Lány Diary

From TGM Museum, Lány

This was my third or fourth trip to Lány, a town about 35 kilometers west of Prague near the Křivoklat forest. I loved going to Lány to pay tribute to the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his family. I came by car this time, accompanied by a friend. First, I went to the TGM Museum, which told the story of Masaryk’s life and career. Then we went to the cemetery where Tomáš Masaryk and three members of his family are buried. After that, we strolled through one of my favorite chateau parks, part of the president’s summer residence. Masaryk had spent a lot of time in that majestic park and had died in the chateau.

Czechoslovak soldiers during World War I, from TGM Museum, Lány

First, the museum: I had been there once before and loved refamiliarizing myself with the history of the First Republic. If I could go back to any time in the past, I would travel to 1920s Czechoslovakia. The country was new, off to a fresh start as a democracy.

Besides exhibits relating specifically to Masaryk, the museum is home to period furnishings and paintings of his family members. There is a section devoted to the first World War, when he set up legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army, doing battle against the Habsburgs. First, we saw photos of Masaryk in a special exhibition. Then we went into the main part of the museum.

A philosopher, scholar and politician, Masaryk founded Czechoslovak democracy. He believed that small nations played a significant role in Europe and in the world. He also touted individual responsibility and religion as a source of morality. Masaryk came from humble beginnings. His father had been a Slovak carter, later a steward, while his German-Moravian mother had worked as a cook. At a German high school in Brno, Masaryk saw for himself the fraught tension between high-class Germans and oppressed, lower-class Czechs. He later concentrated on philosophy at the University of Vienna. While he was studying in a year-long program in Leipzig – a city I had loved visiting several years ago -, he met an American from Brooklyn, Charlotte Garrigue, and they were married in the USA during 1878. (I named my late cat the Czech version of Charlotte, Šarlota, after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia. My cat died suddenly in July of 2021 at the age of 11.) Tomáš took his wife’s last name as his middle name. They had five children, and their son Jan later became a prominent politician whom Communists pushed out a bathroom window, killing him.

Tomáš Masaryk was a university professor and a writer. He penned books about the deplorable conditions in Russia after visiting that country and in another grappled with the causes of suicide. His writings centered on politics as well.

A wall of the museum took up the theme of the scandals that had scarred the public opinion of Masaryk. He proved that epic poems, which supposedly dated from the Middle Ages and appealed to Czech nationalists, were forgeries. These nationalists branded Masaryk a traitor. Then, a Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner was sentenced to death for ritual murder. Masaryk insisted that the trial had been anti-Semitic. Hilsner was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Not all Czechs approved of Masaryk’s participation in this case, and the Masaryk family experienced anti-Semitic attacks.

An exhibit showing advertisements during the First Czechoslovak Republic

A section of the museum described Masaryk’s role during World War I. While Masaryk had fought for reforms with Austro-Hungary before the war, during World War I he became convinced that Czechs and Slovaks needed independence rather than autonomy. Masaryk was head of the government-in-exile in London. During a trip to the USA, he convinced President Woodrow Wilson that Czechoslovak independence was vital. Czechoslovakia was created October 28, 1918.

Pictures of the Masaryk family in the TGM Museum

Then there were the many exhibits about his presidency. Masaryk abdicated during his fourth term in office due to health reasons, after 17 years as head of state. During his presidency, the country was a democracy with all citizens equal, and minorities had rights to maintain their national identities. Freedom of the press and universal suffrage were other features. However, the country was not without its problems. German-Czech tensions and Slovak calls for separatism were two of the issues that caused him great concern.

Furnishings from the First Republic, TGM Museum, Lány

After his reelection in 1920, the country flourished, especially economically. However, personal tragedy hit the Masaryk family. His wife died in 1923. Three years into his third term, in 1930, he turned 80, and ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism had infiltrated the democratic country. During 1934, he was elected for a fourth term, yet his time in office was riddled with health problems. He resigned in 1935 and died at Lány on September 14 that year.

Statue of TGM in front of the museum

After admiring a statue of Masaryk outside the museum, we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs marked the graves of Masaryk and his wife Charlotte, son Jan and daughter Alice. The small grassy area was roped off. It was a modest yet eloquent commemoration to lives that had upheld democratic values even during troubled times.

I reflected on Masaryk lying in state at Lány. About 60,000 citizens came to pay their respects. When his wife died in 1923, thousands of Czechs paid homage to her by going to Lány chateau as well.

