Trója Chateau Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nelahozeves Chateau Diary

Nelahozeves courtyard

A comfortable 40-minute ride in a new, clean train. That’s all it took to get from Prague’s Masaryk station to Nelahozeves chateau in the village by the same name as it is a mere 30 kilometers from the capital city. Then it is only a short walk to the two-storey chateau. It was my third time here. I especially love the plethora of art work in the Italian Renaissance three-winged structure. Even from the train I could see the chateau, appearing as a sort of fortress looming above me, with its enchanting sgraffito-decorated northern wall facing me. I crossed under the oldest railway tunnel in Bohemia, dating from 1851 to 1855 and constructed in Neo Romanesque style, and then wound up gazing at the beautiful sgraffito on the façade.

Floral motifs decorate the northern wall as do scenes from The Old Testament. For example, on the wall Judith holds the head of Holofernes, Hercules fights the giant Antacus and Isaac is sacrificed. Virgil Solis, a follower of the master artist Albrecht Dürer, is responsible for the design. After crossing a stone bridge, I went through a gateway flanked by Ionic columns and arrived at a rectangular courtyard. The box office was straight ahead.

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The history of the chateau intrigued me, as it had become intertwined with the Lobkowicz family, who bought the chateau in 1623. Bavarian aristocrat Florian Griespek of Griespek constructed it, and his successor Blažej put on the finishing touches in 1614. It took 60 years to build the chateau. Griespek had an interesting background. A former court official of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Ferdinand I, he had spent time in Prague’s White Tower for charges of high treason. Thanks to Ferdinand I, though, he became a free man again. It was his granddaughter Veronika who sold the chateau to Polyxena of Lobkowicz. The intriguing history does not end there. Not at all. During the Thirty Years’ War, the chateau was occupied by Swedish troops and those of other nationalities as well. Then it served as a military hospital during the Austrian-Prussian War. Later it was the home of a girls’ boarding school. During World War II and under the Communist regime the items in the chateau were scattered in various locations.

Restoration did take place after World War II when it became the property of the Czechoslovak state. Then, finally, in the early 1990s, the Lobkowicz family became its owners once again. The current owners live in the USA, while their son William takes care of the noble residence. To be sure, many of the Lobkowicz clan had been active in Czech politics and culture. For example, Polyxena’s son Václav Eusebius worked as an advisor to Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Ferdinand III and Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Leopold I. Also, Max Lobkowicz focused his energy on the Czechoslovak exile government in England during the Second World War. During that time he also served as Czechoslovak ambassador to Great Britain.

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Perhaps the chateau is best known for its paintings.  In the Gallery of Portraits I saw paintings of members of the Lobkowitz family from the 19th and early 20th century. In my favorite, a woman in a stunning blue dress holds a budding pink rose. An admirer of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s works, I spent some time gazing at his “Madonna with Child, Saint Barbora and Saint Kateřina” from around 1520. I noticed the calming green and blue colors in the horizon as a saint in the foreground read a black book. The Madonna looked pensive while the child appeared defiant. I liked the detail of the baby’s little fingers.

There is a Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece on display as well. It is called “Hygieia feeds a sacred snake” and dates from circa 1614. The Baroque gem shows a snake with its mouth open, appearing famished. I could almost see its tongue flicking in anticipation.

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My beloved Bruegel clan is among those represented in the chateau’s art work, too. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Haymaking” dates from 1565 and depicts women walking in the foreground, gripping hoes, while others carry baskets on their heads. Horses, used for carting hay, drink from a bucket in the middle of the foreground as people toil in a vast field. The gigantic cliff to the left in the background caught my attention just as the blue and green mountains and river did. The painting depicted two months of the year, illustrating June and July. Then there’s a winter village scene, idyllic and calming, by Pieter Bruegel the Younger around 1615.

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But that’s not all. In Canaletto’s “Thames with Westminster Bridge” from 1746 I noticed the gentle frolicking of the waves and appreciated the details of the boards, sails and oarsmen. Hundreds of black-and-white prints depicting hunting themes also line the walls of a hallway.

My favorite three paintings, though, made up a satirical series of cats posing as female nobles and monkeys representing the male nobility. They are located in a small room filled with 47 paintings. The works by Sebastian Vrancx, who lived from 1573 to 1647, include one depiction of monkeys sword-fighting. I was drawn to the bright red clothing with the stiff collar of one particular monkey as he lunges forward to strike another monkey that had fallen onto the ground. A cat on the sidelines flails her arms, as if saying, “Enough already!”

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Another shows cats and monkeys at a banquet. Two monkeys working as waiters had a well-ironed cloth over one arm. A plain chandelier is overhead while one monkey brings a kettle to a table full of chattering cats. I could almost hear the chit-chat of the seated felines.

In the third rendition cats and monkeys are on a boat in a river. A palace or manor house and another boat make up the background. One monkey reads aloud from a book while another plays the piccolo. I thought it was intriguing that the painter chose to place a monkey with his back to the viewer in the center of the foreground.

On the tour I saw much more than paintings. For example, the library contained 65,000 books, written in German, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Czech. There were 679 manuscripts, and 114 of them date from the Middle Ages. Subjects ranged from history, medicine, architecture, literature, law and travelogues. However, only a small portion of the books are on display in the chateau. Still, I was fascinated by the 1696 French first edition of The Art of Swimming, which ranked as one of the earliest books on the subject.

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In the Drawing Room I set my eyes on a gold Empire-style table, made with gems and decorated with intarsia. On the black table were pictures of apples, birds, and fruit and flowers in ornate bowls. In the room where the prince welcomes guests, I saw a black cabinet from the 17th century, decorated with pictures of biblical themes, birds and flowers.  In the chapel there was a three-winged altar with pictures of an angel, a man on a chariot with a skeleton to his side and a man in a long robe pointing at a manuscript on a podium.

The Dining Room exhibited exquisite Venetian decoration encased in glass. I was also impressed by the desk made out of antlers, located in the armory. In the middle of the room was a rifle for bird-hunting, decorated with a grotesque brown mask, a black ball in the creature’s mouth. Then there was the beautiful Knights’ Hall with paintings of knights on the walls and a sandstone fireplace from the 16th century. Stucco reliefs adorned the ceiling. At one time, many centuries ago, this room used to be the social center of the chateau, with its Renaissance décor.

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After the tour I wanted to get something to eat in the delightful restaurant upstairs, but it was open only to groups who book it in advance. In past years, it had been open to the public. I made my way back to the train station- a small, brick building that was more of a stop than a station. I passed Antonín Dvořák’s birthplace, a white house that was open odd hours. It was a pity the house-turned-museum was not open; I would have liked to have visited the place again as I had not been there for many years.

A comfortable, clean train came on time, and I headed back to Prague in the early afternoon.

 

 

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