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Bohemian-Moravian Mountains (Czech Republic)

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The highest mountain range in the north-west or the Czech Republic.

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      23.10.2008 10:06
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      A Visit to the Older, More Industrial Towns in Czech Republic.

      To continue my journey through the Czech Republic I am going to leave Prague and travel to Ceskomoravska Vrchovina which is the area known as the Bohemian-Moravian Mountains. I have already mentioned in a previous review what a beautiful city Prague is but if you are in the Czech Republic and have some spare time, step outside the city and look further beyond. You won't be disappointed as their is a wealth of treasures to be seen; accommodation, food and drink prices are much cheaper once outside the capital and the pace of life is a lot slower.

      It was late February when I visited the mountains and the winter still lingered. The buds were appearing in the Sazava valley but the hillside meadows were still covered with a thin layer of snow. Even in spring, the morning mist does not lift until late morning but then the hills and plains reveal their contours. The greyness gives way to the bright green and yellow of the rape filelds with the red sheen of the corn poppy always in evidence. The villages remain grey, however: the people in these parts have never enjoyed great prosperity.

      On the plains, there was a great deal of wealth in such towns as Kutna Hora and Jihlava. Silver ore was mined here during the Middle Ages and huge Gothic churches testify to the economic signifigance of these towns. Nowadays, however, many places are having difficulty adapting to the new economic order.

      Food production is the commercial mainstay in Kolin and Kutna Hora but, since the end of the Communist regime, foreign imports have taken their toll.

      If you are in a hurry and want to cover the 200 kilometres from Prague to Brno without visiting this area then you can take the motorway but if you have the time available, I suggest you allow two days for this journey. If you wish to travel by bus then buses can be caught from Prague main bus station but always check details as times change and connections to some of the towns are not always frequent.

      Kolin
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      It was a Sunday afternoon when I arrived in Kolin which lies 34 miles east of Prague. The streets of the Old Town were deserted, only a few old men sat in the sun on the main square. Opposite he town hall, the only visible restaurant was closed. From the open windows of the houses came the sound of a football commentary. Tourists are not expected around here.

      Walking around this industrial town on the River Elbe I noticed the main attraction, the Church of St. Bartholomew. Between the years 1360 and 1378, the famous Prague architect Peter Parler designed one of the finest Gothic chancels in Eastern Europe. He built what is called a processional chancel. It has seven chapels and a complicated system of ribbed vaults. Unlike the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, the chancel walls are formed out of two, not three sections. This is a huge structure and you can tell by looking at it that it was built to give a sense of protection and security to the faithful worshippers. During the decades of relligious wars, it was certainly much appreciated.

      Kolin's Jewish community was, after Prague the second biggest in Bohemia. Despite the resistance of the local people, most Jews settled in close proximity to the cathedral. Their ghetto comprised a synagogue, a school and about 50 houses, many of which survive to this day. Clearly the Jews contributed to the local economy as the houses have two doors: one for the staricase up to the first floor dwelling, another to the workshop. These buildings have been renovated still keeping the original style. Many of the occupants emigrated in the 1930's and 2,202 jews were deported to Terezin in 1942.

      Kutna Hora
      ----------------

      The history of many Bohemian towns can be traced back through the buildings. Medieval prosperity left its mark just as much as the devastation of the religious wars and the years of the Counter-reformation. Kutna Hora which is situated 41 miles from Prague, flourished economically and culturally during the 13th and 14th centuries. At the time it was the second biggest town in Bohemia. The richly endowed silver mines nearby produced the metal from which the 'Prague penny', coins recognised throughout Europe, were minted. Its two churches are Gothic and if you appreciate Gothic architecture then these are worth a visit along with the Stone House and the fort in Baborska ulice. The Old Town has not lost its medieval charm and you can still walk down the narrow alleyways.

      The arcaded Palacky Square is the town's focal point. Standing in the square is the Italian Court which was built at the end of the 13th century and houses what was the home of the town's first Italian coin maker. Inside there is a small museum which documents the history of the coins. The house was also used as a residence for the ruling family who frequently visited the town.

      Next to the Italian Court stands the Chirch of St. James (1339-1420), which lovers of Baroque painting will not want to miss. Works by some of the most famous Bohemian painters of the period like Peter Brandl and Franz Xaver Balko (1734) give a warmth and feeling to the cool interior. The sultry reds and gleaming golds of the paintings are really striking as you enter the church. You feel like you want to stretch out your hands to touch the smooth painted cloaks of the religious figures.

      By far the most important building in the town, the Church of St. Barbara, is dedicated to the patron saint of miners. Visible from miles around, its unusual, three part, tent-shaped roof, was added to the five-naved cathedral in 1552. Although it was designed by Peter Parler, the Hussite War stopped work until 1481 and then Matthias Rejsek who was the architect of Prague's Powder Tower continued work on the cathedral and was responsible for the vaulting in the choir. The columns are so slim I find it hard to believe they carry the vaulting. An impression of weightlessness has obviously been created here. The side aisles are divided into two sections: tall, spacious galleries stretch above the dark, partly painted chapels. This is an amazing structure and because of its height you immediately look up and end up with a creak in your neck beause you can't stop looking upwards at its sheer beauty.

      Jihlava
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      Eighty two miles on from Prague, on the border between Bohemia and Moravia lies Jihlava, the third and oldest mining town on this route. You can visit here by bus from Prague but have to change at Telc. Germans settled here by the river at the beginning of the 13th century to take advantage of the silver ore deposits. The town's importance lasted until the Bohemian kings concentrated coin production on Kutna Hora, whereupon cloth production brought new wealth to the town.

      A patrician house by the market place has become the Museum of the History of Mining which illustrates methods of mining throughout the ages. The interior is of great interest in itself as it depicts life as it would have been for a noble citizen in medieval times.

      At the end of the 19th century, some 75 percent of Jihlava's citizens were German and the grand houses outside the old town wall testify to the wealth of the early miners ancestors. The market place which is 328 metres long by 114 metres wide, is one of the biggest in Europe, but it has lost much of its charm. Some attractive pavement cafes have now appeared but a row of medieval houses were demolished by the town council just before the Revolution and sadly, replaced by a shopping centre.

      At the northeast corner of the market place stands the Baroque Church of St Ignatius which is one of the most significant buildings in the town. The church houses a very important treasure which is a Gothic crucifix thought to have been endowed by one of the famous kings. More interesting, is the adjoining former Jesuit college, built in 1699 on the site of 23 confiscated houses. Inside stands the entrance to the town's storage cellars. The 25km passages were dug in the 16th century and served as a refuge for the population during the religious wars. They are open to the public and although a bit spooky they are quite fun to walk through.

      Jihlava is particularly proud of its reputation as a centre of the arts and its most famous son, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). He went to school locally and at the age of 12, he is said to have entertained an audience of 800 with a performance of music by Liszt, but at 15 moved to Vienna. If you walk on down to 9 Kosmakova Street you will be able to view an exhibition on the composers youth. His parents were buried in the nearby Jewish cemetry.

      Telc
      -------

      Fires have reshaped many Bohemian towns and the South Moravian town of Telc is no exception. After a devaststing fire in 1530, a compact and unified Renaissance and early Baroque ensemble emerged around the main square. I know I keep jabbering on about Baroque architecture but I really love this style and here in Telc are some cracking examples. When I saw this town I immediately fell in love with it although the main street is the important feature. One and two storey houses, each with three arcades, adjoin each other like pearls on a necklace with only the gables taking on different forms. Each house is painted in a different pastel colour.

      We stayed in one of these houses for a night to break the journey and I will always have fond memories of it. The owners lived on the bottom floor and upstairs was one of the biggest flats I have ever been in. The decor was in old fashioned Czech hunting style but very attractive if a little twee. Through the gabled window you had a view of the whole street and in the morning, breakfast was served in a seperate kitchen where portraits of Vaclav Havel and the Virgin Mary looked down on us as we ate our bread rolls and salami.. The price cost very little - about the equivalent of £10.

      Once you have walked around the main street, park and viewed the castle there isn't much else to do except order a beer or a coffee at a pavement cafe and enjoy the splendid facades in peace.

      The castle, another Renaissance building, can be found to the north west of the square. Only when seen from the other side does it become clear that it was once surrounded by water. In fact the town itself is bordered on three sides by lakes. The owner of the castle had a passion for coffered ceilings and their shape and colour provided the name for each of the castle's rooms. Within the chapel in a white marble sarcophagus lie the remains of Zacharias z Hradec and his wife Katharina Valdstejn. According to legend, the young wife was implicated in her own death. She allowed her portrait to be painted while she was pregnant - despite warnings that this meant she would die within a year of her birth.

      Another story concerns Berta Rozmberk, the 'White Lady'. This noblewoman was forced to marry Count Lichenstein, so after her husband's death she only ever appeared wearing a white widow's robe - like a bride waiting for the return of her true beloved. Lichenstein never forgave her lack of affection, so Berta did not find peace in death. The ghost of this woman still haunts the castle, and her picture hangs in the Hunting Room.

      When I visited this castle and the art gallery within the walls I think I must have been the only person there. I was definitely the only person in the gallery and it was a litlle strange. I knew of the legend before I entered the castle so the strange feelings could have been psychsomatic but on a dewy morning with peacocks shrieking in the grounds and a deadly silence everywhere, I was a little spooked.

      In the gallery is mainly a collection of paintings by the famous Czech artist, Jan Zrzavy (1890-1977). I am a great admirer of his work as he uses vivid colours and bold strokes, sometimes on wood. His work is quite modern but there is a touch of Impressionism in some of his paintings especially works depicting the life of the miners in the surrounding areas. The gallery is open mornings only and costs around £1 admission fee.

      I am nearly at the end of this virtual tour but before I finish I would just like to mention the Renaissance Castle in Namest nad Oslavou which is only 22 miles away from Brno, another fascinating city in Czech Republic. Most tourists visit this castle because of its interior furnishings and boy, they are really worth a look. A collection of some 22 Flemish and Dutch Gobelin tapestries from the 16th to the 19th centuries are exhibited here. This once Gothic castle that rises out of a terrace overlooking the River Oslava is celebrated in religious circles as the place where, in the 16th century, the first Czech- language Bible was printed. With its 20 Baroque figures, the stone bridge that crosses the river bears the distinct resemblance to the Charles Bridge in Prague.

      This area may not have the beauty of Bavaria or Austria and even though a little grey in parts it is still very charming in a Czech way. There are many fascinating buildings along this route, mainly religious houses but not all. I found it interesting to find out the history of the silver mines and to see how the people outside of Prague live. I found most of the people I met on the way very calm, quiet and friendly. Most of all I loved the Gothic churches and Baroque houses in Telc. It is well worth the 220 kilometres drive from Bohemia's Prague to Moravia.

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      The highest mountain range in the north-west or the Czech Republic.