Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lednice-Valtice - Day 16

Friday, September 19
Leaving Vienna, I caught a cab to the airport and met my new group from Roads Scholar for a 9 day hiking trip. There are 19 of us and we all fit comfortably on a little green bus that whisked us away across the Austrian border to the Czech Republic.
Our first stop was Mikulov, an important border town on the ancient "amber road" from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic.
We stopped here for lunch at a local cafe.
Afterwards, we took a tour of the city, which once had a very prominent Jewish population. When Austrian kings expelled Jews from Austria in the early 1400s, they settled here, ultimately making up half the town's population and forming the largest Jewish community in what is now the Czech Republic outside of Prague.  In the 19th C, the railway line bypassed Mikulov, causing economic stagnation. Consequently, most of the Jews left, long before WW II and none live here today.
The town has been beautifully restored and has a lively main square.
On one side is an old church facade (the actual church burned centuries ago) and it was later used as the tomb of the Dietrichstein Family, an aristocratic family who ruled the city from the 16 th C to 1945 and the people who owned the castle.
Behind it on Holy Hill you can see a church on top covered in scaffolding . It is the church of St. Sebastian and the destination of the annual pilgrimage to the Black Madonna of Mikulov.
Then it was a short walk to Mikulov Castle.
Our guide pointed out that castles are fortresses and chateaus are the palaces often built on top when defense is no longer the priority. This is a beautiful castle/chateau that sits high above the city. It was burned down at the end of WW II but was rebuilt in the 1950s by the Communists. They did not want to be perceived as barbarians and wanted to show their appreciation for art and culture. Consequently, they picked 150 of the approximately 1500 castles that dot the landscape to restore.
We walked through the wrought-iron gate  and along the side of the chateau. Outside we could still see the original stone foundations of the castle but no reason to go inside - it is all new. However, the views from the top were spectacular.
The path took us to the former Jewish neighborhood, where others live now, and back to our bus.
We then headed to our hotel Hranicni Zamecek in Hlohovec.
After checking in, we boarded the bus and went to Lednice Chateau Park, a -19th century English style park which extends for 4 miles between Lednice Castle and Valtice Castles. We walked past the English neo-gothic style castle but did not go in.
The castle was built by the Lichtensteins, who also owned Valtice Castle. (More on that tomorrow.) Together, the 2 castles and land comprised 100 sq. miles during their reign. Today Lednice Castle houses a university for winemakers. Anyone is welcome to sign up for a summer short course. One of the key features of the castle was an elaborate greenhouse.
Since the technology had not been invented to make curved glass, the structure is made of cast-iron (like many train stations and market halls throughout Europe) and then 65,000 small rectangular pieces of glass are layered and assembled into the frame. Every two years they are cleaned. What a nightmare that must be!  
The walk around the garden was beautiful, offering various views of the castle.
There are a number of water features and we discovered they are actually fish ponds that have produced fish for food since the 1400s. We will study more about that later. Then we headed back to our hotel for dinner in the restaurant there, which overlooked a beautiful pond. After introductions all around. We all turned in early.

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