Velké Březno Chateau Diary

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I wrote about Velké Březno in an article for The Washington Post during 2005. A fellow castlegoer had enthusiastically recommended the chateau. Nestled in the Central Bohemian hills near Ustí nad Labem, Velké Březno is a hamlet with one of the smallest but most charming chateaus in the Czech lands. My second visit in 2009 was long overdue. From the moment I saw the Neo-Renaissance structure, which looked more like a large villa than a chateau, I was entranced. Because we had time before the tour, we spent some minutes on the beautiful terrace that overlooks the park.

First, a little background information. Velké Březno has been inhabited since the Mesolithic era, and the Slavs settled there in the 9th century. The oldest document mentioning the village dates from the second half of the 12th century.

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While many people owned the chateau at various times, the most notable family to inhabit Velké Březno’s chateau is the Chotek clan. Not satisfied with the old castle in the town, Karl Chotek moved into Velké Březno with his wife and six sons in 1844. The chateau was built from 1842 to 1845 in Empire style. Karl had made a name for himself in Prague, where he promoted Czech national identity. Renowned Czech historian František Palacký had tutored him in the Czech language. (Later, Palacký taught Karl’s children.) Chotek had chipped in financially for the repairs of Karlštejn Castle near Prague. He was a key figure in setting up industrial exhibitions in Prague. He also helped the Prague public transport system in its early days. One interesting fact is that, during the 1820s, Karl initiated the tradition of Czechs sending New Year’s greeting cards.

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Famous guests set foot in the chateau, too. A young Franz Joseph, who would later become emperor, visited in 1847. Composer Franz Liszt came to the chateau on three occasions. Sophie Chotek, who would be assassinated in Sarajevo along with her husband Franz Ferdinand d’Este, resided there in the late 19th century.

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Karl’s son Anton took control of the chateau after Karl died, in 1868. Karl Maria, their son, dabbled in politics and took up many hobbies – traveling, photography and gardening, for instance. From 1885 to 1910, the chateau was reconstructed. The new Neo-Renaissance look featured a four-sided tower, chapel and attic. Major additions included balconies, balustrades, parapets, turrets and dormer windows. The interiors included wood paneling. The ground floor boasted of coffered ceilings. Tiled stoves also made appearances. Stables, stalls and a coach house were also built. During the 1890s, the chateau park was founded. In 1910, the chateau got electricity.

After the death of Karl Maria in 1926, his son Karl became the owner of Velké Březno. When the Sudeten lands, part of Czechoslovakia with a German majority, were annexed to the Third Reich, Karl took German citizenship and was able to keep the chateau during World War II. After the war, under the Beneš decrees, the chateau was nationalized as his property confiscated by the state because he had taken German citizenship. When Karl and his wife died during the same week in 1970, the Chotek line died out.

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Then the chateau was used for various purposes. In the 1950s, it became a school focusing on politics. During the 1960s, the chateau was utilized as a remand home for children.  In 1963 it became a cultural monument. Then the army made it into a storage facility. The chapel was demolished in 1965 because it was in such bad condition. The stables and coach house were sold. The chateau was in very dilapidated state. Reconstruction started at the end of the 1960s. Many of the original artifacts were returned. It was opened to the public in 1970.

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During the tour, I especially liked the Meissen figures and Meissen mirror with porcelain from Berlin in one of the first rooms to be viewed. The low furniture and dark pink and wine red carpet gave the space a charming appearance. I loved the wood paneled floors. A blue-and-white English tiled stove also stood in the room.

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The library was in a small but cozy room, containing 2,200 books on two floors. It dated from the second half of the 19th century. The lower level held magazines. I also saw a jewel cabinet made with intarsia.

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In another space, I liked the Italian landscapes, as Italy is one of my favorite countries. At that point, I had visited Italy at least 12 times. The Smoking Salon featured a grandfather clock hailing from 1700. It was masterfully carved and richly decorated. I also saw a round table with intarsia, various stones used to make a mosaic with birds.

