Brno is home to a number of weirdly appealing underground attractions. The labyrinth of tunnels underneath Brno’s Cabbage Market came highly recommended, and was my first port of call for an afternoon spent exploring underneath the streets of the Czech Republic’s second city. The Cabbage Market has been a fresh produce market for over eight hundred years, and was originally known as Horní trh, the Upper Market. Walk through it today and you can still find people selling fruit and vegetables surrounded by beautiful 19th century buildings.
As you wander through the square you’d never know that a mere eight meters, or 272 steps, below the Cabbage Market exists a vast network of tunnels. They began life as simple cellars beneath people’s houses, but over the centuries they were expanded to become something of a mini underground city. Food, wine and beer were stored in the tunnels, and people worked, ate, drank and slept down here. There was a tavern, and even an alchemist’s laboratory. The tunnels expanded so much that you could drive a horse and carriage through some of them.
The entrance to the tunnels is through a unprepossessing doorway tucked away on one side of the Cabbage Market. I bought my ticket and headed downwards. A small group of Czechs and three young British people, who seemed to have ended up here after losing their way on a Prague pub crawl, were waiting for our guide to arrive. The tour’s in Czech but comes with an audioguide. Tunnel depth is normally between six and eight metres, but the lowest point is 12 metres. At this depth, groundwater bubbles up into the tunnel and needs constant pumping.
The tunnels are fascinating and the tour takes you through typical scenes of medieval life in rooms carved into the sides of the tunnels. We meandered up and down, left and right, and by the end I was completely disoriented. I learned a lot about the history of Brno, but for some reason the information that I retained was that in the 14th century a litre of Moldova wine would have cost you a chicken or twenty eggs. A litre of Italian wine cost three chickens or two hares. That’s quite a lot of chickens for not much wine.
I don’t know why I thought it would be any different, but when we emerged out of the tunnels we were in a completely separate part of the Cabbage Market from where we entered. I could almost feel the light bulb going on above my head. So far so good. Next on my list of underground activities was only a short walk away. The Capuchin Crypt is, quite honestly, freakishly bizarre…and not for the squeamish. The monastery that has been on this site for centuries buried their dead underground, but no one knew that a system of air holes was mummifying the corpses.
There is a sign hanging over the remaining desiccated corpses of the monks which reads, “We were once like you, and one day you will be like us.” Which, after you’ve seen them, sounds more like a threat than a statement. I took it as a reminder, if one was needed, to enjoy myself while I still can. There and then I made a plan to visit one of Brno’s famed subterranean beer cellars for a farewell drink to a city that had not only defied expectation, but had made me question existence.
Back at street level I headed towards the Ossuary of St. James’ Church. One of the most extraordinary sights in the city, this underground burial site houses the skeletal remains of 5,000 people, although this is only a tenth of the number of corpses found here in 2001. The remains of approximately 50,000 people were once buried here, making this the second largest ossuary in Europe after the one in Paris. Amazingly, the site had remained undisturbed since the Thirty Years’ War in the mid-17th century.
The thing about the ossuary is that, despite the thousands of people buried in it, once it was closed to further burials it was forgotten. Life went on above ground unaware of its presence underground for centuries. Then, in 2001, a redevelopment of the square that surrounds the church of St. James unexpectedly unearthed this vast burial site. Analysis of the dead showed that many died of natural causes, some from warfare, and others from plague and cholera epidemics. The site was excavated, cleaned up, and turned into a visitor attraction.