Ploskovice Chateau Diary

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I first discovered Ploskovice Chateau in 2005, and I wrote about it in an article about chateaus of north Bohemia for The Washington Post. My second visit was long overdue – not until 2019. I remembered being very impressed by Josef Navrátil’s delicate ceiling and wall painting that exhibited painstaking detail.

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The name Ploskovice was first mentioned in writing during the 12th century. A fortress used to be in the settlement, but the defensive structure was replaced by a Renaissance chateau in the 17th century, and that building was given a Baroque makeover in the 17th century. The current chateau hails from the 18th century, when grottoes, a decorative garden and statuary were all added to make it the superb architectural work that it is today. The architect was most likely the renowned Kilián Ignatius Dientzenhofer.

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Ploskovice became the summer residence of Ferdinand I after he had abdicated from the throne in 1848. This was the era when the brilliant Navrátil did his magic. After the founding of Czechoslovakia, the chateau was nationalized. It was made into a private summer residence for the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Beneš, who had promoted independence while living in exile during the First World War. He made frequent visits during the 1930s.

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However, after the Munich Agreement ceded the land of the Sudeten region to the Third Reich, German soldiers took over the chateau. A school for young Nazis was on the premises. During 1945, after the end of World War II, the chateau became state property again. In 1952 renovation began, and Navrátil’s frescoes were restored to their original beauty. During the 1960s, the chateau was opened to the public.

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The tour started in the hallway that boasted beautiful arcades. The entrance hall was stunning with frescoes, stuccowork and statues of the four elements and four seasons. We then saw 11 rooms.

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The Engraving Salon featured a large collection of engravings and mid-18th century Rococo decorations with white-and-gold furnishings. Meissen porcelain enhanced the beauty of the room. I loved the vedutas of Paris, French chateaus and French parks. In the Rococo Ladies’ Bedroom, the small crucifix that can be opened and closed was made from ivory. An early Baroque jewel chest dated from the 17th century, hailing from Cheb. The small opening in the jewel chest held an altar. A gilded Rococo mirror also added to the elegance of the room. Paintings from late Baroque and Rococo periods also hung in the space.

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The Dining Room boasted Czech porcelain service from the days of Ferdinand I. The four seasons were personified on a ceiling that included superb medallions. The Emperor’s Salon boasted second Rococo furnishings and appeared as it had when Ferdinand I had used the chateau as a summer residence. Navrátil’s delicate floral designs on the ceiling were other delights. A second Rococo chandelier adorned the space. I saw portraits of Empress Marie Theresa and her son Joseph II. They looked like they were made of stucco but were really paintings. A superbly decorated white tiled stove also impressed me.

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The Dancing Hall was the highlight of the chateau. Large figures representing the four continents dominated the ceiling, painted in Navrátil’s cheerful colors. A Turk with a camel represented Asia while a crocodile stood for America. The room even had a delightful balcony. An antique vase was painted on one wall. The colors were dynamic, the painting in the room powerful and bold.

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The Emperor’s Bedroom featured furnishings of the second Rococo style, dating from around 1850. The ceiling was colorful, adorned with bouquets of flowers. In the corner, medallions showed allegories of the times of day. A rooster represented morning, a relaxing hunting dog portrayed noon while a drinking deer stood for evening and an owl personified night. I loved the dark blue cups for coffee or hot chocolate. They came from Karlovy Vary. Two paintings of a Madonna and Child also adorned the space.

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In another space there were sofas on which the people would be seated back-to-back. The ceiling boasted scenes from the Italian countryside. It brought back fond memories of my day trips from Florence to Tuscan towns and many other places in Italy, a country I loved dearly.

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The Emperor’s Morning Salon was also worth mentioning. The wooden chandelier was stunning as were the small wooden cups and kettle. They looked so delicate and quaint. In another space an artificial marble table featured a design with shepherds. An 18th century Biedermeier clock also adorned the room. The chandelier was made of alabaster.

