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

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Jiří Kolář Exhibition Diary

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I recently saw an exhibition of artist Jiří Kolář’s breathtaking collages and other works at the Kinský Palace in downtown Prague and was very moved by Kolář’s emphasis on freedom, personal expression and democracy. Many of his works were created when Czechoslovakia was oppressed during the totalitarian regime. His 66 political collages from 1968, after the Russians sent in the Warsaw Pact tanks to crush the liberal reforms of what was called “Prague Spring,” poignantly show how the Soviets had strangled Czechoslovakia in what would lead to an era of normalization, which encompassed rigid totalitarian reforms. Kolář confronts viewers and challenges their perceptions by often combining images that do not necessarily seem to correlate. He distorts and destroys images, expressing the cruelty of the Communist era and the longing for democratic ideals.

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Born in 1914 in the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire that enforced Germanization, Kolář witnessed the establishment of a democratic Czechoslovakia at the age of four. While he took up cabinet making initially, he would go on to become one of the most significant poets, writers, painters and translators. Even an injury that resulted in him losing a finger did not stop him from making a difference on Czechoslovakia’s literary and art scene. For a while, he took on odd jobs, working as a construction worker, butcher, waiter, security guard and bartender, for example.

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The country was introduced to his collages as early as 1937. During 1942, he joined the Group 42 existentialist artists that greatly influenced Czechoslovak culture. It was not until 1943 that he started to devote all his time to writing and, soon after, to editing as well. His brief stint in the Communist Party, during 1945, lasted less than a year.

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Certainly, the Communist regime was far from kind to him. When the Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Kolář became a banned author. While he was not allowed to publish, he scribed poetic diaries and authored manuscripts such as Prometheus’ Liver and Aesop from Vršovice. In the early 1950s, he was even imprisoned for nine months after the authorities found at his home a samizdat work written by a fellow dissident.

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During the 1960s, he took up experimental poetry, writing literary collages, and was one of the most influential artists to frequent the Café Slavia in Prague, where he met a young Václav Havel and others who voiced opposition to the Communist regime. His work was seen abroad during the 1960s, too. Some of his collages from this time included items that seemed misplaced, such as string, keys and shavers. He also started placing apples in his collages and designing apples of various sizes in various colors. The apples might symbolize temptation and the fact that all fruit looks similar, a powerful reminder of mass society in the modern world.

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Kolář experimented with various techniques of collage, even using textile and paper in his works. It was also during that decade that he mixed poetry with painting, finding a powerful and provocative voice by using both forms of expression that combined visual and literary art in a masterful way. He made collages of pictures he cut out of magazines and utilized excerpts of texts that epitomized the fragmentation of his country and the world. By doing so, he created new thought-provoking images.

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Even after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia during 1968, he continued to support freedom and democracy despite the rigid era of normalization that followed. He even signed Charter 77, a document drafted by dissidents, calling for human rights in Czechoslovakia. The Communist regime made sure there were severe repercussions for anyone brave enough to put their John Hancock on the proclamation.

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The Communist authorities forced him to emigrate, not allowing him back in his homeland after a stint in West Berlin. From 1980, he resided in Paris, though his Czech wife was not permitted to visit him there until five years later. He obtained French citizenship in 1984.

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After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime, he visited Prague often. When he became severely ill in 1998, he moved back to Prague and even had to relearn how to walk. At the age of 88, in 2002, he succumbed to the spinal injury that had kept him hospitalized for the last years of his life.

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Kolář’s creations have entranced me for decades. I was introduced to his work in the early 1990s. I admire his direct confrontation with the viewer. He combines images that I would have never thought could be grouped together, challenging my view of the world. His messages often deal with harsh reality, but he also yearns for personal and national freedom.

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

Prague’s Botanical Gardens in Troja Diary

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I had visited Prague’s Botanical Gardens in the Troja district about 15 years earlier, but, for some reason, every time I thought of going back, the weather was bad or I did not have time. I love botanical gardens in foreign cities I have visited, such as Madrid. Why hadn’t I spent more time in the botanical gardens in the city where I lived? I chided myself one day in 2018.

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I finally got there again in the summer. I went with a friend in the morning, before the humidity and heat became too much to bear. The botanical gardens in Troja is vast. It measures more than 20 hectares with a greenhouse that had not been there when I last visited and an outdoor area divided into the southern and much larger northern parts.

