Writing and reviews from a 24 hour visit to the Czech Republic's handsome second city
by fizzytom on June 16, 2013
The magnificent gothic cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul dominates the city of Brno from its perch on Petrov hill. It dates from the end of the 13th century but it has seen many changes over the centuries and the interior is decidedly Baroque in style. The church was made a cathedral in 1777 when Pope Pius VI made Brno a bishopric. Remains of an earlier Romanesque church can be seen in the cathedral’s crypt. Although they look ancient, the twin spires of the cathedral, which are 84 metres high, are actually neo-Gothic, not added until the first years of the twentieth century to the design of Viennese architect August Kirstein.The cathedral is easy to get to and visible from most parts of the city. If you are just passing through, perhaps changing trains, you can easily make a quick trip to the cathedral because it is very close to the train station. Entrance to the cathedral is free but there is a small charge to climb the 130 steps of the tower. Sadly at the time of our visit I was recovering from surgery on my foot and unable to make the climb. I can only imagine that the views over the city are something very special. The charge also gets you admission to an exhibition of treasures belonging to the cathedral such as ornate chalices and liturgical vestments and other textiles. There’s an additional charge to visit the crypt and again, because of the stairs I was unable to see this and had to content myself with a self guided tour of the main body of the church. This contains such treasures as an ebony altar in the chapel of the Annunciation and a collection of sculptures by Ondrej Schweigl. At this cathedral the bells are rung at eleven each morning rather than midday as is usual in most such churches. There’s a story that this came about during the 30 Years War. According to this legend the Swedes who were invading the city made a pledge that they would retreat if they had not taken the city by noon on 15th August. As the deadline approached the citizens of Brno decided to ring the bells an hour early to trick the Swedes into retreating. Brno was the only city that avoided being taken by the Swedes in the war. As one of the main attractions in the city centre the cathedral does get quite busy in the middle of the day and if you wish to visit at a quieter time I suggest waiting until the late afternoon/evening if you can. The crypt and the tower are open daily from 11.00am until around 8.00pm. If you only have a short amount of time in Brno, I recommend you spend some of it visiting this stunning building.
by fizzytom on January 13, 2013
I'm the kind of traveller that hates to think she's been lured into a tourist trap to pay over the odds for something distinctly average; I'll generally go out of my way to avoid an English or Irish styled pub on the continent but occasionally the unthinkable happens and I end up eating somewhere I'd not have chosen voluntarily. Brno's Sherlock Holmes pub is a good example: we'd wanted to eat at a microbrewery and restaurant in the town but the place was heaving when we rolled up and judging by the queue for tables it was going to be a lengthy wait. The next nearest place was the Sherlock Holmes pub; a sign outside listed some beers we hadn't tried before in the Czech Republic as well as a good selection of traditional Czech dishes. While you couldn't really describe the prices as expensive (certainly not in comparison with UK prices, or with Prague prices, the city we had just come from) we knew that we could certainly eat the same dishes more cheaply if we looked a little further. It was by this time dark, however, and becoming quite cold, so we decided to abandon our principles and go in. While I wouldn't say that the Sherlock Holmes pub matches my ideas of a typical English pub, it does conform to the version that people in central Europe tend to have an idea of. It's all tables and chairs so there are no comfortable upholstered corner seats and, as is the way in this part of the world, all service is at table rather than at the bar. There is seating on two levels; it was a busy Friday night when we visited and we took the only free table we saw on the ground floor in case there was nothing else but with hindsight we should have looked upstairs as it was quite draughty every time the door opened. There must be something obviously English about us because the waitress brought over a couple of menus in English. The menu is a bit of a mixed bag with a decent selection of traditional Czech dishes and recognisable international fare offering lighter bites, hearty main meals and some meat free options. Skipping starters (and I'm glad we did as the portions were quite sufficient) we ordered main courses which came quite quickly considering that the place was busy and a good proportion of customers were dining. I had chosen a spicy pork dish; the strips of pork had been sautéed - possibly marinated before hand too - in a very spicy sauce along with strips of red and yellow pepper; this was not unlike a goulash in terms of ingredients and flavour, though it was not as stew or soup like as a traditional goulash. This was served with four shallow fried potato cakes. The meat was still nice and tender which means bonus points for the chef because the peppers were