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One unique oddity was a large silver candlestick presented to a Chotek owner from 78 nobles. The coats-of-arms of the nobles were featured on the lower part of the candlestick. It weighed 28 kilograms. The Japanese chairs were small but charming. A Japanese cabinet featured hidden drawers.

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I saw a high ironing board that doubled as a bed for servants. I also liked the last owner’s bedroom adorned with many family photos. I found out that when the chateau was seized by the state, he was told he could only bring two suitcases with him.

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In a boy’s room, there was a painting of Prague Castle. I remember my daily walks to the Castle from Old Town during 1991, as I crossed the Charles Bridge at 9 am, when the sellers were just readying to display their wares. An Edison phonograph and small piano also were in the room.

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In the last room, the bathroom, we saw a toilet that was richly decorated with painting of brown leaves on the inside and outside. The top of the toilet was adorned with flowers and leaves. The sink was decorated with blue floral ornamentation. I had never seen a sink and toilet decorated in this way. It was certainly unique and intriguing.

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View from the tower

We walked around the English park that included magnolias and rhododendrons as well as red, scarlet and English oak and five species of sycamore. Some of the trees were 160 years old. The 110-year old white rhododendrons in front of the chateau were striking.

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View from the tower

We had a delightful lunch at the restaurant next to the chateau. In the restaurant an advertisement promoted the local beer as a brewery was in the town. I left Velké Březno Chateau very satisfied as the rooms, though modest in size, had exuded charm and elegance. The table with the mosaic of birds, the candlestick, the decorations on the toilet and sink, the grandfather clock from 1700 and the quaint two-storey library were all highlights that helped make this chateau a real delight.

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Advertisement for beer from the local brewery

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My dessert at the local restaurant, going off my diet for one day

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

Kačina Chateau Diary

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My friend and I went to the chateau by car, driving a little over an hour to the sprawling white-columned, two-floor chateau of Kačina, sporting an elegant tympanum on its main façade. I would visit again, in 2020, also by car.

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The huge chateau – the biggest 19th century Empire style chateau in the Czech lands – boasts not only representative rooms in 19th century Empire, Biedermeier and Classicist styles but also a 19th century library, theatre and pharmacy plus an agricultural museum. An unfinished chapel is on the vast grounds as well. The chateau was built from 1802 to 1822.

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The balanced Empire style hails from the early 19th century when symbols and decorations were influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. Biedermeier style, from 1815-1845, refers to furniture that is simple yet elegant with very little decoration. During this period ebony, cherry, ash and oak woods were often used. The Classicist trend can be defined as symmetrical, proportional and geometrical, taking its name from the style utilized in Classical antiquity and that of ancient Rome.  Architecture of this style is very well-organized with columns, pilasters, lintels, hemispheric domes and niches.

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I was lucky that I had a guide who was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the place. When I came back in 2020, I had another terrific guide. In fact, I had always had the best guides at this chateau: they were enthusiastic and animated, not merely uttering words they had memorized from a text. Their zeal was contagious. They were exactly the kind of guides I wished I had had on every tour I had taken. The details of each room just spewed spontaneously from this tour guide’s mouth. She even took me to parts of the chateau that were usually off-limits to tourists.

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First, we hit the representative rooms. The ground floor consisted of the spaces used for social occasions and guest rooms while the first floor, which cannot be visited, had been made into a family residence.

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The first room we walked into took my breath away. This hallway with a roundel or circular window that is 16 meters high was so light and airy yet elegant that it reminded me a bit of the Pantheon in Rome. I remembered sitting across from the Pantheon at a restaurant for my fortieth birthday dinner, an experience I shared with my parents. That was one of my most treasured travel-related memories. We continued into a hallway with some hunting trophies and black-and-white British lithographs sporting hunting and horse-jumping themes.

