Osek Monastery Diary

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Note: No photos were allowed inside

I traveled to the picturesque region below the Krušné Mountains to see Osek Monastery in 2018. It was my second visit in eight years. I remembered shivering with cold as I wore my rather thin jacket during that first visit, probably in October of 2010. Feeling partially frozen, I waited patiently for the bus back to Prague after a wonderful tour. I had enjoyed my time there immensely, but what I remember most is the cold that seeped through my garments.

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It was July when I came back for another look at the Cistercian monastery that was founded in the early 13th century, though monks had called the area home even at the end of the 12th century. This time, I arrived by car with a friend.

The Church of Our Lady at the monastery was a Romanesque creation, built as a three-aisled basilica in the shape of a Latin cross. The chapels and choir are rectangular. Measuring 76 meters long, during Romanesque days it was the biggest monasterial church in Bohemia.

The monastery was damaged during the Hussite wars of the 15th century during two years. The Hussites detested the Cistercians because, among other reasons, they were the wealthiest order in the Czech lands. The Thirty Years’ War brought devastation to the holy place. From 1580 to 1628, the monastery was closed.

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In the early 18th century, the Abbot Benedict Littweig ordered Baroque reconstruction. Two cupolas, the façade, sculptural ornamentation and the main altar all hail from that time period. The main architect of the makeover was an Italian born in Bohemia, Octavian Broggio from the Litoměřice region. He favored radical Baroque style and had experience working in Prague and in the area where he was born.

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During 1945 and 1946, the German monks who were living there were resettled in Germany for a while, and during 1961, they were sent to Germany again. At one point, the Salesians lived there, but the order was closed in 1950. The year 1950 would be the beginning of dreadful times. From 1950 to 1953, the monastery was used a detention center for priests. After that, it became a detention center for nuns. The Cistercian monks reclaimed the property in 1991 and left in 2010, when Abbot Bernard Thebej, who had overseen the monastery from 1991, died.

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I waited for the tour as I gazed at the Baroque façade with a superb portico. Saints John, Mark, Luke and Matouš faced me. I saw Saints Peter and Paul above them. I thought of the other Cistercian monasteries I had visited. In south Bohemia, I had seen both Vyšší Brod and Zlatá Koruna. At Vyšší Brod, I was most enamored by the library of 70,000 volumes, the third Czech monastic library. The Theological Hall with one of the largest collections of Bibles in Central Europe had also captivated me. I recalled the elaborate Rococo stucco decoration and numerous Rococo wall paintings at Zlatá Koruna as well as the early Gothic Chapel of Guardian Angels. Near Kutná Hora, not far from Prague, Sedlec Monastery had amazed me with its Santini-created Baroque Gothic style interior and paintings by Baroque master Petr Brandl. Plasy in west Bohemia also came to mind. Santini had done his magic there as well, and the Baroque pharmacy had such superbly painted drawers. I had toured Plasy at least three times. I had been impressed by Velehrad in Moravia, but I had been there so many, too many, years ago.

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The guide took us inside. The superb interior was pure Baroque with much stucco ornamentation. I was particularly drawn to one side altar because of its extremely morbid character. The altar featured Christ on the Cross, flanked by two angels, but the ornamentation made it feel creepy. It was adorned with figures of skulls and bones in Classicist style. At the foot of the Cross, there was a golden skull. I recalled the Cycle of Death murals at Kuks, a former hospital in splendid Baroque style. I had visited it on several occasions, so I was well-versed with the Baroque obsession for skeletons, skulls and bones. At the altar, there was a reliquary with remnants of Saint John the Baptist and other saints. All the chapels were impressive, but this one especially caught my attention.

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Interior of the church, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

There were two Baroque cupolas. I saw painted windows on one – a trademark of the Baroque style. Two Baroque organs graced the church. One of them had 666 pedals, giving it a mystical quality.

The choir benches – Baroque, of course – were amazing, made with intarsia decoration of wood on wood. The inlays were breathtaking. Black spiral columns and gold ornamentation added to the Baroque ambience. The guide opened a cabinet behind a bench: Hymnbooks were stored there. I could imagine the Cistercian monks singing in celebration and could almost hear their voices resound through the church. In front of the choir, there were modern benches where services were currently held. Facing these benches, underneath the floor, was the tomb of the last abbot.

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The main altar included impressive sculptures of the four apostles. Figures of angels also had prominent roles in the adornment. The painting of Assumption of Our Lady – the patron saint of the Cistercians – was the work of Jan Krištof Liška, a truly remarkable Czech artist. Václav Vavřinec Reiner, whose monumental painting I had seen at Duchcov Chateau a few months earlier, was responsible for the painting of the side altars as was Michael Leopold Willmann. Reiner also had created, along with Jan Jakub Steinfels, the ceiling paintings in the main nave and chancel. They portrayed scenes from the life of Christ and from the Old Testament.

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Aerial view of Osek, from http://www.mapio.net

The cloister surrounds a garden that is decorated with three tombstones from the 14th to 16th centuries. Eighteenth century paintings promoting the history of the order are features of the cloister. I could see Romanesque traits in the entrance portal to the cloister from the church.

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Vaulted ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

We passed by Well Chapel. A well, the monks’ source of water for a lengthy period, was the central element of the chapel, as the name suggests. Sculptural decoration adorned the well. On the wall behind it, there was a bright orange sliver of glass. This piece was original, dating back to the Gothic era. At that time, the glass had been brightly colored.

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Reader’s Lectern in Chapter Hall, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

The Chapter Hall was a Gothic delight. Constructed from 1225 to 1250, it was one of the first Gothic buildings in the Czech lands. The sandstone sculptures from this era were impressive. A Gothic statue of the Madonna hails from around 1430. Monks had frequented this area every day. In the middle of a room was a reader’s lectern from which monks would read aloud to those gathered in the space. A Gothic mechanism allowed the top of the lectern to swivel from side to side. In the chapel, the altar looked a bit flamboyant for late Gothic, with white and gold decoration. The wall paintings illustrating the history of the order were newer, dating from 1750.

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Gothic ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

Near the entranceway to the chapter hall was a dog’s paw print. I wondered what kind of dog had made the imprint and if the dog had lived during the Gothic period or Baroque era.

I loved that the monastery’s architecture celebrated both spectacular Baroque and Gothic styles. After the tour, my friend and I found a busy restaurant with outside tables, where we had delicious food. The establishment seemed to be the popular place for lunch in the town.

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Our stomachs filled with a satisfying lunch, we headed back to Prague. I had learned during the tour that the monastery would soon be closing for three years to have the entire interior renovated. I felt lucky I had had the chance to visit before the renovation and knew I had to come back in three years, to see an even more superb Baroque and Gothic creation.

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

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Church of Saint Corona Diary

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The first place our guides took us in Vicenza was the Church of Saint Corona, a three-nave Gothic structure with many treasures inside. The church harkens back to 1261, when it was constructed to house a Holy Thorn that the bishop of Vicenza had received as a present from French King Louis IX.

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I loved the interior with its paintings, frescoes, superb choir, ceiling and chancel. The artwork included a masterpiece by Paolo Veronese, “Adoration of the Magi.” The main altar featured Giovanni Bellini’s “The Baptism of Christ” while Bartolomeo Montagna’s “Magdalen and Saints” also made an appearance. I was especially entranced with Giabattista Pittoni’s “Enthroned Madonna and child venerated by Saints Peter and Pius V,” though all the paintings greatly impressed me. I loved art, and seeing these paintings filled me with joy and excitement as if I were at a renowned art museum.

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The choir in the apse was another wonder. The carved, inlaid decoration on the wooden choir was so delicate and detailed. The frescoes in the Thiene Chapel hailed from the early 15th century. The chancel was also of Renaissance origin. The painted coffered ceiling with stucco decoration was another jewel.  The superbly adorned main altar also appealed to me. The stained glass windows amazed.

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Of course, we could not take a good look at the church without paying close attention to the Valmarana Chapel, designed by Andrea Palladio around 1576 and located in the crypt. The Valmarana clan had been buried in the church, so it was no surprise that Antonio Valmarana had chosen to be interred there. The chapel was simply designed as a balanced space with a square space. The two niches in the chapel were simple yet helped give the space a sense of elegance. I liked the symmetry, and I would appreciate this characteristic of Palladio’s architecture in many other works that day and in the following days of our trip.

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Every element of the church seemed unique. The paintings each told a powerful story. The Gothic characteristics, the ceiling, the chancel, the choir, the chapel designed by Palladio – everything fused together to make this an architectural gem, just one of the many architectural gems that awaited me in Vicenza.

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

Kladruby Monastery Diary

Kladruby facade

I had visited Kladruby Monastery about 20 years before I participated in the arsviva tour of architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel’s creations in west Bohemia. I had wanted to pay the Benedictine Monastery another visit for a long time.

I already knew a bit about the fascinating history of the place. Kladruby Monastery was founded by Prince Vladislav I during 1115. It was established on the Nuremberg-Prague trade route. The monastery made quite a name for itself at the end of the 12th century and during the 13th century. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Saint Wolfgang and Saint Benedict was consecrated in 1233 with King Wenceslas I on hand for the ceremony. (King Wenceslas I was not the only royal to visit the monastery; King Přemysl Otakar I held negotiations there during the 13th century, too.)