beautifully tender but hadn't gone to almost nothing as they can do when cooked like this. There was a lot of heat going on which is unusual for this part of the world but I was very appreciative; this dish certainly excited the taste-buds. The potato cakes were tasty and well seasoned; they were rosti because the potato wasn't grated, neither were they croquettes, a rustic hash brown is perhaps the best way to describe them but they were far better than that, nicely coloured from the cooking but not greasy and great for mopping up the fiery sauce from pork. On the other side of the table there was a lovely piece of salmon fillet which was almost completely hidden by some greenery which I think had been intended to be a garnish but proved a very good camouflage. This was a lovely piece of salmon that had been cooked by someone who knew what he or she was doing. The skin was crisp and well seasoned while the fish itself was not overcooked and was still moist. This was served with cherry tomatoes which were less of a success. The tomatoes were just warmed but needed to have been cooked a bit longer with a bit of olive oil and some herbs so that their juices would have burst out as you cut into them. The skins should have started to split and they were still in tact. It would also have been better, at least aesthetically, if the tomatoes had been roasted still on the vine. This was a shame as they were really tasty, sweet tomatoes, not the insipid Dutch things that you tend to see in the supermarkets in the winter months (we visited in early November). There was a choice of side dish and croquettes were chosen; these were pretty run of the mill, obviously ready made but cooked through and there were loads of them. During our stay in the Czech Republic there was a nationwide beer event going on in which beers normally found in one part of the country were made available in other areas - a bit like the British idea of having guest ales. This is good because you do find that local beers tend to dominate a region and it's good to get a chance to try something different at least once. I don't recall what we had but by choosing the beer on promotion we paid significantly less in a pub where the beer prices generally are a bit higher than in many other pubs in the city centre. The service is less than friendly but I can't complain too much as my Czech is limited and the two staff who attended to our table both spoke good English. Service was always prompt and orders were accurate. We paid around £23 for our meals with drinks which is quite expensive for Brno; this is a bit of a tourist trap and we heard quite a few foreign voices. It seems like this is the sort of place where people take foreign visitors, or where people go because they want something a bit more 'cosmopolitan' than the usual Czech fare. Our food was good on the whole but I'm pretty sure we'd have got something as good, if not better, and certainly cheaper had we been willing to walk a little bit further. Open daily 11.00 am - midnight
by fizzytom on January 19, 2013
The Czech city of Brno has some 400,000 residents (its metropolitan area has around twice that) and it is the capital of the province of Moravia. It is home to the largest exhibition centre in Europe and to the country's Constitutional and Supreme Courts, the Supreme Administrative Court and the office of the national Ombudsman. Brno hosts a number of highly regarded international festivals each year and in total its many higher education faculties have more than 90,000 students. So why is it that so many people have never heard of the Czech Republic's second city? Given that Brno is just a couple of hours by train from Prague, and even less from Vienna and Bratislava it's maybe surprising that Brno has held onto its budget route to and from the UK with Wizz Air though it's possible that the flight has been maintained because it's useful for exhibition delegates. We've passed through Brno's main train station on numerous occasions over the last ten years but never stopped until recently when we broke up a train journey from Prague to Maribor (Slovenia). Depending on which train you take the journey to/from Prague takes about three hours and is, for the most part, incredibly scenic. The area immediately around the train station is shabby and you'll probably see a few drinkers hang around; we didn't feel threatened at all but it's not the best of arrivals. The historic core of the city is compact and walkable; attractions such as Villa Tugendhat - a modernist house built in 1929-30 and the only building in the Czech Republic to have UNESCO World Heritage Site status - are just a short tram ride from the centre. The key sights can be seen in a day, even a few hours if you are inclined to jump off the train and pound the pavements. Over a long weekend you can pack in a few museums or galleries and enjoy Brno's charms at a more leisurely pace. I have to confess that when we visited we knew we wouldn't see a great deal of Brno: it was cold and I was recovering from surgery on my foot but we were able to wander around the historic heart of the city and see many of its architectural monuments. Namesti Svobody (Freedom Square) is the symbolic centre of the historic centre; it's more triangular than square, to be pedantic, and is dotted with fountains and sculptures rather than having one grand focal point. Like the other tourists