I hadn’t intended to go to Brno. It was only a chance encounter with someone from the city that convinced me it should be on my itinerary. It was on my way back to Prague, so it made sense to spend a night there. Forty-eight hours later, and not for the first time, I was very glad that I’d taken the advice of a stranger. Brno may be the country’s second city, and it may not rival the glories of Prague, but it’s a place with a great deal going for it: a fascinating history, grand architecture, good restaurants, lively night life and, when I was there, a wine festival.
Brno gets a bad rap from its fellow Czechs. In 2003, a film was released called Nuda v Brne, or Boredom in Brno, which made fun of the supposed tedium of spending time in the city. This is unfair, but the reputation has stuck. I was staying just outside the city centre, close to one of the universities, an area with a thriving cafe culture and plenty of bars and restaurants, both traditional and trendy. It was anything but boring, and a student population of around 90,000 keeps the city on its toes.
On my way into the historic centre, I arrived at a large square outside the Church of St. Thomas, home to a modern statue of Jobst of Moravia, a 14th century member of the ruling Luxembourg family. It looked like a ‘skinny’ Botero. A wide avenue lined with magnificent 19th century buildings led to the central Liberty Square, where a festival of wine was drawing the crowds to celebrate the grape harvest. Local wine producers had stalls, a band played, large hunks of pork were being served, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the autumn sun.
I tried a couple of different wines while chatting to a winemaker who’d lived in London for several years, and who gave me some top tips on things to see and do. It wasn’t long before I found my way to the more picturesque Cabbage Market, a large open square surrounded by attractive buildings. This has been the venue for a fresh produce market for centuries, and still is today. There are tunnels running beneath the square, where wine, beer, vegetables, meat and fruit were once stored – like a mini underground city.
I found the tourist information and picked up a map and some leaflets on various sights before heading to Petrov Hill, where the glorious Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul sits. Dating from the 14th century, the cathedral’s moment of glory came in August 1645 during the Thirty Years’ War. Besieged by the armies of Protestant Sweden, the city got word that the Swedish commander had ordered his troops to take the city by midday or they would be forced to retreat.
The attack started, but the residents of Brno had a cunning plan. The cathedral bells would normally be rung at midday, but to fool the Swedes they were instead rung at 11am. Legend has it that the attackers heard the ‘midday bells’ and ceased the attack. A day later they retreated from the city and a (almost certainly false) legend was born. After a visit to the cathedral, I walked through the surrounding historic streets before making my way into the centre.
Back in the Cabbage Market I could hear music. Shortly afterwards I spied a procession of people in traditional dress from somewhere around the early 19th century. I asked around to find out what the procession meant, but no one could tell me. I walked along with them until they stopped outside a church. The band started to play and the choir began singing traditional songs. It was really rather nice, but I got the impression that this was some sort of political protest.
The entertainment over, I found a traditional Czech beer cellar and made myself comfortable with a dark beer. I’d only intended to spend one day in Brno, but there seemed to be a lot left to do. I got out the leaflets from the tourist office and began planning a second day in the city.