2017 Travel Review Diary

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Sassi in Matera, Italy

My travels during 2017 made my year very special. I went to Italy twice and spent time exploring the Czech Republic on day trips, taking jaunts to numerous chateaus and a basilica, for instance.

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Castle in Trento

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Treviso

During my first trip to Italy in 2017, I saw a wonderful Impressionist art exhibition in Treviso. I visited the impressive castle and picturesque streets of Trento. I also ransacked a few good bookstores in Treviso and picked up a year’s worth of reading in Italian. (I took advantage of the fact that we were traveling by bus.) I especially enjoyed discovering the charming town of Bassano del Grappa with its wooden Palladian bridge and, most importantly, its superb collection of paintings by Jacopo Bassano and others.

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

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Civic Museum in Bassano del Grappa

In June, I took one of my best trips ever, to the lesser known and lesser travelled regions of Puglia and Basilicata. Most of the sights were not so crowded. We saw many charming, sleepy towns, refreshingly not inundated with tourists. I was entranced with all the Apulian-Romanesque cathedrals. The intricate design of the main portal of the cathedral in Altamura and the rose window surrounded by lions perched on columns on the Cathedral of Saint Valentine in Bitonto are only two of the many gems designed in this rich architectural style. The bishop’s throne from the 12th century in Canosa di Puglia featured two elephant figures for legs and was a true delight.

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Altamura, cathedral

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Bishop’s throne in cathedral in Canosa di Puglia

Lecce with its Baroque wonders, Roman theatre and Roman amphitheatre left me speechless. The Baroque craftsmanship of Lecce’s most notable architect, Giuseppe Zimbalo, was breathtaking. The Cathedral of Our Lady the Assumption, one of many Baroque gems, had a stunning side façade and 75-meter tall belfry with balustrades, sculptures and pyramids. Inside, the structure was no less amazing. The gilt coffered ceiling over the nave and transept and the 18th century marble main altar decorated with angels were just a few of the awe-inspiring features of the interior.

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Ceiling of cathedral in Lecce

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Altar in church in Baroque Lecce

A castle buff, I was also more than intrigued by the octagonal Castel del Monte and the way the number eight was so symbolic in its architectural design. I was impressed with the French windows, Romanesque features and mosaic floor, for instance.

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Castel del Monte

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Castel del Monte

What fascinated me most of all on that trip was the rock town of Matera with its two “sassi” districts. I have never seen a place that is so unique and moving, except for Pompeii. I explored the Sasso Caveoso. Its structures were dug into the calcareous rock on different levels of a hillside. They were cave dwellings that had been turned into restaurants, cafes, hotels and sightseeing gems. It was difficult to believe that, until the 1950s, the sassi had been poverty-stricken, riddled with unsanitary conditions and overcrowding.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

The Rupertian churches especially caught my attention. They boasted frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries. The Santa Maria de Idris Church had a main altar made of tufo and chalk and decorated with 17th and 18th century frescoes. The rocky churches had actually been places of worship until 1960.

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Sassi Caveoso in Matera

I also explored two neighborhoods of Prague, parts of the city that I have always loved. In Hanspaulka I became more familiar with the various types of villas – Neo-Classical and Neo-Baroque, functionalist and purist, for example. I saw the villas where actress Lída Baarová had lived and where her sister had committed suicide as well as the villa where comedian Vlasta Burian had resided. I love the Art Deco townhouses in the area.

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Art Deco townhouses in Hanspaulka

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The villa where actor Vlasta Burian once lived, Hanspaulka

There are just as beautiful Art Deco townhouses in the nearby Ořechovka district, where I saw villas created by the well-known Czech modern architect Pavel Janák and many former homes of famous Czech artists. The Rondocubist dwellings with their designs inspired by folk art also excited me. I loved the folk art elements in Rondocubism. My favorite place in the quarter is Lomená Street. The 1920s townhouses are modelled after English cottages.

