It is a charming and, in its own way, fascinating correspondence… the letters they exchanged also illustrate something that is very rare, the evolution of a purely intellectual friendship. —Leon Ma. Guerrero
While I was in Litoměřice near the Polish border of Czech Republic in 2019, with former Czech ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr., I walked all over the city that played a big part in Philippine history.
First on the agenda, through the baroque Peace Mírové Square, was to visit the Blumentritt-Rizal Bastion, a projecting part of the town’s fortifications, named in honor of the friendship between the Litoměřice scholar Ferdinand Blumentritt and Philippine hero Jose Rizal.
The bastion, in fact, is a memorial to the historic visit of Rizal, accompanied by Maximo Viola, who helped pay for the initial printing of Noli Me Tangere in Berlin, to Litoměřice from May 13 to 17, 1887. It was a personal visit, the first (and last) face-to-face encounter between Rizal and Blumentritt, who started their friendship through correspondence, a friendship Rizal described as one not unlike that between “two blind and deaf men; we talk to each other without seeing or hearing each other.”
In truth, as Rizal stepped off the train from Dresden at the Litoměřice station and had “the pleasure of embracing” his friend, as he put it in a letter, the moment had been preordained since Blumentritt was a young boy listening to his aunt’s stories of what might have been mere family lore. This peripatetic aunt, coming home in her old age to Prague, regaled him with stories about an ancestor who was a governor of colonial Philippines in the early 17th century. Since then, the boy Blumentritt had been smitten with the Spanish-speaking world, especially the parts of it conquered by Spain, such as the Latin Americas and the Philippines.
It was the fates that decided that their paths crossed. At the train station, Rizal at last met Blumentritt in person, although his request was for his Czech friend to wait at his house, unwilling to make him wait for a train whose exact time of arrival in Litoměřice he could not ascertain. On the contrary, the entire Blumentritt family was at the station waiting, Rizal’s friend, his wife Rosa Muller and his children Konrad, Dolores, and Friedrich.
Today, that train station has been converted into a park complex. A restaurant stands where the station was, but a portion of an old train remains on a track as a memorial to those days. Overlooking all this today, on the slope of a hill, is Parkány José Rizala or Rizal Park, where a bust of the hero in bronze is hung on a wall with a plaque that says, in Czech and English, “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.”
Back in 1887, not a moment in Rizal’s four days in Litoměřice was wasted. He and Viola stayed at Hotel Krebs at the main square, then the town’s most elegant hotel. In Harry Sichrovsky’s book Ferdinand Blumentritt: An Austrian Life for the Philippines, it was said that “every morning after breakfast, Blumentritt punctually appeared at the hotel to discuss the program for the day.” Rizal and Viola tried to see as much of Litoměřice, now a twin city of Calamba, Rizal’s birthplace in Laguna, as they could, visiting museums and other places of interest, including the office of the mayor, in which a bust of Rizal is now permanently installed. He was also introduced to the prominent citizens of the city, such as at the meeting of the mountaineering club, in which he and Viola were received as guests of honor.
For their farewell dinner, Blumentritt took his guests to the woods on the Elbe River, where he sampled Austro-Czech cuisine, a taste of the Bohemian life Rizal sought, as he wrote in his letters to Blumentritt prior to their meeting. “It is sufficient to eat just once, in order to get a proof of the culinary art,” Rizal wrote in anticipation of meeting his friend and his trip to Litoměřice.
But what was even more surprising, to both Rizal and Viola, as well as to me when I walked in Rizal’s shoes in Litoměřice, was that, as the highlight of each day during their four-day visit was dinner at the Blumentritt home on Dlouhá Street, there was one banquet where, amid the pleasantries in both German and Spanish, was a spread of Filipino dishes. Served at the Blumentritt banquet were adobo, lechon, lumpia, kare-kare, pancit, and a meat and seafood paella, according to Sichrovsky’s book.
If this is true, though I cannot seem to find other accounts to verify Sichrovsky’s claims, my Litoměřice excursion, the second to the last leg of my Central European journey, which brought me to so many cities, such as Budapest, Vienna, Prague, and thanks to Amb. Olša, to many other historic cities in the Czech Republic, would have been perfect with a dish of adobo. Instead, I had a creamy pork and mushroom ragout at an underground tavern called Karel IV outside of the city on the way back to Prague and, though it was sumptuous enough that I literally wiped my plate off with the boiled bread dumpling, it would sound better if I were to imagine having it, as Rizal might have, in the woods on the Elbe River.
But what a filling, bursting adventure, both what I imagine Rizal ate in Litoměřice and his friend Blumentritt, the Prague-born and Prague-educated schoolmaster and scholar, who moved to Litoměřice to teach and who died there in 1913, and their friendship, which began and ended in letters that progressed from “Esteemed Sir” to “Esteemed friend” five months into the correspondence to “Dear Friend” and, finally, to “Dear Brother.”