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There was much looting later that century, but around 1370, a new abbot was appointed, and the situation improved. The Chapel of All Saints was added during that period. Then Hussite Wars brought devastation to Kladruby. The Hussites and then the army of the Emperor Sigismund took control of the monastery in the 15th century. The Benedictines returned in 1435, though it took about 70 years for things to shape up. The monastery flourished during the early 16th century, and more monks called Kladruby home. This was a glorious time of expansion. A school was set up; both Catholics and Protestants attended.

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Things took a turn for the worst with the onset of the Thirty Years’ War. The monastery was looted and pillaged. Because the Catholics won, Kladruby was once again in favor after the wartime turmoil. Expansion and reconstruction took place in the Catholized land.

Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, a Czech architect of Italian origin, became associated with the monastery in the early 18th century, when he was in charge of doing a makeover of the church in Baroque Gothic style, which emphasized Gothic features in a distinctly Baroque style. Thanks to his efforts, the church interior is bewitchingly beautiful.

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In 1785 Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monastery. The Benedictines packed their bags, and the Windisch-Graetz clan moved in. During their tenure, they divided the monastery into apartments. One part of the complex was made into a brewery. The Windisch-Graetzes, however, did build a library that is rather impressive.

Kladruby was nationalized after World War II, and terrible times were to come. Sick cattle grazed on the monastery’s property while other parts were transformed into offices. Reconstruction did not begin until the middle of the 1960s.

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I was especially intrigued by the Dining Room, which showed off an 18th century pewter service. What I found most intriguing, however, was the portrait of Cardinal Schwarzenberg. No matter where I stood, his eyes were always staring at me. I gazed at the portrait of the red-drapery clad cardinal with a stern expression from several angles.

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In the ambulatory we saw many sandstone statues by Late Baroque sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun, one of my favorites. His works are so dynamic and powerful. It was evident that Braun’s sojourn in Italy had influenced his creations. Most of these statues were inspired by Greek and Roman historical themes while some stood for allegories of character traits. They were all original except for the statue of Count František Antonín Špork, who had been a prominent cultural figure and patron of the arts in the early 18th century. He had founded Kuks, a former hospital that had once been located across from a popular spa, and he commissioned Braun to make statues of vices and virtues for the Baroque exterior of Kuks.

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I had visited Kuks for the third time the previous year, and Braun’s statues were certainly a highlight. The newly restored Dance of Death paintings lining a hallway and the Baroque pharmacy there were also impressive. I had also examined the statuary carved from sandstone rocks in Braun’s Bethlehem, situated near Kuks. Those accomplishments are by no means the only ones on Braun’s résumé. He authored several statuaries on Prague’s Charles Bridge, such as The Vision of St. Luthgard, which was his first work. It brought him much acclaim. At Kladruby we also saw 12 woodcuts depicting scenes from Christ’s childhood. It astounded me how it had been possible to portray so much detail in the 16th century carvings.

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At the monastery there are about 500 sculptures, paintings and portraits of John of Nepomuk, the Czech patron saint of Bohemia who was drowned in the Vltava River on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the latter part of the 14th century. The king and archbishop were at odds over who should be the abbot of the prosperous and influential monastery. John of Nepomuk showed his support for the Pope by confirming the archbishop’s candidate, which infuriated the king. John of Nepomuk became a saint in 1729.

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Then came the Santini-designed Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Saint Benedict and Saint Wolfgang. Santini had been inspired by the Italian radical Baroque use of geometry and symbolism. I see Santini’s structures as rational yet radical. Santini elevates Gothic art to a new form, offering fresh perspectives and giving new insights. I fondly recalled last year’s arsviva tour of Santini’s structures in east Bohemia and Moravia. I had learned so much about Santini’s creations, and my appreciation of the architect had grown.

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Santini was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a stonemason, but palsy prevented him from doing so. As a student he was mentored by Prague-based architect Jan Baptiste Mathey. During a four-year sojourn in Italy, Santini became enamored with works by Italian architects Francesco Borromini and Guarino Guarnini and their radical Baroque style. Santini was commissioned to reconstruct many religious sites. Baroque art became the fashion during the era when the Catholic army triumphed in the Thirty Years’ War and remained so afterwards, when the Catholicism flourished in the Czech lands. During a mere 46 years, Santini cast his magic spell on about 80 buildings.

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It amazed me how the church at Kladruby – the third biggest church in the Czech lands – retained its Gothic charm while also celebrating the Baroque style. I loved the details, such as the slots for candles in the benches of the choir. The pulpit was shaped like a boat rocking on a stormy sea. The Baroque organ – which still worked – boasted 1,270 pedals. Santini designed the impressive organ case. At the bottom of the main altar, there was a small statue of Christ on the cross, and I noticed that the Christ figure was crooked. I wondered what that symbolized. Two devils appeared in paintings in the church as well. Directly below the gushingly Late Baroque dome decorated with a scene of the Assumption was a large eight-pointed star of many layers. It was just one of many eight-pointed stars symbolizing the Virgin Mary that appeared in the church. I also liked the Romanesque elements that Santini had retained. I loved the many frescoes on the walls as well as the church’s stucco ribs and helical vaults. The play of light was also dynamic. Light played such a major role in Santini’s designs.

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The high altar, one of Braun’s masterpieces, was perhaps the most intriguing as it featured both Gothic and Baroque elements. It showed scenes from the life and torment of Jesus Christ and scenes from the history of the Benedictine Order. The Assam brothers, who had been Late Baroque gurus, had also decorated sections of the church.  I recalled the church in Munich that they had decorated. The Late Baroque adornment there was so overwhelming that it had made me dizzy.

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We also visited the Windisch-Graetz Empire style library, which held 33,000 volumes and included a gallery. On display were weapons of various sorts and objects obtained during travels abroad.

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I was more than satisfied with my visit to Kladruby and would recommend it to everyone who has time to see sights in west Bohemia. What impressed me most about Kladruby’s history was that it reflected the history of the Czech lands going through eras of prosperity, destruction and rebirth. Visiting the monastery was like reading a 900-year old illustrated text. Santini’s geometric symbolism, his use of Gothic and Baroque elements and the play of light greatly impressed me. Braun’s statues were so lively. Each facial expression told a story – some of delight, some of anguish. It was as if it was possible to see into the soul of each character represented in the statues.

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

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Romanesque and Gothic South Bohemia Diary

Albrechtice nad Vltavou church cemetery

Albrechtice nad Vltavou church cemetery

I went on another tour with the Czech travel agency arsviva at the beginning of May in 2014, this time concentrating on Romanesque and Gothic architecture in south Bohemia. We would explore many churches in villages, and I would finally see more than the bus station in Písek. After so many years in the country, I had seen all the most popular sights. I yearned always to always something new, something that would give me a new perspective on life and art, and I thought that traveling to Romanesque and Gothic churches in villages and visiting Gothic castles would be just the way to do that.
First we stopped in the village of Mirotice, which happens to have two main squares. Most villages have only one. The bus stopped across from the new town hall, which was only about 50 years old. We walked to St. Giles’ Church, Romanesque in style. There are not many churches in south Bohemia with Romanesque features. It hailed from the middle of the 12th century. I admired the lattice Romanesque window on the tower.

St. Giles' Church, Mirotice

St. Giles’ Church, Mirotice

The church had an intriguing past. In 1497 the worshippers had been of the Utraquist faith, who had been Hussites asserting that both the bread and wine should be given to worshippers during the Eucharist, but from 1664 to 1694 Catholics had prayed there. I recalled that the Utraquist branch of Hussites had triumphed over the radical Hussites during the 15th century Hussite wars.
Unfortunately, it was not possible to go inside (we would visit the interiors of most of the churches on our itinerary, though, thanks to our guide), but a Baroque makeover occurred in 1694. PseudoRomanesque reconstruction followed, from 1870 to 1872. I loved seeing elements of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. It amazed me how Romanesque and Gothic elements could survive so many centuries, through all the trials and tribulations of Czech history.
Then we meandered along some narrow cobblestone streets to a museum on the site of the former building where artist Mikuláš Aleš had been born. Aleš had made a name for himself as one of the top 19th century Czech painters and illustrators, among other accomplishments. It fascinated me that in such a small village there could be any intriguing sights, let alone two. I felt as if the village was revealing its secrets to me.

The museum on the site where Mikuláš Aleš was born

The museum on the site where Mikuláš Aleš was born

The next church we visited was dramatically perched on a hill by itself rather than in the midst of a village. The Church of Saint James the Greater in Čížová boasted a ground plan with early Gothic masonry and Late Gothic supporting pillars. It had never had a tower, which was an oddity. Baroque decoration greeted visitors inside, but we did not have the chance to see this interior. The churches we were visiting were not open for the general public. It was difficult to obtain official permission, so that someone would open them for us. Just seeing the exterior was breathtaking enough. And later we would see many interiors.
There is another intriguing feature of the church as well. The tombstones of Knight Ludvík Lorecký and his two sons, who were murdered by serfs in 1571, are in the church. I wondered if the serfs had revolted because they were hungry or overworked. I wondered who the knight and his sons were. Did they hail from this village or did they just happen to die here? How did Lorecký become a knight? Were his two sons knights, too? How old were they when they died? I fascinated me how so many questions could arise from a church in such a small town.

