A September 2004 trip
to Kromeriz by kjlouden
Quote: If there is heaven for tourists, it must be the Archbishops’ Palace in Kromeriz! Mozart concerts are played in the music hall, Titian Gallery houses the most valuable--and most incredible!--paintings in Czechia, and the rare World Heritage baroque lustgarten, with frescoed structures and labyrinths, will stir your most essential fantasies.
Most people visit Prague and learn about Charles IV and think they’re acquainted with
the history of the nation, but they see only the capital city. Much Czech drama was acted
out or repeated in the churches and castles of Moravia. From 1526 until 1918, almost
400 years, the country was ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs, who (except for
Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor) used Prague mostly for recreational purposes and let it deteriorate—they were busy in Moravia!
While legends, like that of Golem, were arising in Prague, battles were fought on the stage of Moravia, as they had been since the days of The Great Moravian Empire of the
Ninth Century—so dubbed by Constantine. (Franks united Slavs, and Hungarians brought them down.) Enter the Swedes, who occupy Olomouc and Kromeriz and waste the former city to the point where the Imperial commander proposes destroying it. Enter Polish, with whom Priest Jan Sarkander (later beatified by Pope John Paul II) is accused of conspiring—we saw the church where he was tortured and murdered in Olomouc. Enter Hapsburgs, who at first persecute Protestants. Enter Maria Therese, who raises the
Olomouc bishopric to an archbishopric to reward the faithful people for fighting off
Prussians—and then begins reforms to limit the power of the church.
No wonder Olomouc bishops wanted a summer palace in Kromeriz! The beautiful town
(30,000) was quieter—and safer!—than Olomouc, although it too was occupied briefly and its castle burned by Swedes toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The
Mlynska Gate, an original fortification, is right on the town square and separates
the square and castle from the rest of the city—which is also really peaceful with old, graceful trees and stately homes.
Something about the center square reminds me of the town’s beginning as a Slavic
Market, then Romanesque center of a fiefdom, and then law center with Liege Court. With beautiful flower gardens, townhouses, statuary, some graffiti-decorated buildings, restaurants, and a church, the picture-perfect small UNESCO town center still seems to guard the old Austrian salt route over River Morava, just a short walk through the chateau
Don’t miss the palace and the formal garden, important UNESCO sites.
Center square has arcaded shops, so no matter what the weather, you can explore them. Restaurants are also there, and we enjoyed a lively pizza place. A pensione is on the square. Considering that any accommodation is inexpensive in this area, I imagine that this establishment charges a trifle, and it looks immaculate.
We toured only the palace and gardens. Other tours around town include the wine cellars, grange, mint, and more, so ask at Visitor Information or look here.
We drove and found highways in fine shape, but driving doesn’t save any time. It still took about 4 hours, maybe just a tad less.
The town of 30,000 is walkable, but the formal gardens are at least 1 mile from the center square.
But wait! A little zoo with monkeys and other animals caught our attention—and then a great view from a high back porch of a symmetrical garden in the archbishops’ back courtyard. So much to see! We finally made it to the front entrance.
Our guide was all smiles. She offered some general history. Built according to the Viennese rococo styling of Italian architect Luchese, the castle was the summer residence of the Olomouc archbishops. The settlement of the town of Kromeriz dated from the 1100s, but town and castle were destroyed by Swedes during the Thirty Years’ War. The present castle is only a bit more than 300 years old, rebuilt by Bishop Karel Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn around 1675. She didn't tell us, but I had read that the Olomouc bishops were the richest feudal lords in Moravia after the creation of the bishopric in the 12th century, so I expected to see valuable treasures here. In 1848, the building became known for its constitutional gathering of Austrian nations. We would see the conference rooms where representatives of the Austro-Hungarian Parliament met to carve the fates of nations. (They agreed on reforms that somehow degenerated into war and the assassination of Hungarian barons, but their work here led to the first democratic constitution in central Europe.)
We would start our tour after we removed our shoes and donned slippers large enough to be snowshoes! As we scuffed and slid into the Hunters’ Room, we were greeted by every animal ever killed here by Czar Alexander III and Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, who met here to hunt and built this room to display their trophies. Various swords and 125 guns are also on view. The ivory pool balls and other pool accessories were ordered for the czar, a frequent visitor, by Karl Furstenberg, the bishop who hosted him and the emperor.
This rococo room is stunning, with its Venetian mirror, the most valuable piece in the parlor. The furnishings and coat of arms on the carpet are those of Archbishop Kohn.
A 16th-century Bassano painting represents the Wedding at Cana.
The Czar's Room
The next room, also rose, was the favorite of Czar Alexander and displays two gifts from him: a portrait of himself at age 38 and a Russian serpentine marble stand dated 1885. You can see both gifts at the far sides of the photo below.
