Brno - the city of laughter and forgetting
I've been thinking a lot about Brno recently.
It's my favourite city in the Czech Republic as I spent my salad days here studying Czech language and literature in the early eighties.
As a homage to this fine city, FourBees offers a travel article written perhaps eight years ago for a Budapest newspaper and updated more recently for an inflight magazine.
Bear in mind that some of the venues may have changed, however I hope the atmosphere has been captured.
Brno: so much more than an anagram
A FourBees travel article
Brno; the name might sound like a crossword anagram and the town always gets overlooked, lurking in the shade of big sister Prague but look again.
Brno is not the elusive 'next Prague'.
Along with ‘shimmering sunsets’ and ‘bustling old town centres’ this clichéd label hangs like a dead weight on many towns, some deserving, some dreading.
Those seeking fairytale castles, cobbled backstreets and what some American visitors dub, 'Disneyland with beer', should head for Ljubljana, Krakow, Tallinn or even Bratislava.
Brno will never be the new Prague, and, knowing Brno, it doesn’t want to be.
Brno is very much its own town.
A vibrant yet traditional Czech city, this capital of Moravia has stunning architecture to match big Bohemian sister Prague, a gorgeous lake a tram ride away and, despite the name sounding a bit brown and dull, Brno has an exciting, beery bar scene, but without the heaving crowds.
Brno also has its fair share of cultural icons; it is the birthplace of Milan Kundera, everyone’s favourite Czech writer and home to composer Leoš Janaček.
Playwright Karel Čapek, creator of the word ‘robot’ went to high school here and Bohumil Hrabal, author of the charming, ironic Closely Observed Trains (‘Ostre sledované vlaky’ filmed by Jiři Menzel in 1966) was born nearby.
And did you know that Bren guns come from Brno, where they were designed and Enfield, the location of the British Royal Small Arms Factory where they were assembled?
In the 19th century, Brno embraced the industrial revolution with great enthusiasm and the city was nicknamed the 'Manchester of Moravia' however Brno is also a very green city with lots of parks and lakes where visitors can chill out.
Brno is just the right size for a weekend visit.
Ryanair begins bargain flights to Brno from Stansted this year on March 24, 2005.
Only two and a half hours away from the UK by plane, Brno is filled with fascinating monuments, beautiful churches, creepy crypts and enough pivnices (beer halls), vinárnas (wine bars), kavárnas (coffee houses), cukrárnas (cake shops) and restauraces (self-explanatory) -all situated within walking distance of the friendly pedestrian zone main square - to keep you satisfied and well-fed rather than fed-up on a refreshing break.
A good base is the Hotel Santon, situated up by the dam at Brno’s lake resort.
It’s a step back in time to the Eastern Bloc era, when workers’ holiday homes provided affordable accommodation with all kinds of amenities thrown in to keep the family happy while papa sampled the many varieties of Czech pivo - the best beer in the world.
The style has not changed since and there is a swimming pool, sauna, gym, tennis courts, two TV rooms and, during peak season, one of the best buffet breakfasts in central Europe. However, these offerings pale into insignificance beside the gorgeous Brno lake (Brnenská Přehrada) which stretches up eight miles to the lost-in-time hamlet of Veverská Bityská.
We started walking along the bank, passing dozens of beer gardens, nestling amongst the trees and headed towards the castle, whose turrets peeped out from behind treetops.
After three miles, the road petered out and we passed the Zouvalka mini landing point, continuing past triangular summer houses, their shaded gardens packed with Czech families barbecuing sausages and drinking beer.
Staggering into Veverská Bityská in the afternoon sun, we felt well-deserving of refreshment. The Na Mestecku pub and restaurant was packed with aging, bulging gentlemen cyclists who we had encountered en route, whizzing past us in the forest in a blur of lurid lycra.
They were all chugging back half litres of Starobrno beer for nine Czech koruna (or CZK - €0.29) and were obviously strong believers in the Czech maxim 'Pívo délá pékná telá' (Beer makes beautiful bodies).
'Are you still crying over your Queen Diana?'
I hadn’t expected such a probing question after hacking my way through the Moravian undergrowth for several hours.
The questioner was an elderly Czech gentleman in an elegant suit and tie, who, by the tell-tale markings on his paper tab, placed on the table by the Starobrno beer mats, was now onto his sixth half-litre of the afternoon. Perhaps he mistook the beads of sweat dotting my cheeks for tears.
The bar was filled with young bikers sharing tables with ancient uncles, including my new friend with the belated Princess Diana obsession, but then again, in Veverská Bityská there was a Twilight Zone atmosphere and the sense that time had stood still for quite a while.
For 120CZK (€4), we bought two tickets on the swift and silent boat back to Brno dam.
The scenic ride took just over an hour, passing canoeists, windsurfers, anglers and river snakes winding leisurely through the green water and startled fish.
From our Commie-nostalgia hotel, we walked past a wacky restaurant inside a TU154 jet plane and took the No 3 tram which trundled for 15 minutes through what appeared to be Brno locals’ allotments, before arriving at the Česká stop in the old town centre.