The Church of St. James the Greater in Čížová

The Church of St. James the Greater in Čížová

I was very excited about the next stop, the town of Písek, where I had only been at the bus station. For many years I had wanted to explore Písek, but I just never had the time or had never made the time. Actually, I had been under the impression that there was not much to see except for the Stone Bridge that was the oldest bridge in the country, even older than the Charles Bridge in Prague. In Central Europe only Regensburg’s bridge was older. I fondly recalled my several days discovering stunning medieval architecture and visiting a lavish palace in Regensburg not that long ago.
Písek’s history may go back to the 12th century. There was a castle in Písek, built by Czech King Wenceslas (Václav) I, before the middle of the 13th century. The town was first mentioned in writing during 1243. During the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, Písek prospered because gold was found there. Wenceslas’ son Přemysl Otakar II continued to expand the town during the 13th century, and Písek also played a significant role in the Czech lands under Charles IV’s rule during the 14th century. Czech kings often stayed in Písek.
In the 15th century, during the Hussite wars which were fought between various branches of Hussites, with monarchs helping out the moderate Hussites, Písek was controlled by the Hussites, followers of Bohemian priest and reformer Jan Hus who were battling against the moderate Hussites and other world powers, until 1452. The town flourished during the 16th century, becoming very wealthy.
During the Bohemian Revolt from 1618 to 1621, the town supported the Protestants, who lost to the Catholics, so Písek was severely punished. (Some of the Protestant nobles had protested when the staunchly Catholic Ferdinand of Styria became King of Bohemia, triggering the revolt.)

Buildings on a square in Písek

Buildings on a square in Písek

The 18th century brought the plague while during the 19th century there were more positive developments, namely the National Revival, a cultural movement promoting the Czech language, Czech culture and Czech nationalism. More Czech cultural groups and Czech schools were built during that golden age.
Písek focused on industrialization during the second half of the 19th century and even holds the honor of being the first Czech town with permanently installed electric public lighting. While Písek experienced rosy days during the democratic First Republic, the tragic era of Nazi rule followed. On May 6, 1945, the US army liberated Písek. Under Communism factories dotted the town. Písek was badly damaged during the 2002 floods that ravaged the country.

Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, Písek

Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, Písek

First, we visited the deanery’s Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, which hails from the second half of the 13th century and was constructed as a pseudobasilicia with three naves and a five-sided presbytery. Its tower reaches 72 meters. Inside there was an astounding 18th century Baroque chapel dedicated to John of Nepomuk, a Bohemian saint who drowned in the Vltava River, murdered on the order of King Wenceslas in 1393. Above the altar in this chapel I saw vedutas of the town.

The Church of the Virgin Mary in Písek

The Church of the Virgin Mary in Písek

The main altar of the church was Neo-Gothic, from the 19th century. A copy of the statue referred to as the Písek Madonna was located on a side altar. The original, dating back to the 15th century, was stolen in 1975. The pulpit hailed from 1887, and its six-sided cover featured sculptures of five angels. I noticed that one was holding a harp and another was playing the flute. The organ loft went all the way back to the beginning of the 16th century, while the organ was much younger, dating from the early 20th century. I also admired the richly carved 17th century Baroque candelabras. The pewter baptismal font was in Renaissance style, from 1587.

An altarpiece at the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Písek

An altarpiece at the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Písek

The interior of the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Písek

The interior of the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary in Písek

The interior of the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary

The interior of the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary

There were many Gothic characteristics of the church as well. It boasted sturdy, early Gothic ribs and portals. The presbytery, the northern tower and the three naves hailed from the second part of the 13th century, and the sacristy dated from around 1300 while the southern tower could be traced back to 1489. One of the windows was forged in the 13th century. The Gothic wall paintings were spectacular. I could hardly believe that they dated from around 1270. I peered closely at the 13th century rendition of a suffering Christ with figures of angels carrying a cross, nails, scourge and a crown of thorns. The triumphal arch was painted during the first part of the 14th century.

The interior of the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, Písek

The interior of the Church of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, Písek

Some participants followed the guide to the castle, but I joined a group of women to get a bite to eat. We found a basement pub with cozy wood paneling. After lunch we walked through the town for a short while. I noticed a small Renaissance church with amazing sgraffito on one of the three main squares. It was called The Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross and had a very short tower. The church was all that was left of a monastery founded at the same time as the town itself. It had been destroyed in 1419 during the Hussite wars, when Písek was full of Hussite supporters. Unfortunately, it was not possible to walk through the church; we had to look through a grille. Still, the interior was more than impressive.

The Renaissance Church on a main square in Písek

The Renaissance Church on a main square in Písek

The Plague Column nearby hailed from 1715 and was crowned by a statue of the Virgin Mary with a total of nine saints making appearances. The town hall was Late Baroque, built from 1740 to 1750. We did not have much time before we had to meet at the Holy Trinity Church in the cemetery park, but we did get a quick look at the medieval castle, now a museum with a variety of exhibits. I tried to imagine what it must have been like when, so many centuries ago, King John the Blind (Jan Lucemberský) declared Písek a free royal town at this very castle. (By the way, there was nothing wrong with John the Blind’s sight. The term “the blind” refers to “fighting blindly” or not giving up.)

The castle in Písek

The castle in Písek

We had time to walk through the exhibition about the Písek countryside during the 19th century and then went downstairs to the space with the larger-than-life portraits of Czech rulers. Oddly enough, the painter had depicted all the Czech leaders with the same serious expression, nose and chin. The original sculptural groupings from the Stone Bridge were kept here as well. I had trouble taking my eyes off them. They were astounding.

Statuary on the Stone Bridge in Písek

Statuary on the Stone Bridge in Písek

A statue on the Stone Bridge in Písek

A statue on the Stone Bridge in Písek

Then we left the museum and crossed the Stone Bridge over the Otava River. The oldest bridge in the country was like a miniature Charles Bridge with evocative statuary. The town cemetery had been founded in 1549, and the deceased were buried there until 1950. It was changed into a park during 1975. The Holy Trinity Church, mostly used for concerts, had a very different sort of interior than the others we had visited. It was decorated with brightly colored, abstract wall hangings and a new organ, donated by the 20th century world traveler and author, Jiří Hanzelka, who was best known for his travels to Africa and South America. There was also a remarkable pulpit with intarsia.

The ceiling of the church

The ceiling of the Holy Trinity Church

The holy place had become a concert and exhibition hall during the 1980s as the Communists had stripped it of its Renaissance identity, destroying the main altar and other furnishings, including the Renaissance organ loft. This destruction was just one example of the Communists’ lack of respect for religion and art. I am so glad I had not had to live through totalitarianism. Later, thankfully, the church’s Renaissance wall paintings had been restored.

The pulpit with intarsia in the Holy Trinity Church

The pulpit with intarsia in the Holy Trinity Church

In the bell tower we saw tombstones from the 1300s. Renowned Czech historian August Sedláček was buried in this cemetery, too. He compiled the 15-volume work Castles, Chateaus and Fortresses in the Czech lands, which was published at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
The next stop was Putim, probably most famous for being mentioned in Jaroslav Hašek’s mammoth, early 20th century, anti-militaristic novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, featuring soldier Josef Švejk, who exhibits passive resistance and may or may not be an idiot. Scenes from the 1957 film based on Hašek’s satirical masterpiece set during World War I in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been shot in this town that was founded in 1205.

The church in Putim

St. Lawrence’s Church in Putim

But that was not Putim’s only claim to fame. The 1908 film Jan Cimbura was based on the life of a Putim farmer by the same name. I saw his modest but impressive grave from 1898. The movie, adapted from a novel by Catholic priest Jindřich Šimon Baar, takes place from 1848 to 1898, examining 50 years of the life of a good Christian and farmer in south Bohemia.

Jan Cimbura's grave in Putim

Jan Cimbura’s grave in Putim

In St. Lawrence’s Church I admired a Gothic window, wooden Gothic vaulting, Gothic masonry and a 13th century portal. The furnishings were much younger, though. The main altar was probably created around 1650, and the other parts of the interior most likely were made around 1700. The impressive tombstones inside the church dated from approximately 1600. One of the bells, called St. Andrew, was original and hailed from 1553.
This church had a characteristic that I had never seen anywhere else. It had two main altars with different seating arrangements for each altar. It fascinated me how it appeared to be two churches built into one. I read that one part of the church had been for Catholics while the other part had been designed for Utraquists, It certainly had an intriguing ground plan.

The interior of St. Lawrence's Church

The interior of St. Lawrence’s Church

St. Giles’ Church in Heřmaň also boasted Early Gothic construction. The western tower dated back to the beginning of the Middle Ages. While the village was first mentioned in writing during 1227, the church was founded in 1254 as it was originally late Romanesque. The furnishings were much younger, though. The interior was Baroque from 1720 to 1721. Two elegant white columns framed the painting at the main altar, Classicist in style, dating from the 1800s.

