The Sforza Castle in Milan was built for Galeazzo II Visconti in the second half of the 14th century. It was destroyed in the mid-15th century, but the duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, rebuilt it. Then the Sforza family inhabited the castle. The end of the 1400s was a time of splendor. During the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci and Bramante created frescoes in the castle. The castle became one of the largest in Europe in the 16th century.
Later, the castle fell on hard times and was transformed into a citadel. The ducal apartments were used as barracks and stables under Spanish, Austrian, French and again Austrian rule. An armory was for a time also on the premises. At the end of the 1800s, the castle became the property of the city of Milan. The unification of Italy prompted the complex to be reconstructed and made into a museum. The castle took on the appearance it had when it had been under Sforza control. Though the central tower is not original, it is made to look like it had when built in 1521.
During World War II, the complex suffered much damage but was reconstructed. Now the castle includes museums and cultural institutes. Several of the other museums include those featuring ancient art and arms as well as one highlighting antique wooden furniture and sculpture. The Pieta Rondanini by Michelangelo is also a sight not to be missed.
The Picture Gallery focuses on Milanese and Lombard paintings from the 15th to the 18th century with over 230 works on display. It also includes remarkable Venetian and 17th century Dutch and Flemish works. Some Lombard artists represented are Foppa, Bramantino and Bernardino Luini. Other artists whose paintings amaze are Andrea Mantegna, Bergognone, Giovanni Bellini, Lorenzo Lotto, Correggio, Tintoretto, Tiziano, Tiepolo and Canaletto. One highlight is the Trivulzio Madonna by Mantegna from 1497. This important work shows Madonna on a throne, flanked by saints. Angels sing, and cherub faces are included in the decoration. Yet the exhibition does not only contain paintings. Some sculptures, busts and medals are on display, too.
Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I had been to Konopiště Chateau at least seven times. The tours were always packed with 30 tourists or more, which could be a bit disconcerting. About 40 kilometers from Prague, Konopiště is a popular sight for day trips from the capital city and is usually swamped with tourists.
This time, though, there were only about five of us on each tour. It was during the coronavirus pandemic, at the beginning of September of 2020, when the situation was just starting to get worse. (It would be our last day trip during 2020 because of the steady increase in coronavirus cases.) The courtyard was almost empty. A few tourists waited on benches and fiddled with their cameras. No tour buses traveled there at that time because of the pandemic. We wore our masks and were able to social distance from each other on the tours.
By my 2020 visit, I knew the history of Konopiště well. The chateau of four wings and three storeys came into being as a Gothic fort with stellar defense features in the 1280s. The Šternberks took control of the castle in 1327, and it remained their property for more than 275 years. Konopiště survived the 15th century Hussite Wars without a scratch, a much different fate than so many other Czech castles that were plundered and even destroyed. Konopiště got a Gothic-Renaissance makeover during the late 15th century thanks to George of Šternberk. It became a Renaissance chateau when the Lords of Hodějov owned it in the 17th century. The Lords of Hodějov rebelled against the Habsburg monarchy in 1620, and the chateau was confiscated from them, placed in the possession of military leader Albrecht von Wallenstein.
While Konopiště had experienced good fortune during the Hussite Wars, the same could not be said about their fate during the Thirty Years’ War. The Swedes plundered it in 1648, and throughout the war, the chateau suffered serious damage. After Adam Michna acquired the chateau, the serfs rebelled against his repressive measures and conquered Konopiště in 1657. The Czech kingdom’s highest burgrave, Jan Josef of Vrtba, purchased Konopiště when it was in a decrepit state and transformed it into a luxurious Baroque chateau. Later, the chateau’s interior would also feature some Rococo elements.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este – Photo from Dotyk
During 1887 Franz Ferdinand d’Este purchased the chateau. He was the oldest nephew of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and later would become the heir to the Habsburg throne. He made a multitude of changes to the chateau, reconstructing it as a Renaissance residence with North Italian features. One part of the chateau was remodeled to look medieval. Architect Joseph Mocker carried out the renovations between 1889 and 1894. The archduke founded the 225-hectare English style park with the exquisite rose glarden. He established what is today the third largest European collection of armory and medieval weapons. Perhaps what stood out the most was his impressive collection of hunting trophies that are seen in the hallway at the beginning and throughout the tour.
He also installed modern technical features, such as a hydraulic elevator, central heating and electricity. His vast collection of items dedicated to Saint George are located in the former orangery. After his assassination in Sarajevo during 1918, the First World War took place, and the chateau was plundered. During World War II the chateau served as a headquarters for the Nazis. It was nationalized in 1945, after World War II.
Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophie Chotek – Photo from Pinterest.
To know the history of Konopiště, it is necessary to know more about Franz Ferdinand d’Este. The oldest son of the brother of Emperor Franz Joseph I, he became heir to the Habsburg throne after his cousin Crown Prince Rudolf killed himself and his father died. The Crown Prince, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I, committed suicide along with his mistress, Mary Freiin von Vetsera, at Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Franz Ferdinand achieved much success in the military. However, he often disagreed with Emperor Franz Josef and was by no means a favorite of the emperor.
Sophie Chotek – Photo from Alchetron.
He was smitten by Sophie Chotek, a lady-in-waiting to Archduchess Isabella. The two were secret lovers for two years because Sophie was not descended from the Habsburgs or any other European ruling dynasty, something that caused much tension between Franz Ferdinand and Emperor Franz Josef. The emperor did eventually allow the couple to wed, but he set rigid conditions. None of their children could be heirs to the throne. Also, Sophie was forbidden to sit in the royal carriage or royal box.
They were married at Baroque Zákupy Chateau in northern Bohemia, a place I had visited a few years earlier. I recalled the many portraits and pictures of members of the monarchy at Zákupy. Franz Joseph had used the place as a summer residence for some time in the second half of the 19th century. I remembered what I liked best about Zákupy’s interior. I loved the delicate, decorative painting of Josef Navrátil on the upper walls and ceilings of many rooms. A fantasy-inspired painting of the four continents had also held my attention. The 17th century Baroque chapel was amazing with ceiling frescoes portraying scenes from the lives of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had three children and were married for 14 years. The couple was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand terrorist group, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo. Franz Ferdinand and his wife had travelled to Sarajevo because Franz Ferdinand wanted to oversee military maneuvers. Less than two months after their tragic deaths, World War I broke out.
Soon it was time for the tour. One characteristic that has always enthralled me is that the chateau has 96 percent of its original furnishings. So many original furnishings of castles and chateaus had been destroyed or lost. Photographs of Konopiště’s interiors from Franz Ferdinand’s ownership of the chateau made it possible to see the spaces as they really had looked during that time period.
As we admired the luxurious spaces on the first tour, I recalled that Franz Ferdinand and Konopiště were mentioned in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War, an anti-militaristic, satirical novel sprinkled with anecdotes in which Švejk, a gung-ho soldier serving in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, appears to be an idiot. It is not clear if he is pretending to be an idiot. Originally published from 1921 to 1923, the book was never finished as Hašek succumbed to a heart attack while writing it. The Good Soldier Švejk, as it is often called, holds the distinction of being the most translated book in Czech literature.
Photo from booktook
The first tour showed off some 5,000 numbered hunting trophies, many of exotic animals, as Franz Ferdinand had travelled all over the world on hunting expeditions. Many trophies consisted of exotic animals. I saw bears, antelopes and wild cats, for instance. The archduke had also killed 12 Indian tigers. There was also a collection of 3,200 pairs of deer teeth. But Konopiště is much more than its seemingly ever-present hunting souvenirs.
One of the most impressive spaces is the Rose Room, which has an exquisite pink ceiling and shows off 19th century Rococo furniture. Its Czech crystal chandelier is another delight. I was especially drawn to an Empire style table adorned with gemstones. I loved the three Italian marble cabinets that sported drawers decorated with leaves, fruit, animals and birds. I noticed the delicate ruddy cheeks of Marie Antoinette in one portrait. The Grand Dining Room stood out for its Baroque ceiling that portrays the four seasons and a Czech crystal chandelier weighing 170 kilograms. The 15th century paintings in William II’s Bedroom caught my undivided attention. An exquisite Spanish tapestry of a forest with people on horseback hung in one room. A beautiful yellow, blue and white tiled stove stood out in the Guest Bedroom. A Venetian mirror showed off a picture of Saint George. Many artifacts on the tours were decorated with likenesses of Saint George.
The second tour of the chateau included rooms specifically meant for Crown Prince Rudolf, though he died before he could visit his cousin. Franz Ferdinand had been very close to the Crown Prince and had taken his death very hard. On this tour we learned many interesting facts about Franz Ferdinand’s life. The guide told us that Franz Ferdinand’s brother encouraged him to keep Sophie as a mistress instead of marrying her. Franz Ferdinand never spoke to his brother again.
