Červený Újezd Castle Diary

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The place looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. That was my first impression of Cerveny Ujezd Castle back in 2002 and my first thought when I visited again during 2017. The beauty of the castle almost put me in a trance. I loved the medieval atmosphere of the courtyard with balcony and wooden bridge. The Renaissance sgraffito on one wall looked authentic. The Gothic style windows also captivated me.

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Though it has a medieval feel, Cerveny Ujezd is a newcomer to the world of castles. It was built from 2001 to 2002, according to the wishes of Czech entrepreneur Pavel Orma. Cerveny Ujezd took about 18 months to complete. The museum in the castle features approximately 4,000 objects relating to countryside life in the Czech lands from the 17th to 19th centuries. It took Orma 40 years to collect the intriguing items. The museum is divided into sections that display artifacts from various regions in the country. There was also a part that reflected the life of the nobility with a Knights’ Hall and chapel.

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While waiting for the tour of the museum to start, I also recalled from my first visit that the castle had a magnificent park and open-air architectural museum of countryside buildings. I could not wait to see it all again. On the drive to the castle, I saw many ugly mansions built in the garish pseudo-Baroque style, which the owners employed to display their wealth to the world. They were such eyesores in the countryside. I mused that this entrepreneur put his money to good use, creating an intriguing museum in a structure that looked like a real castle, bringing the Middle Ages to life. It was hard for me to believe that the building was so new. The castle featured so many traits of past architectural styles. Not surprisingly, many couples chose this castle as the place to exchange their wedding vows. I would not have minded getting married there, if I had found the right man.

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During the tour led by an intelligent and enthusiastic guide, I saw a baking kiln from several centuries ago which reminded me of all the black kitchens I had seen in castles. Wooden dishes and utensils were also apparent in that kitchen area.

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One room was devoted to instruments used for the once popular Czech pig slaughtering ritual that had taken place in villages throughout the country for decades. Now, though, it was illegal because of European Union regulations. This was one of the many reasons some Czechs I knew thought it would be better not to be in the European Union. Czechs are proud of their traditions that play an integral role in the country’s national identity. I saw axes and butchers’ tables, for instance. A Central Bohemian kitchen boasted a handpainted stove and exquisite ceramics. The section of the exhibition devoted to life in the Krkonoš (Giant) Mountains included a wooden machine for making linen. I especially liked the Christmas tree in the Litomyšl section. I could imagine small children gathered around the tree, tearing open wrapping paper and squealing with delight as they opened each package.

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Handmade carvings from the Wallachia region of Moravia entranced me in a workshop. Wallachia is the easternmost part of Moravia near the Slovak border. I remembered visiting the open-air architectural museum in Wallachian Rožnov pod Radhoštěm many years ago and seeing the world from another perspective at the top of nearby Mount Radhošť.

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The part devoted to ceramics caught my attention. I loved the colorful ceramics from south Moravia. The ceramics from Rožnov were traditionally brown and white. There were some black ceramics from north Moravia. I enjoyed seeing the big collection of Baroque Christmas molds, some shaped as crayfish, others as babies and still others as small and big lambs. The bed with bright blue, orange and red painted ornamentation and a floral pattern was superb. A long bench could be pulled upwards to make an – albeit very thin – bed.

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In the Cheb and west Czech lands section, I marveled at the folklore-themed closets and chests. A tapestry stood out as did a machine for making them. I loved tapestries, especially those in the Residence Museum in Munich and in Náměšť nad Oslavou Chateau in Moravia. (I remembered my train ride to Náměšť nad Oslavou well because an elderly man died on the train. I will never forget the sobbing of the widow from a neighboring compartment.)

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Next, I entered the part of the exhibition dedicated to the nobility. I saw a small chapel with a Crucifixion scene on its main altar. It had a distinct feeling of intimacy. There were also replicas of weapons that the Hussites had used in the 15th century during the Hussite Wars that had ravaged the Czech lands, when so many Czech castles had been destroyed.

