The Historical Underground of Pilsen Diary

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When I bought my ticket to visit the underground cellars below the center of Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech), I thought the tour would be interesting. However, I had no idea it would be fascinating and one of the highlights of my many trips to this dazzling city in west Bohemia. The ticket office was at the entrance to the Brewery Museum, which I also visited and found intriguing, even though I rarely drink alcohol.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of visiting underground areas, and I admit that I was a bit scared for my safety when I had to put on a hard hat. It turned out that there was no reason to be afraid. The corridors were not wide but provided enough room for one person to walk through. I can at times feel a bit claustrophobic, but I did not have a problem there. In some parts in caves I had visited, I had been squashed between rock formations, and the paths had been very tight.

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The guide explained that we would explore 800 meters of the underground area, though the cellars were actually much more extensive. The passages can be traced back to the early 14th century. They were built soon after the founding of the town by the first houses that had obtained the right to brew beer. The cellars served various purposes. Food was stored there, and beer was brewed in the underground areas. During sieges of the city, inhabitants took refuge in this labyrinth. The passages also became important parts of the city’s defense system. In addition, during the Middle Ages, the pubs above the passages were ordered to close at a certain hour, and the establishments carried on serving beer in the cellars after hours.

The eloquent guide told us the different eating habits of the poor and the rich during the Middle Ages. Poor people used ceramic tableware and ate mostly vegetarian food because meat was too costly. Birds and fish made up part of their diet. The wealthy, though, used glass, metal and silver tableware and ate a lot of meat and spices. They ate with their hands, though they used knives when eating meat. The well-off citizens refused to use forks because they thought they resembled pitchforks and were bad luck.

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I saw beautiful tiles from stoves constructed in the Middle Ages. One that caught my fancy showed Saint George fighting the dragon. I also saw an exquisite decorated water pot from medieval times.

The guide talked about the three symbols on Pilsen’s coat-of-arms – an angel, a camel and a greyhound. I loved the story about how the camel came to be one of the city’s symbols. During the Hussite wars, the Hussites attempted to overtake the city four times, but never prevailed. The Hussites tried to frighten the inhabitants of Pilsen with a camel. However, their plan backfired in a major way. The inhabitants liked the camel so much that they put the animal on their coat-of-arms. In the end, the Hussites left, defeated. The camel stayed.

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The guide also explained that the three golden fountains of contemporary art on the main square stood for the three symbols of the city. The T-shaped fountain stood for the angel while the F-shaped one represented the camel. The Greek letter stood for the greyhound. I was captivated by the three fountains, though I had not understood what they symbolized. Though contemporary, they fit in well with the medieval atmosphere of the main square dominated by the Church of Saint Bartholomew. I was impressed that they by no means take away from the square’s historical charm.

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I also saw samples of ceramics from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Two objects that caught my attention included a unique 16th century sieve and a piggybank from the 17th century. I was intrigued by the many wells – we saw 20 of them!

When we reached one point, the guide told us that we were standing under a house that once printed books in Pilsen. The first book published in Pilsen hailed from 1468. I also was intrigued with a pair of very pointy shoes, often referred to as poulaines. They looked very uncomfortable. I did not understand how someone could squish up his or her feet into those shoes. How would it be possible to walk in them? During the Middle Ages, very pointy shoes were a sign of wealth. I recalled that they had been particularly fashionable in France during that era, as evidenced by The Book of Hours. The pointier your shoes were, the richer you were.

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There were many guilds during the Middle Ages, including a guild of manufacturers of tiled stoves. I saw many examples of tiles from stoves during the tour. Emperor Rudolf II lived in Pilsen for one year when the plague was ravaging Prague, and the inhabitants presented him with a tiled stove to show their appreciation that he had chosen their city as his temporary residence.

I saw some cannonballs used by the Hussites. They weighed 200 kilograms each!  The cannonballs were able to demolish the first town wall, but they did not destroy the second wall. The inhabitants of the city threw the cannonballs back at the Hussites, foiling their enemy’s plan.

