Czech it out: Skip Prague for three 'second cities' of the Czech Republic
Ostrava, Olomouc and Brno are just three cities worth exploring beyond the capital, says Eleanor Goggin
As someone who grew up in a 'second city', I know what it feels like to be a tad overlooked. So when an opportunity came to visit the lesser known cities of the Czech Republic, I jumped at it.
Not that I'm really suffering from an inferiority complex or 'second city syndrome' but I genuinely find that cities outside the capital of any country are often prettier, friendlier and easier to get around, so what's not to like.
Prague is a beautiful city but so are other cities in Czechia. I had never heard of any of them before but I won't forget them in a hurry. They are all easily accessible by train and bus as Czechia is much the same size as Ireland. Hiring a car is another option - and the roads are good.
We were travelling in Moravia and Bohemia. The very names sound exotic and conjure up pictures of medieval castles and fairy tale scenes. And we weren't disappointed.
We started our adventure in the industrial city of Ostrava, in the west, near the Polish border. In 1828 Archbishop Rudolf built a blast furnace and paid for it himself. The ironworks was subsequently bought by the famous Rothschild family and expanded as time went on. The works were responsible for the manufacture of the rivets used on the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Harbour Bridge. They closed in 1998 but instead of pulling them down, it was decided they should be rebuilt as a vast technical monument.
The industrial architecture is amazing. A glass structure called Bolt Tower is built on top of a blast furnace. It's named after Usain Bolt who has visited Ostrava many times, and if you have a head for heights, the trip to the top is well worth it for the views alone, but there's a lovely cafe near the top as well. The whole industrial park houses lots of interesting conversions. The old gas tank is now 'The Gong', a multifunctional hall. There are two interactive museums with all sorts of wonderful ways to educate and entertain kids for hours on end. Music festivals, catering for 50,000 people, are a regular occurrence here - The Cure are just one of many acts booked for this summer.
The city itself is full of surprises. The Ostravice river takes pride of place. It is said that, some time ago, if you ran out of nail varnish remover you could just dip your hands in the water and because the toxins were so bad you'd be ready to apply a fresh coat in no time. Not today. People swim happily in its pristine waters.
From vast murals on walls to a magical performance from the Fairytale Clock, there's a surprise around every corner of Ostrava. Another great vantage point is the top of the New City Hall. It's a massive building with an impressive tower. We were able to see Poland when we reached the top - 73m from the ground.
Olomouc is just down the road. It's a small city, and almost a quarter of its population is made up of students. Lonely Planet has included Olomouc as one of the most beautiful but less well-known European cities. Columns and fountains abound in the squares (actually most of them are irregular or triangular) all boasting beautiful buildings with elegant facades reminiscent of cities like Vienna.
St Maurice's Church is home to the biggest church organ in Central Europe. There are also some amazing stained glass windows and an outdoor staircase housed in a cage. The Town Hall clock draws a crowd at midday when the bell sounds and figures leap into action.
They are not the original figures though. The originals were saints but under the communist regime these were replaced by peasants. They are big into their bells and clocks in Czechia.
We lunched at Long Story Short, a hostel and cafe like no other. My memory of a hostel in my youth was that of a grimy, flea-infested dive. This, on the other hand, was a work of art, brewing its own beer and serving up delicious corn soup and a chicken and quinoa dish to die for. The 11 bedrooms were pristine and funky ranging from dorms to private rooms, with or without en suite.
Brno is the jewel in Czechia's crown. The second largest city in the country, it positively buzzes. We stayed at the lovely Hotel Grandezza, ideally located at the edge of Cabbage Market Square or Zelny Trh. We explored the labyrinth that criss-crosses under the market and its surroundings. There's the wine cellar under the theatre where patrons used to go for drinks, the cosy tavern - and then there's the torture chamber. A Fifty Shades of Grey vibe. Freedom Square is just around the corner where another daily market creates an atmosphere of bonhomie.
During the Thirty Years War in the 17th Century, Brno was the only city to defend itself against the marauding Swedish invaders. The Swedes laid siege to Brno for three months until the Swedish commander, Lennart Torstenson, issued an ultimatum: "Tomorrow we shall make our last attack on the city. Before the bells on Petrov strike noon, Brno must be ours. If not, we shall retreat."
On the day of the battle, Brno's citizens fought bravely to defend the city. But at 11am when they finally began to break down the walls, Brno's commander, Jean-Louis Raduit de Souches, ordered the bell ringer to strike 12 o'clock in St Peter's Cathedral. Upon hearing the bell, the Swedes ceased fighting and were gone before nightfall. Since then, the Petrov bells have always struck noon at 11 o'clock to commemorate how the city was saved.
A somewhat phallic structure stands proudly in Freedom Square. It's meant to be a bullet and it is there to commemorate the victory. At 11 o'clock every day, balls the size of a squash ball are released and wind down the column. There are four apertures and if you're lucky you can retrieve one and keep it as a souvenir. It appears one family is obsessed with this and a family member turns up every day.
Nightlife in Brno is hopping. Every second building is a cocktail bar. Prices are very reasonable. We bounced from 4pokoje (4 rooms) to Bar Ktery neexistuje (the bar that doesn't exist) to the famous Super Panda Circus and indulged in cocktails containing anything from mango to curry to fried onion.
My book club read a book called The Glass Room by Simon Mawer some years ago and we all loved it. It was based on a house built in a very futuristic style nearly a hundred years ago. I became weak with excitement when I realised that the Villa Tugendhat on the outskirts of the city is the said same house.
It was built in the functionalist style and designed by German architect Mies van der Rohe for textiles magnate Fritz Tugendhat and his wife Greta. 'Less is more' was the theme. The Nazis occupied it during the war and the Communists after. It has been recently restored and opened to the public.
Kutna Hora is a charming medieval town about 50 miles south east of Prague. Beautiful buildings abound. St Barbara's Cathedral, a stunning Gothic structure, is visible from far and near. Twelve side chapels each has its own story and the art nouveau-style stained glass windows are fabulous.
Poor St Barbara had a rough innings. Her father wanted her to marry a pagan king and when she refused, he chopped her head off. Our guide told us that St Barbara is the patron saint of 'suddenly dying people' and of miners too.
Silver mining became synonymous with Kutna Hora when deposits were found here in the 13th Century. The Italian Court which houses the mint is a palace so named because of the Italian experts who were involved. Nowadays you can take a tour of the silver mine equipped with a mining tunic, helmet and a lamp.
Food and drink are always very high on my priorities when visiting another country and Czechia didn't let me down. The local wines, both red and white, were lovely and the beer was divine.
Traditional Czech food is hearty. Vepro-knedlo-zelo, the national dish, consists of roast pork, bread dumplings and stewed cabbage. Goulash is also a staple. Smazeny Syr, or deep fried cheese, is on every menu and is really lovely.
There were lots of appealing looking dishes that I never got to try but I'll be back to Czech them out.
Take Two: Top attractions
Raise your glasses
Beer is very popular in Czechia. Microbreweries abound. I tried both orange- and cherry-flavour beers, and they were sublime. Some restaurants do a tasting selection of six small beers with your meal.
Way ahead of its time with open-plan living and large glass windows, it's an architectural triumph. Finished in 1930, it was the first private home in Europe to be built from steel and reinforced concrete.
Both Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) fly daily from Dublin to Prague.
Ostrava, Olomouc, Brno and Kutna Hora can all be reached by direct trains from Prague.
The average price for a one-way train ticket is €5-15. For details about transport in Czechia visit idos.cz.
For more information about Czech cities visit czechtourism.com.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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