The pulpit in St. Giles' Church in Heřmaň

The pulpit in St. Giles’ Church in Heřmaň

St. Giles' Church in Heřmaň

St. Giles’ Church in Heřmaň

The organ of St. Giles' Church

The organ of St. Giles’ Church

Then our itinerary took us to the Church of Saint Havel in Myšenec, which also had experienced a Romanesque birth. On what is now the sacristy was originally a Romanesque church with apse from the 11th century. There was a Gothic window, too. What impressed me most were the Gothic frescoes on the walls and the vaulting of the sacristy. They dated from 1340 to 1350. In the presbytery Hell was pictured with a burning tower and the devil, and Heaven made an appearance, too. On the north side the life of Saint Catherine was depicted. I loved the stars and angels on the ceiling.

The interior of the church in Myšenec

The interior of the Church of Saint Havel in Myšenec

Gothic paintings in the Church of Saint Havel

Gothic paintings in the Church of Saint Havel

In the small sacristy there were more Gothic wall paintings. The figure of a prophet had been rendered on an arch. On part of one wall there was a pictorial narrative of the legend of Saint Markéta along with the figure of the devil. Arcades and pillars appeared in the renditions, too. Our guide, who had extensive knowledge of Gothic and Romanesque architecture, explained that the paintings in the sacristy had not been created by the same painter who decorated the presbytery. I wondered if there were even more than two contributors to the artwork, who they had been and how they had come about to decorating the church’s interior.

Gothic wall painting at the Church of Saint Havel

Gothic wall painting at the Church of Saint Havel

That was not all there was to see in Myšenec. Between homes 54 and 8, we gazed at the remnants of a castle and the arch of a gate. The castle had been established by the Přemysl dynasty in the 13th century. I wondered what it would be like to have part of a 13th century castle ruin joined to one’s modern house. It reminded me that history was so connected with the present and how ancient history made up such an important part of each village’s identity. It was fascinating how the two different architectural styles of modern and Gothic played off each other. The Gothic walls and arch looked like an odd extension of the house. They were certainly unique.

Gothic painting in the Church of Saint Havel in Myšenec

Gothic painting in the Church of Saint Havel in Myšenec

The Church of Saints Peter and Paul in Albrechtice nad Vltavou was a real gem, perhaps my favorite, if it was possible for me to choose one sight over the others. The church was originally Romanesque from the 12th century and still boasted Romanesque masonry. The tower was Romanesque in style, too. The Romanesque wall painting inside was incredible, dating from 1200 or earlier. On the triumphant arch there were frescoes of The Last Judgment with Hell and Paradise. You could see pictures of Christ rising from the dead. The wall painting was restored during the Nazi Occupation, from 1941 to 1942. I hadn’t been aware that any reconstruction occurred in churches during the Protectorate. There were small, exquisite Gothic paintings in the church, too.

The wall and ceiling painting in Albrechtice

The wall and ceiling painting in Albrechtice

But that was not all the church had to offer. It was surrounded by 85 small chapels behind each gravestone. Each one was unique. They jumped out at the viewer with their bright colors and vitality. Parish priest Vít Cíza, who served there from 1819 to 1854, had had the innovative chapels built. The first chapels were erected in 1841 and took five years to complete. Renovation took place in the middle of the 19th century. I had never seen a cemetery that actually looked cheerful. By erecting these chapels, it was as the cemetery was celebrating the lives and the individuality of the people rather than merely mourning their loss. This was the first time I had visited a cemetery and had not been depressed.

The murals at Albrechtice

The chapels at the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Albrechtice

The small chapels at Albrechtice

The small chapels at Albrechtice

Next we visited Zvíkov Castle, which I had seen several times during my long-time stay in the Czech lands. I was glad to have the opportunity to visit it again as I had not been there for at least 10 years. Like the castle in Písek, Zvíkov had a royal palace, four wings and an inner arcade in the courtyard. The crown jewels were even stored there until Karlštejn Castle was finished under Emperor Charles IV’s rule during the middle of the 14th century.

The arcades in the inner courtyard of Zvíkov Castle

The arcades in the inner courtyard of Zvíkov Castle

Set on an island, Zvíkov was first mentioned in writing during 1234. King Wenceslas (Václav) I started to build it in the first part of the 13th century. Construction on the Royal Palace began around 1250. Emperor Charles IV had it renovated during the 14th century. After that there were several owners, including the notable Rožmberk and Švamberk clans. Then came darker days. It was conquered during the Thirty Years’ War, and then Zvíkov was used as a warehouse. It was not until the Schwarzenbergs took control of it in 1719 that renovations occurred. In the 19th century the castle became dilapidated again, but reconstruction in 1880 put Zvíkov back on the Czech castle map.

The Gothic paintings in St. Wenceslas Chapel

The Gothic paintings in St. Wenceslas Chapel

Wall painting at St. Wenceslas Chapel

Wall painting at St. Wenceslas Chapel

I was most mesmerized by the bright, vibrant Gothic wall paintings in Saint Wenceslas Chapel. They dated from 1480 to 1500. There were also exquisite 15th century frescoes in the Dance Hall. They showed a festive, dancing scene below pictures of the four electors of the emperor, including the Czech king. I admired the Lombard chairs, seating with high decorated backs, in the Knights’ Room. That furniture hailed from Renaissance days, and I thought it looked so distinguished. The Gothic altar was also very impressive.

A Gothic altar at Zvíkov Castle

A Gothic altar at Zvíkov Castle

The 15th century wall painting in the Dance Hall

The 15th century wall painting in the Dance Hall

Our last stop was the Holy Trinity Church in Čimelice, which had Gothic masonry but was furnished in the Baroque style of the 18th century. However, the stunning Gothic Madonna on a side altar dated from the second half of the 15th century. The ceiling was from the Renaissance era, resembling the ceiling of the cemetery church in Písek. The tower had been erected in Empire style during 1821. The altars and sculpture hailed from the second half of the 18th century. The Baroque Chapel of Saint Barbara was stunning, going all the way back to the first half of the 18th century. Then we were in for a real treat. The man in charge of the church played the 15th century organ for us. Its rich, colorful sound filled the holy space.

The main altar in Čimelice

The main altar in Čimelice

The Gothic Madonna in Čimelice

The Gothic Madonna at the Holy Trinity Church in Čimelice

The ceiling in Čimelice

The ceiling at the Holy Trinity Church in Čimelice

We also saw a chateau and pond belonging to the Schwarzenbergs, but the chateau had not been restored or was not open the public. The red and yellow colors of the façade reminded me of the magnificent exterior of Dobříš Chateau near Prague.
I had found this tour fascinating. I had learned so much about the Czech lands as well as about Romanesque and Gothic architecture and art, thanks to our remarkable guide, who was so knowledgeable and well-organized. I had never realized that villages had so much history. Each village had its own character, its own identity, its own story to tell. It amazed me that the history of these villages was rooted in Romanesque or Gothic eras. I have lived in the Czech lands for more than 20 years, and it still is difficult for me to fathom that Gothic and Romanesque art and architecture could survive so many centuries, so much turbulent history, so many wars.

The chateau in Čimelice

The chateau in Čimelice

During the tour I was most impressed with the Gothic wall paintings, especially in Zvíkov’s Saint Wenceslas Chapel, in Myšenec and in Albrechtice nad Vltavou. I also was enamored by the stunning arcades and vaulting at Zvíkov Castle. I was enthralled with the stunning arcade chapels on the cemetery walls at Albrechtice. I could not believe that a cemetery could be so full of life. I also was glad that I had seen parts of Písek other than the bus station. Písek really was a charming town.

A Madonna statue in Myšenec

A Madonna statue in Myšenec

During my many years in the country, I had seen the major castles and sights in south Bohemia – Hluboká nad Vltavou Chateau, Český Krumlov Chateau, Třeboň Chateau, Vyšší Brod and Zlatá koruna monasteries and others. But I had never explored the villages. I had never even thought they were worth exploring, to tell the truth. Now I knew that every nook and cranny of the country had its own rich history, its own secrets to reveal.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Arcades at Zvíkov Castle

Arcades at Zvíkov Castle

 

Mělník Chateau Diary

 

The Renaissance arcades of Mělník Chateau

The Renaissance arcades of Mělník Chateau

This was my second visit to Mělník Chateau, located less than an hour from Prague by bus. I was enthusiastic about getting reacquainted with the interior that I had so admired during my first time here. Back then, there had been no guided tours. Visitors were given a text to read while they walked through the chateau’s rooms. This time I would have a tour, so I was excited about seeing the chateau from a new perspective.
I knew a bit about the history of the chateau already, and what I did not remember I perused in a booklet that I had bought at the box office, which also served as the souvenir shop. Mělník’s history is closely connected with Czech legends. Supposedly, Princess Ludmila often resided in the town while raising her grandson, Wenceslas (Václav), who would later become a well-respected duke of Bohemia and after his death the patron saint of the country. The original wooden structure was changed into a stone castle during the 10th century. Spouses of Bohemian princes owned the castle, which got a Gothic makeover in the second half of the 13th century.
The castle became home to Bohemian queens during Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV’s reign. Emperor Charles IV, who was responsible for building Prague’s New Town, the Charles Bridge and Charles University, supported winemaking in Mělník and the surrounding areas. He even imported burgundy grapes. Queen Elisabeth Přemyslid, the last wife of Emperor Charles IV, resided in the castle for a lengthy period and died there. She was responsible for building the chapel. The Přemyslid dynasty had ruled Bohemia from the 9th century to 1306.
The castle was given Late Gothic features in the late 15th century. During the following century, it was changed into a Renaissance chateau. The reconstruction was finished during the 17th century. While the castle became decrepit during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, it was soon repaired.