A functioning water wheel fascinated me. It was a replica of one that dated from 1532. I also saw remains of a water town hailing from 1847. It had played a role in the town’s defense system. Emil Škoda, an entrepreneur who set up the Škoda factory that would play a major role in European industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, was born in the water tower on November 19, 1839.

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The 2002 floods had made their way to Pilsen. A sign showed the high level the water reached on August 13 of 2002. The entire underground had been immersed in water. I recalled my personal experience with the floods for a few moments, lost in thought.

During 2002, devastating floods ravaged the republic. I was in Slovakia at the time, so I did not witness them first-hand. Even though the house where I lived in Prague was on a hill, there was significant water damage because we had had no roof because it was being repaired. There was only a protective covering. Rain from the downpours seeped into my flat. I came back to find some of my clothes ruined and mold on the walls. My cat was traumatized. Luckily, my books were all dry. Living through the aftermath of the floods was one of the most difficult times of my life in Prague, where I have lived for 23 years.

When we reached the end of the tour, I was enthusiastic and bewitched by the information I had learned about the Middle Ages and the history of Pilsen. The objects I had seen during the tour were very intriguing. I thought the tour was organized well. I had taken the tour in English because that was the one offered at the time I was able to visit, and the guide had an excellent command of the language and a talent for communicating effectively.

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I am convinced that the underground tour should not be missed when tourists are visiting Pilsen. It is a must-see. When you come back above ground, you understand how the Middle Ages affected Pilsen and have a greater appreciation for the city.

I left Pilsen for Prague about an hour after the tour, and I was certainly more than satisfied with my day trip.

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

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Kutná Hora Diary

A view of the town

A view of the town

I had visited to the medieval, former mining town of Kutná Hora back in 1992. I recalled exploring the mines, touring the awe-inspiring cathedral and gazing at the Italian Court.  I could not forget my visit to the creepy ossuary with shapes made out of human bones. Still, it had been a long time ago. So, in 2012, I decided to return to this special place that for some reason I had not made time for during so many years.

 I sharpened my knowledge of the town’s history during the one and a half hour bus ride on that perfect, sunny morning. Kutná Hora gained recognition thanks to its silver mines from the 13th to 15th centuries. At one time, the town’s mine in was the deepest in the world. There was an international demand for its silver, which was exported to one-third of Europe. During Kutná Hora’s golden days of the Middle Ages, the Prague Groschen, a significant currency in Europe, was produced here. Even after the turbulent years during the Hussite Wars in the 15th century and during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, mining in Kutná Hora preserved. The mine was not even shut down from World War II to 1991.

Plague Column in Kutná Hora

Plague Column in Kutná Hora

I came to the downtown area and soon found myself at the plague column where impressive statues twisted and turned. Then I headed for Saint Barbara’s Cathedral, passing the art museum in the former Jesuit College that hailed from the 18th century. Unfortunately, I did not have time to peruse the art collection during that excursion, but I promised myself to make another trip there in the near future. Too many other sights awaited me on that day. I admired 12 statues of saints, forged from 1650 to 1716, on the way to the impressive cathedral.

A statue on the way to St. Barbara's Cathedral

A statue on the way to St. Barbara’s Cathedral

I could not help noticing the cathedral’s outer buttresses. The gargoyles and monsters on the neo-Gothic façade were imposing, defending their holy site from evil. (By the way, I love Neo-Gothic!) I had familiarized myself with the history of Saint Barbara’s. Its past had much to do with mining. The cathedral was even named after the miners’ patron saint, Barbara. Although construction started on the cathedral in 1338, it was not completed until 1905. The building was as I had remembered it  – absolutely stunning. Once again I marveled at the many Baroque works of art, including three Baroque chapels and a magnificent Baroque organ case.