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First, we explored the greenhouse that was erected in 2004. It is 130 meters long and 17 meters wide. Inside was a tropical forest. I loved the small bridge surrounded by foliage. The structure looked like it had jumped straight out of a Monet painting. I loved watching the fish in the glass tunnel that divided the freshwater pond into two sections. The fire eels and iridescent sharks were amazing. I would not like to stick my hand in that tank. I’m sure it would have been bit off right away. We also saw meter-long arowanas, angelfish and archerfish. We wanted to see some butterflies, but we only managed to set our eyes on two, but they were two beautiful butterflies!

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In the greenhouse, there is a lowland rainforest section with species from Australia, Africa and Vietnam, for instance. The biggest section features lowland rainforests of tropical areas in America, Asia, Australasia and Africa. Here we saw deciduous trees, lianas, coniferous trees and palms. We saw some well-known plants, such as begonias, but there were many rare species as well. One section of the greenhouse features vegetation from subtropical and tropical regions, which often experience dry seasons. We saw plants from Australia, Central America, Madagascar and places in Africa. The smallest section is dedicated to tropical regions found in the high mountainous regions. Only a few greenhouses in Europe have a cooled section that could support such species in that kind of climate. The air in this part is humidified by mist.

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Intriguing species that we saw include the Dutchman’s pipe, which is one of the most endangered species in the world. Its brown flowers look like mushrooms. It is located in the wild only in seven places in Central America. The giant fern is one of the oldest plants in the world. Its leaves can grow up to seven meters long. The trunk can be as much as three meters tall and one meter in diameter. The climbing pandanus, which can grow to 20 meters in height, is found in the wild in the Luzon Island of the Philippines. We also saw cocoa trees, which were once sacred to the Aztecs, who considered it to have seeds that are the food of the Feathered Serpent. I loved the turquoise color of the jade vine, which is found in the wild only on three islands in the Philippines. The torch ginger flowers, red with yellow edges, were beautiful. It is from Southeast Asia, and paper can be produced from its stems. We also saw the marsh pitcher plant, native to the mountains of Venezuela.

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Then we visited the southern part of the gardens. I loved the Ornamental Garden best with its large, colorful flowerbed. The Japanese Gardens dotted with azaleas is another delight. A wine press, a wine shop and Mediterranean vegetation are also located in the southern section. In addition to the Ornamental Garden, my favorite feature was the view of St. Claire’s Vineyard and Troja Chateau, a place dear to my mother and me. The Baroque chateau had been built from 1679 to 1685, its desin inspired by Roman villas. The chateau’s French garden boasted superb statuary. From the Botanical Garden the views of the city and of the chateau were breathtaking.

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Baroque Troja Chateau

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St. Claire’s Vineyard, which we saw from the top of a hill, has a long history that goes back to the 13th century. You can buy wine made from its grapes in the wine shop, but I do not drink alcohol, so I have not tried it. We saw the Baroque chapel of St. Claire, too.

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Alas, it became too hot and humid to continue after a few hours, so I did not get to the northern section during this visit, though I did go there when I first came to the gardens. I have to go back to see the variety of gems that it offers – a Mediterranean garden, forest biotopes from Asia and North America, a North American prairie, a cacti section, wetlands, a lake and a semi-desert section. I saw a picture of the peony meadow, and it was so enchanting. I will definitely go back there when the weather is not scorching hot. The northern part is so big that I do not know if I could see everything in one visit.

I was very glad that I had begun to get acquainted with Prague’s botanical gardens again, and I am sure I will be back to discover more of its treasures.

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

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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

 

Rudolfinum Diary

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The Rudolfinum with the statue of Antonín Dvořák

Back in college, on a whim I took a classical music course, and soon I was hooked. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Dvořák’s New World Symphony enthralled me, but I became a fan of many other composers as well – Rachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Smetana, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Martinů, Mozart, Chopin, Bartók. Even the dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg captured my undivided attention. During my university years, I would take the bus from Smith College to Springfield, Massachusetts in order to attend Springfield Symphony concerts once a month.

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In Prague I would sometimes admire the statue of Dvořák in front of the Rudolfinum, and, occasionally, I would visit the art gallery in the building to see intriguing contemporary exhibitions. However, for some reason, I did not go into the concert hall of the Rudolfinum for a long time. I assumed all the concerts would be too expensive, and everything would sell out immediately.

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Then, a few years ago, in the midst of a classical music craving, I went to a piano recital in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum. I just had to go back. Again. And again. I went as often as I could, both to concerts in the large Dvořák Hall auditorium and to chamber concerts in the Suk Hall.  Dvořák Hall, one of the oldest in Europe, has the capacity of 1,148 places with 1,104 seats. Standing room is big enough for 40 concertgoers, and there are four places designated for the wheelchair-disabled.

