Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Prague is a party! At least that’s what it felt, as I walked the streets of the Old Town surrounded by locals and tourists alike enjoying the excitement Prague seems to radiate at every turn. With its coveted location on the banks of the Vltava River at the center of Europe, you would image it would have a dreary countenance after eons of bloody struggle for control … au contraire! Prague is a city that explodes with youthful bustle and energy.
Stand in one spot and face in any direction and there is something or someone to see and admire; or walk into the Old Town (Staré Mĕsto) or the New Old Town (Novĕ Mĕsto) or Lesser Town ( Malā Strana) or Jewish Town (Josefov) and be sure to keep your camera at the ready to capture the abundance of riches Prague offers. Beauty and music surround you in Prague, the Capital of the Czech Republic.
A mishmash of every architectural expression is represented with outstanding examples from 9th Century St. George’s Romanesque Basilica in Prague Castle to the Powder Tower in all its Gothic splendor; from 17th century Baroque buildings and monuments designed by the master architect Jan Blazej Santini-Aichel, to the 21st century avant-garde Dancing House designed by renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.
Even the artistic no-mans land that existed during the Communist era could not erase the grandeur of imaginative creativity. So with Prague at the tip of the iceberg, there is an ongoing restoration project returning historical gems to their original majesty all across the country. Prague, and the entire Czech Republic, is an ongoing work of art.
A short drive outside Prague to St. George Forest, will take you to the 17th century Baroque castle that was previously home to several aristocratic families and was recently restored and converted to a 5-star eco resort Chateau Mcely Spa Hotel and Forest Retreat. www.chateaumcely.com (see Chateau Mcely story)
Or head toward Jemniste for the Chateau Jemniste, and a tour of one of the most authentically preserved Baroque chateaus and gardens still occupied by the Stenberg Family that obtained it in 1868. Until 1868 German was the official language of the Czech Republic (formally Czechoslovakia) and the chateau – named after the town not the family - was owned by, and is still home to the aristocratic Stenberg family (“Sten” means star and “berg” means hill in German) whose coat of arms is a golden star in a field of blue. This image is reprised throughout the chateau in furniture and decorative items. Interestingly the Stenberg Family lost control of the chateau in 1943 due to their objections to German occupation and did not regain the estate until 1995. By that time the building and grounds were in disrepair and they have spent years in its restoration. Beautiful St. Joseph’s Chapel at the chateau makes it a great wedding venue with a restaurant located right on the premises and apartments for rent with their own private entrances off the main building. http://www.jemniste.cz/en/
On to the historic town of Kutna Hora for a visit to the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This Gothic masterpiece, originally built in the early 1300s with funds derived from the town’s lucrative silver mining industry, was destroyed in the 15th century by invading Hussites and rebuilt in the 18th century under the direction of master architect Jan Blažej Santini in the Baroque Gothic style he is renowned for. I was captivated by the grand internal circular staircase so reminiscent of an inverted snail sea shell... a masterwork of engineering. Just down the street is the Cathedral of St. Barbara, considered to be one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in Europe.
Sadly the silver mine tour was sold out on the day of our visit to Kutna Hora, but we did see in the town quarter of Sedlec the Cemetery Church of all Saints with its ossuary crypt and ornamental display of bones from nearly 40,000 victims of wars and plagues. According to legend, a handful of earth was brought from Jerusalem in 1278 to be scattered over the Sedlec cemetery thus making it part of the Holy Land and a sought-after final resting place. This is a huge tourist attraction for people attracted to the macabre; alas, I am not one of them. http://www.czechtourism.com/t/kutna-hora/
Another interesting side trip was to the National Stud Kladruby nad Labem, one of the world’s oldest breeding farms for the Kladruber Old White Baroque type of horse. We visited the stables where we were allowed to pet a few of the amazing animals and even got to take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the property before we went into the carriage house and harness room. http://en.czech-unesco.org/13_4662_kladruby-nad-labem-chateau-and-stud-farm/
Our highly anticipated visit to the beautiful Italian Renaissance town of Telč was marred by a severe early spring rain and wind storm and made seeing the lovely main square with its colorful arcaded burghers’ houses impossible. In the mid-16th century Italian artisans from Northern Italy were invited to rebuild the medieval town and castle in the Italian style and now the main square is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Central Europe. http://www.telc.eu
Not to be missed is the final work and crowning achievement of Jan Blažej Santini and another UNESCO site, The Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk on Zelená Hora. Located in the town of Ždár nad Sázavou, on the Ždár estate, the complex includes the Cistercian Abbey and Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and of St. Nicolas; the Dolní hřbitov Plague Cemetery built in the shape of a skull; a farmyard built in the shape of a lyre (the musical instrument thought to be played by angels); fish hatcheries; and The Well Chapel whose site was allegedly chosen in a vision of the Virgin Mary herself. Santini undertook the construction of the star-shaped pilgrimage church in honor of the martyred Cistercian monk. And what a pilgrimage it is! The climb up to the Hora (mountain or peak) is no mean undertaking. Constructed high above the Sázava River, the walkway and stairs are exposed to the elements as they snake up the Hora. At one point it is difficult to see the church at the top, so steep is the climb, which when reached, turns out to be a small markedly unembellished building unlike any other church.
Santini was a student of mysticism and studied sacred geometry, numerology, and astrology; his use of the 5-star visual throughout the church and its surrounding buildings is associated not only with the St. John legend that claims a five-star crown appeared over the site where he was drowned but is also the perfect number in Cistercian thinking that reflects the perfect order and justice of the universe. Another symbol that refers to St. John’s death at the hands of King Wenceslaus IV in 1393 is gruesome and graphically referenced on the ceiling inside the church. Santini was also a practitioner of Kabbalah, which is evident in the perfect geometric symmetry both inside and outside the church whose meaning is evident only to “those that have eyes to see”. http://www.zamekzdar.cz
Inching our way back down from the church, we had a delightful visit with the current Count Kinsky, owner of the 1812 Ždár castle and estate, and protector of the monastery church and convent. Count Kinsky can document his family as far back as the 12th century in Bohemia and feels his position carries the responsibility of maintaining the history and culture of his people. What a wonderful way to end our travels in the Czech Republic and good reason to look forward to a return visit to this beautiful land.
With thanks to the Czech Republic Tourism Authority www.czechtourism.com
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