The Historical Underground of Pilsen Diary

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When I bought my ticket to visit the underground cellars below the center of Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech), I thought the tour would be interesting. However, I had no idea it would be fascinating and one of the highlights of my many trips to this dazzling city in west Bohemia. The ticket office was at the entrance to the Brewery Museum, which I also visited and found intriguing, even though I rarely drink alcohol.

Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of visiting underground areas, and I admit that I was a bit scared for my safety when I had to put on a hard hat. It turned out that there was no reason to be afraid. The corridors were not wide but provided enough room for one person to walk through. I can at times feel a bit claustrophobic, but I did not have a problem there. In some parts in caves I had visited, I had been squashed between rock formations, and the paths had been very tight.

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The guide explained that we would explore 800 meters of the underground area, though the cellars were actually much more extensive. The passages can be traced back to the early 14th century. They were built soon after the founding of the town by the first houses that had obtained the right to brew beer. The cellars served various purposes. Food was stored there, and beer was brewed in the underground areas. During sieges of the city, inhabitants took refuge in this labyrinth. The passages also became important parts of the city’s defense system. In addition, during the Middle Ages, the pubs above the passages were ordered to close at a certain hour, and the establishments carried on serving beer in the cellars after hours.

The eloquent guide told us the different eating habits of the poor and the rich during the Middle Ages. Poor people used ceramic tableware and ate mostly vegetarian food because meat was too costly. Birds and fish made up part of their diet. The wealthy, though, used glass, metal and silver tableware and ate a lot of meat and spices. They ate with their hands, though they used knives when eating meat. The well-off citizens refused to use forks because they thought they resembled pitchforks and were bad luck.

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I saw beautiful tiles from stoves constructed in the Middle Ages. One that caught my fancy showed Saint George fighting the dragon. I also saw an exquisite decorated water pot from medieval times.

The guide talked about the three symbols on Pilsen’s coat-of-arms – an angel, a camel and a greyhound. I loved the story about how the camel came to be one of the city’s symbols. During the Hussite wars, the Hussites attempted to overtake the city four times, but never prevailed. The Hussites tried to frighten the inhabitants of Pilsen with a camel. However, their plan backfired in a major way. The inhabitants liked the camel so much that they put the animal on their coat-of-arms. In the end, the Hussites left, defeated. The camel stayed.

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The guide also explained that the three golden fountains of contemporary art on the main square stood for the three symbols of the city. The T-shaped fountain stood for the angel while the F-shaped one represented the camel. The Greek letter stood for the greyhound. I was captivated by the three fountains, though I had not understood what they symbolized. Though contemporary, they fit in well with the medieval atmosphere of the main square dominated by the Church of Saint Bartholomew. I was impressed that they by no means take away from the square’s historical charm.

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I also saw samples of ceramics from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Two objects that caught my attention included a unique 16th century sieve and a piggybank from the 17th century. I was intrigued by the many wells – we saw 20 of them!

When we reached one point, the guide told us that we were standing under a house that once printed books in Pilsen. The first book published in Pilsen hailed from 1468. I also was intrigued with a pair of very pointy shoes, often referred to as poulaines. They looked very uncomfortable. I did not understand how someone could squish up his or her feet into those shoes. How would it be possible to walk in them? During the Middle Ages, very pointy shoes were a sign of wealth. I recalled that they had been particularly fashionable in France during that era, as evidenced by The Book of Hours. The pointier your shoes were, the richer you were.

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There were many guilds during the Middle Ages, including a guild of manufacturers of tiled stoves. I saw many examples of tiles from stoves during the tour. Emperor Rudolf II lived in Pilsen for one year when the plague was ravaging Prague, and the inhabitants presented him with a tiled stove to show their appreciation that he had chosen their city as his temporary residence.

I saw some cannonballs used by the Hussites. They weighed 200 kilograms each!  The cannonballs were able to demolish the first town wall, but they did not destroy the second wall. The inhabitants of the city threw the cannonballs back at the Hussites, foiling their enemy’s plan.

A functioning water wheel fascinated me. It was a replica of one that dated from 1532. I also saw remains of a water town hailing from 1847. It had played a role in the town’s defense system. Emil Škoda, an entrepreneur who set up the Škoda factory that would play a major role in European industry during the 19th and 20th centuries, was born in the water tower on November 19, 1839.

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The 2002 floods had made their way to Pilsen. A sign showed the high level the water reached on August 13 of 2002. The entire underground had been immersed in water. I recalled my personal experience with the floods for a few moments, lost in thought.