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The following year I purchased season tickets to three cycles. Attending concerts not only allows me to hear worldwide acclaimed musicians but also to relieve stress and get my mind off any worries or concerns for a few hours.

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Although I studied piano for fun in college, my favorite instrument is the violin. In Prague, I discovered the masterful interpretations of Czech violinists Josef Suk, Jiří Vodička and Josef Špaček. The violin enchants me, all the more because it is an instrument I know I could never even hold properly let alone play.

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I did not know that there were tours of the Rudolfinum until I wrote to the box office and asked. I recommend all tourists interested in Czechoslovak history to take the tour, which is available in English. The story of the Rudolfinum is not only the story of Czech and Czechoslovak music but also the tale of Czech and Czechoslovak history. The Rudolfinum is not merely another music venue in Prague. It is a remarkable Neo-Renaissance building in which Czechoslovak history has been played out.

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The Rudolfinum opened its doors February 7, 1885. It was designed by architect Josef Zítek and his student Josef Schulz and named after Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg clan. The Crown Prince was present at the inaugural performance. The Czech Philharmonic played here for the first time on January 4, 1896, in a concert that Dvořák himself conducted. The Czech Philharmonic has called the building home since 1946.

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However, the Rudolfinum has not only been a captivating venue for concerts. From 1919 to 1939, the seat of Czech Parliament was here. In Dvořák Hall during 1920, 1924 and 1934, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected President of Czechoslovakia. Sometimes, waiting for a concert to start, I try to imagine the atmosphere of those elections playing out in the very same hall where I am seated.

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Because I like to know something about the history of the orchestra I am seeing perform, I looked up information about the various conductors of the Czech Philharmonic.

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After Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, Václav Talich became the main conductor and would serve in that capacity until 1941. His tenure lasted almost 1,000 concerts. Thanks to Talich, the Czech Philharmonic received worldwide acclaim. He first conducted with the Czech Philharmonic in 1917 at age 34.

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Talich’s personal history is colorful. He was put in jail after World War II, accused of collaborating with the Nazis, but there was no proof to support the charge. After the Communist coup in 1948, he found himself immersed in troubles again. The Communists forbid him from conducting in any public place until 1954.

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From 1942 to 1948, Raphael Kubelík worked as the main Czech conductor with the Philharmonic, but he also was known for his accomplishments as a composer and as a violinist. He was an expert on pieces created by Czech and other Slavic composers. He also was known for his interpretations of compositions by Gustav Mahler and Béla Bartók. He emigrated after the 1948 Communist coup, when the Communists took over the Czechoslovak government.

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Karel Ančerl’s biography is fraught with tragedy. He was making a name for himself as a conductor when World War II changed everything. The Nazis forced him to work as a forester, and then incarcerated him. During 1942, he was transported to Terezín, where even the depressing atmosphere of a concentration camp could not stop him from continuing musical endeavors. Two years later, Ančerl was sent to Auschwitz. He was the only member of his family to survive the war. Ančerl took over the Czech Philharmonic in 1948. He would stay for 20 seasons, until he emigrated after Russian tanks invaded Czechoslavkia, crushing the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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For the past few seasons, I had watched Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic. His interpretations of music received praise throughout the world. He worked with the Prague Philharmonic from 1994 to 2005 and then conducted with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2012. He first held the post of main conductor with the Czech Philharmonic from 1990 to 1992. He rejoined the Czech Philharmonic again in 2012. His interpretation of the third and fourth symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů earned him a nomination for a Grammy in 2005. In April of 2012, he received the medal of the British Imperial Order. Unfortunately, he died May 31, 2017. I am honored that I was able to attend so many of his concerts.

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The tour of the Rudolfinum takes music enthusiasts onto the stage of the Dvořák Hall where one can appreciate the rich decoration on the balustrades and painted ceiling with elegant chandelier. I loved the bright blue color in the superb ceiling painting. On the balcony, there is an intimate reception room for special guests. On the roof I saw many statues as well as beehives. (The National Theatre also makes its own honey, by the way.) I admired the superb views of Prague Castle.

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On the first floor, I took note of the busts of various Czech musicians and conductors. I took a photo of the bust of Karel Šejna, who was a double bassist with the Czech Philharmonic who served as main conductor in 1950. That year he led the Czech Philharmonic in concerts in England as well as East and West Germany. He was known for his interpretations of the music of Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

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The Conductor’s Room

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I was also entranced with the black-and-white photos of Czechs who made great contributions to musical history. Some of the photos were even autographed. I especially liked the Conductor’s Room. The blues and reds of the carpet appealed to me as did the various styles of furniture. I could imagine one of the former conductors playing a Mozart melody on the Petrov piano, deep in thought. The photos of musicians on the walls gave me the feeling the space was imbued with historical resonance.