The room has tables inlaid with ivory, ebony jewel boxes inlaid with ivory, a 16th-century Italian altarpiece, and two oval portraits of Franz Josef and his wife Elizabeth, known as Sissy.
Most notable furniture here are two Florentine console tables of black marble inlaid with semi-precious jewels. To me, the most outstanding features of this room are the eleven portraits of Olomouc archbishops. I noticed most of them sported ermine capes!
Regarding the 11 holy men, some of them life-size, our guide chose to point to a particular one and noted that he was the first non-aristocratic archbishop. Yes, this detail is important to Europeans, since their history has focused on deposing the aristocracy—particularly that of the church. Nonetheless, some of the bishops were Hapsburgs.
Special guests were received here. This room is sparsely furnished, but the chandeliers are spectacular, as are those in other rooms. They are Czech crystal and testify to the quality of the glassblowing art in Czechia. Ceramic stoves of faience rococo are also works of art. Paintings are copies of Viennese court paintings executed right after the originals, and the oldest of them (1558) is of Lazarus.
An unfurnished room with original art
Originals include Doubting Thomas by Caravaggio and Old Woman with a Candle by Rubens. These paintings, great as they are, do not compare to what we would see in the Titian Gallery, so stay tuned!
Is that Tom Hulce?
What used to be the Assembly Hall is now the music hall where Milos Foreman shot part of Amadeus and Czech directors have set films, too. Remember this setting?
This is the most beautiful hall in the entire Czech Republic. Four hundred square meters of paintings on the ceiling depict "The Apotheosis of Bishop Hamilton" and two motifs from Greek mythology executed by a Viennese stucco master.
Other work by Martin Keller represents the four seasons and is repeated in the doors. It’s a magical setting for the annual music festival in September and for other concerts throughout the year. I hope to return.
Some folks would be interested in the second largest coin collection in the world after the Vatican’s. The bishops of Olomouc were the only ones permitted to produce coins—until Maria Theresa, Archduchess of Austria, Roman-German Empress, and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, abolished that right. (One can tour the mint.) Since she died in 1780, I imagine these coins are quite valuable! So are the books—the oldest one is from the 9th century. A collection of music is equally impressive. The room also contains great illustrated globes and a frescoed ceiling created by Maria Theresa’s court painter.
Court Room or Liege Hall
I'm not sure who heard cases here, but our guide stressed that the accused were not allowed to be present—and there were no appeals! Note another frescoed ceiling by Maria Theresa's court painter. I must say it gives the space an overtone of authority!
Now, where’s that art gallery?
We had already seen so many fine paintings, but there would be more in the large gallery collection, ten huge rooms filled with the hoarding of one bishop who couldn’t get enough art and wanted only the best. Imagine, the Archbishops of Olomouc actually lived in this treasure trove—well, only in summer! My curiosity was stirred about their winter home in Olomouc, but no time to wonder about that, as our guide opened the door to the first room of the Titian Gallery. After that, we realized we had been hours without food or drink and found the open-air restaurant under the ground floor arcade for some coffee.
Titian Gallery is the second-most important art museum in the Czech Republic after the National Gallery in Prague. Moreover, it has huge Titians you can’t see in Prague or anywhere else, and at least two of them are reckoned the most and second-most valuable paintings in Czech Republic. It’s a priceless collection that fills ten large rooms and hallways, over 500 pieces, counting prints, and drawings. Add that to all the other paintings in regular castle rooms, and this tour offers an abundance of art!
I zipped my camera bag, for we weren’t permitted to take photos. The first room caught me by surprise, for I hadn’t expected to see so much, all of it important. Dutch, Flemish, and German masters were in abundance. Lucas Cranach’s Beheading of John the Baptiste and Beheading of St. Catharine attracted me. Our guide explained that Bishop Liechtenstein had commissioned Cranach to paint those for him. I checked the dates to see if he had painted them before his Protestant themes for churches in his own (and Luther’s) Wittenberg, and he had signed them in 1516, before he became the painter of the German Reformation—just checking his degree of commitment!
We meandered from one room to another, viewing paintings of Hans van Auchen, Hans Hoffman, Jan Brueghel, Franz Francken, and van Dyck. I believe it is the painting of Charles I and his pregnant wife handing him a pomegranate that is considered the second-most valuable piece in Czech Republic. I also appreciated four works by Bassano depicting the building of Noah's ark.
The oldest painting in the gallery dates from 1460, and altogether, the collection represents three hundred years from the 15th through the 18th century. By far the most valuable painting is Apollo and Marsyas, created after 1571 by Titian. You can read more about the gallery and view the painting here. The work covers most of a wall. The gallery wasn’t crowded, but everyone there wanted to sit in front of this offering. Fortunately, many benches were arranged in front of it. (To contemplate this enormous intricacy requires an investment of time!) Figures include musicians, gods, satyrs, and King Midas. The expressions are wonderful.