During 2002, devastating floods ravaged the republic. I was in Slovakia at the time, so I did not witness them first-hand. Even though the house where I lived in Prague was on a hill, there was significant water damage because we had had no roof because it was being repaired. There was only a protective covering. Rain from the downpours seeped into my flat. I came back to find some of my clothes ruined and mold on the walls. My cat was traumatized. Luckily, my books were all dry. Living through the aftermath of the floods was one of the most difficult times of my life in Prague, where I have lived for 23 years.

When we reached the end of the tour, I was enthusiastic and bewitched by the information I had learned about the Middle Ages and the history of Pilsen. The objects I had seen during the tour were very intriguing. I thought the tour was organized well. I had taken the tour in English because that was the one offered at the time I was able to visit, and the guide had an excellent command of the language and a talent for communicating effectively.

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I am convinced that the underground tour should not be missed when tourists are visiting Pilsen. It is a must-see. When you come back above ground, you understand how the Middle Ages affected Pilsen and have a greater appreciation for the city.

I left Pilsen for Prague about an hour after the tour, and I was certainly more than satisfied with my day trip.

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

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National Gallery of Le Marche in Urbino Diary

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One of my most memorable experiences of my trip with arsviva to Le Marche and Umbria was my visit to the National Gallery of Le Marche in Urbino, a medieval town with steep, romantic streets, a stunning cathedral and the intriguing museum at the birthplace of master painter Raphael. The gallery is located in a majestic building – the Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, built in the 15th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We entered a elegant porticoed courtyard. The collection focuses on the Renaissance period, with works by Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello and Titian, for instance. Raphael’s masterpiece La Muta, Uccello’s six-panel Miracle of the Desecrated Host and Titian’s The Resurrection are three of the many gems in this collection. The building also includes a small study that is decorated in trompe-l’oel style. The intarsia work is this room is remarkable. I especially love the squirrel! The doors boast latticework.

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

Leipzig Diary

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A fountain in Leipzig

When I saw that arsviva offered a day trip to Leipzig, I jumped at the opportunity. I had no idea what to expect, but I had enjoyed their day trips to other places in Germany, such as Nuremberg and Bamberg. Besides, our guide would be one of the best I had come across. With a specialty in architecture, she also had led the thrilling tours of Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel’s creations.

There were many things that awed me about Leipzig. The first and foremost, was, indeed, the architecture – how the modern and historical styles did not clash but rather provided a sort of artistic harmony.

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A contemporary statue in downtown Leipzig

The guide told us about the history of the city, and I had read about Leipzig’s trials and tribulations before the trip. During the seventh century, Leipzig got its name from the Slavic Lipsk, which means “a settlement where the linden trees stand.” The town was first mentioned in writing during 1015. It was founded in 1165, soon gaining a reputation as a trade center. The beginning of the 15th century changed the character of Leipzig, as a university was established here, and it became a prominent center of higher education. Goethe and Nietzsche had studied here.

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A beautiful book published in Leipzig

The Leipzig Book Fair, the second biggest book fair in Germany, has its origins in the 17th century. Book publishing took off in Leipzig during the 18th century and continued to play a major role until World War II, when the Graphic Quarter was mostly destroyed by bombs. The Battle of Nations in the 19th century took place near Leipzig. The 1813 ordeal pitted Napoleon’s France against the Prussians, Austrians, Russians and Swedes. The allied nations came through victorious, and Napoleon had no choice but to leave Germany. We would visit this monument later in the day.

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This painting from the Museum of City History shows the destruction during World War II.

The city became part of the German Empire in 1871, and the years before World War I were rosy. Then, after the war, the Weimar Republic was established, though short-lived. In 1933 the National Socialists took over, and Hitler’s reign of terror would continue until the US army freed the city on April 18, 1945. Then in July of that year, the Americans handed the city over to the Soviets. The totalitarian regime that was called the German Democratic Republic or East Germany existed from 1949 to 1989, when Communism was defeated in Germany in part thanks to the citizens of Leipzig and their demonstrations. Today more than 40,000 students vie for degrees in Leipzig, a truly university town. Leipzig was coined the “City of Diversity” by the German government in 2008.

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Gothic and modern architecture in a university building

The Augustusplatz, spanning 40,000 square meters, was a wonder in itself. The Gewandhaus, where the symphony played, and the Opera House took me by surprise, as I usually was not so enthralled with modern architecture. I took special note of the Paulinum, where the current structure resembled a former church that was destroyed by the Communists on this site in 1968. The 2012 creation really brought a sense of unity to modern and historical styles.