I marveled at the 16th century Renaissance vaulting throughout the rooms. These spaces make up the oldest part of the castle. My favorite room was the chapel, one of my favorite chapels in the country. It was a place where I could have imagined having my wedding if I had found someone to marry. I was awed by the 19th century blue vaulted ceiling speckled with gold stars, symbolizing the sky. The 15th and 16th century sculptures also amazed. The main altar was Gothic, featuring the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Saint Hubert and Saint George (of course!) also made appearances. Instead of an organ, the chapel was equipped with a harmonium, and it still worked. I loved the bright colors of the chapel – they had such a distinctive vibrancy that gave off positive energy. Also, the small chapel had an intimate feel.
Even though I was not a big fan of weapons, the armory was very impressive. I saw 15th century weapons from the Hussite wars, executioners’ swords and complete armor for a horse and knight hailing from 1560. Renaissance armor for a musician from 1600 was exquisitely decorated with pictures of instruments. A rifle made of ebony hailed from the beginning of the 16th century. Cannons on display had been used during the Thirty Years’ War. Some shields were decorated with mythological themes. One showed a fighting Hercules. I also saw rifles and pistols made in the 16th and 17th century.
There was even more to admire on that tour. An electric elevator with plush seats looked like a small, luxurious train compartment. Franz Ferdinand had equipped the chateau with the most modern technology of the time period. I liked the ashtray made of part of an elephant’s foot. In the Smoking Salon, a 16th century tapestry portraying King of Macedon Alexander the Great caught my attention. Also, the 17th century monumental fireplace adorned with figures of lions and coats-of-arms was carved from rare Italian Carrara marble. Toward the end of the tour, we saw a stuffed bear that had lived in the chateau’s moat until 2007. Now another bear, named Jiří (George), resided there, though I hadn’t seen him when I had looked over the moat during this visit.
Franz Ferdinand and his family hunting, Image from treking.cz
The third tour, the one featuring Franz Ferdinand d’Este’s private apartments, lasted 90 minutes and was as enthralling as I had remembered it. We started off in the 70-meter-long hallway where over 800 of Franz Ferdinand’s hunting trophies were displayed. I especially noticed the razor-sharp teeth of an open-mouthed tiger. In another space I was drawn to a Nuremberg chandelier made with deer antlers and decorated with mythological figures.
Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and family, Image from stoplusjednicka.cz
My favorite part of the tour came next. We walked down a hallway lined with portraits of historical figures, such as Dante Alighieri, Titian and Christopher Columbus. Empress Maria Theresa’s likeness stood out as well. In another space, I noticed the delicate embroidery on Franz Ferdinand’s uniforms, such as his attire as a Russian general. The chest that traveled to Sarajevo with Franz Ferdinand and his wife made an appearance, too. The gigantic tooth of a whale was intimidating. Portraits of Emperor Franz Josef I dotted the apartments. Each time I saw one, I recalled the rigid conditions that Emperor Franz Josef had put in place while allowing the two lovebirds to marry. I also noticed the fine woodworking craftsmanship on the headboard of a bed.
Eventually, we came to a room where there were 1,307 hunting trophies. I remembered the space from one of my favorite films, featuring the fictional Czech legendary character Jára Cimrman, who was the focus of a small, intimate theatre in Prague’s Žižkov district. I noticed a lighter in the shape of a dog on a desk. In the Dining Room the tiled stove was enchanting. I loved seeing various styles of tiled stoves in chateaus.
I took note of a painting of Saint George killing the dragon, a theme featured throughout the chateau in 3,900 objects. Franz Ferdinand had wanted to impress King George with his collection and persuade him to visit Konopiště, but his dream was never realized because Franz Ferdinand d’Este was assassinated in Sarajevo.
A miniature jewel case sporting the intarsia method caught my eye. In the Pink Salon I was captivated by one of many portraits. It showed a young Sophie Chotek, Franz Ferdinand d’ Este’s wife, with a wreath of flowers in her hair. I recalled that neither she nor her children could have the Habsburg title because she was not descended from a European ruling dynasty. I mused that their children could never become heirs to the throne as I stared at a huge portrait of the three offspring. They looked serious, pondering. In a bedroom with 20th century furniture there was a Madonna painting. I liked the tan-and-black color combination for the bedspread. I also liked the pale-yellow bedspreads in the room for Arnošt and Maximilián, the two sons. The model boats in the room were very detailed. A huge portrait showed the boys in the chateau park. I imagined them frolicking through the impressive park, carefree and full of joy. A photo showed them in sailors’ uniforms, standing with their father. In another portrait the two boys were dressed in girls’ clothes because this was the normal attire for young boys during that era. I tried to imagine the boys playing Indians, reading adventure books by Karel May or playing puppet theatre with a Saint George and the dragon theme. I also saw portraits of dogs, textbooks and collections of fairy tales. The guide showed us a magazine the children produced about music, dogs and birds, for instance.
Countess Sophie Chotek, Image from flikr
I also was shown the room where the children’s French and music teacher had slept. Franz Ferdinand’s children had kept in touch with her even after becoming adults. In the daughter’s room I especially liked the Venetian mirror and took notice of the delightful floral bedspread and floral upholstery of the furniture. In another space the Delft porcelain caught my eye. I thought of the Delft porcelain at Zákupy Chateau, where Franz Ferdinand and Sophie had wed. I had admired Delft porcelain in so many chateaus and palaces. A magnificent tiled stove in green, blue and yellow stood out, too.
We were in the chapel briefly. The biblical scenes shown in the stained-glass windows captivated me as did the many sculptures. The blue ceiling decorated with gold stars was my favorite feature of the chapel. This was definitely one of my favorite chateau chapels of all time, I mused. I could have spent an hour just perusing the chapel because it showed off so much precious decoration.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este and Countess Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo, Image from http://www.payne.cz
In another room there were black-and-white photos of the family’s travels to Japan, China and India, for example. I perused shots taken in Nepal and Calcutta as well as one of an elephant in Ceylon. While some pictures showcased the landscape, others focused on people. The hydraulic elevator with comfortable, upholstered seating had traveled a half-meter each second.
Finally, we came to a display case holding Franz Ferdinand’s and Sophie’s death masks and one of the bullets from Gavrilo Princip’s pistol. Such a small object had produced a fatal wound. Blood stained an otherwise dainty handkerchief. The delicate white dress and white hat Sophie had been wearing when she was shot were in full view as well. The white color of her attire somehow made her assassination seem all the more tragic.
I also visited the Shooting Hall in the former stables, which hailed from Franz Ferdinand’s time at the chateau. I was impressed with the astounding detail of the painted moving targets of various people and animals. The museum of 808 objects depicting Saint George killing the dragon in the former orangery was another delight. Franz Ferdinand had collected these paintings, statues, ceramics, glass and altarpieces with the hopes that one day Britain’s King George would visit the chateau. That dream was cut short by Franz Ferdinand’s death.
Then there was the vast park, which we only had a little time to visit. The rose garden had always been my favorite part of the park along with its numerous Italian sculptures. I also had an affinity for the greenhouse and its intriguing plants. I had been at the park during the spring and summer previous years, so I had seen it in full bloom.
Then it was time to eat. We were the only customers in the cozy chateau restaurant. I had chicken and couldn’t resist a large sundae for dessert. I loved treating myself to ice cream on my day trips. It made them even more special. I would remember this sundae more than others because it would be my last at a chateau for the season. I can still savor the vanilla and chocolate. . . .
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
This museum was the highlight of my time in Berlin, and I visited it twice because I was so impressed with the more than 7,000 objects representing 2,000 years of trials, tribulations, joyous occasions and everyday life in German history from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The museum not only enthralled me with its portrayal of significant events but also with its depiction of everyday life during the various epochs. The upper floor, where I spent the better part of an entire day, tells a narrative ranging in time from 500 AD all the way to the Germany’s defeat in World War I. The ground floor focuses on topics from the Weimar Republic to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The section on World War II is particularly fascinating. We see Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 through the historical narrative of World War II horrors.
A plague mask from the 17th century
Perhaps the item that intrigued me the most was a mask with a long beak that doctors had donned when tending to patients with the plague. It reminded me of a commedia dell’arte mask. Doctors wore leather gowns with these masks. Herbs or sponges were soaked with vinegar and placed into the beak in order to filter air. This mask was made of velvet, green glass and leather.
An artwork that I found thought-provoking depicted 19th century German emigrants huddled in a boat, trying to escape the awful conditions of their homeland, trying to build a better life for themselves, on their way to another country. Their sorrow of leaving so much behind and their uncertainty of what awaited them were revealed so well in the 1860 painting by Antonie Volkmar, “The Emigrants’ Farewell.” The sad yet brave people who were risking their lives for a better future moved me.
I wondered how my ancestors had felt leaving Slovakia and Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for America in the late 19th century. Did they miss their homeland? When they crossed the ocean, did their faces reveal sorrow and uncertainty, too? Had they had second thoughts during their long, arduous journey, or had the hope in their hearts given them strength to weather any storm, to overcome all the inevitable difficulties?
I also saw photos of concentration camp prisoners that almost made me burst into tears. The photos reminded me of my trip to Auschwitz some years earlier. That visit remains forever etched in my memory. Sculptures of emaciated concentration camp prisoners vividly portrayed their suffering and desperation.