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Lomená Street in Ořechovka

I also visited the Winternitz Villa, designed by Viennese architect Adolf Loos and his Czech colleague Karel Lhota, situated in Prague’s fifth district. Winternitz, a lawyer by trade, was forced to leave with his family in 1941 due to their Jewish origin. His wife and daughter miraculously survived Auschwitz. The villa features the Raumplan, Loos’ trademark, in which every room is on a different level. I also saw two apartments designed by Loos in Pilsen. The Brummel House with its bright yellow furnishings and Renaissance fireplace amazed.

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Exterior of Winternitz Villa, Prague

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Living room of Winternitz Villa

I took many day trips outside of Prague. Červený Újezd Castle, only built in 2001, looked like it belongs in a medieval fairy tale. The park and open-air architectural museum were just as appealing. Braving the D1 highway that is partially under construction, my friend and I made our way to Telč. I admired its Renaissance burgher houses lining the main square and its chateau that features a Renaissance gilded coffered ceiling in the Golden Hall, 300 Delft faience plates on a wall in the Count’s Room and an African Hall with a gigantic elephant’s ear.

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Červený Ujezd Castle

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Burgher houses on the main square in Telč

At Zákupy I was entranced by the ceiling paintings of Josef Navrátil. Its Chapel of St. Francis sparkled in 17th century Baroque style with frescoes on the ceiling. I finally made it to the Minor Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence in the tranquil north Bohemian town of Jablonné v Podještědí. The main altar is in pseudo-Baroque style while the pulpit and the baptismal font hailed from the 18th century. One chapel’s altar is Rococo, adorned with a late Gothic statue. The stained glass windows amazed me.

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Interior of chapel at Zákupy Chateau

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Interior of Basilica of St. Zdislava and St. Lawrence

The chateau of Dětenice in late Baroque style had an interior that mostly dates from the 18th century with rooms small enough to give an intimate feel but large enough to hold many architectural delights. In the Blue Dining Room the wall paintings were made to look like works by Botticelli. The tapestries in the Music Salon were wonderful. The Golden Hall was unbelievably breathtaking.

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

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Interior of Detěnice Chateau

My favorite chateau of this past year’s trips is Hrubý Rohozec, which I have toured many times. It is filled with original furnishings and objects – lots of them – that I found captivating. Most of all, I loved the lively history that made the chateau unique and unforgettable. Bullet holes can still be seen in the Main Library. A thief on the run had barricaded himself in the room, and the policemen had to shoot the door open. Before World War II, the two sons of the castle’s owner were caught reading erotic magazines in the Children’s Room. There were bars on the window to prevent them from throwing chairs into the courtyard at midnight.

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Organ in chapel of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

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Blue Salon of Hrubý Rohozec Chateau

The Porcelain Museum at Klášterec nad Ohří held some delights. The Birth of the Virgin Mary Church in Doksany charmed in Baroque style with much stucco decoration. I admired many other chateaus as well, including Orlík and Březnice with its spectacular chapel.

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Interior of chapel at Březnice Chateau

The year was extra special because my parents were able to visit me. We toured the Rudolfinum concert hall in Prague, where I have season tickets for three cycles. The concert hall has played a role in Czechoslovak history. Democrat statesman Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected president three times in its large Dvořák Hall during the 1920s and 1930s, when the Rudolfinum was the home of Czechoslovak Parliament. The statuary and view of Prague Castle on the roof were splendid, and the Conductors’ Room boasted various styles of furnishings, black-and-white photos of well-renowned musicians and an impressive Petrov piano.

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Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum

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Rudolfinum, upper level

We also toured Nelahozeves Chateau near Prague, a place that has been dear to me for many years. For me the highlight of visiting this chateau is superb collection of art, especially Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s painting of a winter scene. The painting by Rubens was a delight, too. I also loved the small 18th century table inlaid with 20 kinds of wood. The exterior was captivating as well. The graffito on one wall and the Renaissance courtyard were two stunning architectural elements.

