Road trip SE Czech Republic Day 3: Brno

                           Brno at a glance
Pronunciation: Bru-no                       
Birthplace of : Milan Kundera
Population: approx. 381,000 (as of 2020)         
To note: Brno is home to the oldest theater building in central Europe

You know that feeling you get, when you arrive some place new, and immediately feel as though you have finally reached home? Like you have been there before? Like you belong there? That’s how I felt the minute we arrived in Brno. I can’t really pinpoint what about it made me feel this way. Whatever it was, I am really glad that we decided to make a stop here.

View of the Villa Tugendhat from the garden

Brno is home to one UNESCO World Heritage Site, namely the Villa Tugendhat. Besides that, this vibrant city has been the birthplace of not only several notable people, but also ground-breaking ideas. In 1856, an Augustinian monk by the name Gregor Mendel (not to be confused with Mendeleev or Mengele) planted some peas in the experimental garden of the St. Thomas’ Abbey. This seemingly innocent act, would lead to Brno becoming the birthplace of modern genetics and Gregor Mendel its father.

The tree that made history

Now for a little background on the monument we came to Brno for. Completed in 1930 and inscribed into the UNESCO world heritage list in 2001, the villa of Greta and Fritz Tugendhat was designed by the architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich. They designed the furniture inside the villa as well, producing the iconic Brno and Tugendhat armchairs. Not only is the Villa Tugendhat a testament to modern architecture, it also holds an important historical place for the people of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1992, Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar, met here to bring into effect the division of Czechoslovakia into two separate nations peacefully.

I would recommend that you pre-book a tour at least 4-6 months in advance. We tried to book a tour 2 months in advance and they were already sold out! So unfortunately, we were only able to enjoy the garden of the villa and the views of Brno and the villa from the outside. Which was still pretty amazing! However, we were able to enjoy a virtual tour of the inside later-on, which I would highly recommend too (link can be found here)! What personally impressed me most was the heating and ventilation system built into the house.

After taking in the views of the city and enjoying the garden of the Villa Tugendhat, we made our way back to the city-center, strolling around taking in all the beauty and curiosities that make Brno so unique. From the crocodile on the ceiling of the old town hall to the four fools trying to hold up an entire building.

After strolling through the city under the late spring sun, we decided to stop for a nice lunch before heading back to our hotel to cool off. We had planned to visit the ballet in the evening and didn’t want to be too tired to enjoy Swan Lake. The Mahen theater was a relatively short walk from our hotel, so we decided to enjoy the balmy evening with a leisurely walk there. Built in 1882, it was the first public building to be electrified in Europe. The interior of the theater, as well as the performance, were breathtaking!

After Swan Lake, it was time to head back to our hotel. Brno at night is just as vibrant and full-of-life as during the day. We stopped at a pub for some beers, before calling it a night on what be our last in the Czech Republic. I only hope that someday soon, I will be able to visit Brno again.

Road trip Czech Republic Day 2: Litomyšl to Brno via Olomouc

                           Litomyšl at a glance
Pronunciation: Litohmishul                       
Birthplace of : Bedřich Smetana (composer of "The Moldau")
Population: approx. 10,429 (as of 2019)         
To note: About the same latitude as Winnipeg

We arrived in Litomyšl as the sun set which made the entire, already picturesque main square, even more enchanting. Our hotel was at one end of the main square, which gave us a wonderful view of the sun-set. We took a leisurely stroll under the arcade before getting dinner.

After a good night’s rest, we woke up to greet a beautiful sunny day, ready to take in the beautiful world heritage sites and the Czech country roads. The birth-place of the composer Bedřich Smetana, Litomyšl, at the time of this writing in 2020, is home to one world heritage site. The Renaissance castle which sits atop Castle Hill, is a short walk from the main square. The moment we turned on to Jiráskova, the white sgraffito bricks nearly took my breath away. There was little doubt that we had indeed arrived at our destination.

It would be remiss of me, if I didn’t mention that the design on each of the sgraffito bricks is different. Of course, I didn’t check to see if this fact is accurate, but I will just believe the experts on that one. The motives on the courtyard walls depicted scenes from antiquity, which should come as no surprise really, since it is a Rennaisance castle. They were absolutely spectacular. I think one of them depicts the kidnapping of Helen of Troy, but I am not sure.

