Mikulov – Wine and Wilderness

Heart of Wine 

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Looking over the town centre from Kozí hrádek view point.

Nestled in the South Moravian wine country, you’ll find the border town of Mikulov.

Mikulov shares its name with the wine growing microregion it sits at the heart of and is famous for its annual wine festival which takes place in September.  During this festival, the town swarms with visitors looking to sample the produce of the many local vintners.

Beyond the town’s viticultural allure, Mikulov has deep historical connections to religious development in the Czech lands and is the symbolic gate to the Pálava protected natural area and the recreational delights to be found there. Mikulov is also considered the beginning of the Moravian karst region.

History, nature, spirituality and wine come together to make Mikulov and its environs a unique and memorable experience.

Let’s take a look:

On History’s Highway 

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An aerial view of Mikulov’s chateau and town centre.

In the present day, Mikulov sits on the highway that connects Brno to Vienna. Just as a lot of motor traffic goes past the town today, much historical traffic has touched the city since it was first mentioned in historical records in the late 1100s.

In its earliest recorded history, the town was overseen by the Czech noble house of Přemysl. From 1249 to 1560, it was part of the territory of the powerful Austrian noble house of Liechtenstein.

At the time of the transfer to Liechtenstein hands, the original castle which occupied the place where the modern town’s chateau now sits was still under construction.

Under Liechtenstein rule, development of the town began in ernest. As the family took Mikulov as their primary place of residence, they completed construction of the castle. However, the castle underwent many changes under their watch to accomodate their changing tastes and requirements.

During the Liechtenstein era, the town played host to some significant events in the religious history of the Czech lands. In the early 1420s, the town saw a major influx of Jews and the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in the wake of the expulsion of Jews from Vienna and Lower Austria. The town’s Jewish population expanded again in the 1450s when Jews were expelled from Moravian royal municipalities. By the first half of the 16th century, Mikulov had become the cutural heart of Jewish activity in Moravia.

The Jews were not the only religious group that found safe haven in the town during the Liechtenstein years. 1526 saw the arrival of Baptists who had been driven out of Switzerland and other western European lands by Catholic powers.

1560 saw the end of Liechtenstein ownership of the town. The lavish lifestyle of aristocrats and poor economic conditions of the time forced the noble family to sell the entire Mikulov estate.

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The facade of the Dietrichstein family crypt, which sits on the main square.

The last noble lords of the town were another powerful Austrian dynasty, the Dietrichsteins. Taking ownership of the estate in 1572 and holding it until 1945, the Dietrichsteins ushered in a high period for the town and its residents.

The protection that the town’s Baptist and Jewish communities enjoyed under the Liechtensteins continued under the Dietrichtseins and the town prospered for both religious groups being part of it.

One of the most significant members of the Dietrichstein dynasty, in the context of the town’s history, was Cardinal Franz von Dietrichstein (1570-1636). Under his watch, the town saw many reforms to its appearance, economy and culture that resulted in it becoming the most important town in Moravia for a time

The town’s fortunes changed sharply during the Thirty Years’ War when it was captured by Swedish forces in 1645. Further misfortunes would come in the form of very destructive fires in 1663, 1719 and 1784. The decline of Mikulov’s importance continued into the 19th century when Jews were allowed to return to Vienna and other parts of Austria in 1848; by the turn of the 20th century, most of Mikulov’s Jews had moved to Austria leaving the town with a remaining Jewish population that was a very small fraction of what it had been at its height. The Second World War put an end to what little Jewish activity remained in the town.

While the Jewish ghetto was never restored after the war, there are some protected remnants of it available to visit today.

Mikulov was geographically part of the Sudetenland up until the end of World War II. As such, a majority of its citizenry at the time were of Germanic ethnic origins and counted German as their mother tongue. As with a majority of Germanic descended residents of the Sudetenland, those of Mikulov were forcibly and brutally expelled from the Czech lands in the wake of Germany being on the losing end of the conflict.

