There are places with such a strong genius loci that life there is governed by a different set of rules.
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Places where art and new ideas, but also an entrepreneurial spirit, take root more firmly than in other places. Litomyšl is undoubtedly one of those places.
This old city in eastern Bohemia has a rich history and has always been a natural centre of learning and spiritual life. Many important artists, writers and musicians were born here and worked here, and it was long a seat of bishops. But it also has experienced many hardships – it was conquered and devastated several times, and it was repeatedly ravaged by devastating fires. But time and again it rose up from the ashes, becoming a living symbol of eternal renewal. The city’s life force is palpable at every step. The beauty of today’s Litomyšl was hard won, but you only have to look around you to realize that art and spiritual values can triumph over even the greatest misfortunes.
The dominant landmark in the city is the large Renaissance chateau with more than 8,000 original sgraffito designs. It is one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in all of Europe and is a splendid example of a Central European noble residence. Its importance was officially confirmed in 1999 when the chateau complex with its uniquely preserved Baroque theatre was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
On the grounds of the Litomyšl Chateau, in the building of the former chateau brewery, one of the most important Czech composers – Bedřich Smetana – was born to the wealthy family of a local brewer. The world-famous composer of eight operas and many other masterful works, including the comic opera The Bartered Bride and the cycle of symphonic poems called My Homeland, was a child prodigy, just like his more famous counterpart W. A. Mozart. At the age of six he first performed his first public piano concert, and at eight years old he wrote his first composition.
© Pavel Vopálka
Today, the world-famous composer is celebrated in his home town with an international opera festival that bears his name – Smetana’s Litomyšl, which is the second oldest music festival in the Czech Republic after the Prague Spring International Music Festival and is one of the biggest annual classical music festivals in the country. It takes place every summer, and its main stage is always located in the courtyard of the chateau.
© Pavel Vopálka
An architectural synthesis
Litomyšl is proud to be called a “modern historical town”. And deservedly so. Its unique genius loci comes from its fusion of old and new architecture, which attracts to the city not only lovers of art and historical monuments but also budding architects. It is said that every talented Czech architect would like to build something in Litomyšl. And some of the very best ones have already done so.
On the grounds of the former Piarist monastery in Litomyšl, situated on a hill above the city and bookended by two churches, you’ll find one of the most charming places in Litomyšl – the Monastery Gardens, which were transformed in a recent renovation into an unparalleled urban park.
Here you will find a gazebo where you can take in sweeping views of the city, lush flower beds and a large lawn for relaxation or contemplative strolls, and in the middle of the gardens is a shallow pool graced with statues by Olbram Zoubek. What is really pleasant is that on a hot day you or your children can wade into the water to cool your feet or just sit along the edge and listen to the bubbling water of a fountain and Smetana’s music playing from hidden speakers. There is also a small café where you can refresh yourself before heading off to see more of the local sights.
The New Church (Nový kostel), designed by architect Zdeněk Fránek, is a testament to the enlightened outlook of the local city councillors. Instead of offering the plot of land in a lucrative location just off the main road to commercial interests, they gave it free of charge to the Church of the Brethren on the condition that the architect would be selected in an open competition.
The city gained not only a new architectural landmark, which even earned a nomination for the Europe-wide Mies van der Rohe Prize, but also a modern hall for cultural events. The decoration of the church is of the same high quality as the building itself. The creator of its exterior glass cross is Václav Cigler, one of the few internationally known Czech artists, and the altar relief, pulpit and communion table are by the equally renowned artist Karel Malich.
© Petr Polák
Brewery with a new function
Josef Pleskot is undoubtedly one of the architects most instrumental in shaping Litomyšl into a modern historical city. The Czech architect’s greatest contribution to the new face of Litomyšl is the sensitive reconstruction of the chateau brewery, which in a rare consensus of opinion is praised by architects, preservationists and visitors alike for its lack of pretension and respect for the original structure. Come see for yourself – the former brewery now serves as a YMCA centre, offering accommodation and conference facilities, but you will also find an exhibition inside the flat where the composer Bedřich Smetana was born.
© Pavel Vopálka
© Tereza Jiroušková
A tale of three galleries
If you heed the advice of all the guidebooks and go to see the most interesting local sight, when you arrive at the inconspicuous cottage in an ordinary street you will wonder whether you are at the right place. However, your impression will quickly change once you open the door and step inside the boundless private universe of one of the most remarkable Czech artists.
