When I got off at the main train station in Brno, I was shocked at how metropolitan it is. Brno is the 2nd largest city in the Czech Republic after Prague, and Ostrava is the 3rd. But Brno feels a lot like Prague, whereas Ostrava feels calm by comparison. It was rush hour and insanely busy with trams, buses, cars, and pedestrians. I literally got stuck in a little triangle of cement, unclear how to get off it without being run over by something. My GPS had me walking in circles – I was ready to throw my cell down a sewer if it told me to “turn left” one more time.
This was the 2nd rendezvous of the PowerFULbright women. I also had to do some work, meeting up with a fellow researcher and planning data collection, and quickly learned I’d be returning to Brno two days after I got back for more research & data collection…but oh the fun we had after that!
We kind of fell in love with a restaurant, Středověka Krčma, that serves traditional Czech food from medieval days. We sat on benches with sheepskin draped on them, talked in candlelight, drank grog, and ate very heavy food.
Michelle and Harmony are both gin aficionados (and I’m a rube) so we set off to find the best gin cocktails and pure gins that the city had to offer. We started with The Bar that doesn’t Exist and had some mightily delicious and pricey cocktails. The bartender had to climb a ladder (at the far end of the pic) to grab bottles off the top shelf.
Perhaps the highlight of our day was wandering into the Church of St. James and getting a private tour of the belfry. The guide asked us how much time we had and when we told him we had as long as he needed to tell us everything, he got very excited. He not only gave us an enthusiastic tour, but offered us a special experience that not everyone gets. We sneaked many layers high into the belfry and even in the attic space above the cathedral ceiling. We wound our way up the double-helix stone stairs, one for climbing up and one for descending.
But best of all, we each got a chance to ring the bell – a bell that was several hundred years old and for which the clapper was several hundred pounds. It took some serious effort to swing it enough to barely touch the bell and wow was it loud! I have video but WordPress won’t allow me to upload it here. We laughed hysterically at the unexpected sound and my ears hurt for the next two hours.
Later in the evening, we found a gin bar where Michelle asked the somm what he recommended for someone who liked Bombay Sapphire. He sniffed, “Bombay Sapphire is for people who don’t like gin.” Michelle was sold. I was ginned-out but managed to enjoy half of a “margerita” (as in the pizza) gin and tonic. Seriously interesting. But Michelle got to taste a flight of interesting boutique gins. The somm said one variety had only 12 bottles in the country. If nothing else, the bottles were beautiful.
Michelle had to leave us in the morning but Harmony and I stayed another night. We visited the Špilberk castle which was basically the local penitentiary for both lowly commonfolk who committed big crimes and a wide array of foreign diplomats over the centuries. Much of the labeling informed us of how many prisoners were crammed into the particular cell. The museum is gigantic, however. We were a bit on a time schedule, so a couple times we tried to cut out without seeing everything. Each time, we were intercepted by a docent who very emphatically told us we had to go to the next exhibit. I concluded it was like IKEA where they have a mapped route to ensure you pass everything – except sans the shortcuts. It seems there was always one more hall, one more floor, and some exhibits seemingly unrelated to the castle like the one on fireworks or the 1920’s art exhibition.
We went into countless churches. One with the most elaborate exterior had the most boring interior and one with a run-down exterior had a knock-your-socks off interior that nearly made me cry.
I think my favorite place was the Museum of Romani Culture (aka “Gypsies”). It was off the beaten path, down a less-than-pleasant street filled with crumbling buildings and a sidewalk covered in dog crap. But the museum was extremely well done and there was English translation for everything (a serious rarity outside of Prague). It’s a long, sad history for the Roma – centuries of being ostracized, tortured, harassed – still to this day to some extent. But we also learned a lot about their culture and traditions as well. For example, did you know that they are originally from India? They had a surprisingly extensive overlap with Catholicism that I wouldn’t have guessed.
On trains and bus rides, others I know are carded, asked for their passport, on each leg, every time. But it wasn’t until my next trip to Brno, which were my 13th & 14th train/bus trips, that I was asked for my passport for the first time. In fact this time I was asked both directions and on my local tram from the train station in Ostrava to my flat, the transit police got on board and checked to see that I had paid. Evidently I was very suspicious-looking that day.