 

St. Barbara's Cathedral

St. Barbara’s Cathedral

I was particularly drawn to the oldest piece in the cathedral, a statue of Our Lady Enthroned, hailing from 1380. Flanked by two angels in mid-flight, the gold-clad Our Lady gripped a golden orb. The stained glass windows did not disappoint, either. They were exquisite, dating from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. I spotted the cathedral in the background of two of the windows. I also noticed soldiers on horses raising their swords.

KHsvBarb10Then I came to the unique late Gothic frescoes focusing on the mining profession. I had not seen art with a mining theme anywhere else. In the Mint Chapel frescoes from the 15th century depicted miners making Prague Groschens, striking the coins with mallets. That made me think of how my favorite painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, portrayed people at their trades or in scenes from everyday life. A few weeks earlier I had visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where I had feasted my eyes on 12 canvases by the masterful Bruegel the Elder.

 “The Battle between Carnival and Lent” came to mind. In this depiction celebrating humanity and peasant life, the artist set the scene at a market and church squares. Mass had just ended, and the churchgoers carried their chairs out of the holy building.  Crippled people begged for money in front of the church. A corpulent man dressed in pink and yellow stockings was playing a guitar and wearing what looked like a ceramic pot on his head. Bruegel the Elder’s “Seasons of the Year” cycle was another of my favorites. It focused on activities in the countryside. I thought of the depiction of winter, “Hunters in the Snow,” and the hunters in the scene that visually and poetically described man’s relationship to the last season of the year.

The main altar in the cathedral

The main altar in the cathedral

“Peasant Wedding” also showed the lower class at their trades. A servant was filling mugs with beer, for example. Rich in tradition, it depicted the bride without the groom, seated at the table with her head crowned in a small wreath. A child tried the creamy porridge, licking the bowl. Everyday people were engrossed in what were for them everyday activities, some profession-related, others focusing on leisure. The portrayal of the common man as a miner minting coins was, in my mind, connected to the Flemish and Dutch canvases celebrating everyday life. A statue of a miner appeared in the cathedral as well, which made the relationship with Dutch and Flemish works of art even more apparent.

The exquisite stained glass windows in the cathedral

The exquisite stained glass windows in the cathedral

In another Chapel the Smíšek family huddled around an altar. Saint Christopher carried a child on his shoulders in one large fresco. Then I meandered to the other side of the cathedral, where I saw a mural with a different theme:  Created in 1746, “The Vision of Saint Ignatius Wounded in the Battle of Pamplona” showed off angels fluttering through pink clouds. I was also entranced by the stone pulpit, built in 1560. The 17th century ornate wooden pews caught my eye, too.

Hrádek, a museum about the town, mining and silver

Hrádek, a museum about the town, mining and silver

After exploring the interior of the cathedral, I was hungry. I stopped for chicken on a skewer at a restaurant with outdoor seating in a courtyard on Ruthardka, a romantic and picturesque street cutting through the center of town. After lunch I stopped by Hrádek or The Small Castle and was eager to see the museum about the town as well as the history of mining and silver in Kutná Hora’s past. The entranceway was full of  teenage tourists enthusiastically chatting to each other. I did not want to visit the mines again – I was too claustrophobic – so I asked for the short tour. The man at the box office said he did not think there would be a short tour that day, but maybe he would have one around four p.m., when I had to be back in Prague. I was disappointed as I had read that the former royal residence was decorated with a Renaissance coffered ceiling from 1493 and consisted of halls featuring late Gothic ribbed vaulting. The medieval Saint Václav Chapel boasted wall paintings of Czech saints, I had read.  This museum would have to wait until another time.

I carried on to the Stone House, which harkened back to the era before the Hussite period of the 15th century, though it was last reconstructed at the turn of the 20th century. I was fascinated by its richly decorated Gothic façade, even though it dealt with the grim theme of death. I spotted Adam and Eve under a tree in the gable.

