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.

National Museum Diary

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I was introduced to Prague’s National Museum during July of 1991, when, for the first time, I saw objects and attire from World War II on exhibit there. I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking at real Nazi uniforms and authentic items from the horrific era of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a period I had only read about in books while growing up in the USA. The exhibition made me even more aware of what a nightmarish time of oppression and terror it had been. I had never felt so close to history before that trip to Prague. It was an unforgettable experience for me, as were many moments during that first foray to one of the lands of my ancestors. By the time I moved to Prague in September of that year, the exhibition was gone. I occasionally visited the museum after that, but nothing there would influence me that strongly.

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Fast forward to late October of 2018, when the National Museum reopened after seven years of reconstruction. The once grimy façade of the Neo-Renaissance gem now looked squeaky clean. Inside the most significant scientific and cultural institution in Bohemia was an exhibition about Czechs and Slovaks during the 100 years of existence since Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918. Right now, though, I am going to write about what I saw in the building itself as I savored the beauty of the sculpture, painting and architecture of the interior.

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First, it is necessary to have some background about the museum in order to appreciate it fully. The year 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of its founding, as Kašpar Maria Šternberg and other prominent Czechs established the institution in 1818. During the 19th century, the museum became a symbol for Czech nationalism. At the time, Czechs were experiencing an era of Germanization with the Habsburg rulers at the helm. The Journal of the Bohemian Museum published there in Czech had a profound influence on Czech literature.

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The current building was erected from 1885 to 1891 thanks to architect Josef Schulz. The edifice survived World War II but not without damage. The items normally housed in the museum had been transferred to another location, fortunately. Still, that wouldn’t be the last time the National Museum became a victim of historical events. When the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Prague in August of 1968, the Soviets shot at the museum, riddling it with bullet holes. The Russians also destroyed some sculptures, for instance. During 1969, university student Jan Palach set fire to himself as a protest against the rigid normalization period in front of the museum. He would succumb to his injuries in the hospital. The National Museum was also damaged during the construction of the Prague Metro in 1972. Six years later a large highway around the museum would prove a detriment.

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The museum has served as a backdrop for many demonstrations and events throughout Czech history. I recalled the museum looming in the background as I walked around the State of Saint Wenceslas in December of 2011, observing all the candles and tributes to former dissident-turned-president Václav Havel shortly after his death. I had set a rose in front of the statue. Thinking back, I missed those days when Havel had been in the Castle.

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The exterior of the National Museum that dominates Wenceslas Square is noteworthy. Sandstone statues, stucco and exquisite reliefs all add to its elegance and distinction. Allegorical statues are situated above a fountain, for example. The building consists of a large central tower with a dome and a lantern. There are four domes. A pantheon is located beneath the main dome. The exterior staircase is grandiose, too. In front of the museum, there is a splendid view of Wenceslas Square.

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The moment I stepped inside the museum I was again entranced with its elegance. The entrance hall consisted of a monumental staircase fit for royalty with a coffered ceiling and 20 tall columns of red Swedish granite. Above are two floors with decorated arcades and beautiful floors. Upstairs I saw portraits of rulers of Bohemia and four paintings of significant castles in Bohemia – Prague Castle, Karlštejn, Zvíkov and Křivoklát. I loved spending my spring and summer weekends castle-hopping. I remember the many strolls I took to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge many early mornings when I first moved to Prague and resided in the center. The chapel at Karlštejn Castle was one of the most beautiful sights in a castle interior. I also spent time admiring the 12 depictions of historical places in Bohemia, such as that of Český Krumlov, the most picturesque town in the country after Prague with its castle boasting three tours and Baroque theatre as well as extensive castle garden. Bronze busts rounded out the decoration.

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The pantheon is perhaps my favorite section of the museum because it celebrates Czech history and culture, two subjects dear to my heart. The paintings, statues and busts serve as poignant reminders of the nation’s cultural accomplishments and historical contributions. Even the door of the pantheon is magnificent with its rich woodcarving. In the pantheon I found statues of Czech historical figures who have made me excited about the nation’s history – František Palacký, a 19th century historian, politician and writer dubbed The Father of the Nation. His seven-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia remains a significant source of information for modern day historians. He also was a major participant in the Czech National Revival.