We opted to do a tour, which was in Czech, but they gave us a booklet in English so we could follow along. The tour took us through all of the rooms inside, which were decorated lavishly.The highlight of the tour though was the wooden theater, which opened in 1798. Located on the ground floor, the auditorium is two stories high, with the Duke’s box at the top. The theater reminded me a lot of the paper mâché queen’s theater at Versailles.

After our tour ended, we made a quick stop at the cathedral next to the castle, before making our way to Olomouc. I love visiting cathedrals, churches, or any other places of worship in other countries. I found the organ here to be really ornate. We lit a candle at the altar and made our way to the next world heritage site.

                               Olomouc at a glance
Pronunciation: olo-mook                      
Oldest settlement: Paleolithic 
Population: approx. 100,663 (as of 2020)         
To note: In 1767 Mozart composed Symphony No. 6 in F major in Olomouc

We arrived in Olomouc a little after 1 o’clock in the afternoon. We had already booked an English tour beforehand, which started at 3, so we decided to get some coffee and a small bite to eat. Olomouc is home to one UNESCO world heritage site, but it is famous for one of the stinkiest cheeses of the Czech Republic. However, our tour guide told us that it actually originated in the neighboring town and was falsely attributed to Olomouc. You can only imagine the rivalry and bitterness that ensued. If you are interested in knowing about the Olomouc cheese, I would recommend going here.

After coffee, we walked towards the main square where we waited for our guide to arrive. There was to be an event in the evening, and so we were treated to the Olomouc Symphony which was practicing for the event. Their rehearsal made me wish we had tickets! Our guide arrived on time and we began our tour at the Holy Trinity column, which is the world heritage site we traveled to Olomouc to see.

The 35 meter tall Holy Trinity column was built between 1716 and 1754, to commemorate the Catholic Church and to show gratitude for the end of the plague. The column is adorned with statues of 18 saints and 15 biblical reliefs. The details on the reliefs are simply spectacular. The column is also home to an inner chapel, which is very mesmerizing. Four years after the column was finished, Olomouc was attacked by the Prussian army in 1758 and the column was hit by canon shots. The residents of Olomouc at the time begged the Prussian general to spare the monument, which he did. At the end of the war, the column was rebuilt and a stone replica of a cannon ball embedded in it as a reminder.

After the Holy Trinity column, we made our way to the northern wall of the town-hall. There stood one of the two astronomical clocks in Czech Republic (the other one is in Prague). Originally built in the 15th century, it was completely destroyed shortly before the end of WWII by retreating German soldiers, and rebuilt in the Socialist realism style. If I may be honest, although the Holy Trinity column is beautiful, I was more drawn to the astronomical clock. Even if it is not as ornate as the one in Prague, I found it nonetheless very impressive.

We made our way through the inner-city of Olomouc, visiting the 6 Baroque fountains (Hercules, Caesar, Jupiter, Mercury, Neptune and Triton) as well as the park along the old city wall. During our walk through the city we were also treated to the street art. There was an Alien sculpture which especially caught my eye. Olomouc is a university town and the vibe this city has reflects this.

We ended our tour at the St. Wenceslas Cathedral. The cathedral has very beautiful stain-glass windows and the atmosphere inside was very peaceful. Of course, I had to light a candle and just take a minute to soak in the peace and harmony.

After the tour, we walked back to the main square and decided to get some dinner. We braved it and got the fried Olomouc cheese as an appetizer. The smell is quite strong, but I kinda liked the taste. The meal was the perfect end to our perfect day of sight-seeing. With our bellies full, we made our way to Brno for a good night’s sleep.

Road Trip SE Czech Republic Day1: Vienna to Litomyšl via Třebíč

Since I’ve been a homebody the last 5 weeks due to the COVID-19, I decided to quench my wanderlust, and use this free time, to post something here by reminiscing about the road-trip we took back in May, 2018. As some of you may already know, my partner and I like to take a road-trip each year to visit world heritage sites along the way. This time we decided to drive through south-eastern Czech Republic. There are in total 8 world heritage sites in south-east Czech Republic spanning the regions of Vysočina, Pardubice, Olomouc, Zlín and south Moravian. On our trip, we managed to visit only 5 of them because of time constraints. We started our journey in Vienna, visiting Třebíč, Litomyšl, Olomouc, Brno and Lednice over the next four days.