The Stone House

The Stone House

First, steep stairs led me down into the lapidary in the basement, which was part of the pre-Hussite structure. The collection boasted stone fragments from medieval times. I was especially enthralled by the pieces of the outer buttresses of the Cathedral of Saint Barbara, especially with the stone set in a fleur-de-lis pattern. I also saw pinnacles, finials and crockets. The angels that had originally decorated the cathedral entranced me, too.

Then one of the guides, a cheerful woman in her forties, gave me a tour of the first and second floors. Part of the first floor was devoted to objects representing the city’s former guilds throughout the centuries. This I what I liked about small museums. They often contained pleasant surprises.  I had never seen an exhibition dealing with guilds. One artifact looked like a griffin sticking his tongue out. Two lions and a crown represented another guild. The symbols of the guilds were intriguing.

A closeup of the Gothic facade of The Stone House

A closeup of the Gothic facade of The Stone House

In the hallway stood a painted wardrobe and chest with folk themes. I loved folk art, so rich in tradition. Another space featured Baroque and Biedermeier furniture as well as a forte piano from the 19th century. The Baroque desk and wardrobe from the 18th century caught my attention.

On the second floor relics from religious orders greeted me. A New Testament hailed from 1677. I also saw a silver reliquary and pewter altar vase. Especially intriguing was the small, woodcut relief of Madonna and Child from the 19th century. A Pieta scene from the 18th century captivated me as well. My favorite, though, was a sculpture of Saint Mary surrounded by miners. She wore a star-studded golden halo, her hands clasped in prayer. Bruegel the Elder also dealt with everyday people’s relationship to religion. I thought of the canvas featuring Carnival and Lent again.

The Italian Court

The Italian Court

I did not have time to go to the Italian Court that day, but I would come back again soon to visit it. I recalled its royal chapel in Gothic style with Art Nouveau decoration. The Italian Court, hailing from the end of the 13th century, had played a significant role in the town’s history. The Prague Groschen was first minted there. Kings of Bohemia had stayed at the Italian Court, and Vladislav of Jagollen had been voted King of Bohemia there during 1471.

A chandelier made out of human bones

A chandelier made out of human bones

I knew that the 12-sided stone fountain was under reconstruction, so  I headed for the suburb of Sedlec , where there was an ossuary and cathedral. A 20-minute walk took me to the ossuary with a cemetery, hailing from the 13th century, the resting place of many plague victims and fallen soldiers from the Hussite wars.

The ossuary in Sedlec

The ossuary in Sedlec

The ossuary in the All Saints’ Chapel went back to the 14th century.  I remembered the space being bizarre and morbid yet fascinating at the same time. The Schwarzenberg clan had purchased the ossuary in 1784. They arranged the 40,000 bones and skulls into various shapes. Before that, architect Jan Santini Blažej-Aichel had renovated the space in his unique Baroque Gothic style, which I deeply admired. I gazed at the bones forming a huge chandelier, a Gothic tower and a chalice.

 

The Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms

Another decoration in the ossuary

I was enamored with the Schwarzenberg coat-of-arms. Bones depicted a severed Turk’s head and a raven. The chandelier was my favorite, though. I also gazed in wonder at the skulls from soldiers during the Hussite wars of the 1420s in one display case. I could hardly believe that I was looking at skulls that were so many centuries old, skulls that had once been heads of living human beings.

A chalice made out of human bones

A chalice made out of human bones

Last but not least I visited the oldest cathedral in the country. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist has been a UNESCO site since 1995. It was constructed from 1282 to 1320 and got a makeover in Baroque Gothic style by the brilliant Santini Blažej-Aichel.

The cathedral flaunts Baroque artworks

The cathedral flaunts Baroque artworks

I was astounded by the seven chapels and the renderings of saints. I was very excited to see three paintings by my favorite Czech Baroque painter, Petr Brandl, whose works evoked such strong emotions in me.

