Velehrad – Saints, Slavs and Fish

The Heart of Great Moravia 

Velehrad’s Basilica of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Czech Republic’s most important pilgrimage destination.

The first Slavs began arriving in what is now the Moravian regions of the Czech Republic in the 6th and 7th centuries AD. By the early 9th century, the first recognised Western Slavic homeland had been established there.

Known as Great Moravia, the kingdom lasted from the early 800s to the early 900s and covered present day Moravia as well as parts of what are now Bohemia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Today, the village of Velehrad sits near what was the heart of Great Moravia in the south east of the Czech Republic.

The period of Great Moravia was a time of great social and spiritual development for Slavic culture as a whole. This was particularly true during the reign of the second Moravian king, Rastislav.

Bracketed by Germanic tribes to the west and the Byzantines to the east, Rastislav sought to minimise the influence of Germanic missionaries in his kingdom and turned to the Byzantines for assistance. The Byzantines dispatched two monks, Cyril and Methodius, to the area to bring Eastern Christianity to the Slavs.

The two monks created the Galgolithic alphabet, which was developed into the Cyrilic alphabet used by Bulgaria and Russia today. Through that alphabet, they translated religious texts from Greek and Latin into Old Church Slavonic and converted the majority of Slavs in Great Moravia to Christianity. Roman Catholicism became the religion of majority after Methodius died in 885 and the Cyrilic alphabet was replaced with the Roman one in the region.

Beyond bringing Christianity to the Slavs, the monks also wrote the first Slavic Civil Code that was used in Great Moravia.

Celebrating the Saints 

View of the basilica church.

The contributions of Cyril and Methodius to Slavic cultures survive to the present and it’s no surprize to see them memorialised and honoured in numerous ways.

In the Czech context, the biggest tribute to them exists where they did their work. The basilica at Velehrad is consecrated to them and is the most important point of pilgrimage in the Czech Republic.

The basilica’s present Baroque face dates to rebuilding that took place after a large fire in 1681. However, the land it sits on has been occupied by religious buildings since a monstery was built there in the 13th century.

July 5 is St. Cyril and Methodius Day and is a state holiday on the Czech calendar. Many devout people from within Czech borders and points further away take part in the annual pilgrimage to the basilica.

The importance of the basilica at Velehrad is underlined by the fact that it was the first place visited by Pope John Paul II after the fall of Socialism in 1990.

Living Great Moravia 

General view of Archeoskanzen.

Less than a kilometre’s walk from the basilica, you’ll find the Archeoskanzen in the adjoining village of Modrá.

Archeoskanzen is an open-air archeological museum that was established in 2004. it represents a ninth century village of the sort that would have existed in Great Moravia.

Different buildings are dedicated to the vocations that were important to running the village, while others show places of governance and commerce. One room shows how Cyril and Methodius may have lived while they were in the area doing their work.

The museum is generally a self-guided place and it is possible to get information leaflets in English, and possibly other languages, to help you understand what you’re seeing.

Something Fishy 

An example of local fish at Živá Voda Modrá.

In the same area as Archeoskanzen, you’ll find Živá Voda Modrá. This is a nature centre that has its focus on the flora and fauna of Moravian wetlands.

The inside part of the display goes into some detail about the biodiversity of Moravia. Upon entry, you can ask for a leaflet in English to help you through the information.

The real showpiece of the centre is a small tunnel that places you below water level of an outdoor pool that houses a selection of fish native to Moravian waterways and wetlands. Among the fish types you can view are: carp, catfish, perch, pike, sturgeon and trout.

Outdoors, you can view the fish pool from above and examine a variety of native Moravian plant varieties.

Paying a Visit and Learning More

This is not the easiest of places in the Czech Republic to visit if you don’t have a car available to you. There are buses from the nearby small city of Uherské Hradiště, but there are only a few per day so you really will need to be mindful of the schedules.

Taxis also will run from Uherské Hradiště to Velehrad, but there’s no guarantee of the driver being able to speak anything but Czech. As such, this is not an ideal option unless you speak Czech or have a Czech speaker going with you.

If you’re the more intrepid and active type and are visiting in spring or summer, you may be able to reach Velehrad via one of the many cycling trails that run through the area.

If you’re visiting Velehrad as a day trip, I’d suggest taking some snacks with you as dining options are rather limited.

It’s also a good idea to have some cash on hand if you visit the attractions in Modrá. Neither Archeoskanzen or Živá Voda Modrá accepted card payment at the time we visited in April of 2019.

The following links will give you more information about the attractions in Velehrad and Modrá