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The first high-rise in Leipzig

I also was enthralled with the first high-rise building in Leipzig, an 11-storey edifice constructed in the 1920s. Its design was inspired by the clock tower at St. Mark’s Square in my beloved Venice. For a moment, I mentally went eight years back in time and recalled winding through the empty, romantic streets of Venice on a Sunday at seven o’clock in the morning. The experience was magical, to say the least. In the present again: The tall Leipzig building was topped with a ball that showed the phases of the moon and a sculpture of a man ringing a bell. The German words for “Work overcomes everything” stood out on a gable.

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From the Museum of City History exhibition of the modern era

We also spent some time in the train station. No, we were not going anywhere by train, but rather we were admiring the masterful technical achievement that consisted of two entrance halls and two waiting rooms plus 25 platforms. In the early 20th century, this transportation hub ranked as the largest main train station in Europe after the architects transformed four stations into one. It made Prague’s main station look so tiny. I always felt a sense of excitement in train stations. I thought of the many trips I had taken by train. Prague’s train stations were starting points for what turned out to be superb experiences during which I became acquainted with an intriguing part of the country and also, most importantly, got to know myself better. The trips to Olomouc, Liberec, Turnov –  each journey provided me with insights about the external landscape as well as the internal landscape of my mind.

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A postcard of the Church of St. Nicholas

Unfortunately, it was not possible to take photos in the Church of St. Nicholas, the largest church in Leipzig. I tried to imagine October of 1989 in the church, when citizens crammed inside, protesting against the totalitarian regime and creating a path for democracy. The people of Leipzig really had made a difference in the so-called Peaceful Revolution, and this had been where it all began. On Mondays, ever since the early 1980s, prayers for peace were held here, too. I wondered when there would be peace in the world, if ever. So many tragedies, so much violence rocks the world today. The world was the most dangerous it had been during my 46 years on this earth, I mused. And it only seemed to be getting more and more dangerous day-by-day.

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From a postcard of the Church of St. Nicholas

I admired the architecture of the impressive church. Although originally constructed in Romanesque style during the 12th century, it was transformed into a Late Gothic structure boasting three naves during the first quarter of the 16th century. Three steeples boast Baroque decoration. Now the prevailing style of the interior is classicist, a characteristic that the church took on in the late 18th century. I loved the palm tree capitals on the stately columns most of all, especially the pink and green colors. The pillars made the church appear even more lively. It was not just an architectural masterpiece with a past, but it felt like a masterful design with a present, too. I tried to imagine Bach performing here, as he has served as organist from 1723 to 1750. I tried to imagine Martin Luther preaching here as churchgoers became familiar with the Reformation. It was a profound experience, standing there, gazing at the gem of an interior.

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The Church of St. Thomas

You could not miss the Bach monument in front of the Church of St. Thomas, which was constructed in 1212 as a monastery church for Augustinians. By 1355 the Romanesque structure had been transformed into Gothic style. Now it has a Late Gothic character with a late 15th century appearance. Real hair adorns Jesus’ head on a 16th century crucifix. The church holds the distinction of having one of the steepest gable roofs in the country.

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The ceiling of the Church of St. Thomas

The interior got a Neo-Gothic makeover during the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849. Still, there were elements of the church that were much older than that. I saw a triptych altar from the 15th century, for instance, and even some Romanesque traits remain on the exterior. I especially liked the stained glass windows. Many people come here to pay homage to Bach, who worked as cantor here from 1723 to 1750. His grave is located in the choir.

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The stained glass windows at the Church of St. Thomas were extraordinary.

We also saw a modern church, built only several years ago. The interior was so sparse and minimalistic. There was a large wooden cross on one wall, and on the opposite wall another big cross was made of glass. I preferred Baroque and Gothic churches, definitely, but there was a profound sense of harmony in its simplicity. It ranked as an architectural gem in my book, though it was not my preferred style. There was something special about seeing this space stripped of frivolous decoration.

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Built from 1899 to 1905, the New Town Hall was another gem, purposefully reminiscent of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. With an area of 10,000 square meters, it is one of the biggest town halls in the world. The tower reaches a height of 1,147 meters, making it the highest town hall tower in Germany. It was a pity there was not more time to spend examining this building, but we had a lot to see. The town hall fountain featuring creatures from fairy tales and a figure of a young boy playing a flute was a gem.

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The New Town Hall

I was drawn to Klingerhaus, the birthplace of the 19th century Symbolist painter, sculptor and writer Max Klinger. I did not know much about Klinger, except that he had been influenced by Goya’s art. I recalled gazing in awe at Goya’s paintings in the Prado and at the artist’s drawings in the small, quaint contemporary art museum in Passau. I liked the Renaissance architecture of the building. I was particularly enthralled with the red gables and oriels that made the building look so dynamic.