in town we made a half hearted attempt to work out the rather unusual clock (referred to somewhat indecently as the 'cock clock' by some) which symbolizes the 1645 Battle of Brno, then turned our attention instead to the building just behind which is designed so that the façade is held up by four magnificent caryatids (a caryatid being a human figure in place of a more conventional pillar). I loved this building, but my travelling companion thought it too over the top. In Brno you need to look up; the city is packed with wonderful buildings so that it resembles a giant open air museum of architecture. There are splendid gilded arcades with twinkling chandeliers that give a magical effect, intricately tiled facades and cute little finials that are reminiscent of Russian architecture. If you like to shop you can combine consumerism with architectural appreciation as the main shopping area is made up of streets of these fine buildings. I was surprised how many smart, upmarket stores there were, including quite a few international designers; there are also lots of little independent shops selling quality items, especially confectionery. The old town hall- the Stara Radnice - houses the tourist information office (as well as the Brno wheel and the Brno dragon, symbols of two famous legends surrounding the city); the staff are friendly but not very helpful or proactive. We asked about visiting Villa Tugendhat but we were told that it was by advance reservation only for guided tours; tours are usually full for the forthcoming six weeks. I really wanted to visit and asked if a staff member could phone and enquire about cancellations; I was told there wouldn't be any and so nobody phoned. I mentioned that we were looking for something a bit different to do and that I was recovering from foot surgery and didn't really want to do something that involved lots of walking. One staff member suggested sky diving (I'm not joking) but added it was only possible in summer. Another suggested going to a water-park; she stared at me blankly when I pointed out I had no swimming gear and it wasn't really an activity that was special to Brno (maybe she thought it would be therapeutic). One good thing about the TIC is that there are loads and loads of leaflets and several different 'What's on' publications so if you turn up with a guidebook or you've not done any research, you can easily find out where there is to see and do. Among the ones we picked was one that described a walk around a residential area of the city in which there are a number of interesting architect designed houses, something we'd have enjoyed had I been more mobile. Perhaps because it was approaching the end of autumn Namesti Svobody was rather quiet with people passing through rather than stopping at one of the cafes. I got the impression that this is the place to stop for a coffee or beer in summer, but in the winter only a few hardy people sit outside with a coffee and a cigarette. Zeleny Trh (the Cabbage Market) was much livelier; a fresh produce market where the stalls are clustered around a slightly grotesque baroque fountain. From here it's a short walk to the cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul; with its gothic revival twin towers it is perhaps the most recognisable visual symbol of Brno. The cathedral is a mishmash of styles with bits added here and there over the centuries according to the prevailing fashions, or practical necessity. The tower can be climbed for a small charge and no doubt a trip to the top is rewarded with fantastic views; we contented ourselves with a look around the main body of the church, discreetly tagging on to the tail end of a guided tour to learn more. I'd have easily spent a few days in Brno given the chance but we had plans and couldn't stay. It's a lively and youthful city where there appears to be plenty going on. Ice hockey is a massive spectator sport; we stayed over on a Friday night and the bars were full of people watching a televised game. I get the impression that people in Brno like to make the most of what's available to them; through the window of a small basement bar near our hotel we could see that the place was packed with people watching a guitar duo playing. There are posters all over town for concerts, lessons and sports clubs; it seemed to me a city where people really live life. I found Brno surprisingly cosmopolitan, but with a distinctly Czech attitude. No doubt being the seat of several important national institutions, as well as a major venue for international exhibitions and conferences, contributes to this. Restaurants cover the range of price brackets and international cuisines; there are cosy traditional pubs and sleek modern boutique bars. Hotels, too, cover a range of pricing options and there are plenty of good independent hotels that don't fall under a generic, faceless international branding. Service tends to be efficient but not very friendly; we found that the more downmarket we went, the more friendly the staff became. Wizz Air flies to Brno from Luton Airport; flying in to Prague, Bratislava or Vienna are all viable options as Brno can be reached easily by train from those cities. People rave about Prague; it's a very beautiful city but it's too large to comfortably explore in a weekend. Try Brno, I dare you; it's visually quite stunning, it's lively and there's a heck of a lot going on.
