Litomerice

17-05-2006

The North Bohemian town of Litomerice has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the Czech Republic's most beautiful sites. Founded roughly 1,000 years ago, Litomerice lies in one of the Czech Republic's hilliest ranges on the confluence of the Elbe and Ohre Rivers. The town's beginnings were originally a Slavonic fort overseeing a number of small municipalities, later replaced by a castle and emerging town in the 11th century.

Litoměřice, photo: CzechTourismLitoměřice, photo: CzechTourism Oldrich Doskocil is a local historian who has lived in Litomerice most of his life:

"We can't set an exact date for the founding of Litomerice but we do know that its beginnings reach back to the nearby Domsky Vrch or Dome Hill, the site of a castle that was important under Bohemia's Premyslid rulers. The castle included an early Romanesque church - which later fell into ruins. They did recover a piece at the archaeological site: an original tile, featuring a well-known and recognisable symbol of Christianity: two fish bound by a ribbon."

In 1057, Litomerice was given a chapter of the church of St Stephen, increasing its importance.

Litoměřice, photo: KarelJ, CC BY-SA 3.0 UnportedLitoměřice, photo: KarelJ, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported "Gradually the town grew. Across the valley there were several settlements - later given names like 'Zasada', 'Kocanda', 'Rybare', and 'Nove Mesto' - the New Town. They eventually came together and by 1260 formed the early medieval settlement. Arguably, the most interesting activities continued to take place on the periphery - especially the Zasada district, has the feel of a village within a city even today. In medieval times it was increasingly settled by foreign merchants: Arabs, Slavs from the Balkans, German-speakers. Litomerice gained a true multi-ethnic 'character'."

Under the Premylsids, Litomerice and its castle were vital and remained important under the Luxembourgs. Fortifications and an additional castle were built on its western flank at the command of King Charles IV, who visited Litomerice on three occasions. Charles granted the town the nearby hill of Radobyl for the foundation of a royal vineyard. Original wine production in the area lasted up to the 2nd half of the 19th century, when landslides destroyed the vineyard.

I asked Oldrich Doskocil whether any records describing the wine's taste, had survived:

Litoměřice, photo: H2k4, CC BY-SA 3.0 UnportedLitoměřice, photo: H2k4, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported "Well, it was said to be among the very best in the country. It wouldn't be wise to criticise the king's wine! I wouldn't! On the other hand, I know they used to criticise Litomerice's beer: it's said that the brewing tradition that used to exist here was never all that great!"

Wine and beer traditions are of course just a footnote in Litomerice's history: the town experienced periods of great social change and eventually - upheaval. The 1400s and 1500s were largely marked by the Hussitte movement, with much of the region backing the Protestant movement. But, eventually the defeat of Protestant forces at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 at the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, spelt the end of Czech autonomy and paved the way a for brutal re-Catholicisation of the Czech lands. Many loyal protestants - in Litomerice as elsewhere, were forced to depart.

Litoměřice, photo: Miraceti, CC BY-SA 3.0 UnportedLitoměřice, photo: Miraceti, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported "The Hussite movement was always strong here and the sanctions were strict. Even so, the first two Jesuits who came here were chased out by townsfolk carrying pitchforks. Following the Battle of White Mountain, some 200 families were forced to leave. They were given a choice: either to go into exile, or to convert. Property was seized - many left their homes behind. "

But, Litomerice itself survived, largely intact. The architecture in the historic centre remains stunning: a beautiful panorama of spires on the hazy Elbe River; ramparts from the 13th century; its main square. A mix of burghers' houses rebuilt in the Renaissance - and later - Baroque styles. A courtyard on Jezuitska Street complete hides a twin-peaked Gothic Church. Litomerice was also heavily influenced by the Baroque including the famous Jesuit church of St. Stephen.

Classicist, Art Nouveau, and later Constructivist buildings follow. Without a doubt a unique pleasure in visiting Litomerice is just simply wandering the town's wider area, viewing private villas off the beaten path. I spoke with a couple tourists on a day-trip from Prague:

"I'm here just for one day to see the city. We have seen the square here - which is very beautiful - and some Gothic cellars I think they were. Yeah!"

"We saw the square and now we're walking to see houses and buildings outside the town. What I like is that there are German houses and buildings here - they are beautiful!"

In the distance, the nearby hills and hillocks shimmer in the sunlight. The Dome Hill, Radobyl - the site of the former vineyard. It was from those same slopes that in late October 1836 the great Czech Romantic poet Karel Hynek Macha saw part of Litomerice catch fire. In a letter to his parents and fiancé he wrote:

"In the evening, I was lying on Radobyl, one of the high peaks behind Litomerice, it was already dark, and flames appeared in Litomerice. I saw it from that peak. So I ran quickly down... I had to run about three-quarters of an hour to get there, and I was still one of the first ones to the fire. Eleven barns, full of grain, burst into flame, and the wind was blowing through them terribly. Such clarity and heat I've never seen in my life."

The poet and others cooperated together to fight the blaze, but that night - his caught a chill that eventually led to his death, a month later - at just twenty-seven. Oldrich Doskocil once more:

"It was Macha's last journey. On Radobyl he saw the flames and rushed to help on the other side of town. He caught pneumonia, which eventually proved fatal. That was how the Czech's greatest Romantic poet died."

17-05-2006