To say Špilberk Fortress has seen a lot of history is a bit of an understatement. Even if you knew nothing of European history, the size, grandeur and dominant position of the fortress makes it clear that it had a vital role to play in the fortunes of the country. In 1428, it was besieged by Hussites as the Protestant Reformation brought religious war to the region. In 1645, during the Thirty Years’ War, the Swedish army tried to capture it and the city. The 1740s saw it play a role in the War of the Austrian Succession; in 1805 Napoleon’s armies camped here before his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz.
It was also one of the most feared prisons in the Austro-Hungarian empire, infamously known as the “dungeon of the nations“. It gained more notoriety during the Second World War. The Nazis used it to house, torture and kill thousands political prisoner; for many others this was a staging post en route to labour camps or concentration camps. Now the city museum, this violent, brutal history is told through a number of different permanent exhibitions, including an interesting self-guided tour through the former dungeons.
First though, you have to get there. I woke feeling a little worse for wear after one too many Czech beers the night before. Luckily, the steep climb to reach the castle blew the cobwebs away. The sun was shinning and the views over Brno were magnificent. The area around the castle is a deservedly popular park, the wooded hillside abruptly ending at the massive walls of the fortress. The experience gave me a sense of what it might have been like to have attacked this hilltop for real.
I wandered around the outer walls until I found the entrance and eventually made my way to the ticket booth. Much of what you see today dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, but the castle dates back to the 13th century. It was a fortress for 500 years until just after the Napoleonic Wars, after which its primary function was as a barracks and prison. This history is told in a permanent exhibition inside the upper floors of the building, but is best experienced in the subterranean dankness of dungeons filled with gruesome scenes of torture and captivity.
I entered the dungeons alone with only a printed guide for company, there was some light but it was still a bit spooky. As I made my way through claustrophobic tunnels, I came across numerous rooms with mannequins depicting snapshots of what life must have been like for prisoners shut in the bowels of the fortress. In other circumstances these might have looked a bit kitsch, but the added atmosphere of being inside the castles casements made them convincing enough.
It was a relief to finally emerge from underground. I made my way out of the moat and back into one of the two central courtyards, had a chat with one of the staff about how quiet the castle seemed, and then visited the museum. Had I known just how extensive the museum was, I might have come back another day. Although it took quite a long time to go around, and some of the exhibits were less than enthralling, the parts about the period of Nazi control were fascinating, as was the history of the city.
After a morning exploring the castle, I strolled down the wooded hillside back towards Brno’s old town for lunch, grateful that I’d decided to spend an extra day in this lovely city. Little did I know that my underground experience had only just begun, next up was a visit to the underground labyrinth of the Cabbage Market, a 13th century ossuary and a burial site with the mummified bodies of dozens of monks.