Modest graves of Tomáš G. Masaryk and three members of his family

I thought about Tomáš Masaryk’s funeral in Prague. Black flags had fluttered from downtown buildings. Busts and pictures of Masaryk had dotted the town and covered the front pages of numerous newspapers. Black banners reading “TGM” had adorned Saint Vitus Cathedral and buildings on Wenceslas Square. Thousands of soldiers and legionnaires had marched in his funeral procession September 21 as 146 military standards appeared. Draped with the Czechoslovak flag, his coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the city. On its last leg to Lány, the coffin had traveled by train, placed in a car covered in wreaths and flowers.

The headstones of the graves of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his wife Charlotte

I remembered seeing that gun carriage at a temporary exhibition in a Prague gallery a few years earlier. I recalled watching Václav Havel’s coffin travel by me while I waited on an Old Town Street in December of 2011. I was huddled in my LL Bean winter coat on that dark, dismal morning as the coffin made its way toward Prague Castle. My hero was dead; my heart broken; my mood solemn. I thought that it was the same way I would have felt if I had seen Masaryk’s funeral procession.

From the cemetery we made our way to a restaurant on a square, where I ate fried chicken steak and ice cream on that sunny May afternoon of 2021. We ate outside to be safer from coronavirus infection.

The next and last stop was much more upbeat – Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since 1921. While the residence was not open to the public (with several exceptions), the beautiful park was. I first set foot in this park during the summer of 1991, when I was a tourist seeing Prague and its environs for the first time.

That trip during the summer of 1991 was magical – walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery, gawking at Old Town Square with its superb architecture, making my way to Prague Castle via the Charles Bridge, where Russian soldiers sold their uniforms and fur hats. On the way, I walked up Nerudova Street, where, in a photography store, I found some prints of President George H.W. Bush with Václav Havel during that historic visit in 1990. There were also discounted posters of Gorbachev, but I wasn’t interested in buying one. Saint Vitus Cathedral had amazed me. On Golden Lane, a place in legends dating back to Rudolf II’s era, I got my picture taken with a man I had met on the train from Berlin to Prague. We were smitten with each other. Yet, we would part our separate ways a few days later, never contacting each other again. Life somehow had gotten in the way. I visited Karlštejn Castle, Konopiště Chateau, Hluboká Chateau, Kutná Hora and so many other places during that trip. Prague had felt like my true home, and the park in Lány was so special in my heart.

By this time, I knew the history of the chateau well. There was a structure here before 1392, when it was first mentioned in writing. Late in the 16th century, that edifice became a Renaissance keep. Rudolf II acquired the property in 1589 and did much hunting on the grounds at the game reserve. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops had occupied the residence. After Rudolf II acquired it, the residence was state-owned for 100 years. In 1685 Arnošt Josef Wallensteain bought it. When his daughter got married, the chateau and surrounding land became the property of the Furstenberg family and stayed in their possession until the state bought it in 1921. Then the chateau was modernized. Masaryk had the balcony built. During Ludvík Svoboda’s presidential term, the game reserve had been open to Western tourists, but later it was closed off again. Many other renovations had taken place throughout the decades. The chateau had been in poor condition after Gustav Husák’s tenure, when the Communist regime was toppled in 1989. Under Václav Havel and Olga Havlová – after whom I had named one of my cats – the chateau had been totally reconstructed into a beautiful work of art and architecture.

Near the park we perused the obelisk that Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had erected during Masaryk’s era to commemorate fallen soldiers during World War I. In the park I felt at home, so comfortable as if I was meant to be there, basking in the sun near the greenhouse or taking in the many landmarks. This was one of the few chateau parks that made me see not only the beauty around me but also the beauty inside me. The other park that gave me this feeling was at the chateau in Opočno in north Bohemia.

I loved the two ponds. One landmark that impressed me was a lion-headed fountain made by Plečník, who had superbly decorated parts of Prague Castle, too. With five Dorian colums and five lions’ heads, the fountain symbolizes the five lands of Czechoslovakia. Water from the five heads flows into a sixth head that spouts the water into the pond, symbolizing the unity of newly-formed Czechoslovakia.

Across the Masaryk stream I saw three bridges constructed in a simple design by Plečník. I remember visiting Plečník’s studio when I was in Ljubljana.  Communist president Klement Gottwald had contributed to the park as well. He had a small cottage with fairy-tale elements built for his grandson. There were also beehives from Masaryk’s era, again designed by Plečník. The Furstenbergs, who had owned the land with chateau for several centuries, were responsible for setting up the greenhouse. Three benches celebrated more recent events. One commemorated the Višegrad Four conference hosted in Lány in 2006, when Václav Klaus was the Czech president. Another was donated by Livia Klausová, a former First Lady, in 2012. The third was donated by current President Miloš Zeman. The Riding Stables were built in Neo-Gothic style during 1861.

