Gap Year Days 88 – 92
Prague was always one of our “must visit” cities when we planned this trip. It got even more exciting when it was the place we decided to meet with some friends for a weekend. With the dates set, we had a few more days to explore the Czech Republic beforehand, and Brno was right in our path.
Brno is the Czech Republic’s second city, and the capital of Moravia. It has a friendly rivalry with Prague over, well, nearly everything, and is best known for the Brno MotoGP event that is held there each August. Brno has a population of around 400000 for most of the year, but it is a university city and during summer that number drops by about 90000 when the students all return to their home towns. It therefore has a young vibe, with plenty of cafes, clubs and activities.
Before we got on the train to Brno I had researched how to get to our accomodation. During the train trip we discovered the train was taking a detour while the station was renovated. Oh no! We had no idea how to get where we needed to be. We also had no Czech Koruna, and there was not an ATM in sight at the temporary station. Our worry was needless. Asking around we found the right bus, and we could buy bus tickets at the station with credit card.
The day we arrived was HOT! It was 36 degrees Celsius, which was fairly unusual for this part of the world. It was such a relief to walk into the Holiday Inn. Air-conditioning and a cold shower was the order of the day!
Brno is one of the quirkiest places we have ever been to. If you visit here, make sure you take a walking tour. We took a free one with Brno Free Walking Tours. You need to have a guide here because there are so many little things you will miss if you do not have someone the point them out to you.
One of the most well known attractions is on the old town hall. Before the building was completed there was a dispute over payment between the stonemason building it and the town statesmen who had commissioned him. As revenge, the stonemason built the middle pinnacle over the portal crooked. It is still that way today.
Did the town learn from this? No. A similar dispute happened when statues were being built for the outside of the Dominican church. Again the stonemason was not paid what he wanted. This time it was the all powerful church upsetting the tradesman. If you look carefully at the statues along the side of the church, the signs of his displeasure are visible. One statue has a visibly small head. Another has six fingers.
It almost seems like a trend now, because the quirks don’t end there. Look for the cheeky little boy above a window on St James church, or check out the horse statue outside of the Church of St Thomas from a particular perspective. If you wait long enough you will see others looking at it from underneath. Copy them to see what may or may not be an unintended sight!
Then there is the bullet shaped astronomical clock in Náměstí Svobody, the main square of Brno. At 11am each day a special marble rolls down from the top of the clock and appears at one of four holes on the side. We arrived at the clock at about 10:30 to wait for the walking tour and already there was someone standing at each one of the holes, hoping that they would be the one to receive this unique souvenir.
11am seems like an unusual time for the marble to fall from the astronomical clock, but it is based on the history of Brno. Back in 1645 Brno was under siege by the Swedish army. They were holding out quite well, and winter was coming. A spy in the Swedish camp overheard the General say that there would be one last almighty effort to get into Brno, but if they hadn’t breached the walls by the time the Cathedral bells rang at 12 noon they would pack up and go home. During the battle, things weren’t looking so good for the Brno forces, so they came up with the plan to ring the bells at 11am. The Swedes thought it was noon, and packed up and went home! To this day the main tolling of the bells of the Cathedral of St Peter and Paul is at 11am.
As you wander the streets of Brno keep an eye out for some unusual artwork. Behind a door is an art installation that doubles as a soundproof room. There is also a big silver balloon-like structure, that Simon affectionally dubbed the “Goon Bag” (a colloquial Australian term). Around every corner there is something else to surprise.
The Red Church is one of the few Protestant churches in the city. It sits prominently at the end of a long street. As we walked towards it, a pink tinge in the front took shape. Another art installation! The Pink Tank is an actual Soviet tank painted pink by David Černy in 1991 and is on display in Brno for a short time. It is to commemorate the liberation of Prague at the end of WWII.
Like almost every city we have visited in Europe, Brno has a castle on the top of a hill. We took an early morning walk up the steep zig zag paths from the side of Špilberk Castle. The castle houses a museum and art gallery, and it is possible to do various tours to different areas of the castle. There are some permanent exhibitions showcasing the history of Brno, and temporary exhibitions also use the castle. For the different hours, tours and exhibitions, please see the website here.
Brno is also home to the second largest ossuary in Europe. It was only discovered in 2001 and is home to some 50000 skeletons. Most of the bones were put here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when there was a lack of space in the cemeteries due to the unusually high number of deaths from the plague and cholera outbreaks. While not close to the scale of Paris, it is worth a quick peek.
Another underground area of Brno worth exploring is the Labyrinth under the main market square. The tunnels here started as cellars to store the fresh produce sold at the markets. As the owners got more and more produce, they needed more space to keep it all. They extended their cellars until they eventually joined up with each other under the square. The tunnels now show how the goods were stored, and also have some displays that show the instruments of torture used when the square above was used for executions and other punishments. There is also a part of the cellars that was set up as a tavern, again set up to show how it would have been. Ladies, as you leave, make sure you rub the special stone for luck!
In my research I had come across Villa Tugendhat. This house is architecturally important as is is known as the first example of modern architecture and is listed by UNESCO. What I didn’t discover during my research was that if you would like to visit you need to book months in advance, as it is usually sold out. The numbers of visitors is limited to only fifteen at a time. So if you would like to visit, plan this one in advance.
Not far from the Holiday Inn there is a fantastic swimming pool. It is right next to the river and looks more like a resort pool than an Olympic pool. The pool is like another loop of the river, and is surrounded by grassy banks with loungers for relaxing in the sun. We quickly visited to have a look, but unfortunately did not get back to swim. If you are there during summer, it is the perfect spot to cool down.
A visit to the Czech Republic is not complete without beer! Or at least so I am told. I am not a beer drinker. No matter how many times I try it, I just do not like it. Luckily I have Simon with me to test out all the local brews. Here in Brno there are lots of little places that make their own beers, but the big name in town in Starobrno. The Starobrno Brewery is located walking distance from the centre of town and if you are near it you cannot miss the smell. It is possible to tour the brewery, then grab a meal and beer at the restaurant afterwards.
We ate at wherever we happened to be at lunch or dinner time. Brno has not yet fallen victim to “tourist prices” and all restaurants and cafes are reasonably priced to cater for locals as well as visitors. We nearly everywhere had either a separate English menu if asked for, or had a translation on their main menu. The best meal we had – in fact close to the best meal for our whole trip so far – was at Prominent Restaurant, part of the Holiday Inn where we were staying. It was absolutely delicious. Our full review is here.
Brno is a relaxed city. While we were there the weather was warm, and we enjoyed sitting around in the squares with a cooling drink just soaking up the atmosphere. Everywhere we looked there was something new and quirky. We are very glad we stopped by on our way to Prague.
Brno is a great city for the budget traveller as you will get plenty of bang for your buck here. A beer (0.5L) is from €1, a decent main course at a restaurant from about €5, a cappuccino is around €2. Of course there are more expensive options available too.
Every cafe and restaurant we ate at had wifi. We didn’t need it much while we were out and about though, and Brno is a small city that is easy to navigate and find things.
We really only caught local buses to and from the train station. Tickets are not available on the buses, they need to be bought in advance. A single trip ticket was 25CZK (€0.95). We were able to get tickets from the train station and the Holiday Inn, but they are widely available at news stands all over the city. While we didn’t test it out to be sure, I did read that tickets are available to purchase on the trams.