A Chateau with a Story 

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Looking at the chateau facade from the chateau gardens.

Today, the massive chateau that sits in the heart of Mikulov is the seat of the regional museum. This belies a building with a history as eventful and turbulent as that of the town.

Starting life in the early 1200s as a castle commissioned by the Přemysl noble house, it was handed over the Liechtensteins in an incomplete state. The Liechtensteins took Mikulov as their primary place of residence and had the building completed as a chateau that properly reflected their noble status.

As it was in the time of Liechtenstein rule, the chateau saw several stylistic reconstructions during the tenure of the Dietrichsteins.

Major reconstruction was undertaken on the building following the Thirty Years’ War. During that conflict, the chateau had been occupied twice with significant damge being done to it and its equipment. Extensive reconstruction of the chateau was coming to a conclusion in the early 18th century when a fire in 1719 caused tremendous damage to both the chateau and town. The chateau had to be rebuilt nearly from the ground up.

In 1805 and 1809, the Napoleonic battles of Austerlitz and Znojmo were fought not far from Mikulov. The chateau served as the venue for preliminary talks of peace between France and Austria at the end of the Battle of Austerlitz ahead of a formal treaty being signed in what is now Bratislava, Slovakia.

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Looking across the chateau gardens to the St. Sebastian pilgrimage chapel on Svatý kopeček (Holy Hill).

Fire touched the chateau again in 1945 during the retreat of the German military from the town. The 1945 fire burned the chateau down to its foundations; some sources state the causes of the fire to be unclear while others put the blame squarely on an act of arson by the retreating Germans. Whatever the cause, the building sat for three years in a state of ruin before rebuilding began.

Rebuilding of the chateau was completed in the early 1960s.

Today, it is owned by the Mikulov Regional Museum. It is possible to take tours of the building. Aside of the museum exhibitions, the visitor can also view elements of the chateau that were rescued from the 1945 fire such as the chateau library and a gigantic wine barrel dating to the Dietrichstein period that was designed to hold 101,400 litres of wine.

Getting Above Things 

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St. Sebastian pilgrimage chapel.

If one wishes to get a view of Mikulov’s historic centre from a bit above, two good opportunities are available close at hand.

Svatý kopeček (Holy Hill) runs along the eastern side of the town while Kozí hrádek (Goat Tower) sits just to the north of the centre.

Kozí hrádek is a relatively easy walk uphill through some residential areas from the centre of the town. A remnant of a 15th century watchtower, Kozí hrádek gives a good all around view of the town and surroundings as well as a good opportunity for unobstructed photography of the chateau.

Svatý kopeček is a massive hill of Jurassic period limestone that is home to both a nature preserve and a Way of the Cross pilgrimage route ending with the St. Sebastian pilgrimage chapel at the summit of the hill.

Dating to the mid 1600s, the Way of the Cross on Svatý kopeček is one of the oldest pilgrimage routes not only in South Moravia but in the Czech lands as a whole.

At Play in Pálava 

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Děvín Mountain, the highest point in the Pálava region. (photo: L. Holubová)

It would not be fair to talk about Mikulov without making mention of the Pálava Hills protected biosphere region which the town is part of.

Pálava is an area of 83 square kilometres which has been a UNESCO listed biosphere preserve since 1986 as it is home to a number of rare plant and animal species.

Beyond being a nature preserve, Pálava is also a very valuable region in the contexts of archaeology, tourism and viticulture.

From an archaeological standpoint, artifacts dating back to the late Paleolithic period have been uncovered near the town of Dolní Věstonice in the northern part of the regions. Most famously, a ceramic figurine known as the Venus of Dolní Věstonice was discovered there in 1925. The figurine has been dated to 29,000–25,000 BC and is, along with figurines of animals found at the same site, the oldest known ceramic work in the world.

Pálava is quite popular as a local recreational area owing to its close proximity to the city of Brno; it’s quite an easy trip to get out of the city. As it is bordered by the world renowned UNESCO listed Lednice-Valtice area to the east and Austria to the south, Pálava can also be easily accessed by more than just local visitors.