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I loved the paintings on the wall of the Emperor’s Study, showing scenes from a Roman market. It also included French bronze clocks. Because Ferdinand I had been a passionate collector of clocks, there were many clocks of various styles in the chateau. A portrait of Napoleon’s handsome son hung on one wall. He had died of tuberculosis when he was 20 years old. I thought of my family friends who had lost a child when she was 20. I sometimes wondered what her life would have been like if she had lived, what she would have done for a living, whom she would have married, how many kids she would have had. I always thought of her donning that contagious grin, which could light up every room.

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Another space showed off Late Empire style furniture with a stunning circular table made of artificial marble. Paintings of Apollo and the muses also astounded. I was especially interested in the two colored lithographs of a banquet in Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle in honor of the coronation of Ferdinand I becoming Czech king in 1836. I was very passionate about Czech and Slovak history, having studied this field in graduate school, when I got my master’s in Czech literature. Vladislav Hall was seeping with history. I felt it whenever I meandered around the Castle and visited the architectural masterpiece.

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The second floor of the chateau consisted of masterful 19th century Czech paintings, such as those by Jaroslav Preiss, Navrátil, the Mánes brothers and Chitussi. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. I loved the small landscape scenes best.

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Six ground floor spaces had been made into grottoes – artificial water caves – in second Rococo style. Baroque fountains in the grottoes boasted figural decoration. One fountain was adorned with motifs of Hercules’ deeds. Allegorical figures of the four seasons also stood out. The coats-of-arms of all the past owners of the chateau adorned one wall. The ceiling decoration was also breathtaking.

The chateau park consisted of eight hectares with a four-tiered terrace punctuated by marble fountains. It dates from the 19th century era that promoted the second Rococo style. One of the features I liked best about this chateau was the presence of peacocks. Peacocks flaunted their colorful plumage throughout the grounds.

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I was also very pleased that the local restaurant offered my favorite meal: chicken with peaches and cheese. It used to be on the menus in many restaurants during the 1990s but then for some reason disappeared from the lists of entrees. The meal was delicious, and my trip had been a great success.

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

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Kačina Chateau Diary

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It only took an hour to get to Kutná Hora by train and then a short taxi ride to the sprawling white-columned, two-floor chateau of Kačina, sporting an elegant tympanum on its main façade. Unfortunately, there was not any public transportation from Kutná Hora to the Czech sightseeing gem, and I did not have a car, so I had to take a taxi a short distance.

The huge chateau – the biggest 19th century Empire style chateau in the Czech lands – boasts not only representative rooms in 19th century Empire, Biedermeier and Classicist styles but also a 19th century library, theatre and pharmacy plus an agricultural museum. An unfinished chapel is on the vast grounds as well. The chateau was built from 1802 to 1822.

The balanced Empire style hails from the early 19th century when symbols and decorations were influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. Biedermeier style, from 1815-1845, refers to furniture that is simple yet elegant with very little decoration. During this period ebony, cherry, ash and oak woods were often used. The Classicist trend can be defined as symmetrical, proportional and geometrical, taking its name from the style utilized in Classical antiquity and that of ancient Rome.  Architecture of this style is very well-organized with columns, pilasters, lintels, hemispheric domes and niches.

I was lucky that I had a guide who was so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the place. Her zeal was contagious. She was exactly the kind of guide I wished I had had on every tour I had taken. The details of each room just spewed spontaneously from her mouth. She even took me to parts of the chateau that were usually off-limits to tourists.

First, we hit the representative rooms. The ground floor consisted of the spaces used for social occasions and guest rooms while the first floor, which cannot be visited, had been made into a family residence.

Kacina123The first room we walked into took my breath away. This hallway with a roundel or circular window that is 16 meters high was so light and airy yet elegant that it reminded me a bit of the Pantheon in Rome. We continued into a hallway with some hunting trophies and black-and-white British lithographs sporting hunting and horse-jumping themes.

The first three rooms, formerly guest rooms, gave background information about the chateau and explained the history of the Chotek family, who had chosen this chateau as their summer residence during the 19th century. Models of chateaus adorned each room, such as the blood red model of Veltrusy, destroyed by the 2002 floods, the chateau where the Choteks had once had their family residence. In a portrait Jan Rudolf Chotek, the founder of Kačina, looked as if he was harboring a secret he would never reveal.

