much when I was a tourist back in the summer of 1991. Back then, when I was visiting after graduating from college in the States, the Berlin Wall had fascinated me. Now I knew many people who had lived and suffered under totalitarian rule, and the Wall to an extent sickened me. But not this portion of the Wall. The murals represented an exuberant and vivacious celebration of freedom, a good riddance to the oppression that had darkened so many decades of life behind the Iron Curtain. I loved these bright and bold statements of euphoria and optimism. Sure, some murals portrayed fear and anxiety as a new era beckoned, but that was only to be expected. This was the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing. During my visit in 1991, so much more of the Wall had yet to be taken down.

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My four-day jaunt to Italy was not without its disappointments. I fell ill shortly after the lengthy bus ride and five-minute breakfast that we were allowed. I went to Italy with my good friend, traveling with an agency that I had not used before.

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Isola Bella palace interior

My favorite day was the one when I felt healthy, the last day of the trip, but it was also the most special to me because I saw the amazing Borromean Islands that had me bewitched. My favorite island was Isola Bella, the site of a magnificent palace and ten-tiered garden shaped as a truncated pyramid. Shaped as a boat, the island boasted a luxurious palace along with six grottoes. The Music Room included 80 paintings by Pieter Muller the Younger, who was known for his renditions of stormy landscapes and thus had earned the nickname “The Tempest.” I was awed by the harpsichord in golden cypress wood, too. The Throne Room featured Lombard Baroque art. The gilded, wooden throne hailed from the 18th century. I also liked the two large cabinets made with tortoiseshell. The Tapestry Gallery was remarkable for its six Flemish tapestries. I have always loved tapestries! Visiting the Italian Baroque gardens topped off a great day.

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Garden of Isola Bella

Before experiencing the glamor of Isola Bella, I had been engrossed in the beauty of Isola Madre and Isola dei Pescatori or Fishermen’s Island. Isola Madre was a botanical park dotted with white peacocks and rare birds. The largest of the three islands, it boasted a palace with 16th to 19th century furnishings, including Lombard paintings, marionettes and puppet theatre stage sets, such as a grotesque one punctuated by dragons, devils and skeletons. I also liked the machinery for making thunder and lightning as well as terrifying noises. The five-terraced garden also showed off a pond of water lilies, among other delights.

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Birds on Isola Madre were plentiful.

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Church on Isola Madre

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In Palace on Isola Madre

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In Palace on Isola Madre

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View from Isola Madre

Isola dei Pescatori was the only of the three islands with permanent residents – as of 2018 there were 25 people who called the small place home year-round. The cobbled streets and narrow passageways that led to gorgeous views of Lake Maggiore were postcard-perfect. The modest yet elegant Church of St. Victor was furnished in Baroque style, though it had been built as a chapel during the 11th century. I also saw the picturesque town of Stresa, a wonderful place to relax after a day of island hopping.

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House on Isola dei Pescatori

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Street on Isola dei Pescatori

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Church of St. Victor on Isola dei Pescatori

I spent one day in Malcesine during the scorching heat of the early summer. Even though I started to feel ill while riding the funicular to Mount Baldo, which is 1,800 feet above sea level, I appreciated the amazing views from the first cable car installation in the world with an all-rotating cabin. (It did not help my dizziness, though!) On Mount Baldo it was cold and windy at 8 am, so I did not spend much time there. I preferred to explore the picturesque town of Malcesine and chill out at cafes, drinking mineral water to ward off the effects of the harsh hot weather. The castle ruins were romantic and offer superb views of Lake Garda. Goethe was even briefly imprisoned there because the authorities thought he was a spy. There are several medieval frescoes in the castle complex.

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Castle in Malcesine

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Castle ruins in Malcesine

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Views from rotating cable car from Malcesine to Mount Baldo

Bergamo was another town that will always be close to my heart. We only had time to explore the Upper Town, so I was not able to visit the Accademia Carrara art museum in the Lower Town, but it gave me a good reason to make a trip back there someday. Just standing on the Piazza Vecchia was awe-inspiring. The Palazzo della Ragione, located on this square, was built in the second half of the 12th century and boasted elegant arches and three-mullioned windows as well as porticoes. The most amazing architectural delight was the Colleoni Chapel, which was closed, unfortunately. Still, the façade sporting delicate colors of marble exuded such a sense of harmony and balance plus a vivaciousness that overwhelmed me. It is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture in northern Italy. The sculptural decoration did not disappoint, either.

