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Litomysl: Doorway Through Time

A hidden jewel off the Czech Republic, known far better to Czechs than to outsiders, Litomysl takes the visitor back in time to a beautiful fairlyland-not through costumed interpreters and recreated crafts, but with a thousand-year history touched by some of the brightest lights of Czech culture and history.

The town feels quite a bit larger than its 11,000 inhabitants-but every attraction is compressed into just a few blocks, making it easy to see it all on foot.

Start at the vast Baroque and Renaissance town square, featuring buildings from many different centuries-including a Baroque mansion once owned by Bedrich Smetana's father (Smetana himself was born in the castle brewery, a few blocks away). A much more recent event is also commemorated: the plaque at 127 Smetana Square marks the site of the Paseka Bookstore, where Dagmar Pecková, a famous Czech opera singer in town for the annual music festival, achieved a different kind of notoriety by publicly breastfeeding her baby son, on June 28, 1997. Across the street, the Knights House and the Old Post Office were featured in Czech literature. The Old Town Hall, with its gothic tower, now houses a library and public restrooms. A few meters to the left, the information office provides English-language walking tours of the square and the city surrounding it.

And why is there an arcade with nearly uniform arches along almost the entire 499-meter town square (one meter shorter than Prague's Wenceslas Square, and only visible in its entirety from the top of the central tower)? Because the first floors were all rebuilt in a common style after a disastrous flood in 1781.

Slightly uphill from the square, a series of churches and castles welcome an endless procession of weddings on a summer weekend: eight on the Saturday of our visit, every half hour. Typically, the wedding takes place at the Gothic church, and then the happy couples and their families stroll past the cathedral-like cloister dating from 1763, and into the picturesque grounds of Count Bratislav's 16th-century palace.

This castle, built by Italian architects in the renaissance style, with two tiers of arches above the first floor, is an elegant work of art. The outer walls have over 8000 individual "graffitos," carved stone tablets each depicting an animal, plant, or human-made object. No two are alike, but seven show different keys. If you spot one, legend has it that your wish will be granted.

Even more impressive than the graffitos are the carvings on the actual castle walls. These are fine line drawings showing scenes of life in centuries past, Biblical stories (including Samson and Delilah), and glimpses of period architecture.

Again, tours are available in English-and taking the tour opens huge sections of the palace that are otherwise under lock and key. Highlights include a magnificent 100-seat Baroque theatre constructed around 1799, magnificent furnishings such as a secretary with secret compartments, and massive woodstoves disguised as art objects. The tour includes some 40 of the 100 rooms used as living quarters, commentary on the Count's Spanish bride and her impact on the decor, and a chance to hear a bit of live music in the theater. While lacking the opulence of Versailles or the Hermitage, the palace offers multitudes of fine cabinetry, nifty features such as a stairway designed for horses freighting up those big pieces of furniture, and a collection of grand-scale (if somewhat dour) portraits.

Exit into the courtyard and cross to the former brewery where Smetana's father became a wealthy and prominent citizen, and where the composer himself was born. Many of the furnishings here are original, including Smetana's piano and two of his violins, some of his manuscripts, his writing desk, and even census documents showing the composer's family.

If you're lucky enough, the town hosts an opera festival in Smetena's honor every year, usually in June.

Painter and novelist Josef Váchal also made his mark on the town. Between the town square and the monastery, an alley passes under several Gothic-style buttresses-and along one red wall is a whole series of graffitos illustrating scenes from his "Bloody Novel." The artwork is not his, only the story line. But around the corner, at Portmonium, his exotic and colorful frescoes, crammed with demons, Masonic and Rosicrucian images, nature scenes, and more-create a rich visual experience unlike any other. These were painted on poorly prepared surfaces in the 1920s and suffered both water and fire damage; their complete and meticulous restoration involved actually separating the paintings from the walls, replastering, and then reattaching the artwork.

Litomysl is easily reachable by bus from Prague. The town also maintains an English-language tourist information site.

In addition to travel writing, Shel Horowitz is the award-winning author of eight books, most recently Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet (co-authored with Jay Conrad Levinson). He writes the monthly syndicated column, "Green And Profitable."

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