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The first three rooms, formerly guest rooms, gave background information about the chateau and explained the history of the Chotek family, who had chosen this chateau as their summer residence during the 19th century. Models of chateaus adorned each room, such as the blood red model of Veltrusy, destroyed by the 2002 floods, the chateau where the Choteks had once had their family residence. In a portrait Jan Rudolf Chotek, the founder of Kačina, looked as if he was harboring a secret he would never reveal.

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First, you need some background about the Chotek family. Veltrusy Chateau was their family residence from 1716 to the 20th century. Jan Karel served the emperor as an armorer, and his youngest son Rudolf worked as the highest chancellor in the Czech lands. Because he did not have a son, his nephew Jan Rudolf took over in the 18th century. Jan Rudolf was a man of many achievements. He built the magnificent park in Veltrusy and Kačina chateau in the 19th century. He was responsible for the construction of many embankments and parks throughout the Czech lands.

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His youngest son Karel spent 17 years as the highest Czech burgrave and built the highway between Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lážne. He even learned Czech from legendary historian František Palacký. He also established a residence at Velké Březno chateau, built from 1842-1854, in northern Bohemia – a charming building that looks like a hunting lodge or villa. I fondly recalled my trip to Velké Březno, where I had looked out the window at the park, suddenly feeling free of stress as if I had been cleansed of my worries. Ferdinand Maria Chotek, the fourth son of Jan Rudolf, was the Olomouc archbishop for four years. Žofie Chotková married František Ferdinand d’ Este, both of whom were assassinated in 1914.

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The last male Chotek was Karel, who along with his wife Lívie became German citizens after World War II and emigrated to Germany. During the war the chateau was sold to the Germans, and the HitlerJugend resided there. The chateau was nationalized after the war according to the Beneš decrees, which gave property owned by Germans during the war to the state.  In 1950 the chateau belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture, and it became an agricultural museum. Now the chateau looks as it did when Jan Rudolf lived here. The coat-of-arms for the Chotek family shows a half wheel, a gold bear in a blue field and a black imperial eagle on gold.

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The ladies’ wing was first, then the men’s wing. The Ladies’ Study boasted pink and grey decor with white ornamentation. Family portraits adorned the walls as did pictures of three summerhouses that once graced the park, founded as far back as 1789 and now composed of 20 hectares with 61 kinds of trees and 20 kinds of bushes. An oil painting depicted knights readying for a tournament on Chotek property. I gazed at a square, gold clock in a gold frame, positioned high on a wall. I was drawn to the geometric symmetry of the square design.

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Next was the Pink Salon. The original chandelier was second Rococo in style, gilded with gold and dominated by Czech crystal. An Empire style small black table with gold legs and a circular table with the same decoration got my attention. Pink and white porcelain dominated a circular table in the middle of the room. Corinthian columns were painted on the walls.

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The Ladies’ Bedroom included some magnificent intarsia furniture. A picture with cupids was carved into a wooden bedframe.  I immediately took to the Empire style black-and-purple closets for accessories in the Ladies Changing Room. A light pink chair and couch complemented a Venetian mirror decorated with black and pink. The purple, pink and black colors went together superbly, I mused.

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The Small Dining Room, still used for concerts, included an Empire style table and a Biedermeier side table plus a gold chandelier. The Dance Hall was 22 meters long, 12 meters wide and 16 meters high with fantastic roundels. A crystal chandelier captivated me. The brown parquets on the floor sported circular and diamond shapes. For a moment we stood on the terrace and took in the vastness of the park land around us.

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The Men’s Salon had a Baroque pool table, but it was the Renaissance brown tiled stove that entranced me. The unique feature of the room was the oak leaf motif. I recalled that oak was often utilized in the Biedermeier style. Wooden circles with oak leaf motifs decorated the ceiling and the tops of the walls. Frames were also covered in wooden oak leaf ornamentation. The couch and chairs were Second Rococo in style. I noticed that the armchairs where the Choteks sat when playing cards were very low.  I wondered what sort of conversations had taken place there while the Choteks had played cards. What had they talked about? What were their interests and worries? What events had brought them joy? Vienna porcelain and Czech glass also lit up the room.

