This is just a short post to bring your attention to a news article that recently appeared in the English language section of the Radio Prague news website.
The article contains an interview with Tom Doležal, the founder of the Free Czechoslovak Air Force website and expert on matters of Czech and Slovak participation in the Royal Air Force during WWII.
In the interview, Mr. Doležal recounts how his father and a number of other former Czechoslovak RAF pilots carried out the world’s first triple hijacking in order to defect from post 1948 Communist Czechoslovakia.
The Communist government was very fearful of the former RAF men, as they had been exposed to western influences, and went to great lengths to marginalize them from society and erase them from the history books:
If you want to know more about activities of Czechs and Slovaks in the RAF in the Second World War, I can’t recommend the Free Czechoslovak Ar Force website enough for the wealth of information it provides on the subject:
Five centuries in the making, the late Gothic style Church of St. Barbara is the de facto trade mark and centrepiece of the Central Bohemian city of Kutná Hora.
The structure’s distinctive three spired tented roofline is used in stylized form on many of the city’s plentiful souvenir items. Inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites with the rest of the city’s preserved centre in 1995, St. Barbara’s is the country’s second most visited church.
Started in 1388 and not fully completed until the early 20th century, St. Barbara’s stands as testament to the city’s former wealth in silver and the grand and lofty visions the local burghers had for the city during its heyday and status as a royal city.
The burghers of Kutná Hora commissioned the church to be built in cathedral style in the hopes of having a diocese established in the city to compete with those of nearby Sedlec and Prague.
Ultimately, the city’s silver mines were exhausted before the church could be completed and the much desired diocese was never established. As a result, despite its grand facades, St. Barabara’s has only ever been a church.
In spite of much contemporary toursit information referring to the structure as a cathedral, it most certainly is not one.
Built on Grand Visions
The silver heyday of Kutná Hora lasted from the 13th to the end of the 16th century.
The city’s mines were rich with the metal and Kutná Hora was given the status of a royal city and made the seat of the royal mint of the Bohemian lands. Such things put the city in status of importance after only Prague itself.
Through the silver, the city attracted a strong upper class with great ideas for the city’s future and the money to make many of their visions for it into reality. Their visions included a bishopric and cathedral of their own.
The first architect responsible for the church was Jan Parléř (1359-1406). A member of the famous Parléř family of architects, Jan was the son of Petr Parléř (1330-1399) who had been responsible for St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge in Prague.
Using nearby quarried sandstone, work on the church carried on until it was interupted by the Hussite Wars that raged through the early to mid 1400s.
Work resumed on the structure in the late 1400s and continued to the late 1500s when the city’s silver mines had been depleted.
The distinctive roof was put on the church and it has stood, at only half its intended size, to the present.
Shortly after the second period of construction was concluded, the church saw a number of renovations under the watch of the Jesuit order that brought Baroque styling to it.
The final stages of construction, carried out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the restoration of much of the church’s original Gothic look.
While the church did not achieve the grand status of a cathedral, it most certainly has achieved a level of greatness through its inclusion on the UNESCO list. A placement it earned through its authenticity, tangible connection to the city’s history and it’s influence on the architecture of subsequent structures around Europe.
The Right Saint for the Job
Owing to the very risky nature of their work, miners have always been an understandably very religious group of people.
In light of this fact, consecrating this church to St. Barbara could be seen as a very obvious choice. Barbara is the patron saint of miners and anyone who works around explosives and thus faces the risk of a very sudden and violent death on a regular basis.
Historically, it was typical to install a small shrine to the saint at the entry or junctions of mineshafts and near military gunpowder storage facilities.
Many organisations, both civilian and military, continue to honour St. Barbara to the present. December 4 is the traditional day of the saint.
When depicted in art, St. Barbara is typically recognised by her attribute of a tower with three windows. Other attributes associated with her are a chalice, palm leaf and lightning.
Paying a Visit and Learning More
Being highly visible and on Kutná Hora’s main tourist route, St. Barbara’s is not at all difficult to find or visit when in the city.
While it is open daily, it should be kept in mind that it is still a functioning church and that respect should be exercised by visitors towards those worshipping there.
Tucked into the far reaches of Eastern Bohemia, in the Bohemia-Moravia borderlands, is the historic city of Litomyšl.