The front page of one newspaper caught my attention. On it a big, bold headline announced, “Hitler Dead.” I could imagine the relief that so many people had felt after perusing those two words.
A photograph of a corpse-ridden street in Dresden, shortly after the Allies’ bombing in 1945, made me shiver. I saw the horrors of war vividly in John Hearside Clark’s painting depicting the morning after the Battle of Waterloo, with so many dead and injured lying on the ground. I found the portrayal of the aftermath of the battle in which Napoleon was defeated to be chilling.
Viewing parts of the Berlin Wall, marked with graffiti, triggered memories of my first visit to Berlin in 1991, when I saw parts of the wall still standing. At that time, I had found it fascinating to see how a city could be divided in this way, how two different worlds had evolved from the construction of that wall, one representing freedom, the other oppression. My perspective changed when I went to see the Wall Memorial featuring a standing segment of the Wall during my 2018 visit. Then, seeing the Wall then made my stomach churn and made me want to throw up. I had met too many Czechs and Slovaks who had lived under the Communist regime – which had asserted its own mental walls – to see the Wall as anything but horrific. I was no longer fascinated by the disgusting structure. Living more than 20 years in Central Europe had changed my perspective.
I also took notice of an 18th century ornate Swabian glass bridal crown donned at rustic weddings. I saw a remarkable tapestry of a festive procession of explorers returning from one of the first expeditions to India in 1504. Shields from the 13th century were also on display. A triptych from the 16th century included a panel with the coats-of-arms of the territories governed by Charles V while a likeness of this ruler dominated the central part of the artwork. I also saw handkerchiefs decorated with pictures of current events from the 19th century. I viewed tapestries promoting Nazi Germany plus many posters from that era.
For me my two visits to this museum gave me unforgettable lessons in German history. I learned that when Napoleon beat Prussia in 1806, he took the Quadridge from the Brandenburg Gate with him to Paris. Luckily, it was returned eight years later. I learned that in the 18th century, two-thirds of the population of Germany lived in the countryside as opposed to cities. I learned that the abdication of Emperor Franz II in 1806 had triggered a trend of nationalism in Germany.
I learned about the industrialization and economic crash of 1873. I learned how the Social Democratic Movement had grown in the 19th century. I learned that the Marxist SPD Social Democratic Party of Germany had the largest membership before World War I started. I learned that 700,000 Germans died of malnutrition and related illnesses in World War I and that, in the summer of 1918, two million US soldiers fought on western front against the Germans.
After each visit, I took my time in the atmospheric, bustling museum café and enjoyed an omelet. Then, when I walked out into the sunshine, I realized that the history in which I had been immersed was not only contained on two floors of the museum. It was everywhere, on every street corner, in each building, on the prominent Unter den Linden and down less noticeable side streets. Lessons from German history had allowed Berlin to grow into the vibrant city it was in the present, into a magical place dominated by the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate but also by the many cafes, busy streets, parks and museums. Most of all, these lessons of history reverberate in the city’s spirit and soul.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
On my way to the Reichstag, I stopped to admire the Brandenburg Gate. I noticed the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks on the Unter der Linden near the monument in what had once been East Berlin. I remembered passing through the Brandenburg Gate on the way to East Berlin in July of 1991. The moment I walked through the gate, I felt as if I had entered a different world – a grey, stagnant, suffocating and gloomy one. However, I remember West Berlin as vibrant and bustling during that visit.
I took a few moments to reflect on the historical moments associated with the neoclassical gate in front of me. It was built in the 18th century for Prussian King Frederick William II to symbolize peace, but what turbulent times it has witnessed! I counted the 12 Doric columns and took a good look at the Quadriga, the goddess Victoria on a horse-drawn chariot, perched on top of the monument. Napoleon’s troops had marched through it triumphantly and then soon after the Prussians had done the same. For the Nazis, the gate made a political statement. The monument suffered damage during World War II.
When the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961, it functioned as a border crossing that was closed off. West Berliners often took part in demonstrations calling for freedom near the gate. During that magic date of November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall no longer was a barrier between East and West, Germans celebrated their newly found freedom there. The wall was torn down in that area during 1990. U.S. Presidents had made speeches there. It was the site of President Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Presidents Kennedy, Clinton and Obama had spoken there as well.
After some minutes of reflection, I went to the Reichstag entrance and presented my booking confirmation in front of a tent. I booked a tour of the glazed dome at least three weeks in advance. I had heard it was an architectural gem, and it was not possible to visit it without making a reservation. I was too early, so I decided to take a look at some monuments nearby, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Memorial to Politicans who Opposed Hitler
First, I noticed a small monument of crooked slabs next to the entrance tent of the Reichstag. I had read that there were 96 slabs, symbolizing the 96 members of Parliament who had opposed Hitler and had paid the ultimate price for their bravery. The sharpness of the slabs made me think of the harsh times in which the politicians had lived and how it was a time when they had to pay with their lives to stand up for what they believed in. The monument had a harshness about it – the harshness of history, the harshness of their punishment. The slabs resembled gravestones.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Then I walked across from the American Embassy and found the 2,711 concrete pillars that made up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. All the blocks were the same size, but their heights varied. It was possible to stand on the pillars or walk between them. I was very moved by this abstract memorial. Walking through the pillars, I felt claustrophobic and trapped, feelings I would associate with the plight of the Jews commemorated by this monument. The shadows around the pillars made me think of danger lurking around every corner, Jews not knowing who would give them up if they were in hiding, not knowing when they would be gassed in the concentration camps – for them, danger had lurked around every corner. I stood on one block and looked at the others. I thought they resembled caskets. In my opinion, this monument was ingenious. I would have never guessed that a memorial made up of concrete blocks could make such a strong impression on me.
In a park near the Reichstag, I walked through a rusty gate and noticed a small, tranquil circular pond. In the middle of the pond was a triangular stone with one flower on top. This was the Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma (commonly called gypsies) of Europe. On the pavement around the monument, the names of concentration camps had been inscribed. With my head down, I looked at the word Dachau on one paving stone and Auschwitz on another. Just seeing those names was poignant and powerful, heart wrenching even. It astonished me that something so simple as the names of the camps could move me so strongly. In fact, the entire monument moved me precisely because of its simplicity. The single flower on the stone slab symbolized reverence and respect for the lives lost, making me think that now the 500,000 Roma and Sinti who had died during World War II were no longer forgotten, no longer buried in history.
Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe
Then it was time to return to the Reichstag for my tour. First, I was ushered in a tent with many others and underwent a security check there. Then a large group crowded near the exit of the tent, waiting for the signal that we could walk up to the historical building.
Finally, we got the go ahead, and I stopped in front of the façade of the building, above which the words proclaimed “Dem Deutschen Volke” or “To the German People,” an ironic phrase considering the edifice’s turbulent history. The outer shape of the elegantly columned Reichstag had been preserved.
I thought back to the history of the building that was inaugurated in 1894. Back then, the Imperial Diet of the German Empire discussed and debated politics there. The Reichstag continued to serve this purpose until 1933. I tried to imagine standing in the crowd below as, during 1918, politician and head of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Philipp Scheidemann, announced the formation of the German Republic from one of the Reichstag’s windows. When democracy came to an end in Germany and Hitler asserted more power in 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire and severely damaged. Who did the evil deed is still a mystery.
When the Russians set foot in Berlin during 1945, they placed a Soviet flag above the Reichstag. I could almost see the red flag with the hammer and sickle flapping in the breeze. The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, stood very near the Reichstag, which was situated in the West. During 1973, the Reichstag became home to a permanent exhibition on German history, and sometimes political meetings were held there.
During 1990, the reunification ceremony of Germany took place in the building by which I was so entranced. In 1995 British architect Norman Foster began reconstructing the building, leaving the exterior as a sort of outer shell in its old style while redoing the interior in a modern way. During 1999 the German Parliament made its home in the Reichstag after moving from Bonn.
The moment I walked inside the Reichstag, I got a taste of the modern interior. It was a different world from the majestic exterior. The modern design was sleek, impressive. After taking an audio guide, I took an elevator and then made my way up the dome. For 20 minutes, I listened to interesting information about the Reichstag and the historic buildings that dotted the panorama as seen from the dome. I also learned about Berlin Cathedral and the three new parliamentary buildings surrounding the Reichstag, for instance. The modern cupola had replaced the original one that burned down in 1933. The modern architectural creation had a transparent quality that I found enlightening.
During this visit to Berlin, I felt as if the city was being transparent about its past, particularly about the horrors of World War II. The official names of the Holocaust Memorial and Monument to the Sinti and Roma have the word “murdered” in them, epitomizing harsh reality and a good, long look in the mirror of history, an acceptance of the past and a determination never to repeat it. With the right lighting, from the top of the dome there was a view of the plenary chamber. I felt as if nothing was hidden from the dome. Everything was there for everyone to see, judge and criticize as they pleased. There was a sense of fluidity and freedom in the architecture. During my visit in 1991, however, I had felt as if Berlin was trying to hide the horrific part of its past, which, of course, was impossible to do.