We walked along the main chestnut-lined path and took in the various perspectives of the yellow, Baroque chateau. I knew something about the interior, even though it was not possible to go inside. The Blue Dining Room was decorated in Third Rococo from the beginning of the 20th century. The bright yellow wallpaper in the Yellow Salon harkened back to Husák’s era. After the Velvet Revolution, five Renaissance painting of Habsburg archdukes as children had been installed. There was a beautiful marble fireplace surrounded by superb woodcarving in the library. Masaryk’s Salon includes, thanks to the Furstenbergs, furniture made from black pearwood.

During Masaryk’s tenure, there was a movie theatre at the chateau where locals could watch the latest talkies. The films of Vlasta Burian, a comic actor whose work I knew well, often were projected there. This was where the Lány Agreement promoting cooperation between Austria and Czechoslovakia had been signed in December of 1921. So many presidents and dignitaries had graced the halls of that chateau.

I tried to imagine Masaryk riding his horses through the park. At Lány Masaryk had written many of his books and had met with legendary Czech author Karel Čapek to put together the nonfiction work Conversations with TGM. During the Nazi Protectorate, Emil Hácha had called the chateau home. I tried to imagine the Protectorate flag fluttering from the tower during the second World War. I recalled that Gottwald had tried to do away with all the monuments at Lány that were associated with Masaryk. There had been an assassination attempt on President Antonín Zápotecky in 1953, as a bomb went off under his car. One of the town’s inhabitants was killed in the blast. During Havel’s presidency, I used to love to listen to his Conversations from Lány radio broadcast.

The chateau and park made me think about Masaryk’s era and Havel’s 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic. After spending some time enjoying the sights in the park, it was time to go back to Prague. It was our first trip of the 2021 chateau and castle season, and it would always be one of the best ever.

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

My late cat Šarlota, named after Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk
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Křivoklát Castle Diary

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I’ve been to this Gothic masterpiece many times as it is only about an hour from Prague. Usually I go there by bus and travel back to Prague by train. This time I went for the first time by car with a friend. However, that was not the reason I would always remember this visit. I would remember it because it was my first trip after stay-at-home orders had ended during the coronavirus pandemic. From mid- March until mid-May, I had only been out of my home for long walks through scenic neighborhoods. The first three weeks I hardly went out at all because I was so terrified of getting the illness.

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The tower

I was nervous as we parked near a restaurant not far from the castle. What if someone coughed on me? One thing I knew: everyone would be wearing a mask. Czechs did not have a problem wearing masks – unlike some Americans. As we approached the castle, I felt a sense of relief and comfort. I had waited for this day since the beginning of April, when castles normally opened for the season in the Czech Republic. Now it was May 26, the first day castles were accessible to the public during 2020.

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I was familiar with the history of Křivoklát Castle. The castle dates back to the 13th century, although there was a fort at a different location as far back as the 12th century. Křivoklát Castle was constructed during the legendary era of the Přemyslid Dynasty, the clan that reigned in the Czech lands during the 13th and 14th centuries. The three-level circular tower, inspired by a French style, harkens back to the original structure. This tower is a dominant feature of the castle today. The upper courtyard also hails from this period.

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During the reign of Wenceslas II, Křivoklát was a remarkable and extensive early Gothic castle boasting three towers. A fire in the 14th century proved a major setback, though the castle was rebuilt. Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV was imprisoned there as a youngster and later would visit on many occasions despite his nightmarish childhood experience. Charles IV’s son Wenceslas IV had the castle reconstructed at the end of the 14th century and during the 15th century. That’s when Křivoklát became a very impressive structure holding a prominent position in the Czech lands.

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The Hussite Wars put an end to the castle’s glory. During this 15th century conflict, Křivoklát was conquered by both the Hussites and the Catholics. However, better days were to come as Czech King Vladislav II had Křivoklát reconstructed in late Gothic style, beginning in the 1470s. The chapel that has been preserved dates from this time. Also, Křivoklát was enhanced with topnotch defense features, such as semi-circular bastions, a battery tower and a triangular foregate with casements. Křivoklát Castle once again became a magnificent structure that was admired not only throughout the Czech lands but also all over Central Europe. Prominent people were imprisoned there. Some notable figures who were incarcerated there included Bishop of the Bohemian Brethren Jan Augusta, who spent 16 years in a cell without light. Alchemist Edward Kelly also did time at Křivoklát after killing a man in a duel.

