Kamp Vught, revisiting Europe’s darkest days

Visiting the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught is a sobering and surreal experience. The former Konzentrationslager Herzogenbusch camp, operated by the occupying Nazi forces between January 1943 – September 1944, is located in pretty woodlands. To reach the camp, I’d cycled through picturesque countryside and along a tranquil canal passing dog walkers and other cyclists. It’s almost unimaginable to think of the multiple horrors that were carried out in these peaceful surroundings, but Kamp Vught was the scene of barbarity that is difficult to grasp.

This was the only SS concentration camp outside of Nazi Germany and, in the eighteen months of its operations, more than 32,000 men, women and children were sent to the camp. Approximately 12,000 of these people were Jews, sent here before being sent to the death camps in Eastern Europe. The rest of Kamp Vught’s inmates were resistance fighters, political prisoners, Roma, criminals, and a variety of others whom the Nazis deemed unacceptable. As with other camps, prisoners were forced to wear coloured triangles on their prison clothes to identify their category of ‘crime’.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Conditions at the camp were horrifying. Unlike other camps outside Germany, Kamp Vught was run exclusively by SS troops, who seemed to take pleasure in extreme punishments. The camp had three different SS commanders over its lifespan, including the notorious SS-Untersturmführer Karl Chmielewski, who came with a reputation for sadism gained at Mauthausen–Gusen concentration camp in Austria. During his time prisoners could expect overcrowded and unsanitary living quarters, appalling working conditions and severe beatings. Food was rarely more than watery soup.

It’s no surprise that hundreds of people died of starvation and disease. Others were executed by firing squad at a location deep in the surrounding woods. There is a small museum that tells the story of Kamp Vught, and there’s an excellent audio guide that explains the workings of the camp and its buildings. It also provides personal stories from some of the survivors. It’s a very moving and emotional experience, and it doesn’t pull any punches when describing the inhumanity and suffering witnessed here.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, NetherlandsNationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Of the many incidents of barbarity, one stands out. The ‘bunker tragedy’ came about when a female inmate was sent to the camp prison (the ‘bunker’), provoking a protest by other women. Camp commander Grünewald, retaliated by forcing 74 women into cell number 115. It was tiny, with little ventilation. The screams of the women could be heard around the camp. When the cell was opened on January 16, 1944, ten women were dead. The tragedy became propaganda for the Allies, the embarrassment to the German authorities saw Grünewald sentenced to prison. A punishment later revoked by Himmler.

Equally notorious were the two ‘kinder transports’, when camp authorities transported Jewish children to death camps in the East. One of the transports left on the 5th and 6th June, 1943. The parents were told that the children were being sent to a special children’s camp. Instead, at least 1,269 Jewish children were sent to the Westerbork transit camp, also in the Netherlands. Afterwards they were deported to Sobibor in Poland, where the majority were sent to the gas chambers almost immediately upon arrival.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

As I walked around the camp, I had to remind myself that I was still in the Netherlands. The German’s recruited local labourers to build the camp, they thought that this was simply an army barracks. It wasn’t long before trains started arriving at the nearby town of Vught though, their tragic human cargo marched through the town towards the camp. It’s impossible to imagine how the knowledge of what was happening at the camp impacted the local community, but people learned to keep their windows closed on days when the wind blew the crematorium smoke in their direction.

A surprise for me was that part of Kamp Vught was used for specialised work, including salvaging parts from crashed planes and making radios for the German war effort. The radios were made using the slave labour of former workers from the Philips factories in Eindhoven. Many of these skilled specialists were Jewish. Philips negotiated improved conditions for the prisoners who worked in the radio factory, but for Jews who worked here it was only a temporary reprieve. As the Allies got closer to liberating the camp, Jewish workers were summarily despatched to the death camps.

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught, Netherlands

This act was committed by SS-Untersturmführer, Hans Hüttig, who was responsible for evacuating the camp before the Allies reached it. As the Allied invasion gained pace so too did the murders at Kamp Vught. Hüttig executed well over three hundred people between July and September of 1944. Days before the camp was liberated, over 3,400 jewish inmates were sent to Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen death camps. One final act of barbarity that brought this period of the camp’s history to a close.