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The Nové Mlýny Reservoirs which sit at the north edge of Pálava.

Filled with networks of cycling, riding, trekking and walking trails; Pálava is easy to explore in a clean and sustainable way. Many of the trails are of an educational nature and contain signage bringing special features to the attention of visitors.

At the northern edge of Pálava, the Nové Mlýny Reservoirs offer great opportunities for a variety of water sports.

As the land in Pálava is divided between nature preserves and prime wine growing areas, a number of the trails in the region are set up with the wine lover in mind. Several of the walking and cycling trails are designed to easily guide the visitor from one local wine cellar to another to sample the wares on offer at each.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The remarkable sgraffito facade of the Knights’ house on the main square.

Mikulov is relatively easy to get to from Brno and other points in the vicinity. As it has both a train station and bus stops, it can be accessed without a car.

Owing to the popularity of its annual wine festival, it’s location in Pálava and proximity to the adjacent Lednice-Valtice area, Mikulov is well prepared for visitors with a respectable selection of accomodation options to cater to a variety of tastes. It should be noted that if you wish to attend the wine festival and have accomodation directly within Mikulov, you should arrange your accomodation well in advance of the event.

The town has a good sized tourist information office located on the main square that has a wealth of brochures and maps for self guided tours around the town as well as into the Pálava Hills beyond.

The following link will take you to the tourism section of the Mikulov city website:
http://www.mikulov.cz/tourism/introduction-of-the-town/

Thes two links will take you to pages with information and maps connected to the Pálava region:
http://palava.ochranaprirody.cz/en/
https://www.czech-mountains.eu/moravia/guide-palava-hills.html

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Bučovice Chateau – Strictly Renaissance

One Thing and One Thing Only 

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The main facade of Bučovice Chateau

Less than an hour by train east of Brno you will find the small town of Bučovice and its Renaissance style chateau.

While the chateau is neither the largest nor grandest of old Czech noble homes, it does come with the distinction of being one of a small minority of Renaissance chateaus in the Czech lands that were not converted from older structures. Bučovice is a true Renaissance structure from the ground up and has never been anything other than that through the length and bredth of its history.

Externally, Bučovice is a four winged building built in the palazzo in fortezza (fortified palace) style which was very popular in Italian Renaissance chateaus through the 16th and 17 centuries. The chateau features a three storied arcaded courtyard as well as a garden.

Internally, the chateau rooms that are available for visiting are notable for their ornately decorated and themed ceilings.

Boskovice to Liechtenstein 

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The Mannerist style fountain in the courtyard

Commissioned by Jan Šembera (1543-1597) of the Moravian noble house, Boskovice,  the chateau was built between 1575 and 1585.

One of the most powerful Moravian nobles of his day, Šembera was able to hire some very high profile Italian architects and tradesmen to carry out the construction and equally esteemed artists and craftsmen to tend to the interior decoration.

While Šembera was very rich and powerful, he was also the last male member of the Boskovice line when he died in 1597. Through marriage to Šembera’s daughters, Anna and Kateřina, many Boskovice holdings changed hands to the noble Liechtenstein family of Austria.

The chateau at Bučovice became property of Maximillian of Liechtenstein (1578-1643) when he married Kateřina in 1597. During his time as chateau owner, Maximillian commissioned the Mannerist style fountain in the chateau’s courtyard. The fountain was built between 1635 and 1637.

1681 marked a significant change for the chateau when it ceased to be used as a family residence and was repurposed for regional administration and then as the central accounting office for the Liechtenstein family in 1720.

Owing to such changes in the building’s reason for being, very little work was carried out after 1681 to change the Renaissance face it has kept to the present.

Since 1945, when all holdings of Germanic noble families in the Czech lands were siezed by the state, Bučovice chateau has been under state care.

