Nelahozeves - Zámek
At home with Antonin Dvorak

nelahozeves zamekEvery morning at 8:43 a.m. a rickety old train coughs its way out of Masarykovo station and labors northward past Prague's familiar landmarks into a world where time seems to have stopped long, long ago. Ramshackle houses dot the scenery and railway cafes are brisk with business as workers enjoy their breakfast beer. After less than an hour, the train stops momentarily at a nondescript station named Nelahozeves - zámek. It is here, opposite a handful of smokestacks, that a national treasure came into being.

Antonín Dvorák was born on September 8th, 1841 in the tiny village of Nelahozeves - a mere 25 kilometers north of Prague. In 1860, while serving in his father's butcher's store, he decided to leave home and try his luck in the big city as a classical composer. Making do with the subsidy that the state provided its artists at the time, Dvorák lived modestly for five years, allowing himself time to concentrate on creating his own works. A couple of these piqued the interest of Johannes Brahms, a member of the subsidy committee, who convinced his publisher in Berlin to publish them. After the appearance of the Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances, he instantly won over a wide audience and gained increasing recognition from his peers.

Particularly well-received in England, he wrote The Spectre's Bride (1884) and the Requiem Mass (1891) for Birmingham, his Symphony in D minor (no. 7) for the Philharmonic Society (1885) and St. Ludmila (1886) for Leeds, and went on to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. Between 1892 and 1895 he served as director of the National Conservatory in New York and it was here he produced the well-known 9th Symphony From the New World. Financial problems brought him back to Prague and in 1901 he composed Rusalka, which confirmed him as one of the great classical artists of all time. He died three years later on May 1st, 1904.

You notice Nelahozeves castle the second you step off the train. A late Renaissance building, resting on a gentle slope and rising five stories high, it is adorned with simple yet elegant sgraffito figures and reached by way of an arched stone bridge spanning a dry, grassy moat. Built primarily in the late 16th century, its archives include a library holding 65,000 volumes, letters signed by 12th century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and 4,500 musical manuscripts, including priceless autographed scores by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - some of which are on display.

The fine art galleries are located on the first and second floors and include three family portrait rooms, a majolica room, a room devoted to Beethoven memorabilia, and a dining room as well as the stunning 'Knight's Hall' with its massive stone fireplace. The Lobkowicz family's wonderful "Roudnice" collection of paintings, consisting of works by Velasquez, Cranach, Rubens, Veronese and Breughel among others, provides a major attraction for visitors.

Outside the castle, behind the station, lies an unmarked and unused white church. Oddly, the cross that adorns the top of it has been hammered in crookedly to the right. Directly across is a wonderful little courtyard with a statue of 'The Master' himself.. This depicts Dvorák standing casually, baton in hand, but it is his eyes that draw you in. Cool yet intense, they convey none of his exuberance for life yet all his passion for it. Further down is his home - a substantial burgher's cottage now called 'The Antonín Dvorák Memorial' and it is a sad sight to see. The paint is peeling all around the house and on the window frames. The shingles need repairing and the sign on the wall could use a polish: odd, considering the majestic upkeep that seems to go into the castle across the street. Walking through his house is a curiously moving experience despite the fact that a viola, a pen and a hymnal are the only possessions of his to be found.

Walking around this village, one senses an air of tranquility as old as Dvorák's works themselves. There's not much here: a post office, a hairdresser's, a kindergarten decorated with happy little pumpkins and a cemetery whose oldest grave dates back to the Beaufort family in 1873. The houses are all huddled together and in various stages of disrepair. One has a large tulip painted on its front. Another has a sticker of a half moon on its window. It is eerily quiet here save for the occasional bark of a disgruntled dog.

The jewel of Nelahozeves castle is the Vinarna v Podzamci. Located centrally between the castle and the Dvorák Memorial, it is the only place where you'll be able to find a bite to eat. The menu is extensive and hovers around the 100-crown range. The portions are unbelievable as is the quality of the food (try the pork strips with Roquefort sauce!). For beer lovers, they serve Starobrno 10 degree (light and dark) but the braver souls should try the Baron Trenck - a smooth, sweet tasting beer weighing in at 14 degrees. There is even a jukebox and one can have a lot of fun baffling the locals by choosing choice cuts from artists such as Outkast and 50 Cent. Stay a while. You'll be happy you did.