First, you need some background about the Chotek family. Veltrusy Chateau was their family residence from 1716 to the 20th century. Jan Karel served the emperor as an armorer, and his youngest son Rudolf worked as the highest chancellor in the Czech lands. Because he did not have a son, his nephew Jan Rudolf took over in the 18th century. Jan Rudolf was a man of many achievements. He built the magnificent park in Veltrusy and Kačina chateau in the 19th century. He was responsible for the construction of many embankments and parks throughout the Czech lands.

His youngest son Karel spent 17 years as the highest Czech burgrave and built the highway between Karlovy Vary and Mariánské Lážne. He even learned Czech from legendary historian František Palacký. He also established a residence at Velké Březno chateau, built from 1842-1854, in northern Bohemia – a green building that looks like a hunting lodge. I fondly recalled my trip to Velké Březno, where I had looked out the window at the park, suddenly feeling free of stress as if I had been cleansed of my worries. Ferdinand Maria Chotek, the fourth son of Jan Rudolf, was the Olomouc archbishop for four years. Žofie Chotková married František Ferdinand d’ Este, both of whom died during the assassination attempt during 1914.

The last male Chotek was Karel, who along with his wife Lívie became German citizens after World War II and emigrated to Germany. During the war the chateau was sold to the Germans, and the HitlerJugend resided there. The chateau was nationalized after the war according to the Beneš decrees, which gave property owned by Germans during the war to the state.  In 1950 the chateau belonged to the Ministry of Agriculture, and it became an agricultural museum. Now the chateau looks as it did when Jan Rudolf lived here. The coat-of-arms for the Chotek family shows a half wheel, a gold bear in a blue field and a black imperial eagle on gold.

The ladies’ wing was first, then the men’s wing. The Ladies’ Study boasted pink and grey decor with white ornamentation. Family portraits adorned the walls as did pictures of three summerhouses that once graced the park, founded as far back as 1789 and now composed of 20 hectares with 61 kinds of trees and 20 kinds of bushes. An oil painting depicted knights readying for a tournament on Chotek property. I gazed at a square, gold clock in a gold frame, positioned high on a wall. I was drawn to the geometric symmetry of the square design.

Kacina124Next was the Pink Salon. The original chandelier was second Rococo in style, gilded with gold and dominated by Czech crystal. An Empire style small black table with gold legs and a circular table with the same decoration got my attention. Pink and white porcelain dominated a circular table in the middle of the room. Corinthian columns were painted on the walls.

The Ladies’ Bedroom included some magnificent intarsia furniture. A picture with cupids was carved into a wooden bedframe.  I immediately took to the Empire style black-and-purple closets for accessories in the Ladies Changing Room. A light pink chair and couch complemented a Venetian mirror decorated with black and pink. The purple, pink and black colors went together superbly, I mused.

The Small Dining Room, still used for concerts, included an Empire style table and a Biedermeier side table plus a gold chandelier. The Dance Hall was 22 meters long, 12 meters wide and 16 meters high with fantastic roundels. A crystal chandelier captivated me. The brown parquets on the floor sported circular and diamond shapes. I noticed two unique, tall and narrow flower stands. From France, they were decorated with figures of two black women. For a moment we stood on the terrace and took in the vastness of the park land around us.

The Men’s Salon had a Baroque pool table, but it was the Renaissance brown tiled stove that entranced me. The unique feature of the room was the oak leaf motif. I recalled that oak was often utilized in the Biedermeier style. Wooden circles with oak leaf motifs decorated the ceiling and the tops of the walls. Frames were also covered in wooden oak leaf ornamentation. The couch and chairs were Second Rococo in style. I noticed that the armchairs where the Choteks sat when playing cards were very low.  I wondered what sort of conversations had taken place there while the Choteks had played cards. What had they talked about? What were their interests and worries? What events had brought them joy? Vienna porcelain and Czech glass also lit up the room.

