Brno native Alena Vodakova gives an insider guide to her city…
Known to some as the ‘largest village in the Czech Republic’ – and even the ‘Berlin of Eastern Europe’ – Brno has a few identities, certain aspects of which are undoubtedly true, while others are entirely exaggerated. Both cherished and neglected due to the shadow of the city’s older, more famous sister in the north (Prague), inhabitants of Brno tend to believe the city lies in the real heart of Europe. Yet when I tell people in Berlin that I come from Brno, most people have no idea which country it’s in.
The first mention of the medieval town is from Cosmo’s chronicle (1091). The city gained importance with the establishment of the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary located in the Old Town, which was founded by the Czech queen Elizabeth Rejčka of the Přemyslid dynasty. Due to its central location, the city witnessed many conflicts, from the Hussite wars to Napoleon’s battle of Austerlitz in 1805, which took place nearby.
During the Thirty Years’ War, the city was unsuccessfully besieged by the Swedish army. According to legend, the Swedish army were exhausted and made a decision that if the city wasn’t captured by midday, they would give up. When the citizens of Brno heard this, they rang their church bells to announce noon even though it was only 11am, whereupon the Swedish General Torstenson ordered his troops to retreat. Still today the church bells announce noon an hour early.
In modern times, the city became known for its high number of schools, as well as textiles, though the latter industry has been in decline since the advent of the globalised market and the abandoned factories are increasingly being used as centres for an emerging alternative arts and music culture.
Of course, the city also suffered during the war and under communism, as well as subsequent redevelopment following the fall of the Wall. As you walk around the city, you will find the usual scars of the communist era; grey, nondescript buildings with peeling posters and stores hawking poor quality wine. But you’ll also find a vibrant and youthful undercurrent that’s edgier – and some might say friendlier – than Prague’s.
Brno is famous for its café culture. The largest concentration can be found around the main building of the Faculty of Fine Arts in the city centre. During the day, students and visitors mingle and sip Viennese coffee, read books and enjoy intellectual debates below posters of Antonioni’s movie Blow Up.
I highly recommend Café Falk at former Falkensteingasse, today’s Gorky Street; this inconspicuous place is located directly across the street from the main building of the Faculty of Fine Arts, and is full of students and freelancers from morning until evening. In the morning you can enjoy breakfast and a kick-start coffee (ask for “nakopávací kafe”); at lunchtime try the soup de jour or an espresso with home-made cake. If you stay until the late afternoon, order a coffee with rum and prepare to go right through to the evening.
Those who wish a less workaday atmosphere can try the café-bar hybrid Tři Ocásci (Three Small Tails), a friendly hangout decorated in retro style. I like to visit this place for their delicious soup, which is often served in a bowl decorated with Krteček (der kleine Maulwurf) – the same I used to eat from as a child. There are also vegetarian and vegan dishes; I can recommend the vegan version of Czech delicacy “chlebíček” (party sandwiches). If you’re lucky, you might be served by a rogue-ish waitress who is in fact a famous punk singer from punk band Mucha. Order some beer and rum and you might find yourself in deep conversation about the rise and fall of punk in the Czech Republic.
To find out about café hot-spots check here.
Strolling The City
While Brno isn’t quite as green as Berlin, the guerrilla gardening vogue has definitely caught on and the subterranean networks are working together for long-term change. There are several parks in the city centre: some, like Tyršův sad or Denisovy sady, are best for a weekend picnic, while others –Park Koliště, Park Špilberk – are great for the first morning beer of the weekend.
The best park for an evening walk is connected to the gothic Cathedral of St. Peter on the Mount Petrov. In summer this park is crowded all day long with families, couples and pensioners, and in the evening students sit on the stone walls drinking wine from PET bottles (in Czech republic it’s normal to buy the wine directly from the barrel draft, which is tapped into the plastic bottles, mostly coloured green ). In winter you may not meet so many people here, but the atmosphere is nonetheless very unique, especially as you look down onto the bustle and industrial zones of the southern part of the city.
The best spot for sport is Lužánky Park, the largest park in the city centre and the oldest public urban park in Czech Republic (the first mention of it dates back to the 13th century). You can find enough green space here to play ball games, run and dance, or perform Capoeira. There are also exercise machines, table tennis tables and a tennis court.
If you leave the park at Pionýrská Street and continue on Drobného, you will come across an abandoned football stadium that was once occupied by local football club Zbrojovka Brno. For several years it has been patiently waiting to be rediscovered.
Near to Cihlářská Street, one of the greenest streets in Brno, you’ll find a slew of cafes and restaurants alongside an experimental student theatre, a cinema, low-cost wine bars and small book stores. Tucked away at Botanická street number 590/1 is Avia, an Italian restaurant that was once a Hussite Church (1929-1945), then a traditional canteen, a cinema and a store selling refrigerators. Nowadays you can dine on excellent beef carpaccio.
