Vranovsko – A Southern Sanctuary

Idylic, but Not Idle 

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Looking across part of the expansive Vranov reservoir, one of the main attraction in the region.

Vranovsko is a microregion of South Moravia that sits on the border with with Austria and is part of the larger Znojemsko administrative district.

Nature and outdoor activities are the main draws to the Vranov region, though the area also boasts a number of historical sites that are well worth visiting.

We recently spent a long weekend in the area, while it certainly wasn’t enough to see the whole region, it was enough that I can give you a small taste of what’s there and what’s possible to see and do with two or three days there.

At that, let’s see a bit of Vranovsko:

Day 1 – Vranov nad Dyjí

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Vranov’s imposing and spectacular chateau sits on the rocks above the town site.

We took our accomodation for the weekend in Vranov nad Dyjí, the town from which the microregion takes its name.

The town sits on the Dyje river, known as the Thaya river in Austria, and is about three kilometres from the Austrian border. The town site is located inside the borders of Podyjí National Park, a transboundary park which connects to Austria’s Thayatal National Park.

On first impressions, Vranov might come across as a bit sleepy. However, it makes for a good base to visit the region, has accomodation and restarant options, a good tourist information office and attractions of its own to offer.

If you don’t have a car, Vranov can be reached by bus from points around. We reached it by a combination of a bus from Brno to Znojmo and another bus from Znojmo to the town.

Vranov’s primary tourist draws are its spectacular Baroque chateau that looks down upon the town site from the rocks above and the extensive Vranov reservoir area.

After we checked into our hotel, we walked to the chateau via a trail through a nature park. It was a lovely area to walk through, but with a significant incline to the trail. It definitely is not for anyone with mobility issues or who isn’t of a reasonable level of physical fitness; if you fall into one of those categories, you’ll want to ask at tourist information about alternate methods to reach the chateau.

As with all wooded areas of the Czech Republic, a good insect repellent specified against ticks should be going with you if you go there.

Day 2 – Znojmo 

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The two main landmorks of Znojmo, the town hall tower (left) and the St. Nicholas church.

On our second day, we took a day trip to Znojmo, a popular tourist city with important ties to both the historic and contemporary faces of the country.

From a historical point of view, Znojmo maintains a good degree of medieval  architecture including a castle complex that dates to the 11th century. You can also tour the city’s network of underground tunnels that date to the 14th and 15th centuries.

Other important historical sites in the town include the St. Nicholas church which dates to the 1340s and the town hall tower which dates to the 1440s.

In the Contemporary sense, Znojmo and the administrative region it’s the heart of make up the western edge of the South Moravian wine growing regions. As such, a good glass of local wine is never far away when you visit here.

Day 3 – Vranov Reservoir and Bítov Castle 

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Watersport opportunities abound at the Vranov reservoir.

On our third and final day in the region, we paid a visit to the scenic and extensive Vranov reservoir. Nicknamed by some as the “Adriatic of Moravia”, the reservoir is large enough to feel like an inland sea.

The reservoir is noted for the warmth and cleanliness of its water and is very popular for a wide variety of watersports, hiking and cycling trails around it and as a venue for special events of many sorts.

A system of transport boats operates to take visitors around the reservoir for both sightseeing and to visit castles, such as Bítov and Cornštejn, which overlook it.

There is a very friendly atmosphere to the reservoir. Many people keep weekend cabins there and there was no shortage of people waving and shouting greetings from the shore as our boat went past.

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Looking up at Bítov castle from the transport boat.

After an hour long and very enjoyable boat ride, we arrived at our destination – Bítov castle.

Dating to the 11th century, Bítov is one of the oldest and largest of Moravian castles. It’s been remodelled by various owners through its history and its current look was established in the 19th century.

There’s quite a bit to see at this castle, so you could certainly make a day trip of it. Four different tours of the interiors are on offer.

If you have mobility issues of any sort or are not of reasonably good physical fitness, you should certainly not try to access Bítov via the reservoir boats. The trail leading to the castle from the boat dock is steep and uneven.

Visiting and Learning More

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Passing the ruins of Cornštejn castle.

As I stated at the beginning, this blog entry was simply to give you a small taste of what one can do with a few days in the region.

Vranovsko offers much more than what I’ve covered here.

If you have a week or more and like nature, castles and wine; you may want to try out this particular nook of the Czech lands.

This link will take you to the official Vranovsko tourism website so you can see all of what’s on offer and plan your own visit there:

http://www.navstivtevranovsko.cz/en/

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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

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/