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Colleoni Chapel in Bergamo

The cathedral, which was not completed until the 19th century, was impressive with a Baroque altar that featured a carved Episcopal throne. Unfortunately, the Diocese Museum was not open, but that was another reason to come back to this bewitching town.

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What I liked best about Bergamo were the romantic, narrow, hilly streets that reminded me of those in Urbino. Walking by medieval houses or houses with facades from the 16th or 17th century was magical. The best thing about Bergamo’s Upper Town was that there were no souvenir shops. There were shops selling local delicacies and bookstores, but no shops promoting crazy t-shirts and gaudy objects. It was so refreshing. I wish the Old Town of Prague had banned souvenir shops.

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Juliet’s balcony in Verona

We were only in Verona for half a day, so we did not see much of the city. After several minutes there, I know I would be yearning to come back for a longer stay. We saw Juliet’s House, the balcony that was said to be famous for the Romeo and Juliet scene in Shakespeare’s play. In reality, Verona created a tourist trap when they bought the house from the Cappello family. No one named Capulet had ever lived there. The house’s façade is impressive, in Gothic style, dating back to the 13th century. The balcony hails from last century. A statue of Juliet stood in the small courtyard. It is said to be lucky to rub her left breast, but I didn’t try it.

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The main drag in Verona

I also saw the exterior of Romeo’s House, which never belonged to the Montague family. It was only given this name for sightseers. The building is medieval, in Gothic style and includes an archway with crenelated walls.

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Then we saw a few of Verona’s main squares. Piazza Brà is one of the largest in Europe and boasts palaces, a museum and the city hall. Piazza delle Erbe was once the site of chariot races. During the Roman era, a large market took place there. Now visitors see palaces, a tower and a remarkable fountain dating from 1368. We walked down Via Giuseppe Mazzini, the central shopping street that was, during medieval times, dirty and lined with warehouses as well as barracks. Now expensive shops call the stunning renovated houses home.

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I loved the arena, though I did not get much time there. Built in the first century AD, it is the third largest area, measuring 140 meters in length and 110 meters in width. The original seating capacity was 30,000, back when it was used for games and gladiator events. It became dilapidated after Emperor Honorius banned events there in 404 AD. For centuries, it was abandoned. At one point, prostitutes used the arena. Now, though, the arena is a remarkable sight that should not be missed.

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Sigurtà Park

We also visited Sigurtà Park with its extensive, beautiful grounds. I loved the water lily ponds and many monuments plus views of the villages beyond. You really needed a full day to explore the vast grounds properly.

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Dance of Death Baroque frescoes at Kuks

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Braun’s statues in the lapidarium at Kuks

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The pharmacy at Kuks

I also visited several places in the Czech Republic last year. Kuks, a former hospital in gushingly Baroque style, is famous for its twenty-four 18th century statues of virtues and vices, sculpted by Matyáš Braun. In the lapidarium I was almost in a trance while peering at Love, Despair, Sloth and Hope. I also was enamored by the grotesque Dance of Death frescoes, as the figure of Death intruded on people’s lives. The pharmaceutical museum and one of the oldest pharmacies in the country were also very intriguing. There’s a lot to love about Kuks.

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Ploskovice Chateau

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Painting by Navrátil at Ploskovice

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The Main Hall at Ploskovice

Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 11th century. The chateau was born in the 16th century. The vestibule was decorated with sculpture, frescoes and stucco ornamentation. The Knights’ Salon is Rococo in style. Vedutas of French kings’ castles and French parks hung on the walls. The Ladies’ Bedroom showed off the Rococo style as well while an early Baroque jewel chest was decorated with bas-reliefs and inlaid with various kinds of woods.