 

One wall of Mělník Chateau

One wall of Mělník Chateau

Then, in 1753, one of the most significant events in the chateau’s history occurred. Marie Ludmila Countess Czernin wed August Anton Eusebius Lobkowicz. The castle would remain in the Lobkowicz family until 1948, when it was nationalized after the Communist coup that instigated 40 years of totalitarianism in Czechoslovakia.
I envied the fact that the Lobkowiczs had played such prominent roles in Czech history. In the early 15th century Nicolas was given the village of Lobkovice nad Labem by King Wenceslas IV, and he took the name of the village. George Popel Lobkowicz of Vysoký Chlumec held the post of the highest chamberlain of Emperor Rudolph II. Zdeněk Vojtěch became the highest chancellor of the Bohemian Kingdom. His son, Wenceslas Eusebius, served as the highest chamberlain in the kingdom and as president of the secret services during the 17th century.
In the following century John George Christian was made a prince due to his military achievements. Anton Isidor was one of the founders of what is now Prague’s National Gallery. George Christian served as supreme marshal of the Bohemian Kingdom and was a member of the Bohemian Parliament during the 19th century.
But there would be dark, turbulent times for the Lobkowicz clan. During World War II the Nazis took over the chateau. The family took refuge in Prague. Then came 1948 and the Communist coup. The Lobkowiczs fled the country, and the chateau was put in the hands of the state. The present owner of the chateau, George John Prince Lobkowicz, moved to the homeland of his ancestors from Switzerland in 1990. He has been owner of the chateau since 1992 and currently resides there.
I also envied the fact that the Lobkowiczs could trace their ancestry so far back. I knew that my Slovak ancestors had been potato farmers in east Slovakia. I even met a few very distant relatives about 10 years ago, but, unfortunately, they do not keep in touch with me anymore. On the Czech side of the family, I know that my great-grandparents were from somewhere near Prague or from Prague itself. They had a common surname – Šimánek. I also know that I had ancestors from somewhere in Moravia, with the popular Czech surname Mareš.
I moved to Czechoslovakia in 1991 partially because I felt a strong association with the country of my roots and intuitively felt that it was a part of my personal identity. If only I knew more about my ancestors, and if only they had played such prominent roles in Czech history as had the Lobkowiczs! Yet, at the same time, I was not sure that I wanted to know more about my ancestors. I had visited the village in east Slovakia where my great aunt had come from, and I was going to look for an inhabitant with the same – not common – last name as my great aunt’s maiden name. But I decided not to because I was scared. While I wanted to meet long lost relatives, I was also scared of finding them. Scared they might not like me or that I might not like them. What if they had been Communists? What if they were mean people? What if they hated Americans or wanted money from me because they thought all Americans were rich?

 

The elegant Renaissance arcades

The elegant Renaissance arcades

I studied the impressive exterior of the chateau. I loved the elegance of the Renaissance arcades with decorations on the walls. A sundial also adorned the façade. There was sgraffito, too, which I adored. The other wing was built later, in the 17th century, in Baroque style. After admiring the Renaissance arcades for a while, I noticed that it was time for the tour to start and I entered the souvenir shop, ready for what I was sure would be an impressive walk through the ages of Mělník’s top sight.
The guide, a serious and well-dressed woman, described some of the background of the chateau and Lobkowicz family, and it was clear that she was very professional and knowledgeable. The first room was called the Bedroom of George Christian, named after a Lobkowicz who died tragically at the age of 25 in a racing car accident in 1932. I was reminded how we have to treasure each moment in our lives and see the beauty in daily life because we never knew when our time will be up.
I was captivated by a Baroque closet flaunting intarsia. The painted decoration high on the walls showed plant leaves with vases in green and brown. The colors seemed to go well with the 17th century Baroque furniture. On the headboard of the Baroque bed was a painting of a Madonna that appealed to me. I also took note of the richly carved wood of the bed. Portraits of the Lobkowicz family adorned the room, too, and one of the paintings had been executed by master Czech Baroque artist Karel Škréta.
August Longin’s Study was named after a Lobkowicz who had befriended Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a visitor of Mělník. The room featured two exquisite French desks – one hailing from the 17th century and the other from the 18th century. The older one was inlaid with tortoiseshell, plated brass and tin in ebony wood, made in the Boulle style. The 18th century desk, celebrating the Rococo style, was made of gilded bronze and plated brass. I particularly admired the gold decoration on the younger desk, the one that had been stolen during the totalitarian era. It had wound up in an office at the Ministry of Culture.
However, that was not all the room had to offer. An 18th century table with mother-of-pearl hailed from Japan and had designs of fans on its top. There was also a portable 18th century toilet near the room. Small portraits of Habsburg rulers hung on one wall. I spotted Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II and Empress Maria Theresa right away.

 

The sundial on the facade

The sundial on the facade

The next room was the Children’s Room with toys from the 19th century, including dolls and a puzzle. Porcelain in a cabinet hailed from Hungary. The 18th century bed in the room was short, but it was standard size for adults at that time. People slept sitting up because they were afraid they would die if they lay down. I admired the rich, wooden carving of the bed and the Madonna on the headboard.
The Big Dining Room featured two Baroque bureaus from the 17th century. They were inlaid with tortoiseshell and adorned with gilded decorations. Some of the pictures painted on them focused on seascapes with ships. The chairs were upholstered with tapestries. The guide pointed out two valuable 17th century lunettes by Škréta; they were part of the story of the life and death of Saint Wenceslas, who, according to legend, had resided in Mělník when he was a child. Other breathtaking paintings rounded out the room’s décor.
The Grand Drawing Room featured 18th century furniture. I noticed two 18th century Rococo tables with gilded brass angels decorating the legs. Portraits of the prominent politician George Christian and his wife Anna were rendered by Czech painter František Ženíšek, who had also decorated the National Theatre. More astounding works of art adorned the walls, some portraits of the Lobkowicz family, others biblical paintings and still others sporting themes from antiquity. I spotted Helen of Troy in one rendition.
I was drawn to the white furniture and pale green walls. It looked airy and light and exuded an atmosphere filled with joy. Chinese and faience porcelain as well as ceramic vases from Asia made up the room, too.

 

Another view of the sundial

Another view of the sundial

The hallway was adorned with a bust of Parliament member George Christian. It had been created by Josef Václav Myslbek, a master of modern sculpture working in the 19th and early 20th century. Engravings featuring carriages decorated one wall, too. I was drawn to other works of art – the pictures of romantic 18th century Prague, especially to Old Town Square, my favorite part of the capital city. I remember the first time I stepped onto Old Town Square. I felt an unexpected electricity, a strong connection with the city and country. I was only a tourist at the time, but at that moment I knew I had to return to live in the homeland of my ancestors.
Perhaps the most astounding room was the Big Hall with Maps and Vedutas that came next. The maps and vedutas hailed from the 17th century. I noticed maps of Italy, France and the Netherlands. Then there were all the big vedutas of European towns on the walls. It was so breathtaking that it was almost overwhelming. The veduta of Prague featured only one bridge, the Charles Bridge, without any statuary decoration. Strasbourg, Nuremburg, Regensburg, Venice, Florence, Seville, Madrid and Brussels were just a few of the other cities represented. The detail of the maps and vedutas was more than impressive. Most of them were made in Amsterdam.
Perhaps I was so drawn to this room because I loved maps so much. I used to buy maps of Czech towns I had never been to and wondered what each building and each street looked like as I took a an imaginary walk through the town. Two large maps decorated my living room – one of the Czech Republic and another of Slovakia, as I treasured memories of Czechoslovakia. I often traced the routes from Prague to various chateaus and impressive towns and thought about my adventures there.
On the map of Slovakia I found Špišský Castle, below which some very distant ancestors were buried, and traced paths to Poprad, Kežmarok and Bratislava. I found Morské Oko in the Vihorlat, near my great aunt’s home village, and traced the path to Košice and Michalovice, where I had heard that some of my other ancestors had hailed from. I found more places I had visited – Humenné, Levoča and Trenčín, for example, and recalled moments of happiness and discovery.
Melnikchateauarcades5Back to the tour. The Knights’ Hall featured 16th century suits of armor on the walls. An 18th century oak table also caught my attention. In the Small Hall with Vedutas, various weapons from the 17th to 19th century were displayed. However, what really caught my attention where the black-and-white vedutas of European cities during the early 18th century. I was entranced by the vedutas of Prague and Brno. Some military equipment on display came from 17th century Turkey. I also admired the richly carved Chinese furniture. I have always been an admirer of wooden Chinese furniture.
The vast Concert Hall was still used for concerts, balls and other events. It was situated in the Baroque wing of the chateau, but the construction of this part had not been finished until 2005. There was an original 16th century wall with sgraffito decorations that delighted me. I’ve always been a big fan of sgraffito! The opposite wall was a copy made in this century, but, faithful to the original plan, it complemented the authentic side. I looked up and saw a painted coffered ceiling. Vedutas of Versailles and its park from the 17th century adorned another wall. Drawn to these works of art, I thought back to my visit to Versailles, during a warm February afternoon and how impressed I had been with the vast French chateau.
Then we went downstairs, passing by colored lithographs of Prague sights from 1792 and 1793. We wound up on the first floor in the lavish Grand Dining Room. Exquisite Baroque paintings adorned the walls. I loved the gold-and-white decoration on the pink-colored ceiling. The silverware hailed from the 18th century, and the guide pointed out Viennese porcelain as well as white Sèvres porcelain. The highlights of the room, though, were two paintings. One was another lunette from the cycle of Saint Wenceslas by Škréta. There was also a spectacular painting called “Christ with Veronica” by Paolo Veronese. It portrayed Christ on the cross with a self-portrait of the painter as the carrier of the cross.

