2020 Travel Diary

View of Prague from the district where I live

This past year started with me looking forward to my trip to Milan, scheduled for May because I had had to cancel in November of 2019. I was assuming I would begin castlehopping around the country at the beginning of April. The last thing I expected was a pandemic. I never would have guessed that seeing people in face masks would become a familiar sight. I changed my trip to Milan to October, thinking the pandemic would be pretty much over by then. I would cancel for a third time, not feeling safe enough to fly or going sightseeing when a deadly virus was raging through the world.

A chapel in my home district

During the first three weeks of the pandemic, I only went outside to take out the trash. I felt traumatized. I watched CNN International whenever I had a free moment as the network provided nonstop coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. On TV, I was constantly confronted with death – so many deaths. I was convinced I would die soon of the coronavirus as did many of those featured on TV, so I did not go out. Then one day I had to go to the pharmacy. I was hyperventilating because I was so anxious to be outdoors. Soon, though, I started walking to the nearby park and spending time sitting on one of my favorite benches with the most stunning views of lush green hills that looked like they belonged in Vermont.

Křivoklát Castle

It all changed at the end of May, when the castles opened again. The number of coronavirus cases were low. My friend and I started going on day trips once a week, giving me a welcome respite from my endless fretting and CNN’s constant portrayal of tragic suffering and death.

The main altar of the chapel in Křivoklát Castle

We started at the Gothic Křivoklát Castle, which harkens back to the 13th century. My favorite room in this castle is the well-preserved chapel that was built in the 1470s. The winged main altar of the crowning of the Virgin Mary hailed from 1490. Masterfully carved statues of the 12 apostles added to the impressive décor. Another space was devoted to Gothic art with altarpieces, statues and paintings. Of course, we had to wear masks and try to stay apart from each other. No more than 12 people were allowed on a tour. Still, it was crowded in some spaces.

Painted decoration on a window in the Knights’ Hall at Žleby Chateau

Next came Žleby, a chateau I had visited years earlier with another friend. I loved the romantic 19th century appearance. The chapel boasted of a Neo-Gothic 19th century style. The Knights’ Hall was a real gem with 16th century knights’ armor, hunting trophies and weapons. However, what I liked best about it were the 188 painted glass pictures covering one wall. They had been created from 1503 to 1749. My favorite feature of the chateau was the leather wallpaper, for instance in the Prince’s Study, the Rococo Salon and the library. The Red Room also dazzled with gold-and-red leather wallpaper. Of great interest were the elaborate tiled stoves, some of the most beautiful I had ever seen. The armory was another delight. And who could forget those Renaissance arcades on the exterior.

Tiled stove at Žleby Chateau
Leather wallpaper lines the walls at Žleby Chateau.
Kačina Chateau

I also returned to the biggest 19th century Empire style chateau in the Czech Republic, Kačina. The representative rooms displayed 19th century Empire, Biedermeier and Classicist styles. But there was more. A 19th century library sported roundels with painted cupolas and stylized squares. The light streamed into the three sections. The small theatre was another treat, with two balconies of gold-and-black décor. The entrance room of the chateau had a 16-meter high roundel, which brought to mind the Pantheon in Rome.

Kačina Chateau library
Nebílovy Chateau
Dancing Hall at Nebílovy Chateau

We set off for West Bohemia to Nebílovy Chateau one weekday. It is comprised of a Baroque chateau with another building behind it. The structure in the background looked so dilapidated – as if it would fall apart before our very eyes. Yet both buildings were filled with great beauty inside. The Dancing Hall was the highlight with its idyllic ceiling and wall painting of palm trees, monkeys, birds and people. The Rococo designs amazed. Other rooms were stunning, too, with little details that made the spaces charming.

Průhonice Park

One beautiful morning I traveled to Průhonice Park with another friend. It included 250 acres of beauty with a Neo-Renaissance chateau. I admired the rose garden, the central lake with its stunning views, the open meadows dotted with haystacks, the waterfalls and the brook as well as the floral species.

Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau

I also paid a second visit to Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau, which featured rare 18th century furnishings. I loved the mural spanning three walls in the Italian Room. Naples and Venice loomed in the distance of the town represented. The Delft Dining Room proved to be a treasure. The porcelain from the 17th to the 19th century was all original and handmade. Giacomo Casanova worked in the library during the 18th century.

Koněprusy Caves

For some variety, we explored some caves about an hour from Prague one week. The Koněprusy Caves were discovered in 1950 and became open to the public nine years later. They measure 2,050 meters in length. The tour covers 620 meters and shows visitors part of the middle and upper floors. (There are three floors in all.) The middle floor is the longest, dotted with wide galleries and large halls. A special kind of limestone – Koněprusy limestone – has been mined from this area since the Middle Ages. In fact, one of the foundation stones for Prague’s National Theatre came from this quarry in 1868.