The story of the Portmoneum, as the house is called today, began in 1920, when an amateur printer and art lover named Josef Portman invited his friend Josef Váchal, a painter, graphic artist and writer, to Litomyšl to decorate his home with paintings. They both shared not only a love for printing and wood carving but also an interest in the occult, mysticism, theosophy and Eastern philosophy. Váchal accepted the invitation with pleasure, and with his murals and wood carvings he gradually began transforming his friend’s home into an original work of art – a landscape inhabited by devils, goblins and ghosts. In one bizarre magnum opus, classical Christian motifs intertwine with tableaux from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and other Eastern themes. In his highly complex masterpiece, the artist encoded the entire cosmos of his unique imagination. An internal logic can be detected here only by true experts; others can only marvel at the power of the artist’s mind and immerse themselves in his extraordinary world.
Although the two men were initially of a like mind, seven years later their friendship slowly came to a end. The split had to do with another of Váchal’s muses: In his book Bloody Novel, he portrayed his friend as the stingy Count Portmon. This was something that the vain collector could not abide, and following an argument he and the artist parted company for good. The mysterious Portmoneum, however, is a lasting reminder of their unusual friendship.
© Pavel Vopálka, © Jaroslav Horák
You can find refuge from Litomyšl’s bustle in the middle of a meadow at a meander of the Desná River just outside Litomyšl. The subtle white building housing the White Gallery in Osík is a true revelation for every visitor. The understated structure, which looks more like a gazebo designed for relaxation, is in fact a well functioning small art gallery that is definitely worth a visit. Reminiscent of a classic Functionalist building, it was commissioned by its owner to preserve the artistic legacy of his mother. Within its white walls, in addition to her works there are also treasures by other prominent Czech artists. The collection, numbering around 1,400 art works, includes excellent drawings and paintings, and temporary exhibitions here present the best that Czech art has to offer.
© Pavel Frič
Gallery 1 art is proof that good things come in small packages. From the street, all you see is a unassuming wooden fence with a sign. Hidden behind it, however, is garden measuring 100 square metres, or, as the gallery owner calls it, the smallest park in Europe. It is a space ideal for open-air art exhibitions. On a walk around town, Gallery 1 art is a great place to relax and recharge your batteries.
© František Renza
Great Britain gave the world food celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson; France has its François Pierre de la Varenne and Georges Auguste Escoffier. In the Czech lands, there is no bigger name in gastronomy than Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová. The famous cookbook author spent the last eleven years of her life in Litomyšl, and an annual culinary festival is held in her honour, thematically inspired by chapters of her greatest work, Domestic Cookery – a book that elevated cooking from a culinary matter to one of social prestige and personal pride. To discover the charm of traditional Czech cuisine and taste some of the renowned local fish specialties, plan your visit to Litomyšl in the spring to coincide with the festival.
© František Renza
But Litomyšl’s culinary surprises don’t stop there. If you have seen the film Chocolat with Juliette Binoche, you know the story of how the mysterious Vianne appears one day in a small French town and opens a chocolate shop full of irresistible sweet temptations, completely changing the lives of the town’s inhabitants. Vianne knows the ancient secrets of chocolate-making and also has the ability to uncover people’s hidden passions. After a “treatment” at the shop, the locals shed their inhibitions and surrender to their previously suppressed desires.
And what does this have to do with Litomyšl? A similar story may be unfolding right now in a small shop on Litomyšl’s main square. It was opened a couple of years ago by a charming owner who takes pride in the fact that her hand-formed chocolates are made from only the best chocolate, imported from around the world, and from premium, all natural ingredients. For everyone who comes here for some of her renowned specialties, she offers advice on how to consume them, almost like a pharmacist: Treat the chocolate as something rare and enjoy it in small doses – preferably with the eyes closed – and eat it very, very slowly. Among her best morsels are the milk chocolates with walnuts, but you can choose from around thirty different fillings – ranging from nougat, marzipan and gingerbread to plum jam with coconut. If you make a stop here on your visit to Litomyšl, it may even be a life-changing experience.
© Pavel Vopálka
And if after whetting your appetite with chocolates you are overcome with hunger, just a few steps away is another renowned gourmet stop – the Bohém restaurant at the Aplaus Hotel. In the pleasant environment here you can enjoy another local specialty: fillets of grilled trout from Litomyšl’s fish hatcheries. You can finish the evening thematically with a chocolate massage at the hotel’s wellness centre.
© Hotel Aplaus