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I particularly was drawn to the Knights’ Hall that showed off four sets of knights’ armor. It was decorated with bearskin rugs and a big tiled stove. I noticed that there was no silverware. Back in the Middle Ages, even the nobility had eaten with their hands. There was also a model of a knight on a life-size horse. Weapons that could be used in a knights’ tournament were also displayed. I held in my hands a knight’s pair of pants and shirt armor – I was surprised the clothing was so heavy. It is hard to fathom how someone could wear such heavy clothing all day, especially in battle.

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I passed a workshop for cutting and polishing precious stones. The large purple gemstone in the middle of the room was particularly pleasing to the eye. I also saw a typical blacksmith’s shop. Standing inside made me feel as if I had been transported back in time.

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Soon, I strolled through the park and open-air architectural museum. The park included 2,500 kinds of woody plants. In the park, I thought I must be in a dream. The water lilies looked like they had jumped out of a Monet painting. The park was too picturesque for words. Not even superlative adjectives could do the place justice. I saw sheep grazing and an ancient beehive – without any bees, luckily. I walked by a windmill, belfry, wine cellar, charcoal kiln, hayloft and shepherd’s hut as well as a wooden chapel. I have always dreamed of visiting all the wooden churches in east Slovakia, set in the villages where I imagine time has stood still. I had seen several wooden churches in the Czech lands, and I immediately recalled the Church of the Virgin Mary in Broumov, which was the oldest preserved all-wood construction in Central Europe. Also, the wooden Church of All Saints in the village of Dobříkov came to mind.

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Finally, I went to the medieval-style pub where musical instruments and various artifacts decorate a large space with picnic-like benches and tables. It was quaint, quite charming. The potato soup was exceptional.

Then it was time to make my way back to Prague. After being immersed in such beauty for several hours, it was hard to leave. I knew I would not wait another 15 years to come back.

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

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Lucky Cat Shelter Diary

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Bohumil Hrabal Burns when he was one or two years old

In this post I am taking a break from describing castles, chateaus and towns. Instead, I have written about one of my passions that has nothing to do with traveling – cats. When I was a small child, I wanted a cat so badly, but, because my mother is afraid of animals, I was only allowed to have Sparky the goldfish, who had to be flushed down the toilet soon after I got him. During my youth I enjoyed the company of the neighbors’ cats – Phydo, the grey female cat and Pink, the black tomcat. After getting to know Pink, I fell in love with black cats. It is such a shame that so many people consider them to be bad luck and that they are least likely to be adopted. My dream is to have my own villa or townhouse full of black cats – at least ten of them.

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Bohumil in the bed I bought him in Dublin

I got my first cat in 1999. He was a feisty and often naughty black tomcat who stole my heart when I first saw him at the age of two months. His name was Bohumil Hrabal Burns, after the Czech writer who used to pour his Pilsner Urquell on my fried steak at the pub because he claimed it tasted better that way. Hrabal was a master of black humor. I found the grotesque anecdotes in his writings to be hilarious.

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Bohumil on his couch

The first thing Bohumil did when I took him out of the carrier at my efficiency apartment was to urinate on the Czech flag, which served as my bedspread. On the last day of his life, he also urinated on my bed. We experienced life together, all the trials and tribulations as well as good times filled with joy and happiness. He died in late May of 2014, several weeks shy of his 15th birthday.

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Bohumil Hrabal Burns playing

I will never forget having to take Bohumil to the doctor to be put asleep on May 29, 2014. He wanted to die on his favorite spot of my bed, directly in front of my pillow. I looked into his blue eyes and said, “Okay, it’s time to go now.” For the first time he did not put up any resistance when I picked him up to go to the doctor’s – the tumor on his mouth had made him very weak. I’ll never forget kissing him on the head as he lay dead on the doctor’s steel table, as I sobbed.

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Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová

I wanted another black cat as soon as possible. A friend of mine recommended that I contact the Lucky Cat Shelter in Černiv, a village about an hour from Prague. The owner of the shelter, Jana Zárubová, found the perfect cat for me, and I strongly admire her for the sacrifices she makes to help her cats. She has been operating the shelter for more than 20 years. Even before that, when her now adult children were young, she was always taking care of the abandoned kittens they brought home. I have never met someone so dedicated to her work, which involves so much dedication and perseverance.

