Driving from Vienna to Brno
From Vienna we headed north towards Brno in the Czech Republic. Now, Brno is the Czech Republic’s second city, after Prague, and Vienna is obviously Austria’s capital city, so you would think that a decent road would connect the two, would you not? Think again. Whilst the road leaving Vienna is good quality dual carriageway and the road arriving in Brno is a good quality multi-lane highway, there is a big section in between where the road is narrow, with only one lane in each direction. To be fair, it looks as though they are in the process of building a new road, but for the time being, all of the (quite considerable) traffic is squeezed through a string of small towns. The worst bit was actually on the Austrian side of the border: along with hundreds of trucks, we queued and crawled through the little towns of Poysdorf and Drasenhofen.
These picturesque towns were totally ill equipped to deal with the sheer volume of heavy traffic that was thundering through their narrow streets. What a shame for their residents; I wonder how long they have been living like this.
There was no border to speak of between Austria and the Czech Republic, not even the usual empty border posts where officials once sat to look over your documents as you entered. I always find this a little disappointing: I feel as though at the very least there should be a big sign over the road saying ‘Welcome to the Czech Republic’ or wherever. There was a tiny sign (blink and you missed it) at the side of the road with the words ‘Czech Republic’ inside an EU flag and lots of signs reminding you to pay for your vignette to allow you to drive on the Czech motorways, but that was it.
Anyway, shortly after the border, the romantic Mikulov castle appeared on the hill in front of us, and I was excited to be in a new country once again. The Czech Republic is our ninth country so far and with a new country always comes different architecture, new foods to try, a new language to tackle and history to learn. All of this is very exciting, until you find yourself in the supermarket trying to translate the words on unfamiliar packaging and it takes you two hours to find everything you need! It seems that excitement and challenges always come hand in hand.
We stayed on a small campsite (Camping Hana) in the quiet and unassuming little town of Veverská Bítyška. There was a nice walk along the river from the campsite into town, or you could catch a boat or the bus to take you into Brno.
One Saturday morning, we walked up to explore the town and get some things from the local supermarket. For such a small place, it had really wide cobblestone streets and a pretty main square with a painted baroque church.
As we walked around, we noticed that lots of people there were wearing period costume. Surely the locals don’t dress like this all the time? Then we saw signs around the town saying ‘Bitva’ (Battle) with a red arrow, so we followed them and discovered a big reenactment going on in a field at the edge of town. We missed the battle itself, but we wandered through their ‘camp’ where people were cooking on open fires and doing traditional crafts. There was also music, archery and other activities. Luckily one of the people on the gate spoke enough English to explain that we needed to leave a donation. They seemed surprised that we were there and asked us where we were from, but everyone was very friendly and welcoming.
Our next move saw us heading further north and east towards the Polish border and en route we stopped at Hranice. This picturesque small town has an interesting history and great architecture, yet there were no crowds or tour groups in its central square, just local people going about their everyday business.
Colourful renaissance burgher houses lined the main square, Masarykovo nám, making a frame for the enormous church that rose up from the pretty cobblestones in the centre. Burgher was a social class in medieval European cities from which city officials could be drawn and their houses were grand and decorative as well as colourful. The rather unpleasantly-named Church of the Beheading of St John the Baptist was finished in1763 and it towers over everything else in the vicinity.
The new town hall had been created from the reconstruction of the old 17th century chateau, which itself stood on the site of an old fortress. In 1992 the building was put up for auction, but no-one was interested in buying it and so the local council decided to do it up and use it themselves. It had a magnificent renaissance arcaded courtyard and housed the most serene sculpture of a woman, eyes closed and face turned up towards the sun. I could’ve stood and looked at it for hours.
The Jewish History of Hranice
Another prominent building in the town was the old synagogue, which stood on the hill, overlooking the river. It was built in 1863 in a Moorish-Byzantine style and Jewish services were held there until 1940. Since 1943 it has been used as an exhibition hall and art gallery.
Everywhere we have been so far in Eastern Europe, we have come across a lot of Jewish history. We have learnt about the segregation of Jews in many places from very early times and the formation of Jewish quarters or ghettos in the cities. We have also seen areas where whole communities were wiped out during the Second World War, leaving behind empty homes and disused synagogues. And Hranice was no exception: on a notice board near the synagogue we read about the history of the Jewish community there.
A Jewish community existed in Hranice from about the 1620s. Even back then the Jews purchased houses from the nobility because the ordinary citizens of Hranice were apparently opposed the idea of them settling there. In 1637, the Jewish community was given its own autonomy in the town, but at the same time Jews were forbidden to purchase any further property. At the time, all the houses in Jewish Street (today’s Janáček Street), seventeen in total, were Jewish-owned. The population continued to grow and the houses had to be divided up to accommodate them all, often with ten families all living in one dwelling. These awful conditions continued until the 1780s, when various anti-Jewish restrictions were abolished and Jews gained full civilian rights. After this the population continued to grow, reaching a peak in 1857 when there were 802 Jewish people living in the town, making up 13% of the total population. Some of the biggest industries in the town, such as a textile factory and several distilleries, were Jewish owned and they thus exerted a powerful social influence that caused a tense relationship between them and the rest of the population.
After this the population slowly declined, as people migrated towards the bigger cities. In 1919, the Jewish community ceased to be self-governing, but continued to live and worship in the town and by the 1930s, only about 200 Jews remained. In 1939, Jewish Street was re-named Janáček Street and the Ten Commandments on the synagogue façade were removed. In 1940 services at the synagogue were banned. In 1941, all Jewish services were banned and all Jews over the age of six had to wear a six pointed yellow Star of David and the word JUDE in public. In 1942 most of Hranice’s Jews were exported to extermination camps and killed. Today, virtually all of the Jewish houses in the town have gone and all that remains of their existence is the synagogue and cemetery.
The girls are very curious about the places we visit and are interested to know about their history. In Hranice we realised that travelling around this part of Europe we are not going to be able to avoid the subject of WWII and the fate of Jewish communities at the hands of the Nazis. And nor would we want to, but it is a difficult subject to tackle with children. It first came up with the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’ memorial in Budapest and I have a feeling that there are going to be more questions to be answered in the coming weeks as we head towards Poland. Not only that, but it is becoming clear that Jewish communities in many of these towns were mistreated and persecuted long before that awful period of history.
Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed reading about a couple of the less touristy places we have visited. The more we have travelled, the more I have come to love these places. The places in between the big destinations. The ones that don’t make it into the Lonely Planet. So often the big destinations are a disappointment because they are too crowded or feel like they have been ‘staged’ for tourists. Often you are surrounded by British and American voices and on every street corner there are shops selling international brands and big-chain restaurants and cafés that make you feel like you could be anywhere in the world. There was none of this in Hranice or Veverská Bítyška. Granted, there were also no big sights to write home about either, but there was plenty of interest and plenty of Czech culture to see and enjoy.
I leave you with one final interesting fact: whilst its neighbour is almost universally referred to in English as Slovakia, the Czech Republic has not been so successful in persuading people to use the short form of its own name. In 2016 the powers that be in Prague decided to officially change their country’s name to Czechia: they would keep the long form of their name, but wanted people to use the shorter, catchier alternative. After all, this is what we do for many other countries in the world – for example, you never say you are going to the French Republic on holiday, do you?! So far they have apparently had limited success. Did you know you should now call the country Czechia? I certainly didn’t.