Czech Republic Day 6: Brno

Rainbow in the main square (Namesti Svobody)

I headed to Brno early on this Wednesday morning. I was warned the highway between Prague and Brno was bumpy. It is. It really is. They are repaving the road but its going to take a while and most of the highway is one lane in places. This helps to slow down the drivers. 160 kilometers per hour is a standard driving speed (though not legal). A lot of people find Czech drivers aggressive but I live in Massachusetts and we didn't get the name Massholes for nothing so I wasn't really intimidated. Plus I wasn't doing the actual driving. I was just observing from the backseat. And I fell asleep. It's about 2.5  hours from Prague to Brno by driving, bus, or train.

Brno's main square (Namesti Svobody) and its very interesting astronomical clock (the black thing that looks like a giant bullet).

Now the other thing people might wonder is: Why Brno? It's not really a big tourist destination. Well, there's actually some really interesting stuff in the Czech Republic's second largest city. For me the Ossuary at the Church of St. James, part of the Brno Underground, was the real draw, though being a science geek, visiting the Augustinian monastery where Gregor Mendel did his work in genetics was also very intriguing. Also, the area around Brno, like the Moravian Karst with its rolling hills and caves, and the wine producing region south of it near Mikulov, were also of great interest to me.

Church of St. Thomas near Ceska Tram stop. The church dates to the 14th century and was founded by John Henry of Luxembourg, Margrave of Moravia, brother of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV.

Brno is the largest city in Moravia, one of three regions, with Bohemia and Silesia, that make up the Czech Republic. Brno was first settled by Celts 2500 years ago. In the 800's Slavs built fortifications on what is now Petrov Hill.  From the 1100's Brno became the capital city of the Margraviate of Moravia. Later Brno became an industrial center known for producing textiles and guns.

Beautiful example of sgraffito.

I stayed in an apartment, just as I had done in Prague. It was a nice enough apartment but the funny part was that it was on the top floor and the roof beams came down through the bathroom. I had to swing around one of them and then wedge myself between it and the wall to get to the toilet. This was particularly tricky in the middle of the night when half asleep.

The apartment was across the street from a tram stop. Again, the public transportation system is extremely easy to use if you are just going to Brno center (centrum). Just head for the Ceska stop and you will be within walking distance of everything in the old town. You can see most of it in a day.

One thing I noticed immediately was the lack of huge hordes of tourists. This was a great relief from the hustle and bustle of Prague. But it also presented  an interesting problem as a solo traveler. For tours there's usually a minimum number of people places need in order to run a tour. At the Labyrinth under the Vegetable Market (Zelny trh), my first stop, I had to wait to see if any one else showed up for the next tour. Thankfully, after a wait of about 15 minutes four other people showed up. Otherwise, I was told I'd just have to keep checking back every hour.

Wine storage

Down in the Labyrinth. Wine making implements.

The Labyrinth is a series of now connected cellars that highlight how food and wine were stored in medieval and baroque Brno, including having all year refrigeration using ice. There's an alchemist's workshop, which highlights the famous doctors, pharmacists, and others that contributed to the modern understanding of medicine and science from the region. There is also an exhibit of medieval and baroque lighting featuring torches, oil lamps, and lanterns. And then you get to visit the original stocks where people where chained in the square. They would have a plaque with their offense written on it it hung around their neck. There is also a series of scary masks that look like torture devices but they were really just used to humiliate the person. They were supposed to look silly. You can actually put them on if you dare. Then you get to go to a reproduction of a medieval taproom.

Food storage examples.

Medieval and Baroque lanterns.

Alchemist's and Apothecary's laboratory

If you remember my post about the circle on the ceiling in the Alchemist's laboratory in Prague, then you'll know what this circle in the ceiling is for. It's to concentrate the energies within the building for alchemical purposes.

The original stocks that used to stand in the main square of Brno and a guide showing an example of the plaque an offender would have to wear announcing his/her offense.

"Silly" masks people were sentenced to wear for periods of time in order to humiliate them. Yes, you can try them on.