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Šarlota as my writing muse

The new cat was four-year old black female Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová. I named her after the wife of first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. In her younger years, children had abused her. She did not get along with the other cat in the household when she was brought to the shelter and was covered in fleas when she first came there. The last person interested in adopting her had decided not to take her because she did not like Šarlota’s eyes. In my opinion, she has the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. When I entered the room where she was staying at the shelter, she walked right up to me, asking to be petted. Even though she had had a rough life, she did not hate people.

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Šarlota after a hearty breakfast

Šarlota is the perfect cat for me. She does not wake me up if I sleep late. Rather, she sleeps alongside me. She is patient with me if I feed her dinner later than usual because I am involved so intensely in my writing. She loves to be petted, to cuddle and to read with me on the couch. She often waits patiently on the bed in the study for me to take a break from my writing or proofreading. While I eat breakfast, she jumps up on my lap, purring ecstatically. The only thing she does not like is going to the doctor. I think she had some scary experiences at the vet’s in her past life.

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Šarlota on her castle tower

I visited the cat shelter again in 2017 to spend time with the cats there and with Mrs. Zárubová. In this post I am including some photos of the cats and dogs that were residing there at the time. I got my picture taken with a grey cat who jumped into my arms. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take him home because I do not think my princess would approve of not getting my full attention all the time.

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Making a new friend at Lucky Cat Shelter

When I was at the shelter, I just wanted to adopt all the cats. I wish I could afford a villa, so I could have cats everywhere! For me, traveling to Lucky Cat Shelter in Černiv was an unforgettable day trip that reminded me of the importance to be compassionate, to sacrifice for others who are more needy. I love traveling, writing and reading, but I love cats – especially black ones – most of all.

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

Cats at the Lucky Cat Shelter, August 2017

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And a few dogs from the shelter

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Hrubý Rohozec Chateau Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The main altar in the chapel

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

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A window in the chapel

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

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The organ in the chapel

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

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The main altar

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

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The Small Library

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

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Allegory of a Woman’s Life

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

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Allegory of a Man’s Life

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

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The Main Library

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

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The Dining Room

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

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

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The Green Salon

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

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

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A 17th century bed

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

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

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A doll as tea warmer

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

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

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The boys’ bedroom

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

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The boys’ bedroom

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

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

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

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

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The Blue Salon

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

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The Blue Salon

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

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Johanna and Josef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The chapel from the oratory

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Pilsen Brewery Museum Diary

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There are a lot of eclectic sights to visit in the west Bohemian town of Pilsen (Plzeň) from apartments featuring the architecture of Adolf Loos to St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral on the main square to the Great Synagogue nearby. Pilsen’s Brewery Museum is an intriguing sight for beer lovers and for people who want to learn about how significant a role beer played in the history of the Czech lands generally and in Pilsen specifically.

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I strongly recommend that you supplement a tour of the Pilsen Underground (see my post about this sight) with a look at this museum. It sure is convenient; both are located in the same building. Also, a tour of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery (see my post about this sight) is a must-see for visitors. The Brewery Museum adds a more general historical perspective to the tour.

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Some of my favorite exhibits at the museum are the displays of beer mugs, glasses and jugs throughout the centuries. The handmade painting and detailed designs are exquisite. Many installations that offer insight into the history of beer as well as panels to read in English.

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To prepare for a visit to the Brewery Museum, let’s take a look at the history of beer in the Czech lands. The first beer made in the Czech lands existed even before the Slavs arrived in the sixth century, but it used different ingredients.

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The oldest brewery was at Prague’s Břevnov Monastery, which was established in 993, and, by the way, also deserves the attention of tourists. In the 11th century, the Canons of Prague’s Vyšehrad (the name of a hill which included a castle with cathedral) were given the right to brew beer. The oldest document about harvesting hops was drawn up in the 11th century. Czech beer was first exported in the 11th century, when the town of České Budějovice sent its brew to Bavaria and other places abroad.