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The white stove in the Music Room had white décor and hailed from the Second Rococo period. I also noticed a Baroque bureau and two big portraits of Jan Rudolf Chotek and his youngest son Karel, both wearing prestigious golden medals around their necks. Jan Rudolf was holding a plan of Kačina in one hand while Prague dominated the background of Karel’s portrait.

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The furniture in the Men’s Study or Smoking Room was captivating as well. The green couch and chairs were Empire style as was the chandelier. The desk hailed from the Biedermeier period. I notice a small statue of Empress Elizabeth, fondly called Sissy, on a desk top. I thought about how she had loathed the strict regimen of royal life and how she danced to the beat of her own drum. She had become a symbol of individual identity during her 44-year reign as the longest reigning Austrian empress. She had been so independent, traveling around the world. And she had had to deal with so many tragedies. A large portrait of her husband, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Frantisek Josef I, also hung here – in the painting he was a young man with many medals on his uniform. The young man in that painting would become the most respected and most beloved member of the Habsburg dynasty, ruling the Austrian Empire and then Austro-Hungarian Empire for 68 years, the third longest reign in the history of Europe.

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On another wall was a huge brown map of the Chotek property as of 1734. The guide pointed out that the fields were numbered. There was also a secret door to the south colonnade, but we went downstairs instead to see the former bathroom, which was a large hole in the dilapidated floor. The person taking the bath used to sit on a chair in the tub while servants poured water over him or her.

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We trekked upstairs again, this time to the Men’s Bedroom. The prayer stool was made with intarsia, wooden with wood decoration. Paintings with religious themes also adorned the room. Plants made the room come alive. In the Men’s Changing Room there were small paintings of Italian towns on the walls. The chandelier hailed from the Empire period. The Hunting Salon was dominated by a polar bear rug. I noticed the animal’s sharp teeth.  A white tiled stove boasted white ornamentation with two female figures on its sides. Oriental chairs also made up the space. The furniture was Baroque and pseudo-Baroque and included a Baroque bureau.

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The Big Dining Room featured a folding table that usually sat 24 guests during the Chotek’s days. The table was decorated with a green clover motif. Each chair had the coat-of-arms of the Chotek family with a crown on top. The rich wooden décor on the wooden sideboard got my attention. Ceramics and the Chotek coat-of-arms were displayed on the superb piece of wooden furniture. A Second Rococo mirror had a lavish gold frame with the coat-of-arms prominent at the top. The high walls were decorated with gilded wood, and an exquisite crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. There was also a secret door.

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Next came the library, my favorite part of the tour. Roundels or circular windows with painted cupolas and stylized squares allowed light to stream into the three sections, onto the colored shapes on the floor. The library from the turn of the 19th century reminded me of a structure out of antiquity. The fake grey marble columns gave the place a dignified air. Tall bookcases were crammed with books, some of which looked like they had golden spines. A gallery above held magazines and newspapers. The Chotek coat-of-arms was present on all 40,000 volumes, the guide said. Mostly written in German, the books also included publications in French, Spanish, Italian and old Czech. Some of the volumes were older than 1500 – the oldest was a book of Russian psalms hailing from 1480.

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Among the most significant in the space was the 18-volume complete set of the French Description of Egypt from 1809-1818, which consisted of encyclopedias that documented everything French military leader and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte had seen in Egypt, from plants to pyramids. There were only two other complete sets in the world: one was in the Louvre and the other in the King’s Library in England. These books were printed specifically for European rulers. 

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The editions in the breathtaking space also included 398 handwritten manuscripts, 38 handwritten maps and 250 catalogues. Among the books, I saw downstairs in the first part were S. Dionysii Opera, a fat two-volume set and collections of Lumír magazine, established in 1851 and written by Czech patriots such as Karel Havlíček Borovksý, who is considered the founder of Czech journalism, satire and literary criticism. Tall medical books stood nearby.

