Monday, 11 May 2009

Historic Town of the Year - Šternberk

Sternberk CastleLast month, in a ceremony at the Prague castle, the Czech Ministry of Culture announced the latest winner of the annual Historic Town of the Year award. Šternberk.

SternberkŠternberk is in Central Moravia, where the Hana plain rises up into the first hills of the Lower Jeseník Mountains. A town of around 14,000 people with a well preserved historic core, Šternberk originally grew up around a gothic castle that guarded the main northern trade route to Poland from the old Moravian capital, Olomouc.

The castle still stands today and is one of the main historic attractions of Šternberk. The others are the nearby Church of the Annunciation, the Augustinian monastery and the web of narrow cobblestoned streets around the original marketplace square.

The castle was built between 1253 and 1269, extended and remodelled in the renaissance style in the 14-1500’s and extended again in the late 1800’s. The main remaining sections of the original gothic castle are the tall round guard tower and the 14th Century chapel with its valuable statue, the Šternberk Madonna. The newer parts of the castle house an art collection featuring Dutch masters and a museum of timepieces from the beginning of time measurement (water and sun clocks) up to the beginning of WWII.

Church of the Annunciation, SternberkBelow the hilltop castle, construction began on the original gothic Church of the Annunciation (Kostel Zvěstování Paně) and the adjacent Augustinian monastery in 1371. Over the following centuries the complex suffered damage during the Hussite wars and several extensive fires. The monastery was renovated in the baroque style in the early 1700’s and in 1775 it was decided to completely demolish the old church and begin work on a replacement. Construction lasted 8 years and the current church was consecrated in November 1783.

The church and the monastery overlook Šternberk’s small Upper Square, which is also home to two quite reasonable restaurants, the town hall and the recently restored plague column, with the goldest Virgin Mary you’re ever likely to see.

Part of Sternberk's unique system of interpretive signageAlso on Upper Square are two of the unique ‘klikotoče’ that were praised by the awards committee. Part of Šternberk’s system of interpretive signage, these are small signs at key locations around the historic centre of town. They reach to about waist height, display descriptive screen-printed plaques with historic illustrations and offer recorded audio explanations in three languages.

The really forward thinking feature is the power source for the audio. Concealed in each ‘klikotoč’ is a dynamo with a brass crank handle. Cranking the handle creates enough energy to power the recording which is selected using two buttons; the first to choose a language and the second for whichever monument, legend or building you’d like to hear about. Not only do they use uncomplicated, robust and inexpensive technology, the signs blend well into the historic surroundings and people of all ages seem to really enjoy using them.

Fountain on the main square of SternberkThere are more klikotoče on Šternberk’s recently reconstructed main square, which features a fountain, a row of young deciduous trees and an unusual free standing clock. The base of the clock is a plain rectangular pillar, sitting on top of that is a brass boat on wagon wheels that looks like something from a steampunk animation, and on top of the boat is an ultramodern clock with exposed cogs and pendulum protected by a perspex case. If you stand in front of it at night, the illuminated clock at the edge of the square reflects in the perspex case, echoing the variety of clocks and timepieces in the castle museum.

Perpetual trophy for the Czech historic town of the yearŠternberk was voted Historic Town of the Year ahead of Beroun and Jilemnice and will hold the crystal trophy until April 2010 when a new winner will be announced. Past winners of the award include Litomyšl, Jindřichův Hradec and Kutná Hora.

Getting to Šternberk by public transport is likely to involve a change at Olomouc from where trains and buses run at least twice each hour on weekdays and hourly on weekends. The castle is open six days a week (closed Mondays) May through September and on weekends in April, November and December. The Church and monastery are open May through December 7 days a week.

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