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Klingerhaus

We walked by Auerbach’s Cellar, a tavern Goethe had frequented and the inspiration for a scene in Faust. We went into the Mädler Passage, an arcade building that reminded me of another arcade structure in Naples. It was modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan from 1912 to 1914 and boasted a central rotunda. A Glockenspiel of Meissen china charmed audiences on the hour.

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The Old Town Hall

I ate a hearty lunch in a narrow Baroque court teeming with restaurants and cafés – there were over 30 of them, in fact. Then I made my way to the Old Town Hall across the square. The first Renaissance hall in Germany, it was constructed in 1556. It was heavily damaged by bombing during World War II but rebuilt. The city administration worked here until 1905, and soon afterwards the Museum of City History opened in the impressive space. Shops were situated amidst the lovely arcades. I loved the gables and tower clock.

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The interior of the Old Town Hall

At the Museum of City History, I learned that the history of Leipzig is, in effect, the history of Germany and former East Germany. A remarkable exhibition of modern history from the revolutionary years of 1848-49 to the present enthralled me. Rarely have I been so enlightened and moved by an exhibition. Citizens were not satisfied with the political situation in 1848 and revolted, hoping to gain a constitution for Germany, among other goals. But it was not to be. The city became a central point for the German labor movement, German social democracy and women’s movement from the 1850s to 1871, when the German Empire was founded. Jewish fur traders flocked to the city, and their businesses flourished. Indeed, before World War I Leipzig was thriving.

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The interior of the Old Town Hall

From 1918 to 1933 Leipzig found itself in the Weimar Republic, an era that had to deal with the political and economic issues that followed the war. Yet Leipzig experienced the Roaring Twenties, and when things turned for the worst, the Great Depression of 1929. Then, in 1933, the National Socialists took control. The city was subject to much bombing during the war, and forced laborers toiled in the city during the war. US troops liberated Leipzig in April of 1945, but in July the Americans turned over the city to the Soviets. The German Democratic Republic was established in 1949, as Leipzig then became part of the totalitarian East Germany. Companies were nationalized, and cheaply built housing estates cropped up. Before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, thousands of citizens escaped to the West. At the end of the 1980s, more inhabitants made it to the West. During the 40th anniversary of East Germany, the state employed violence to repress demonstrations. The Peaceful Revolution began on October 9, 1989, and the Leipzig protests would play a major role in the collapse of the Communist regime. In 1990, after 58 terror-ridden years led by dictators, democratic elections were held in Leipzig. There was much construction, and Leipzig earned the nickname “the Boomtown of the East.”

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From the Museum of City History exhibition about the modern era

The exhibition also focused on book publishing in Leipzig, which played a major role from the 18th century up to World War II. Until 1945, the biggest book fair in the world took place in Leipzig, and now the city hosts the second largest book fair in Germany. The exhibition also concentrated on Leipzig as a city of music, mentioning Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, Wagner and others who greatly influenced the town.

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From the Museum of City History exhibition of the modern era

There were many places in Leipzig that I did not have time to explore. For instance, I would have loved to have visited the museums in the former houses of Mendelssohn and Schumann. I longed to see the richly decorated facades of buildings on the Brühl, where, at the turn of the 20th century, 700 fur companies had been located. I would like to linger in the Baroque Coffee Baum, where famous musicians had once gathered. The Memorial Museum, at the site of the former State Security forces, would certainly allow insights into the terror-ridden years as part of East Germany.  There are other museums that I wanted to visit as well– the Grassi Museum of Applied Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts are just two examples.

During my day in Leipzig, I gained so much knowledge about life in the city and in Germany, especially from the middle of the 19th century to the present. I was won over by the architecture, both modern and historic. I left Leipzig, knowing I had to return in the not-so-distant future. Its strong impression will forever be stamped in my memory.

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

Spello Photo Diary

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During my tour of Umbria, I was most enchanted by the town of Spello, with its steep, narrow and picturesque streets and stone buildings that gave it a medieval appearance. I could imagine myself living in such a tranquil environment. I loved the potted plants and flowers decorating the exteriors of the quaint homes. Located 10 kilometers from Assisi, Spello has Roman roots – the Romans established a colony there in 1 BC, and traces of its Roman heritage remain to this day in the form of three gates. The Arch of Augustus hails from 1 BC to 1 AD. There are gates from the Middle Ages as well. Impressive churches dot the town. My favorite was Santa Maria Maggiore, which dates from 1159, and its Baglioni Chapel that boasts dazzling Renaissance frescoes by Pinturicchio. Rendered around 1500, the frescoes provide a pictorial narration of the childhood events of Mary and Jesus. The main scenes, shaped as lunettes, include the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Dispute with the Doctors. Other churches we saw included Sant’Andrea, dating from 1025 and sporting 14th century frescoes and San Lorenzo, which traces its history back to the 12th century. The Old Town Hall or Palazzo Comunale Vecchio has a bewitching medieval appearance, and there is a 16th century fountain on the same square.

