Velehrad – Saints, Slavs and Fish

The Heart of Great Moravia 

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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 

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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 

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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 dedication 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 

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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

http://www.velehradinfo.cz/en/

https://www.archeoskanzen.cz/

http://www.zivavodamodra.cz/

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Plasy Monastery – Worship on Water

Baroque Pearl of Bohemia 

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Looking across the convent courtyard.

Plasy is a small town in West Bohemia that sits roughly in the centre of a triangle formed by the cities of Karlovy Vary, Plzeň and Prague.

The centrepiece of the town is the expansive former Cistercian monastery that sits near the Střela river that runs through the town. This monastery is considered to be one of the best preserved Baroque style structures in the Bohemian regions.

While the current look and layout of the monastery  dates largely to the 18th century, the monastery at Plasy was originally established in 1144.  Misfortune befell the monastery and Plasy during the Hussite Wars when the monastery was burned to the ground in 1421.

The monastery and surrounding community didn’t really begin to recover until after the end of the Thirty Years’ War. A constant program of rebuilding and expansion began in 1661 and lasted until the monastery’s abolition in 1785.

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Monastery clock tower.

The former monastery was taken into private hands in 1826 when Austrian Empire Chancellor Klement Václav Lothar Metternich purchased it in order to expand his existing land holdings in the region. Under Metternich’s ownership, the monsatery’s prelature building was converted to a chateau for he and his family to live when they were there.

Several of the other former monastery buildings were also repurposed and converted during Metternich’s tenure there. This period of the monastery’s history ended in 1945, when it was seized and taken under state control.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the buildings were further altered and repurposed. Work on restoration of the monstery would not begin until the 1970s.

In 1995, the monastery was declared a National Cultural Monument.

Today, the monastery is still very much a work in progress as far as restoration is concerned. However, much has been accomplished and some buildings in the structure are open to the public for tours.

An Unconventional Convent 

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Looking down a convent corridor.

Of the eight buildings that comprise the monastery site, the convent is really the heart of the place and the subject of the main tour when you visit.

The convent was constructed between 1711 and 1740, many prominent Czech artists and craftsmen of the day were contracted to create the convent’s structure and decorations.

Notable among the people involved with bringing the convent into reality was Jan Blažej Santini Aichel (1677-1723). A Czech architect of Italian ancestry, he holds a special place in the nation’s architectural history for his flexibility and inventiveness within the Baroque Gothic style. A number of his works went against ideas of the time, yet still retained key hallmarks of the style.

The first problem Santini had to overcome when designing the convent was how to support the massive structure’s weight on the marshy soil of the Střela river’s floodplain. His solution was to give the building a deep foundation on a system of wood pilings.

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One of the water testing pools visible on the tour.

Approximately 5,100 oak pilings were driven into the soil and topped with an oak beam grate. To this day, the weight of the convent is supported on that system. While the pilings and grate are kept completely submerged and can’t be seen, there are two water testing pools in the convent that you can see on the tour. Water quality is tested a number of times per day at these pools.

Sanitin Aichel also created a series of underground canals and a water pressure system to ensure that the wood foundation would stay completely submerged to protect it from rotting. The same system also provided some protection to the monastery from flooding.

Santini Aichel also contributed a complex series of self supporting staircases and an intricate spiral staircase to the convent’s structure.

Santini Aichel died before the convent was completed and his work was seen to completion by Kilián Ignác Dientzenhoffer (1689-1751), who spent some time studying under Santini Aichel, in 1740.

Paintings and Plasy Powder 

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Fresco of Saint Bernard in the chapel that bears his name.

Beyond the architectural qualities of the convent, the more artistic and academic aspects are also well covered on the tour.

The convent contains a number of fresco paintings on the ceilings of the corridors and in two chapels. a number of notable local painters of the day were contracted to do these frescoes. Among these painters were Petr Brandl (1668-1735) and Jakub Antonín Pink (1690-1748).

Also in the convent, you’ll find the winter refectory, former monastery library and study hall as well as the large Capitular Hall. The Capitular Hall was where new monks were accepted into the monastery and where new abbots were elected.

In its day, the monastery at Plasy was well regarded for the quality of medical care it provided, the monastery pharmacy was particularly well reputed and produced a stomach medicine that became much sought after for its effectiveness. Known as “Plasy Powder”, the monastery kept its recipe a tightly guarded secret. As popular and lucrative as their invention was, it was certainly within the monks’ interest to protect it.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The monastery pharmacy.

As mentioned earlier, the convent is the main tour at the monastery. As with most historic sights in the country, the bulk of tours are in the Czech language though it is possible to obtain texts in other languages to help non-Czech speakers follow along. Tours in English or German can be arranged as well. The convent tour lasts around an hour.

It is also possible to tour the clock tower building though tour options for it are a bit more limited.

The monastery is not difficult to access by road or rail from Plzeň. As the Plasy townsite is also on a number of of local cycling and walking trails, it can be accessed by those means as well.

If you choose to visit the monastery during summer high season, you may want to pack snacks with you or eat before you embark on your trip. We arrived in Plasy around the noon hour and somewhat hungry to find that there are only two restaurants near the monastery and they were very popular and busy at lunch time. We had to wait a bit for seats to become available.

This link will take you to the monastery website where you can find more specific information about how to get there and tours available:
https://www.klaster-plasy.eu/en

This website about Jan Blažej Santini Aichel will tell you more about his contribution to the monastery and other buildings abound the country he was involved in the design of:
http://www.santini.cz/en/plasy