 

The town hall on the main square

The town hall on the main square

The chapel was last. It hailed from the 14th century, built by Queen Elisabeth, the fourth wife of Emperor Charles IV, and was originally dedicated to Saint Louis. During the Thirty Years’ War, the chapel was so badly damaged that it had to be rebuilt, and this time it was consecrated to Saint Ludmila. A painting of Saint Ludmila’s baptism adorned the main altar. Impressive paintings dotted the chapel. Two portraits – of Saint Andrew and Saint Bartholomew – by my favorite Czech Baroque artist, Petr Brandl decorated the space. There was even a painting of an apostle, created by Peter Paul Rubens.
Then the tour ended, and I was thankful that I had been led through the chateau by such a professional guide who had given such detailed information about each room. I was very impressed with her knowledge and enthusiasm. I knew how disappointing tours could be if the guides were not good, though most of my experiences with tour guides in this country has been positive. It was much better to have a tour guide than to be given a text and walk through the chateau by yourself, I mused. The guide helped bring the chateau alive. Her words gave life to the chateau that had played roles in Czech history and legends.
I think it was possible to tour the wine cellars as well, but I do drink much alcohol and am not very interested in wine. However, there are three floors of historical wine cellars below the chateau: Emperor Charles IV had them built. The Lobkowiczs have a family tradition of presenting a new-born with a new wine barrel. The barrel would be filled a year before the young Lobkowicz turned 18. It was remarkable that wine had played such a prevalent role in the family history.
Winetasting tours were available, and if I had liked alcohol, I would have been enthusiastic about taking one of these trips to the cellars with original, wooden barrels.
Instead of sampling wine, I ate a delicious meal in the chateau’s restaurant, though they did not offer my beloved chicken with peaches and cheese. Still, I was pleased with the food and the service.

 

The picturesque houses on the main square

The picturesque houses on the main square

I walked around the town and noticed the impressive Renaissance and Baroque houses on the large main square, especially the town hall, which hailed from the late 14th century. Next to the chateau was the Gothic Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Unfortunately, it was closed, but the ossuary was open. I found out that the next tour of the ossuary would not start until after my bus left for Prague. What a pity. I knew I would have to come back someday, to tour the chateau again and to visit this ossuary that I had not known about before this trip.

 

The Gothic Church of Saints Peter and Paul

The Gothic Church of Saints Peter and Paul

Soon I walked through the decorated gate from 1500 and made my way to the bus station. I immediately caught a bus bound for Prague. When I disembarked at the Holešovice bus station in Prague 7, I was truly happy. I had had another positive experience at another impressive Czech chateau. My day had been filled with making new discoveries and gathering new perspectives on the Lobkowicz family history, the history of the chateau and my own personal history.

 

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

The gate dates back to 1500.

The gate dates back to 1500.

Regensburg Diary

A view of the town from the Stone Bridge

A view of the town from the Stone Bridge

 

My boss at a languageschool where I had taught had praised Regensburg back in 1997. Ever since then, I had wanted to visit the historic town, but the trip kept being postponed. Then I went on a one-day excursion with arsviva to Bamberg, Germany and got my first taste of the wonders of Bavaria. (I only have faint memories of my visit to Munich when I was nine years old.) I was so enthralled with Bamberg that I just had to explore other towns in Bavaria. So, during October of 2013, the next time I had a few days off work, I took the train to Regensburg.

The direct train only took a little over four hours to get to the only preserved medieval town in Germany. On the train I acquainted myself with the history of this architectural gem. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, Regensburg did not experience much destruction during World War II, enabling it to keep its medieval character. A Roman military camp was located there as far back as 179 AD, and the Romans would greatly influence the town for 300 years. During the Middle Ages, emperors, dukes and kings had frequented the town. After it became a part of the Carolingian Empire, Charlemagne visited Regensburg three times. Regensburg acquired the status of a Free Imperial City in 1245 and also was a bustling trade center. The town lost its independence and became part of the Duchy of Bavaria in 1486, but soon the tables turned again, and Regensburg regained its independence.

The facade of an architecturally intriguing building in Regensburg

The facade of an architecturally intriguing building in Regensburg

When the Turks overtook Constantinople, this Bavarian city was no longer a gateway to the East, triggering financial hardships. As a result, according to the unwritten law that blamed minorities for economic difficulties, the Jews were expelled in 1519. During 1542 Regensburg became a Protestant town. The town became a household name once again when the Imperial Diet political gatherings took place there for 150 years, from 1663 to 1806, when the assembly of estates held conferences at the Old Town Hall. Electors and princes were among those present for the meetings.

During Napoleon’s reign the town found itself in dire straits. The Imperial Diet was cancelled in 1806, and Regensburg was stripped of its independence once again. In 1810 it became a part of the Kingdom of Bavaria. From 1945 to 1949, the town was the site of the largest displaced persons’ camp in Germany, with mostly Ukrainians in residence. And to think that throughout all those centuries, throughout all those trials and tribulations, Regensburg never lost its medieval flavor!

The Hotel Kaiserhof across from the cathedral

The Hotel Kaiserhof across from the cathedral

My hotel, the pistachio-colored Hotel Kaiserhof, was situated across from St. Peter’s Cathedral, a Gothic wonder. The clean, no-frills, comfortable room sported a double bed, even though I was paying for a single room. I had stayed in other singles the size of a closet in various hotels throughout Europe. It was refreshing to find myself in a room that was spacious enough, though not large.

After unpacking the necessities, I headed straight for the St. Peter’s Cathedral. The first cathedral in the town had hailed from the end of the eighth or ninth century, but it fell victim to a fire in 1273. Then this cathedral was erected in a Gothic style inspired by France.  However, there were interruptions, and the cathedral was not completed until 1872, some 600 years later. The west façade boasts two towers while the cathedral has a triple-choir design. The nave is short and has five bays. I had read that the architectural design of the cathedral had influenced Peter Parler’s plans for Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral, my favorite cathedral in the world.

St. Peter's Cathedral

St. Peter’s Cathedral

The medieval sculptural decoration on the façade, which dated from around 1400, was breathtaking.  On the train I had learned that this sculptural adornment ranked among the most impressive artistry of the Middle Ages. I gazed up at the main portal with its stunning tympanum and the 22 reliefs focusing on the Virgin Mary’s life.

On the south portal I was awed by a scene showing St. Peter being scooped out of prison by an angel.  I could hardly believe that the relief hailed from 1320. The tympanum of the south façade boasted plentiful rich sculptural ornamentation as well. Reliefs decorated the buttress fronts, too. I spotted St. Peter in a boat, a rendition that I knew appeared on the current coats-of-arms for the cathedral chapter.

However, it made my stomach churn when I saw a sculptural figure of Jews suckling from a pig. I recalled reading that Jews had been expelled from the town in the 16th century. The anti-Semitic artwork reminded me of the anti-Semitic and racist portraits of a Jew, an Arab and a black man stricken with diseases in the library of the Hrádek u Nechanic Chateau in Bohemia. I also recalled eating in a pizzeria in downtown Prague a few years ago, when a waiter told me that Neo-Nazis were marching through the Jewish Town. I also thought of the prejudice against Roma in Czech society today. So many centuries later and religious and racial tolerance were still serious concerns.

The rich ornamentation on the facade of the cathedral

The rich ornamentation on the facade of the cathedral

Upon entering the cathedral, I was instantly transported back to the Middle Ages. It was dark and gloomy except for the light that the stained glass windows let in, giving the cathedral an airy quality. Made from 1300 to 1370, the windows had a mystical aura. I felt as if the light cleansed me spiritually, as if it cleansed my soul. I was so entranced. I could not believe I was looking at original Gothic stained glass. I had read that one window portrayed scenes from Christ’s childhood while another showed scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. Pictures of saints decorated the windows, too. Some of the stained glass came from the original cathedral that had burned down. That part was in Romanesque style, dating from 1230.

