Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Chrudim and the Puppet Museum

Chrudim is an attractive town of around 24000 inhabitants in eastern bohemia, about 10km south of the regional capital, Pardubice. I called in there on my cycle trip earlier this year because there was a particular museum I wanted to visit.

Just away from the main square’s highest corner, Chrudim’s crookedest and narrowest house leans across its crookedest and narrowest street. The façade of the house is dark and dusty and its heavy stone balconies are propped on leaning pillars like an old man who can’t stand without a cane.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate home for the National Museum of Puppets and Marionettes.

The heavy wooden door leads to a dim, almost gloomy interior and probably before your eyes adjust, you’ll be greeted by a voice from the side, or will hear a bell and shuffling from another room. When the custodian has taken your symbolic 20Kč admittance fee and armed you with an accompanying text in your choice of five languages, you’re free to explore the three floors of the museum at your own pace.

The first displays are in a back room on the ground floor. Puppets from as far as England, China, Japan and Indonesia are on display here, alongside a description of the basics of the puppeteer’s craft. The museum building dates from 1573 and has steep and narrow staircases, so this introductory room is an overview for anyone confined to a wheelchair or otherwise unable to navigate the building.

If you can climb the stairs, the first room you’ll come to houses dramatically presented collections of puppets from the Drak (Dragon) puppet theatre in Hradec Králové. The puppets here are from specific shows including all the traditional favourites like Peter and the Wolf, Pinocchio and Hamlet.

Having so many collections side by side makes it easy to appreciate the varying styles employed by the different craftsmen and artists. The Venetian masks and brilliant satins and velvets of the Romeo and Juliet costumes are worthy of any European theatre, while Cinderella and her sisters could be dolls from any little girl’s collection. The exaggerated colours and expressions from Otesanek (the Czech folk tale about the boy who ate the world) make those puppets look like they belong at a science fiction convention or a secret NASA base.

A further flight of steep and narrow stairs carries you up to the displays about the older and more traditional travelling Czech puppet theatres. Marionettes were introduced to the Czech lands by travelling troupes from Germany, Italy and England in the early 1600’s, and form that time on puppetry has a long and rich association with Czech language and culture.

In the 18th and 19th centuries when puppet theatres started to perform in Czech they were often the only form of theatre in small towns and villages. Their presence helped to spread the use of the Czech language and reawaken interest in Czech culture and history, which had ebbed under the Germanization policies of the Austrian empire.

At the time “representatives of this folk art were put in the same class as tightrope walkers and bearleaders and scorned as vagabonds and beggars”. Puppets and marionettes now though are among the most sought after of Czech gifts and souvenirs and are excellent examples of local craftsmanship and artistry. These are the all purpose puppets that could be used again and again to tell different stories with the same archetypal characters. There are clowns, angels, kings, queens, devils and a healthy smattering of beggars.

In the next exhibit, the same characters are all repeated in the collection of family theatres, but they’re presented here as sets: one king, one angel, one devil, one queen, complete with stages ranging from the size of a large breadbox to elaborate constructions the size of a small room. My favourite here was one of the smallest and simplest; the plywood castle with crazily tilted walls, curved golden spires and steep staircases. Perhaps it was modelled on the museum building.

I found myself thinking a lot about the original owners of the building because it was big part of my stay in Chrudim. It was built by a nobleman named Mydlar in the 15th century. He was obviously successful; at what he did, as he had the means to build a three storey house with two rows of balconies and indulge his whims on things like a tower in the shape of a minaret and a well that descended from an upper floor.

In addition to going through the museum’s displays twice, I also spent two nights there. On the third floor up under the roof are four guestrooms available at very reasonable prices; 300kc for the first night and 250Kc for every night after that. The facilities are basic and some of the furniture has seen better days (and decades) but that was actually a nice relief from the bizarreness of some of the museum displays.

Puppets are exhibited right up to the doors of the guestrooms and I seemed to be the only guest. One night the power went out and I had to feel my way up the stairs in darkness, which was a little bit surreal with all those characters designed to burst into life with the slightest twist or jiggle. At the top, the worn brown carpet, hard folding bed and abstractly colourful linen were a reassuring welcome back into a world without so many devils, demons and monsters.

While there’s nothing in Chrudim that you’d necessarily go out of your way to see, apart from the puppet museum, the rest of the town is very pleasant. A busy road runs along one side of the main square but around the edge are two and three storey townhouses with colourful renaissance and baroque frontages. Dominating the northern end of the square is the impressive gothic church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary but its interior unfortunately seems to be closed to casual tourists and admirers of architecture.

In the middle of the square is a plague column with an asymmetric and organically shaped column that is supposed to represent clouds. Sculpting clouds from granite was always going to be difficult to pull off convincingly, but it’s an interesting insight into how the craftsmen and artisans were thinking at the time. The usual gang of saints hangs out around the base and nearby was an outdoor market that added a fruity, flowery burst of green to the otherwise grey centre of the square.

During my stay in Chrudim, I passed several hours on the main square, just sitting on one of the benches, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the view. I also had a couple of meals at the outdoor café there. For coffee and cake though, there were better places on the two streets leading away of the square at the opposite end to the church. I also found a haphazard little teahouse down near the river which, if you don’t mind feeling a bit like you’re in somebody’s house, is a cosy, welcoming little place with a nicely overgrown garden at the back.

So, Chrudim is the best place in the Czech Republic to find out more about puppets and marionettes, but also quite a pretty and pleasant place to visit in its own right.

The official town website has all the up to date information including accommodation options, if the attic of the museum doesn’t quite sound like your cup of tea.

Related posts:
Czech souvenirs with style
captain oddsocks' big cycle trip

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