The story is of the musician Marsyas, who challenges Apollo to compete with him to see who could make better music: Marsyas with his flute or Apollo with his lyre. Remember, to romantic idealists, the lyre is a symbol of inspiration that comes from God, and we are to be as the strings in the wind. So of course, Marsyas loses! Playing that flute requires human will—to no avail until we shed that cloak of mysticism and move on to a more humanist worldview! The agreement is that the winner can inflict on the loser any punishment he chooses, so here is Apollo (or one of his shepherds?) skinning Marsyas alive. It’s probably the most enthralling painting I’ve ever seen, and it’s the most valuable piece in the country. It was worth the trip to Kromeriz just to view it.
As we left the gallery, I was thinking that the highlight of my 6-day trip had passed. Yes, it had, but there were still delightful surprises, almost of this magnitude, awaiting me in the garden. (It’s no ordinary garden, but a lustgarten.) Before we frollicked in it, though, we walked over to the open-air restaurant in the arcade for something to drink.
Then we found Center Square just beyond the grounds and an extra-nice pizza establishment, where I had something different: tousty. It was something like pizza on a toasted bun. Now to the garden! By this time, I had already developed that notion of Kromeriz as "tourist heaven," so... you know they’ve got a hell of a garden!
Prince-bishop Liechtenstein—remember his art, music, and coin collections?—again hired Italian architect Luchese, who designed the chateau, to create the garden (1665-75) just outside town walls, according to an authentic early baroque design for European pleasure gardens. Only fragments of such gardens remain, for they were not preserved anywhere. Cities grow and gardens fail. So this one, complete with hedgerows and original structures, including an elaborate cupola, is a rare treasure. The cupola, with original stuccoes by Italians Quirino Castelli and Carlo Borsa (1670-74) and frescoes of Carpoforo Tencalla (1623-1685), is declared, according to the sign in English, "one of the most valuable world central structures in garden history." Take a look and you’ll see why.
Another original structure, the Pompeian Colonnade, is not only rare and beautiful, but also a handy thing to climb, like a playground feature for adults. We’ll visit the cupola again, because I really want to study those frescoes of Tencalla, but let’s get our bearings first. The colonnade at the garden entrance is 244 meters long, with 46 arches, each with an ancient statue (Bacchus and other Greek gods) displayed in its own niche under the covered arch. In addition, busts high on consoles decorate the space between each arch, so that the structure looks like this:
Of course, it would be nice to take time to look at those 46 statues and busts, but we found steps instead to take us to the top of the colonnade, which becomes a 244-meter promenade. We strolled that length of the structure, built according to a model at Roman Villa Pamphili, and enjoyed a good view of the garden and surrounding area.
Villa Pamphili, by the way, now supplies the largest park in the center of Rome, and isn’t it a surprising coincidence that the villa was built for a nephew of the Pope? Perhaps our Prince-bishop Liechtenstein was trying to keep up with the Joneses… er… Pamphilis, relatives of Pope Innocent X. No matter—while we’re up here, let’s get a better look at those hedgerows and of the surrounding neighborhood.
Something about a labyrinth of hedges always activates a childish longing! I was compelled to study it.
Other structures were added in 1840-45 by Antonin Arch, who created a new entrance building and two orangeries. An aviary was added later. There was one more structure, a summerhouse that displays "water jokes," that we didn’t check out, but we walked here and there on criss-crossing paths with views of grottoes, statuary, and water scenes created by an elaborate underground system that feeds the fountains, too, on these once-infertile grounds. The cupola is near the exit.
The frescoes of Tencalla cover the domed ceiling. Incredibly, I have learned that Pittsburgh artist Celeste Parrendo travelled in 1996 to Schloss Esterhazy, a royal castle in Eisenstadt, Austria, to study a ceiling of Tencalla in the concert hall there. (It was where Haydn wrote and performed.) She reproduced his work on the ceiling of the Austrian classroom in the Cathedral of Learning on University of Pitt’s campus. I’ll remember to see it next time I’m in Pittsburgh.
The theme of this ceiling in Kromeriz is the garden rapes of classical mythology. So here are Callisto, Lucretia, Cassandra, Proserpina, Medea, and innocent animals too, all violated by satyrs and gods. Even Zeus raped somebody—Callisto, I believe! Here is one individual panel:
I’m sure there is some theme statement that could be extracted here, but I haven’t a clue as to what it is, aside from "It isn't art if it has no conflict." I’ll just say, "A beautiful garden is a beautiful garden," and remember this one as one of the most intriguing I’ve ever seen.