When Allied forces finally arrived, there were only a few of people left to bare witness to what had happened in this peaceful corner of the Netherlands. It is the ordinariness of the setting that Kamp Vught occupies that is most shocking; the knowledge that this could, did, happen in the most ordinary of places. This, perhaps, is the most compelling reason why a visit to Kamp Vught today is important. We must remind ourselves of the need for constant vigilance to prevent these horrors from happening again.

Heusden, a perfectly preserved medieval star fort

It’s not that Heusden is an uninviting place, it’s just that the massive fortifications of its star-shaped defences are so well preserved that you feel like you’re entering a military zone. One false step and you might be repelled by the town’s defenders. The defences of this charming little town are hugely impressive, and have seen so much history that it’s hard to stop your imagination running wild with thoughts of conquering armies and valiant townsfolk fighting to protect their homes and lives. Seen for the first time it is an incredible sight.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

It’s a truly beautiful place, and it’s popularity probably justifies the huge reconstruction and restoration work that was carried out in the 1960s to return it to its former 17th century glory. The full fortifications and around 400 buildings were restored, in what really was a monumental undertaking that lasted over a decade. If anything, Heusden is a little too well-preserved. Its one hundred and thirty-four national monuments, pristine streets and manicured earth defences ringed by two moats and backed by the River Meuse, make it feel a like you’re walking in an open-air museum.

Located on the strategically important Meuse, at the boundary of three historic Dutch counties, there has been a fortification of some sort here from before the 9th century, which was when some Vikings made the journey up the river to burn the town down. The town played an important role in the War of Dutch Independence, not as a Dutch stronghold but as a supporter of the Spanish Empire that ruled over the Netherlands. The town’s leaders eventually saw which way the wind was blowing and switched sides to support the Prince of Orange.

In 1680, tragedy struck Heusden. Lightening hit the castle and ignited sixty thousand pounds of gunpowder, destroying it and many other buildings. The castle was never rebuilt, but some foundations are still visible. There was additional tragedy during the German occupation in the Second World War. The bridge over the River Meuse made Heusden strategically important after the Allied invasion of Europe. Following the failure of Operation Market Garden in September 1944, Canadian and British armies launched Operation Pheasant in October. Heusden lay directly in their path.

In November, Scottish troops approached the town and the German troops prepared to retreat. Fatefully, 170 of Heusden’s citizens sought shelter from artillery fire in the cellars of the town hall, where the German army had a command centre and hospital. As the German’s prepared to pull out, they mined the town hall’s 40 metre high tower, placing the charges deliberately so that it would fall on the town hall. Some 134 people were killed, of whom 74 were children. Many people consider this event to be a war crime.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

I’d arrived in Heusden on a sunny Sunday and the town, which attracts several hundred thousand tourists every year, was buzzing with life. The main square was filled with people eating outside several restaurants, and the town’s harbour was busy with boats coming and going. I parked my bike in the town centre and went for a leisurely wander. There’s a pleasant walk along the old defences that takes you past several windmills that still sit on the walls of the town, and give you fabulous views over the town and the surrounding countryside.

It doesn’t take long to explore the walls, streets and small alleyways of Heusden, and after an hour or so I plonked myself in the main square – the former Fish Market – and had lunch. This is quite an extraordinary town, made all the more so by the banning of advertising, which gives you a different impression of a place. Lunch over, it was back on the bike and a big loop that would take me to the site of another Second World War tragedy, the Nationaal Monument Kamp Vught.

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Heusden, Netherlands

Gelderland’s glorious Kasteel Ammersoyen

Thanks to the film, A Knight’s Tale, I actually thought the Dutch Province of Gelderland was fictitious. It turns out that not only is it a real place, but it has a variety of medieval castles worthy of the film itself. I’d ventured into this eastern Dutch province for a day of cycling – Gelderland is the largest, least populated of all Dutch provinces, and makes for good cycling. First on my list of stops was the magnificent Kasteel Ammersoyen, a classic medieval moated Dutch castle that, after extensive renovations in the late 20th century, is now considered one of the best preserved castles in the Netherlands.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

This itself is somewhat miraculous. The castle was built in the 1350s and has managed to survive over 700 years of turbulent European history. At different time the castle was fought over by Burgundian forces in the Hundred Years’ War, Spanish armies during the Dutch struggle for independence, and Napoleon’s troops laid siege to it as well. The castle was severely damaged by fire in the 16th century, but Allied bombing raids during the Second World War – a war in which it was ill-equipped to participate – did far more damage.

