Czech Republic

August 22. I still had 4 days before picking up a replacement for the Citroen C3 in Munich on August 26, and decided to spend 3 days exploring the southern Czech Republic.  I’d visited Prague, Mělník, and Český Krumlov last summer, and didn’t have a very good impression of Czech Republic.  Marek had said that the southeastern part of Czech was very pretty, and I was curious.  I’d been recommended the UNESCO complex of the Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape and Mikulov, as well as Písek, Hluboká nad Vltavou, and České Budějovice.  After spending hours cleaning up my things and organizing for the car trip on August 26 (I’d found a ride to Munich from Bratislava using BlaBlaCar), and making yet another banana, nectarine, and yogurt smoothie, I headed for Lednice at 2:30pm.  I hit some work traffic on the way out of Bratislava.  It seemed that people left work early to get a jump start.  I arrived at Lednice around 4pm, parked, and found my way to the palace complex.  Unfortunately, the last tour had just started, and they were adamant not to let anyone join late. Disappointed, I walked around the enormous and extensively managed grounds.  In 1996 Lednice was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List (together with the twin manor of Valtice) as “an exceptional example of the designed landscape that evolved in the Enlightenment and afterwards under the care of a single family.” The Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape is 109 square miles. It is adjacent to the Pálava Landscape Protected Area (Pálava Biosphere Reserve), a WHS registered by UNESCO several years before. The close proximity of two cultural landscapes protected by UNESCO is unique.

Since Lednice/Eisgrub first passed into the hands of the House of Liechtenstein in the mid-13th century, its fortunes were tied to those of the noble family. The palace of Lednice began its life as a Renaissance villa; in the 17th century it became a summer residence of the ruling Princes of Liechtenstein. The estate house – designed and refurbished by baroque architects Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Domenico Martinelli, and Anton Johan Ospel – proclaimed rural luxury on the grandest scale. In 1846–58 it was extensively rebuilt in a Neo-Gothic style under the supervision of Georg Wingelmüller. The surrounding park is laid out in an English garden style and contains a range of Romantic follies by Joseph Hardtmuth, including the artificial ruins of a medieval castle on the bank of the Thaya/Dyje River (1801) and a 60 meter minaret, reputedly the tallest outside the Muslim world at the time of its construction (1797–1804).

The first historical record of this locality dates from 1222. At that time there stood a Gothic fort with courtyard, which was lent by Czech King Václav I to Austrian nobleman Sigfried Sirotek in 1249. At the end of the 13th century the Liechtensteins, originally from Styria, became holders of all of Lednice and of nearby Mikulov. They gradually acquired land on both sides of the Moravian-Austrian border. Members of the family most often found fame in military service, during the Renaissance they expanded their estates through economic activity. From the middle of the 15th century members of the family occupied the highest offices in the land. However, the family’s position in Moravia really changed under the brothers Karel, Maximilian, and Gundakar of Liechtenstein. Through marriage Karel and Maximilian acquired the great wealth of the old Moravian dynasty of the Černohorskýs of Boskovice. At that time the brothers, like their father and grandfather, were Lutheran, but they soon converted to Catholicism, thus preparing the ground for their rise in politics. Particularly Karel, who served at the court of Emperor Rudolf II, became hetman of Moravia in 1608, and was later raised to princely status by King Matyas II and awarded the Duchy of Opava.

During the revolt of the Czech nobility he stood on the side of the Habsburgs, and took part in the Battle of White Mountain. After the uprising was defeated in 1620 he systematically acquired property confiscated from some of the rebels, and the Liechtensteins became the wealthiest family in Moravia, rising in status above the Žerotíns. Their enormous land holdings brought them great profits, and eventually allowed them to carry out their grandious building projects here in Lednice.
In the 16th century it was probably Hartmann II of Liechtenstein who had the old medieval water castle torn down and replaced with a Renaissance chateau. At the end of the 17th century the chateau was torn down and a Baroque palace was built, with an extensive formal garden, and a massive riding hall designed by Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach that still stands in almost unaltered form. The chateau as it looks today dates from 1846-1858, when Prince Alois II decided that Vienna was not suitable for entertaining in the summer, and had Lednice rebuilt into a summer palace in the spirit of English Gothic. The hall on the ground floor served to entertain the European aristocracy at sumptuous banquets, and was furnished with carved wood ceilings, wooden paneling, and ornate furniture, surpassing anything of its kind in Europe.