Czech tour guides are trying hard to learn English, but my own experience with languages may be proof that different people learn at varying levels of proficiency! Our guide at Bourzov Castle, for instance, tried her new language in spurts, got frustrated with it, and then reverted back to Czech. Luckily, my group had our own translator, for there were no headphone tours at Bourzov Castle. This is not to say that Bourzov Castle doesn’t have good tour guides or that our particular guide will not master English by 2005. Simply be forewarned that it might be a good idea to inquire at visitor information desks about the language options of any tours you plan to take. Most visitors' offices can arrange for a translator (inexpensive), or you can find one for some cities with a Google search.
By contrast, our guide at Litomysl Chateau was proficient in English. She didn’t even
seem European! Leaning forward toward us with engaging gestures, she recounted the
history of the Wallenstein family with a dramatic flair worthy of the stage. When we
started up a wide stairway, she laid her hand on my arm to stop the group and asked us to
"take a closer look at the low, wide steps" (so constructed for horses, raised by the
family and used for pageantry).
This guide didn’t shrink from supplying additional information and answering questions. One question I asked was this: "If I tell people in America to take this tour, can they expect an English-speaking guide?" She assured me that they could—always—at Litomysl Chateau.
All Czech docents have in common the widest smiles I’ve ever seen! Our guide at the
Archbishops’ Palace in Kromeriz was waiting for us with one of those expressions that
Indicates, "I’m so glad to see you!" Later, I realized that she was glad for the chance to
show us some of the treasures of her country, recently free from Communism and now
proud to finally show the world their heritage. She was either unsure of her English or not proficient in it, but she paused after each sentence or two, listened attentively to our translator, and offered more clarification when she thought it was necessary. Nothing was lost in this translation!
She paused patiently while our translator Katerina tried to render the nickname of Emperor Franz Josef’s wife in English. (It was "Chi-chi" in Czech—I thought that sounded Spanish.) Everyone waited while Katerina squeezed her brain for "Sissy." My point is that our docent was so polite, personable, and demonstrative, we would have learned from her even in Czech! She spoke so well that the meaning usually got across without a translation, except for a few proper details. When we were ready to leave, she made us feel as though we were leaving her home. She walked us to the door, and waving goodbye, I had a feeling I would return.
We encountered this congenial spirit everywhere in smaller cities and towns of Bohemia
and Moravia. How different from the impersonal, anonymous temperament of larger,
more crowded cities! We weren’t "tourists" to folks here; we were "visitors" with whom they were anxious to communicate. Moreover, Czechs emulate and admire English-speaking people more than they love their own neighbors, who have conquered them in centuries past and submerged their identity in that of other nationalities aspiring for empire. As we once were, they are people looking for a new identity, and I believe this trait is obvious, even in the tour guides’ eager smiles. They are glad for the chance to practice their new roles, to play their part in communicating their national character. Each of our tours was a sociable occasion.
Czechs have been rewarded by those who have governed them. Hapsburg rulers and
others have given them special compensations for fighting off invaders. For example,
Maria Theresa made Olomouc a "Chief City of the Realm" for stopping the Prussians.
Even back in the 9th century, the cyrillic alphabet used to translate the Bible into
Slavic languages was a gift from missionaries to Czechs, who had stopped the Germans
and protected the western border of yet another empire that once ruled Czech lands.
Czechs learned to have character, protecting their land from further invasion and appeasing their foreign rulers.
Now is the time for them to find their place as an individual nation. They have taken
good care of what has been given to them—and many World Heritage tours in Czech
Republic focus on that, especially the legacy of the Hapsburgs.
But walking tours of the towns reveal more that is distinctly Czech. For instance, there’s the church in Olomouc where Jan Sarkander was tortured and murdered—our tour guide
pointed it out (something we might have missed) and told us the entire story. A history
graduate, Tomas narrated stories about all the churches we passed. We couldn’t have
missed the remains of Jan Sarkander in another church, because his biography
was posted in English above his reliquary, but we might have missed the site where he
was murdered in 1620—or not gotten it straight how he happened to be falsely accused of
My first experience with a human guide for an hour-or-so walking tour of a town taught
me his value. The growing tourism industry acknowledges that few folks speak Czech,
and they are working on more tours in English. Until then, a local guide in a small town
doesn’t have to be expensive—and he or she is sure to be pleasant!
Spring of 2005 promises to offer new options. At this moment, many docent guides in
Moravia are practicing their English. New audio tours are being developed. In Litomysl,
Olomouc, and Kromeriz, they are getting ready for you. My tours were only previews of
what we can expect to learn of the regions of Czech Republic outside of Prague, where
tourism will blossom, as it has in the capital city. My guess is that Czech tourism will
meet us more than halfway, perhaps more than we are accustomed to. Think of it! This
is the year for something entirely new in Bohemia and Moravia. Don’t be misled by the
railroad map at www.raileurope.com, which displays only two international routes. Every town I visited is accessible by rail. (Check www.bahn.de.)
West Virginia, United States