Thursday, 26 March 2015

Czech Castles - Zvíkov


Let us start my occasional series of posts on Czech castles with the castle often referred to as the "king of Czech castles" - Zvíkov. I first went there with a tour by an archaeological society on our way up from the Šumava to Prague Airport. It was a perfect point for breaking the journey.



Few castles can have such a naturally defensible position: Zvíkov stands on a rocky promontory at the junction of the Vltava and Otava rivers accessible only along a narrow strip of land (see photo above). Also in the photograph you can see the tower which has atear-shaped footprint designed to deflect artillery. The castle's defences were so impenetrable that the Hussites were unable to take it after four months of siege. 



As you enter the castle's courtyards you discover that Zvíkov is not just an impressive fortification. The castle was a royal residence and the two-storey arcaded palace is lovely. Inside the palace you will find an absolute gem - The Chapel of St Wenceslas. Here restorers found under a coat of whitewash a series of late 15th century wall paintings. There are further paintings on the walls of the arcade and in the Wedding Hall. 

Zvíkov is less known and less visited by foreign tourists, although plenty of Czechs enjoy the castle's treasures. One reason for this is the absence of easy public transport links or tourist minibus routes. However there is a beautiful way to arrive at the castle: take the boat from Týn nad Vltavou or Orlík dam.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Spotting Czech Castles


The Czechs proudly boast that their country has more castles per square mile than any other country. Of course that is partly explained by the Czech Republic's rather violent history - there are so many castles because they were needed. 

As you drive around the country, you will frequently see signs to a hrad (castle),  or zamek (manor house or palace) or occasionally to a tvrz (translated in my dictionary as stronghold but more often in my experience it is a fortified manor). And if you follow those signs you may come to just a pile of rubble barely recognizable as a castle or you may come to a hugely impressive structure heaving with visitors. Either way this is a country for castle spotters. 

It is even a country for castle collectors, as the authorities sometimes offer dilapidated castles at cut-down prices. However such deals come with lots of strings attached - you have to get certain repairs done within a specified timescale or forfeit your ownership. One hears of poor castle owners hardly managing to get the necessary permissions before their time runs out and their castle reverts to the former owner. 

But back to castle spotting. Given the sheer number of castles in the country it is surprising that so few are visited by tourists. There are certain castles that are on the tourist's radar: Prague of course, Český Krumlov, Karlštejn, Hluboka Nad Vltavou, and Křivoklát: all castles that are visitable on a day trip from Prague. But there are hundreds more. Some of these are equally impressive, all will be less touristy, and many will give you an insight into the history of the country.

I recently looked through my previous blogposts and was surprised that I had only written posts about Sloup Castle in Czech Switzerland, the massive castle at Jindřichův Hradec and Český Krumlov castle, even though I have visited many Czech castles over the years. Over the next year or so, I intend to rectify this and write a series of occasional posts about some of my favourite castles. Watch this space.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Rock Towns of Czech Paradise



 Czech Paradise (Český ráj) is one of my favourite areas in the Czech Republic. Because I offer walking holidays there, I have the perfect excuse to visit every year - well, I have to check the walks don't I? And quite a few of those walks take me through some of the area's famous rock towns.

The rock towns are the reason Czech Paradise was included in the UNESCO list of European Geoparks. But what are they? They are collections of huge sandstone towers created by erosion by rain and ice over millenia. When I say huge, I mean the height of several storey buildings. Nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of them and no photo can really do them justice (although I have tried). In the photo below - the dark dot on the path is a man.


The most famous rock towns are the Prachovské Rocks (shown here) and the Hruba Skala Rocks, but there are several others. My husband and I first visited the Prachovské Rocks one early evening in September. The sun was low in the sky, turning the rocks a pinkish yellow and casting long shadows. Virtually alone, we followed the paths that wove through the area, climbing steep staircases, squeezing through cracks in the rocks, and standing on their summits to watch the setting sun.