                               At a glance
Pronunciation: Trehbeach                       
Virtual Tour: Yes
Population: approx. 36000 (as of 2020)         
To note: About the same latitude as Vancouver
The banks of the river Jihlava in Třebíč
Blue lanterns and old houses. The lanterns were decorated with blue in honor of the Zámostí festival.

After a 3 hour drive, we arrived in the town of Třebíč, which is home to the UNESCO heritage site Jewish Quarter and St Procopius’ Basilica, which as the name suggests, consists of two different cultural landmarks. The Jewish Quarter includes the Třebíč ghetto as well as the Jewish cemetery. The Jewish community was also part of the German-speaking minority of this region. We arrived just in time for our tour through the Jewish Quarter which we had booked through the Třebíč tourist center. The tour began at the Rear Synagogue, and at first we were led through the Seligmann Bauer house which is next door.

When you walk through the front door, you first step into a 1930s store-front. This was a very unique display for me. It looked like a storefront one would see in a period film. We continued upstairs where the kitchen, dining area and bedrooms were located. There was no running water in the building during the inter-war period, which was highlighted by the carefully placed washing tubs and wash basins throughout the apartment. Walking through the house was like traveling back in time. The house to me felt so cozy, even though it was sparsely decorated. The closets left an impression on me. Even though they were small, they weren’t overly stuffed. Of course, it could just be that the exhibit wasn’t really representing the times, but I read somewhere that before WWII, people didn’t really own that many clothes. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of these rooms, but luckily the city of Třebíč has provided a virtual tour of the house. Just click here for the semi-real deal!

After the tour of the house, we continued on to the Rear Synagogue which was built in the Baroque style. The walls of the Synagogue are painted with beautiful murals and also have Hebrew scripture written on them. This was the first time I had ever been inside a synagogue!

From the synagogue we walked through the quarter, taking in the serenity of the quiet lanes. We visited the old ceremonial baths as well. There were memorials to the victims of the Holocaust, in the form of small bronze squares, embedded in the cobblestones throughout the quarter. After our tour, we decided to walk up to the Jewish cemetery. The road up to the cemetery provided some really nice views of the Jewish quarter, the Basilica and the city center of Třebíč.

When we reached the cemetery, I was surprised to see that it was well-preserved and well-maintained. There were many beautiful tombstones there, but it didn’t sit well with me to take pictures. The virtual tour does have some nice shots of the cemetery though.

After paying our respects, we made our way back down to get something refreshing to cool-off. We found a cozy little cafe, where we drank some refreshing lemonade and waited for our guided tour of the St. Procopius’ Basilica. The namesake of Saint Procopius, the basilica was built on the site of an existing chapel of the Benedictine monastery. Saint Procopius, a Bohemian hermit, was canonized in 1204.

The basilica has a very interesting history. At one point, it was used as a stable for horses, with the crypts being used to store beer! Today, it is used as a place of worship, for which it was originally intended. The murals inside are well-preserved. In fact, to date, they are some of most complete murals I’ve ever seen! Also, some of the timber used in the ceiling, were from the old chapel which was at the site previously.

In my view, Třebíč is a testament to two different cultures co-existing in harmony, despite the fact that the city was indeed segregated along the lines of religion. It was definitely worth visiting Třebíč, and now you can visit it virtually too!

After the tour of St. Procopius’ Basilica, we drove on to Litomyšl, where we stayed the night. We stayed near the city-center, which is very picturesque. We enjoyed some delicious local fare and then headed straight to bed for some rest.

Goodnight Litomyšl

Road Trip SW Germany Day 6: Völklingen Iron Works

Having had a good night’s rest after our journey to Saarbrucken from Trier, we were raring to go visit the final UNESCO world heritage site of our trip. The Völklingen Ironworks is situated nearly 14km east of Saarbrucken. Inscribed in 1994 as a world heritage, this well-preserved pig-iron production facility is a testament to the industrial revolution. The entire plant is indeed a sight to behold. The sheer size of the complex made me realize the amount of energy, materials and man-power which go into maintaining our global economy.

