Sunday, 10 February 2008

Bohemia’s most underrated town

Litomyšl is a town of about 8,000 people in far eastern 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 twelve UNESCO world heritage listed entities in the Czech lands, 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 façade for hours, 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 wine-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 40Kč ($2). The highlight of the cultural year is the annual opera festival Smetana’s Litomyšl, in June.

Smetana is not the only prominent artist to be associated with Litomyšl though. The chateau wine cellars house a massive collection of the works of the country’s greatest living sculptor, Olbram Zoubek. Former president Vaclav Havel was often photographed in his office with one of Zoubek’s angelic maidens gazing over his shoulder, and the artist’s work is visible also in the dancing fountain of Litomyšl’s monastery gardens and on one of the main square. There are dozens of sculptures in the gallery and the gracefully vaulted cellars themselves are worth the symbolic 20Kč 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 art lovers familiar with the Czech scene. Váchal’s life story is well known 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) in Litomyšl for free (in the murals along a narrow lane running from the main square towards the chateau). But with an entry fee of 40Kč, 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 along the other side to your left is the old town hall. The house with the Zoubek window and the tourist information office are up a little further. Almost the entire square is ringed by colourfully painted arcade-fronted houses, a typical feature of the renaissance period (mid 15th to late 16th C).

Also at this 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 like goulash or fried cheese for 60-90Kč. When not in the mood for that kind of food, there's also restaurant Malý Svět on Mariánska st back towards the chateau. The prices here can be double those of U Slunce but the food is lighter, fresher and there are nice seats outside with an outlook towards a small park.

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

Something to consider though, is staying up in the chateau. There’s apparently an apartment in the old brewery building (Smetana’s birthplace) which 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 accurate arrival time, so that somebody can meet you there 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) to Olomouc (97km) passes right through Litomyšl 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 (from the train station carpark) there.

Litomyšl certainly has as much to offer the visitor as famous destinations like Karlovy Vary and Český Krumlov. 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?

If you’ve been to Litomyšl, how did you like it and how did you make the decision to go there? Do you think it has as much to offer as places like Český Krumlov, Karlovy Vary and Telč, or were you less impressed than I was?

Related posts:
Top ten destinations in the Czech Republic
Karlovy Vary's new clothes


Michael said...

I was heading to Brno and stopped off on a whim (I think I'd seen a picture of the chateau in a guide book or something). I only spent a couple of hours there, but I reckon it'd be a great overnight stop. And it's not that difficult to get too - I'm sure the Prague - Brno buses stop nearby in Svitavy.

Captain Oddsocks said...

That's the other thing about Litomysl isn't it? It IS also quite rewarding to stop off just for a few hours. Because it's so compact and five minutes' walk from the bus station you're standing on the main square...

Nina said...

Hello! I stumbled upon Litomysl last year by chance-- I visited a friend who was teaching English in Vysoke Myto, about a train station before Litomysl. Otherwise, I might not have gone-- very few travel books and tour guides recommend the place, which is their loss! Litomysl has been one of my favorite destinations in the Czech Repbulic. I thought it offered much more than Karlovy Vary, and was less touristy than Cesky Krumlov. For me, Litomysl had a relaxed and artistic vibe, and was beautifully green as well. Also, I am a huge fan of Zoubek's statues, so it was wonderful to see so many of them there.

You do have a point about the connections, though. I've sent more of my friends to Kutna Hora, Cesky Krumlov or even Hradec just because of the direct connections. Unless you're en route somewhere else, it is tricky to deal with the trains.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Hi Nina,
Thanks for pointing out the greenness of Litomysl. I forgot to mention that, which is funny because it's one of the things I like most.
And am most disappointed about when I go to new places. So many times I find myself thinking, what a lovely square this would be if only there were a few trees...
What's Vysoke Myto like? I've heard it's quite nice but haven;t yet visited. I believe it's another of the old towns that were founded to protect travellers along the old trade route between Prague and Olomouc...

sansIcarus said...

i've visited there a couple of times, and have to say it's a favourite.

in particular the teahouse, is it in the museum? i can't recall. anyway, it doubled/tripled as a pottery/clothes shop and there was a chess board table complete with talking parrot.

we ordering the yogi yogi, and it took forever to make. we thought they'd forgotten. but when it came, we realised that they'd made it to order. I've never had a better tea experience. It was like having flowers blooming in your mouth.


Captain Oddsocks said...

Yeah, it's a good teahouse that one. It's in the same building as the town museum, but with a separate entrance and a nice little courtyard in the summer. Good spot!

Nina said...

I wasn't as impressed with Vysoke Myto as I was with Litomysl. I heard that Vysoke Myto has the largest square in Czech Republic (or perhaps the largest four-sided square?), and indeed it is pretty spacious. When I went in July there was a lively festival going on outside, with bands, street meat, and a bunch of locals attending. There is an older church that I saw from the outside, though I can't remember the particulars of it now. My friend who lived there assures me there isn't too much happening in the town-- nightlife revolves around one bowling bar and one disco.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Ahh, I like bowling! Maybe I'll check it out, next tiem i get the chance to travel around a bit ;-)