The white stove in the Music Room had white décor and hailed from the Second Rococo period. I also noticed a Baroque bureau and two big portraits of Jan Rudolf Chotek and his youngest son Karel, both wearing prestigious golden medals around their necks. Jan Rudolf was holding a plan of Kačina in one hand while Prague dominated the background of Karel’s portrait. The ceiling with white wallpaper sporting green and pink flowers was not perfect; there was a space that got wet when damaged during the 1960s. Seeing the imperfection only made the room more real and more appealing.

The furniture in the Men’s Study or Smoking Room was captivating as well. The green couch and chairs were Empire style as was the chandelier. The desk hailed from the Biedermeier period. I notice a small statue of Empress Elizabeth, fondly called Sissy, on a desk top. I thought about how she had loathed the strict regimen of royal life and how she danced to the beat of her own drum. She had become a symbol of individual identity during her 44-year reign as the longest reigning Austrian empress. She had been so independent, traveling around the world. And she had had to deal with so many tragedies. A large portrait of her husband, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Frantisek Josef I, also hung here – in the painting he was a young man with many medals on his uniform. The young man in that painting would become the most respected and most beloved member of the Habsburg dynasty, ruling the Austrian Empire and then Austro-Hungarian Empire for 68 years, the third longest reign in the history of Europe.

Kacina1On another wall was a huge brown map of the Chotek property as of 1734. The guide pointed out that the fields were numbered. There was also a secret door to the south colonnade, but we went downstairs instead to see the former bathroom, which was a large hole in the dilapidated floor. The person taking the bath used to sit on a chair in the tub while servants poured water over him or her.

We trekked upstairs again, this time to the Men’s Bedroom. The prayer stool was made with intarsia, wooden with wood decoration. Paintings with religious themes also adorned the room. Plants made the room come alive. In the Men’s Changing Room there were small paintings of Italian towns on the walls. The chandelier hailed from the Empire period. The Hunting Salon was dominated by a polar bear rug. I noticed the animal’s sharp teeth. That is an animal I certainly would not want to come face-to-face with. A white tiled stove boasted white ornamentation with two female figures on its sides. Oriental chairs also made up the space. The furniture was Baroque and pseudo-Baroque and included a Baroque bureau.

The Big Dining Room featured a folding table that usually sat 24 guests during the Chotek’s days. The table was decorated with a green clover motif. Each chair had the coat-of-arms of the Chotek family with a crown on top. The rich wooden décor on the wooden sideboard got my attention. Ceramics and the Chotek coat-of-arms were displayed on the superb piece of wooden furniture. A Second Rococo mirror had a lavish gold frame with the coat-of-arms prominent at the top. The high walls were decorated with gilded wood, and an exquisite crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. There was also a secret door.

Next came the library, my favorite part of the tour. Roundels or circular windows with painted cupolas and stylized squares allowed light to stream into the three sections, onto the colored shapes on the floor. The library from the turn of the 19th century reminded me of a structure out of antiquity. The fake grey marble columns gave the place a dignified air. Tall bookcases were crammed with books, some of which looked like they had golden spines. A gallery above held magazines and newspapers. The Chotek coat-of-arms was present on all 40, 000 volumes, the guide said. Mostly written in German, the books also included publications in French, Spanish, Italian and old Czech. Some of the volumes were older than 1500 – the oldest was a book of Russian psalms hailing from 1480.

Among the most significant in the space was the 18-volume complete set of the French Description of Egypt from 1809-1818, which consisted of encyclopedias that documented everything French military leader and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte had seen in Egypt, from plants to pyramids. There were only two other complete sets in the world: one was in the Louvre and the other in the King’s Library in England. These books were printed specifically for European rulers. 

The editions in the breathtaking space also included 398 handwritten manuscripts, 38 handwritten maps and 250 catalogues. Among the books, I saw downstairs in the first part were S. Dionysii Opera, a fat two-volume set and collections of Lumír magazine, established in 1851 and written by Czech patriots such as Karel Havlíček Borovksý, who is considered the founder of Czech journalism, satire and literary criticism. Tall medical books stood nearby.

