Czech Republic – Part I – Brno:
Prague and the Czech Republic has, for a very long time, been on my travel wishlist. There have been periods when I’ve waivered – perhaps due to stories of out of control stag parties and hen weekends in the papers which made Prague seem like a chillier Ibiza or perhaps just because I am old enough to remember the austerity of the Eastern Block in the 1960s. For the most part though, I’ve just been looking for the right opportunity to visit. ‘Baroque and Carnival’ a provocatively titled press trip to Czechia, sounded like the perfect chance to go.
I have to admit to having little more than a blurry recollection of the first city on our itinerary before this trip. An old friend is a refugee from Brno, her family were forced to leave around 1968. More of that later as it’s a tale in itself and one kickback from this trip is that we are planning to catch up for the first time in around five years so that she can tell me something about her memories of Brno during the Cold War. That story I plan to share with London-Unattached along with a few others which we chanced on during this all too brief visit to the Czech Republic.
We arrived in Brno on a direct flight from Stansted with Ryanair. First impressions count and mine were of an immaculately clean airport (even the restrooms) and of efficient and friendly border control. The airport is around 20 minutes from the town centre by car or there are regular buses if you are on a tight budget. With around 400,000 inhabitants, the city is the second largest in the Czech Republic and it’s also an important University city and the principle seat of the judicial authority of the Czech Republic. And, for those who are not great beer drinkers, it’s in Moravia – the Eastern part of the Czech Republic and the area best known for its wines, rather than beers!
All that sounded good to me. Better still was our hotel, the stunning Barcelo Brno Palace which is just south of one of Brno’s key landmarks, the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul.
The Barcelo Brno Palace dates back to the 18050s. Originally built as luxurious apartments for wealthy residents of Brno, it was designed by Viennese architect Franz Frolich and inspired by Renaissance palaces. At that time and until the building was converted to a hotel, the central courtyard area was open so that residents could drive up to their door. During the 20th Century, it had various uses, as the district court, as a dental clinic, to house the police and civil authorities. It gradually fell into disrepair and in 2006 the city of Brno was forced to sell the building to a private Spanish investor who spent 30 months converting it into the Barcelo Brno Palace.
The building re-opened in 2012, a stunning luxury hotel with a fabulous glass roof to create a covered atrium and replace the open courtyard. Our rooms were blissfully comfortable, with large double glazed windows and king sized beds.
The bathrooms were well equipped with bespoke Barcelo toiletries and mine had a spa bath and double sinks. An unexpected luxury in Central Europe where all too often even the five-star hotels have showers only. Room rates appear very competitive, starting at around 80 euros a night depending on the time of year. And, the breakfast was excellent. In addition to a comprehensive buffet with cold meats, local cheese and pastries, home made yoghurt and cakes and a range of cereals, they will cook you a fresh omelette should you so desire. There’s also a spa and a large exercise suite, which I didn’t have a chance to use.
I love this kind of hotel – one which combines heritage with contemporary comforts – and I have no hesitation recommending it.
Brno was, for the most part, the base from which to explore this part of Moravia. We spent just one evening and one morning in the city itself. While that’s a good chance to get a feel for the place, it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to return to. In that short time, we visited the World War II nuclear shelter, 10-z which I’ll write about in more detail in a later piece and Spilbeck Castle, a Gothic castle originally built in the mid 13th century by Czech King Premysl Otakar II. It wasn’t until the 14th century that the castle became the official seat of the Moravian Margraves (nobility).
By the mid 17th Century the castle was transformed into a baroque fortress with new ‘casemates; completed in 1742 to improve fortification of Spilbeck and to provide shelter for a garrison. It didn’t take long for Emperor Joseph II to decide, in 1783, that a prison should be created there. For some time the prison co-existed with the army but, by 1809, the fortress lost its military role and became a civilian prison.
From the very beginning, the prison was regarded as one for the most dangerous criminals. Not only did it hold common criminals – murderers, thieves and arsonists, but it was also used to hold state prisoners, including the Italian carbonares – opponents of the Hapsburg reign, supports of the French Revolution, Polish revolutionaries and Czech rebels from the First World War and during the time of Nazi occupation. Now though it’s home to the Brno City Museum and listed as a National Monument.
It’s somewhat horrific to walk around and realise just how many prisoners would have occupied the now empty cells.
Navigating around Brno on foot is relatively easy once you realise that there are two major landmarks which are almost always visible. Spilbeck Castle is, of course, one of those while the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is the other.
It dominates the city and is a national cultural monument and regarded as one of the most important pieces of architecture in South Moravia. The 84-metre-high towers were constructed to the Gothic Revival designs of the architect August Kirstein in 1904–5. A Romanesque church was originally on this site dating back to 1170. in the 14th century, it was rebuilt in the Gothic style. The interior though is mostly Baroque in style.
If like me, you’ve already had to change your watch when you arrive in Brno, take care not to be confused. Traditionally, the bells of the cathedral are rung at 11 o’clock in the morning instead of 12 noon. It is said that during the 30 years’ war, the Swedish had laid siege to Brno. They agreed to call off their attack if progress hadn’t been made by 15th August. So, to fool them into leaving early, the citizens of Brno rang the bells an hour early and the Swedes left! To this day, you’ll find that the midday peal is at 11 am!
The city, though, is full of beautiful Baroque and Gothic buildings. The Church of St James is one of the finest and is right in the centre of the City.
Next door, you’ll find an Ossuary, the second largest in Europe, which has been created relatively recently following the discovery fifteen years ago of some 50,000 skeletons buried near the church. Look closely at the walls and you see they are made with the skulls and bones found under the streets of Brno.
Our focus for this trip was on the Baroque, but Brno itself is also famous for one particular modernist building built in 1929 by architect Mies van der Rohe – the Unesco listed Villa Tugenhat. And, there are a wealth of stunning buildings, some belonging to the universities of the City
I particularly liked the pretty ‘Cabbage Market Square’ in the centre of Brno, although by sunset there was no sign of a market and it was also too late to visit the labyrinths that run under the square.
The Cabbage Market dates from the 13th century and has always been a busy marketplace. Cellars were built under the local houses, most dating to the baroque era. They were originally used for food, beer brewing and for maturing wine and they were not interconnected. Many were secret, used as a place of refuge in times of war. In 2009 the cellars were reconstructed and interconnected into the ‘labyrinth’ of today as a way to show more about the life of the people who lived around the square.