Chance had it that I arrived in Mikulov at a propitious moment. In a country famed for beer making, this beautiful town sits in the middle of the Czech Republic’s largest and most important wine producing region … and no, I didn’t know there was a Czech wine industry either. Not only was the grape harvest in full swing, and with it a wine festival offering the chance to taste a variety of local and regional wines; it was also a national holiday, and the town was buzzing with people enjoying the autumn sunshine and the fruits of the surrounding vineyards.
I’d missed the big celebration that heralds the start of the grape harvest, but the lively atmosphere was a lot of fun in what is normally a sleepy place. Mikulov sits in beautiful rolling countryside, so close to the Austrian border that the town was virtually part of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. The post-War period was disastrous for the wine industry. The communist government nationalised vineyards and quality suffered as a consequence. The industry is now emerging from that malaise and is beginning to make its mark internationally. The local Riesling was pretty good.
Walking through the town towards its most dominate feature, the massive Baroque castle dating from the 13th century, I kept seeing people with plastic bottles of red and white liquid. This was a local speciality known as burčák, a partially fermented wine and a popular feature of wine festivals at this time of year. I stopped at a place with two barrels of the stuff outside and, for research purposes, tried a glass of both white and red. Don’t let the cloudiness put you off, it has a low alcohol content and is deliciously sweet with a refreshing bitterness.
The burčák powered me up the steep hill and into the grounds of the castle, formerly the home of two powerful European families, the Liechtenstein’s and Dietrichstein’s. The castle was burned by retreating German troops in the Second World War, but was rebuilt and transformed into a museum in the 1950s. It’s a magnificent building that literally towers over the rest of the town. There are good views over the surrounding countryside from the castle, and it’s interesting to wander through the grounds.
I descended on the western side of the castle through an area of narrow streets that had once been home to one of the most significant Jewish communities in the country. Jews first settled in Mikulov in 1421 and the community grew to number around 3,500 in the 19th century. At its height there were 12 synagogues and hundreds of houses in the Jewish quarter. As with the history of all Jewish communities, there were periods of peace and prosperity, punctuated by periods of persecution; like everywhere in the region, centuries of Jewish history effectively ended in the horrors of the Holocaust.
Today, there is a fascinating trail through what is left of the old Jewish quarter. Many houses and synagogues have been destroyed over the years, but those that remain are a poignant reminder of the culture that was destroyed by Nazi ideology. The route passes through quiet streets to the beautiful Upper Synagogue, before making its way to the truly extraordinary Jewish cemetery, one of the largest in Central Europe. It rivals Prague’s Jewish cemetery for atmosphere but receives a fraction of the visitors.
The cemetery is close to a 15th century military tower, Kozí hrádek or the Goat Tower as it’s also known. I strolled up hill to the the entrance and then up a spiral stairway to get sweeping views over the town and surrounding vineyards. I’d passed a nice looking wine bar with a terrace on the way up, on my way back down I stopped for a glass of something local while watching the sun set over the town. I ate dinner on the lovely main square and planned my early start to visit the villages of Valtice and Lednice.