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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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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