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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Telč Diary

 

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I was excited about my second trip to Telč, a Renaissance architectural gem I had first visited back in 1992, the year UNESCO recognized the town as a cultural monument. I remember feeling so overwhelmed when I had first stepped onto the large triangular Zachariáš of Hradec Square. More than 20 years later, I still felt the same way.

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The Renaissance burgher houses were narrow, each with unique facades portraying various architectural styles. The arcading and arched gables were astounding. I saw Late Baroque and Classicist forms as well as facades that had retained many Renaissance characteristics. The House of Ambrož Šlapanovský at number 6 boasted of a simple Baroque and Classicist façade while the House of Nedorost Master Hosier at number 12 sported a façade harkening from Renaissance days. Its high attic and crenellation from the late 16th century appealed to me.

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I was especially drawn to the House of Osterreicher the Master Mason at number 15. The illusive sgraffito on the façade was complimented by the dynamic hues that made this house one of the most dominant on the square. I loved the shades of green, grey and white that combined to make a captivating façade hailing from the middle of the 16th century. The façade also sported the allegorical figures of Melancholy and the Crucifixion.

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The façade I fancied the most featured a gable in Venetian Renaissance style. Adorned with biblical figures, the gable hailed from 1555. I was entranced by the gable on the House of Jan the Baker at number 17, an edifice with a late Baroque appearance and stucco frame. In the middle, the depiction of the Holy Trinity was superb and elegant. I also was enthralled with the House of Plzák the Alderman at number 31 with its sgraffito decoration. Even though the Town Hall had been built during the 16th century, it clearly had taken on Classicist features when changes were made in 1811. The Marian Column in the center of the square was wonderfully Baroque, the same style of so many plague columns in the country.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. It’s time for a short history lesson about the town. Telč originated in the 13th century, and the first written document mentioning the town dates from 1366. Oldřich of Hradec was awarded Telč in the 14th century, and the town would remain in the family of the wealthy Hradec clan until 1604. The most significant Hradec owner was Zachariáš of Hradec, who took over the property in 1550. His biggest claim-to-fame was transforming what had been a Gothic castle into a Renaissance chateau. The structure still retains its Renaissance character and ranks as one of the best preserved Renaissance chateaus in the country.

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When there were no more men in the family to inherit the property, Vilém Slavata acquired Telč. He is best known as one of the two governors thrown out of Prague Castle in the Third Defenestration of Prague during 1618. He survived because he landed on a pile of manure. This event helped trigger the Thirty Years’ War and brought to a head the conflict between Czech Protestant nobles and the Catholic Habsburg ruling monarchy. Slavata was able to keep the chateau in his family for three generations. František Antonín Liechtenstein-Castelcorn took over at the end of the 18th century, when the property came into the hands of the Podstastský-Liechtenstein clan. They would retain ownership until 1945, when the chateau was nationalized.

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It was soon time for the first tour of the chateau. We started out in the medieval Chapel of Saint George. I was drawn to the superb carving of Saint George fighting the dragon on a wall. The vaulted ceilings on the ground floor were outstanding.

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The African Hall was one of my favorites, though I am not usually particularly drawn to rooms with hunting trophies. The gigantic elephant’s ear and the open-mouthed hippo’s head were striking. The Knights’ Hall was decorated with knights’ armor from the 16th century and had a superb coffered ceiling from 1570. It was decorated with painted scenes of Hercules’ feats. Its artificial marble checkered floor hailed from the same year. This only proved to be one of many remarkable ceilings in the chateau, however. The Japanese porcelain dishes and sgraffito ornamentation in the Banquet Hall were exquisite.

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The Golden Hall was the highlight of the tour, that’s for sure. It measured 30 meters, but the main feature that took my breath away was the Renaissance gilded coffered ceiling decorated with painted biblical subjects. The woodcarving on the ceiling was exceptional, the likes of which I had never seen before. The Blue Hall was magnificent, featuring another remarkable ceiling, this one adorned with figures of the four elements – water, earth, fire and air. The Renaissance stove also captured my attention. The ceiling in the Men’s Parlor was yet another gem, painted wine red with gold. These colors gave it a certain warmth and intimacy. Circular medallions also decorated the ceiling.

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The next tour featured the Podstastký Private Apartments, adorned in 19th and early 20th century styles. What enamored me the most were the 300 Delft faience plates in the Count’s Room. Two distinctive closets stood out in one space – a Baroque closet with rich decoration and a shorter Renaissance closet featuring intarsia. The guide showed us a green trashcan decorated with a picture of Napoleon because the family despised the French ruler. I also saw the most beautiful Italian jewel chests made with ebony. Other adornment included Oriental vases as well as Meissen and Viennese porcelain.

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The Red Drawing Room appealed to me due to the warm red color of the armchairs and sofa. A gold clock and huge white tiled stove also stood out. The library held 8,416 volumes, including Czech books such as Jungmann’s dictionaries and national songs. There were also British novels as well as volumes in German, Latin and French. I also adored the big sky blue-and-cream colored tiled stove in the space. Another artifact that enticed me was the tiny table from India.

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Telč’s chateau was certainly one of the most impressive I had ever seen, ranking up there with Vranov nad Dyjí, Hrubý Rohozec and Lysice, a few other favorites. I left the chateau with an even deeper appreciation for the Renaissance style. I had always been keen on the Renaissance, but now I was even more enthusiastic. The intricate, breathtaking ceilings appealed to me the most. They literally took my breath away. Rarely have I set my eyes on something that awe-inspiring. The park was amazing, too, with many rare woody species. The garden was another delight.

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We ate outside in the square at the hotel restaurant. It was an awful choice, as I had never experienced such slow and inept service. Even when there were few customers, the waiters were so slow. We were there two hours, one hour or less eating, the rest of the time waiting for the bill, which we were constantly promised. Finally, I went inside, where I actually found a waiter at the cash register. He asked me why I was in a hurry but allowed me to pay, luckily. Sometimes the waiters would just disappear. They were not inside or outside, nowhere to be seen.

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As we were leaving the town, we spoke with a long-time resident, who confirmed that the hotel was an awful place to eat. Our food was fine, but she said the meals were usually bad. People had come away with a terrible impression of Telč due to the service at that hotel.

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I saw many touristy shops on the square, but we did find one store selling wonderful ceramics. I bought some ceramic cat figures that are beautiful. Another shop had pretty, handmade mugs with colorful designs.

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The problem with getting to and from Telč is the D1 highway, which is under construction with only two lanes until at least 2020. It was a nightmare with so many trucks taking up both lanes, as we had no chance to pass them. Once a truck suddenly swerved into our lane, and my friend was able to break just in time to avoid an accident. The truck drivers were arrogant and aggressive.

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If there had been an accident when we were on the highway, the journey one-way could have taken up six hours or more. Luckily, we only had a half-hour delay on the journey to Telč. The big problem was, as always, the traffic in Prague. I had investigated how to get to Telč by bus, but the journey takes about six hours with Student Agency because the buses make stops elsewhere. I was not about to spend six hours or more on a bus.

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So, I look forward to 2020, when I will certainly go back to Telč to experience the splendor of the Renaissance once again.

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