I also spent time taking photos from the extensive roof terrace, which also offered stunning views of the city. Unfortunately, I did not see the graffiti the Soviets left on the roof when they occupied the Reichstag at the end of World War II. The café on the terrace was closed during my visit.
I was very impressed with the preservation of the outer form of the building and the daring fresh look of the interior and dome. It was as if the Germans were not forgetting the past but were also moving forward.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
While in Naples, I toured the Teatro di San Carlo, where I could actually feel the history of the majestic structure. I was enchanted with the main hall, boxes, Royal box and two foyers. Even the façade was astounding. I particularly liked the statue of Apollo riding his chariot and the Ionic loggia.
I found the history of the place fascinating. Built in 1737, when King Charles VII of Bourbon was on the throne, the Teatro di San Carlo is 41 years older than the La Scala Theatre in Milan and 55 years older than the La Fenice Theatre in Venice. The architect of this building where opera and ballet are performed was Giovanni Antonio Medrano, who had served in the army of King Charles VII. He went on to design the Museo di Capodimonte, which housed the king’s palace and a museum. Later he was imprisoned for tax fraud of the Museo di Capodimonte.
Opening night at the Teatro di San Carlo took place November 4, 1737, on the king’s name day, when Achilles in Sciro was staged. Interestingly, a woman played the part of Achilles. That was only the beginning of the glorious history of Naples as a cultural center and opera powerhouse. I wondered how many stories had been played out on the stage, how many spectators had viewed performances over the centuries and who exactly were these theatregoers. What impressions did these audience members take home with them? Did they feel as awed by the theatre as I did, or did they just take the luxurious building for granted?
Perhaps the darkest day in the history of the theatre proved to be February 13, 1816, when a fire broke out during a dress rehearsal. In less than one hour, the dancing flames destroyed a large section of the building. The theatre was reconstructed in a mere nine months, and it took on a horseshoe appearance. The number of seats dwindled from more than 3,000 to 1,444. The Teatro di San Carlo holds the distinction of being the oldest horseshoe style theatre in the world. The theatre even remained open during most of World War I. The foyer was destroyed by a bomb attack in 1943, however. However, the structure was rebuilt promptly after the war.
Looking around the gold-and-red decorated interior with 184 boxes plus the Royal Box, I could not help thinking about the famous people who had graced the stage and the composers whose works had come to life here. Richard Strauss conducted here. Guiseppe Verdi wrote operas for this very theatre. In the 18th century, singers Vittoria Tesi and Carlo Broschi charmed audiences with their magical voices. Niccolo Paganini cast his spell on spectators here on two occasions. Other names associated with the theatre included Christoph Willibald Gluck, Johann Christian Bach and Luciano Pavarotti.
To be sure, the interior was breathtaking. The ceiling fresco took up a mythological theme, portraying Apollo presenting Minerva to the greatest poets in the world. The theatre curtain, adorned in 1854, also boasted a mythological scene with the Muses and Homer among poets and musicians. Putti and cornucopias played significant roles in the theatre’s decoration. The Royal Box, so bewitching in its gold color, could hold 10 people. There were workers repairing something in the Box, but we still got to sneak inside for a few moments.
Taking a seat in another box, I did not want to get up and leave. I just wanted to imagine all the scenes performed here, all the songs sung, all the music played. And then there were those richly adorned balustrades! The 184 boxes stood on seven levels. None of the boxes was furnished with curtains because the king wanted to be able to see spectators at all times.
The theatre was so beautiful that it made me dizzy. It seemed only fitting that such a majestic theatre was connected to the Royal Palace, which the Spanish viceroyalty had called home for 200 years, from the early 16th century to the early 18th century. I hadn’t been so impressed with a theatre since I had set my eyes on the Rococo horseshoe-shaped Cuvilliés Theatre of the Munich Residence.
When I bought my ticket, I hadn’t known what to expect. I hadn’t thought I would be so impressed, but the ceiling fresco, theatre curtain, red-and-gold decor and gilt adornment mesmerized me. I hoped to come back here to see an opera someday. This tour was one of the highlights of my trip to Naples.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I was excited. I was actually travelling to a chateau I had never been to. This was not a return visit after a 10 or 12-year absence. I had not even known that Slatiňany existed before I flipped through a book listing all the castles and chateaus in the land and came upon the page by accident. Then, at Žleby Chateau, I heard the chateau’s name connected to the Auersperg family, who owned both properties for more than 200 years.
This time I had to change trains at Pardubice, an hour from Prague, and then I had about 20 minutes before the next train. For the first time I took the Student Agency Regio Jet and found that company’s trains to be just as comfortable and relaxing as their conspicuous yellow buses. Student Agency got me to Pardubice on time, a little after 8:30. I had time to use the public restroom at Pardubice’s train station and was surprised that at the station of a relatively good-sized city the toilets did not flush. But I guess that is just life traveling through the Czech Republic.
I caught the local train – a new one with a clean interior – without any delay and was in Slatiňany in about half an hour. From the miserable little train station there, it was a short, straight walk to the chateau. I arrived there a bit before 10 am, when the place would open. I admired the side of the chateau facing the walkway. It was white with painted squares that reminded me of the Renaissance sgraffito façade of Litomyšl Chateau, though it was not at all that extravagant.
I also had time to take a peek at the small church nearby. Very quaint and intimate, it was designed with a partial rotunda. I peered through the open door, but it was dark inside. Still, I did make out a stunning altarpiece and some impressive paintings. I would have loved to go inside this church because the intimate atmosphere of the small, relatively plain but compelling interior made me feel at ease. It seemed to be a good place to meditate about life and its problems.
At 10:00 am I entered the courtyard of the chateau. A statue with natural rock at its base showed off a small sculpture of a man on a horse. At the ticket office I paid for a ticket to the chateau interior exhibition – there was also a hippology tour – and bought a guidebook. I read about the background of the chateau while I waited for the caretaker give the tour.
At the end of the 13th century, a medieval fortress had stood on this spot, and the first owner, František of Slatiňany, managed the stronghold from 1294 to 1297. One of the later medieval owners even had a claim to fame. Václav of Slatiňany had been one of the signatories on a petition arguing against killing Jan Hus, who was accused of heresy against the Catholic Church and burned at the stake in July of 1415. (Hus was a key player in the development of the Protestant movement.)
Slatiňany was destroyed by fire several times. When Bohuslav Mazanec of Frymburk purchased the medieval fortress in 1575, he began to give the place a Renaissance makeover, and the renovations continued after his death in 1589. Not only was the chateau designed in Renaissance fashion but a mill, vineyard, brewery and malt house were also added.
A turning point in Slatiňany’s history came when Josef František, Count of Schönberg, bought the chateau in 1732 and had it rebuilt in Baroque style. A key event occurred when his only daughter, Marie Kateřina, married Jan Adam of Auersperg in 1746.
Then the chateau became the property of the Auersperg family, who would rule here for 200 years, until World War II. The chateau got its present appearance from 19th century renovations during the Auerspergs’ tenure here. In 1942 the chateau became the property of Dr. Josef Karel Trauttmansdorff, who was from an Austrian noble family. After the war, it was nationalized, according to the Beneš decrees, which took away property possessed by Germans during the war. Since Trauttmansdorff had been Austrian, his properties had to be nationalized, the decrees declared.
In the tiny entranceway hung portraits of horses – there was a horse farm and a hippology museum on the chateau land as well. Another black-and-white portrait showed a bald, distinguished looking mustached man who the guide referred to as the popular and significant František Josef, Count of Schönberg. A bison featured prominently on the family’s coat-of-arms that was placed above the portrait. The caretaker explained that this is where the Auerspergs had lived – it was a sort of family home – as opposed to Žleby Chateau, which functioned more as a museum for all those weapons and tiled stoves among its monumental interior. Three of František Josef’s five children were born here – Kristína, Karolína and Ferdinand.
The guide also emphasized that Slatiňany was a modern chateau. There had been heaters in the place since 1925. A boiler room, a dumb waiter and flushing toilets also made up the modern conveniences. As the guide opened a door off the entrance that had once led to the park and now contained many plants, he mentioned that in the mid-19th century there had been tennis courts, a small house for dolls and a small chapel on the grounds. Now there was only a small chapel and lake in the impressive park that features many kinds of trees.
We walked up the small, narrow main staircase after putting on house slippers. Upstairs the pristine-looking, white hallway boasted pink chairs plus two tables with green and white décor and brown tops. White, porcelain horses manned by riders in hunting dress were featured in a display case. I was entranced with a mirror’s frame – it was silver but also with pink and light blue decoration. The room was indeed modern with its radiators and porcelain light switch. The pictures in the room showed views of Vienna. I immediately spotted the Graben with its Plague Column.