I loved the decoration of this cave system. The ornamentation was one of the most beautiful in the Czech Republic. It is formed by stalactite and stalagmite structures made from calcite.

Peruc Chateau

I traveled to one chateau for the first time – all the other trips were return visits. Peruc had opened a month or so earlier after lengthy renovation. The elegant Rococo exterior had an interior that did not disappoint. The religious paintings and tiled stoves, mostly in Classicist style, were highlights of the tour. The outdoor toilets comprised of holes in the ground certainly were not very comfortable.

Manětín Chateau
Manětín Chateau

We made a lengthy journey mostly on country back roads to Manětín Chateau in west Bohemia. The ceiling frescoes delighted me. In the biggest room, a ceiling fresco from 1730 showed three figures representing Love, Strength and Fortune. The four seasons made appearances, too. Painted Baroque statues looked real. Mythological themes played central roles. The chateau was unique for its impressive collection of paintings of servants and clerks who had worked at the chateau. Thirty Baroque statues dotted the town, too.

Rabštejn nad Střelou

After visiting Manětín, we drove to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, which was once the smallest town in the country and possibly at one time the smallest town in Europe. It featured a Baroque chateau, a castle ruin and timbered houses that belonged in another century. The town was a quaint place, but since my last visit, many tourists had discovered it. During my first visit, I was one of the only people exploring. This time the town was crowded with Czechs taking advantage of the nice weather and low number of coronavirus cases.

Chapel at Lnáře Chateau
Lnáře Chateau

One of my favorite trips was to Lnáře Chateau. We ate at a restaurant where three stray cats begged for handouts. The black one received some of my macaroni and cheese. Then we headed to the 17th century chateau with an elegant courtyard boasting of arcades. Inside, the wall and ceiling frescoes were Baroque, and many dealt with mythology. The Baroque Chapel of Saint Joseph hailed from the middle of the 17th century.

Coat-of-arms in the Cat Museum
Copy of Egyptian goddess represented by a cat in the Cat Museum

What my friend and I loved most about Lnáře Chateau was the Cat Museum. We saw figures of cats, paintings, drawings and coats-of-arms of towns symbolized by cats. A two-meter high copy of an Egyptian goddess represented by a cat stood in one space. I also adored the cheerful painting of a feline by one of my favorite Czech artists, František Pon. It was one of my happiest days of the summer, and I often think back to that day when I want to capture that feeling of utter joy.

Konopiště Chateau
Konopiště Chateau

Our last venture out of Prague was to the ever-popular Konopiště Chateau, known to most as the former home of Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophie Chotek, who were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that triggered World War I. The couple lived there for 14 years. What I liked best was not the collection of hunting trophies that people always talk about but the chapel with its Gothic statues and Renaissance paintings. The light blue vaulted ceiling was studded with stars. Red designs also added to the elegance of the small space. I remembered my first visit here in 1991. I had imagined getting married in this chapel someday. Alas, I would never get married but would find happiness in being single. The first tour concentrated on the luxuriousness of the chateau furnishings while the second tour revolved around accounts of Franz Ferdinand’s family and how they had influenced his life as we explored intriguing furnishings.

Konopiště Chateau Museum of St. George

A museum addict, I enjoyed visiting the Saint George Museum with 808 paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces sporting Saint George fighting the dragon. Franz Ferdinand had amassed an impressive collection. The Shooting Hall was unique with moving targets painted in detail.

Konopiště Shooting Hall

Perhaps the best thing about that day was that there were only five or six people on each tour. Normally, there are 30 or more on a tour at Konopiště. It was wonderful to be there without the crowds. I had a three-scoop sundae in the chateau restaurant, a fitting end to our escapades for the year. By then coronavirus cases were increasing, and it was becoming dangerous to travel.

Rembrandt exhibition at Kinský Palace

I did manage to make it to one art exhibition this year. Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man exhibition took place in Kinský Palace on Old Town Square. The portraits and self-portraits spoke to me as Rembrandt evoked the soul of his subject and knew how to reveal the deepest depths of his own soul in his self-portraits. Modern work inspired by the great artist was on display, too.

Rembrandt exhibition

I missed going to restaurants and eating indoors, something I won’t do during a pandemic. I missed going to the theatre, going to concerts, taking the Metro and tram often and just feeling free to go wherever I wanted to without being concerned about catching a deadly virus. I really missed not being able to fly to the States and see my parents because it was too risky, and part of the time the borders were closed. And I missed spending time in foreign countries, exploring new places such as exciting art museums. I missed Italy specifically. I hope that, by the spring of 2021, I will be able to, at the very least, take trips to castles and chateaus around the country.

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

My dessert at Konopiště as I celebrated the short season of travel

National Museum Diary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View of Wenceslas Square from the National Museum