Owing to the fact that it is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the birthplace of famed composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), Litomyšl is one of the country’s better known tourist destinations and many visitors have read about it before they arrive in the country.
Officially gaining status as a city in the 13th century, Litomyšl has its origins in 11th and 12th century settlement in the area. In its history, the city has served as the seat of nobility and bishops as well as an important centre of education and culture.
Because of Litomyšl’s importance as a centre of education through the 19th century, many notable names in the Czech arts and culture scene were attracted to living there during that period. The influence of many of those people can still be seen and felt in the city today.
The modern city is very aware and in touch with its past and uses it to good advantage in guiding the tourist.
At that, let’s spend some time in Litomyšl:
Show Yourself Around
Perhaps befitting a place with education and enlightenment playing a major role in its history, Litomyšl invites and encourages visitors to show themselves around and learn about the city via a well prepared self-guided tour map available in city tourism offices or online at the city website. The map covers almost 20 points of interest in the very walkable centre of the city.
The recommended start and finish point for the self-guided tour is the 500 metre long Smetana Square. One of the largest public squares in the Czech lands, it is lined with arcaded facades in Baroque, Classicist and Renaissance styles. Also on the square is the Gothic styled town hall tower.
Leaving the square from the north end will take you past the statue of Bedřich Smetana and put you in the vicinity of the Neo-Renaissance style Smetana Hall and the Pedagogical High School with its sgraffito decorated exteriors.
Further along the route, you will find a monument to writer and educator Alois Jirásek (1851-1930). Jirásek spent several years in Litomyšl as a high school history teacher and is considered to be one of the most important Czech authors of his time.
In the same area, you will find the Baroque style Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross. This church belonged to the Piarist order who were invited to Litomyšl in 1640. Dedicated to education, the Piarists played a major role in the city’s reputation as a learning centre for centuries. The order left the city in 1948, leaving the church behind.
It is worth travelling up the towers of the church as a great view of the chateau can be enjoyed from the balcony between the towers.
Between the Piarist church and the city’s other major holy building, the Presbytery Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross, you’ll find the monastery gardens. For many years after the Piarists left, this area was left untended and blocked off to the public. In the late 1990s, work took place to restore and refresh the gardens to the beautiful and relaxing park that it is today bracketed by the two churches.
Contained in the park is a fountain that features a group of statues by contemporary Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek (1926-2017).
Leaving the park will take you past the Gothic style Presbytery Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross. This church originally belonged to the Augustinian order which had a monastery in the city from 1356 to 1428.
From the Augustinian church, you can go in two directions:
A short walk east of the church will take you to the Portmoneum, a museum dedicated to Josef Váchal (1884-1969). Váchal was a writer, illustrator and printmaker who was a unique character with a rather enigmatic art style. Admittedly, his own connection to Litomyšl is somewhat tenuous as he was there relatively briefly at the invitation of a local art collector and fan of his work, Josef Portman. Portman contracted Váchal to paint two rooms in his house, the resulting work was a sweepingly complex collection of imagery that is very difficult to interpret.
The art in Portmoneum certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea and it is a lot to absorb at once. However, if your tastes include Avant-garde, you may want to pay it a visit.
If you follow the street directly outside the church entrance, you will find the oldest church in the city as well as Váchal street.
Váchal street is a short lane leading back to Smetana Square. It is notable for the arches over it and the walls of the buildings on either side of it covered in sgrafitto images from one of Váchal’s books.
Near the Piarist church, you will find the star attraction of Litomyšl: the Renaissance style UNESCO listed chateau.
The chateau was commissioned by the powerful Pernštejn family and built between the 1560s and 1580s. When finished, it was a rare example of an Italian Renaissance arcaded palace outside of Italy.
In 1649, the chateau and city came into possession of the Trautmannsdorf family and shifted to the Valdštejn-Vartenberk family in 1758. Under Valdštejn-Vartenberk ownership, the chateau underwent extensive alterations that added a number of Baroque features to the structure.
It was during the Valdštejn-Vartenberk ownership period that Bedřich Smetana, son of the chateau brewery’s brewmaster, was born in 1824. It is possible to visit the apartment where the composer was born when you visit the chateau.
The chateau and city would switch hands again in 1855 to the German noble house of Thurn und Taxis. This house would be the last noble owner of the chateau. They held it until the end of the Second World War when all Germanic families were expelled from the Czech lands and their properties seized by the state.