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Jan Amos Comenius’s likeness was there, too. He was a religious and educational reformer who authored textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as one of the most important works of Czech literature, The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. The statue of Antonín Dvořák made me think of his New World Symphony, which I saw the Czech Philharmonic perform in an awe-inspiring concert. Karel Čapek’s statue brought to mind my graduate studies that in part focused on his plethora of works of various genres. The paintings in the chamber are also extraordinary. One of the lunettes that celebrates Czech history in the pantheon shows the founding of Prague University, now Charles University, in 1348 with Emperor Charles IV playing the central role.

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The statue of first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk has an intriguing history. It was removed during World War II and slated to be melted, but somehow survived a tenure in a junkyard and was reinstalled after the war. During the Stalinist 1950s, the government wasn’t exactly enthralled with Masaryk, so his statue was placed in the depository. When the liberal reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring were in full swing, the statue of Masaryk was reinstated in the pantheon. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Masaryk’s likeness remained there, even though the Communists did not put him in a favorable light. If I could live in another time period, I would choose the 1920s of Czechoslovakia, when the country was freshly on a democratic path with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk leading the way.

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Once again, the building cast a magical spell on me as I felt overwhelmed by the painting and sculptural decoration. Both the exterior and interior were filled with a sense of grandeur and splendor that made me reluctant to leave.

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

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View of Wenceslas Square from the National Museum

Trója Chateau Diary

Troja10One of my favorite places in Prague is Trója Chateau, located across from the zoo in the Trója district. Built in Baroque style for Václav Vojtěch from Šternberk and his family from 1679 to 1685, it boasts a unique, captivating exterior as well as a richly decorated interior.

On this particular day I arrived at 10 am, but it was Friday, and a sign on the door informed me that the chateau did not open until one in the afternoon. As I peered at the Baroque gem, I recalled that some major historical figures had stayed here. Empress Maria Theresa had owned the place for a while but only spent the night for short periods of time, and Czech historian František Palacký – one of my heroes – stayed here on several occasions.

After spending time in the zoo watching monkeys swing from trees and polar bears wade in water, I had a leisurely lunch and returned to the chateau before 1 pm to take in its remarkable exterior and stroll through the incredible garden.

Troja2Inspired by the Roman villas he had seen during a stay in Italy, French architect Jean Baptiste Mathey designed the unconvential building with its main entrance facing the French garden. I loved the statue-flanked, two-sided staircase leading to the front doors. From the statuary created by George and Paul Heermann, I picked out the gods Hercules, Pallas Athena and Jupiter as the deities defeated the Titans.  I also was enthralled with the pilasters that displayed stars symbolizing the Šternberk clan as well as the grapes and rabbit heads that decorated the ornate façade. In the garden I took note of the busts of emperors and the fountains. The large terracotta vases added an elegant touch to one of my all-time favorite gardens.  I photographed the fountain depicting Neptune with a dolphin at his feet. I wished I had no pressing engagements that day and had time to sit on a bench near the chateau and read for hours.

Troja5When the chateau opened, a large group of more than 30 seniors marched through the entrance, and I had to wait for the second tour at 1:30 pm because the seniors had booked a tour in advance. I liked it better when you could walk through the rooms by yourself without a guide. I preferred to take my time and soak up the atmosphere of each room, reading the clear descriptions carefully and taking note of all the symbolism. I waited on a bench at the box office, noting that even this room was richly decorated with a frescoed ceiling of galloping, white horses pulling a golden chariot and a green and white tile stove.