Česká is Brno’s most famous street and favourite meeting place where you can find the famous Stopka pivnice, now somewhat of a tourist trap, but still parading the faded facade, covered with sgraffito swirls and figures engraved into the plaster.
The main square, Náměstí Svoboda has altered little since I studied here in 1982, it’s a vast open space criss-crossed by tram lines.
Now however, a large McDonalds offers a quick meal instead of the derelict Sputnik buffet, whose sausage aroma used to waft all the way across to the Pipi Grill opposite, now replaced also by a swanky cukrarna, although the four Mamlases, grimacing Atlases, created by Germano Wanderley in 1928, are still straining to support the building.
Nearby, the Capuchine monastery’s crypt displays the mummified bodies of 150 monks, preserved naturally since 1784 in the dry atmosphere.
Baron Trenck lies here, amongst other ghoulish nobility, many of whom, we noticed, were buried with their boots on.
Dominating the cityscape is Peter and Paul church whose bells ring noon each day at 11am in honour of a famous victory over the Swedes in 1645; they rang for midday early and caught the invaders out.
On a higher hill, but hidden by trees, the Špilberk castle (hrad), founded in the early 13th century was often used as a residence for Czech kings.
In the 18th century, the castle was made into a military fortress with a prison later called the Prison of Nations because of its international guest list of rebels against the oppressive Habsburg regime.
The prison was closed in 1853, but again put to use by the occupying Nazis in WWII. These can be visited and offer a chilling reminder of the horrors of war.
The cobbled, sloping Cabbage market (Zelný trh) has been Brno’s trading centre since the 13th century. The strange, blobby Parnas fountain was designed in 1695 by Viennese architect JB Fischer von Erlach.
Vegetables played a significant part in Brno’s history, as monk and botanist Gregor Mendel made pioneering discoveries on genetics working with the common garden pea and a hive of bees in the 19th century in the Augustine monastery laboratory that you can still visit at the Mendelianum museum.
Brno has some great restaurants; U Prumyslovky on Verveři, leading north out of town, has a wonderful spacious dining room with high ceilings to absorb the inevitable smoke clouds. Knedliky or dumplings are an acquired taste and long walks around the river are necessary after the traditional pork, dumpling and sauerkraut special.
The unique Becherovka liqueur, with a cinnamon twist to the heady alcoholic kick, costs only 10CZK (€0.33) a shot here and an important aid to digestion after such sturdy cuisine.
The Špalíček restaurant, looking out over the comings and goings on the Cabbage market square, should be visited at least once for authentic Czech dining experience.
For liquid refreshment look no further than Pivnice Pegas at Jakubská 4, with its own micro-brewery inside and the usual beer bar residents of students and old codgers, still holding out against the few tourists who venture to this undiscovered gem of a city.
Slightly out of town, in a leafy suburb, the wonderful Rosnička (Tree Frog) Bar was a rather chi-chi wine bar back in 1982, but has since been taken over by beer and accompanying hairy, oily bikers.
However it was very reassuring to discover it was still there and still open, and even more amazing that I could navigate my way through suburbia to find it, given the enthusiastic sampling of local Czech wines – and beers - that went on in those days.
From March, Ryanair (Tel: +44 871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) offers return flights from Stansted from £37, including taxes and internet discount.
From Brussels, it’s easiest to fly to Vienna (Vienna-Brno 130km, Prague-Brno 200km) then take the train from Vienna’s Westbahnhof. SN Brussels airlines (Tel: 070 35 1111, www.flysn.com) has returns from E200.
Přistavní 38, BrnoTel: +420 546 221 536, Fax: +420 546 210 004, hotel website.
Take the No. 1 tram from Hlávni Nadraži (Main Railway station) for fifteen minutes to the Přistaviště stop, then walk towards the lake. Look for the Letadla bar - a jet plane sitting beside the road.
Zahradnická 19Tel: +420 543 427 310A communist-era high-rise hotel, two tram stops from the Railway station heading towards the Výstaviště (exhibition grounds), south west of the town centre. Clean rooms, triangular (pyramid-style) at the top, good breakfasts. Excellent location for exploring the town, yet quiet. There is a good vinárna or wine bar (T: 420 543 232 316) in the cellar.
You can also stay upstairs at the Pegas (micro-brewery) if your legs give out after enthusiastic beer sampling. Jakubská 4, Tel: +420 542 210 104. Beer hall open daily 9.00-24.00.
Eating and Drinking
Pegas pivnice on Jakubská 4, a smoky beer hall with its own micro-brewery -Pegas website
Stopka (Stopkova Plzeňská Pivnice) Ceská 5, Tel: +420 542 211 094. Open daily 10.00-23.00.
Špalíček on Cabbage Market (Zelný trh 12, Tel: +420 542 211 526. Open daily 11.00-23.00.
Rosnička (Tree Frog) Bar, at Jana Nečasé 1 in the leafy suburb of Brno-Žabovřesky, Tel: 420 549 240 160. Rosnička website. Restaurant open Monday to Friday 11.00—mdnight, Saturday & Sunday noon—midnight. Vinárna open Monday to Thursday 18.00—01.00, Friday 18.00—02.00, Saturday 19.00—02.00, Sunday closed.