The chateau has remained under state ownership since the end of World War II and it was declared a national cultural monument in 1962.
In the 1970s restoration work on the chateau’s extensively sgraffito covered exterior began with the work being overseen by Olbram Zoubek.
In 1999, the chateau and its grounds were inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The chateau is considered a textbook example of an Italian Renaissance style arcaded castle unique in both the level of preservation and its location outside of Italy.
Honouring the Past
As mentioned earlier in the article, Litomyšl is a city very much aware and in touch with its past.
Since 1946, the city has hosted an annual classical music and opera festival called “Smetana’s Litomyšl”. It is one of the oldest and biggest music festivals of its sort in the country.
There is also a youth version of the music festival that has been held annually since the early 1970s.
Another historical resident of the city has been commemorated through having a festival bear their name. Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová (1785-1845), wrote what was for many years the only cookbook available in the Czech language. Entitled “A Household Cookery Book or A Treatise on Meat and Fasting Dishes for Bohemian and Moravian Lasses”, the book was first published in 1826 and was a bestseller through much of the 19th century. The book has been republished countless times and modern printings of it can still be found regularly in Czech bookshops.
The city’s annual gastronomy festival, held since 2012, is named after Rettigová.
Paying a visit and Learning More
Outside of the centre, Litomyšl is a quite normal town with no touristy feeling. as such, it can be done as a day trip from several other places. However, it is not the most direct of places to access if you are travelling by bus or rail.
If you are travelling by train, it’s best to plan Česká Třebová as your end stop and take a bus from there to Litomyšl as there is regular bus service between the two cities. The bus platforms in Česká Třebová are directly outside the train station entrance.
As Czech athletes go, Emil Zátopek (1922-2000), is certainly among the most legendary. Using what were some very revolutionary training methods for the day, he dominated distance running events from the late 1940s to the early 1950s and became a household name at home and abroad for many more years beyond his competitive ones.
Between the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Olympics in Helsiniki, Zátopek collected a total of four gold medals and one silver. His record as being the only athlete to win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races as well as the marathon in a single Olympics, which he set in Helsinki, still stands today.
Aside of his gold and silver Olympic medals, he was also awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.
Outside of his Olympic achievments, He won three gold and one bronze medal between the 1950 and 1954 European Athletics Championships which were held in Brussels, Belgium and Bern, Switzerland respectively.
Despite is accomplishments and accolades, life after sporting glory was not clear sailing for Emil and his wife, Dana.
Emil was very much in demand to make appearances at international athletics events throught the 1950s and 1960s. The Communist government of the former Czechoslovakia exptected that he would put forth a good face for the regime through such appearances; as Emil was also an army officer, there was a level of obligation impressed upon him to make such impressions.
Through his consistently friendly and smiling demeanour, Emil was seen as a good vehicle for the nation’s government to push forth their image of “Communism with a human face” to the rest of the world with.
However, Emil became very vocal against the government in the period leading up to the 1968 Prague Spring protests. He became very popular with the public as a famous voice to follow against the system.
Emil’s role as a rallying point was short lived and the public lost much faith in him as he seemed to do a quick about face in his views. No doubt his quick change of stance came from threats brought against him by both the government and the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB.
His apparent change of heart tarnished his public image for a long time. He was relieved of his army post and spent some time in meanial labour work as punishment for speaking out against the Communist government. For a period of his life, he was swept under the carpet and forgotten at home. However, people still spoke highly of him abroad.
With the fall of Socialism in 1989, Emil was “rehabilitated” by then president, Václav Havel, and some of the old tarnish that had plague Emil’s name at home through the 1970s and 1980s came off before his death in 2000.
Getting Into the Book
“Today We Die a Little” was written by British journalist and running enthusiast, Richard Askwith, and published in 2016. The book takes the reader through the whole of Emil’s life and gives a very thorough picture of not only the various stages of the man’s life, but also much about his charismatic personality and easy going demeanour.
The early part of the book focuses on Emil’s early life and Olympic glory. It feels a bit repetative in tone, but it works well to bring across the relentlessness of the training regime that Emil forced upon himself and his refusal to take excuses from himself in the pusuit of bettering his performance. Running trully was everything to him in that time period.
This section also shows the reader the very high value that Emil placed on sportsmanship and friendship. His easy going and friendly personality along with his willingness to encourage his competitors won him many life long friends and admirers in international circles.
