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Travel Local – A Trip to Brno, The Jewel of the South

Simply put, Brno is a very curious city. As Moravia’s capital and largest city, Brno has always had a strong sense of identity. It has been heavily influenced by the Roma, Jewish, and German ethnic communities who have lived there at different points in history. Brno’s mixed population and its position between Prague and Vienna is reflected in its character, language, and sarcastic sense of humour. The name of the city refers to the location of the original settlement, which, according to legend, grew around seven adjacent wells, surrounded by dense forest. And, since “well” is “Brunnen” in German, the emerging town was named Brunn, Brünen, and then Brno. 

First in the South

Brno’s true soul is hidden somewhere between the locals’ acceptance of the city’s complicated origins, self-irony for always coming in second place, and newly found self-assurance stemming from historical and recent successes. No longer are Brno residents defensive about being countrymen, wine drinkers, cimbalom players – they own it. The typical response has changed from the apologetic “Oh yeah, but we’re not Prague” to a grinning “Well, it’s good enough for Brno! (No, na Brno dobrý!)” The latter sarcastic comment inspired the name of a summer bar now famous for raspberry cold brew and refreshing cocktails.

Brno was a pioneer in many respects. The original city charter, granted in 1243, established the legal system and gave equal rights to all of Brno’s different ethnic communities. The letterpress arrived in Brno in 1486, long before it reached Prague. Brno was also the first to recognise coffee and bring it to the masses in the form of the first coffee house, opened by Turek Ahmed in 1702. Sorry, Prague coffee lovers. 

Another interesting historical detail is that Brno is the home of industrial espionage. The future capital of the Czech textile industry, soon to be known as the Moravian Manchester, was still in its early days. A Freemason, Hugo František Salm, went to England in 1801, stole the designs for the most modern textile machines, and smuggled them across Europe disguised as a labourer before passing them to Brno’s wool workers. This early example of intellectual property theft  kickstarted the whole industry; the Moravian metropolis became the most important textile centre in the Habsburg Empire. 

Bells and Dragons

The citizens of Brno cherish their legends and are not afraid to bring them into the present. One of the most perpetuated tales is the one about the bell on the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. It was 1645, and a Swedish general promised that he would take off if he didn’t manage to invade Brno before noon. The bell-ringer that day saw an opportunity  and started ringing the bells an hour earlier – the general was upset and that was the last they saw of him. That’s why you will hear the clock in Brno’s main cathedral strike at 11:00, not noon.

Another celebrated tale is Brno’s dragon, who terrorized the locals far and wide, devouring everything and everyone to satisfy its hunger. People were petrified and didn’t know how to get rid of it. The council promised a great reward to the brave soul who would dare to kill it. At once, a butcher journeyman volunteered to kill the dragon. To do so, he asked for an ox skin and a bag of quicklime. The people of Brno were sceptical, but they brought what he asked for. The butcher sewed the lime into the ox skin, loaded it onto a wagon, and left. When he arrived at the river where the dragon was lying, he quickly laid the ox skin on the ground and waited. After a while, the dragon crawled out of the water and devoured the skin, later washing it down with some water from the river. The lime began to boil, and the dragon swelled until it burst. The dragon was defeated and Brno celebrated. The butcher got his reward and went on wandering the world. 

As a reminder, the locals put a wooden copy of the defeated dragon in the courtyard of the City Hall, which is still there today. Spoiler alert: it’s just a crocodile. Nevertheless, the legend is also kept alive by the locals, convincing tourists that smoking pipes around the city are signs of a new hibernating dragon in the depths of the earth.

Form and Function

Brno is unique and stands apart from other Bohemian and Moravian towns. Sure, it still offers the magic of venerable churches, but they tend to give the impression that you are visiting friends – Jakub, Tomáš, Pavel, and Petr. There are plenty of charming nooks and crannies, green spires with volutes, and the universally beloved red-tiled rooftops. But what is most impressive is the parade of modernism and functionalism, the latter being, at the time, an innovative architectural style. Vila Tugendhat and the Moravian Bank, cafés ERA and Zeman’s, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, and the crematorium are all worth visiting. Clean lines; a predominance of white, grey and black; geometrical patterns; function over crudeness – small flashes of functionalism that look as if Scandinavian designers or Marie Kondo’s admirers could have added them. But don’t be fooled, most of these architectural structures arose in the 1920s and 1930s.

So, while Brno doesn’t offer as many traditional sights as you would expect, it is a city of surprises, where instead of a standard-looking main tower clock, there is a giant black slug crawling out of the ground. Well, we have to admit, when locals refer to this work of architectural art, the emphasis is on its resemblance to a phallus. Don’t worry if you can’t tell the time by it – you’re not the only one. And while you might not find any Bohemian-style ornate patterns on the windows, the concentration of peculiar art installations, whimsical stickers, graffiti, and sculptures per square metre is so high here that it doesn’t feel like your typical Czech town, but more like a district in Vienna. 

Big city life

What is it like to live here? First, it doesn’t have the same isolated vibe as a metropolis. Brno sometimes feels very centre-concentrated, and the fact that the average time to get anywhere is a 15-minute walk is not the only factor. Thanks to shorter distances and great public transportation, there are objectively fewer cars, which slows down the tempo of life. Nobody ever hurries, your lateness is excused in advance. Brňáci (Brno locals) know a lot about the slow lifestyle – they invite friends for coffee when they want long, meaningful conversations; spend mornings at the Cabbage Market; and in the evening, they gather in local wine and beer bars.

Brno’s social life is unique. The inhabitants here meet, support each other, and cooperate more. There is little social distance – with so many intergenerational and interdisciplinary connections, it’s virtually impossible to go out without running into somebody you know. Erasmus students and expats usually have a good chance of befriending a local, feeling supported and integrating more seamlessly – again contributing to the city’s overall level of happiness and tranquillity. Thanks to this, there is much less segregation, the community is more tight-knit, and people generally seem happier.

The diversity of the population goes some way to explaining the city council’s general openness to new art and social projects, such as starting to clean the city of visual smog, showing Czech cinema classics with English subtitles, or opening the South Moravia Integration Centre, whose mission is to create a network of young professionals and potential investors. The varied, affordable, and above all high-quality gastronomy scene – including bars, hipster cafés, and unconventional cultural events – also owes its success to the historical influence of nearby Vienna and to Brno’s numerous students and young people. Go to minimalistic SKØG for a coffee, to Soul Bistro for some pie, to Café Atlas for some soup, or to L’Eau Vie for a wild mixture of French and Czech cuisine and the warmest welcome. 

Brňáci tend to speak multiple languages: Czech; Brno’s dialect of Czech; and Hantec, a secret language created by combining Czech, German, and Yiddish. Although Hantec was historically only spoken by the lower strata of society, certain words are now accepted and understood everywhere in Brno. Everybody knows there is no tram in the city, but šalina.

To summarise, Brno has plenty to offer, and the familiar signs of globalisation are increasingly evident. Sure, at the Cabbage Market you will find no radicchio, but a lot of purple cabbage. But the people of Brno are no strangers to coriander and oat milk flat whites. Of course, the biggest reason to visit is to taste Moravian red wine, or maybe it’s the unique music, playful street art, and functionalist architecture. And don’t forget the unshakable sense of irony and self-awareness. So, do visit: you just might stay forever.

Photos for this article were made by Julie Orlova, you can find her on instagram at @llucyque or at www.iamjulieorlova.com

All photos in this article were made for Oko! Magazine and can not be used for any other purpose without prior consent from both the artist and Oko! Magazine.