It was a magical experience. No wonder that the rock towns are used by film production companies - for example for Disney's Narnia films and more recently for the BBC's Three Musketeers series. Nor is it a surprise that these natural labyrinths were once home to robbers.


Saturday, 7 March 2015

Villa Primavesi, Olomouc


Olomouc is surprisingly absent from most tourists' must-see list. But then I suppose so are many wonderful places in the Czech Republic. Now that flights from the UK come into nearby Ostrava and Brno, let us hope that changes. For that matter, Olomouc is also relatively easy to get to from Prague.

I recently visited Olomouc as part of a holiday I had with my husband and partly because I was planning the Real Moravia Tour, which will spend a night there. We did it as a day trip from Brno, but next time we will stay there. As I have said before on this blog, my husband is a lover of architecture. He even has his own blog dedicated to English buildings. And so the historical centre of Olomouc with its stunning collection of historic buildings went down a storm. Whilst he wandered the streets and squares of the city, I headed off to check out the hotel and look for a restaurant where I can take my clients. The restaurant I was looking for is in a very different kind of historic building from the renaissance and baroque town houses Phil was photographing on the main square and surrounding streets.



The Primavesi Villa stands on the edge of the old town near the Italianate church of St Michal, overlooking one of the parks that circle the old town. The Villa was built by the Primavesi family, who were to be important sponsors of the Vienna Werkstätte. According to my old Rough Guide, it was in a parlous state – it is no longer. The Villa has been lovingly restored. Although the top floors are used as offices, it is possible to visit the architecturally important first floor where there is a gallery that is open Tuesdays-Saturdays; downstairs is a restaurant. The visitor can also wander through the garden, gazing up at this important secessionist building, admiring both its design and decoration.
The decoration is at its most intense in the mosaic-covered entrance porch. But as I looked around I saw decoration everywhere, from iron brackets curling like pea shoots to the curving dragon-back of the garden wall. The house was designed by the architects Franz von Krause and Josef Tokla and its interiors were designed and furnished by designer Josef Hoffmann, sculptor Anton Hanak and painter Gustav Klimt. The latter's portrait of Mäda Primavesi can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum. Sadly during the dereliction of the communist era most of the artwork and furniture was dispersed, although some non-moveable elements are still in situ. And it is possible to see furniture by Hoffmann in the Olomouc Museum of Art. 

I took a coffee at the restaurant and rejoined my husband in the town square.

You will find more about visit Olomouc here: http://czechholiday.co.uk/townscities/olomouc.html

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Inside the Jan Hus Monument in Prague


Two weeks ago I met with Petr Husek, the organizer of the Festival which will commemorate the 600th anniversary of Jan Hus' death in July. I am organizing special Jan Hus tours for people interested in finding out more about this great Czech who was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation and I wanted to hear what was happening.

We arranged to meet in the Cubist cafe in the House of the Black Madonna. I arrived slightly late, but he was not there. He arrived shortly after, breathless and brushing dust off his coat.

"I have been meeting a reporter inside the statue on the Old Town Square," he said.

As excuses go, that was an original one. The statue is a colosal one, which is a major feature in Prague's historical old town. It turns out that the memorial is being restored and Mr Husek was being interviewed about it and the Festival (he features at the end of the video above). The statue was erected in 1915 for the 500th anniversary. It was funded entirely by private donations. On July 6th, Jan Hus Day, it will be the centre of Prague's celebrations.


We talked about our mutual admiration for Hus's philosophy. It is interesting the way Hus has been adopted as a symbol by very different philosophies. When the statue was erected, it was a statement of national pride and suffering. This was only three years before the birth of the first Czechoslovakian Republic. Under the Communists the act of sitting under the statue was a quiet way of expressing opposition to the Communist government, but at the same time the Communists presented Hus and the Hussites as a proto socialists. Now Mr Husek and his friends want to use the festival to reclaim Hus as a spiritual (but not just a religious) inspiration for the Czech nation, offering the Czechs an alternative, more moral, way of living in contrast to the self-centred philosophy that followed the arrival of capitalism. I wish them every success. It seems to me that they are closer to the real man than their precedessors.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Alfons Mucha and the Slav Epic



When I was young there was quite a fad about the graphics of Alfons Mucha. It was the 1970s and his posters were blu-tacked to the bedroom walls of teenage girls all over the UK. I was no exception, but while my friends preferred his pensive and languid portrayals of women I went for his dynamic theatre poster of Sarah Bernhardt as Jeanne D'Arc. Had you asked me then about his nationality I would have confidently told you that Mucha was French. He wasn't - he was Czech and proud of it.