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Renaissance courtyard of Nelahozeves Chateau

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Sgraffito on wall of Nelahozeves Chateau

I took my parents on a trip around Hanspaulka and pointed out one of the Baroque chapels, the chateau and other sights. We admired the villas of various styles. We ate paninis in the local café.

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Chapel in Hanspaulka

Perhaps the highlight of their visit was seeing a Czech play in the Žižkov Theatre of Jára Cimrman. We laughed along to the music of Cimrman in the Paradise of Music, which focuses on the operatic works of the fictional legendary Jára Cimrman, who was an unlucky man of all trades – inventor, philosopher, teacher, self-taught gynecologist, to name a few of his many professions. The opera in the second half of the play involves a Czech engineer introducing the great taste of pilsner beer to India. The British colonel in the play is so impressed with the taste of Czech beer that he wishes he had been born Czech. It was terrific that I was able to introduce my parents to the character of Jára Cimrman, who has played such a major role in Czech culture and folklore, even though he is not real.

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Almost featureless bust of Jára Cimrman

I was thankful that I had my best friend, my black cat Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová by my side throughout the year. She is happy here, much happier than she was in a shelter four years ago.

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Šarlota Garrigue Masaryková Burnsová

Every day I think of Bohumil Hrabal Burns, my feisty and naughty black cat who died three-and-a-half years ago. He remains with me in spirit every moment of my life. I know that somewhere in Cat Heaven, he is vomiting for fun on white rugs and playing with Fat Cat toys.

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Bohumil Hrabal Burns, 1999 – 2014

Those were my travels of 2017. I look forward to more adventures this year. I have planned one trip to Italy and will soon jot down a list of day trips I would like to take.

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

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Santa Croce Church in Lecce

 

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Ořechovka Diary

 

OrechovkaZlomena12During 2017, I went on a walk through the Ořechovka section of Prague with Praha Neznámá or Unknown Prague tour company. The guide was excellent, the tour comprehensive. If you speak Czech, I recommend discovering parts of Prague with this agency. However, it was far from my first visit to the area.

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The villa-dotted Ořechovka quarter of Prague’s sixth district is one of the most picturesque parts of the city. For years, I have loved taking walks through the area, admiring the various styles of architecture. Some centuries ago, the property belonged to Jan Kryštof Bořek, who had a superb chateau built in a French style garden that was dotted with sculptures. The chateau was destroyed in wartime during 1742. The land was later used for other purposes, and, after Czechoslovakia was born in 1918, the first villas were constructed there thanks to architects Jaroslav Vondrák and Jan Šenkýř. The duo was especially inspired by English garden towns. The villas often consisted of apartments, from one-room accommodations to flats of four rooms. Many prominent artists settled in Ořechovka.

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The villas that intrigued me the most were the ones designed by Czech modernist architect Pavel Janák, whose creations include the functionalist plan for the Baba Housing Estate, also in Prague’s sixth district. He designed three of the 32 houses in Baba. Janák also drew up the plans for reconstruction work at Prague Castle and made innovative Cubist ceramics. His Kafka Villa – no, it has nothing to do with Franz! – was constructed for sculptor Bohumil Kafka whose works include the Monument to Jan Žižka in Prague’s Žižkov district. That sight ranks as the world’s largest equestrian statue. Inspired by the works of Auguste Rodin, Kafka favored symbolism and secession. Situated at 41/484 Na Ořechovce Street, this villa combines various styles as I noticed features of symbolism, naturalism and impressionism. It also is adorned with a superb Art Nouveau sculpture.

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Janák also cast his magic spell with the villa for painter Vincenc Beneš, a painter influenced by French modernism as well as Cubism and Fauvism. Later works included stylized figural creations and battlefields as well as landscapes for the National Theatre. Located at Cukrovarnická 24/492, this house flaunts a distinctive Dutch style and features coarse brickwork that appealed to me. (The villa for painter, graphic artist and illustrator Václav Špála also is dominated by the Dutch style that shows off coarse brickwork, though it was not designed by Janák.)

