On my recent trip to the Czech Republic, I had the opportunity to venture beyond its popular capital of Prague. What surprises awaited in South Moravia – from the former Communist 10-Z Bunker to the spectacular Punkva Caves in the Moravia Karst region. From UNESCO-listed chateaus to the open-air Museum of Southeast Moravian Villages. All set in the Czech Republic’s wine country, where 96 percent of its wine is produced.
Brno was my base – it’s South Moravia’s main city and the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Yet its 386,000 population is small compared to Prague’s 1.3 million inhabitants. I enjoyed Brno’s historic city center, university flavor and convenient proximity to attractions in the South Moravian countryside. Best of all: Brno and all of South Moravia are not jammed with tourists like Prague.
Visit Brno’s historic Vegetable Market and Old Town Hall in Zelný trh Square. Then go underground in the Labyrinth, medieval passageways and cellars beneath the 13th-century square. The Underground Brno Tour starts here and continues to the Mint Master’s Cellar, where a docent in period garb demonstrates how coins were minted using a medieval press. Continuing to the ossuary under St. James Church, you’ll see neatly arranged bones of over 50,000 people who died during medieval plagues, the Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648) and the Swedish Siege (1645). Not for the faint-hearted, this macabre complex is the second largest ossuary in Europe.
Another underground adventure is the 10-Z Bunker, located beneath Brno’s Spilberk Castle. It was originally an air-raid shelter built during World War II against American and Soviet bombs. Then the Communists converted it into a nuclear fallout shelter in 1959. Tour its tunnels to see Soviet-era furnishings, rows of gas masks and cold war memorabilia.
You can even stay overnight in the non-profit 10-Z Bunker, which began offering hostel accommodations three years ago. Granted, you can’t have claustrophobia and must be willing to sleep in a WWII-era bunk bed, but 10-Z Bunker does offer a most unique overnight experience right in Brno’s city center.
To the north of Brno is the Moravian Karst region, featuring extensive underground caves. My group descended into the Punkva Caves, walking a paved trail past fantastic, water-sculpted stalactites and stalagmites. Then a surprise: we emerged into daylight at the bottom of the dramatic, 615-foot deep Macocha Abyss. Returning to the cave labyrinth, we rode a small boat as it maneuvered a narrow subterranean river through another spectacular section of the Punkva Caves.
Above ground, South Moravia boasts an astonishing number of beautiful chateaus, formerly owned by aristocracy and now managed by the Czech government. Lysice Chateau, near the Punkva Caves, is one of these cultural treasures, showcasing the early 19th-century Baroque lifestyle of a Moravian earl on its guided tours. It features an unusual, elevated, covered walkway from the chateau out over its formal gardens.
Southeast of Brno is another gem, Milotice Chateau. First a Gothic stronghold, then a 16th-century Renaissance castle, Milotice today reflects its 1719-1743 Baroque renovation. As you tour its opulent interior, you may see docents in period dress leading groups of school children, also in period garb. “The children behave so much better when they dress in costume to play a role in that time period,” commented our guide with a smile.
Then visit the Museum of Southeast Moravia Villages to see how the common folk lived. The open-air museum features dwellings dating from 1800 to the beginning of the 20th century. You can enter many of them to see their simple furnishings and learn from costumed guides how their residents lived. Folk crafts and items such as the gingerbread cookie wedding cake in the miller’s house illustrate local customs. Located in Strážnice, the museum has been open since 1981 and is the only one of its kind in the Czech Republic. The Strážnice International Folklore Festival, the oldest and largest folk festival in Europe, is held there the last weekend of June.
A highlight of South Moravia is the Lednice-Valtice Complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Tudor-Gothic Lednice Chateau and Baroque Valtice Chateau are legacies of the Liechtenstein noble family, which owned the area from 1322 to 1945. You can tour the Lednice Chateau, richly furnished from a 1846-1858 renovation, and then take a boat cruise on a man-made lake to the 65-foot tall “Turkish” minaret at the far end. The area between the two chateaus is known as the “Garden of Europe” for its lush landscaping, colorful plantings and rare tree species.
Then go wine-tasting in the Valtice Chateau’s cellars, home of the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic. The Wine Salon showcases the best 100 Moravian and Czech wines for the given year, based on an annual competition. Choose from several tasting programs, but definitely try wines from the surrounding Mikulovská wine region, famed for its white wines. Very little Czech wine is exported to the U.S., so don’t miss this opportunity to sample it here and as you travel through South Moravia.
Museum of Southeast Moravia Villages
Wine Salon of the Czech Republic
— By Julie Gangler
Julie Gangler is a freelance writer who has worked as a media relations consultant for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau. She began her career as a staff writer at Sunset Magazine and later was the Alaska/Northwest correspondent for Travel Agent Magazine.