A Story Worth Telling

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:

http://radio.cz/en/section/one-on-one/my-father-the-raf-hero-who-defected-from-czechoslovakia-in-a-daring-triple-hijack

If you want to know more about activities of Czechs ans 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:

https://fcafa.com/

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Litomyšl – The Renaissance Remains

A Pocketful of Culture 

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Litomyšl’s main attraction: the stunning UNESCO listed Renaissance chateau.

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 

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Smetana Square, one of the largest public squares in the country.

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.

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Front of the Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross.

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.

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Monastery gardens with the Piarist church in the background.

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.

Renaissance Resplendent 

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The impossing and spectacular chateau.

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.

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Looking into the chateau’s arcaded courtyard structures.

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 

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The statue of Bedřich Smetana on the square that bears his name.

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 

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The sgraffito walls of  Váchal street.

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.

If you want to learn more about the city, it’s attractions and calendar of events; this is a good link to start with:
https://www.litomysl.cz/?lang=en

The tourist portal for East Bohemia also has some good information:
https://www.east-bohemia.info/litomysl/

Trosky Castle – Sentinel in Paradise

Remnants upon Remnants 

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The silhouette of Trosky castle is easily visible from many places in Český ráj.

Built upon a pair of basalt crags that are the remains of ancient volcanoes, a pair of towers dating to the late 1300s mark the remains of Trosky castle.

A veteran of the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years’ War, Trosky was a virtually unassailable stronghold in its days as an active fortress. Today, the ruins of the castle still pose a challenge for anyone wishing to visit who does not have a car or are part of a coach tour.

Trosky’s sihouette is the de facto trademark of the Český ráj tourist region and can be found on a multitude of postcards and other souvenir items from the area.  It is one of the most easily recognised landmarks of the region.

The Two Towers 

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Looking toward the Panna tower.

Trosky’s defining features are the two towers which can be seen from a great distance. The towers are nicknamed Baba (old woman) and Panna (maiden).

Historically, the castle had a quite sophistcated system of fortification walls and gates for its own defense. The walls were up to 2 metres thick and could reach up to 15 metres high in places. In addition to the fortifications, there was said to be a system of escape tunnels under the castle that led to extensive caves in the surrounding sandstone geology.

During the Hussite Wars (1419-1434), Trosky served as a base for pro Catholic activities. While Hussite forces tried to lay siege to the castle, they were ultimately not able to conquer it.

From 1438 to 1444, the castle served as a base for a gang of robbers to terrorize the citizens of the region from. Due to the castle’s fortifications, it took local army regiments three years to completely drive the criminals from the castle.

The castle passed through many owners and steadily declined in importance between the Hussite Wars and the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618. During a battle in 1648, the castle was set fire to and left a ruin.

The last major noble family to own Trosky were the Valdštejns. The castle came into their possession during the Thirty Years’ War and remained theirs until they sold it on in the early 1820s to the von Aehrenthal family.

Ruins and Restorations 

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The Baba Tower.

Austrian diplomat, Count Alois Lexa von Aehrenthal (1854 – 1912), had inherited the ruins of Trosky and was the first person to take an interest in restoring them to some extent.

Under Aehrenthal’s ownership, the ruins received some stylistic modifications that were influenced by the Romanticism movement which was popular in the early to mid 19th century. He had also planned to have a staircase leading to the top of the Panna tower constructed. Building of the stairs was started, but the count’s unexpected death signalled the cessation of further work on that project.

Following Aehrenthal’s death, interest was taken by the Czech Tourist Club in maintaining the ruins at a small level.

Major restoration work has taken place since 1925, when Trosky came under state ownership. Today it is administered by the State Heritage Institute in Pardubice.

Paying a Visit 

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Taking in the view from the Baba tower.

Trosky is open to visitors from April to October, but the exact hours and days of operation are variable upon the month.

While it is possible to take guided tours, you can also do a self-guided tour if you prefer.

Beyond taking in the details and atmosphere of the ruins, the main reason to visit Trosky is most certainly the fantastic views it can give you of the surrounding countryside.

It can’t be stressed enough that visiting Trosky if you don’t have a car or are part of a coach tour will require you to put in a good deal of physical effort. Several cycling and walking paths will take you to the castle, but it’s good to do your research first and choose one that best suits your ability. I suggest contacting the Český ráj tourism office and asking them for information about the relative levels of difficulty of the various trails that lead to Trosky.

We put in much more effort than we expected to when we visited Trosky, but the views were a most worthwhile reward for those efforts.

Learning More 

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Another view of the castle, clearly showing the basalt base it’s built upon.

As popular as it is, there is decent information about Trosky available online. The following links will give you extra information and a place to start your own plans for visiting this attraction:

This link will take you to the official website of the castle:

https://www.hrad-trosky.eu/en

This is the entry for Trosky at the Český ráj tourism website:

http://www.cesky-raj.info/dr-en/1344-ruin-of-trosky-castle.html

This link will take you to a condensed, but detailed history of the castle:

http://www.travel.cz/guide/121/index_en.html