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The painted ceiling in the Ladies’ Study was the work of the renowned Josef Navrátil, whose masterful work I had also witnessed at Zákupy Chateau a year earlier. His remarkable and delicate painting was evident on the ceiling of the Dining Room as well. The Main Hall has 12 pilasters and shows off stucco works of Hope, Motherhood, Bravery and Nature. The painting on the cupola was remarkable, showing the four continents, created by masterful Czech artist V.V. Reiner. I had seen his masterpieces at Duchcov Chateau a few years earlier. Navrátil painted 36 oval medallions in the Main Hall.

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I also liked the grottoes at the chateau. They originated during the Baroque era. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. Perhaps what I loved most about Ploskovice were the peacocks fluttering around the grounds.

I wish I had had more time to explore the Czech Republic last year, but my health and occasionally the weather prevented me from doing so. This year I am planning to go back to Italy and to take more trips in the Czech Republic. I also hope to see art exhibitions in Berlin and Vienna.

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

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Charlottenburg Palace Diary

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I hadn’t had time to tour this palace during my visit to Berlin in May of 2018 because it was so far away from my lodging in East Berlin and difficult to get to. This time I stayed in the more tranquil Charlottenburg district, which, along with the palace, Frederick the Great had renamed after his wife Sophie Charlotte, who had died in 1705 at age 37. I quickly grew fond of Charlottenburg’s wide streets with shops that didn’t cater to tourists. There was only one souvenir shop near my hotel, and it was at the Metro stop. Charlottenburg had an appealing ambiance and cast a spell on me.

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My first stop, after quickly learning the ropes of the Berlin Metro, was Charlottenburg Palace. Both the Old Palace and New Wing were very crowded. Because it was rainy, windy and very cold on that spring day, I did not spend time in the garden or see the buildings situated in it. Next time. . . .

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First, in the Great Courtyard I took a good look at the equestrian statue that glorified Great Elector Frederick William of Brandenburg, the father of Elector Frederick III. The son was the husband of Sophie Charlotte who became King Frederick I.

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I studied the external appearance of the impressive complex. The 50-meter high domed tower of the Old Palace caught my attention instantly. Fortuna, the gilded goddess of luck, was perched atop a lantern on the tower. The New Wing, built by Frederick the Great in the 1740s, was on the left side of the Great Courtyard. Its entrance portal was simple yet elegant.

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First, some background information: Charlottenburg Palace was born in the late 17th century as Lietzenburg, commissioned by then Electress and future Queen Sophie Charlotte. The couple adopted it as their summer residence. It grew into a lavish Baroque building with three wings. Cultural life flourished at the palace during Sophie Charlotte’s time. When she died in 1705, the lively cultural life ended, though King Frederick I still favored the palace.

 

After Frederick I died in 1713, the palace was only used for receiving guests and for family events because his successor, Frederick William I, was more passionate about the military and hunting and didn’t pay much attention to the palace. Then Frederick II took over in 1740 and had the New Wing built and furnished in Rococo grandeur. When Frederick William II came to the throne in 1788, he used a summer apartment in the New Wing.

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King Frederick William III and his wife Queen Louisa enjoyed life at Charlottenburg. They altered the appearance of the interior in 1810, the same year Queen Louisa died at the tender age of 34. A mausoleum with her Carrara marble tomb was erected in the garden. It was a simple yet intimate structure, resembling a Doric temple. The mausoleum is accessible to visitors today.

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Frederick William IV and Elizabeth of Bavaria were often present at the palace after the 1848 Revolution, but the first German Emperor, William I, only paid homage to Queen Louisa in the mausoleum. Otherwise, he was not attached to Charlotenburg. When Frederick III was emperor in the late 19th century, Queen Victoria put in an appearance at Charlottenburg.

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The year 1918 brought a halt to the monarchy, and Charlottenburg Palace then served as a hospital. During the Second World War, the palace took some destructive hits, but many of the priceless objects had been stored elsewhere by the time the bombs had been dropped. After the war, the palace was in much need of lengthy restoration. That work would last from the 1950s to the 1990s. At long last, Charlottenburg was restored to its former glory, presenting life of the royals from the Baroque age through the beginning of the 20th century. Charlottenburg Palace was even the home of the President of Germany from 2004 to 2006.