I then found myself face to face with the Brno dragon. Actually, its a crocodile. There are many legends surrounding the crocodile's arrival in Brno, including a story about the Turks presenting the crocodile to Mathias Corvinus, King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia. I don't know if anyone knows exactly how it came to be in Brno. I have noticed that crocodile heads and parts were rather popular with the royalty of Czech lands. You'll find one at Strahov Monastery in Prague and I believe there was one at Karlstejn. The dragon of Brno hangs in the Old Town Hall.

The infamous Brno dragon.

The Old Town Hall dates to the 13th century. You can climb the tower here. The pinnacles on the outside of the main entrance are of importance since one was constructed to be crooked on purpose. There are several legends that explain why its crooked. One says Master Anton Pilgrim, the architect, wasn't paid for his work thus he created the pinnacle to be as twisted as the town's Lord's promises.

The Old Town Hall

The legendary crooked pinnacle on The Old Town Hall

Back side of the The Old Town Hall.

I then got sort of turned around and lost and ended up on the front steps of St. Peter and Paul Cathedral on Petrov Hill. This Gothic cathedral is notable because of a legend about its bells. The bells ring at 11 am. This is because, allegedly, during the Thirty Years' War invading Swedes promised to call off their attack if they had not succeeded in taking the city by mid-day on August 15. Thus the citizens of Brno rang the bells of the Cathedral an hour earlier fooling the Swedes into breaking off the siege.

This was one of my favorite things I saw in Brno. This is on a building near St. Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Then I headed to the Church of St. James and the Brno Ossuary! This is what I was here to see. Now, you'll be told by any information source that you come across that tours are given every half hour at the Ossuary. This isn't accurate. First, go down the stairs that lead to a big metal door outside the church. Push as hard as you can on the right side door. It's incredibly heavy. Don't give up and don't assume its closed. That's the entrance. If you are an English speaker, you'll just be handed an explanation of the Ossuary in English and allowed to wander through on your own.

Going down into the Ossuary

That one very yellow bone? Cholera victim perhaps.

The Ossuary is the second largest in Europe. It was only discovered in 2001, which is pretty incredible considering they found the remains of nearly 50,000 people below the historical center of the city! The skeletons date to the 17th and 18th centuries. The especially yellow bones might indicate death from cholera and particularly reddish bones might indicate death from the plague. The Ossuary was opened to the public in 2012. The remains are rather artfully arranged. And oddly Egyptian in a totally not Egyptian way. If that makes any sense.

The Church of St. James itself, inside, is a beautiful example of late Gothic architecture. Inside the church lies the tomb of Louis Raduit de Souches, the military commander who is credited in successfully defending the city against the Swedish in the Thirty Years' War.

Church of St. James. Behind that concrete wall in the lower right corner is the entrance to the Ossuary. And the first window on the tower facing it is of particular note. See below.

The Indecent Little Man. He hangs on the window mentioned above with his naked ass pointed at Petrov Hill. Allegedly, this was done by the stone mason working on the church as revenge against the wealthier folks planning on building on Petrov Hill, who forced him to leave town because he was making better progress on his church than they were on theirs.

The simple and beautiful Gothic interior of the Church of St. James. I love that it didn't get redone in the Baroque style. Here you can see more Parler net vaulting.

Just an interesting building across from St. James Church.

Farmer's Market

Unfermented wine, or Burcák, being sold.

I then wandered through a huge farmer's market and then took the tram to the Gregor Mendel Museum. This is a fun little museum. Housed in the Augustinian monastery, this is a jewel of a museum, if you are interested in Mendel and genetics. I had fun sorting peas by color and texture in one of the interactive displays. And yes, you can see pea plants growing and the remains of Mendel's green houses.

A peapod outside the Mendel Museum

The outlines of the foundations of Gregor Mendel's greenhouses outside of the Augustinian Monastery he was abbot of.

Then it was back to the apartment, to eat since I'd forgotten to eat lunch, and now the sun was disappearing. It wasn't until a week later that I remembered I'd forgotten to visit the mummies in the Capuchin Monastery! How could I have forgotten THAT? Over 100 mummified monks! How do you forget THAT??? Well...I'll just have to come back, I guess.

Waiting for the tram near the Mendel Museum. That's the infamous Spilberk Castle on the hill in the background. Spilberk dates back to 1270. During the Thirty Years War the Habsburgs converted it into prison/dungeon. The Nazis also used it as a prison and place of execution.