Today, it sits peacefully on the edge of the small village of Ammerzoden, close to the River Meuse. The river has been a major trade route for centuries, and explains the castle’s existence.  Surrounded by water, the castle has four round defensive towers, and a central courtyard. From the outside it seems pretty compact, this is deceptive as the interior is remarkably spacious, despite all the small narrow staircases you have to navigate to access parts of the building.

I’d arrived early, too early for the castle to be open, but luckily for me there was other entertainment on offer. The somewhat odd sight of a couple of dozen people dressed in medieval clothing and playing period instruments. This, it turned out, was a troupe of performers who do medieval recreations around the country, and who’d be practicing various crafts, musical recitals and combat techniques during the day. First though the troupe was warming up with a group photo in front of the castle. They stay in character during the visit, so I think I can forgive them the pre-opening use of a camera.

It was an entertaining visit, especially when I was co-opted into trying out replicas of a medieval mace and sword. I spent some time listening to some traditional music in the kitchens, before exploring the rest of the castle. A tour which I assume took me into a room in one of the towers that is reputedly haunted by a Lady in Blue. Several people have made claims that they have seen or ‘felt’ her presence, including a couple of the castle’s staff. One person has described feeling ‘uncomfortable’ in the room where the ghost is supposed to live.

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Kasteel Ammersoyen, Gelderland, Netherlands

Who am I to doubt the claims of someone who felt  uncomfortable in a room, but this paranormal activity seems based on little historical evidence. No one I asked knew who the Lady in Blue was, I put the sightings down to wild imaginings of fanciful minds. Still, after this close encounter with the spirit world, I hopped back on my bike and set off for my next destination, the lovely medieval town of Heusden. There was a ferry across the River Meuse, which turned out to be free, as I crossed the midway point in the river I left Gelderland and entered North Brabant. Soon I’d arrived at the fortified outskirts of Heusden…

Unearthing The Hague’s secrets, Open House Weekend

This post could equally be titled “The Secret Life of Hofjes”. These reclusive courtyard communities of former almshouses date back to medieval Europe, and were an early form of privately funded social housing, often for the old or for women. There are still a lot of Hofjes in the Netherlands, and several in The Hague, but they are rarely open to the public and you’d have to know a resident to get a glimpse of life behind their walls. The one exception to this is during Open House Weekend when several Hofjes are open for visits.

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofjes were founded by wealthy citizens who were trying to secure their eternal place in Heaven. In medieval Europe, Christian beliefs and practices were influenced by the need to redeem your soul through works of mercy. There were seven works of mercy, including feeding the hungry, sheltering travellers and comforting the sick. It’s not a surprise that many Hofjes were founded as hospitals. Often they were reserved for the poor, or for single women, but also came with restrictions such as religious affiliation, or a minimum qualifying age of 50 years.

Many old Hofjes still have these restrictions in place, but modern Hofjes are being built without such medieval restrictions. I can understand why there is a modern revival of the Hofjes, they are picturesque places, calm and serene. Walking through the gateway into one is a little like entering a different world, like opening the doors of a wardrobe and ending up in Narnia. One of the most pleasant things about Hofjes is that they are centred around a community garden, often for growing vegetables and herbs. Some of them retain this feature and even sell chutney and honey to visitors.

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

We visited three Hofjes, all with a very distinctive feel to them, and very picturesque. First on the list was De Hof van Wouw, founded in 1647 by Cornelia van Wouw with the purpose of housing single women. Rules he set out in his will still govern who is able to live there. It’s a beautiful place, with red painted window shutters and lovely garden, and larger than I’d expected. Nearby is the ‘t Hooftshofje, founded by Angenis Hooft in 1755. She stipulated in her will that only ‘elderly women or widows who profess the Reformed religion’ were allowed to live there.

‘t Hooftshofje, has eight houses and you’d never guess from the street that there was a double courtyard lying behind the facade. It is much more enclosed that De Hof van Wouw, but no less attractive. Our final visit was to the hidden away Hofje “Rusthof”, next to Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk Catholic church. Founded in 1841 by Elisabeth Groen van Prinsterer for women over 55 years of age, who have Protestant Christian religious convictions, the same age rules still apply today. Something I discovered when asking one of the residents if it would be possible for me to live there.