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In the 12th century, the brewing of beer flourished and was a significant part of people’s diet. Women made beer at home, using it not only as a beverage but also as a soup and sauce. That same century the first royal towns received the privilege of making beer, though many did not get permission until the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 13th century, King Václav (Wenceslas) II proclaimed that only townspeople living in royal towns inside the town walls had the right to brew beer. Pilsen was granted this privilege when it was founded, in the late 13th century. Monasteries also were allowed to make the alcoholic concoction.

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In the 15th and 16th centuries, a heated conflict between nobles and towns ensued over whether the nobles should have the right to brew beer. They argued over the matter for 33 years, from 1484 to 1517. The nobles won the legal battle, and, as of 1484, nobles, townspeople and monasteries had the right to make beer. From 1517 to 1869, the Saint Wenceslas Agreement (Svatováclavská smlouva) was in effect. It put in writing specific rules for the brewing of beer.

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From the 16th century to the 18th century, Pilsen alone had 36 malthouses and 26 small town breweries. At the end of the 18th century, barley and hops replaced wheat as key ingredients. Czech beer was lauded at an international exhibition in Paris during 1837, when the Pilsner Prazdroj and Pilsen town brewery (Městanský pivovar) were recognized for their high quality of beer.

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The city of Pilsen has played an extraordinary role in the history of beer through the ages. The most common beer is the pilsner lager, easily recognized due to its golden color and light flavor. Perhaps the most significant date in Pilsen’s beer-brewing history is October 5, 1842, when German beer guru Josef Groll, inspired by Bavarian lagers, invented Pilsner Urquell, which holds distinction of being the first light-colored beer in the world.

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Fourteen years later, Pilsner Urquell beer began to be exported abroad, as trains transported it to Vienna on a daily basis. The tasty concoction was introduced to the United States in 1874. Pilsen’s beer-making ability won many prizes, including first place at Prague’s Jubilee Exhibition in 1891. A million hectoliters of beer were manufactured in 1913. The Pilsen brewery became the biggest in all of Europe, and its beer was sold in 34 countries.

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Beer-brewing continued to flourish in Pilsen, but then in April of 1945, more than a hundred bombs fell on one of its breweries. It was rebuilt, but in 1946 both Pilsen breweries became the property of the state. That did not impede the breweries from continuing to receive worldwide recognition, though. Pilsen’s beer achieved success after success in the following decades. In 1990 cylindrical tanks were installed. Now Plzeňský Prazdroj can be found in more than 50 countries. It encompasses the Czech beers Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus, Velkopopovický Kozel, Radegast and others. The enterprise runs four breweries in the Czech Republic.

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However, Pilsen is not the only city where beer has a long and impressive history. Take České Budějovice and its Budějovický Budvar beer, for example. The town brewery there was established in 1795, when České Budějovice was  a mostly populated with Germans. Czechs, however, founded the Budějovický Budvar brewery during 1895. The beer had reached worldwide acclaim by 1913.

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In the 20th and 21st centuries, Budvar has continued to earn recognition throughout the world. Now it is sold in 76 countries and is especially popular in Germany, Austria and Britain. It officially became known as Budvar beer in 1930. During World War II the Nazis took over the brewery, and, later, with the onset of Communism, the brewery became the property of the state. After the 1989 Velvet Revolution, it was privatized.

Please note that this is not the same as the American Budweiser beer! There are many legal battles over the patent between the Czech brewery and the American Anheuser-Busch brewery, which makes another beer called Budweiser.

While I was at this museum, there was also a small, intriguing exhibition of abstract sculpture inside. Although I rarely drink alcohol, I did not want to pass up the opportunity to familiarize myself with the beer-making success of this city and in the Czech lands.

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

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The Kraus and Vogl Apartments in Pilsen Diary

 

PilsenLoosBendovaint1I traveled by bus with Regiojet to Pilsen to see two flats designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos during the first third of the 20th century. I was already familiar with his architecture. Loos had made the Müller Villa in Prague into an architectural gem. When I visited the Müller Villa, I had been fascinated by the contrast of the spartan exterior and luxurious interior. Loos’ use of rare woods also greatly impressed me. I liked the symmetry and the harmony of the spaces in the Müller Villa. The Japanese theme in the Winter Dining Room entranced me, too.