The vibrant colors inside the cathedral

The vibrant colors inside the cathedral

Then I took notice of sculptural figures of St. George and St. Martin on horseback. They were remarkable works of art hailing from the 14th century.  I also saw something I had never seen before – creepy creatures with human heads in niches near the main entrance. Called the Devil and his Grandmother, the figures supposedly kept away any evil spirits that might try to wander inside. Bishops’ tombs also made up the interior. A stone sculpture of a Madonna and Child above one altar was created in 1320. A huge colored wooden crucifix dated from the 16th century. The main altar was silver and was made glorious by busts of St. Mary and St. Joseph as well as Saints Peter and Paul.

On one section there was a relief of St. John of Nepomuk, a Czech saint who was thrown into Prague’s Vltava River from the Charles Bridge on the order of Bohemian King Wenceslas IV, who was married to Joanna of Bavaria. The Queen’s confessor, John of Nepomuk would not tell the king what his wife had said to him in confidence. I thought of the many times I had walked by the five-haloed statue of St. John of Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge. Once again focusing on this cathedral, I was amazed by the ribbed vaulting designed with crossing piers. There was a Late Gothic pulpit, and exquisitely carved Baroque stalls adorned the nave.

One of the side altars in the cathedral

One of the side altars in the cathedral

Another highlight of the interior for me was the Smiling or Laughing Angel, one of the Annunciation figures. Enthusiastic about bearing exciting news for Mary, the angel was absolutely jubilant, and the sense of pure happiness that emanated from the sculpture made me joyful and thankful for everything I had in life. The joy was characterized by a sense of innocence, and it brought to mind the happy moments of my childhood. Opening Christmas presents in my grandparents’ house as Grandpa pretended to be Santa Claus, striking out batter after batter in Little League baseball, riding my sleigh in the fresh snow near our townhouse, reading Paddington the Bear books over and over, holding my Paddington and Snoopy stuffed animals, receiving an autographed picture from one of my favorite baseball or ice hockey players, hugging my mother and knowing that everything would be okay. I was amazed that a sculptural figure from the late 13th century could depict emotions so poignantly.

Downtown Regensburg

Downtown Regensburg

Then I walked around the center of the town, admiring the large patrician houses, some even with towers. One building dating from the 14th century even had a fresco of David and Goliath, created from 1570 to 1580. Dating back to the 12th century, the Stone Bridge measures 30 meters in length and includes 15 arches. I tried to imagine knights of the second and third Crusades marching over the bridge on their way to the Holy Land. The views of the river and town from the bridge were incredible. I loved the small street called Kramgasse, next to my hotel. Once home to shops of grocers and junk dealers, now it flaunted luxurious shops. The oriels on the buildings intrigued me. 

There were other delights in this colorful, vibrant town, too. The Fountain of Bishop’s Court was built in 1980 and showed a priest giving a sermon to geese while a fox nabbed one goose by the neck.  In the tale the priest is an impostor, the Devil pretending to be a man of the cloth. It made me think of the false friends I had known through the years, the times I felt betrayed by people I had trusted.

View from the Stone Bridge

View from the Stone Bridge

I explored Neupfarrplatz, where the homes of 500 Jews had once been located until their expulsion in the early 16th century. The homes were gone now, and stylish shops lined the square. A reminder of the Jewish presence in the town, a relief showed the floor plan of a Jewish synagogue that had once stood near the middle of the square. I felt an emotional connection with the relief. It was modern and fresh, yet also represented the lost history of the town.

The Goldener Turm, built from 1250 to 1300, included the highest patrician tower in the city. Part of the Old Town Hall dated from the 13th century and had a tower, too. I was intrigued by its Gothic windows. Patrician houses also lined Haidplatz Square. Emperor Karl V had been a guest at the architecturally captivating Goldenes Kreuz building. I also gazed at the Porta Praetoria Roman gate from 179 AD with its stone arch and side tower. As I walked through the center of town, I was surprised that Regensburg had so many tea shops and bookstores. A teetotaler and a literature addict, I wandered through each one. The varieties of teas offered were astounding.

In the morning I ate croissants in the hotel’s quaint breakfast room and headed for the Collegiate Church of Our Lady of the Alte Kapelle. A farmer’s market was in progress in the square where the church was situated. All the fruit and vegetables looked delicious. 

The interior of the Alte Kapelle

The interior of the Alte Kapelle

I knew the church dated from 875, when a grandson of Charlemagne had it erected. The medieval sculptures decorating the main portal did not prepare me for the strikingly different interior. I gaped at the 18th century Baroque and Rococo ornamentation. This was definitely one of the most beautiful chapels I had ever seen.  It was light and airy, full of vibrant colors that emitted joy and hope. The main painting depicted the Pope handing Holy Roman Emperor Henry (Heinrich) II a picture of the Virgin Mary.  It was only possible to see the two naves and six bays through an iron grille, unfortunately. I longed to walk through the chapel and peer closely at each decoration.

The Alte Kapelle

The Alte Kapelle

The stucco work was astounding, and the white walls were adorned with putti. The frescoes narrated described the legend of how the church came into being. They also celebrated the Virgin Mary as the patron saint of the church and glorified the founders of the church, Emperor Henry II and Empress Cunigunde of Luxembourg. Emperor Henry II had believed in centralized authority and had strongly supported the Catholic Church. Due to his devotion to the Catholic Church, Pope Eugene III canonized him in 1146. He was the only German bestowed this honor. His wife Cunigunde was involved in politics, participating in the Imperial Diets in Regensburg. She is said to have performed miracles, such as walking over flaming irons. One fresco showed the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven, surrounded by angels and saints. The main altar was decorated in rocaille and focused on the Virgin Mary. God the Father was perched on a globe above her, and a dove symbolizing the Holy Ghost also appeared.

It fascinated me that this church retained elements of the Middle Ages and at the same time celebrated the Baroque and Rococo periods with a flourish. I could not get over how the 18th century styles gave the chapel a sort of weightlessness and airiness that so poignantly represented joy and hope for me.  It was uplifting. I was in an ever better mood when I left the chapel, after staring through the grille for at least a half hour.

Next I found my way to the Emmeram Abbey. I would be touring the Thurn und Taxis Palace adjacent to it later in the day. The monastery had gained independence from the bishopric in 975 and did not lose its independence until 1803. Then, at the beginning of the 19th century, the abbey was secularized. The King of Bavaria gave the Thurn und Taxis family the monastery because the postal services that they had managed for centuries had been nationalized. I had read that the stone reliefs on the north portal, dating from the Middle Ages, were the oldest north of the Alps.

Religious ornamentation on the facade of a building

Religious ornamentation on the facade of a building

The complex was named after the bishop Emmeram, who had lived in Regensburg in the 700s. Inside frescoes told his exciting life story: He had worked as a missionary for Theodo I, the Duke of Bavaria and was much respected throughout the realm. Then the duke’s unwed daughter confided in him that she was pregnant, and she did not want to tell the duke who the father was. Emmeram advised her to lie and say that he was the father. Then he set off on a pilgrimage to Rome.

When the duke’s daughter told her father the news, he had his son and followers chase Emmeram. When they caught the pious missionary, the duke’s followers tied him to a ladder and chopped him into pieces, slowly torturing him. Then the duke found out that Emmeram was not the father of his daughter’s child and ordered his body to be bought back to Regensburg. Emmeram was made a saint.  I also saw fascinating altars and a crypt dating from 780, showing off masterful Romanesque architecture.  The high altar hailed from 1669.

My next stop was the palace. I had to use an audio guide at the palace because the tours were only in German.  I was disappointed that the Electors’ Fountain was covered in scaffolding. I wanted to see the sculpture of Emperor Arnulf bearing a scepter and shield and the eight coats-of-arms standing for the Holy Roman Empire and the seven electors who selected the emperor.

The architecture of Regensburg

The architecture of Regensburg

Upon entering the palace, we came to a monumental marble staircase. The guide spoke animatedly for some minutes before my audio guide started. The German-speaking tourists were enthralled with whatever he was saying. Then we went up one of the 14 marble staircases in the complex that was the largest residential palace in Germany. It included more than 500 rooms. A ceiling  painting looked as if it was about to burst with color above the staircase.

The Thurn und Taxis clan dated back to the 13th century when the family was named Tasso. During the end of the 15th century, Francesco Tasso created the first postal system going from Innsbruck to Brussels. It took a week for the mail to reach its destination. The key to its success was that the rider and horse were changed at each postal station. For his ingenuity, Tasso was given nobility status by Emperor Maximilian I and thus became Franz von Taxis in 1512. By the end of the 18th century, the postal system was flourishing.

Then bad times came. At the beginning of the 19th century, most of the postal service was nationalized. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to the Thurn und Taxis’ control of the postal service in 1815. After the Napoleonic era, the family managed the postal service once again, but only until Otto von Bismarck became Chancellor of the North Germany Federation in 1867. A very conservative politician and nationalist who did not favor democracy, the prominent Prussian statesman was responsible for forming the German Empire in 1871.