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje "Rusthof", The Hague, Netherlands

Hofje “Rusthof”, The Hague, Netherlands

't Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

‘t Hooftshofje, The Hague, Netherlands

Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk, The Hague, Netherlands

Sint-Jacobus de Meerderekerk, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

De Hof van Wouw, The Hague, Netherlands

In what would become something of an unintentional religiously themed day, we went back into town, popping into someone’s house to have a look around (all part of Open House), before discovering the Brothers of St. John monastery on Oude Molstraat was open to the public as well. I knew about the Brothers because they make (and sell) a couple of very good beers that can be bought locally. We wandered in and were guided up a flight of stairs to the most extraordinary little chapel on the top floor.

It felt like the chapel was a secret, hidden away from public sight, which explains why there is absolutely no indication of its existence from street level. The monastery is part of a new movement of monastic life begun in 1975 in  France, and has spread to many corners of the world. It has gone out of its way to appeal to young people and to try to attract them to the ‘modern’ monastic life. There have been some accusations that they operate like a cult. All of which I’d still be unaware of but for Open House Weekend.

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Open House Weekend, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Brothers of St. John monastery, The Hague, Netherlands

Death by dumpling, explorations in Czech cuisine

Even calibrating for a faulty memory, when I arrived in the former Czechoslovakia in 1990 I remember it being a wasteland for food. Fantastic beer, to be sure, but also stale bread topped with indigestible lumps of grisly meat; dumplings that could have been used as cricket balls; and sauces so uniform that every dish tasted exactly the same. This experience is only topped by my memory of trying to find something edible in the now equally defunct Yugoslavia.

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech beer

Czech beer

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

I was eager to discover what the intervening twenty-seven years had done to Czech food. Was it undergoing a renaissance? Could goulash and dumplings be the next big thing on the international culinary scene? Why was every restaurant obsessed with listing the weight of each meal on their menus? Not calories, meal weight. How had Czechs survived without the vitamins and minerals from vegetables? Not forgetting the big question, how many dumplings can one person eat in a week without actually becoming one themselves?

No one comes to the Czech Republic to lose weight. A steady diet of dishes swimming in brown sauces, large pieces of pork and a disconcerting lack of vegetables seemed to be the norm. Even when I made an effort to order vegetables, they came lightly fried with bits of pork mixed in for extra saltiness. The Czechs rival the Spanish for their love of putting pork in every dish. I didn’t eat a single meal that was more than lukewarm. All-in-all, I think this was an improvement on my previous experience.

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech beer

Czech beer

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Much of what I remember from 1990 remains true today, but the food is now of a much higher quality and generally very tasty. My favourite meal came in a traditional self-service restaurant in Prague. You collected a tray and a piece of paper and then did a tour of the food counters, anything you ordered was marked on the paper form. There were tourists, Czech businessmen, school groups and families all enjoying the strange eccentricity of the experience. I stood at a counter to eat like a local.

Prague in particular has a thriving international food scene. It’s possible to slip into an oyster bar for a some slimy mollusks washed down with a glass of champagne; have an authentic(ish) Indian curry; or pretend you’re in Latin America while eating delicious Peruvian ceviche. I even saw a vegan restaurant. There are more pizza restaurants than you can count, and the ‘full English breakfast’ is served in far too many places in my opinion. Times really have changed.

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

Czech cuisine

One of the nicest things about this trip though, was the number of food festivals, and street food opportunities there were. Often this was part of a wine or beer festival, which seemed to be a theme as I travelled around. It would be fair to say there wasn’t much diversity beyond pork-related treats, but in Brno I came across a variety of traditional dishes and some artisanal cheeses. I also came across a large mound of Dutch cheese. An exotic import?

Perhaps the biggest change is the multitude of fast food places. Like everywhere else on the planet the international burger and fried chicken chains are legion, and seem to have interbred to produce a range of local hybrids. The smell of old oil frying dodgy chicken products is all too common.

Dutch cheese

Dutch cheese

Czech cheese

Czech cheese

Despite the sense of repetition with every meal I seemed to order, I largely stuck to eating in traditional Czech restaurants. You can’t really go wrong with the local dish of the day washed down with a beer. Although I learned my lesson when, in desperation, I asked for a tomato and onion salad to accompany one meal. The tomatoes and onions arrived in a soup bowl, floating in a sweet liquid. When in the Czech Republic, do as the Czechs do, and don’t order tomato salad.

Going underground in subterranean Brno

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.

Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

Labyrinth beneath Cabbage Market, Brno, Czech Republic

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.

