Without any planned itinerary, I went to Ostrava’s bus station early to enquire about buses that travel west to any interesting destination in the Czech Republic, in a bid to get closer to Prague. Ostrava’s bus station on Ul Vitkovicka is a huge affair equipped with all necessary facilities that include information points and electronic departure boards. When I arrived, the station was almost deserted except for a handful of people queuing behind a ticket-dispensing machine. I approached the information office with an air of indecision and hesitation, not knowing if the officer in attendance could converse in English.
"I am on a trip in your country. Which big city west of here offers enough sightseeing opportunities for two days?" I enquired.
"You are only one hour away from the capital of Moravia. Are you familiar with Olomouc? It’s a historical place where you can go back in time three or four centuries just by going around the Old Town."
"I have read about Olomouc in a number of guide books. But to me, it seemed a small forgotten town" I interrupted.
"Not anymore. Since Martin Tesarik has been appointed President of the Olomouc Region, everything has changed. The Central Moravia Tourist Association has been regenerated and its office on the city’s main square provides visitors with all they need to know about the city in view of making their stay interesting and enjoyable."
"I’ll give it a try then" I said after I considered his words of persuasion.
"You will not be disappointed. You can buy a bus ticket from one of the booths or directly from the driver. Have a look at the departure board. The bus departs from Platform 5 in twenty minutes."
Wending its way through Ostrava’s dual-carriage motorways, the bus soon reached the D1 highway, a semi-circular arterial road that connects Ostrava with Brno and Prague. The first section of the highway was a gentle ascent along hillside groves characterized by patches of forested areas and huge stretches of grasslands. Dotted with several small lagoons and reedy marshes, the landscape afforded spectacular views, particularly as the bus approached Studenka, a town that stands on the periphery of a pretty elongated park. Out on the D1, the bus resumed its trip to Hladke Zivotice, a hillside village with a small rural population. The highway further south of here cuts across flat grazing land, a lawn of green ground covers patched here and there with thick foliage and dark-green gorse in yellow bloom.
The bus soon reached Lipnik nad Becvou, a small ancient town that still retains a large section of medieval walls and a few outstanding towers. As the bus plied through the town’s ring road, the view of the ancient fortifications was clearly in sight, their redbrick turrets still watching over the city. After taking a sharp turn west, the bus traced a circular arc along a new stretch of the D1 stopping en route at Velky Ujezd, another small market town east of Olomouc. The bus then proceeded along the highway, making a gentle descent across a grove of spruce and pine before it meandered south to Olomouc.
The bus and train stations in Olomouc are next to each other on Trida Kosmonautu, two miles southeast of the city centre. The entire area around the bus and train stations and south of it is a twentieth-century design containing a fair share of apartment blocks, high-risers and hypermarkets and is of little interest to visitors. From the bus or train station, a short stroll north (just follow the hordes) across the Morava River puts you right on the city’s ring road, a grand boulevard whose name changes three times, from Ul 17 Listopadu to Ul Dobrovskeho to Trida Svobody. One can walk along one section of the ring road to the centre in about thirty minutes or else one can take the frequent tram to the stop on Namesti Narodnich Hrdinu from where Ul 8 Kvetna leads one straight to the action.
The medieval quarter is almost entirely pedestrianized but a tram line runs along most streets in the Old Town. Being narrow and winding, these allow for one-way tramways only and so a tram that traverses a particular street does not necessarily retour along the same track. The centre, being compact and navigable can be covered on foot with ease but to get a good orientation of your whereabouts, it is advisable to start your tour of the city with a tram ride that runs along streets where most key attractions are located. Tram No: 4 taken from any stop on Ul Pekarska or Ul Denisova does the job better than expected.
The Old Town is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and winding walkways dominated by two squares from which all passes and paths radiate. The main square Horni Namesti has a triangular layout, its centre taken over by a collection of fine Renaissance-style remodelled structures. Eye-catching and architecturally superb, they impart an air of grace and refinement to the square. The Town Hall wearing a whiter-than-white top coat of graffiato is decorated with a lofty tower, its bronze-plated pointed pinnacle serving as a good landmark for anybody who gets lost within the winding alleyways. Dotting the square, there are no less than three stone fountains: Caesar’s Fountain on the east edge, Hercules’ Fountain on the north edge and the contemporary Arion Fountain on the south edge. The Holy Trinity Column on the extreme west edge of the square is a thirty-five-metres high baroque masterpiece of ornamental work in stone, a veritable exposition of grandeur and refinement.
A street access on the south edge of Horni Namesti leads straight to the city’s second important square. Called Dolni Namesti, it is an elongated piazza sidelined with specialized food stores and traditional restaurants, the latter extending their dining area with open-air tables placed on their front terraces. Two more stone fountains decorate Dolni Namesti: Jupiter’s fountain on the south edge and the majestic Neptune’s Fountain on the north edge. Midway between the fountains, the Marian Plague Column is another elaborate sculpture in stone, not as grand or opulent as the Holy Trinity Column on Horni Namesti but equally refined and artistic.
North of Horni Namesti, Ul Denisova spreads out into Namesti Republiky, an irregular open space characterized by a grand church, an excellent history museum and another stone fountain. On one side of the square, the huge renovated Museum of National History housed in a former Clarisian convent contains great collections of historical documents, woodcuts, prints, armaments, traditional dresses, coins and musical instruments. The building itself is an imposing example of baroque architecture, its reconstructed façade having been turned into a characterful exposition of sublime stonework. In the middle of the square, the Triton Fountain is an additional water spout to the array of fountains scattered around. The Church of Our Lady of the Snows rising out of an elevated spot on the square is an early eighteenth-century baroque construction, its interior ornamentation consisting of a splendorous colourful display of gilded framework, friezes and ceiling frescoes. Worthy of mention are the oval-shaped painting above the high altar and the intricately sculpted gold-plated pulpit.
From Namesti Republiky, a short stroll east leads one straight to two other zones of national cultural heritage, both associated with medieval church architecture and sacred works of art. Climbing up Ul Wurmova, one hits upon the imposing structure of the Archbishop’s Palace, a baroque edifice that is aesthetically beautiful, having been recently given a face-lift with a coat of brilliant white paint. Closed when I visited, I succeeded in getting through the main gate to the palatial courtyard but unluckily I could not view its inner chambers and furnishings.
Back on the main street, Ul Domska is a high-gradient uphill shortcut to Vaclavske Namesti, an irregular piazza where the main attraction is the Cathedral of St Wenceslas. This Cathedral is no ordinary church, its thirteenth-century Gothic remodelling and its nineteenth-century major restoration being crucial to turn this place of worship into one of Europe’s distinctive monuments. Near the Cathedral stands the Chapel of St Anna, a graceful sanctuary that still retains most of its original features. On one edge of Vaclavske Namesti and only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, the Archdiocesan Museum housed in the former Premyslid Castle is the city’s best historical sight. The Art Gallery on the first floor contains an exposition of Italian and Dutch paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The chambers where these collections are treasured are themselves great works of art, being decorated with gilded panelling and allegorical personalities of mythology. A Gothic cloister wrapped around a central courtyard leads to the graceful Chapel of St John the Baptist. From here, a passage leads to Bishop Zdik’s twelfth-century Romanesque palace, a great architectural opus containing more than a fair share of restored specimens of sculpted stonework.