This article appeared as a feature in the Prague Post (29.09.01) titled 'Moravian Renaissance'.
Brno is blossoming and shedding its image as a backwater town
The Czech Republic's second city is casting aside its sleepy, provincial ways.
Brno, the Moravian capital, has long had a reputation of lagging behind Prague and Vienna in culture and commerce. But now, the streets bustle with people, even on weekends, and local shops and restaurants are welcoming them. The city is busy renovating its run-down buildings and rediscovering its once-thriving arts scene. Visitors will find it easy to navigate Brno's compact, traffic-free Old Town, enclosed by a ring road fashioned after Vienna's Ringstrasse. And the city is, unlike the Bohemian capital, almost entirely free of tourists.
A couple of hundred yards north of the main train station, just off Masarykova, which cuts through the heart of the Old Town, is the sinister Kapucinsky klaster (Capuchin Monastery). In the crypt of this 17th-century church are 100 or so perfectly preserved mummies of members and benefactors of the Capuchin cloister. The church is open daily and entry costs 40 Kc (about $1).
Just north of the monastery is Zelny trh (Cabbage market). This busy open-air fruit and vegetable market on a sloping, cobbled square is at its most vibrant now, displaying the labors of the summer season. At its center is the Parnassus fountain, built in 1695, from whose waters vendors used to hawk carp.
The square is also the site of the Moravian Museum, which details the history of Moravia and the Great Moravian Empire. (Open Tues.-Sun., 40 Kc).
Continuing north on Radnicka from the market, you find Brno's 13th-century Stara radnice (Old Town Hall). The Gothic portal fronting the town hall, which was built by Anton Pilgram, later responsible for St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, is the building's best feature and noteworthy for its bent turret above the statue of Justice. Legend has it that Pilgram bent it himself after the town council refused to pay him in full.
Hanging just inside the entrance is the Brnensky drak (Brno Dragon), also steeped in legend. It is said that a marauding dragon was fooled into eating the carcass of an ox stuffed with limes - having dined, it drank so much from the river Svratka that it burst. In reality, the fabled dragon is a stuffed crocodile. The fine view of Old Town from the hall's lookout tower is well worth the 10 Kc.
Two hills dominate the city's skyline. On the highest stands Spilberk Castle. Founded in the 13th century as an administrative center, it was converted into a fortress and prison by the Habsburgs. Later, the Nazis used it as a concentration camp during World War II. Daily tours can be taken round the garrison for 40 Kc.
The Nick of Time
Although Spilberk was the main point of defense against the Swedish siege of the town during the Thirty Years' War, it was actually the Katedrala sv. Petra a Pavla (St. Peter and Paul Cathedral) on Petrov, the smaller of Brno's hills, that saved the city from defeat.
In 1645, after months of siege, the Swedes gave themselves until noon to take Brno or leave. At 11 a.m., with the city on the brink of defeat, the cathedral bell ringer suddenly rang noon and the Swedes broke off their attack; to this day the cathedral bells ring noon at 11 a.m.
Brno is very much a university town and the large student population returns every October to breathe life back into the city, making autumn the perfect time to visit.
The hometown of composer Leos Janacek also offers an autumnal arts program, the highlight of which is the 36th International Music Festival, Moravsky podzim.
This year's festival, Of Love and Death, is devoted to the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi lovers can catch performances of Don Carlos on Oct. 3 and a festival performance of his Requiem on Oct. 6. Both performances take place at Janackovo divadlo and tickets range from between 120 Kc and 400 Kc. Other performances of note include a piano recital of Rachmaninov, Shostakovich and Beethoven by Janis Vakarelis on Oct. 4 and Bruch's Odysseus performed by the Prague Philharmonic Choir, supported by the Beethoven Orchestra from Bonn, on Sept. 29.
The Moravian Gallery is also hosting a rich and varied program of art exhibitions. In the Mistodrzitelsky palac on Moravske namesti is a massive presentation called European Art of the Sixth Century, which includes an exhibition of northern Italian paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. Running in conjunction with this is a showing of works by Milan Pitlach, Photography from an English diary 1969-1970. The Moravian gallery devotes its space to Czech artists of the 20th century. The photography of Josef Sudek, paintings by Frantisek Foltyn and a general exhibit of Czech modern art are on display for the next couple of months.
For many, though, one of the biggest draws of the city in autumn is burcak. If the sweet, young wine is not to your taste, you can also try a glass or three of fruity whites from previous years' harvests.