This tour included two flats – the one that Loos designed for the Kraus family at 10 Bendova Street and the apartment in which the Vogl family had resided at 12 Klatovská Street. Luckily, Bendova Street is within walking distance of the town center. You can almost see the Great Synagogue from there. I stood in front of the building on Bendova Street. It looked like a typical apartment building in the city, but, of course, Loos did not design the exterior – only one flat inside.

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Soon it was time for the tour to begin. Facing me was a huge black-and-white photo of Loos. He was holding headphones because he was hard of hearing. He wore a pearl in his necktie. I was familiar with Loos’ background. Born in Brno, he received Czech citizenship thanks to Czechoslovak President Tomas G. Masaryk. Loos had lived in Vienna, the USA, Paris and Dresden, among other places. He had finished his studies in the Czech lands. Loos admired classicist modern architecture, which stressed simplicity and symmetry. His style was influenced by the architecture of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Trademarks of Loos’ creations included a lack of decoration on exteriors, a penchant for symmetry and the use of expensive materials such as stone, marble and various types of wood. The Viennese architect had had a close relationship with the city of Pilsen. He designed no less than 13 interiors there, though only eight have been preserved. Four of them are open to the public.

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The flat at Bendova 10 was commissioned by chemist Vilém Kraus, who lived there with his wife and two children. Loos worked on the project in 1930 and 1931. The family would not live at this address for long because they were of Jewish origin, and the Nazis took over in 1939. Gertrude and the children were sent to a concentration camp, where they perished. Vilém, however, survived World War II. After the war, the Communists confiscated the flat, so he moved to Britain. During totalitarian times, the flat was divided into three sections for three families, and part of Loos’ design was destroyed.

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The guide led us into a space divided into the dining room and the living room. There were two mirrors opposite each other in the long space. They created a multiplying effect. I felt as if I was in the room full of mirrors at Lindenhof Palace in Bavaria. I had a feeling of being watched and of spying on others at the same time as I saw reflections of myself and the other participants of the tour. It made me self-conscious and paranoid. I found the mirrors to be jarring. Two pilasters made of rare marble flanked the mirror in the dining room. This feature reminded me of the living room in the Müller Villa, where Loos utilized two marble pilasters. The living room of the Müller Villa also had been divided into parts.

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On the other side of the room, a fireplace played a central role. In the living room of the Müller Villa, there had been a fireplace as well. There was a mirror above the fireplace, and I noticed the white and green marble decoration. Typical for Loos, there was no ornamentation. His design emphasized the beauty of the materials, in this case, the marble used in the room. The ceiling also appealed to me. It was made of dark mahogany.

In the hallway a closet opened to reveal three sections where dirty laundry could be placed. I thought that the device was efficient and rational. We went into another room dominated by light blue wallpaper on one wall. It added a vibrancy to the small space where pictures of Loos and the apartment were on display. The wallpaper was not original, though. I noticed the bright red radiator. In the Müller Villa Loos had also had the radiators painted red. He wanted them to be visible instead of hidden.

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In the bedroom the desk and closet were made of Finnish birch wood. The closets had drawers and hooks for hats. I remembered the moveable drawers and hooks in the closets of the men’s and women’s bedrooms in the Müller Villa. These were details that Loos often employed. In a side panel below a window, there was a safe. The bed was blue, and I wondered if it had been this color when the Krauses lived here.

Soon the tour ended. I was surprised that the flat was so small. I had been expecting something on a grander scale. Still, I was intrigued by Loos’ design, especially by the use of rare materials and mirrors.

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Our group then walked about five minutes to 12 Klatovská Street. Again, the exterior of the building was nothing special. The two preserved rooms in this flat turned out to be located amidst a labyrinth of offices. Originally, the interior had been furnished for businessman Otto Beck, but when he moved out, the new tenant, Josef Vogl, wanted Loos to make adjustments because the dentist needed a section of the flat for his practice and another part for his family. It was Loos’ job to harmonize the two sections. In 1928 and 1929, Loos designed a waiting room and an X-ray room in addition to the doctor’s office. During the Second World War, the apartment was turned into offices. Unfortunately, the part of the flat used for Vogl’s practice was destroyed. The bedroom and children’s room are no longer visible, either. The family did not return after the war, and then the spaces had been used for administrative purposes.

