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Loving Litomyšl

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An oft-overlooked East Bohemian town packs in lots of culture and history.

Litomyšl is a town of about 8,000 people in far East Bohemia, just a stone’s throw from the historic old border with Moravia. It was founded in the time of the king of iron and gold, Přemysl Otakar II, as a fortified settlement on the trstenice way, the trade route that connected the ancient Bohemian and Moravian capitals, Prague and Olomouc.

The main dish on Litomyšl’s sightseeing menu is its immaculately restored four-winged renaissance chateau. It’s one of 12 UNESCO world heritage sites in the Czech Republic and has one of the only four surviving baroque theatres in the world. Not only can you tour the fascinating interiors and marvel at the intricately decorated patterns of the facade for hours, but there’s also a sculpture gallery in the old wine cellars, and, if your timing is good, you might even be able to do a spot of tasting.

Classical music lovers visit the chateau year round to see the birthplace of Bedřich Smetana, in the brewery outbuilding. The four rooms are furnished in period style, much of Smetana’s study is preserved, and the entrance fee is only CZK 40. The highlight of the cultural year is the annual Smetana’s Litomyšl opera festival, which runs from 12 June to 6 July.

Smetana is not the only prominent artist to be associated with Litomyšl, though. The chateau’s wine cellars house a massive collection of the works of the country’s greatest living sculptor, Olbram Zoubek. Former president Václav Havel was often photographed in his office with one of Zoubek’s angelic maidens gazing over his shoulder, and the sculptor’s work is also visible in the dancing fountain of Litomyšl’s monastery gardens and on the main square. There are dozens of sculptures in the gallery and the gracefully vaulted cellars themselves are worth the symbolic CZK 20 admission price.

Two great artists in one small town, then? Nope, three! Josef Váchal is an artist’s artist who worked in the early part of the 20th century and has a cult following among aesthetes familiar with the Czech scene. Váchal’s life story is known well thanks to a collection of correspondence spanning decades, and the Litomyšl house that he painted for his patron, Josef Portman, has been restored and opened to the public as a museum. Like Zoubek, you can also see Váchal’s work (this time in reproduction) for free in the murals along a narrow lane running from the main square towards the chateau. But with an entry fee of CZK 40, can you really afford not to go to the museum?

If you discover Váchal’s lane from the chateau end, following it will bring you to the main square. The statue up near the trees to your right is Smetana, and the tall tower to your left is the old town hall. The tourist information office and house with the Zoubek window are up a little farther. The square is almost entirely ringed by colourfully painted arcade-fronted houses, a typical feature of the Renaissance period.

Also at the Váchal and Smetana end of the long narrow square is a good place to eat, Restaurant U Slunce. It’s an old fashioned pub serving fortifying meals such as goulash or fried cheese for CZK 60-90. When not in the mood for that kind of food, there’s also the Malý Svět restauranton Mariánska street back towards the chateau. The prices here can be double those of U Slunce, but the food is lighter and fresher and there are nice seats outside with an outlook towards a small park.

If you stay overnight in Litomyšl, Pension Petra is very nice, but the price for one person (CZK 900) is the same as the price for two, so if you’re by yourself, it’s not cheap. U Černého Orla across the street is a very reasonable CZK 400 for one person, and the standard of accommodation is only cosmetically lower than at Pension Petra.

Something to consider, though, is staying in the chateau. There’s an apartment in the old brewery building (Smetana’s birthplace) that is furnished with antiques and available to accommodate small groups at quite reasonable prices. There’s no staffed reception, and you need to arrange an arrival time so that somebody can meet you to let you in, but it’s not every day that you get to spend the night in a chateau, so the slight inconveniences shouldn’t be too hard to put up with.

Getting to Litomyšl is not difficult. Highway #35 from Hradec Králove (58km away) to Olomouc (97km) passes right through it, and buses travel up and down several times each day. If you’re coming from Prague (163km), it’s probably best to take the train as far as Česká Třebová and switch to the local bus at the station.

Litomyšl certainly has as much to offer the visitor as famous destinations such as Karlovy Vary and Český Krumlov do. It’s a mystery to me why it’s not as popular as either of those places. The only reason I can think of is that you can’t get there on a direct bus from Prague and that discourages lazy travellers. I guess that’s good for the rest of us, though, isn’t it?

For more travel tips from Greg visit The journeys of Captain Oddsocks.

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