In Brno, they now ask your opinion ...

Max Wooldridge revisits the Czechs' second city
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The Independent Travel
"You know that Skoda in English means `a pity'?" my translator friend Romana inquired over a dinner of smazcny syr (fried cheese in breadcrumbs).

lt was news to me, but it made sense of an incident I had seen earlier while I was walking to Liberty Square (Namesti Svobody), Brno's main square. A delivery van had driven into the back of a Skoda, knocking the car's bumper off. The driver got out, shrugged his shoulders and simply placed the fender in his boot, accepting the damage as inevitable. No insurance details were exchanged; both drivers just shook hands and departed.

If Prague is the Czech Republic's favourite child, Brno (pronounced brr- no, like a reaction to a chilly wind - not Bruno as in boxer Frank) is its silent cousin. The city's 650th anniversary in 1993 went largely unnoticed.

Despite the its location in the centre of Europe (half way between Budapest and Prague, and close to both Bratislava and Vienna), little is known about the Czech Republic's second city other than that it is the birthplace of the novelist Milan Kundera and the Bren gun. The Second World War machine gun was first manufactured in Brno, before production moved to Enfield.

When it comes to architecture, Brno beats Prague hands down, with its weird and wonderful "House of the Four Ninnies" (U Ctyr Mamlasu), in the triangular Liberty Square, built at the turn of the century by a rich Jewish industrialist. The "Ninnies" are four massive stone figures with agonised expressions who support the building on their shoulders.

I found more pained looks on the faces of Capuchin monks, whose remains are displayed in the crypt of Brno's 17th-century monastery, a real theatre of the macabre, nearby in Namesti Kapucinske. They are joined by the bodies of local burghers and noblemen, preserved by an ingenious ventilation system.

One of the monks was buried alive; when his coffin was opened he was discovered lying in a different position to when he was laid to rest. (And look out for chandeliers made of human bones.)

The first time that I visited Brno was in November 1989, during the demonstrations that led to the Velvet Revolution. I joined thousands of students in Liberty Square; we anxiously stuffed newspapers down our backs in case the police beat us. It was then that I met Petr, a local English teacher. Now, he runs his own English language school and promotes classical music concerts for touring foreign orchestras. When we met again in a hotel lobby he was busy explaining to an American producer why his concert posters had been delayed: "The printers are not capitalist yet. They need two weeks."

Later, we dined at the U Pinkasu beer hall off Cesky, Brno's main shopping street. There were no tables free so we sat amongst cheerful Czechs, sipping glasses of golden beer and feasting on fattening food such as svickova (beef in cream sauce) and knedliky (dumplings). On the next table, two middle-aged women with clashing hair tints refused to let two men share their table with them. I asked Petr what was going on. "They didn't like the way the men asked if they could sit down," he explained.

Was Brno, I wondered, a city of unpleasantly brusque people? I was reassured to some extent when I learnt that the twisted spire above the Gothic portal of the 13th-century Old Town Hall (Stare Radnice) was not the result of vandalism by Lada louts. More like revenge wreaked by the 16th-century sculptor Anton Pilgram: when the council didn't pay him as much as he'd hoped, he instructed his stone-cutters to bend the tallest spire. lt remains twisted to this day, aptly located above the statue of justice.

Churches, it seems, are a focal point for local - and lasting - expression. At the top of St James Church in Jakubske Namesti is "Nehanba" (the shameless one), a manikin who exposes his bottom from the church tower's southern window. The manikin is believed to have been built as an eloquent message to a rival church south of the city.

Perhaps its desired target was the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul on Petrov Hill, with imposing twin spires reminiscent of the Thunderbirds rocket. For the last 350 years, its bells have rung at midday an hour early. In 1645, a crafty bishop rang the cathedral bells for noon at 11am, after a Swedish General besieging the city declared that he would leave if his troops hadn't captured the place by midday.

Other imagery abounds. Brno's best known attraction is the Brno Dragon, which hangs in the entrance of the town hall. But the legendary dragon, reputedly killed by a gallant knight after it had terrorised the city, is more likely to be a stuffed Amazonian alligator brought home by a nobleman. Also of the stuff of legend is the Brno Wheel, said to have been made in 1636 by a cocksure carpenter 40km away in Lednice, southern Moravia. He chopped a tree down, made a wheel and rolled it to Brno all in one day. What a guy - but quite what he was trying to prove, no one knows.

The place seemed full of impressive people. Over a lunch of bramborak labuznik (potato pancakes) in another beer hall, I sat next to two elderly Czech ladies. Blame my circumspect English upbringing, but I rather expected them to drink something like a slivovice (plum brandy) each. They were having none of it, preferring pints of dark beer.

Later, I watched two brewery workers spend half an hour delivering more than a hundred beer barrels. Perhaps the brewery had deregulated their quality control department: certainly the workers spent the next hour drinking large quantities before leaving. Little wonder, then, that one of the first entries in my Czech phrasebook was a translation for "he's absolutely smashed".

Another beerhall - the Two Rams (U Dvou Kozlu), located on the site of the former Communist party's regional headquarters, was so smoky that I almost needed a thermal imager to see anything. This is hardly surprising, when you realise that the Czechs have a popular, chain-smoking president and a brand of cigarettes called Start.

Seven years ago young Czechs, with or without cigarettes in hand, had approached me in the streets and offered to change money. Now they simply wanted my opinion. Pavel, a student I met while I was waiting for a bus to Bratislava, was bursting with questions. Was it all right to be disillusioned with democracy so soon, he wanted to know. What did I think of the split with Slovakia? Did the Czech Republic lack confidence as a nation?

Communism here may be pretty much dead, but another of Brno's past landlords survives - at least in a gastronomic incarnation. Bloated like a Habsburg lip, parek (hot sausages) sell from roadside stalls all over the city. The last time I stopped to buy one, it was served on a piece of cardboard with a dollop of mustard. Market forces mean that they now arrive on polystyrene plates.

Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Brno. The closest international gateway is Prague, which has daily services from Heathrow on British Airways (0345 222111), British Midland (0345 554554), or CSA Czech Airlines (0171- 255 1898) - which also operates from Stansted. In descending order, the lowest return fares for each airline (including tax) are as follows, applicable for passengers travelling in January:

British Airways' lowest World Offer fare of pounds 199.90 must be booked by 18 December.

British Midland charges pounds 180.90 for a ticket, which must be booked at least a day before travelling.

CSA charges the same amount for travellers departing from Heathrow, but flights from Stansted come out pounds 15 cheaper, at pounds 165.90.

A bus from Victoria coach station in London to Florenc bus station in Prague costs pounds 95 return (including free soft drinks) and takes about 20 hours, through Kingscourt Express (0181-673 7500).

From Prague, a connecting bus or train to Brno takes around three hours and costs about pounds 10 each way.

Staying there

Rates quoted for the following hotels are for a night in a double room, including breakfast. Hotel Avion, Ceska 20 (00 42 5 42 21 50 16): pounds 37 or pounds 28 - the lower price is for rooms with a shower but no toilet.

Hotel Pegas, Jakubska 4 (00 42 5 42 21 01 04): pounds 40.

Hotel Slovan, Lidicka 23 (00 42 5 41 32 12 07): pounds 36.

Further information

Contact the Czech Centre, 95 Great Portland Street, London W1N 5RA (0171- 291 9924). Open 9.30am-5pm from Monday to Friday. Nearest Tube station: Oxford Circus.

The tourist office in Brno is located at Behounska 3, but its telephone number (00 42 5 42 21 10 89, extension 90) never seems to get an answer.