 

The interiors were very intriguing, many rooms even astounding. The lavish Baroque and Rococo décor of some spaces overwhelmed me. Still, I was a bit distracted by the size of the crowds walking from room to room, but that is what happens when you visit such a popular sight. I especially liked the chinoiserie adornment in many rooms. I found the Chinese-inspired style very impressive. I had not appreciated the remarkable effects that chinoiserie designs could have on a building before I visited the largest former resident of the Hohenzollern clan.

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One intriguing fact: The Amber Room that can now be found near St. Petersburg, Russia was built in this very palace. The amber covering walls were dazzling, as I saw when I visited Russia. Frederick William I gave the lavish room to Tsar Peter the Great in 1716.

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One superb space decorated in chinoiserie fashion was the Porcelain Cabinet, my favorite room in the entire palace. There are some 2,700 objects displayed in the luxurious and extravagant space. Before World War II did its damage, there were many more objects decorating the collection that celebrated the reign of Frederick I with abundant grandeur. There was so much porcelain that it was almost a shock to look at the space. Cleverly positioned mirrors magnified the number of Chinese and Japanese artifacts. The collection holds the distinction of being one of the oldest and biggest in the country.

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The Glass Bedchamber of Sophie Charlotte’s First Apartment

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Golden Cabinet with white harpsichord

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Another room that caught my undivided attention was the Golden Cabinet with its white harpsichord decorated with painted chinoiserie features. The Glass Bedchamber of Sophie Charlotte’s First Apartment showed off masterfully carved furniture and sported chinoiserie elements in its painted lacquer furniture and porcelain. The Brussels tapestries from 1730 in the Audience Chamber of Frederick I showed off scenes taken from Plutarch’s writings. I have always been a sucker for tapestries! Lacquer furniture and Far Eastern porcelain highlighted the chinoiserie effect. The Japanese Chamber is another space in which the chinoiserie style abounds.

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Japanese Chamber

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Audience Chamber of Frederick I

The chapel was phenomenal. It was here, seated in the royal gallery, that the Hohenzollern rulers, worshiped as Reformed Calvinists. Its decoration is awe-inspiring with a superb ceiling painting and carved pulpit. I looked up and saw the lavish decoration of a huge crown and the Prussian eagle.

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The Gris-de-lis Room featured an important painting by Watteau as well as other Rococo gems. In Watteau’s work, the protagonists have been indulging in earthly delights on the island of Cythera and are on their way to a golden ship that will take them home. The Golden Gallery was stunning with its green and gold Rococo adornment. The room, once used for balls, measured 42 meters long. Some of the gilt decoration includes shapes of flowers and shells. The Etruscan Rooms were influenced by Etruscan, Greek and Roman art and took on an exotic quality in the Rococo style.

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Ancestral Gallery

The Ancestral Gallery was regal in appearance with portraits of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Frederick the Great’s portrait was life-size and impressive. Even the details of the King’s Bathroom were not to be overlooked. Taps on the faucets appeared as dolphins. These sorts of details greatly impressed me.

 

I really was drawn to the Bedroom of Frederick William II, which was decorated in a white-striped bright yellow pattern. I recalled the bright yellow of my mother’s kitchen, a cheerful room where so many topics have been discussed as we set the world to rights, voiced our dreams and hopes as well as our disappointments and sorrows.

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East Indian Chintz Room

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The East Indian Chintz Room was no less spectacular. A favorite of Queen Louisa, the walls were covered in chintz, a waxed cotton fabric decorated with plant ornamentation as well as bird themes. The Adjutant Room was also intriguing for its South American rain forest landscapes. Paintings of Italian vistas in another room brought to mind my love of Italy, a country I tried to visit every year.

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Other buildings in the 55-hectare Baroque garden with Great Orangery included the New Pavilion, constructed from 1797 to 1869 and inspired by a villa in Naples. Romantic and Biedermeier paintings adorned its interior. The Belvedere, once a three-storey observation tower, was now home to a Berlin porcelain museum. The Great Orangery was another plus. During the late 18th century, plays and operas were staged at the impressive former theatre building.

 

I hope to visit these places, plus the mausoleum for Queen Louisa, next time I visit, weather permitting. There were three museums across from the palace, two of which were opened. I explored them and found a small hamburger joint for locals where I savored a juicy burger.

There always seems to be something drawing me back to Berlin.

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

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