An impressive chapel

An impressive chapel

I admired the Baroque confession booths, hailing from 1730. Saint Vincent’s and Saint Felix’s relics, donated by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742 on the 600th anniversary of the monastery, were also fascinating. The Chapel of the Virgin Mary of Sedlec was impressive with its elaborate Ionic columns and plump putti with angels. The statues originally on the west front of the building intrigued me, too. My favorite was a haloed Saint Benedict gripping an open book. I thought of how literature had opened up new worlds for me, especially the Slovak writings of Václav Pankovčín and his penchant for magic realism.

Once again, Kutná Hora had cast a magical spell on me. I had strolled down medieval streets, toured two cathedrals, visited an ossuary and a museum- all delightful  and inspiring experiences. Now it was time to catch the bus back to Prague. One thing was for certain:  I would definitely be coming back here. Soon.

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

A picturesque street in Kutná Hora

A picturesque street in Kutná Hora

Rabštejn nad Střelou Diary

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After visiting the chateau in Manětín not far from Plzeň in west Bohemia, I had to go by car to get to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, the smallest town in the Czech Republic and allegedly the smallest in Europe. As I entered the town, I noticed a pub on the right-hand side. I think every town in the Czech Republic has at least one pub. I had tried to visit the town the week before, but the only road to the town had been closed due to construction work.

I expected to see four or five houses, maybe one church, but it was bigger than that. There was a yellow and white church on a hill and next to it a chateau behind a gate. A sign stated that it was private property. The façade was impressive and the lawn meticulously well-kept.  Situated next to the site of a former castle hailing from around 1260, the chateau was built in Baroque style in 1705. The castle originally had a high cylinder tower and walls around it but was severely damaged in the 16th century. Now some of the walls and the foundation of the tower are all that is left of the castle.

ImageThe road dipped down suddenly, and I came to the main square. About five men were struggling to put up a maypole as the May 1 holiday approached. Branches flaunted fluttering, colored ribbons. There was a decrepit building behind me and another one with an old, battered sign above the doorway in German. It read “LIEDFELDERHOF.” I wondered what it meant and if it hailed from World War II or even from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later I would find out that the word stood for “Sorrowfields’ Inn,” with “sorrowfields” probably being the surname of the innkeepers.

The sign in German attested to the influence that Germans had had on this town since settling in the region during the 12th century. Even the name of the town derived from the German words “rabe” for raven and “stein” for stone. The town was the property of Germans for many centuries. In 1631 military leader and politician Albrecht von Wallenstein became the owner. Wallenstein played a major role in the Thirty Years’ War, allying himself and his army with the Holy Roman Empire. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, he became supreme commander of the Habsburg armies. Wallenstein was assassinated in the west Bohemian town of Cheb after quarreling with Emperor Ferdinand and considering allying himself with the Protestants.

After World War II, when the Beneš’ decrees came into effect, most of the Germans were banished from the country, and Czechs came to live in the town. In 1930 Rabštejn had a population of 344. By 1950 it had dwindled to 77.

ImageI also wondered what the town had looked like in the Middle Ages. I was impressed that the history of this town could be traced all the way back to the 13th century. I had read that in medieval times two rows of houses surrounded an irregularly-shaped square. How had people lived long ago? I knew that in the past inhabitants had taken up making handicrafts, weaving, painting playing cards and glass as well as producing roof slate.

ImageFarther down were several timbered cabins, one painted black with green, another mostly white with black. They looked like they belonged to another century. It was strange when I saw a man open the door of one of these homes and go inside. It was as if a person from the 21st century was entering another time period.

ImageAt the end of the town was a restaurant with picnic tables outside. Seven bikers were sitting there, drinking beer while engaged in animate conversations. There was an old stone bridge, dating most likely from 1335-1340. Under it flowed the Střela River. The body of water meandered through a forest, gurgling softly. A thick forest made up the background. It appeared as if this could be the backdrop for a landscape painting, as if I were looking at a canvas rather than real life. The forest was romantic, but it felt comforting and dangerous at the same time.

