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Myths, Wine, Hiking and Dramatic Industrial Wastelands: Why the Czech Republic’s East Beats Prague’s Tourist Crowds

Brno centre | © James Hendicott

THERE’S A LONG-standing joke in the Czech Republic’s second city Brno. “We know wine,” they say. “We keep the best wine for ourselves. The mediocre stuff we sell to tourists, and the really bad stuff we send to Prague.”

It’s fair to say the Czech Republic’s two main cities have quite a rivalry. A few years ago, Brno’s mayor spent a small fortune on building a modern-version of Prague’s spectacular clock in the city’s main square. It’s a phallic, towering, slowly-twisting statue that almost nobody can use to tell the time, and once a day it omits a strange glass marble, because… nobody seems to be quite sure. It’s odd, largely because the city doesn’t need to compete.

If Bohemian Prague is home to the dark history and literary pretensions, laid back Brno has a fast-growing collection of its own unique lures. A once impenetrable walled city, it’s main attractions are in a compact hub, a spot that’s become pleasantly alternative in the way it presents itself.

Trams chug through the pretty, classical streets. Local bars consist of shacks selling hefty glasses from Moravian vineyards, served in the open air around bubbling fountains. Cocktail bars like the magical ‘Bar That Does Not Exist’ (Ktery Neexistuje in the local lingo) have a menu of thousands of fiery, fruity concoctions made from a mind-boggling selection of boozy bottles.

In fact, the general off-the-wall vibe to Brno is probably its main allure. An architect, for example, once got irritated by negotiations over compensation for his construction of the soaring Church of St James, and so adorned a window ledge with a fornicating, nude-bummed symbol who still rests there today.

Then there’s the Brno dragon, adorning a tunnel in the city hall, said once to have plagued the city (his modern incarnation looks suspiciously like an alligator). St James’ church relatively recently discovered ossuary is a creepy, claustrophobic series of underground tunnels home to wall-to-wall heaps of skulls and bones, while bunker 10-Z – a former secret Soviet underground bunker close the city’s heart – might have jokingly plastered pictures of atom bombs on its walls today, but the other relics remind us of its deadly serious practical applications.

While Brno tends to align itself culturally with Vienna (another snub to capital Prague, we suspect), Ostrava, near the Polish border, is a totally different a more rugged beast.