If you are ready for something a little bit more local, you should try Hostinec U Semináru at Smetanova street. This time-warp place is reminiscent of the time Brno was part of the Austria- Hungarian Monarchy, with pictures of emperor Franz Joseph II hanging on the wall, a largely wooden interior, massive tables with white table-cloths and ceramic beer mats.
The bar-room looks like it’s been sketched by painter Josef Lada, whose famous character the Good Soldier Švejk is somehow noticeable in the faces of the waiters. Here you can try all sorts of national specialties, but if you’d prefer the national dish, get a Svíčková na smetaně (beef and cream) with home-made dumplings. Oh, and a beer, of course.
There is no particular street in Brno that could be described as a typical “shopping” street. The main promenade, Česká street, connects the Náměstí Svobody with Joštova street (known as Čára – “the line”), has some luxury boutiques but is used my most locals as a meeting point.
Best is to explore the independent stores scattered around the city. Love Music, a small shop close to Šilingrovo square, along the street Pekařská, offers goodies by young and progressive Czech designers and artists. You can find here anything from earrings and tee-shirts to purses. It also hosts part of the annual Factory Fashion Market fair.
On Jiraskova you will find retro clothing store Naše věci; in addition to stylish clothing, you can also find gifts like painted kaleidoscopes, books with unusual covers, handmade dolls and brooches, all independently produced. There is also a small café with some tables: I can recommend the pear cake with brown butter and crisp ginger tea.
Art & Architecture
Brno is a city of contrasts, and you will find some beautiful as well as brutal buildings. One of the architectural highlights is Villa Tugendhat, which is perched up in the hills of the Černá Pole (Black fields), and best accessed through Lužánky Park (see above). The villa, which used to belong to married couple Grete and Fritz Tugendhat and was designed by Bauhaus maestro Mies van der Rohe in 1929-1930, has a colourful history.
After the owners emigrated, the villa was confiscated by the Gestapo, and at the end of WWII again by the Red Army, who used it as a barracks for soldiers and their horses. Historically, the most important event here was the signing of the agreement of the division of Czechoslovakia in 1992. The location of Brno half way between Prague and Bratislava appeared to be more than symbolic. More about the villa’s extraordinary fate can be found in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room – or visit the Glass Room itself for one of the black and white film screenings or contemporary parties.
Just like Prague, Brno has its own astronomical clock. It’s also located at the busiest place in the city – Náměstí Svobody (Freedom Square) – right in front of the department store Omega. The ceremonial unveiling took place on Sept. 18, 2010 to mark the 365th anniversary of the city of Brno’s resistance of the Swedish siege in the Thirty Years’ War (see introduction). It’s a modern design that’s supposed to resemble a gun cartridge – though what it really reminds you of I will leave at your imagination (it has a few nicknames, but one is very nasty; the more polite version is simply Časostroj – “time machine”). Every day at 11 o’clock, the contraption spits glass marbles into one of the holes located on the sides. If you’re lucky, you can catch one; if you’re not, you can buy one from one of the local ‘entrepreneurs’ who are usually trading nearby.
Those who like to get off the beaten path a bit could visit the former textile factory located between the railway and bus stations: one side has been turned into a shopping centre (Vaňkovka), but the other serves as an exhibition space called Richard Adam Gallery, which focuses on contemporary Czech artworks. The courtyard, dominated by red brick and ivy, is cleverly hidden, so the noise from the nearby road here doesn’t disturb. In summer there are open-air concerts and in winter a highly enjoyable, if little known, Christmas market.
For more on Brno’s functionalist architecture, click here.
Although Brno is a relatively small city, it has become a refuge for many bohemian souls and interesting subcultures. Each has their favourite café, bar, pub or non-stop party place – but at some point they will all go to The Desert. One of the city’s most alternative spots, it’s based on the street between the National Theatre and the Leoš Janáček Theatre and if you don’t spot the (recently added) sign, the smell of marijuana should lead you directly there.
Down in the basement you will find small and large tables populated with tatooed heavy metal fans, left-wing intellectuals, students and – yes – stoners. If you want beer, get a Kozel (goat), though absinth is also a popular drink here. Afterwards, many head to Kabinet Múz (Cabinet of the Muses). Just a block away from The Desert, it has a glazed storefront, a long shiny bar and a dancefloor. In addition to concerts, there are also regular dance and electronic DJs.
If you are seeking a more private location, try Super Panda Circus. With no sign, it’s easy to miss, but head to Šilingrovo square and search for an open door with a purple curtain behind it, and you will find waiting staff dressed in elegant suits and – upstairs – psychedelic music and a great bar with dimly lit nooks. The local specialty is a luminous cocktail served in a light bulb.
Direct trains to Brno leave Berlin Hauptbahnhof daily. For more info check on bahn.de.