I marveled at the extensive park and wondered about its history. Generally, a castle is surrounded by a ultra-manicured French garden.  This English garden, on the other hand, extended for miles, and was filled with unusual ruins and buildings that had been created for effect. I found out that the Dukes of Liechtenstein transformed their properties into one large private park between the 17th and 20th centuries. During the 19th century, they continued to terraform the area into a traditional English landscape park. The Baroque and Gothic Revival style architecture of their chateaux were married with smaller buildings and a park fashioned according to English principles of landscape architecture. In 1715 the two castles at Lednice and Valtice were connected by a landscape alée and road, later renamed for the poet Petr Bezruč. The Lednice Ponds (Lednické rybníky) are situated between the villages of Valtice, Lednice, and Hlohovec; as are the Mlýnský, Prostřední, Hlohovecký, and Nesyt Ponds. A substantial part of the cultural landscape complex is covered in pine forests, known as the “Pine−wood”(Boří les), and in areas adjacent to the River Dyje with riparian forests.

I learned about the sad fate of the Lichtenstein family in the 20th century when the region became part of new Czechoslovakia. The Liechtenstein family opposed the annexation of Czech territory in the fascist Sudetenland by Nazi Germany, and as a consequence their properties were confiscated by the Nazis, and the family relocated to Vaduz in 1939. After World War II the family made several legal attempts for restitution of the properties, but the new communist Czechoslovakian government did not support returning large estates to exiled aristocratic landowners. After the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Liechtenstein descendants renewed their legal attempts for restitution, which were denied by the Czech state, the present day owner of the properties.

Tired of walking, I headed to Valtice to take a look at the castle and grounds before dark.  The castle was closed to tours, so I took a nice walk to the edge of the grounds, which were much smaller than those at Lednice. A new wine cellar had been built into the castle basement, while a stone grotto in the garden had served as the royal wine cellar in days gone by.  I liked the layout and decided to take a tour of the castle the next day if I had time. I headed to Mikulov and walked the streets and up to the castle for the last rays of sun.  Someone was performing Chopin in one of the rooms in the castle, and I stood outside the performance hall and listened to the beautiful music pouring forth.  I stayed till it was dark, and finally pulled myself away.  I felt like I was committing a crime, leaving before the concert had ended.  I hadn’t heard live music much on this trip, and I missed it.  I found a place to work on my blog and sat and ate something, and used the wifi until 10:30pm.  Then I headed to a small dirt road I’d seen between Lednice and Valtice, and put my tent under the pines that the Dukes had planted as part of their grand water management scheme.

August 23. I woke up later than I’d hoped and rushed to Lednice to get on a tour.  They claimed that it was an English tour, but instead it was Czech, with a sheet in Englisb giving some details about the castle.  This had happened on more than one occasion, and I resented being shunted off to a sheet of paper because I didn’t speak the language.  I’d also been to plenty of museums where no English translation was provided, and I’d have to limp along, guessing at the meaning of various signs.  It was a lovely palace furnished from tip to toe with period furniture and all the fixings, including beautiful parquet floors, stucco ceilings, wallpaper, and paintings and murals.  It was probably one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.  After completing the hour tour, I headed to the green house, which was a huge glass-walled building, and admired the tropical flowers, including orchids, bromeliads, and ginger plants, as well as tropical vines and trees.  Then I walked a bit more on the grounds, and headed to Valtice.

I got to Valtice castle just as a tour was starting, and decided to see if I could sneak in.  I didn’t want to wait for the next tour.  I’d never done this before.  The young man giving the tour was animated and spoke English, so I asked him questions between rooms.  It was an impressive collection, less decorous than Lednice, but beautiful all the same.  There had been a very fancy puppet theater built for the children, and I took some photos for a friend who is developing puppet theater in Bucharest, Romania.  Then I sped on to Mikulov, where there were a great deal of tourists, and admired the interior of the old church before walking up to the castle.  I was told that the tour was worthwhile, and I paid for a photo pass, only to find out that the entire interior had burned in a fire and all the original furnishings had been lost.  It was a disappointment, and I wished I’d skipped Mikulov palace.  I liked the vibe in the town.  I walked to the old synagogue, and up to a tower on the hill, then drove on to Pišek, where I arrived at dusk.  I took some photos of the oldest stone bridge in Bohemia and walked around the old town and castle, resolving to visit the museum the next day.  I’d noticed a forest near the town, and headed there for the night.  I drove up to the end of the forest road, as the traffic noise was really loud where I’d originally thought to set up my tent.  I was setting up my tent in a great meadow when I heard an otherworldly cry or bark that sounded like a cross between a dog and a wolf.  It was more like a scream, and I was scared. I didn’t want to have to fend off either, and headed down the hill to the loud traffic where I passed a fitful sleep.