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We did, however, have the opportunity to see the living room and dining room, both of which greatly intrigued me. One room was divided into a study with a desk and chair and a living room area with a floral-patterned couch and various chairs, each one unique. I recalled the chairs in the living room of the Müller Villa. There, too, all the chairs had been different, and each one had been extraordinary in some respect. I especially liked the low armchair, and I recalled the low armchairs in the Müller Villa. Another chair that fascinated me was the tiny one on which only a small child could sit. It was a copy of an Egyptian chair from a museum in London.

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Marble pilasters flanked a fireplace made of red brick. Again, I noticed that the fireplace played an important role in Loos’ design. The walls were decorated with Japanese woodcuts. After Loos had visited the Chicago World’s Fair, he had become intrigued by Asian art. I recalled the Japanese lantern light and other Asian elements in the Winter Dining Room of the Müller Villa. There were even a few Japanese lantern lamps here, too. The room boasted symmetry, one of the features of Loos’ creations that appealed to me the most.

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The dining room was a different, though no less intriguing, story. The yellow travertine walls gave it a warm orange color that I liked. I recalled that travertine had been one material used in the Müller Villa, too. Mirrors dominated the space, set above a long counter on the back wall. A big conference table took up most of the space. The dining room in the Müller Villa had been dark; this room was light and airy. The mirrors blended in with the rest of the design in this space. I did not feel awkward.

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I liked the design of these two rooms more than I had liked the Kraus’ apartment, although I appreciated the unique and daring features in both flats. In the Vogl family apartment, I felt as if I could sit at the desk in the study and write or lie down on the couch and read. The space was comfortable and appealing. Even though the Vogl family apartment was now only comprised of two rooms, those spaces had a lot to say.

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I left Pilsen, vowing to return to see the two other flats that Loos had designed in this city. I would recommend this tour to anyone interested in architecture and to anyone who had enjoyed visiting the Müller Villa.

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

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The Historical Underground of Pilsen Diary

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When I bought my ticket to visit the underground cellars below the center of Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech), I thought the tour would be interesting. However, I had no idea it would be fascinating and one of the highlights of my many trips to this dazzling city in west Bohemia. The ticket office was at the entrance to the Brewery Museum, which I also visited and found intriguing, even though I rarely drink alcohol.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of visiting underground areas, and I admit that I was a bit scared for my safety when I had to put on a hard hat. It turned out that there was no reason to be afraid. The corridors were not wide but provided enough room for one person to walk through. I can at times feel a bit claustrophobic, but I did not have a problem there. In some parts in caves I had visited, I had been squashed between rock formations, and the paths had been very tight.

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The guide explained that we would explore 800 meters of the underground area, though the cellars were actually much more extensive. The passages can be traced back to the early 14th century. They were built soon after the founding of the town by the first houses that had obtained the right to brew beer. The cellars served various purposes. Food was stored there, and beer was brewed in the underground areas. During sieges of the city, inhabitants took refuge in this labyrinth. The passages also became important parts of the city’s defense system. In addition, during the Middle Ages, the pubs above the passages were ordered to close at a certain hour, and the establishments carried on serving beer in the cellars after hours.

The eloquent guide told us the different eating habits of the poor and the rich during the Middle Ages. Poor people used ceramic tableware and ate mostly vegetarian food because meat was too costly. Birds and fish made up part of their diet. The wealthy, though, used glass, metal and silver tableware and ate a lot of meat and spices. They ate with their hands, though they used knives when eating meat. The well-off citizens refused to use forks because they thought they resembled pitchforks and were bad luck.

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I saw beautiful tiles from stoves constructed in the Middle Ages. One that caught my fancy showed Saint George fighting the dragon. I also saw an exquisite decorated water pot from medieval times.

