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.