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

National Gallery of Umbria Photo Diary

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One of the highlights of my trip to Le Marche and Umbria was visiting the breathtaking National Gallery of Umbria in Perugia. The collection consists of Umbrian painting mainly from the 13th to 16th centuries and is located in the medieval Palazzo dei Priori, a magnificent medieval palace that also serves as the town hall and municipal library. There is some significant sculpture, too. The oldest piece in the gallery is a wooden crucifix from the early 13th century. Artists represented include the Pisano brothers, Perugino, Ottaviano Nelli, Benedetto Bonfigli, Pinturicchio and Raphael. Many Umbrian artists were influenced by painting in Tuscany, especially by the Sienese masters.

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

Museum of City History in Leipzig Diary

While visiting Leipzig on a day trip, I spent nearly two hours in the Museum of City History, which documents the history of the city that was first mentioned in writing during 1015 and founded as a town in 1165. The museum is located in the first Renaissance hall in Germany, built in 1556. It functioned as the town hall until 1905. The Museum of City History has been housed there since 1909. There was a special exhibition called “Modern Times,” which dealt with 200 years of city history from the revolutionary years of 1848 and 1849 to 1995. I learned about the development of trade fairs, industrialization, life during the Weimar Republic with the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression of 1929, the history of publishing houses in the city, the Nazi regime during World War II, the nationalization of companies and founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949, the role music played in the city, the 1989 demonstrations and the first free elections in 1990 after two dictatorial regimes that lasted 58 years. In many respects, the history of Leipzig was the history of Germany, and I was fascinated about life during the Weimar Republic and life during East Germany’s existence, for instance.

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

Kladsko Borderland and Božena Němcová Diary

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I went on a UNISMA tour of the Kladsko Borderland area, the region where 19th century Czech writer Božena Němcová grew up. In this post I will refer to her as Barunka, her nickname, as I felt I got to know her well during the excursion. There were about 40 women on the tour, traveling to commemorate this Czech patriot, who was one of the most influential prose writers in the Czech National Revival. During this movement, Czechs tried to promote the Czech language and culture while they lived in the Habsburg Empire, where Germanization was enforced.

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Božena Němcová from http://www.bozena-nemcova.cz

Barunka was an inspiration for women trying to make names for themselves as writers, too and for women in general. Barunka’s most famous literary creation is the novel The Grandmother, about an idealized grandmother and her family living in the countryside of the Kladsko Borderland region. Written during a tumultuous time of her life, The Grandmother was inspired by Barunka’s happy, carefree childhood. We would also visit the Ratibořice Chateau as Barunka had spent joyful days in Ratibořice during her youth. Also on the itinerary was Barunka’s home in Červený Kostelec, where she lived for six months after she got married. We would admire the countryside from a lookout point that commemorated the prestigious writer.  First, though, we would travel to Česká Skalice, the town where Barunka went to grammar school and got married.

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The Grandmother or Babička by Božena Němcová from http://www.radio.cz

The Kladsko Borderland region includes 13 towns, such as Nové Město nad Mětují, which boasts a chateau that I wrote about in another post. It also consists of the Broumov area. I spent a weekend in Broumov – see my post about it – where I toured the impressive monastery and visited the wooden Church of the Virgin Mary, the oldest wooden building in the country. The unique rock formations of Adršpach also belong to this area. I was there one cold, depressing day in November years ago and have always promised myself I would return sometime during the summer.

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Božena Němcova from http://www.martinus.cz

Because I find Božena Němcová’s life to be so intriguing, I am going to go into some detail about the trials and tribulations she faced. Born in 1820 as Barbora Panklová in Vienna, she spent her childhood in Ratibořice. In 1825 her grandmother settled in with the family. Her grandmother played a major role in Barunka’s upbringing. During 1837, Barunka tied the knot at age 17 in an arranged marriage. Her husband, Josef Němec, was a 32-year old customs officer. They had four children, three sons and a daughter.

Josef was a Czech patriot, but he was a rude, outspoken man. He was transferred many times, so the family moved from place-to-place. When they were living in Polná, Barunka started to read books and newspapers in Czech, even though it was an era of Germanization. After they moved to Prague in 1842, she published poetry in a well-respected periodical.