The next room was used for official visits, the guide said as he expounded on the family members in the portraits. I was also very interested in the history of the objects in the small room with many items. The first thing I noticed when I entered the room, however, was not an object but rather a smell – the stench of horse dung. Horses grazed nearby on the property, and the windows were open. I tried to concentrate on the details all around me. Maroon chairs and a couch made the space look cozy, and brown bureaus seemed to include intarsia. I admired the mirror with the ornate gold frame – it had to be Rococo. The doors and walls were white with gold décor, giving the place a light and airy feel that contrasted in a positive way with the maroon color. I also admired a red, white and blue bowl on a brown table.
The following room was used for unofficial visits. Facing me was a huge picture of a rider on a horse with a blue landscape and trees in the background. I stood near a brown dresser with intarsia and noticed a desk with intarsia, too. The rocking horse looked as if it had real horse hair for its mane. The white with gold tiled stove had a decorative gold jug on its top. In a portrait Vilemína Auersperg, František Josef’s wife, was clad in a black dress and pearls. Blue and white porcelain also featured prominently in the room as did a picture of a one-year old František Josef.
The bedroom included a lovely white desk with a white chair partially covered with lace. Religious paintings decorated the back of the bed. The white tiled stove with the blue décor had to be Rococo. Black-and-white engravings covered one wall. I noticed a quaint family scene with a mother, child and dog in one picture. Vilemína’s daughter Kristína had been born in this room on November 11, 1878. There were two secret doors in the space. One hid a flushing toilet. Behind the other was a toiletry corner with porcelain items that bore the stylized A for Auersperg. The guide showed us a small, elongated bowl from Karlovy Vary. What was it for? Women were supposed to urinate in it. Another narrow, elongated porcelain case was made for a toothbrush.
In the Small Dining Room there was no table. However, there was a huge chandelier made in Murano. Hailing from the 18th century, the lavish light fixture boasted green, pink, blue and white glass, with blue and white flowers and green leaf formations. A compelling tapestry depicted a scene in nature with a sculpture in the middle of a fountain. I was especially fond of the black-and-white jewel chest across from me. The grandfather clock had a beautiful, gold face. Black-and-white engravings with landscape scenes and portraits of animals covered the walls of the adjacent study.
Bookshelves lined two walls of the library, and there was a secret door in a bookcase. In one photo Ferdinand, František Josef’s youngest son and the last of the Auersperg clan, looked like a member of the Mafia in a bowler hat. The caretaker remarked that very few people had attended Ferdinand’s funeral in 1942.
The Big Dining Room was dominated by a painting that was longer than the wall on which it was hung. It depicted red coat-clad hunters preparing for a hunt as the hounds played in one corner, the background filled with a lush, green landscape. Dark green cups of various sizes stood out among the tableware. The white tiled stove boasted brown flower buds and green leaves.
Then we went down to the kitchen in the cellar. On a high shelf white with brown vases boasted the Auersperg A. We also went into the boiler room, though the small and big boilers were no longer functional. The technology of the boiler room hailed from the First Republic in Czechoslovakia during the early 20th century.
There was also a museum of hippology at the chateau, though I did not have time to visit it. The founder of Czech zootechny and prominent geneticist František Bílek had founded it. After World War II, during 1945, there were not suitable stables or pastures for all the horses in the area, so some were sent to Slatiňany, where there were vast grasslands and stables built by the Auerspergs at the end of the 19th century. Because there was a hippological tradition in eastern Bohemia, Professor Bílek decided to base the museum here. It included three sections: three representative rooms, five rooms of a scientific section and an exhibition of the horse in art. The scientific section focused on paleontology, zoology, anatomy and domestication. Another part centered on how the horse contributed to culture and society. The exhibits come from 122 Bohemian and Moravian castles and chateaus. The segment featuring the horse in art forms opened in 1950 while the scientific section was inaugurated two years later.
I was sorry I did not have time to tour the second exhibition, but I had to have lunch and catch two trains back to Prague before the evening. I had to admit that horses had never been my cup of tea, but the tour sounded exciting nonetheless. Instead of waiting around, I found a restaurant with an inconspicuous sign on the main street. The interior, though, was delightful. Some backs of chairs were carved as figures of knights. Others featured coats-of-arms. My chair had a picture of a reindeer on it. The restaurant was dark with an almost romantic ambience, though the loud children were hardly romantic. The chicken was delicious as was the honey cake I had for dessert.
Then I headed for the dingy train station, and the train arrived soon. I was facing a dilemma, though. If this local train was on time, I would have seven minutes to change trains to Prague at Pardubice. If not, I would have an hour and a half to kill at the train station without flushing toilets. Even the chateau interior from the First Republic had flushing toilets! Why couldn’t the ones at the train station flush?
The local train did not let me down, and I was glad because I had to go to the bathroom. I made my connection in seven minutes, and I have never been happier to use a toilet on a train.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
I had wanted to visit the Baroque chateau Manětín, about 45 minutes from Plzeň by car in Western Bohemia, for many years, but for some reason I had been under the impression that it was closed to the public. Only while I was at Chyše Chateau did I find out that Manětín had been open to the public since 1997. Today I would finally see it with my own eyes. I was very excited about the trip. I had to go by car as there was no public transportation that went to Manětín. We drove through the bewitching countryside and passed many haystack-dotted fields.
When I arrived at Manětín, I was bewitched by the Baroque statues and a sculptural grouping of the Holy Trinity in front of the main square. A road led down to the Baroque chateau itself, situated behind the statues. At the small white church next to the chateau a group of six or seven musicians were playing funereal music on trumpets. People dressed in black walked solemnly into the church.
It was almost 10 am, and my tour began at the top of the hour. I had a few minutes to pop into the park. The Baroque and English park looked elegant and well-kept, very different than it must have looked between 1945 and the 1990s, when it was in a decrepit state. It had been restored in the 1990s to appear like it had during 1790.
Then it was time for the tour. The knowledgeable young man acquainted me with the history of the chateau that had been first mentioned in 1169. The chateau that had begun as a medieval fortress had been transformed into Renaissance style before 1600. After a devastating fire in 1712, it was reconstructed with a Baroque appearance thanks to the then owner, Marie Gabriela Lažanská.
The chateau had been confiscated several times. Volf Krajíř z Krajku owned the place from 1544 to 1547, when it was confiscated because he had rebelled against Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. Following The Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which pitted the Protestant nobles against the Emperor and Catholic Habsburgs, the defeated nobles lost their property. The chateau was confiscated for the second time in 1622.
That was when Ester Mitrovská from Nemyšle, born Lažanská from Bukova, bought the chateau. When she died, the chateau came into the hands of her brother, Ferdinand Rudolf Lažanský. The Lažanský family would keep the chateau for more than 300 years. Times of cultural prosperity followed, especially when Václav Josef Lažanský and Marie Gabriela Lažanská manned the chateau.
After World War II, though, the chateau was confiscated for the third time, becoming the property of the state because two Lažanská women in charge of the chateau had married two Austrian brothers. Thus, the chateau had been in part the property of the Austrian family. Due to the Beneš decrees that took away property from Germans and even expelled them from the country, Terezie Lažanská, one of the women who had married an Austrian, was deported to Austria. Some rooms were open to the public as early as 1959, and the chateau became a national monument in 2002.
Upon entering the hallway, I was enthralled by the sculptures dotting the staircase as well as the ceiling fresco. The four statues with putti on the staircase represented the four elements. One cherub was holding a fish, representing water. Another was depicted with a cannonball and decked in an old-fashioned fireman’s helmet that looked more like military headgear. This was Fire. Earth was portrayed by a cherub with a melon and snake, and Air was depicted by a putti flying on a bird. I could almost imagine the cherub whizzing through the cold, damp chateau air on the big bird.
A portrayal of what the chateau was supposed to look like in the 18th century took centerstage in the ceiling fresco. Allegories of architecture and painting also adorned the fresco as did the coat-of-arms of Marie Gabriela Lažanská, perhaps the most influential of the Lažanský owners. (The guide mentioned that Marie Gabriela had been addicted to card playing. In fact, more than once she had put the chateau at stake when she had made her bet.)
In the Reception Room there were four paintings depicting soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648 and started due to religious disputes. One held a spear, another a sword. The oldest piece of furniture in the chateau stood in this room as well; it was a 1640 bureau, dating from the Thirty Years’ War as well. I paid particular attention to the elegant, brown fireplace and gold with black clock and vases, all in lavish Rococo style. I liked the gold with black décor.
The portrait of the young woman depicted in black was Terezie, who was killed in a hunting accident when she was 21 years old. (Note that this is a different Terezie than the one who was deported to Austria.) But perhaps it hadn’t been an accident at all, the guide conceded. Some say she was killed on purpose so she could not get married. Supposedly, her lover hated the man to whom she was engaged.
In a corner of the next room, a window was painted onto the wall. The guide explained that there had been originally a window there, but it had been filled when new rooms had been added in the 19th century. An 18th century chaise lounge, a Venetian mirror made in Morano and a group of white, Viennese porcelain also adorned the room. On the ceiling there was a small fresco of part of a boat, dating from the first part of the 18th century; most of the fresco had been destroyed, though. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like if the entire fresco had been visible. A port with boats and nobility strolling along an embankment on a crisp afternoon? I wondered.