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

Capuchin Crypt, Brno, Czech Republic

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.

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

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.

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

Ossuary of St. James’ Church, Brno, Czech Republic

The jewel in Brno’s crown, Špilberk Fortress

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.

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

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.

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

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.

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

Špilberk Fortress, Brno, Czech Republic

‘Boring’ Brno, Moravia’s underrated capital

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, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

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, were 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.

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

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.

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic

 

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.

The tangled European histories of Valtice and Lednice Palaces

Look at a map of the area around the villages of Valtice and Lednice, and the thing that leaps out is the road connecting them. It’s 10km long and, in a hilly region of winding roads, it’s arrow straight. The road connects two magnificent palaces that once formed part of a vast estate covering 280 square kilometres of the surrounding countryside. The Lednice-Valtice Estate was owned by the Dukes of Liechtenstein, the same people who founded and still rule what is now the Principality of Liechtenstein.

If Moravia seems a long way from Liechtenstein, the tangled history of the European aristocracy explains everything. The Liechtenstein family arrived in Lednice in the 13th century. They bought Valtice in the 14th century, and added to their possessions over the centuries to become one of the most powerful families in Europe. The result is not only a couple of extraordinary palaces, but one of the largest artificial landscapes in Europe. The whole thing received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996.

Valtice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Valtice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

The connection with Liechtenstein the (sort of) country? As a powerful dynasty, the Liechtenstein’s owned land and property across Central Europe, but they didn’t own any land that would qualify them as an Elector of the Holy Roman Empire. Under the Habsburgs, the Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire were very powerful people. To qualify as Electors, in 1718 the Liechtenstein’s bought land between Switzerland and Austria and renamed it the Principality of Liechtenstein.

This was technically important but they didn’t move to Liechtenstein, remaining on their estates in Moravia. By the Second World War, the family had its base in ‘neutral’ Liechtenstein, but their Czech estates were left unmolested by the Nazis. The arrival of Russian troops forced them into ‘exile’ in Liechtenstein, and the confiscation of their property by Czechoslovakia’s communist government meant that they never returned. In an attempt to reclaim their lands, the family and Principality of Liechtenstein have been in legal disputes with the Czech Republic and Slovakia since 1992.

I was heading to the Moravian capital of Brno, so started at the more southerly Valtice about a kilometre from the Austrian border. It was early morning when I arrived and there was precious little activity in the village. I parked in the centre and walked past the church towards the palace. It’s an impressive building and immediately put me in mind of a French chateau. There was no one around as I passed a fountain at the front of the building. I walked through the main courtyard and into the landscaped gardens to the rear.

The building, like so much in the Czech Republic, was only accessible by guided tour. The next one was an hour away, so I decided to wander back to the pleasant village square before heading north through the former estate to Lednice. It was a holiday weekend and there were a few groups of people arriving on bicycles. This would become a theme for the day, and it was only later that I realised that this area was renowned for its network of cycling paths.

Valtice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Valtice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Vineyards near Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Vineyards near Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Vineyards near Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Vineyards near Valtice, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

Lednice palace, Moravia, Czech Republic

It didn’t take long to reach Lednice, but as I searched in vain to find a parking space, it quickly became clear that this was the more popular of the two palaces. If Valtice was a French chateau, Lednice reminded me of an English country estate. This isn’t especially surprising given that even the aristocracy followed fashion. The palace of Lednice isn’t as impressive as that of Valtice, compensated for by the gorgeous formal gardens and country park.

Yet again, my timing was off and I’d have to wait a couple of hours for the next tour of the palace. I chose to go for a walk through the gardens instead. There’s a 5km loop that takes you to a sixty-metre high minaret built between 1797–1804. Just to recap, there is an Islamic minaret in an English country park, in the middle of Central Europe, on an estate that was once owned by the people who run Liechtenstein. Not only that, it was designed by Josef Hardtmuth, the person who invented the graphite pencil.

Honestly, people wouldn’t believe you if you made this up.

Mikulov, the heart and soul of Moravia’s wine region

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.

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Burčák bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Burčák bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

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.

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Upper Synagogue, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Jewish cemetery, Mikulov, Czech Republic

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.

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov, Czech Republic

Wine bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Wine bar, Mikulov, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

Mikulov castle, Czech Republic

House number, Mikulov, Czech Republic

House number, Mikulov, Czech Republic