August 24. I awoke a bit sore and headed to the museum in Pišek. As usual I took more time than I had planned, but there was a lot of information in English.  Most museums I’d gone to in Czech Republic provided excellent information in English.  I learned about the history of the area, the ancient economy and commerce, and the role of the castle.  After the museum, I walked around the town a bit more, then headed to Hluboká nad Vltavou to see the castle, which had been recommended to me.  In the second half of the 13th century, a Gothic castle was built at the site. During its history, the castle was rebuilt several times. It was first expanded during the Renaissance period, then rebuilt into a Baroque castle at the order of Adam Franz von Schwarzenberg in the beginning of the 18th century. It reached its current appearance during the 19th century, when Johann Adolf II von Schwarzenberg ordered the reconstruction of the castle in the romantic style of England’s Windsor Castle. The Schwarzenbergs lived in Hluboká until the end of 1939, when the last owner (Adolph Schwarzenberg) emigrated overseas to escape from the Nazis. The Schwarzenbergs lost all of their Czech property through a special legislative Act, the Lex Schwarzenberg, in 1947. The original royal castle of Přemysl Otakar II from the second half of the 13th century was rebuilt at the end of the 16th century by the Lords of Hradec. It received its present appearance under Count Jan Adam of Schwarzenberg. According to the English Windsor example, architects Franz Beer and F. Deworetzky built a Romantic Neo-Gothic chateau, surrounded by a .73 sq mi English park in the years 1841 to 1871. In 1940, the castle was seized from the last owner, Adolph Schwarzenberg by the Gestapo and confiscated by the government of Czechoslovakia after the end of World War II. There is a winter garden and riding-hall where the Southern Bohemian gallery exhibitions have been housed since 1956.

I liked the Romantic Neo-Gothic chateau and the English garden that surrounded it.  I walked around the imposing structure and particularly admired the Art Nouveau open grill work on the north side.  It was more cozy than the Lichtenstein’s abodes, and I liked its vantage point on the hill overlooking the river.  Nevertheless, it was hidden from view and quite discreet. From here I headed to České Budějovice.  It was a race against the clock, because I had to get back by 10pm to Bratislava in order to get the key to the flat.  I parked near the historic center, no easy feat as it was 3:45pm and already work traffic was amassing. I fell in love with the old town in České Budějovice, which preserves interesting architecture from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and 19th century periods. This includes buildings around the large Ottokar II Square (“Náměstí Přemysla Otakara II”), the old Town Hall with murals and bronze gargoyles, and the 16th century Black Tower (Černá věž).  The Dominican convent with the Gothic Presentation of the Virgin Mary church from the 13th century, on Piaristic Square, is one of the oldest buildings. The Museum of South Bohemia dates to 1877 and holds a large collection of historic books, coins, weapons and other articles.  It is a very picturesque city.  Sadly, during the Second World War in March 1945, Budějovice was twice targeted by U.S. Air Force raids that greatly damaged the city and caused great loss of life. Seems like the story of all Europe.

Worried that I wouldn’t get back in time, I rushed back to Bratislava, making it back by 8:30pm.  I stopped near the opera house and had a very interesting talk with a guy who was tending a friend’s bar.  It turns out he was a high level sales person for VW, and managed teams in many countries.  He speaks German and English fluently.  He said the stress was so great that he had to take a leave from his job.  He has a young child and wanted to spend some time with his family.  He grew up in the Soviet block houses on the other side of the Danube from the old town when it was new.  He had a lot to say about the communist era in Bratislava, and most of it wasn’t very flattering.  I needed to get back to the flat in time, so I bid him farewell and went to the restaurant across the street from Marek and Zuzana, where they’d left the key.  I almost shit in my pants when the waitress told me that they didn’t have the key.  Yikes!  I asked her to check again, and thank the gods, she found it.  I emptied my car of the camping gear, got oriented, made some soup (my favorite food), and headed back to the bar to talk to my new friend.  He only had till 10pm, so we talked for another 20 minutes and then I headed home to crash.  I was tired as I don’t tend to sleep well when I’m camping.  Zuzana had sent me a text asking if I could pick her up from the train station north of town.  Unfortunately, I’d taken a different route and was nowhere near her location.  She was coming back a day early from her kundalini yoga meditation retreat.

August 25.  When I woke, Marek and Zuzana were leaving the house, Zuzana for business pursuits (she started the free walking tours in Bratislava and is trying to promote that and the associated pub crawls), and Marek to prepare their AirBnB flat for the next guests.  I had to return the rental car at 11am at the Bratislava airport, and Zuzana suggested that I take Uber back.  It was only 6 USD, and very worth it.  I got back to the flat and organized my things for the next day. After organizing my things, I joined the 4pm city tour, and met Beata and Anton afterwards.  We walked up river along the Danube, crossing under the Novy Most, to a very posh part of town.  Beata told me that a company close to the Slovak government was given the contract to build the swank complex on the river.  There was a living plant wall in a very fancy cafe.  We walked by a black nondescript building which was a memorial to the Jews who were killed during WWII. I was enjoying getting to know Anton.  He is very understated and quiet, but extremely thoughtful and well-spoken.  I like people like that.

I was extremely worried about finding my ride the next day, and wasn’t sure where we’d meet.  I finally found out that it was the train station parking lot at 8am (they pushed it an hour earlier), and as most meetings that are early, I didn’t sleep well at all.


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