by fizzytom on December 16, 2012
Travellers on a budget should cross Brno’s inner ring road and head to Ekvador. Here you can choose from five daily hot lunches with a drink and a bowl of soup for just a couple of Euro. Having travelled down from Prague by train we were ravenous and, unable to check in to our hotel for another hour, we decided to chance the first place we found. A decrepit old car adorned with an Ekvador sign pointed the way through a courtyard behind the grand buildings on Tr. Kapt. Jarose and we entered the premises through a tall gate. The lights in the corridor were very dim but we followed our noses and the aroma of hearty home-cooked food led us to the dining room. There were no staff visible but about three quarters of the tables were occupied, mainly by working men or elderly diners. Our arrival must have been noticed, however, because within a minute a very friendly lady brought two bowls of mushroom soup and a list of the week’s meals. Each day there’s a different meat free soup, and a choice of five mains; in theory that means a choice of twenty five different mains though, in reality, some things such as schnitzel are repeated, but with a different side dish. One of the daily mains is always a vegetarian option. The menu is in Czech only of course; it’s not in the tourist district so only those tourists that venture off the beaten track are likely to end up in Ecvador. As Czech is so close to Slovene we were able to make an educated guess and end up with two dishes that we fancied; if you have a knowledge of Polish, similarly, you might be able to get by. As it happened, a second member of staff on duty was able to speak English and we could have called upon his help if that had been necessary. For unfussy diners it probably doesn’t matter at all because there’s nothing particularly unusual on the menu; pork is dominant and you’ll find lots of dishes of the kind you’ll see on the menus of restaurants in Germany, Poland or Austria. There are chops and schnitzel, chicken dishes and a few pasta plates thrown in too. Accompaniments include rice, salad or potatoes in various forms – mashed, boiled, fried and so on. I had a pork schnitzel which was served with a cold Russian salad (or something quite similar) of peas, potato, and diced carrot in a thick mayonnaise. The schnitzel was a generous size and well cooked with a lovely crispy coating; while not the best schnitzel I’ve ever had, I can’t claim to have been disappointed. My partner had pork too but his piece was not battered, it was served naturally with a sauce and fried potatoes. He also enjoyed his meal, especially the potatoes. A glass of sparkling water or an orange drink (rather watery but hey, you're paying next to nothing) is included in the price of your meal. The restaurant does serve beer (Policka or Poutnik) and has a bar so you could buy the drink of your choice if you prefer. The lunchtime menu is available from 10:30 - 14:30 and costs around 60 Cezch Crowns. The restaurant is open until 23:00 however for other meals. It is closed on Saturdays and Sundays. It's easy to see why there was a steady stream of customers during the time we were there. Portions are generous and the food is tasty and filling. Ekvador's lunch menu offers great value and traveller's on limited means should definitely check it out.
by fizzytom on November 7, 2012
I was very excited for my stay at Brno's Europa Hotel. The hotel is billed as an 'art hotel' so I was expecting something a little different.The hotel is situated just outside Brno's historic old centre, on the northern side of the inner ring road on Trida Kpt Jarose, a leafy street lined with fantastic buildings and Hotel Europa is in an elegant Art Nouveau style building which has an inner courtyard. It's a good location only a couple of minutes from the Old Town but there are a handful of restaurants/bars on this street if you want to stay close to the hotel. This street provides access only and isn't linked directly to the main road for traffic which keeps noise down. Pedestrians however can access the street from the main road, where there is a tram stop if you are going further than the centre. The hotel has its own secure parking. We booked in advance through Expedia and paid about £44 for one night with breakfast in a standard double (there are also 'superior' rooms though the only difference I can see is that the superior have reproduction furniture). We tend not to book for breakfast, finding it cheaper to get breakfast outside the hotel in most place in central Europe, but this seemed like a good deal and it being chilly in the mornings in Brno, the idea of getting a good breakfast before leaving the hotel was very appealing. Alththe confirmation of our reservation did state the check in time we chanced it an hour early as we've frequently found that we can check in if the room is ready and we had bags we wanted to dump as soon as possible. We waited patiently while the receptionist dealt with a customer during which time she made a point of refusing to even acknowledge us when a quick smile would have done until she could turn her attention to us. When I got to the desk the receptionist gave me a look that said 'What could you possibly want from me?' which immediately thrust me into sarcasm mode. 'You are too early' she snapped. 