I loved the way the porcelain cups were displayed on small black shelves set at different levels on the wall. In a round portrait Marie Gabriela, clad in a silver dress, appeared strong-willed and somber with a no-nonsense expression. A light wood, Baroque desk hailed from the 18th century while the tapestry covering one wall showed a scene from the Old Testament with Moses. The two dressers, both green with floral patterns, were intriguing, for their irregular, curving shapes and color. A view of Venice was painted on each one. I recognized the Doges Palace on one and thought back to the thrilling time I toured the palace during my first day in that magical city.
The next hallway was decorated with green pictures of castles, chateaus and various places – the pictures had been cut out of magazines. I recognized the chateau of Blatná, as two people rowed a small boat around it. Another scene showed woods in Karlovy Vary. Still others showed the castles Orlík, Točník and Žebrák. Then we came to a room with a hunting theme. Nineteenth century guns, petrified hawks and a woodpecker made up the décor. The Baroque desk, closet and dresser looked out of place.
In the room where the nobility had gathered, the paintings on the wall showed boats at sea and hailed from 18th century Holland. A black Baroque table and bureau from the same era also adorned the room. The glass chandelier caught my attention. It was exquisite. Made in Venice’s Morano, the chandelier was decorated with glass flower buds that looked almost as if they were icicles taking on decorative shapes. There was also an Italian mirror with a simple, gold frame.
Decorating another hallway were more green pictures of castles, chateaus and places. I saw Plzeň, a major city now, as a 19th century village and Roundice nad Labem before its chateau had become dilapidated. A room with a horses’ theme was decked with small paintings of horses, a clock with four, white columns, a desk with cards and a German newspaper dated 1859.
Then we came to a room with unique paintings on the walls. They did not depict the nobility, but instead the servants and clerks who had worked at the chateau. A rarity in chateaus, this collection included 13 portraits from 1716 to 1717 hanging in several rooms and in a hallway. They were painted by Václav Dvořák, whose life remains mostly a mystery. All the people portrayed in this room were dressed in black. Two carriage drivers next to a carriage wore tall, fluffy hats with big feathers. In one portrait a solemn-looking priest stared back at me. He had written a chronicle of Manětín in three languages, the guide said.
Objects in the next room proved to be rarities as well. The space boasted a complete collection of porcelain, plates with tea and coffee service sporting white with brown decoration. It was not often that a chateau had a complete collection; usually there were only pieces of a collection featured. In the former Billiards’ Room, there was no table, but there were more paintings of servants and clerks. Three men donning large, white wigs gazed at me. There were also portraits of a doctor, the chateau’s caretaker and the priest who was also a historian. An elderly woman held keys in one hand; she was responsible for the keys to the chateau and to the food storage rooms. The yellow tile stove with squiggly brown vertical lines appealed to me. A small device that functioned as a bell was there, too.
The biggest room was now used for weddings and concerts. The 1730 ceiling fresco boasted its original, vibrant colors and portrayed three figures showing God’s qualities in the center. I spotted the one in red with the heart as Love. The female clad in blue represented Strength. The third portrayed a girl pouring water from a jug onto a coat-of-arms. This was symbolic of Luck or Fortune. In the corners of the ceiling, the painted figures represented the four seasons. Fall showed a naked girl with grapes and Bacchus, the god of wine. Summer was represented by a girl donning a big, straw hat and weilding a sickle as well as a woman holding a parasol. Spring: One girl was pouring water while another was holding a parrot.
Winter had two symbols. One was Death as an angel, but there was also a woman in a black mask to depict winter as a time of social gatherings and parties. When I went back to the chateau in 2020, the black mask triggered thoughts of the coronavirus pandemic as cases were increasing in the Czech Republic. In America, where my octogenarian parents lived, the situation was horrendous with over 1,000 dying every day. In the Czech Republic we didn’t have to wear masks anymore, though I still did because I wanted to be as careful as possible. I had spent the first three weeks of lockdown in my apartment, afraid to go out, before I started taking walks and calming down. Thoughts of the coronavirus and my parents’ and friends’ health often kept me up at night.
Mythological events were also portrayed on the ceiling. I spotted Poseidon and a falling Icarus. There were two portraits of the Lažanský family in this room as well. One showed Marie Gabriela and her daughter along with a black servant. In the portrait of her husband with their sons, the painter put himself in the work, holding a palette and brushes.
Painted Baroque statues flanked the doorway that led to the magnificent library, which held 5,000 books, many with golden spines. Most were in German and dealt with economy, but books by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller also graced the shelves. There were also books in English, Italian and French, for example. Only two books in Czech were in the collection, and both described how to make beer. Topics of other books included fishing, fruit growing, history and theatre. There was even a Turkish textbook. Above me was a fresco of Zeus and his daughter Pallas Athena, the goddess of war. The ceiling had been reconstructed in the 20th century due to a fire that had erupted because a tile stove had not been closed properly.
I found the remaining two portraits of servants in the hallway. One showed a cook and woman washing dishes in the chateau kitchen. Another showed a woman pouring water into a basin. Since there was no hot or cold water back then, the water had to be boiled in the kitchen, the guide explained. The woman pouring the water was decked in a traditional folk costume.
We saw the chapel from the oratory behind glass. The main altar painting was by Baroque master Petr Brandl, my favorite Baroque artist. He also created two paintings on side altars. Brandl actually came to the chateau to paint the works during 1716.
After the intriguing tour I went outside to take photos of some of the 30 Baroque statues that sprinkled the town and hailed from 1680 to 1780. I still could not enter the Baroque church next door. A simple, wooden coffin was placed in a black van, followed by a procession of people dressed in black, along with two decked in purple and white robes. I did not see the Church of Saint Barbara, either, though I later read it was Baroque in style and featured eight wooden statues of saints.
The St. John the Baptist statue, now situated at a church, had suffered much turmoil. It originally stood in front of an administrative building. Then it was placed on a small bridge. In 1944 it was severely damaged by the Nazis. Then children did more damage to the statue. After the Russians came in 1945, it was tied to a telephone pole. In 1954 it was moved to its current location.
I went to the chateau restaurant and had my favorite excursion lunch of chicken with peaches and Cola light. Then I got back in the taxi and headed for the smallest town in Europe called Rabštejn nad Střelou, situated only nine kilometers away.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
When I first set my eyes on Lysice’s chateau and garden 10 years ago, I knew that someday I would be back. The two exceptional tours and extensive park enhanced by colonnades had captivated me. I was certain that this chateau was one of the most underrated sights in the Czech Republic.
It had been a short bus ride from Brno, and the bus stop was near the chateau. As usual, I had written to administrators at the chateau, informing them that I would be arriving at 9 am on this Wednesday to take the tours and write about them. The woman at the box office greeted me warmly, and soon I was starting the first tour, guided by an enthusiastic, young man with a contagious smile.
The guide filled me in on the history of the chateau and its owners. Its history may go back as far as the 13th century, and there was a fortress at Lysice in the 15th century. It became an early Renaissance water fortress in the 16th century. At the end of that century, the country house there had been transformed into a castle with arcades in the courtyard and a terraced park. Baroque changes had occurred in the 18th century. At this time a grotto had been created in the park along with allegorical figures representing the months of the year.
When Antonia Piattis married into the Dubský family, the Dubský dynasty at Lysice had begun. They owned the chateau from 1807 to 1945, when it was taken away due to the so-called Beneš decrees because the family had had Austrian citizenship during World War II. Count Emanuel Dubský was a significant member of the clan and made a name for himself in industry. His wife Matylda of Žerotín established the first children’s hospital in Moravia. It still exists today. Tragedy marked their lives as three of their sons were killed in military action, and another was murdered. Yet another died at the age of 45. Only Ervin, the second eldest, remained. He had distinguished himself as a Vice Admiral of the Austrian Navy. Ervin had also traveled all over the world. Many exhibits at the chateau came from his travels.
The interior of the chateau underwent much reconstruction in the 19th century under Emanuel’s guidance. In the 1830s the elegant colonnade was built in the park. Disaster struck at the beginning of the 20th century when, in 1902, the chateau theatre burned down. It was never rebuilt. After the chateau was confiscated by the state in 1945, much reconstruction took place. It became a national monument in 2001.
Now it was time for the tour to begin. First, we came to the Baroness Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach’s library, named after the prominent Austrian author who was related to the Dubský clan. She had been known for her psychological novels and was considered one of the most significant German-language writers of the late 19th century. The space established during the 1860s now housed many manuscripts of plays that had been performed at the chateau’s former theatre. There were impressive busts of artists on one wall. Those representing William Shakespeare, Alighieri Dante and Friedrich Schiller caught my attention immediately. The richly carved wood paneling of the veined bookshelves hid the 7,000 volumes in this Pseudo-Renaissance style room. I looked up at the ceiling, dizzy with delight. The carved cassette type ceiling was stunning, inlaid with silver and gold.