ImageI had read about a former brewery that only put out 700 hectoliters of beer during a year, but I did not see anything resembling a brewery. I did not see a former monastery, either, but there had been several in this town over the centuries. One dated back to the end of the 15th century but was destroyed in 1532. A new one was built in the 17th century, but it was abolished in 1787. There were several churches in the town during the 19th century, and legend has it that one of them was damaged in 1856. Workers had to dismantle the cross from the top of the church and reinstall it. While they were doing this, people celebrated below.  The workers drank some wine in the tower and threw a wine glass down. It fell but did not break.

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Vranov nad Dyjí Chateau Diary

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It was my second visit to Vranov nad Dyjí, one of my favorite chateaus, located near Znojmo in south Moravia. Its façade was a hodgepodge of at least three architectural styles. Some medieval elements of the Baroque chateau had been preserved. The Crow’s Tower and the building in the first courtyard harkened back to the Middle Ages. The Baroque fountain was spectacular. I had to stop to admire the garden bursting with color as I walked toward the chateau. The white and yellow Baroque church with belfries was perched on a cliff to the left and below the chateau. It looked to me that it was positioned precariously, as if it would fall off the edge at any moment.

The chateau, part of Podyjí National Park, blended in with the cliffs and picturesque countryside, a characteristic that I found attractive. Vranov nad Dyjí did not disturb nature but rather complemented it. I felt comfortable here in this stunning, natural environment. The rooms were small and intimate (except for the vast Ancestors’ Hall) and were filled with exquisite objects. All the items gave the chateau a unique identity without one artifact overwhelming the others.

I was already familiar with the history of the chateau. Vranov was first mentioned in the Kosmas Chronicle during 1100. Originally, it served as a fortress made of wood and became a stone castle at the end of the 13th and during the 14th century. There were additions made in the 15th century, but in 1665 it succumbed to flames. When Michal Johann II von Althann bought it in 1680, the chateau stayed in the family for more than a century. Michael Johann II made it into a Baroque chateau. Under his guidance the astounding Hall of Ancestors and the chapel were built. Later, the chateau became a three-wing residential palace. Neo-Gothic and Romantic style elements were added during the 19th century. During that century, it was the property of two Polish clans – the Mniszek counts and the Stadnickis. The state took control of the chateau after 1945.

Vranov7Waiting for the tour to begin, I was overwhelmed by the two-flight Baroque main stairway decorated with sculptures. Hercules battled the giant Antaeus. Prince Aeneas carried his feeble father from burning Troy. Then 15 young children scampered toward me. It was my worst nightmare. I was worried that all these children would accompany me on the tour of my beloved chateau, and I would not be able to hear the guide over their cries. At least that had been my experience when visiting other chateaus with groups of young children.

Finally, the tour began. The guide, a tall, lanky, serious blond woman in her early twenties, ushered me and the children as well as a few other adults into the Hall of Ancestors. It took eight years to complete the lush décor of this space with its walls and ceiling covered in breathtaking frescoes celebrating the Althann family. Its stunning beauty made me dizzy. I looked up and noticed a golden chariot floating on the clouds. The female charioteer symbolized the Earth’s fertility, the guide explained. Between the oval windows I could make out the figures of Hercules, Orpheus, Theseus, Odysseus and Perseus praising the Althann ancestors. The family members’ statues decorated the niches of the hall. I was amazed by something else, too. None of the children were misbehaving. Some mumbled to themselves, but they were all fairly quiet and seemed interested in the guide’s descriptions. Maybe they would not be so badly behaved, after all.

Next we went outside onto the terrace, created at the end of the 18th century. The children loved the cannon balls there. The guide explained that the Swedes tried to take over the chateau twice during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, but failed to do so. I peered at the valley and romantic landscape that surrounded the chateau. The scenery was postcard perfect. It was so peaceful and tranquil. I could have stared at the landscape forever. Standing there, looking at the countryside of south Moravia, I found inner peace. Perhaps that is why I loved this chateau so much. Here, I found a sense of inner peace, calmness and strength to take on future trials and tribulations.

