Head off the beaten track and explore the quaint city of Brno, where you’ll find a wealth of heritage and culture, writes David Hughes.
There’s often an irritating tendency of a capital city’s residents to look down on the urban delights that smaller (but not small) cities have to offer (London being the obvious example). This lofty attitude is not lost in the Czech Republic, either.
But I wonder if this, the country’s less celebrated and second-largest city might end up having the last laugh. Brno offers most of the attractions of its more eminent neighbour 150 miles away but at a fraction of the cost.
In any case, as Prague has become increasingly westernised over the past 20 years; the myriad tourists who flock there every year might just be missing out on some of the essential gems of Slavic culture that make this Moravian capital a city to savour. Brno is home to 400,000 residents and the city is so walkable you will almost never need a train, bus, tram or cab to enjoy most of the city’s many cultural and historical attractions and sports venues.
If you do venture slightly out of the city centre, Brno’s communist-era architecture offers a real feel of Cold War constraints before the 1989 “Velvet Revolution” when the then Czechoslovakia split, embraced democracy and became, respectively, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. You can sample all the sauerkraut (stewed cabbage) goulash, knedliky (dumplings), roast duck, and smoked meats as you like at prices far cheaper than in Prague. And you can’t leave without trying palacinky (thin pancakes filled with cream, jam or butter), which can be found in almost any café. By the way, the name of this delightful city is pronounced “Bir-no”.
My favourite place The Moravian Karst and Caves is a must-do. Although it means a three-hour journey out of town, it’s well worth it. The area of Karst is basically a nature reserve that boasts several gorges and more than 1,000 caves although only four are open to the public. Obviously, it’s a splendid area for walking and cycling. The Punkva caves can be seen from the languid position of a little boat on its underground stream that will take you to the Macocha Abyss, which at 138m deep, is one of the most majestic in Europe. Taking the trip means booking in advance, but it’s not just a day out; it’s an experience for all time.
Highlights Baroque, Renaissance and Gothic examples of architecture are all on show here. So if you happen to be inside the 13th-century Spilberk Castle and reflecting on its role in the city (as a royal home, fortress and prison) down the ages, don’t forget to appreciate that it is probably still solid as the day it was built. Its look-out tower offers commanding views over the city and surrounding area and also houses the city’s museum. Perched atop the city’s Petrov Hill, the Cathedral of St Peter & Paul is a magnificent 18th-century edifice, which boasts a venerable Baroque interior as good as anything in Europe, and twin towers (added in the 20th century). Admirers of more modern structures can make a beeline for Tugendhat Villa. It’s a house that was built in 1930 and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site; possibly because it typifies the elements of Art Deco along with an open-plan interior, employing materials such as chrome, ebony and onyx.
Lowlights English is not as widely spoken here as it is in Prague (which is relatively little, for a capital city). Therefore, do try and pick up a few standard phrases and expressions before you go. There are plenty of language guides on YouTube or apps available to help you. Also, don’t be put off if waiters or shop assistants are a bit gruff with you. They aren’t really; it’s just that the “have a nice day” mantra has never really caught on in the former Eastern European countries despite apparent westernisation!
Souvenirs Around the Old Town area’s cobble-stoned alleyways, you won’t fail to come across a plethora of boutiques selling porcelain, Bohemia crystal, crafts and jewellery. The shops won’t be crowded and the prices aren’t high.
Getting there Emirates has a direct flight from Dubai to Prague, from where you can catch a train from Prague’s Hlavni Nadrazi to Brno, which takes about two hours and 45 minutes.
Where to stay There are plenty of four-star hotels here that offer great value for money. All the world’s top chains are here, and most are in the city centre. The best places to look for options are websites such as Trivago, Booking.com, Hotels.com, Kayak or Expedia.
Five things to do:
1. Be spellbound at the Moravian Karst
2. Wander around Spilberk Castle
3. Marvel at the modernist Villa Tugendhat
4. Let off steam at Luzanky park and gardens
5. Explore the city’s labyrinth of underground cellars