In 1848, while the family was living in Domažlice, Josef was accused of treason, which brought about more transfers in his job. When he moved to Hungary in 1850, Barunka and the children lived in Prague, where she met with literary figures who were Czech nationalists. The family had severe financial problems and was often in debt. Then Barunka and her husband joined the Czech-Moravian Brotherhood, which promoted the idea of a utopian society, but the Brotherhood fell apart.

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Božena Němcová and her children from cs.wikipedia.org

Barunka was no saint. She had several lovers. When her son Hyněk became gravely ill, she was the mistress of Hyněk’s doctor. Then one day Josef came across a love letter and put an end to her affair. Josef’s job then took him to Hungary again, and this time Barunka and the children accompanied him. They visited Moravia and Slovakia, two places where Barunka picked up many folk tales from people living in the countryside.

While they were living again in Prague during 1853, Hyněk died of tuberculosis at the tender age of 15. The family had other problems, too, as Josef found himself unemployed. It was while the family was in such dire straits that Barunka wrote The Grandmother, as she mentally transported herself back to the cheerful days of her youth, when she had lived with her grandmother in Ratibořice. In the book the grandmother figure stands for goodness, love and moral values.

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The Kladsko Borderland

The following year Barunka had an affair with a young medical student, but the man’s parents found out and forced him to move from Prague to Poland, ending the relationship. During 1856 Barunka attended the funeral of influential writer and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský. She paid tribute to him by placing a crown of thorns on the casket as a symbol of martyrdom.  That same year Josef was accused of embezzlement. Barunka and Josef had heated arguments about the children’s future, and Josef filed for divorce. He beat her, and Barunka called the police. They got back together, but they fought so often that Barunka eventually left him.

During 1861, she moved to Litomyšl, where she worked for a publisher as Josef was no longer supporting her. However, illness and the resulting financial problems forced her to honor society’s rules and return to Prague and to her husband. The first installment of the second edition of The Grandmother was published the day before she died on January 21, 1862.

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A portrait of Božena Němcová from the Božena Němcová Museum in Česká Skalice

First, we visited Česká Skalice, where the Božena Němcová Museum was situated. The school that Barunka attended and the Baroque church where she was married in 1837 are nearby. Coincidentally, her parents had married in the same church, during 1820.

Česká Skalice has an impressive history. It was first mentioned in writing during 1086, but a settlement existed there even earlier. It obtained the status of a town in 1575. During the Thirty Years’ War, Česká Skalice was occupied by both Swedish and the Emperor’s troops. During the 18th century, the town concentrated on agriculture and textile production. The 19th century was fraught with floods and fires, yet the town still expanded. In 1866, during the Prussian-Austrian War, a significant battle took place nearby. The Austrians lost, amassing over 5,000 casualties. It was a hint of what was to come as the Austrians would go on to lose the war.

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from the Božena Němcová Museum

The 19th century was also a time when Dahlia Festivals took place. They were held from 1837 to 1847. Dahlias were plentiful in the region, and the festival took on a nationalistic tone. At the first festival in 1837, Barunka was voted Queen of the Ball. Composer Bedřich Smetana participated in the festival during 1839. Factories for textile production cropped up during that century, too.

Many citizens of Česká Skalice died during World War I, but life in independent, democratic Czechoslovakia was good. A statue called “Grandmother with Children,” based on the book The Grandmother, was unveiled in 1920 in Ratibořice. The sculptors were the well-renowned Otto Gutfreund and Pavel Janák. A museum dedicated to Božena Němcová was opened in 1931. During the Second World War, times were bleak. Many inhabitants lost their lives in resistance fighting.

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Statuary inspired by The Grandmother, Božena Němcová Museum

We could only peek through the iron grille of the Baroque church, but I read that the chapel dates back to 1350, and the baptismal font hails from 1450. The interior became Baroque in 1825.

The Museum of Božena Němcová gave me an overview of her life. I saw her writing desk and tried to imagine her sitting there, composing a story. Photos and documents were on display as well as many editions of her books. A book fiend, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the various editions and noticed how the books’ designs differed. I also peered at some of her favorite paintings. I learned that Barunka admired English literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens and that she was deeply interested in the fate of textile workers, servants and clerks, for instance. She had even visited textile factories in order to get a sense of the grueling work and long hours that prevailed. I admired a richly decorated fan she had owned. The part of the exhibition dedicated to The Grandmother in film and drama also caught my attention. I had seen the popular film, and I had attended a performance of her literary masterpiece, on stage at the Goose on a String Theatre in Brno.