The Grand Dining Room flaunted Second Rococo style, and I was drawn to the wooden, gilt chandelier that could hold 30 candles. The guide instructed me to look down, too. The parquet floor was deeply inlaid with the intarsia woodworking technique that involved fitting together wood pieces to give a mosaic appearance and an illusion of depth. The Small Dining Room was Classicist in style with two exquisite, white marble tables. Bohemian glassware and plates made of aragonite from Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) and Belgian marble stood out in the room. The Meissen candlestick that could hold four candles was an exquisite pink and white color combination.
The Grand Representative Parlor featured illusive stucco painting on the ceiling. Japanese and Chinese colorful vases in the space were souvenirs from Ervin Dubský’s travels. The Neo-Gothic chapel hailed from the 1870s, but the Baroque altar featuring the Virgin Mary and Jesus was from the beginning of the 17th century. A richly carved rendition of the Holy Trinity caught my attention. The portable Baroque organ weighed 100 kilograms.
The highlight of the Ladies’ Parlor for me was the large Meissen porcelain clock, featuring flowers that represented nature and dating from the second half of the 19th century. It represented human life and the transience of time. Gazing at the clock reminded me of how I had changed as a person since I had moved to Prague in 1991, when I had been much more extroverted and had taken more chances. Sometimes I wanted to go back to that time, when everything in what was then Czechoslovakia was new and fresh. Other times I was glad I was wiser and no longer naive.
I was also I was captivated by the copy of the Black Madonna of Saint Tome above the Baroque bed. Ervin Dubský had installed a ship telephone that one blew into. The Girls’ Room was dominated by stunning lithographic prints of Vienna and its surroundings. It soothed me to see pictures of Vienna. I felt comfortable there and always enjoyed my visits to the Austrian capital that reminded me a bit of Prague. I was intrigued by a doll of a nun on a shelf. I had read that dolls dressed as nuns were often devotional and given to young girls to try to convince them to take the veil when they grew up.
The highlight of the first tour was the Oriental Salon with its treasures from Turkey, Japan and China and other places. Four small Turkish tables were inlaid with pearls. I also saw Islamic prayer rugs plus Chinese and Japanese vases. Part of the display emphasized Japan. Imari porcelain was bright blue and orange, a pleasing color combination, I mused. A partition decorated with motifs of flowers and plants was made of silk on silk.
The Samurai armor intrigued me. I knew that armor plates were attached to cloth or leather and that it was considered to be lightweight. It looked like the armor had hand-woven, colorful cloth padding protecting its front and sides. The bright colors made it vibrant. A Chinese chandelier was exquisite, showing off painted scenes of everyday life in a home. What really grabbed my attention were the four black-and-white paintings by an unknown Chinese artist. The figures had such grotesque features and reminded me of commedia dell’arte characters.
We stepped onto the first floor outer hallway, from which I had a stunning view of the courtyard with its arcades below. I noticed the coats-of-arms decorating the walls facing the courtyard. We walked by frescoes celebrating hunting themes. Next on the itinerary was the armory, featuring a collection of weapons dating from the late Gothic era to World War I. One sword was made of sawfish bone. It was interesting that the execution swords had blunt points. There were also swords that had been used by the Swedish Guard in the Vatican. The oldest sword in the collection hailed from the 14th century and had been found near Lysice.
The Ervin Dubský Secession style library, the biggest space in the chateau, was impressive. Even though it was larger than the other library, it contained fewer books with 5,000 volumes, mostly concerned with military and nautical themes. I hovered over the miniature portraits in frames. Sailors had taken them on their journeys to remind them of the loved ones they had left behind. I was sure that behind each portrait there was an exciting story, perhaps for a short story or even a novel. Inspired by his navy days, Dubský had the cassette style ceiling built to look like a ceiling on a boat. Ervin had been not only a traveler but a painter as well. In the room Dubský had depicted himself on canvas as a wise man from the Renaissance period.
The second tour, covering the second floor, was next. The Hall Staircase had once been the theatre, the former home of the largest costume collection in Central Europe. I wondered what that theatre had looked like before it had burned down. On one wall I spotted an Oriental raincoat made of bamboo, something I had never seen before.
Then we entered the private apartments. I noted the low ceiling, which gave the spaces a more intimate feel. The Biedermeier furniture, which was the rage from 1815 to 1848, was exquisite. The style emphasized simplicity and elegance with minimal decoration. In the Count’s Parlor I was intrigued by a quill shaped as a green and white snail. The 19th century games in a display case included a wooden card shuffler. There was also a drawing of Pernštejn Castle, one of my all-time favorites, which I had visited last year.
I was drawn to the painting of Saint Peter’s Square at the Vatican in the Gentlemen’s Social Parlor. Women had been banned from this room. I recalled spending my fortieth birthday touring the Vatican and Saint Peter’s. I remembered walking to Saint Peter’s on that wintry morning around 7:30 am, watching the sun come up. The sunrise had looked so romantic, yet I had been alone.
The Small Shooting Gallery contained 13 hand-painted shooting targets, the oldest ones hailing from the 18th century. One target had a butterfly in the middle, others were decorated with crowns and still others showed off landscape scenes. The Reception Room was another space featuring Biedermeier decor. I loved the paintings showing Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I and his wife, fondly called Sisi, at the celebration of their Golden Wedding anniversary.
In the next room the guide drew my attention to a June 1906 issue of Simplicissimus magazine and showed me an advertisement for an operation to make ears smaller. I was surprised that such surgery had existed so early in the 20th century. The Tapestry Salon featured tan furniture with a pink and green floral motif. The room got its name from the tapestries used to upholster the furnishings that had even been used in the shooting of Miloš Forman’s legendary film, Amadeus. The furnishing had been transported to Barrandov studios in Prague for the filming.
The last room was the Big Shooting Gallery, where there were 40 targets along with figures. Most of the inscriptions were German or Latin rhymes or proverbs. Only one target had Czech writing on it. I noticed that on a figural target of a scantily dressed woman there was a bullet hole through her left nipple.
I had been totally enthralled during these tours. The guide said that many foreigners have visited the chateau, but very few of them were Americans. I thought it was such a shame that Americans did not take the time to come to such an amazing chateau. I would recommend that Americans stay a week or five days in Brno and take day trips to various castles, chateaus and caves. I was also glad that my tour guide had been so enthusiastic, interesting, energetic and proud of the chateau.
Then it was time to see the terraced park that I had fallen in love with during my last visit. It had been drizzling earlier, but it was no longer raining. Since there were no guided tours at this time, I walked around by myself, dazzled by the flowers, colonnades and bridge that offered excellent views of the park and gardens. On the lower terrace I saw a romantic so-called kitchen garden, based on geometric patterns and hailing from the 19th century. I loved the sunflowers and pink roses, though in late August some were wilting. A pond was decorated with allegorical sculptures of America, Asia and Europe.
In the middle terrace I was bewitched by the colonnade, raised flower beds and terracotta vases that dotted the terrain. I took note of the paint-chipped columns making up the colonnade. If I were a millionaire, I would donate money to restoring castles and chateaus in the Czech Republic.
The romantic upper terrace hailed from the 19th century. Decorating a wall niche was a Madonna statue. I also discovered a grotto that hailed from the 18th century. I spotted sculptures representing the months of a year. I did not go into the castle hothouses and orangery this time, but I remembered how stunning they had been. This park was tied with the castle parks in Kroměříž and Opočno as my favorite, I decided.
I left the chateau hesitantly. I wished I had more time to spend in the park, but the bus back to Brno was to leave soon. I knew that someday I would be back again.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
About eight years ago I mentioned to several English students how I loved traveling to castles and chateaus on the weekends. “Have you been to Nové Hrady near Litomyšl? You have to go there!” my 25-year old female student blurted out, explaining that she was from a nearby town. I had visited Nové Hrady Castle in south Bohemia, but I had never heard of a Nové Hrady Chateau in east Bohemia. I could not find any public transportation at a convenient time, so I put this chateau on the back burner and explored others. Then, on a Friday in 2011, I was so eager to see the Rococo chateau I had looked up on the Internet, that I took the Student Agency bus to Hradec Králové, and then made the one-hour trip to Litomyšl. From there a friend who owned a cottage nearby gave me a lift to Nové Hrady.
The history of Nové Hrady began with the construction of a church on this site in the 12th century. After the Hussite Wars in the 15th century, a Gothic castle called “Nový Hrad” or “New Castle” was erected there. In the 16th century the castle was transformed into a Renaissance chateau, but during The Thirty Years’ War it was plundered and destroyed. Duchess Anna Barbara Harbuval de Chamaré bought it in 1750, and Nové Hrady got its Rococo appearance from 1773 to 1777, when her son, French nobleman Jean-Antoine Harbural de Chamaré made it his summer residence.