Though he retired from competition in 1957, his sense of sportsmanship continued. He is quite famous for his act of gifting one of the gold medals he won in Helsinki in 1952 to Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, in 1966. Clarke was in Prague for a race and was a guest of the Zátopeks. Despite his own hard training and dedication, a gold medal eluded Clarke in the 10,000 metre race at the 1964 games in Tokyo. Upon leaving Prague, Emil presented him with his own 10,000 metre gold medal from Helsinki and wrote “Because you deserve it” on the inside of the box that contained it.
The second part of the book follows the Zatopeks through the 60s, 70s and 80s. This period was marked a turn in the fortunes of the couple at home in both the eyes of the state and public.
Emil tended to speak his mind rather more than was safe given his position as a celebrity and as a member of the army. While the state and StB were able to scare Emil into keeping his tongue in check and getting him to seemingly switch sides to their favour and lose face in the public eye, it really was a case of him simply going through the motions. He was still quite against the Communist system and this came out when he was drunk. After being seen drunk and singing anti Communist songs, Emil was stripped of his army position and sentenced to hard labour in a remote part of the country.
This was a low point in Emil’s life as he was out of favour with the public and it was relatively easy for the state to sweep him under the carpet at home.
However, the state had to be a good deal more careful with Emil due to his still high status at the international level. With people from outside the country requesting his presence at athletic events and asking of his well being, the state could not overtly abuse him as they might other disidents and had to relent to allowing him to make appearances outside the country so he could be seen to be well.
Despite many attempts by foreign journalists to engage Emil in conversations about politics in such situations, he thoroughly avoided the subject.
The book finishes with Emil’s reputation and national interest in him being restored in the post Communist Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic.
An Author’s Accomplishment
Though I am not a big reader of biographies, I very much enjoyed this book and the well rounded picture it gives of Emil Zátopek.
Mr. Askwith has described this book as his most abitious to date and the extensive reference section at the back of the book bears out his dedication to making sure he had his facts right. Through extensive exploration of historical archives, personal diaries and interviews with Dana and other people who knew Emil best, the author has given us a tremendous portrait of his hero that is down to earth and largely without hyperbole which must have been tempting to include while compiling such a story.
Ultimately, Mr. Askwith has painted for us a picture of Emil Zátopek which shows the reader a gregarious and generous man who placed sportsmanship and friendship most highly among his personal values.
We also are shown a man of strong physical and psychological fortitude who pushed himself for self improvement off the race track as well as on it. Emil was a self taught polyglot who taught himself six languages through the course of his life.
This book is a very satisfying read even if biographies are not to your interests and I thank Mr. Askwith for going to the work of giving us this book.
These links will take you to more information about the book and author at the publisher’s and author’s websites respectively.
Some of you may have noticed a new image in the sidebar alongside the links to various expat interviews I’ve given. The new image represents this blog being chosen as the best blog about the Czech Republic in 2017 by a group called Money Transfer Comparison.
Who is Money Transfer Comparison and why would they grant my blog an award? I asked myself exactly those questions. In an email thanking them for the award, I asked them how they had become aware of Beyond Prague and what criteria they used to determine it worthy of the award. They also told me a bit about themselves.
Money Transfer Comparison is an organisation that reviews, compares and rates international money transfer companies and helping expats move money is part of their business.
Here’s an exerpt from their reply to my email:
“Thank you for your message!
It’s great to see you have noticed our awards, we were just planning on a massive PR / outreach campaign to get the news out.
I appreciate your message and am very glad to hear you want to incorporate the badge in your site.
MoneyTransferComparison boasts 30,000 visitors a month and helps expats move more than $150m a year!
How did we discover your blog? In fact our writers checked out the competition and decided they think you are the best in this the category. What we expect of a blog is to be: – Comprehensive – Easy to navigate – Provides good advice (actionable one that is) – Written in an interesting fashion
Your blog definitely addresses all of the above.”
To put the award into some context, the group compiled a list of expat blogs from 40 different countries around the world. As I know that there are several other good expat blogs about the Czech lands out there, I’m very pleased that they chose Beyond Prague for the award.
The timing of the award is also quite good as most of you know, from my recent post, that Beyond Prague will be celebrating its fifth birthday in the very near future.
Here’s a link to Money Transfer Comparison’s website if you’d like to know more about them and their activities: