A dramatic escape from a dreamt-of house, a fascinating spectacle in a Baroque hall or the help of hefty country lads following a lost battle. All of those are stories that are narrated at UNESCO heritage sites throughout Czechia. You’ll see not only architectural gems but you’ll also learn who the original owners of the historic sights were and what their fates were.
Symbiosis with natureThe functionalist Tugendhat Villa in Brno is one of the important places where notable events in Czechoslovak history mingle. This is not an ordinary house for a family with children. It’s a perfectly thought-out villa that had met all the requirements of its owners. It looks exactly the way in which it was imagined by Greta Tugendhat, née Löw-Beer. As a place where her family would be close to the city centre and connected with nature at the same time. When she was ten, she moved with her parents from Svitávka to Brno, where they bought a sumptuous decorative villa. However, Greta was fascinated by modern architecture and she liked an austere style without ornaments. Her childhood friend, entrepreneur Fritz Tugendhat, whom she married in 1928, had the same interests as well. They got a wedding gift from Greta’s father: a large plot of land next to her parents’ house, and funds for building a new home. It was at the very first meeting with German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that they decided that he would help them fulfil their dream.
He designed a generously conceived house with an impressive view of a sloping garden. In the interior the architect made use of exotic materials such as white travertine from a quarry in Italy and onyx from Morocco. Using this honey-coloured rock he designed a wall that changes its colour when light shines on it. The most prominent feature of the main room is a several metres long glass wall that can be partly slid into the floor to open the entire space into the garden. The Tugendhats moved into the dreamt-of house in 1930 but they had to flee abroad eight years later to escape Nazi persecution and never came back to the villa again.
Revived gemThe Gestapo confiscated the villa in autumn 1939, and radical changes were made to the interior. The Soviet army had another devastating intervention on their conscience as they turned the main social room into a horse stable at the end of the war. Later it housed a rehabilitation centre for children with spinal defects. Finally, things started to look up in the 1980s, when the first renovation took place in the villa. A meeting of the statesmen who signed an agreement on the division of Czechoslovakia was held in the garden of this famous house twelve years later. It was a new start for the new state as well as for the unique house. In 2002, the UNESCO international jury added it to the UNESCO Heritage List. Overall restoration was completed ten years later, and the public has been able to enjoy the beauty of this functionalistic building ever since. Some of the descendants of the Tugendhats visited the house, too. The year 2017 saw a meeting of three famous Jewish families, and relatives of the original owners definitely couldn’t miss the occasion.
Aristocratic eleganceLednice Castle in the neo-Gothic style will enthral you with its graceful style, which used to be admired by representatives of aristocratic families from all over Europe. It’s part of the complex that covers almost 300 km² and features not only beautiful gardens but also a hunting lodge and a replica of the Roman triumphal arch “Rendez-vous”, which used to be a meeting point for lords as they went hunting. The first mention of this site dates back to the early 13th century, when a Gothic fortress stood there and it was later converted into a Renaissance castle and afterwards into a Baroque castle. The present-day look dates back to the mid-19th century, when Aloys II, Prince of Lichtenstein, had Lednice remodelled into a presentable summer residence in the spirit of the English Gothic so that he could hold grandiose meetings of European nobility there. The formal halls situated on the ground floor of the castle served that purpose. They were fitted with carved ceilings, wooden wall panelling and select home contents unparalleled in Europe.
A minaret stands in the middle of greenery within sight of the castle. This exceptional architectural monument was designed by Josef Hardmuth in the early 19th century. The minaret is 60 metres high and it’s the largest structure of its kind in non-Islamic countries. In the prismatic base you’ll see a museum of the House of Lichtenstein, who were keen on travelling around Europe, and their collection of exotic souvenirs. There are minor Romantic structures in the surroundings of the minaret such as the Temple of Apollo and the Temple of the Three Graces.
Baroque showAnother architectural gem is situated fifteen kilometres from the castle in Lednice. The castle theatre building in Valtice was put up in the late 18th century under the reign of Aloys I, Prince of Lichtenstein. The first performance was given there in the autumn of 1790 in honour of the visit by Emperor Leopold II and it was the opera Prometheus. The audience watched an original show full of a broad variety of tricks. Richly decorated stage sets changed on the stage, and the audience could hear a simulation of peals of thunder and heavy rain. The castle theatre was restored several years ago, and the original historic part of the stage sets was replaced by modern technology so that the complex mechanism of the stage sets could work again. As a result, you can experience a similar atmosphere as noblemen in the Baroque period.
The romantic atmosphere, the elegance of the castle interiors and the originality of the entire Lednice-Valtice complex caught the attention not only of the UNESCO jury but also of the prestigious magazine National Geographic, which compiled four thematic routes across Europe. It included the Lednice-Valtice complex in Břeclav District into the route “Romantic Europe” as one of examples where you can wander during romantic walks and admire the beauty of the local sights.
Green exportBarbra Streisand, Liam Neeson, Scarlett Johansson and many other global celebrities know Žatec, which is located an hour-and-half’s drive from Prague. It rose to fame as an inspirational location for filmmakers as well as the town where the best hops in the world are grown. Žatec is currently one of the main candidates for inclusion in the UNESCO list. “Beer can be brewed anywhere else but our hop variety is of the highest quality, and that’s why it is exported all over the world. Hop-growing structures and hop gardens have been preserved in Žatec and surrounding villages, where this raw material has been grown since the Middle Ages. The Museum of Hop Growing in Žatec will definitely be interesting for tourists. Visitors will get to know the whole process from growing to processing there. The Hop Lighthouse and an interactive exhibition in the Hop and Beer Temple are impressive as well,” says Olga Bukovičová from the Žatec town hall.
Film inspirationŽatec attracts not only tourists but also filmmakers, who like the historic character of the square and a tangle of zigzag alleys in the centre. The Sladovna (Malthouse) Gallery offers a permanent exhibition on the films that have been made in Žatec. You can read texts in German or English on filming in the town and compare images from films with the current look. In the early 1980s, Barbra Streisand directed the film Yentl about a headstrong young woman who doesn’t want to follow conventions. The town also appealed to the makers of the film Les Misérables from 1998, in which Liam Neeson excels in the lead role. What’s more, Scarlett Johansson walked in the centre of Žatec not long ago when the film Jojo Rabbit, earning six Oscar nominations, was being filmed there. You’ll see the square with the vaulted arcade and the Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary in Apple’s Christmas spot from 2016 as well.
RIDE OF THE KINGS
Escape in disguiseThe Czech Republic’s items on the UNESCO list include not only historic sights but also traditions and rituals that have been handed down for centuries here. “A community that organises the event and considers the event to be part of its identity may apply for entry. The important thing is that the tradition is constantly innovated with something. For example, the Shrovetide processions in the Hlinecko area of eastern Bohemia are also included in the list of intangible heritage. They are altered and more original masks are added every year. The production of modrotisk (blue-dyeing) is a similar case. This textile technique is known all around the world but an application for it was submitted by people from the whole of Central Europe, including Czechia. Modrotisk was used mainly on folk costumes but modern clothes are made using it as well. There are two family-owned workshops operating in Moravia, where the craft has already been passed on for several generations,” says Dita Limová from the Ministry of Culture, adding that the Ride of the Kings has also been on the UNESCO list since 2011.
Several legends that are said to have inspired this folklore festival are told. An event from the period of the Bohemian-Hungarian War is mentioned most often. The King of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, battled near Uherské Hradiště in 1469. Following a lost battle he had to flee, he changed into women’s clothes and escaped through a secret corridor. The king allegedly had a rose in his mouth so that his voice didn’t betray him, and he was escorted by a retinue of protectors. The ride in folk costumes takes place in several villages of south-east Moravia in late May every year. It enjoys the greatest popularity in Vlčnov, where fans of folklore traditions come also on account of an annual folk fair. Hand-crafted products can be bought at the fair. During the Ride of the Kings, men ride on horses and carry an underage boy among them dressed in a women’s ceremonial costume who represents the king. The king has his bodyguards alongside him and they hold unsheathed sabres to protect him. The whole cavalcade rides through the village and chants humorous rhymes, praising the king or asking for gifts for him. You can encounter similarly dramatic stories as well as romantic tales in many other locations all around Czechia.