Historic Towns of South Moravia

Off the beaten track, a tour of this fascinating region of Czechia is an unforgettable experience. Living history, with all its turmoil, grandeur and eccentricities blends seamlessly with the modern elements of today. From the Century-old Sugar Palace in Prague, I set out on a Moravian journey that has altered my point of view of the world.

Brno

The second largest city in Czechia, its captivating blend of history, culture and innovation, has an irresistible charm. Brno is no doubt the “coolest” city in South Moravia. My window at the charming Hotel Grandezza looks out at the busy Market Square, and in minutes I am wandering around the stalls, admiring the gorgeous array of vegetables and local foods. I can’t help myself, I buy a single head of garlic, bigger than my fist.

Ignat Arapov, unsplash

The Baroque style, 18th century Parnas Fountain dominates the town square. Inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, a statue of Hercules has his three headed dog Cerberus on a leash. The dog claims fame today for being the guardian of the underground world in the Harry Potter books. There is also a statue of Europe, as a woman, standing on a dragon to show that Europe has conquered the world. But who could have imagined what lies beneath this town square? At the cabbage market, we enter a 1000-meter labyrinth, made up of cellars that were built to store food and wine (before refrigeration,) all connected by tunnels that include two nuclear bunkers and the Ossuary at St. James Church. In total, eight underground spaces. (Click this link to see the Brno Underground Labyrinth)

The Square has always been the soul of the city. Food trucks sell burgers and fries, ice cream and Tycinky, bread rolls with salt and cumin. The Reduta Theatre is one of the oldest theatres in Central Europe where, in season, you can catch performances of classical plays, opera, ballet and concerts. I am puzzled by the strange statue of Mozart that stands in front of the theatre. They tell me that during an 18th century epidemic that swept across Vienna, when the Mozart family fled to Brno for safety, their 11-year-old son and his sister played a concert that made the city abuzz about this genius child. That is why the statue has the body of a boy and the head of an older Mozart. Clever. A smaller experimental theatre focuses on more controversial plays around global issues and current society issues. Three flags grace the front: Ukraine, Belarus, LGBTQ+.


An animated crowd mills around the clock tower. It was constructed from one piece of black stone brought from Africa. Some say it looks like a bomb, some say it looks like something else, (a Czech slang term). It’s fascinating to see what happens every day at 11:00 a.m. when the clock begins turning and a complex mechanism inside the clock releases a crystal ball that travels down to the bottom where there are four holes. People wait to stick their hands into a hole and, with luck, catch the crystal ball. They are passionate about these crystal balls. One local woman and her friends have even staked their claim to them, and give Tourists any angry glares for their perceived intrusion. Human nature—even in Brno.

While admiring the architecture, I look up at the windows of St. James Church and blink in disbelief. I see a statue of a man, his posterior hanging out the window, mooning the city. In the upper windows of a church! I couldn’t believe my eyes. The story goes that the architect was fired and kicked out of the city. He then begged to stay on for two final weeks, even without payment, in order to complete…a few final details. And with his final sculpture, he got his revenge. It is all part of Brno’s whimsical charm.


Brno has one foot in yesterday, and one fashionably shod foot in tomorrow. Beyond its historic facade, there exists a dynamic community of entrepreneurs, researchers and students at the Masaryk University and the Brno University of Technology. Restaurants and cafes, many with myths attached, are everywhere. They say that the people who live here are “chill” and always have time for a cup of coffee. Take in a Bar Tour, or pop into any cafe for traditional buns and pastries. Pavillon Steak House serves the Czech raised Chester Beef, or for a change of pace, there is the Asian fusion restaurant, Element.

Brno enjoys its eccentricities, questionable statues and easy-going reputation. Locals tell me with smiles that they consider Brno to be a suburb of Vienna with funny statues.

Note to self: Research a summer rental in Brno, the coolest city in Czechia.

Valtice

Valtice Castle
I have butterflies as I stand at the gates of the Valtice Castle, a UNESCO Heritage site, about to enter this massive Baroque chateau. I am walking right into a living history book. The former residence of the illustrious Liechtenstein family, with its collection of furnishings and extravagant inventory competed with the Imperial Court in Vienna. In the cellars lies a carefully curated permanent tasting exhibition of the best Moravian and Bohemian wines.  Guided by a sommelier, I taste as many wines as I can manage. A tour through the many artfully furnished rooms of the castle conjures up the ghosts of aristocrats from centuries ago and their mannered daily lives. After a final stroll in the fresh breeze through the manicured gardens, I feel that I’ve had a time-travel experience.

This area has an expanse of rolling hills, vineyards, lush forests and serene lakes. If one is so inclined, a bike ride through the scenic countryside would be a joyful experience.

Mikulov

Mikulov is synonymous with wine culture, a tradition dating back centuries. The Deitrichstein family lived in their Baroque chateau in Mikulov from 1575 until World War 11 when the retreating German Army burned it to the ground. Mikulov was the spiritual, cultural and political centre of Moravian Jews and, in 1851, the seat of the Moravian Rabbis. The Chateau was rebuilt and, today, it is the home of The Regional Museum of Mikulov which includes the fascinating permanent exhibit, Wine Across the Centuries, and a Gallery. There are at least thirty vineyards around this town of 7,000 people. And because of the unique terroir here, there is an elusive difference of taste in wines that would ordinarily be familiar to us, like Reisling, Chardonnay and others.