Rabbits on the Ceiling 

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The ceiling of the Hare Room

As mentioned earlier in this article, the interiors of the chateau are known for the themed and decorated ceilings in several of the representative rooms.

On a visit, one can see the “Hare Room” with themes of a world run by rabbits painted across the ceiling.

“Bird Hall”, as the name suggests, features a wide variety of exotic birds overhead.

The art in “Venus Hall” is dedicated to ancient mythology while the extensively stuccoed “Emperor’s Room” is themed on ancient Rome.

The is also the “Hall of the Senses” which contains paintings personifying the five senses.

Other rooms featured in a tour of the chateau include the entry hall, library, dining room, kitchen, chapel and armory.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The dining room

Bučovice is quite easy to reach by rail from Brno in just under an hour as there is a line from Brno that includes a stop at the town. The chateau is a short walk from the town train station.

The chateau is open for tours between April and October with variable hours depending on the time of year. Non-flash photography is permitted during tours.

There is a small café on the chateau premises to refresh yourself after a tour.

Aside of tours, some rooms in the chateau are available for rental for weddings or other special occasions.

The following websites will give you further information on visiting hours of the chateau and what’s on view there:

https://www.zamek-bucovice.cz/en

http://www.bucovice-zamek.cz/

A Story Worth Telling

This is just a short post to bring your attention to a news article that recently appeared in the English language section of the Radio Prague news website.

The article contains an interview with Tom Doležal, the founder of the Free Czechoslovak Air Force website and expert on matters of Czech and Slovak participation in the Royal Air Force during WWII.

In the interview, Mr. Doležal recounts how his father and a number of other former Czechoslovak RAF pilots carried out the world’s first triple hijacking in order to defect from post 1948 Communist Czechoslovakia.

The Communist government was very fearful of the former RAF men, as they had been exposed to western influences, and went to great lengths to marginalize them from society and erase them from the history books:

http://radio.cz/en/section/one-on-one/my-father-the-raf-hero-who-defected-from-czechoslovakia-in-a-daring-triple-hijack

If you want to know more about activities of Czechs and Slovaks in the RAF in the Second World War, I can’t recommend the Free Czechoslovak Ar Force website enough for the wealth of information it provides on the subject:

https://fcafa.com/

Book Review: “Today We Die a Little”

A Good Read About a Great Runner

As Czech athletes go, Emil Zátopek (1922-2000), is certainly among the most legendary. Using what were some very revolutionary training methods for the day, he dominated distance running events from the late 1940s to the early 1950s and became a household name at home and abroad for many more years beyond his competitive ones.

Between the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Olympics in Helsiniki, Zátopek collected a total of four gold medals and one silver. His record as being the only athlete to win gold in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre races as well as the marathon in a single Olympics, which he set in Helsinki, still stands today.

Aside of his gold and silver Olympic medals, he was also awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship.

Outside of his Olympic achievments, He won three gold and one bronze medal between the 1950 and 1954 European Athletics Championships which were held in Brussels, Belgium and Bern, Switzerland respectively.

Despite is accomplishments and accolades, life after sporting glory was not clear sailing for Emil and his wife, Dana.

Emil was very much in demand to make appearances at international athletics events throught the 1950s and 1960s. The Communist government of the former Czechoslovakia exptected that he would put forth a good face for the regime through such appearances; as Emil was also an army officer, there was a level of obligation impressed upon him to make such impressions.

Through his consistently friendly and smiling demeanour, Emil was seen as a good vehicle for the nation’s government to push forth their image of “Communism with a human face” to the rest of the world with.

However, Emil became very vocal against the government in the period leading up to the 1968 Prague Spring protests. He became very popular with the public as a famous voice to follow against the system.

Emil’s role as a rallying point was short lived and the public lost much faith in him as he seemed to do a quick about face in his views. No doubt his quick change of stance came from threats brought against him by both the government and the Czechoslovak secret police, the StB.

His apparent change of heart tarnished his public image for a long time. He was relieved of his army post and spent some time in meanial labour work as punishment for speaking out against the Communist government. For a period of his life, he was swept under the carpet and forgotten at home. However, people still spoke highly of him abroad.