Soon it was time for my tour. As usual, the space that impressed me the most was the Habsburg Hall, where frescoes on the ceiling and walls have a Baroque tromp d’oeil effect, and painting pretends to be plastic with illusionary statues, reliefs and busts. I gazed at the swirling scenes on the ceiling that depicted the Christians’ victory over the Turks and almost became dizzy. It was too much to take in at one time. I noted that the golden triangle in the center stood for the Holy Trinity and saw the three theological virtues of Hope, Faith and Love take a trip on a cloud.

Troja13When I looked at the western wall, I was immediately drawn to the defeated Turk flying through the air. I turned around, facing east, and took in the fresco of Justice celebrating victory over Injustice. Vice, Folly, Egoism and Avarice gathered around a fireplace, unsuccessful in their pursuits. I lifted my gaze and could hardly catch my breath as Holy Roman Emperor Conrad appeared with Albert Habsburg.  I had read that the blood on Albert’s robe and the white color that is only under the belt inspired the Austrians to make red and white their flag colors.

I had yet to absorb the scenes on the northern side, where a story focusing on Count Rudolf Habsburg, who later became emperor, played out. While hunting, he ran into a priest who was hurrying to the sick, and the count gave him a horse. The priest foresaw that Rudolf would one day be crowned emperor. Because I had visited so many castles and chateaus, I easily identified the very physically unappealing Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I with his long, dark mane of hair and ugly features. I tried to focus on each illusionary statue. I wanted to fully appreciate the reliefs of Habsburg emperors and Spanish kings, but my head was overflowing with too much visual information.

Troja8My other favorite rooms were the three Chinese-decorated spaces, dominated by remarkable wall and ceiling frescoes. I noticed boats, a meandering river, bridges, a town in the background and a rocky landscape as well as Chinese people, exotic birds, curved roofs and palm trees. A bridge with black marble pillars caught my attention.  I sensed that the gushing waterfall was about to tumble into me and took a step backward.

I could not forget the chapel, which ties with the Chinese rooms for my second favorite space. The black Madonna always took my breath away. A crowned Virgin and Child were clad in clothing with golden swiggles, draped around them as if they were wrapped tightly in a blanket. I was especially entranced by the details of their curly hair on the original statue.  I turned my attention to the large paintings of Christ’s last hours alive. The rendition of the crowning of Christ with thorns was especially moving.

Troja9There was also a new art exhibition in the chateau, which was one of the reasons I had chosen this time to visit the chateau.  The gallery of Czech landscape painting from the 1880s took up several rooms and illustrated how Classicism had given way to Modernism. I spotted some 20th century art as well.  Antonín Hudeček’s painting “The Sea” fascinated me. Composed of dark blues and greens, the work amazed me because I could almost hear the waves crashing on the rocks that were reflected in the water. Hudeček’s “Wooded Landscape” evoked optimism and delight as the trees were depicted in bright, airy colors under a pink, white and blue sky. It was altogether different than the dark and brooding creation, “The Sea.”  

Troja11Another painting that spoke to me was Václav Špála’s “Plakánek Valley,” a vibrant mixture of greens and pinks, simple shapes that created a dynamic whole. In Jindřich Prucha’s “Under the Tree” a solitary woman, clad in blue, sat under a big tree, surrounded by lush, green scenery. The guide explained how the painting depicted the darkness of the days leading up to World War I, but I only saw loneliness and emptiness. The sense of solitude and the sense of the figure being swallowed up by the environment did not evoke darkness for me. On the contrary, the green scenery gave me a positive feeling. In Zdenka Braunerová’s “Landscape After the Rain Viewed from Tábor,” I was smitten by the dark skies looming over the two small cottages in the green landscape.  I liked the works of Antonín Slavíček in the rooms as well.

There are many intriguing ceiling and wall frescoes in the chateau. One that I particularly enjoyed looking at portrayed Bacchus, the god of wine, with putti flying around him as he chugged down wine. The other side showed the morning after the drunken escapade. The putti had to hold each other up, and Bacchus was carried on the shoulders of several figures.

Finally, I left, wishing I had been allowed more time in each room. I knew that before long I would be back again to see one of the most captivating and underrated places in Prague.

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

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