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Saved by the Bell, Brno

Brno Cathedral from Špilberk Hill

In Brno, there’s a reason why the cathedral bells announce the noon an hour early. Back in the 17th century, when virtually all of Europe was embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War, an invading Swedish army swept across the lands of the Czech Crown. Olomouc, the historical capital of Moravia, was occupied and left in ruins; Prague would eventually fall in 1648.

But there was one city that managed to defend itself against the unstoppable Swedes. For four months the citizens of Brno held out behind their protective walls, defying the invading forces until the 15th of August, 1645. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the Swedish commanders decided to end the siege if the city was not taken by midday. But on that August morning it was a clever, quick-witted alderman who would have the final word. At precisely 11 o’clock the noon bells tolled from every one of Brno’s churches, tricking the Swedes into pulling out just as headway was being made.

Brno, it seems, is a city of creative thinkers. At the Old Town Hall five pinnacles adorn the portal of the clock tower, but the highest is twisted and bent like an octopus tentacle, the mark of a stonemason dissatisfied with his wages. Then there’s Gregor Mendel, who jumpstarted modern genetics with his pea plant experiments at the Abbey of St. Thomas.

But while everyone who comes to the Czech Republic finds themselves pulled towards Prague, Brno is a welcome surprise and a boon for those longing to escape the maddening crowds. Compact, welcoming, and undeniably beautiful, it reminds me of a miniature version of Vienna.

At Náměstí Svobody – Freedom Square – audacious green glass panels jostle with elegant pastel-coloured façades. Under a sky crisscrossed with tram cables the náměstí is graced by Brno’s very own pestsäule, a decorative column celebrating the end of a plague. Nearby the dreamlike Parnassus Fountain takes pride of place in Zelný trh, traditional site of the city’s vegetable market.

On the way to lunch we stroll past Mahen Theatre, where the low winter sun sparkles off a trio of French windows. Its neoclassical lines mirror the grand venues along the Viennese Ringstrasse, concealing a technical system that was groundbreaking for its time. When it was built in 1881, the Mahen became one of the world’s first public buildings to be lit entirely with electric light. That same year a devastating fire destroyed the Ringtheater in Vienna, prompting the builders to change their plans and forgo gas lighting in favour of Edison’s new invention. It’s the kind of ingenuity you’d expect from Brno; after all, they did fool an entire Swedish army.

Zelný trh and the Parnassus Fountain

Looking towards the Old Town Hall

Mahen Theatre

Náměstí Svobody – Freedom Square

Morning at Zelný trh

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’ve been seeing you on Bama’s but it’s only now that I got to visit your blog. IMPRESSIVE. That adjective goes to your blog. Since I can’t afford to be a globetrotter yet, I’d be more than happy at the moment to travel to places I haven’t been through your blog.

    Anyway, I like your sort of analogy on Brno. You were able so justify it I must say so YES TO IT being the city of creative thinkers.

    February 2, 2012
    • Thank you Sony, one day I hope to be able to make it to the Philippines. I adore islands, volcanoes and Filipino food (Halo-halo, embutido and chicken adobo especially) so your country is right at the top of my wishlist!

      February 2, 2012
  2. I love all the anecdotes that you wrote here in this post. So many interesting things about Brno, and since you mentioned about its resemblance with Vienna, I guess I’ll love Brno too just like I love Vienna (still, my most favorite city in Europe…I know I have said that before, but I need to say it again :)). BTW I couldn’t help not to read Sony’s comment and your reply, you forget to mention one thing my friend: Balut!!! 🙂

    February 2, 2012
    • Really, Bama? You tried that? It’s embarrassing but I can’t stomach the chick in that balut. Up to now, I can’t … If so, kudos to you, Bama.

      I think I just discouraged James for saying that. Hehe .. Peace!

      February 2, 2012
    • Bama, you will definitely enjoy Brno – the Viennese influence is really noticeable there. I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to try balut, if I do I will probably order the younger kinds!

      February 2, 2012
  3. PS

    It’ll be a pleasure to see my country getting featured in your blog, James.

    February 2, 2012
  4. Love the post as always 🙂 Where are you in the world these days? Still traveling around a lot? 🙂

    February 14, 2012
    • Thanks Minh! I am back in Hong Kong – just spent a week up in Beijing and I also did a trip to Germany last November. Coincidentally I made it to Strasbourg (which I adored)! 😉 Hopefully I’ll have it all posted quite soon.

      February 17, 2012
  5. What amazing insight into the history and your point of view of a place. I enjoy reading.

    April 7, 2012
  6. Ah, my home town! So beautifully described. 🙂 Thanks for this post.

    August 9, 2012
    • You’re welcome, I loved Brno and I’m glad it’s still off the radar for most!

      August 9, 2012
  7. Wonderful article about Brno. Thanks a lot! I am sending you a lot of greetings from the Czech Republic!

    September 9, 2013
    • It’s my pleasure, I loved both Prague and Brno when I was there. You come from such a beautiful, fairytale country – next time I’ll make sure to visit Olomouc and Cesky Krumlov!

      September 11, 2013
      • Dear James, thank you very much for your nice words about my country.

        I am so happy that you like it :).

        September 12, 2013
  8. Kamila #

    Brno or Praha? Brno for its relaxed atmosphere, friendlier people, cute dialect Hantuch, interesting culture scene connected with theatre Husa Na Provazku( Iva Bittova,Cesky Tesin and Ostrava( Tarafuki, Jaromir Nohavica -who I went to see life first time in London and it felt exceptionally thanks to community abroad), magazine Host, outdoor travel agencies CK Kudrna, Alpina, cafe Sklenenka, its dam, castle… I wanted to study there, but uni provided not accessible dates for exams, but my best friend and brother studied and he is still studying there.. so it is handy for visiting academic fields and knowing new people….However all that sympathy, with recent years my travels are directed to Praha which I am getting to touch more while living abroad and Hradec Kralove where my memories lies…..

    April 1, 2014
    • My sister loved Brno in the months she lived there – truth be told, it was a bit of a shock when she moved out to Cesky Tesin! So much smaller and far less cosmopolitan. My first impressions of Brno were magical; I’ll never forget how it was to see the glowing hilltop cathedral as we pulled into the train station.

      April 1, 2014

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