Then it was time for the residential rooms, furnished as they were at the end of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century. In the tiny entrance to the Pignatelli bedroom, a space that could not fit all the children, I saw a painting of Vranov five years before it was engulfed by flames in the 17th century. I was especially drawn to the scraggly cliffs and the meandering river in the picture as well as to the stone bridge that I walked on earlier today. Then we entered the main room, which was once the private chapel. A moustached man told a few rambunctious children to be quiet. The room exuded a sense of symmetry so typical of the Classicist era.  I noticed the exquisite fabric texture of the wall hangings, decorated with hunting themes and picturesque landscapes. Two statues inspired by antiquity flanked a canopy bed and stood on pedestals. I was enamored by their exquisite green leaf motifs.

The next space had been a dining room since the 1720s. The printed stoneware on the table featured the Italian town of Ferrara and came from the prominent Vranov earthenware factory founded in the 19th century. I was filled with awe as I took in the pictures on the wall. The hand-painted canvas showed landscape views of a park with ancient, medieval, Chinese and Egyptian structures. The guide pointed out a scene showing the Park Monceau in Paris. Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, whose tenure on the throne lasted from 1711 to 1740, made an appearance in the scene. No stranger to the Althann family, Charles VI was a close friend of Marie Anna, who was an owner of the chateau in the second half of the 18th century. The emperor had even visited Vranov. Two children were scolded for pushing each other.

In the Family Salon the owner’s relatives and guests would discuss private and public topics after a meal. They played cards or chess, read books, listened to music and sipped coffee, tea or hot chocolate. A samovar tea urn from Russia’s Tula town attested to this ritual. The white-grey and pistachio colors of the wall fabrics entranced me. They showed Pompeii and other ancient towns. A young girl with bright blue eyes giggled.

The Blue Salon, the ladies’ living room, exuded a Classical style with its blue wall hangings and two sculptures of Aphrodite on white stoves. The furniture, an elegant blue mahogany, hailed from the 19th century and was made in Empire style. There were various kinds of porcelain – Viennese and Meissen, for example – in the room as well. The children began to appear restless, no longer paying much attention to the exhibits.

Vranovview2The Respirium was where the family relaxed after taking a bath. The wall and ceiling décor fascinated me. The Classicist relief stucco and ornamentation featuring carved wood was so elegant, and I felt so comfortable in this space. The white columns had hidden compartments where toiletries were kept. I loved the stucco decorations above the door. In one scene, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was being watched by Actaeon, who happened to be hunting in the forest when he saw her naked. Artemis turned him into a deer that her dogs devoured. I was glad that I was able to hear the guide as the children talked and argued among themselves. One girl with long chestnut-colored hair who would someday turn into a very beautiful woman began to cry.

Next we saw the Classicist bathroom, hailing from the 18th century. Artificial marble lined the walls. I loved the four black columns that appeared so elegant without being extravagant.  The guide, her voice a bit hoarse now, explained that the central pool had been used as a bathing area, but now visitors threw coins in the water for good luck. The children became excited and pleaded with the adults to give them some change. The chaperones shook their heads.

Hailing from the 18th century, a Rococo screen with Chinese motifs took precedence in the Oriental Salon. On the screen I could make out oriental gardens with bodies of water and paths. An aristocratic couple was celebrating around exotic figures. I was fascinated by the three unique sections of a 19th century Chinese scroll preserved in three rectangular frames. The scroll depicted a poet who had lived in the third century. The scribbler was coming home after being captured by the Huns. The scrolls showed her Hunnish escort, musicians and a general riding under a canopy while the poet held a child under a royal standard. This time a few of the children appeared interested in the scenes on the scroll as they talked among themselves about ancient battles.