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From the Textile Museum in Česká Skalice

Adjacent to the literary museum was a textile museum, founded in 1936. Česká Skalice is home to the only museum in the country that focuses on the history of textile production.

We also visited Barunka’s timbered school, which she attended from 1824 to 1833. While it is not known when it was built, legend says that it dates from the 13th century. It was first mentioned in writing during the early 15th century. The school was destroyed by the Swedes in 1639, but, four years later, a new one was built. In 1771, some 280 children were registered at the school. However, only about 80 pupils showed up for lessons. Until 1790 there was only one grade. Later, when Barunka attended, there were two grades. Now it looks like it did from the 1830s and 1840s. The building last served as a school in July of 1864.

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The teacher’s desk in the school that Božena Němcová attended

I tried to imagine Barunka going to this school every day. Each row in the classroom consisted of one long bench. I could not imagine how painful my back would be if I had to sit on one of those hard benches all day. A sentence written in 19th century Czech using correct penmanship was on the blackboard. An edition of Barunka’s story, The Teacher, was on display, as she described this school in that work. While I could not imagine going to classes in such a claustrophobic, though quaint, space with uncomfortable seating, some of my fellow seventyish travelers reminisced that the grammar schools they had attended had looked similar. I had spent my elementary school days at a small, modern, private school in the town where I lived in northern Virginia. We had strict rules and a dress code. If students went to their lockers between classes, they were punished. However, we had great teachers and a terrific theatre program. How different my childhood had been from the childhoods of these seventy-something women who had grown up in Communist Czechoslovakia!

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The benches where the students sat in the school Božena Němcová attended

The wall in the atrium of the building was richly decorated with ceramics and paintings. Quotations from Barunka’s books adorned the wall, too. I admired the bright colors and cheerfulness of the display.

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The display of ceramics in the atrium of the school

The highlight of my trip was visiting Ratibořice Chateau, where I had been only once, more than a decade earlier. The village of Ratibořice was first mentioned in writing during the 14th century, when a fortress had stood on the site. The chateau has its origins in the early 18th century, when the then owner, Prince Lorenzo Piccolomini, had it built as one of his residences. It has the appearance of an Italian countryside summerhouse, an architectural style that was popular during the 16th century.

Its golden age took place when Kateřina Frederika Vilemína Benign – the Duchess Zaháňská – inherited the place at the turn of the 19th century. Barunka even based one of the characters in The Grandmother on this former owner of Ratibořice. She made the chateau her permanent residence and was responsible for reconstruction that took place from 1825 to 1826. The chateau was transformed into Classicist style. Also, the park was founded during her tenure as owner. Kateřina was married and divorced on three occasions. The duchess loved children, but her only child was taken away from her in 1801 because she was illegitimate. Then Kateřina was unable to have more children. So she helped educate girls and helped them find rich husbands. She treated them as if they were her own children. One of these girls became a character in The Grandmother, fictionalized as Countess Hortense.

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Kateřina had influential friends. She was on friendly terms with Russian Czar Alexander I, Klemens von Metternich, who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and later Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and poet Lord Byron. In June of 1813, a significant political meeting took place at the chateau. Czar Alexander I and representatives from Prussia and Austria formed a coalition after the defeat of Napoleon in order to establish the divine rights of kings and Christian values. The alliance focused on preventing revolutions, democracy and secularism. The duchess died during 1839 in Vienna.

Other major reconstruction took place from 1860 to 1864, when Prince Vilém Karel August from Schaumberg-Lippe gave the chateau a second Rococo style makeover. The chateau remained his family property until 1945. The Nazis occupied the chateau during World War II, and after the war, the interiors were changed into Classicist, Empire and Biedermeier styles, which decorate the chateau today. Ratibořice now appears as it did during the first half of the 19th century. In 1978 it obtained the status of a national cultural monument. From 1984 to 1991, there was much restoration work.

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In the chateau I was enthralled with six Italian paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. The pictures showed people in landscape settings. How I loved Italy! I had been there nine times and would soon be visiting that country again. I loved the Italian language, too. I wanted to see all the towns in Italy, to visit everything noteworthy. Rome, Arezzo and Pompeii were my three favorite places in Italy.

The Men’s Salon was designed in Empire style. In this space I took note of the elegant Empire style bookcase on top of which are busts of the members of the Holy Alliance – Russian Czar Alexander I, Austrian Emperor Franz I and Prussian King Frederick William III along with a bust of Metternich. I loved the paintings of Italy in this room, too. The Social Salon featured a pool table along with Empire style card tables that boasted intarsia designs and a large painting of a biblical scene. I also admired a wooden gilded clock from the first third of the 19th century.