The second part of the library was a study with small statues of Czech rulers and one of Michelangelo. Among the 19th century statues, I spotted the mythical Libuše who prophesized the founding of Prague; Jiří of Poděbrady, a Czech king who ruled from 1458 to 1471; Emperor and Czech king Charles IV, who reigned from 1346 to 1378 and was responsible for founding Charles University, the New Town in Prague and the Charles Bridge; and Holy Roman Emperor and Czech king Rudolf II, who was in charge from 1576 to 1611 and is known for his love of alchemy and cultural pursuits.

Kacina2Then the guide showed me the object that enthralled me the most during my visit. It was a globe put together in eight layers. There were top and bottom layers and then six layers representing the continents. On one side was a picture of a continent, and on the other side there was information about it. I spotted a polar bear on one picture. It seemed to me to be an excellent visual teaching aide for young students.

The third part was dominated by a huge vase with ornate décor. I could see Romulus and Remus with a wolf in relief on the exquisite object. Then the guide showed me an Empire style card catalogue, with a card for each book. The golden writing on the cards had been scribed in flowing, fancy script.

Then we went up a narrow staircase to the gallery, a part that was usually off-limits to tourists. I spotted editions of the newspaper Prager Zeitung and sheets containing information about new publications in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Illustrated magazines were also kept here.

The guide even led me through the back study rooms. Paintings adorned the walls, and I spotted a grey tiled stove with white ornamentation. Each painting hung in one space had been executed with a different technique. A display case illustrated the technology of painting and materials for painters, such as paraffin. In another display case I saw handmade paper and an ancient book made from handmade paper.

Yet another space featured brightly colored, dynamic scenes of Divoká Šárka Park in Prague, one painting for each month, though the set here was not complete. I was entranced by the green hills of the park I loved so much, where I felt so at home, one which reminded me a bit of Vermont. I was glad I lived so close to that park. It made me feel relaxed and worry-free.

Soon we came to the 19th century pharmacy. One exhibit showed how to dry herbs, another displayed various baskets. A machine for mixing syrup was on display, too. I saw a press for making fresh herbs and a press for making tablets as well. The jars behind the counter and old scale came in various colors. A large book about herbs dated from 1920. Ceramic jugs also decorated the room.

The theatre, on the opposite side of the chateau, hailed from 1851. It had never been open to the public. It was used only by the Choteks and their good friends. The Chotek family wrote the plays themselves in German and acted them out. Jan Rudolf’s 15 plays on then current themes are now in Prague’s National Museum. The group had even prepared plays by William Shakespeare, tailoring them to their own needs. How I would have loved to have seen those plays!

The stage was made of wood, but it was not original. The walls were made of imitation marble on the lower section while stylized painting adorned the upper half. A compartment seated four people in the middle of the back wall. The two balconies boasted gold and black decoration. There was an orchestra pit, and there were pulleys above the stage. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling that had been partially damaged by water during the 1960s. Some set designs had been saved. The gallery now contained wooden benches, but it had consisted of comfortable chairs back in the Chotek days. There were bleachers for standing room at the top level. On the relatively new ceiling I spotted the two bears holding a coat-of-arms.

Last but not least we visited the unfinished chapel, which was occasionally decorated with flowers and candles and used for weddings. What had been initially planned to be a crypt was only a hole because it was never completed. In the 1950s the floor had been cemented. Before that, it was made of earth. The cross-shaped structure was composed of rock with brick so it could be dry. I imagined how breathtaking the chapel would have looked if it had been finished in a simple and elegant Empire style, for instance.

Then it was time to say goodbye to one of the best guides I had ever met. I thanked her profusely and went back to the souvenir area and ticket office to call a taxi to take me to nearby Kutná Hora, where sumptuous chicken lunch awaited me. I walked briefly through the picturesque town, up the hill to Saint Barbara’s Cathedral and along the bridge flanked by statues. Soon, though, it was time to head back to the train station and return to Prague.

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

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