At first we were treated to a multi-media introduction to the plant and it’s history. What we didn’t know is that there is an audio guide available online, which is free to download. However, even without the audio guide, the tour through the facility is very informative. After the introduction, we walked through the blower hall with the blast furnaces and then made our way towards the sintering plant.

Clockwise from bottom left: blower in the blower hall which provided compressed air for the blast furnaces, view of the sintering plant, monorail cars that transported raw materials and view of the plant again.

Like most industry in Germany, the Ironworks has a dark past as well. During the second world war, over 12,000 people were forced to work at the factory. At the time we visited, this topic was mentioned just in passing, but presently there is an exhibition that delves deeper into it. A memorial to the forced labourers has been created by Christian Boltanski and will be on display until 2028. For further information, I would recommend visiting the Völklingen Hütte website.

Apart from being an albeit impressive relic to the industrial revolution, the Völklingen Iron Works is also home to different art exhibitions. At the time we were there, there was the Urban Art Biennial which showcased some very beautiful art works.

Take me out of the bush (Left) and I am on a diet (Right), both by the Brazilian artist Cranio as exhibited at the Urban Art Biennial in 2017

We spent about four hours touring the plant. After that we decided to walk into the inner city of Völklingen for some lunch. After coffee, we drove back home having seen a part of Germany, the landscape of which has been changing since the pre-historic times.

Road Trip SW Germany Days 4 and 5: Trier

We set off quiet early from Koblenz the next day, continuing our journey towards Trier, the oldest city in Germany. On the banks of the river Mosell, Trier is not only the birthplace of Karl Marx, but has been an important trade hub since the time of the Romans. The monuments that are part of the UNESCO world heritage site include the Roman monuments, the cathedral of St. Peter and the church of our Lady.

Upon arrival, we decided it was a good idea to do an English walking tour through the city. We started the tour at the Porta Nigra, which has been standing there since the Romans conquered the city. Situated at the northern entry to Trier, the gate has seen many uses. The obvious one being as a gate, it was also used as a church at one point, which led it to almost being destroyed by Napolean. Our guide also emphasized that the gate is not dirty. Apparently, during his time as a guide, several tourists asked him why the city didn’t make an effort to clean it. It is because of the chemical composition of the sandstone.

Clockwise from top: Model of the city, Saint Peter in the Market Square and the Electoral Palace.

During the Walking tour, not only were we treated to some funny anecdotes, but were also made privy to the veiled strife between the church and the merchants through the various statues erected around Trier. The 75 minute tour took us through the market place, the cathedral of St. Peter, the church of our Lady, ending at the Electoral Palace. The palace, which is adjacent to the Aula Palatina, is not completely symmetrical when viewed from the front. The reason for this, as told by our guide, is that the walls of the Aula Palatina were too strong for the 16th century builders to demolish!

Clockwise from top: Ruins of the Barbara baths, view beneath the amphitheater, fighting pit of the amphitheater and inside the Porta Nigra.

After the tour, we decided to continue walking around Trier, looking for the other Roman ruins. We made our way towards the Amphitheater which was a part of the city wall. Below the Amphitheater are cellars which were used for exotic animals, as well as, prisoners. We ended the day with a visit to the Barbara baths.

Clockwise from top: Archivolt and tympanum of the Cathedral of St. Peter, the inner garden of the church of our Lady, window to the side chapel of the relic, ceiling of the side chapel and the organ of the cathedral.

The next day, we decided to revisit some of the monuments we learned about on the tour. We went inside the cathedral of St. Peter as well as the church of our Lady. The organ inside the cathedral has been by far one of the most unique ones I have seen. It is also home to several relics, the most important of which is the Seamless Robe of Jesus. At the time we visited, it was not on display, but can be viewed on certain special occasions.

Stop by for a glass (or a bottle ;)) of the regional wine.

Before leaving Trier, we decided to buy some wine from the region. We stopped at the winery, Weingut Gehlen, and bought a couple of bottles of white and rosé.