Dating back to the 16th century, the Jewish community in Mikulov flourished, contributing to the town’s economic and cultural landscape. One of the most prominent landmarks is the Synagogue, an architectural gem blending Renaissance and Baroque styles. It stands as a symbol of survival through centuries of turmoil. It is fascinating to delve into the vibrant history of the Jewish community through exhibitions, artifacts and multimedia displays.

The town square, framed by elegant arcades, invites exploration, revealing hidden gems such as the Holy Trinity Column and the Old Town Hall. The Museum showcases artifacts spanning several epochs, offering insights into Mikulov’s evolution from Medieval stronghold to cultural hub. Today in the Square, street musicians entertain us, and there are many cafes selling really good coffee and pastries. An excellent place to take a break and consider the amazing history that unfolds before us.

Baťův Kanál Cruise to Straznice

Drifting along the tranquil waters of the Baťův kanál on our way to Straznice, I spend a little time chatting with the captain and his young son who has joined him on this bright morning. He points out that this was where the Bata Shoe factory and buildings once stood. I was so pleased to tell him about their wonderful Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. His son listens intently as the captain regales us with tales of the region’s rich history and offers insights into the customs and traditions that have shaped life along the canal for centuries. Stepping ashore in Straznice, we stroll along the cobblestone streets lined with charming cottages and historic buildings. I’m feeling like an intruder in a period movie, and any moment the director will say “cut.”

Vlčnov

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Clock Tower, Prague

It is one of those perfect sunny spring days in May in Vlčnov, Moravian Slovakia. Its quaint charm offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution from a medieval settlement to a modern community. Today, the entire population of 3000 leave their homes, and take to the streets to partake in the Ride of the Kings Festival, wearing traditional costumes from the early 1800s. One chosen-boy, between 10 and 15 years old, dressed in full female costume, with his face partially covered, rides a lavishly decorated white horse while clenching a rose in his mouth. He leads a parade of mounted, feminine costumed, 15- to 25-year-old groomsmen. All other riders and horses are in masculine costumes. I feel like I am a spectator to history. They ride around the village for a few hours exchanging quips and having fun with the costumed-crowd that mills around them. Sitting on a bench in the outdoor amphitheatre, I am delighted by a traditional musical concert, then wander about, admiring stalls with trinkets made by local artisans and tasting local foods. I buy a quart of creamy unpasteurized honey, “fresh from the bees,” says the farmer.

I love a parade, and I am bursting to know the origins of this costumed-extravaganza, listed as a UNESCO “intangible heritage.” There are many hilarious tales, but the one that seems most fitting involves Matthias Corvinus dressing as a woman to flee from a disastrous battle.  In fact, The Ride of the Kings is the subject of the novel Zert (The Joke) by Czech-French writer Milan Kundera.

Skanzen Rochus


A unique, open-air museum in the country side spreads across lush greenery and preserves the cultural heritage of the region. We’re welcomed to the home of folk songs, wine, Slivovitz (plum brandy) and horseback riding. There are meticulously re-constructed historical buildings that reflect various periods of Czech history, like thatched roof cottages that give us an insight into the daily lives of bygone eras. There is even an original barn, it’s paint long gone. But it is the interactive exhibits, where we can try our hand at pottery, weaving or woodworking, and have a hands-on experience that transports us back in time. The air itself is clean, crisp and colours are extra bright. Certainly, a far cry from what we’re used to in a big North American city. As a cultural history buff, I am grateful for this opportunity.

Kutna Hora


Among the stunning architecture in this quaint town, stands the Palace Kutna Hora, and to my delight, my accommodation is the Presidential Suite. The key word here is Palace. Entering massive wooden doors, I am in a spacious living area adorned with plush furnishings, rich fabric and ornate window decorations that harken back to a bygone era. Large windows offer gorgeous views of the surrounding landscape which are reflected in murals painted on the walls by a local artist of the time. But it’s the marble bathroom that is pure fantasy. About the size of a Toronto condo master-bedroom, its massive, deep soaking tub seduces me into filling it and immediately gliding-in. Big Mistake. Alas the suite does not come with upstairs and downstairs maids, and try as I might, I cannot clamber out of the tub. Will I need to spend the night here? Clever me, I pull the plug, drain the water, and climb out. Was it worth the effort. Yes, indeedy. After a blissful sleep in the lavish four-poster bed, I enjoy breakfast of freshly baked breads, eggs and fruit in my private lounge.

On departure, I am asked to sign the guest book and leave some remarks. I see that Ben Affleck was the previous guest. I wonder how he enjoyed the tub.

Interior of the Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice), Kutna Hora, Czech Republic; Shutterstock

From luxury-life to luxury-death. An experience like no other awaits at The Sedlec Cathedral and Ossuary. In the 13th century, the Abbot of Sedlec brought soil from the Holy Land and turned the cemetery into a highly coveted burial site. In the 19th century, the bones were exhumed and artistically arranged by one Frantisek Rint. Words cannot describe my range of emotions on seeing over 40,000 human skeletons and bones intricately arranged into macabre decorations. From chandeliers crafted from every bone in the body, to elaborate coats of arms fashioned entirely from skeletal remains, every corner of the Ossuary is a testament to human creativity and immortality.

Leisurely roaming through the country side of South Moravia, following the footsteps of history, leads us beyond the castles, cathedrals and culture of Prague, through the hillsides and cellars of enchanting wine regions in the Czech Republic, for experiences that will become part of my lifetime of memories.

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