With the fall of Socialism in 1989, Emil was “rehabilitated” by then president, Václav Havel, and some of the old tarnish that had plague Emil’s name at home through the 1970s and 1980s came off before his death in 2000.

Getting Into the Book

“Today We Die a Little” was written by British journalist and running enthusiast, Richard Askwith, and published in 2016. The book takes the reader through the whole of Emil’s life and gives a very thorough picture of not only the various stages of the man’s life, but also much about his charismatic personality and easy going demeanour.

The early part of the book focuses on Emil’s early life and Olympic glory. It feels a bit repetative in tone, but it works well to bring across the relentlessness of the training regime that Emil forced upon himself and his refusal to take excuses from himself in the pusuit of bettering his performance. Running trully was everything to him in that time period.

This section also shows the reader the very high value that Emil placed on sportsmanship and friendship. His easy going and friendly personality along with his willingness to encourage his competitors won him many life long friends and admirers in international circles.

Though he retired from competition in 1957, his sense of sportsmanship continued. He is quite famous for his act of gifting one of the gold medals he won in Helsinki in 1952 to Australian distance runner, Ron Clarke, in 1966. Clarke was in Prague for a race and was a guest of the Zátopeks. Despite his own hard training and dedication, a gold medal eluded Clarke in the 10,000 metre race at the 1964 games in Tokyo. Upon leaving Prague, Emil presented him with his own 10,000 metre gold medal from Helsinki and wrote “Because you deserve it” on the inside of the box that contained it.

The second part of the book follows the Zatopeks through the 60s, 70s and 80s. This period was marked a turn in the fortunes of the couple at home in both the eyes of the state and public.

Emil tended to speak his mind rather more than was safe given his position as a celebrity and as a member of the army. While the state and StB were able to scare Emil into keeping his tongue in check and getting him to seemingly switch sides to their favour and lose face in the public eye, it really was a case of him simply going through the motions. He was still quite against the Communist system and this came out when he was drunk. After being seen drunk and singing anti Communist songs, Emil was stripped of his army position and sentenced to hard labour in a remote part of the country.

This was a low point in Emil’s life as he was out of favour with the public and it was relatively easy for the state to sweep him under the carpet at home.

However, the state had to be a good deal more careful with Emil due to his still high status at the international level. With people from outside the country requesting his presence at athletic events and asking of his well being, the state could not overtly abuse him as they might other disidents and had to relent to allowing him to make appearances outside the country so he could be seen to be well.

Despite many attempts by foreign journalists to engage Emil in conversations about politics in such situations, he thoroughly avoided the subject.

The book finishes with Emil’s reputation and national interest in him being restored in the post Communist Czechoslovakia and Czech Republic.

An Author’s Accomplishment

Though I am not a big reader of biographies, I very much enjoyed this book and the well rounded picture it gives of Emil Zátopek.

Mr. Askwith has described this book as his most abitious to date and the extensive reference section at the back of the book bears out his dedication to making sure he had his facts right. Through extensive exploration of historical archives, personal diaries and interviews with Dana and other people who knew Emil best, the author has given us a tremendous portrait of his hero that is down to earth and largely without hyperbole which must have been tempting to include while compiling such a story.

Ultimately, Mr. Askwith has painted for us a picture of Emil Zátopek which shows the reader a gregarious and generous man who placed sportsmanship and friendship most highly among his personal values.

We also are shown a man of strong physical and psychological fortitude who pushed himself for self improvement off the race track as well as on it. Emil was a self taught polyglot who taught himself six languages through the course of his life.

This book is a very satisfying read even if biographies are not to your interests and I thank Mr. Askwith for going to the work of giving us this book.

These links will take you to more information about the book and author at the publisher’s and author’s websites respectively.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1109422/today-we-die-a-little/

Today We Die A Little: Emil Zátopek, Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero (2016)