By AA PATAWARAN
I never really took Ferdinand Blumentritt seriously, though I knew how inextricable his name was in connection to the great story of Jose Rizal and the revolution of 1896.
The importance of Blumentritt to Philippine history is unmistakable, memorialized by so many things named after him here in the Philippines, such as Blumentritt Road in the City of Manila and Blumentritt Street in Naga City and in Tuguegarao. Also named after him were a market, a railway station, a few public parks, and a station in the LRT, the very first of our still growing city train system.
On invitation of Czech Tourism, I made a 10-day Central European tour early this month that brought me to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, with Český Krumlov in Czech Republic thrown in.
But I had an extra treat, thanks to former Czech ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr., who took me all over one half of what was once Czechoslovakia, which has split into two independent states, Czech Republic and Slovakia, since 1993. From Český Krumlov, near the Austrian border, we took a road trip to Karlovy Vary, close to Dresden on the German border. On this route, I got a chance to visit the Pilsner Urquell Brewery in Plzen, the very site where the formula to all other pilsner-type beers in the world originated.
Amb. Olša also took me on a factory tour of glassmaking legend Moser in Karlovy Vary, where I stayed overnight, staying at the Hotel Imperial, which might as well have been the fictional Grand Budapest Hotel for me, perched on a mountain slope in this fairy tale town, venue of one of the oldest film festivals in the world. The highlight of my stay in this playground of the rich, other than sharing current Czech President Miloš Zeman’s favorite herbal bitters, the Becherovka, was a 15-minute mineral bath at the Hotel Imperial spa with a female Slovak attendant, who was convinced there was nothing awkward, let alone embarrassing, about her looking me over stark naked from head to toe.
From Karlovy Vary, Amb. Olša and I headed north toward the Polish border. Our destination: Litoměřice or Leitmeritz, the “Garden of Bohemia,” but we were really headed 132 years back in time.
…You alone give us strength and courage and you admonish us as well when we step out of line … all of us Filipinos are very grateful to you for your love for our Fatherland; we all agree (are of the opinion) that you are the best Filipino and do more than all of us together. —Jose Rizal, letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt
I was blessed to have had Amb. Olša for company. More than a diplomat, he is a man of culture, with particular interest in literature. After college at Charles University in Prague, where he earned a degree in Asian and African Studies, he went to the University of Amsterdam and then to Bourghiba School of Living Languages in Tunis. Before his Manila posting in 2014, he was ambassador to Korea for six years and, before that, from 2000 to 2006, to Zimbabwe and, concurrently, to five other neighboring African nations. In his youth, in the 1980s, while Czechoslovakia was still part of the Eastern block, he founded what turned out to be the iconic Czech science fiction literary magazine Ikarie XB, which continues to exist today as Ikarie 1. An editor, translator, and bibliographer, Amb. Olša is, in fact, a luminary in literature, especially in science fiction, with more than a few anthologies and translations to his name, including the 1995 Czech Encyklopedie literatury science fiction (Science Fiction Encyclopedia).
So, yes, we approached Litoměřice, literally on time travel, although the first order of the day was to visit a building called the Blumentritt and Rizal’s Bastion (Centro Rizal Museum) that, in three stories, is a monument to the legendary friendship between Blumentritt and Rizal, replete with news clippings of the stories published in Czech papers on the historic 1887 visit. From there, we walked to where stood Hotel Krebs, the town’s most elegant hotel back in the day, now a shopping center, on the Peace Mírové Square where Rizal and his companion, Maximo Viola, stayed from May 13 to 17, 1887.
A block from the main square, with a baroque plaque column and a renaissance town hall-turned-regional museum, was the secondary school in which Blumentritt taught and later became principal. Across the school building, we found a section of the wall dedicated to the teacher, translator, lecturer, and author of many books and articles about the Philippines. In the plaque, written in Czech, part of his identification was as a “globally renowned expert on the Philippines.”
We walked further on cobblestone streets, on a hilly terrain, to Rizal Park or Parkány José Rizala, a pocket park replete with benches and a terrace overlooking the exact same spot in which Rizal, accompanied by Viola, arrived on a train from Dresden. In the dedication, written in both Czech and English, was the phrase “To the memory of the true friendship of the most famous personality of the modern Philippines, the great humanist Jose Rizal, and the director of the Technical Secondary School in Litoměřice, Ferdinand Blumentritt.”
Meeting Rizal in 1886 was fated for Blumentritt, who even in his childhood had been interested in the Spanish speaking world, particularly the Latin American colonies and the Philippines. Word has it that an ancestor of his was the governor of the Philippines in the early 17th century. Although there’s a likelihood it was only a family lore, the story made Blumentritt romanticize with Spain’s conquests. It was only a matter of time before he started corresponding with Rizal in 1886, and then in 1887, just when Noli Me Tangere was at last published in Berlin, 2,000 copies from the P300 Viola gave to underwrite the cost of printing, a copy of which Blumentritt was an early recipient. Such was Blumentritt’s affair with a country he never set foot in that a few days after leaving Litoměřice, Rizal wrote him a letter from Brünn, in which he said, “I am at heart a Leitmeritzian, just as you consider yourself also a Filipino in sentiment.” I was surprised, just as Rizal and Viola were, that in Litoměřice, while they indulged in typically meat-heavy, creamy Czech Austrian food, at the Blumentritt home, to which they were invited over many a meal, they were served adobo, kare kare, lechon, lumpia, pancit, and paella.
Down the hill, Amb. Olša and I went to the very spot at which Rizal and Viola stepped off the train to the welcoming arms of Blumentritt, his wife Rosa, and his children Friedrich, Dolores, and Konrad, despite Rizal’s entreaties for his Czech friend to wait at his house and not at the station for he couldn’t ascertain the exact time of his arrival. It was also at this same spot that he and Viola, after four days in Litoměřice, boarded the train to Prague on May 17, 1887. Blumentritt, “teary-eyed,” and his family were all there to bid him farewell, his daughter Dolores, who took the Filipino nickname Loleng, running “like a butterfly,” as Rizal put it, alongside the train as it pulled out of the station. Neither Rizal nor Blumentritt knew that it was going to be the last time they would see each other face to face.
From Rizal Park, we tried to follow in more of Rizal’s footsteps and ended our excursion at the town cemetery in search of Blumentritt’s grave. It was in this town, though he was born and educated in Prague, that Blumentritt died in 1913.
There were many other traces of Rizal’s visit in Litoměřice, such as his bronze bust at the Office of the Mayor, and it is thanks to this office that the connection between Rizal and Blumentritt continues to be celebrated and explored. It was also thanks to the mayor’s office that in 1974 a sister cities agreement was signed between Calamba, the birthplace of Rizal, and Litoměřice.
My own visit to this baroque town during winter’s last hurrah earlier this month was enriched by my company, the good Sikatuna-awarded diplomat Amb. Olša, who even after his tour of duty in the Philippines continues to be gung ho about unearthing political, economic, cultural, historical, and personto-person ties between the Czechs and the Filipinos. In this way, he, too, like Blumentritt, is a Philippinist.
Prague, to which we drove back after our Litoměřice pilgrimage, was once enough to convince me about the wonders of Czech Republic, but after having traveled beyond the capital to discover more of the country’s charms, not to mention my intimate encounter with the deep and moving connections between our countries, I have found in Czech Republic a touch of home.