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A fire in 1643 did much damage. It was sold to the Wallenstein clan during 1685. Then, in 1733, the Furstenbergs took control of the castle. After a devastating fire in 1826, the Furstenbergs had it renovated. The Furstenberg library was one of the highlights of the tour. Czech historian František Palacký used the library for his research. In 1929, the family sold the castle to the Czech state.

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The main altar, hailing from 1490

Because we went during the coronavirus epidemic, we had to wear masks, and only 15 people were allowed on each tour. However, it was not possible to stand two meters (six feet) apart from other castlegoers, which had me a bit concerned. On the tour, I learned that the original residential and defensive tower is 42 meters high. We saw three models of the castle from different periods. The model from the 13th century showed the tower at the castle’s unprotected side and a simple first courtyard. The second courtyard, though, looked as it did today. We toured the seven prison cells, and I tried to imagine living in one of them for 16 years without light as Jan Augusta did. I could not fathom it.

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The main altar in the chapel

Then we came to the chapel, my favorite room in the castle and one of the best preserved Gothic chapels in Europe. The winged main altar showing the crowning of the Virgin Mary dates back to 1490. It consists of four panels portraying the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I noticed one panel pictorially described the birth of Christ. I liked the prominent gold color of Mary’s halo in all four panels. I saw masterfully carved statues of the 12 Apostles on the walls. I loved the armrests on the pews with remarkably carved demonic monster-like creatures. While churchgoers were seated and gazing at the heavenly altar and 12 apostles, the “evil” armrests of the pews reminded them that there was also a Hell, which was readily accessible.

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Detail of the main altar

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A detail of a pew

We also saw a room dotted with Gothic art – altarpieces, statues and paintings that astounded. A triptych of Archangel Michael hailed from 1500. Illuminated manuscripts also caught my undivided attention. The Big Knights’ Hall measured 28 meters in length and eight meters in width. The statuary was splendid, the pillars elegant, the fresco remnants intriguing. From the oratory, I gazed down at the chapel and that dazzling main altar. The gilded pulpit was an architectural delight.

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From the chapel again

The library was another favorite room. I loved being surrounded by books, especially by 53,000 volumes. They were written in German, French, Latin, Italian and Czech. The guide pointed out the biggest book, called Hebrew Didactics and made up of 2,500 pages. Published during the 17th century, it weighed 11 kilos. Always a fan of paintings of castles, I liked the portrayals of the castles before the horrendous fire of 1826. A portrait of a young Franz Joseph I also was intriguing. In the Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs, the most important painting was also the smallest – a rendition of Albrecht Furstenberg from 1577. He had worked for Emperor Rudolf II. It was the oldest portrait in the collection.

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Another room showed off Baroque and Rococo sleighs once used for hunting, including one that had scenes of Amsterdam depicted on it. The Furstenberg museum included paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries, knights’ armor, spears and a colorful Asian vase plus many other artifacts.

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Gothic art and illuminated manuscripts amaze.

I had been nervous about this visit because of the coronavirus epidemic, but it went quite smoothly, despite the lack of social distancing on the tour. I was glad to travel again, even if it was only an hour from my home. I realized how much I had missed my weekly day trips. Being cooped up at home, only getting outside for walks, had been at times agonizing as I longed for the old normal that would never exist again. Now, at least after visiting this castle, I felt as if I was following a more normal routine, though I was still terrified of getting the disease.

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From Portrait Gallery of the Furstenbergs

We ate lunch in a quiet restaurant in Lány, the town where the president had his summer residence. We were seated at least two meters from the other diners. It was a fantastic feeling to be at a restaurant again after so many microwaved meals at home. It felt liberating, but I knew I still had to be very careful. We got back before 5:30 in the evening, so I was able to watch New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefing live. His briefings helped keep me sane while living through such crazy times.

The library and sleigh collection

While memories of all my other trips to Křivoklát blended together, this one would stand out because of the coronavirus pandemic. I had never imagined I would have to wear a mask while touring a castle. I did not understand why some Americans refused to wear them. After all, it could make all the difference between staying healthy and getting ill or even dying.

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During my trip to Křivoklát, the world seemed a little saner, a little less chaotic and less confusing. Admiring Gothic art and Baroque sleighs allowed me to – at least for an hour and a half – forget that the world was messed up, there were so many sudden changes to deal with on a daily basis. Visiting Křivoklát Castle helped me conquer my fears of going outside. And I knew that tomorrow would be another day as I had to take life one step at a time, always moving forward, never looking back.

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

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Views from the castle