The Wheel & the Dragon
A Visit to Brno

The medieval city of Brno was founded in the 11th century and in 1641 it became the capital of Moravia. At the beginning of the 20th century, German-speaking residents outnumbered Czechs by a large majority; but today with almost 400,000 inhabitants, Brno is the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Its rich history, culture and nightlife make it a worthwhile weekend getaway and if you've ever wondered what Prague might have been like before the expats moved in and the hordes of tourists arrived, a visit to this charming location might well be the best chance you have left to see for yourself.

Exploring the City
Although locals who speak a second language are more likely to speak German than English, Brno is very welcoming. The primary tourist attraction is the fortress of Špilberk, which dates back more than 700 years. Constructed as a residence for the Czech Kings, the highlight of the castle tour is the "casemates", which were originally designed as a military barracks and arsenal, but were later converted into a prison. And what a dark and terrible place it became! During the late 1700s, prisoners convicted of the worst crimes were confined to the darkest and deepest dungeons and shackled to the walls in perpetuity. From the castle itself, you can treat yourself to the enchanting view of the Old Town with its renaissance houses and picturesque churches, as well as the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul.

In the center of old Brno lies Námestí Svobody (Liberty Square) whose present name dates back to 1918 and the proclamation of an independent Czechoslovakia. The majority of the buildings situated on the square are built on foundations that date back to the Gothic period and many figure prominently in Moravian history and folklore. At n° 18 you can find the Royal House, where Czech Kings resided during their visits to Brno. Just next-door at n° 17 is the House of the Lords of Lipe, a Renaissance palace complete with dungeons and an arcaded interior gallery. It was given to the French colonel, Raduit de Souches, as a reward for successfully defending the city against the siege of the Swedish army.

The Old Town Hall is located on Radnická Street, adjacent to Námestí Svobody. Designed in the High Gothic style, it is best-known for the symbols of the city, the Dragon and the Wheel, that hang over the entry passage. Several conflicting legends attempt to explain the dragon's origin but the only thing they seem to agree on is that the dragon is in fact a crocodile. The wheel is said to have been made by a master wheelwright who in 1638 made a bet with some friends in the nearby village of Lednice that he could cut down a tree at six in the morning, make a wheel, and a roll it to Brno within that same day, before they closed the city gates. He succeeded and presented the wheel to the amazed Mayor of Brno. Since the wheel was a true masterpiece, the Mayor had it hung in the town hall.

Not far from the Town Hall is Zelný trh (the vegetable market) and the Reduta Theater where an 11-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once gave a concert. The adjoining Petrská Street leads up to Petrov hill and the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul, a Gothic edifice that was built during the 14th and 15th centuries, but never completed. During the Swedish siege of 1645 the church was set on fire and partially destroyed. The interior vaults were rebuilt during the 18th and 19th century, but the two towers that symbolize present-day Brno were only completed in 1911.

Legend tells us that the Swedish commander, growing impatient with the time the siege was lasting, told his army that on the morning of August 15, 1645 they would take the town by noon, or leave. At 11 a.m. the walls were breached and the attackers began ransacking the city. An old bell ringer received word from a spy that he must ring the bells so he climbed the damaged tower and succeeded in ringing out midday. The Swedish attackers retreated, Brno was saved and even today the bells ring midday at 11 a.m. in memory of that event.

Brno is also an important cultural center. National Theater companies perform operas, ballets and plays in the Janácek and Mahen Theaters; the city is the location of the Museum of Romanies (Gypsies), the Janácek Museum (devoted to the composer) and the Brno City Museum (located in Špilberk Castle). Brno was also an active participant in the Functionalist architecture movement of the 1920s and 1930s and landmark buildings such as Mies van der Rohe's Tugendhat Villa (a UNESCO World Heritage site) can be visited here.

The city's large student population ensures that things stay lively well into the night. Restaurants, bars and pubs abound on the streets leading off of the central Námestí Svobody and you won't have to search for long to find a suitable restaurant. The excellent Starobrno beer is brewed locally and you shouldn't miss a chance to try it during your visit.

When going out to bars, pubs and nightclubs in Brno be sure to look at the menu or request prices in advance; tourists are still not so very common here and that nice, friendly bartender who chats with you in perfect English might well charge you double what the locals pay and pocket the difference.

If you're looking for a closer glimpse of some of those fabulous local girls, then you should check out Mandarin (Jakubské Nám. 6). Two big rooms offer you the choice of a sterile modern cocktail bar where you can see and be seen or a downstairs music club with a small dance floor playing radio hits and house music. A slightly older crowd ranging from mid 20s to the middle-aged frequents the upscale Tabarin dance club (Divadelní 3), which features a central dance floor surrounded by plush furnishings, while Remix (Brandlova 4) offers a more casual setting. The brick walled club pounds out R&B and hip-hop, while the casually-dressed crowd of students and 20 somethings party the night away. The free Czech-language weekly, METRO, provides listings of the latest clubs, concerts, and events.

Farther Afield
Austerlitz ("Slavkov" in Czech) was the site of the Battle of the Three Emperors, Napoleon's famous military victory over the allied forces of Austria and Russia, and town's beautiful Baroque chateau is well worth a visit. It is located just outside Brno and can be reached by public transportation.

The countryside north of Brno is a great place for outdoor activities. Numerous trails serve hikers in the summer and cross-country skiers in winter. Only a little bit farther to the north are the spectacular limestone caves in the Karst region of the Moravský kras. Some of the Czech Republic's best vineyards are located to the south and east of the city and the small towns in this region are great places to participate in the autumn vintage celebrations as well as late winter tasting of the new vintage.

The Grand Hotel Brno, located across from the Main Railway station, is probably the best-known of the four-star hotels (double rooms from 3,500 CZK a night), but the more moderately priced Hotel Slávia (double rooms from 2,250 CZK a night) is a great alternative. This Art Nouveau style hotel features an excellent restaurant and bar and is located right on the edge of the Old Town. The historic two-star Hotel Avion is situated just down the street and, as a notable example of functionalist architecture, it's a real bargain (single rooms from 900 CZK a night). For budget travelers, if it's summer you're in luck; the Traveller's Hostel is only a few hundred meters from the train station and at 290 CZK it's cheap!

Getting There
Brno is located about 250 km from Prague and both buses and trains run an hourly service to Brno each day.

Buses Approx. 150 CZK, 2h30min
Trains Approx. 160 CZK, 3h30min
From Vienna by train 1h40min

More Info
Tourist Information Center (Old Town Hall)
Radnická 8

Špilberk Castle
May - September: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m.
October - April: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Open daily except Mondays.
July - August: daily including Monday.
Admission fee 30 CZK
Last admission one hour before closing time.

Hotel Slávia
Solnici 15/17
662 16 Brno
Tel. 420 542 321 249

Grand Hotel Brno
Benešova 18 - 20
657 83 Brno
Tel. 420 542 518 111

Hotel Avion
Ceská 20
602 00 Brno
Tel. 420 542 215 016

Traveller's Hostel
Jánská 22
Tel. 420 542 213 573