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There was a portrait of a woman who was 46 years old, my age at the time of my visit. I thought she looked so old. Suddenly, I felt so old. I had lived in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia for half my life, 23 years. Time went by so fast, and that scared me. Before long, I would be 50. I wondered if I looked that old to other people. Some younger people on trams and Metro gave up their seats for me, an act of respect to elders.

A painting in the Music Salon, which was decorated in Napoleon Empire style, caught my attention. The large canvas portrayed a carnival parade in Naples during 1778. There were 2,338 people painted in the picture. I admired the attention to detail. I thought back to my trip to Naples the previous year. The museums, the pizza, the picturesque streets in the historical center, the opera house, the churches and the cathedral – it had truly been a wonderful experience. And Naples seemed so different from the other towns and cities I had visited in Italy.

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In another room I admired a statue of a Dancing Fawn on a column, an artwork based on a statue unearthed in Pompeii. I recalled seeing the original in the Archeological Museum in Naples. Visiting that museum was certainly a highlight of my trip to southern Italy.

Ornate gilded clocks also decorated interiors. I loved the paintings of two lakes in Italy. I had wanted to visit Lake Garda and surroundings this year, but the trip was not offered at a time when I was free. I also would love to see Lake Como and the surrounding area. I recalled flipping through a book I have about the region and feeling overwhelmed by the beautiful photos. A desk in the room was exquisite, too. I loved the Klimt-style candlesticks in the bright, dynamic blue, gold, and red. What looked like a pile of books was really a trash can. That was an object I wanted in my own home.

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On the first floor I was enthralled with the Servant’s Room. The servant slept on a high, wooden bed that he also used for ironing. My back started to hurt just looking at the hard bed. On the lower floor I loved the coffee service that included cups with pictures of three chateaus on them. One of these was Amalienburg, which I fondly recalled visiting in Munich, although the day had been so rainy that it had not been pleasant walking in the park. The elegant Biedermeier furniture in the Schaumburg Room caught my attention. I especially liked the dark green couch and the room’s warm colors. The Graphics Cabinet was impressive, too.

I also liked the Second Rococo style adornment of the Men’s Parlor, where there were black-and-white portraits of various monarchs, including Russian Czar Nicholas II. In the Women’s Salon I was drawn to an elegant fan picturing cats. A cat lover, I dreamed of having my own shelter for black cats or of owning a mansion where there was enough room for 15 or 20 black cats. I liked black cats best because they are often overlooked. People are prejudiced against them because of their color. Some people consider them to be unlucky, but, to me, they are not unlucky at all.

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I imagined Czar Alexander I seated in the Big Dining Room along with many guests at a lunch honoring the Russian leader. I admired the English Copeland service on the table as well as a green tiled stove. Other appealing rooms had Neo-Baroque and Second Rococo décor.

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Near the chateau was the Grandmother Valley, where old buildings, some from the 16th century and others from the 19th century, stood among beautiful scenery. The Rudr Mill hails from the second half of the 16th century. It has two floors, and one room is decorated with folk-style furniture. There is an exposition about the processing of flax, too. The statue of the grandmother with her grandchildren was inspired by Barunka’s novel. A timbered pub from the second half of the 16th century impressed me, too. I also saw a timbered cottage covered with shingles. It was built in 1797. I liked the folk-style furniture inside. Finally, I reached Viktoria’s Weir, originally made of wood but redone in concrete during the 1920s. The valley was tranquil and idyllic. I walked at a leisurely pace on that windy day, enjoying the landscape.

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The Winter Kitchen in the house where Božena Němcová once lived in Červený Kostelec

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The house in Červený Kostelec

 

We visited the small house where Barunka had lived with Josef for six months, shortly after their wedding, when she was only 17 years old. In the small town of Červený Kostelec, she had written the book Poor People and had posed for her first portrait. She had also become pregnant with her first child, Hyněk. The three rooms on display included the Winter Kitchen, where the landlady sometimes cooked for Barunka and her husband. Barunka did not cook. The couple often ate at a nearby pub. Across from the house was an orange church, an interesting structure, but we could only peek inside, barred from entering by an iron grille.

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The house in Červený Kostelec

Then we came to Barunka’s Lookout Point commemorating the region where the well-known writer grew up. The views of the countryside are spectacular. It was a wonderful way to end our trip.

When we got back to Prague, I felt enlightened and invigorated. I had learned a lot about Božena Němcová and the region of her happy childhood. The chateau interested me the most, but everything was intriguing. I thought of how she had been physically abused and how she had to return to her husband in the end, and I became sad. What a life she had lived and what magical books she had produced!

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

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The Kladsko Borderland from the lookout point