Next came the Pompeii Salon with graphics on the walls depicting interiors of ancient palaces and villas. Vranov stoneware made a prominent appearance here. My eyes wandered to a pink vase with green décor. How I would love for my mother to be able to see that! She would love that vase! Maybe some day she would, I told myself. I wanted to show my parents so much of this country, but I would never have the chance to show them everything. The children showed no interest in the space.

The Althann Salon was another delight. Many of the paintings depicted members of this family, so significant to the development of the chateau. I admired the Baroque traveling altar. Brightly colored Vranov stoneware from the 19th century could also be found throughout the salon. By now the children were whining, restless, ready to leave.

The Gentlemen’s Salon hailed from the 19th century, and the decorations were inspired by spiritual alchemy. The scene above the door showed two female figures sleeping. Naked figures above four landscapes held torches. The symbols under the landscapes were focused on the Freemasons. The compasses and the square represented the meeting of heaven and earth, the guide remarked over a din of children’s cries. I admired the four landscapes on the walls, especially the depiction of the waterfall. I could almost hear the cascading water. The youngsters were not able to sit still.

The Swiss Rooms with 19th century landscape paintings on the walls were the next stops. I recognized Hercules in the midst of a battle. A black-stained cabinet was inlaid with marble depicting castles, towns, and rocks. The Picture Gallery included paintings by Dutch and Austrian artists from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Study was decorated with 19th century symbols of alchemy.

Last but not least came the library rooms. Created at the beginning of the 19th century, they now housed some 10,000 volumes. The black cabinets with geometrical designs looked sleek. Most of the books were written in French, German and Polish and hailed from the 18th and 19th centuries. The volumes consisted of both fiction and non-fiction that included subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, geography, theatre and history. I gazed at Voltaire’s collected works in cabinet 13.

Soon the tour was over. The children and their escorts scrambled away, and I took off toward the Chapel of the Holy Trinity in its romantic setting on the edge of the cliff below the chateau.  It was hard for me to believe that this impressive structure was completed within two years (1699-1700). Relieved that the children were not going to the church, I turned out to be the only one on the tour. I overheard a couple above the stairs leading down to the chapel.

“Do you want to see the chapel?”

The answer: “No, it does not seem so interesting.”

Vranovchurch1That couple did not know what they were missing. Architecturally, the interior had a central cylindrical nave with six oval rooms. There were three altars. Notably absent from the main altar was a picture or any kind of centerpiece. I had never seen a main altar like that before. I liked it because it was unique. I could see the Holy Trinity, and a pigeon represented the Holy Spirit. Angels also appeared in the Baroque creation, and golden rods shot out of the work.

The fresco in the cupola celebrated Archangel Michael, the defender of the Catholic Church, wielding a sword as he defeated Satan. Victorious, he placed his foot on his opponent’s chest. Angels danced and swirled around him. One side altar showed Saint Sebastian struck with arrows and Saint John the Baptist accompanied by sheep. The other altar portrayed Saint Barbara with a tower and Saint John with an eagle, holding a book. The Virgin Mary wore golden, flowing drapery.

Oval panels above the altars dealt with themes such as Heaven, Paradise and the Last Judgment.  The panel depicting the Last Judgment featured skeletons. One skeleton’s gesture seemed to be saying, “What? Me?”

After the tour of the church, I gazed at the romantic countryside and at the elegant chateau that blended with its surroundings, becoming a part of nature yet still retaining its own identity. Yes, I felt at peace here, even when among the rambunctious children on the tour. This place gave me strength that I often lacked. In the countryside here I also found a sense of hope.  The panorama gave me energy and a sense of optimism.

I left, reluctantly, to walk down the steep hill to the village below. From there the bus would take me back to Znojmo, where I would see a castle with magnificent interiors, a stunning rotunda, a spectacular church and several picturesque squares. I would stay in that intriguing south Moravian town overnight before heading back to Prague.Image

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