The guide talked about the three symbols on Pilsen’s coat-of-arms – an angel, a camel and a greyhound. I loved the story about how the camel came to be one of the city’s symbols. During the Hussite wars, the Hussites attempted to overtake the city four times, but never prevailed. The Hussites tried to frighten the inhabitants of Pilsen with a camel. However, their plan backfired in a major way. The inhabitants liked the camel so much that they put the animal on their coat-of-arms. In the end, the Hussites left, defeated. The camel stayed.

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The guide also explained that the three golden fountains of contemporary art on the main square stood for the three symbols of the city. The T-shaped fountain stood for the angel while the F-shaped one represented the camel. The Greek letter stood for the greyhound. I was captivated by the three fountains, though I had not understood what they symbolized. Though contemporary, they fit in well with the medieval atmosphere of the main square dominated by the Church of Saint Bartholomew. I was impressed that they by no means take away from the square’s historical charm.

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I also saw samples of ceramics from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Two objects that caught my attention included a unique 16th century sieve and a piggybank from the 17th century. I was intrigued by the many wells – we saw 20 of them!

When we reached one point, the guide told us that we were standing under a house that once printed books in Pilsen. The first book published in Pilsen hailed from 1468. I also was intrigued with a pair of very pointy shoes, often referred to as poulaines. They looked very uncomfortable. I did not understand how someone could squish up his or her feet into those shoes. How would it be possible to walk in them? During the Middle Ages, very pointy shoes were a sign of wealth. I recalled that they had been particularly fashionable in France during that era, as evidenced by The Book of Hours. The pointier your shoes were, the richer you were.

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There were many guilds during the Middle Ages, including a guild of manufacturers of tiled stoves. I saw many examples of tiles from stoves during the tour. Emperor Rudolf II lived in Pilsen for one year when the plague was ravaging Prague, and the inhabitants presented him with a tiled stove to show their appreciation that he had chosen their city as his temporary residence.

I saw some cannonballs used by the Hussites. They weighed 200 kilograms each!  The cannonballs were able to demolish the first town wall, but they did not destroy the second wall. The inhabitants of the city threw the cannonballs back at the Hussites, foiling their enemy’s plan.

A functioning water wheel fascinated me. It was a replica of one that dated from 1532. I also saw remains of a water town hailing from 1847. It had played a role in the town’s defense system. Emil Škoda, an entrepreneur who set up the Škoda factory that would play a major role in European industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, was born in the water tower on November 19, 1839.

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The 2002 floods had made their way to Pilsen. A sign showed the high level the water reached on August 13 of 2002. The entire underground had been immersed in water. I recalled my personal experience with the floods for a few moments, lost in thought.

During 2002, devastating floods ravaged the republic. I was in Slovakia at the time, so I did not witness them first-hand. Even though the house where I lived in Prague was on a hill, there was significant water damage because we had had no roof because it was being repaired. There was only a protective covering. Rain from the downpours seeped into my flat. I came back to find some of my clothes ruined and mold on the walls. My cat was traumatized. Luckily, my books were all dry. Living through the aftermath of the floods was one of the most difficult times of my life in Prague, where I have lived for 23 years.

When we reached the end of the tour, I was enthusiastic and bewitched by the information I had learned about the Middle Ages and the history of Pilsen. The objects I had seen during the tour were very intriguing. I thought the tour was organized well. I had taken the tour in English because that was the one offered at the time I was able to visit, and the guide had an excellent command of the language and a talent for communicating effectively.

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I am convinced that the underground tour should not be missed when tourists are visiting Pilsen. It is a must-see. When you come back above ground, you understand how the Middle Ages affected Pilsen and have a greater appreciation for the city.

I left Pilsen for Prague about an hour after the tour, and I was certainly more than satisfied with my day trip.

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

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Kladsko Borderland and Božena Němcová Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Božena Němcová and her children from cs.wikipedia.org

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

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

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The Kladsko Borderland

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

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

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

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

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

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from the Božena Němcová Museum

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

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

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Statuary inspired by The Grandmother, Božena Němcová Museum

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

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

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From the Textile Museum in Česká Skalice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The display of ceramics in the atrium of the school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The house in Červený Kostelec

 

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

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The house in Červený Kostelec

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

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

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

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The Kladsko Borderland from the lookout point