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The third villa that Janák contributed to Ořechovka consists of two villas together, built for Cubist painter, graphic artist and sculptor Emil Filla and his father-in-law, psychologist, philosopher and politician František Krejčí, in the 1920s. The structure of these villas is similar to the Beneš Villa.

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Filla’s story is intriguing. Inspired by Picasso, Braque, Munch and Van Gogh, he was noted for his Cubist painting and sculpture. Before World War I, he traveled to Paris and then fled to the Netherlands when war erupted. After the war, he came back to Prague, and traits of surrealism could be found in his works, which included painting on glass. On the first day of World War II, he was arrested by the Nazis, along with other prominent Czechs. He spent time in several concentration camps during the war, but somehow survived. After the war Filla took up teaching at Prague’s Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and created mostly landscape paintings.

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My favorite street in the quarter and also my second favorite street in Prague – my favorite is a short, dead-end street in Prague 6, where I lived for 10 happy years – is called Lomená Street. The design of the 1920s townhouses by Vondrák and Šenkýř resemble English cottages. They are so quaint and have an intimate atmosphere that immediately makes me feel calm and at ease despite the world’s turmoil and with my own problems, be they big or small. I love the triangular gables. Other characteristics are narrow, rectangular windows and high chimneys.

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Another one of my favorite places in Prague is the Rondocubism triangular area made by Dělostrelecká and Klidná streets. Similar to Art Deco, Rondocubism is unique to the Czech Republic. Janák paired with fellow architect Josef Gočár to create works in this nationalistic, folk-inspired style. The bright colors make the homes even more lively and dynamic. I like to imagine the time period when these townhouses were constructed, a few years after Czechoslovakia had been christened a new country in 1918. So much hope and positive energy was in the air. I would not mind calling one of these architectural gems home.

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Now the main square of Ořechovka is depressing and dilapidated with only a few small shops, but back in 1926, when it was completed, the central building featured not only shops but also a cinema (which was only recently shut down), restaurants, a café and doctors’ offices. In 1927, the building was extended with a theatre, dance hall and library. I remember seeing the film Kolya, which won an Oscar in 1996 for best foreign film, at the small, intimate movie theatre there. The movie directed by Jan Svěrák and starring his father, Zdeněk, remains one of my favorite films. Back in the late 1920s, the square must have been quite the gathering place, bustling with activity and excitement.

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There is another reason Ořechovka is dear to me. Back in the 1990s, when war was causing havoc in former Yugoslavia, I was teaching English to two girls, a 9-year old and an 11-year old, living in Ořechovka. They resided in a beautiful townhouse resembling an English cottage. Their father worked for the Czech Embassy in Belgrade, but the children and their mother had been sent back to Prague because it was deemed too dangerous for them in Belgrade.

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The late Václav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic for 13 years, resided in the villa pictured above. His widow still lives there.

I have not taught many children. I had previously taught only two youngsters. I do not have any children and do not understand them well. However, these two girls opened their hearts to me. They were such kind and decent people, obviously influenced by their mother, who was a wonderful human being. I looked forward to the lessons because it was so pleasant to teach them. Moreover, with each lesson, I learned a little better how to communicate with children. I remember they loved learning about the US presidents. I had flash cards, one for each president, and we used to create games with them. Therefore, Ořechovka is a place I associate with genuinely good people who have influenced my life. I often wondered what ever happened to those girls. Are they living in Prague or abroad? Do they have families? Did they keep up with their English studies?

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This villa was once the home of high-ranking Nazi Adolf Eichmann.

Unfortunately, not only good people have called Ořechovka home. The most evil person to live in the quarter was Adolf Eichmann, who took up residence in a neoclassical villa that had belonged to Jew Rudolf Fišer. Eichmann fled in April of 1945, and the previous owner was allowed to return to the villa but only to rent a few rooms.

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Ořechovka remains dear to me, and I love taking walks there whenever weather permits. Along with Hanspaulka, it is one of my favorite parts of Prague. I recommend travelers take walks through these villa-dotted quarters in order to get out of the crowded center and experience a more tranquil side of Prague.

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