Back then it was dubbed the “Small Schonbrunn” or “Czech Versailles.” The French garden, English park and chateau chapel were created at this time, too. In 1935 Knight Bartoň of Dobenín purchased it and carried out the needed repairs. During the Second World War, the SS and Hitlerjugend occupied the chateau. In 1948 it became the property of the state. One wing of the chateau was turned into an elementary school, which existed here until the 1980s. An exhibition of Rococo art was placed in another wing. During the 1950s the chateau’s situation became even more desolate: Its basement was transformed into a fattening farm for pigs.
Reconstruction was carried out in various phases, but the chateau was still in a very decrepit state when it was returned to its original owner’s grandson, Josef Bartoň, in 1990. Unfortunately, he did not renovate the chateau. Instead, he put it up for sale. In 1997 the Kučera family from Prague purchased it. It finally opened to the public in 2001.
Now it looked so majestic that it was impossible for me to imagine the chateau in such terrible condition. After going through a three-part gate, I walked through a Rococo garden with fountains and ascended a lavish staircase studded with statues. I liked the coral orangish color of the chateau that made the exterior appear playful, cheerful and vibrant.
I had visited enough chateaus to I know a little about the Rococo period. The key word for this style was ornate. Small sculptures often appeared as did lavish mirrors and tapestries. Rococo was even more extravagant than the Baroque style that had preceded it.
The tour began in the hallway below a monumental staircase enriched with putti statues. The side walls of the entrance hall were decorated with hunting trophies. We entered the large Main Hall with its creamy yellow walls and white rich stucco décor. The yellow and white colors made for an airy, joyful combination. The white tile stove was original, in Late Baroque style, and a white piano stood nearby. The crystal chandelier from Empress Marie Theresa’s era used 64 light bulbs and weighed 180 kilograms.
One window looked out to the Classicist circular gazebo with Baroque theatre of evenly sheared high bushes. In the wall the guide showed us two doors that opened outward to reveal a bar. From the terrace I saw the Rococo garden I had passed through to get to the box office. The staircase looked even more elegant from this perspective.
Next we entered a Baroque bedroom. The pillowcases on the Baroque bed had delicate, lace patterns. A brown table, oak closet and desk featured intarsia. A kneeler also hailed from the Baroque era. In the following room there was a grandfather clock that the guide claimed was impossible to repair. A kneeler featured an engraving of a house and trees using the intarsia technique. A Baroque intarsia table from Holland with motifs of flowers, birds, butterflies and vases rounded out the room.
Then came the Rococo Salon. The table and armchairs had a white floral design. The table impressed me the most with the ornate, gold ornamentation of its legs and sides. A white wardrobe decorated with green laurels was pleasing to the eye. The couch and chairs were pea green with yellow, flaunting a floral pattern. The green color combined with yellow gave the furniture a cheerful appearance.
Unfortunately, original Rococo chapel had been destroyed. The present chapel was sparse. It featured two stained glass windows and a large carving of Jesus Christ on a cross.
Then it was time for another Rococo style room featuring intarsia. The tops of two dressing tables were decorated with beads shaped into green swirls on a blue and black background. The space also contained two intarsia dressers decorated with floral motifs and a kneeler boasting intarsia.
In the former kitchen the 18th century grandfather clock, varnished in red, was engraved with Oriental themes, one feature of the Rococo period. A desk featuring Oriental themes, depicting Chinese people and nature, caught my eye. The two jewelry boxes were Chinese, too.
The next room was called the Classicism Room. Classicism relied on order, symmetry and simplicity and began after 1765 as a reaction to Baroque and Rococo. It was connected with the French Revolution. The striped grey with tan couch and two chairs certainly fit the Classicist description. In a display case there were two elegant fans.
However, a clock glittering with gold made me think of the Empire Style that would be featured in the next room. After all, the gold and black color combination was one trait of the Empire style that corresponded with the era of Emperor Napoleon and his military maneuvers into Egypt during 1796. Oriental themes also played a part in the Empire style. Sure enough, in The Empire style room, black and gold freely mingled. A black clock featured two black men wearing gold loincloths and sporting heads of golden hair. Another gold clock was decorated with a seated angel. The furniture featured Oriental and animal themes.
The next room was set up in the Biedermeier style, from the first half of the 19th century. Carving and intarsia still appeared in smaller objects. A picture of a semi-circular square flanked by columns showed a passion for symmetry and order. I wondered if the painting depicted a place in Rome. The striped chairs and couch featured a simple yet elegant style.
The Smokers’ Salon was all about green. The rug was green, the cushions on the brown chairs were green, a partition was green, and a loveseat was decorated with green and tan stripes. This room was designed in the Art Nouveau style from the beginning of the 20th century.
After the tour I explored the garden. There was a pond to my left, near the road. One part consisted of trees and plants on a slope, rising in tiers. It looked wild and untamed. Purple flowers lined a path behind the back gate that had its private garden. I spotted the Baroque theatre of shrubbery and the Classicist garden summerhouse. Further on, there was a hotel, an orangery, a paddock for horses, and an area where deer were bred.
I was very impressed with the Rococo exterior of the chateau, and it had been intriguing for me to see furniture and objects from various periods inside. The tour enlightened me as to the differences between eras. My understanding of the various time periods was enriched. I loved the black with gold combination of some objects. I wish the chateau had more paintings, though. A painting gallery of Baroque and Rococo art would have really added to the already stunning tour.
Soon I got back to Litomyšl, where I ate some chicken with peaches and cheese – my favorite – and then hurried to catch the 1 pm bus back to Hradec Králové. Upon arriving there, I ran to the other side of the terminal, where the Student Agency bus was about to leave for Prague. I made it just in time.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor living in Prague.
After visiting the chateau in Manětín not far from Plzeň in west Bohemia, I had to go by car to get to nearby Rabštejn nad Střelou, the smallest town in the Czech Republic and allegedly the smallest in Europe. As I entered the town, I noticed a pub on the right-hand side. I think every town in the Czech Republic has at least one pub. I had tried to visit the town the week before, but the only road to the town had been closed due to construction work.
I expected to see four or five houses, maybe one church, but it was bigger than that. There was a yellow and white church on a hill and next to it a chateau behind a gate. A sign stated that it was private property. The façade was impressive and the lawn meticulously well-kept. Situated next to the site of a former castle hailing from around 1260, the chateau was built in Baroque style in 1705. The castle originally had a high cylinder tower and walls around it but was severely damaged in the 16th century. Now some of the walls and the foundation of the tower are all that is left of the castle.
The road dipped down suddenly, and I came to the main square. About five men were struggling to put up a maypole as the May 1 holiday approached. Branches flaunted fluttering, colored ribbons. There was a decrepit building behind me and another one with an old, battered sign above the doorway in German. It read “LIEDFELDERHOF.” I wondered what it meant and if it hailed from World War II or even from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later I would find out that the word stood for “Sorrowfields’ Inn,” with “sorrowfields” probably being the surname of the innkeepers.
The sign in German attested to the influence that Germans had had on this town since settling in the region during the 12th century. Even the name of the town derived from the German words “rabe” for raven and “stein” for stone. The town was the property of Germans for many centuries. In 1631 military leader and politician Albrecht von Wallenstein became the owner. Wallenstein played a major role in the Thirty Years’ War, allying himself and his army with the Holy Roman Empire. Under the rule of the Habsburgs, he became supreme commander of the Habsburg armies. Wallenstein was assassinated in the west Bohemian town of Cheb after quarreling with Emperor Ferdinand and considering allying himself with the Protestants.
After World War II, when the Beneš’ decrees came into effect, most of the Germans were banished from the country, and Czechs came to live in the town. In 1930 Rabštejn had a population of 344. By 1950 it had dwindled to 77.
I also wondered what the town had looked like in the Middle Ages. I was impressed that the history of this town could be traced all the way back to the 13th century. I had read that in medieval times two rows of houses surrounded an irregularly-shaped square. How had people lived long ago? I knew that in the past inhabitants had taken up making handicrafts, weaving, painting playing cards and glass as well as producing roof slate.
Farther down were several timbered cabins, one painted black with green, another mostly white with black. They looked like they belonged to another century. It was strange when I saw a man open the door of one of these homes and go inside. It was as if a person from the 21st century was entering another time period.
At the end of the town was a restaurant with picnic tables outside. Seven bikers were sitting there, drinking beer while engaged in animate conversations. There was an old stone bridge, dating most likely from 1335-1340. Under it flowed the Střela River. The body of water meandered through a forest, gurgling softly. A thick forest made up the background. It appeared as if this could be the backdrop for a landscape painting, as if I were looking at a canvas rather than real life. The forest was romantic, but it felt comforting and dangerous at the same time.
I had read about a former brewery that only put out 700 hectoliters of beer during a year, but I did not see anything resembling a brewery. I did not see a former monastery, either, but there had been several in this town over the centuries. One dated back to the end of the 15th century but was destroyed in 1532. A new one was built in the 17th century, but it was abolished in 1787. There were several churches in the town during the 19th century, and legend has it that one of them was damaged in 1856. Workers had to dismantle the cross from the top of the church and reinstall it. While they were doing this, people celebrated below. The workers drank some wine in the tower and threw a wine glass down. It fell but did not break.