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The second part of the library was a study with small statues of Czech rulers and one of Michelangelo. Among the 19th century statues, I spotted the mythical Libuše who prophesized the founding of Prague; Jiří of Poděbrady, a Czech king who ruled from 1458 to 1471; Emperor and Czech king Charles IV, who reigned from 1346 to 1378 and was responsible for founding Charles University, the New Town in Prague and the Charles Bridge; and Holy Roman Emperor and Czech king Rudolf II, who was in charge from 1576 to 1611 and is known for his love of alchemy and cultural pursuits.

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Then the guide showed me the object that enthralled me the most during my visit. It was a globe put together in eight layers. There were top and bottom layers and then six layers representing the continents. On one side was a picture of a continent, and on the other side there was information about it. I spotted a polar bear on one picture. It seemed to me to be an excellent visual teaching aide for young students.

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The third part was dominated by a huge vase with ornate décor. I could see Romulus and Remus with a wolf in relief on the exquisite object. Then the guide showed me an Empire style card catalogue, with a card for each book. The golden writing on the cards had been scribed in flowing, fancy script.

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Then we went up a narrow staircase to the gallery, a part that was usually off-limits to tourists. I spotted editions of the newspaper Prager Zeitung and sheets containing information about new publications in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Illustrated magazines were also kept here.

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The guide even led me through the back study rooms. Paintings adorned the walls, and I spotted a grey tiled stove with white ornamentation. Each painting hung in one space had been executed with a different technique. A display case illustrated the technology of painting and materials for painters, such as paraffin. In another display case I saw handmade paper and an ancient book made from handmade paper.

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Yet another space featured brightly colored, dynamic scenes of Divoká Šárka Park in Prague, one painting for each month, though the set here was not complete. I was entranced by the green hills of the park I loved so much, where I felt so at home, one which reminded me a bit of Vermont. I was glad I lived so close to that park. It made me feel relaxed and worry-free.

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Soon we came to the 19th century pharmacy. One exhibit showed how to dry herbs, another displayed various baskets. A machine for mixing syrup was on display, too. I saw a press for making fresh herbs and a press for making tablets as well. The jars behind the counter and old scale came in various colors. A large book about herbs dated from 1920. Ceramic jugs also decorated the room.

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The theatre, on the opposite side of the chateau, hailed from 1851. It had never been open to the public. It was used only by the Choteks and their good friends. The Chotek family wrote the plays themselves in German and acted them out. Jan Rudolf’s 15 plays on then current themes are now in Prague’s National Museum. The group had even prepared plays by William Shakespeare, tailoring them to their own needs. How I would have loved to have seen those plays!

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The stage was made of wood, but it was not original. The walls were made of imitation marble on the lower section while stylized painting adorned the upper half. A compartment seated four people in the middle of the back wall. The two balconies boasted gold and black decoration. There was an orchestra pit, and there were pulleys above the stage. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling that had been partially damaged by water during the 1960s. Some set designs had been saved. The gallery now contained wooden benches, but it had consisted of comfortable chairs back in the Chotek days. There were bleachers for standing room at the top level. On the relatively new ceiling I spotted the two bears holding a coat-of-arms.

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Last but not least we visited the unfinished chapel, which was occasionally decorated with flowers and candles and used for weddings. What had been initially planned to be a crypt was only a hole because it was never completed. In the 1950s the floor had been cemented. Before that, it was made of earth. The cross-shaped structure was composed of rock with brick so it could be dry. I imagined how breathtaking the chapel would have looked if it had been finished in a simple and elegant Empire style, for instance.

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Then it was time to say goodbye to one of the best guides I had ever met. I thanked her profusely and my friend and I went to nearby Kutná Hora, where a sumptuous chicken lunch awaited me. We walked briefly through the picturesque town, up the hill to Saint Barbara’s Cathedral and along the bridge flanked by statues. All too soon, though, it was time to head back to Prague.

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

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