From right next to our small campsite (Camping Hana) in the rural town of Veverská Bítyška, we were able to get a boat down the Svratka River and across the 10km-long Brno reservoir to the outskirts of the city and from there a rickety tram into the centre.
It has to be one of the most pleasant ways to arrive in Brno! The boat has an electric engine and so the journey was quiet and peaceful – it was as though we were just gliding through the water, surrounded by birds and fish, drifting past castles and watching people out enjoying a dip in the cool water. All along the shore of the lake were grassy recreation areas where people had laid out their towels and were having fun either in or on the water. And there seemed to be different areas catering for all different needs – some quiet areas with no facilities, others with restaurants, playgrounds and boats to hire and even one nudist area, which was extremely busy!
And Brno was well worth the trip. Although it is the Czech Republic’s second city, it is still quite small and we were easily able to get around the centre on foot. The journey from the reservoir into the centre of town on a bone-shaking tram was interesting, passing as it did through some of the more industrial and less pretty parts of the city. The tram dropped us off opposite the post office, a colossal, concrete monstrosity that looked like it needed a good clean, but fortunately this wasn’t typical of the whole city. The area near the tram stop was cross-crossed with overhead cables and busy with pedestrians, trams and buses.
Brno is the capital of Moravia and today it sells itself as a “city that blends rich history with modernity and innovation…a lively and creative place to discover.” (Brno tourist information website). The first written record of it dates from 1091 AD and it was located at the point of a ford over the Svratka River. The Czech King Wenceslas established the royal Špilberk Castle there in 1243, giving Brno city rights and privileges and it has been a centre of trade and industry every since. In the industrial revolution in the 18th century, Brno was a centre for textile and engineering industries and for this reason it has sometimes been called the ‘Moravian Manchester’. But the city’s most glorious moment came in the 17th century during the Swedish siege and this has been celebrated in a rather quirky way every single day since then (more on this below).
Highlights of Brno
There were many things to see and legends to learn about in the city. Here are our highlights:
Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul
This place of worship dominates the skyline of Brno, standing as it does on the top of Petrov Hill. We climbed one of its two dark, gothic spires and were rewarded with some great views over the city. However, we weren’t interested in the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul because of its gothic architecture, but rather because of a great story surrounding it that goes back to 1645 and the Thirty Years War.
Swedish forces had laid siege to the city and legend has it that after three and a half months, when they still hadn’t broken through, the Swedish General Torstenson decided that if they hadn’t captured the city by noon, he would call off the siege. The defenders got wind of this and they hatched a crafty plan: they rang the midday bells of the cathedral an hour early, at 11am. The general kept his word and the previously undefeated Swedish army retreated. It was a historic victory and to commemorate it, the bells of the cathedral have apparently rung midday at 11 o’clock ever since.
The Brno Astronomical Clock
I’m not sure that this was technically a highlight for me, but it is one of Brno’s most famous, and most controversial, modern monuments, so I’m including it here. Situated in Námesti Svobody (Freedom Square), it is nearly 6 metres high, is made from polished black granite and its shape is supposed to resemble a bullet, in memory of the Swedish siege of the city during the Thirty Years War. Like the bells of the cathedral, it ‘rings’ noon at 11 o’clock when it plays a melody and dispenses a glass marble out of one of the slots at the bottom, to be captured by one lucky spectator and taken home as a souvenir. If no-one is there to retrieve it, the marble is simply swallowed back into the clock.
Actually it isn’t really an astronomical clock. In fact, some say it isn’t really even a clock, given how hard it is to use it to tell the time! There is an explanation alongside it telling you exactly where to stand to read the time and how it works, but we couldn’t fathom it and you certainly can’t glance across at it and know what time it is. The official description from the Brno tourist information site describes it as “an astonishing multifunctional machine” and “an exceptional sculptural work by Czech artists Oldrich Rujbr and Petr Kameník.” I suppose they would say that, given that it cost 12 million Czech Koruna (£415,000 or US$540,000) back in 2010 to create. City officials apparently hoped it would become a new symbol of the city, and it has certainly become a talking point, but I’m not sure in the way in which they had hoped. I can’t help thinking there must’ve been a bit of an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ moment when they unveiled it as its phallic shape does bear more than a passing resemblance to something else!
The Old Town Hall
The old town hall building has more than a few legends and stories associated with it. It served as the town hall for Brno from the mid-13th century until 1935.
The Crooked Spire
One of the first things you notice as you stand at the entrance beneath the tower is that one of the spires in the decorative stonework surrounding it isn’t straight. Rumour has it that the stone mason wasn’t properly paid for his work and so he intentionally made it crooked. Fittingly, it is the one above the statue of righteousness.
The Brno ‘Dragon’
In the passage beneath the tower there hangs a crocodile that is thought to be the ‘dragon’ that legend has it once plagued the people of Brno. It is one of the most famous and beloved symbols of the city. Apparently the dragon lived in a cave on the Svratka River, attacking citizens and killing their livestock and no-one seemed to know how to stop it. A reward was offered by the city to anyone who could get rid of it, but no local people came forward with a plan. Then a visiting butcher came along and asked for an animal hide and some caustic lime. He placed the lime inside the hide and sewed it up, leaving it out as a tasty meal for the dragon. The dragon devoured the lot, the lime bubbled up inside it and that was the end of its days terrorising the people of Brno.
Locals claim that the crocodile hanging in the told town hall is the actual beast that inspired the legend. Others believe it was brought back by crusaders and yet others that it was presented to the town by a visiting dignitary. Whatever its origins, it makes for a great story.