A fascinating facade in downtown Regensburg

A fascinating facade in downtown Regensburg

I was intrigued by the grotesque figures on the ceiling of the Conservatory, also called the Winter Garden. Female figures represented the seasons, though winter was conspicuously absent. I noticed that a sickle and grain stood for summer. The Brussels’ tapestries in the Large Dining Room were astounding. The Throne Room featured a throne from the 18th century and tapestry decoration. The Ballroom took my breath away. Its wall paneling, frames, balustrades and stucco ceilings boasted Rococo and Neo-Rococo styles. Faience Neo-Rococo stoves were present, too. The Ballroom, created in 1730, had been transported from Frankfurt to Regensburg in 1890, when the Thurn und Taxis clan moved to Regensburg. Even the glass chandeliers had been equipped with electric lighting at the end of the 19th century. I liked the idyllic landscape paintings hung high on the walls and the rich white decoration that included garlands and putti as well as plant and ribbon motifs.

I noticed a portrait of Elizabeth of Austria, often called Sisi, in the Balcony Room. Because her sister Helene was married to Crown Prince Maximilian Anton von Thurn und Taxis, she had often stayed here. The sisters’ father had been a Bavarian Duke while their mother was the daughter of the Bavarian King. I had read how uncomfortable Sisi had felt around the ceremony of royal life and how she had been a free spirit who had traveled around the world. I thought about Franz Joseph intending to propose to Helene but changing his mind and asking for Sisi’s hand in marriage instead. And I thought of Sisi’s assassination in Geneva, when an Italian anarchist stabbed her while she was taking a walk. And I remembered reading about the lavish funeral with all the pomp and ceremony that she had despised.

The gate to the Stone Bridge

The gate to the Stone Bridge

The Silver Room featured a silver chandelier with cupids holding candles. The tapestry with a battle theme in the Gobelin Salon got my attention as well. The Yellow Salon exploded with color. It was decorated in Rococo style and dated from about 1740.  I tried to imagine members of the noble family playing music here, the tinkling of piano keys or rich melody of a clarinet. I was happy whenever I saw yellow because it was my Mom’s favorite color and the color of the kitchen walls in my parents’ house. I recalled all the earnest conversations I had with my Mom, seated at that circular kitchen table, sipping green or black tea.

The Green Salon had served as a bedroom for Princess Therese from 1812. I was mesmerized by the bed decorated with four swan figures on its legs. I loved the detail of the feathers and long necks of the swans. A curtain was adorned with gold bees. Both the swans and bees were characteristics of the French style that dominated this room. In the Czar Nikolaus Salon a portrait of Princess Theresa von Thurn und Taxis showed the 37-year old clad in a chemise dress and wearing pearls in front of a forest. I noticed an exquisite blue with gold tea set in another room.

Then we came to a contemporary art exhibition of portraits of the living family. The portraits of four women and one young man had blinking eyes. I thought it was a good idea to put portraits of the current family in the exposition, but I did not understand why their eyes were blinking. I guess it was meant to emphasize that they were living, that the tradition of the family continued, but it seemed out-of-place with the décor of the other rooms. Then I saw the House Chapel that had once been a bedroom for Crown Princess Helene. After the Princess’ death in 1890, her son Prince Albert I had it reconstructed into a chapel. The alloyed coats-of-arms decorating the windows impressed me.

Regensburg's cathedral dominates the skyline.

Regensburg’s cathedral dominates the skyline.

Next we entered part of the cloister. I imagined monks walking through the round Romanesque arches while singing hymns. I saw statues dating back to 1200. I imagined how the room had looked in the Middle Ages with its then colorful decoration depicting biblical stories. I admired a Neo-Gothic tomb chapel as well. Another wing featured high and thin Gothic arches. The cloisters were certainly full of architectural wonders!

After touring the palace, I visited its museum. I saw a Japanese lacquered cabinet from 1690 and took special notice of the exquisite Asian landscape scenes on the front. White gold porcelain featured floral motifs. A ceremonial carrying chair also caught my attention. Medals from the chivalry Order of the Golden Fleece that was founded in 1430 and 55 richly decorated 18th century snuff boxes also made up the exhibition. One room was decorated with Biedermeier furniture, dating from 1815 to 1848. The furniture was not positioned against the walls in order to encourage communication. The highlight, though, was the white with gold porcelain service set from the early 1700s, made by a Viennese manufacturer that had only been in existence for 30 years. It was the only complete service of this manufacturer in the world.

The Old Town Hall

The Old Town Hall

I had a late lunch at an otherwise empty café near the monastery. It was decorated plainly and appeared to be a place for locals as the menu of five entrees was written only in German. I imagined that the restaurant would be packed on weekdays. I chose the Wiener Schnitzel and received a generous portion. It was delicious. I had dessert at the oldest coffeehouse in Germany, the Café Prinzess, where I managed to find a free table despite the crowd. I ordered almond cake and green tea. Surprisingly, service was not slow. The cake and the green tea were excellent.

Soon it was time for the English tour of the Old Town Hall across the street from the coffeehouse. I got a free ticket because I have a press pass and would be writing about the exhibition. However, only the torture chambers in the cellar were open that day. The lavish rooms once used for the Imperial Diet were closed for a conference. Two tourists complained that they had to pay full price for their tickets, even though the Imperial rooms were off limits that day. They decided to come back the following day when both parts of the tour would be open. I was leaving the next day, so I had no chance of seeing the Imperial rooms on this trip.

For almost 150 years from the 17th to the beginning of the 19th centuries, the Imperial Assembly had held political meetings in this building. But the Imperial history of the town was above, in those lavish rooms that I could not see. I descended into the torture chamber, which helped paint a portrait of the history of the town. I peered down at a dungeon that was three meters deep with no light. A Jewish gravestone served as the toilet seat, another reminder of the rampant anti-Semitism that had riddled the town. Once again, I recalled the 1519 expulsion of the Jews.

An ancient door at the Old Town Hall

An ancient door at the Old Town Hall

I also saw a so-called spiked rabbit, consisting of spikes on a wooden chair. I could not imagine the pain a person would feel seated on those spikes. It was too awful to think about. Some prisoners were locked in a neck iron, exposed to the public in a pillory. I also saw a timber cell without any light.  Prisoners sentenced to death stayed in the Dead Man’s Cell, where there was light and fresh air. An opening allowed family members to touch the incarcerated’s hands before the execution. A big beam balance from the 16th century kept the merchants honest. If merchants cheated customers, they went to the pillory.

The instruments had been used from 1530 to 1781, during three centuries. It was difficult for me to imagine that such horrific methods had been used for such a long time. Then again, in in today’s world there is waterboarding. When the accused was detained, he or she might have heard a concert taking place in one of the Imperial rooms above, but the prisoners were never tortured to musical accompaniment.  

The Romanesque portal at St. James' Church

The Romanesque portal at St. James’ Church

I walked around town for the rest of the day, the history of the town seeping into my soul. The next morning I had a little time before I headed to the train station. I was disappointed that I did not have a chance to visit any of the museums, especially the Historic Museum that told the tales of the town from as far back as Roman times.

First I walked to the Church of St. James, which was built by Scottish monks in 1150. The church still retained its Romanesque style. The entrance portal was pure Romanesque, richly decorated with sculptural figures and grotesque symbols. The architectural gem was encased in glass, so there was a physical barrier between the viewer and the object. I could understand the need to protect such an ancient treasure, but the glass barrier restricted the visual communication with the viewer. I gaped at the entrance portal for about a half hour. The interior was austere but beautiful.

Next, I headed for Dachauplatz, trying to find the remnants of the Roman wall as they were marked on my map. A small section of the wall that did not even come up to my knees disappeared into a parking garage. Modernization had destroyed some of the historical roots of the town, replacing significant reminders of the past with an eyesore common in the contemporary world. I was very disappointed that a car park had been built in the historical center of the town, marring the cityscape. I had read that in the past a monastery had been on the premises.

The decoration on the Romanesque portal

The decoration on the Romanesque portal

As I had made my way to Dachauplatz, I had taken note of all the various architectural styles of the buildings and the artwork adorning the facades. Standing on the square, facing the Historic Museum, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to have been present in 1945, near the end of the war. Residents had taken part in a demonstration, eager for the Americans to take over the city. Some protestors were executed in that same square.

Soon it was time to take the train back to Prague. I yearned to visit the town again and to get to know Bavaria even better. On the train a pleasant surprise awaited me. I began chatting with the woman seated across from me, an American world traveler in her sixties on her way to Prague. It turned out that she also loved reading mysteries and adored cats. As we discussed many topics, I realized that the best thing about traveling is the people you meet on the way to your destination. We would keep in touch, for sure.

I returned to Prague, elated, ready to face the long winter ahead with energy and enthusiasm and ready to plan a spring trip back to Bavaria.

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

 

Another look at the Romanesque portal of St. James' Church

Another look at the Romanesque portal of St. James’ Church