'In that case might there be somewhere we could leave our bags? That would be very helpful to us.', I simpered. After a sigh she got up to unlock the store room behind her though I could see she really couldn't be bothered. I asked if there were any maps of the city and she gestured vaguely towards some leaflets on a shelf across the room. There was nothing in English so we made do with a leaflet and map in German but felt personally slighted as the literature was available in Slovakian, Russian, French and Italian. As we went out again my cheery 'See you later!' went unanswered. Returning later in the afternoon the receptionist appeared to have undergone a partial personality graft and was slightly more pleasant though I wouldn't be so generous as to describe her as friendly. Still check in was super swift though no enquiry was made as to whether we had arrived by car and therefore might need a parking place (possibly she assumed that we were not with a car because otherwise we might have left our bags there until checking in). The rather disappointing about Hotel Europa is that while the arty element can be seen in the public areas, the walls of the rooms are completely bare. The reception area/bar is meant to look ultra modern but looks a bit IKEA in all honesty. There are clear perspex tables and chairs and a few of those velvet upholstered lip shaped chairs that I'd seen pictured on the website; I did sit on one of the latter and found it to be a rather uncomfortable perch and not one I'd want to occupy for more than a minute or two. In the hallway beside the lift there was a colourful installation of primary coloured sailing boats on tall sticks; Himself could not resist the urge to run over and pretend to keep them spinning. There were more pieces on the walls in the corridors on our floor but none really close to the rooms, most of them were tucked away in locations that made me think that whoever had been hanging the pictures didn't really want many people to see them. Our first floor room overlooked the main street: as it's for access only there was minimal traffic noise and as this is an area with lots of residential buildings it was really quiet by the time most people had come home from work (and it being a Friday evening nobody was getting out the next morning). Although there was no door separating the sleeping area, there was enough of a long corridor effect in the layout to mean the bed was insulated from noise of people in the corridor. The room is summed up in white walls and white bed linen. The curtains were cream and so inoffensive that they almost offended me. The wood of the furniture was almost the colour of cherry wood, the only thing to add a touch of warmth to the room. Condition wise it couldn't be faulted but it had zero personality. There was a second Brit snub as the BBC World channel was the only one which had no sound and there was no other English language channel (not even a CNN). I let my brain take the strain and watched German news instead translating for Himself who was lying in bed drinking Czech beer (I really can't take him anywhere). Wi-fi is only available in the public areas but the rooms all have internet access with a data cable and one was kindly provided. The connection wasn't the fastest in the world but it was adequate. The bathroom was neutrally decorated but this worked much better than the bedroom; it was stylish and modern but still warm with a personal touch. It was immaculate, with regard to both the condition of the fittings and in cleanliness. The shower was easy to control in terms of temperature but it was an over bath shower and there was nowhere on the wall to place the shower head so it had always to be held. The towels were a little on the skimpy side but fresh and soft. Getting a allergy friendly pillow has been entertaining of late, mainly because I usually forget to contact the hotel in advance of my stay. Fortunately the pillows were allergy free feather pillows so I didn't have to go through that particular tribulation again. It was a cold night but the temperature of the room was fine without having to fiddle with the heating. Breakfast was served between 7.00 and 10.00 am in the breakfast room in the hotel's basement. The lift goes only to the ground floor unfortunately so I don't kno how that works if you can't manage the flight of stairs down to the room. It was a buffet breakfast with everything laid out at one end of the room, including hot water for teas and coffee and a toaster. I prefer my coffee freshly made and brought to me so I took advantange of the vast selection of fruit and herbal teas instead. There were three types of fruit juice, equal in their blandness. There was a choice of cereals, muesli, fresh and dried fruit and various yoghurts, fruit and natural. As is usual on the continent there were slices of cheese and cooked meats (some of them way too garlicky for breakfat in my opinion), and hard boiled eggs, fresh tomato and cucumber (a breakfast I find oddly addictive). The highlight for me was the smoked salmon which I teamed up shamelessly with hot sausages. As much as you may not fancy some of the more strongly flavoured foods at breakfast, there was at least plenty of choice (especially if your breakfast usually consists of cake, or you would like it to). Hotel Europa is a decent enough hotel in a good location. Although it isn't in the old town, the location does have the advantage that it's accessible for drivers and may be a good choice for people coming by car who don't necessarily come to Brno as tourists.The art hotel tag isn't really helpful. The hotel does have some nice pieces but they are so strewn across the hotel that unless you were to go trekking around you wouldn't see most of them. Rather than go into the whole philosophy around the art aspect of Hotel Europa I've added a link at the end of this review to explain what it comprises. For the price you'll not get much better so close to the centre of Brno. It's a big city with lots of hotels so the price is competitive but the quality is good making the price even more pleasing. http://www.hotel-europa-brno.cz/philosophy.html
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