As we strolled the pedestrian-friendly streets of central Brno, I was struck both by its beauty and its lack of tourists. The Czech Republic’s second-largest city is a first-class pleasure to visit, with superb restaurants, convivial and stylish bars and a short list of fascinating sights, most famously the Villa Tugendhat, a functionalist masterpiece of residential architecture by Mies van der Rohe.
But many of Brno’s most interesting attractions are underground. The Czechs seem to have an affinity for the macabre, and Brno is no exception. We spent much of our time beneath the city exploring its underworld, where we discovered mummies, prison cells, an extensive labyrinth and vast piles of bones.
These are the city’s four most important underground attractions:
The English-language booklet provided by the ticket office of the Capuchin Crypt, a block away from the Grandezza Hotel Luxury Palace, insists that the “mummification [of the bodies] was obviously not intentional during the construction of the crypt.” But the Capuchin monks seem to have had something of a talent for inadvertent mummification. A number of mummies can be found in their crypt in Rome, and hundreds of them stand against the walls of their catacombs in Palermo. Here, the crypt contains glass-topped coffins of various benefactors, as well as a room of monks who lie on the floor of a vaulted chapel-like space. A “sophisticated system of ventilation holes” in the crypt helped dry out the bodies, which now have gray, leathery skin and tattered, moth-eaten garments. The monks intend this crypt to serve as a reminder of human transience in this world, and they succeed. Open daily.
The second-largest known ossuary in Europe after that in Paris, Brno’s ossuary opened to the public only in 2012. The towering gothic Church of St. James had a cemetery adjacent to it since the 13th century. Since it was within the city walls, expansion was impossible. Instead, as on Venice’s cemetery island, bones were disinterred after a dozen or so years and placed in an ossuary. The church closed its cemetery entirely in the 18th century, and eventually, the ossuary below it was forgotten. Workers surveying the square for a renovation rediscovered the complex in 2001.
Archaeologists estimate that the entire Church of St. James Ossuary contains the remains of about 50,000 people, including victims of sieges and plagues. One of the underground chambers shows how the bones were originally discovered, in a disorganized pile. But the Czechs aren’t people to let good skeletons go to waste, as evidenced by the jaw-dropping Sedlec Ossuary outside Kutná Hora, which boasts a chandelier made of bones, among other decorative objects. Here, workers cleaned the bones and replaced them, creating immense columns and walls of femurs and humeri dotted with skulls. Sculptures decorate many of the spaces, adding to their eeriness, and just in case visitors’ skins didn’t crawl enough, haunting music composed specifically for the space plays softly in the various rooms. The fact that we explored the ossuary entirely alone only enhanced the experience. Connoisseurs of the macabre should make this site a priority. Closed Monday.
Brno’s squat, architecturally undistinguished castle does not impress at first glance. But making the trek uphill along pretty garden paths to this fortress is worth the effort for four main reasons, including an underground site. First, the castle has a tower with impressive panoramic views over the whole of Brno. Second, a gallery inside presents The Architecture of Brno: 1919-1939, with fascinating pictures of both exteriors and interiors, illustrating how the city was something of a hotbed of design during the interwar period. Third is the galleries containing the From Modernism to Present Day exhibition, with utterly compelling paintings and sculptures created by Brno artists.
I couldn’t tell if she was reciting a prayer, rehashing an argument, rehearsing a monologue or casting a spell.
We had to ask for the exhibition to be unlocked, and a guard gamely opened the door. She trailed behind us during the half-hour we spent in the exhibition, whispering to herself the entire time. I couldn’t tell if she was reciting a prayer, rehashing an argument, rehearsing a monologue or casting a spell. It was something of a relief to descend to the castle’s fourth main attraction, its dark and dank casemates, home to one of the most notorious prisons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On two levels of cellars, brick barrel vaults of the Špilberk Castle casemates form a perimeter around the castle. They functioned as a prison from 1783 to 1855, housing prisoners in cold and crowded conditions, or worse, in lightless solitary confinement, perhaps permanently chained to the wall. Some of the cells have reconstructions of simple furnishings, including unappealing angled communal bed frames, and many chambers are simply empty. They stand as an eerie, sobering counterpoint to the grandeur and opulence of Vienna’s Belvedere and Schönbrunn palaces. Closed Monday from October-March.
Brno’s Cabbage Market, also known as the Vegetable Market, may have a prosaic name, but it’s one of the city’s oldest and grandest squares. It hosts a farmers market even to this day, in keeping with its history. Over the square’s roughly 800 years of existence, the merchants who used it for trade dug out storage spaces beneath it. These eventually formed a huge network of chambers and tunnels under the square. A portion of them was restored and opened to the public in 2011, and the Labyrinth, as it’s known, ranks among Brno’s most popular attractions.
The labyrinth is fascinating in theory, but once I was in it, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Frankly, I didn’t care for it, and I don’t recommend it. The tour guide speaks only Czech, in spite of the fact that our group of about 12 contained not a single Czech speaker. To compensate, we received booklets with descriptions of each chamber. Mine was a shabby photocopy marred by numerous markings on the original document. Some chambers were of moderate interest, but because all of them were heavily staged, none of them had much atmosphere. Worst was a large chamber depicting various forms of medieval torture. It was a gratuitous display, especially considering that the brochure made it clear that there is no evidence that any rooms in the labyrinth were ever used for the purpose. The labyrinth is fascinating in theory, but once I was in it, I couldn’t wait to leave.