On the wall just next to the crocodile is a cart wheel that also has an old legend associated with it. It was apparently made by a wheelwright from Lednice called Jiri Birk. One day in 1638, as he and some friends gathered for a drink after work, he made a bet that he could fell a tree, make a wheel and roll it the 50km to Brno before they closed the city gates on that same day. The amazed mayor of Brno had it hung at the town hall and it has been on display ever since. Unfortunately for the wheelwright, everyone believed he had been helped by the devil and his customers went elsewhere, leaving him penniless.
St James’ Church
This quiet and unassuming church, just off Freedom Square, is fairly plain and simple, both inside and out. It is most famous for the incredible ossuary discovered beneath it a few years ago (see below) and for a small figure above one of the windows in the church tower.
When the cathedral on Petrov Hill and the church of St James were being built, there was apparently great competition between the two areas of the city. At Petrov they had more money, but at St James they had a better stonemason. Work on St James was also coming along faster than on the cathedral and jokes were made in the city that the church would be finished before anything was built on Petrov Hill. Angry at this, the lords of Petrov apparently used their power and influence to make sure that the stonemason at St James’ was removed from his job. The stonemason agreed to leave, but only after he had finished the window on which he was working. He got his revenge, leaving a cheeky little man with his buttocks directed towards those up on Petrov Hill as a permanent reminder of his displeasure at his treatment.
The Brno Ossuary in the crypt of St. James’ Church
Beneath this quiet church is Europe’s second largest ossuary, a quite remarkable place that was eerie but fascinating to visit and learn about. The ossuary wasn’t discovered until 2001 when they were doing renovations to the square alongside the church. An archaeological and underground survey revealed an extensive complex of chambers containing the remains of over 50,000 people. But how did it come into being?
When it was built in the 13th century, both the church and its adjacent cemetery were inside the city walls. Over the years as the population of Brno grew, the size of the cemetery began to be inadequate and they had to introduce a ‘renewable interment system’. Ten years or so after a burial, the grave was opened and the remains removed so that another person could then be buried in the same place. The contents of the original grave were then placed in the crypt underneath the church. This ossuary was quickly filled, partly due to plague and cholera epidemics that swept through the city in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1741, the lack of space was so acute that an extension to the ossuary was built underneath the cemetery itself and this too was full within six years. Plans were made for further extensions, but these were never completed. In 1784, reforms led to the closure of the church cemetery on hygiene grounds. The remains from the graves were placed in the crypt, the cemetery wall was torn down and the surplus tombstones used to pave over the area next to the church. The entrance to the crypt from the main nave of the church was closed over with a stone slab and, over time, the ossuary was forgotten.
This system wasn’t unique to Brno and there are other ossuaries not only in the Czech Republic but in other parts of Europe too. In fact, the biggest ossuary in Europe is the Catacombs in Paris where the remains of millions of Parisians are located under the city’s streets. It made me wonder how many more of these places exist, hidden beneath the ground, undisturbed for centuries.
It was all very respectful. As we walked around there was music playing which had been composed specially for the ossuary by Czech composer, Miloš Štedron. There was low level lighting and the whole place had the feeling of being inside an underground chapel. But you still couldn’t get away from the fact that the patterns in the walls and ceiling were made up of human bones. We stood in quiet contemplation examining each skull closely, imagining the different faces that once looked out from them. It was fascinating. It also made us acutely aware of our own mortality.
After they discovered its existence in 2001, the remains from the ossuary were removed, cleaned and studied. Analysis of the bones has shown that the people they belonged to died from plague and cholera, in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) and the Swedish siege of Brno (1645). When they were found, most of the bones were simply piled up from the floor to the ceiling. When they were returned to the ossuary, they were assembled in the rather artistic way that visitors can see today. Apparently in one chamber and the ‘Chapel of the Dead’, the bones are stored in their original formation, but I couldn’t work out which ones these were.
The ossuary in Brno has been open to the public since 2012 and it has become one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Along with a labyrinth of medieval passageways under the Cabbage Market and a coin minting cellar, it is part of what is marketed as ‘Brno Underground’.
Cabbage Market (Zelny trh)
This gently sloping square has been the market square of Brno since the 13th century. It has some beautiful buildings around its perimeter and a huge fountain in the centre from which live carp used to be sold at Christmas. At one side of the square is the pale grey Reduta Theatre where, in 1767 an 11 year old Mozart apparently performed with his sister. Outside the theatre there is a curious naked statue of Mozart as a child but with his adult face and one wing, which is supposed to symbolise his tragic life.
Freedom Square (Námesti Svobody)
This huge triangular public space was the centre of the old town area and is also the heart of modern Brno. It is a place where concerts, summer festivals and Christmas markets are held and its architecture is a very nice mixture of classical and modern, old and new. The old town area is largely pedestrianised, making it very pleasant for wandering, with just the occasional old tram trundling past us to watch out for.
Brno has plenty of other attractions that we didn’t get a chance to see this time around, such as the magnificent Špilberk Castle. It is also a centre of modern, functionalist architecture, most notably the UNESCO listed Tugendhat Villa. Unfortunately time and the heat (it’s still scorching here) got the better of us and so we retraced our journey via tram to the calm of the Brno reservoir and from here to the peace and tranquility of the river and eventually our campsite.
I can’t emphasise how much I enjoyed Brno and I would definitely recommend it to anyone travelling in the Czech Republic. The city has bags of history and charm along with plenty of interesting legends and unique sights. It is on a smaller scale than Prague, but yet with just as much great architecture and culture. It also has way fewer crowds than the Czech capital (post to follow on Prague) and for us this made for a much nicer experience. Its excellent tourist information site – GoToBrno – has all the information you need to get the most from your visit.