2020 Travel Diary

View of Prague from the district where I live

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

A chapel in my home district

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

Křivoklát Castle

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

The main altar of the chapel in Křivoklát Castle

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

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

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

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

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

Kačina Chateau library
Nebílovy Chateau
Dancing Hall at Nebílovy Chateau

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

Průhonice Park

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

Mnichovo Hradiště Chateau

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

Koněprusy Caves

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

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

Peruc Chateau

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

Manětín Chateau
Manětín Chateau

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

Rabštejn nad Střelou

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

Chapel at Lnáře Chateau
Lnáře Chateau

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

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

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

Konopiště Chateau
Konopiště Chateau

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

Konopiště Chateau Museum of St. George

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

Konopiště Shooting Hall

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

Rembrandt exhibition at Kinský Palace

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

Rembrandt exhibition

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

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

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

Rembrandt Exhibition Portrait of a Man Diary

I had enthusiastically sought out Rembrandt’s works at various galleries throughout Europe. I had marveled at his masterful chiaroscuro at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, at the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, at the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, at the Louvre in Paris and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, to name a few.

One of my favorite memories of traveling with my parents was visiting the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, which included a printmaking studio as well as some of his paintings and prints. Rembrandt lived there from 1639 until 1656, when financial woes forced him to move. None of the furnishings is original because he had sold them, but the 17th century interior still delighted and awed both my parents and myself. We were happy. I had recently turned 30 while my parents were still young enough to travel abroad without health concerns. Therefore, Rembrandt’s works had a personal meaning for me, evoking such memories of joy.

I was very excited when the Rembrandt exhibition of his portraits came to Kinský Palace on Old Town Square in Prague on September 25, 2020. The palace’s space for the exhibition took up one floor and was considerable in size. Even though it didn’t end until January 31, 2021, I was eager to see the masterpieces. I went there shortly after it opened, on September 28. Many of the works were normally displayed in Prague, Olomouc, Brno, New York, Antwerp, London, Dresden and Vienna while others had been loaned from private collections. The exhibition featured both his paintings and drawings as well as modern works inspired by the masterful artist. It was a good thing I went so soon after its opening because soon the gallery would be closed due to the high number of coronavirus cases. We had to wear masks, and it was quite crowded, even though only a limited number of people could be in the gallery at the same time. (The gallery would reopen in December.)

The highlight of the exhibition was the painting A Scholar in His Study, permanently housed in Prague’s National Gallery. The painting exemplifies how Rembrandt achieved great success at portraiture. His work shows not only the physical characteristics of the subject but also the psychological nature of the man in a dramatic way that is unique to Rembrandt’s style.

I was most entranced by Rembrandt’s portraits because they showed the soul of the person. The subject was not standing rigidly. The appearance was very lifelike. Moreover, there was much more to his paintings than the appearance. I felt as if I could look deep into the people in the portraits as his works narrated a visual story of the subject’s life. His portraits showed that he truly cared about the subject.

I especially was keen on the self-portraits as Rembrandt showed his inner self, capturing his psychological state. It was as if he could be objective about himself. I could read the self-portraits as a sort of visual autobiography – as a young man Rembrandt looked a bit insecure, at the peak of his career he appeared successful and confident and finally I saw a sadness and resignation that was both touching and tragic. I recalled his sad fate – a poor man when he died, he was buried in an unknown grave in a church, and his remains were destroyed after resting there for 20 years.

I liked the portraits in which he was making faces. In one particular work, he looked surprised and amazed. I noticed his clothes from bygone eras in some works as he dressed as a historical figure for some self-portraits. A theatre major, I loved the sense of drama in these works.

The self-portraits were dynamic and powerful. This effect was in part achieved by his mastery of light and shadow. I also appreciated the details. His works featured great attention to detail, and that helped bring the portraits to life.

While I made sure I didn’t stand too close to anyone, I perused the works with a sense of enthusiasm that I had missed since early September, when my friend and I stopped visiting castles, chateaus and caves because the number of coronavirus cases had greatly increased. I reveled in that enthusiasm.

I thought I would have the chance to visit other exhibitions in the near future. Alas, soon the museums and galleries closed for a lengthy period, only opening again in December. I missed the excitement of peering at an artwork that spoke to me, that was powerful and poignant.

The Portrait of a Man exhibition was one of my favorite all-time exhibitions. Rembrandt’s works never cease to amaze me, and seeing so many in one place was phenomenal.

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

Gemäldegalerie Diary

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I visited the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin for the second time during 2018 and was just as enamored with the museum as I had been when I first came there. It was clear to me that this gallery hosting paintings from first years of medieval art to Neoclassism in 1800 has one of the best collections of European art in the world.

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The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder

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The German art, especially the paintings by Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, was a true delight. I loved studying Dürer’s The Madonna with the Siskin from 1506. With a scenic landscape in the background, Mary has a cheerful and curious Jesus on her lap as he plays with a bird perched on his arm. Two putti hold a laurel crown over Mary’s head.

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However, it was the collection of Netherlandish work that I was drawn to like a magnet. Ever since taking a class at Smith College in Dutch and Flemish art, I have been a Netherlandish art fanatic. One of my favorites was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Dutch Proverbs from 1559, which showcases 100 proverbs in a realistic village setting.

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Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt, 1659

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Susanna and the Elders by Rembrandt, 1647

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One entire room is devoted to Rembrandt’s art, and I spent a long time studying Rembrandt’s creations. While staring at Moses about to destroy the tablets in Moses with the Ten Commandments from 1659, I felt Moses’ ire and inner turmoil. In Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders from 1647, Susanna is swathed in light as the letch pulls her backwards toward him. Susanna draws viewers into the picture by looking straight at them, making them a witness to the physical abuse by the elderly, uncouth man and his accomplice.

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Child with a Bird by Rubens, 1624-25

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Saint Sebastian by Rubens, 1618

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Malle Babe by Hals, 1633-35

I also was overjoyed at seeing again Paul Rubens’ Child with a Bird from 1624-25 and felt the pure joy that the child must have experienced when first noticing the bird. Rubens’ Saint Sebastian from 1618 is riddled with arrows as his face is turned toward the sky, toward Heaven. Emotion and turmoil seep from the twisted figure. Frans Hal’s Malle Babe from 1633-35 shows an inebriated woman with an owl on her shoulder. I could almost hear her mad, raucous, and disturbing laughter roar through the exhibition space.

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Cupid as Victor by Caravaggio, 1601-02

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Other highlights for me included Jan Vermeer van Delft’s Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. I loved the yellow of the curtain and her jacket. I adored Vermeer’s depictions of people going about their everyday routines. Even the simplest and smallest of gestures or movements acquires a poetic quality. Of course, I did not overlook Caravaggio’s works. His Cupid as Victor from 1601-02 displays his mastery at chiaroscuro as Cupid mocks the audience with a sly, cunning smile that announces love as victorious over science, art, fame and power. The five Madonnas by Raphael also stood out, and I remembered touring Raphael’s birthplace in Urbino.

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Overall, there are 72 rooms displaying masterpieces in the Gemäldegalerie. The main galleries house about 850 works. The history of the museum, harkening back to 1830, intrigued me. During World War II, many of its paintings were saved because they were hidden in the Thuringian salt mines, from which US soldiers rescued them. Other items in the collection were stored in air raid shelters during the war. During the Cold War, the works were divided into two galleries – one in West Berlin, the other in the East. The two collections have only been housed in one building since 1998. The Old Master Paintings are located at the Kulturforum with the Museum of Decorative Arts as its neighbor. I was dazzled by the works in that museum as it, too, is well worth a visit.

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