Born in Ivančice, a small town south of Brno, Mucha studied in Brno and Munich, before going to Paris. Despite his success in Paris most of Mucha's life was spent in his homeland. If you only know Mucha from his French graphics, you will be surprised by his work in the Czech Republic. You soon realize that Mucha was an artist with a much greater scope than you had imagined, interested in portraying complex subjects in a very original way.

Mucha considered his greatest work to be the Slav Epic. The piece is made up of twenty enormous panels, depicting key scenes in the history of the Czechs and other Slavic peoples. Mucha hoped that it would inspire his fellow countrymen, but not in a militarist way - there a strong strand of pacifism in the later paintings. Instead the paintings have a very spiritual aspect to them, celebrating the soul of the Slav peoples.

It took Mucha eighteen years to complete the sequence of paintings and when he had completed them he gave the paintings to the city of Prague. The Epic was very much a labour of love. Sadly the time it took Mucha to take the Epic from conception to completion meant that the work was out-dated almost as soon as the completed works went on display. When it was begun there was no independent state for the Czechs, by the time it was completed Czechoslovakia was already ten years old. Only ten years later the Nazis arrived in Prague and the Epic was hidden to avoid its destruction. Unfortunately the same was not true of its artist. Mucha was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo and, although eventually released, his health was broken. The artist died in July 1939 and was buried in Vyšehrad cemetery.

You can see the Slav Epic in its own room at the Czech National Gallery's Veletržní Palace in Holešovice. When I visited people were walking around in awe-filled silence. Nothing that I knew about Mucha's work could have prepared me for the paintings, not even photographs of them. They are altogether larger, darker (both literally and in terms of subject matter) and more complex than the works of other painters of his generation. If you are interested in art, then this exhibition is a must.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Brno

Spilberk castle, Brno

I am a great fan of the Czech Republic's second city. Indeed at times I think I prefer it to Prague. The two are very different in their feel. Prague to my mind feels like a Northern European city, whilst Brno has more of the Mediterranean about it. In Prague everyone seems to be going somewhere, whereas Brno has more of a relaxed cafe culture. It helps that the climate is milder there, and also that the historic centre is pedestrianized. As a result people sit at tables outside the city's many cafes and restaurants and chat to friends over coffee or maybe the local wine. 

I have visited the city many times over the years and each time I find something new to do. Brno's most famous building is Villa Tugendhat, and it certainly should be on any visitor's to-do list, but there is much more to see. The Villa isn't even the only major modernist building in the city. If you are interested in the architecture of previous periods, you will find Gothic and Baroque churches, Renaissance palaces, Art Deco villas and Art Nouveau apartment buildings and shops within easy walking distance of the city centre.


Called the "Moravian Manchester", Brno boomed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the back of a vibrant textile industry. As in Manchester the industrialists invested in the best architects and artists to create the buildings and institutions appropriate to their city's status. These included the Moravian Museum of Applied Arts. The permanent collection of this excellent museum has free entry and features some stunning examples not only of textiles but of furniture (including pieces designed by locally-born Josef Hoffmann), glass, graphics (Alfons Mucha was also a local) and other objects.There is currently a temporary exhibition on display at the museum entitled Brno - Moravian Manchester. 250 years of the capital of the textile industry. Frustratingly the exhibition closes a month before I bring a textiles tour to the city, but so it goes. My suspicion is that the exhibition is actually the one that will eventually be permanently installed in the Loew Beer Villa, which is due to open a month after the tour.

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