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Seeing the building from a tourist’s perspective was enlightening. Still, I am most content as a concertgoer in elegant Dvořák Hall, listening to musicians warm up their instruments, anticipating the concert soon to come.

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

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Winternitz Villa Diary

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I had relished my visits to Prague’s Müller Villa, designed by Viennese Adolf Loos and Czech Karel Lhota. Therefore, I was very excited to be touring the Winternitz Villa, on which those same two architects cooperated from 1931 to 1932. The three-floor house is located at Na Cihlářce 10 in Prague’s Smíchov district, perched on a hill from which there are superb views of the city.

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Adolf Loos and Karel Lhota

Lawyer Josef Winternitz and his wife, son and daughter lived there until 1941, when they were sent to concentration camps, eventually winding up in Auschwitz. His wife and daughter miraculously survived. (His wife, Jana, would die in 1979 while the daughter, Susanne, would pass away in 1991.) In 1943 the villa was transferred to the city of Prague and became the home of a kindergarten. It was used in this capacity until 1995.

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In 1997 the family’s request for restitution came through after a six-year battle. The villa underwent a three-year reconstruction period starting in 1999. Then the owners rented it to private companies because they needed the money. During 2017 the great grandson of Josef Winternitz decided to open the villa to the public for one week. The response was tremendous. About 5,000 people came to see it. The villa was open to the public on a permanent basis in April of 2017.

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Shelves designed by Adolf Loos

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Vacuum cleaner from 1930s

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Refrigerator designed by Loos

The exterior of the villa is similar to the Müller Villa. It is an austere cube-like shape without ornamentation of any kind, a trademark of Loos’ architecture. I admired the symmetry of the north façade and windows. However, for Loos the most important characteristic of this villa was not symmetry but incorporating the Raumplan, which involves each room being situated on a different level. There were six levels of complicated spaces.

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The living room

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Soon, it was time to go inside. I walked down a narrow, dark corridor that opened onto a light, airy living room. I recalled the living room of the Müller Villa, which also was airy, light and a big space. The living room of the Winternitz Villa was 56 meters squared in size with a high ceiling measuring four meters. It was on a lower level than the dining room and small salon, which were both smaller rooms. The wooden floor of the living room was original as were the fireplaces and heaters. However, the furniture throughout the villa was not original. It had been lost during the war. The Müller Villa, though, had original furniture.

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The small salon

The small salon had cabinets with small shelves inside. Both the small salon and dining room were symmetrical. Although the library was connected to the salon, it was not possible to go inside because it was a private space.

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The dining room

On the next level, I loved the yellow and blue doorframes. Loos so often employed bright colors in his designs. Even the bright yellow fence outside was its original color. I recalled the bright colors of the children’s room in the Müller Villa. The red floors of this space in the Winternitz Villa also appealed to me. The first floor terrace offered some intriguing views of Prague. This terrace, though, had only been used by the kindergarten, not by the Winternitz family.

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On the second floor, I particularly liked the small room where portraits of the family members hung. Seeing the faces of the family members made the experience of touring the villa more intimate. Thanks to the photos, I felt a certain connection to the family. I could imagine them in this villa, the kids coming home from school, the parents listening to the radio. One picture that was not a portrait showed the villa in 1995, at the time when the kindergarten was closed. It had been in such poor condition. I could not believe the difference between the condition of the building back then and the condition of the villa now. By the way, the grandson of Josef Winternitz designed the reconstruction that followed.

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The second floor terrace had been used by the Winternitz family. The stunning views were framed by horizontal beams that came out onto the terrace. There did not seem to be a reason for having these beams there. At one time, it was possible to see Vyšehrad hill from the terrace, but a big building now got in the way. From the terrace, I saw the large high-rise in Pankrác, an eyesore to say the least. I could also see the National Theatre and Týn Church on Old Town Square.

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Pictures of the Winternitz family

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The condition of the villa in 1995, when the kindergarten closed

The villa had been well worth visiting, especially after having toured the Müller Villa. Even though the furniture in the Winternitz Villa was not authentic, the pieces fit the style of the villa well. It was still possible to imagine the family members in those rooms, even without original furnishings. The villa was a perfect example of Loos’ Raumplan feature, so characteristic of his designs. The austerity of the outside contrasted the comfortable, intimate atmosphere of the interior. This was another trademark of Loos’ work. For those interested in modern architecture, this villa is sure to please.

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

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The second floor terrace

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View from the second floor terrace with Týn Church and the National Theatre in the background

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.