This Entire Czech Town Made Out of Marzipan Is a Rare Joy

The long and often apocryphal history of Třeboň is memorialized in almond paste.
October 11, 2018, 3:16pm
All photos courtesy the author.

Over the course of its 900-year history, Třeboň, Czech Republic has been settled by nobility, devastated by war, and, more than once, nearly burned to the ground. It’s also the site of a few apocryphal line items that haven’t quite entered the official historical record—like a disaffected pond-builder who haunts the town via cat-drawn chariot and a pair of British expat-alchemists who claimed to turn lead into gold.

Třeboň today remains unapologetically specific. Muddy brown peat baths are such a ubiquitous offering at the town’s numerous commercial spas that even Rick Steves once took a dip, in what he calls “one of the stupidest-looking sequences we’ve ever done.” And a statue on Highway 34, a primary artery into town, features several giant carps, mouths agape. It's a tribute to the icons of the city’s thriving fishing business, which brings the bottom-feeders to households across the Czech Republic for Christmas dinner.

All of this—authenticated and apocryphal—is monumentalized at Třeboň in Marzipan, a new museum on the town’s main square. In 12 intricate marzipan diorama (marzipanoramas?) the exhibition gives the Spark-Notes version of a millenium of history, some of which is actually true. "We want to show Třeboň from a different perspective, maybe more in legends and rumors," reads the exhibition website. Indeed, as little as it says little about Třeboň itself, the exhibition’s laissez-faire relationship to history speaks volumes about its creators’ easygoing M.O.

Marzipan, for the record, isn’t a Třeboň thing. It isn’t even a particularly Czech thing. Whereas Germans and Austrians are faithful eaters of the almond paste, low-quality marzipan in communist Czechoslovakia dissuaded Czechs from becoming regular consumers, according to museum director Lenka Želivská. “There were so many fake marzipans,” Želivská says.

The similarly sweet Museum of Chocolate and Marzipan in Tábor, about 30 miles north, opened in 2012. Its owner, Petra Kovandová, hired her friend Želivská to serve as manager. "I had to study the history of chocolate, and the whole business was very unknown for me,” Želivská remembers. “It was a new thing. I was like, eyes like this”—she widens her eyes, mock-awestruck—”we can do what with chocolate?"

When the two women went in search of a space for a new attraction, they also set out to shift the focus away from chocolate. Želivská points to a gigantic statue of Czech ice-hockey legend Jaromír Jágr, installed at the museum café in Tábor, to illustrate the effort required to maintain chocolate for display. “You have to have air-condition everywhere and you have to control the temperature, and there is a problem with the sun and the breathing of the [museum visitors],” Želivská said. Marzipan, on the other hand, softens with the warmth of a pair of hands, then naturally hardens as its water content evaporates.

On a Friday afternoon in Tábor, Želivská introduces me to Marian Valášek, a middle-aged man in a Kelly-green sweater, and Iveta Hortová, whose mischievous eyes and white chef’s hat call to mind Lucy Ricardo at the chocolate factory. Both had active careers outside the field of marzipan artistry—Valášek as a police officer, Hortová as a florist—until injury and illness left them unable to work.

In addition to employing skilled cake decorators, 'Třeboň in Marzipan' functions as a chráněná dílna (literally, “protected workroom”), a workplace for people with physical or mental disabilities. Valášek’s plump marzipan figurines are available for purchase, sealed with a photo of the former policeman in his chef’s whites. In preparation for the annual Rožmberk Pond Fishing event, which will attract visitors from all over the Czech Republic, Hortová has recently handcrafted 5,000 marzipan carps to sell under the Třeboň in Marzipan name.

Both artists speak ebulliently about their new jobs, despite the requisite trial and error. Želivská initially paired the duo together to build a miniature model of the Schwartzenberg Tomb, a well-known neo-gothic landmark in the region. Then she left them to it.

"Wait," I wonder aloud, in the presence of the two fledgling marzipan artists, "do you give the artists some kind of guidance? Do you show them how to begin?"

"No, no,” Želivská answers. “Because I don't know anything. That's why I have my imagination that it's very easy."

"So you hire them to build something out of marzipan, and they have to figure out how?"

"Yeah yeah yeah," she says, nonchalant. “So I say, ‘Let's go to a tomb, and you do it.’ For me it's very easy, because I don't know anything about it.”

Hortová and Valášek built a paper model of the tomb based on a postcard image, trying to get each measurement to scale. ("Maybe it's not as easy as I think," Želivská recalls thinking when the duo showed her the paper mock-up.) Then they set about attaching a marzipan facade to a styrofoam foundation—a Sisyphean task, they explained, because one day it would attach and the next it would slip right off.

"When we went home, you know—a film of the tomb is always playing in your head: Did we do it well?" Valášek says. "You close your eyes and the tomb is always there. You can't get a break."

Ultimately, once Hortová and Valášek got it just right, the marzipan tomb became one of the focal points of the exhibition. “We achieved something from nothing,” Valášek said.

Hortová interjected to agree. “We stood next to each other, looked at the [marzipan] tomb, and suddenly said to each other, ‘It isn’t possible that we made this.’”

The finished tomb stands alongside other landmark sites in Třeboň history, including the city brewery and the Tyl Theatre. Museumgoers are sometimes treated to two versions of events, including the founding of the town, given in the form of “tale” and “reality.” And museum labels favor cheeky morsels over textbook facts. Visitors may be surprised to know that prominent nobleman Petr Vok and his brother Vílem referred to each other as “Mr. Vok” beginning at age nine, for instance. Or that Petr died on November 5, 1611, but that “6.11.1611 looked better, so the clerks rewrote [it].”

"You can go to the castle and you can hear the real history, then you can go to the monastery, and you can hear the real, official, serious history,” Želivská says. “But I didn't want our exhibits [to] be the same.”

“I don't want people to think that we are the smartest museum,” she adds. “It's more about the experiences.”