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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Church of St. Barbara – Gothic Grandeur

The Cathedral that Isn’t 

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The front facade of St. Barbara’s church in Kutná Hora.

Five centuries in the making, the late Gothic style Church of St. Barbara is the de facto trade mark and centrepiece of the Central Bohemian city of Kutná Hora.

The structure’s distinctive three spired tented roofline is used in stylized form on many of the city’s plentiful souvenir items. Inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites with the rest of the city’s preserved centre in 1995, St. Barbara’s is the country’s second most visited church.

Started in 1388 and not fully completed until the early 20th century, St. Barbara’s stands as testament to the city’s former wealth in silver and the grand and lofty visions the local burghers had for the city during its heyday and status as a royal city.

The burghers of Kutná Hora commissioned the church to be built in cathedral style in the hopes of having a diocese established in the city to compete with those of nearby Sedlec and Prague.

Ultimately, the city’s silver mines were exhausted before the church could be completed and the much desired diocese was never established. As a result, despite its grand facades, St. Barabara’s has only ever been a church.

In spite of much contemporary toursit information referring to the structure as a cathedral, it most certainly is not one.

Built on Grand Visions 

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The church from the side, showing the distinctive roofline.

The silver heyday of Kutná Hora lasted from the 13th to the end of the 16th century.

The city’s mines were rich with the metal and Kutná Hora was given the status of a royal city and made the seat of the royal mint of the Bohemian lands. Such things put the city in status of importance after only Prague itself.

Through the silver, the city attracted a strong upper class with great ideas for the city’s future and the money to make many of their visions for it into reality. Their visions included a bishopric and cathedral of their own.

The first architect responsible for the church was Jan Parléř (1359-1406). A member of the famous Parléř family of architects, Jan was the son of Petr Parléř (1330-1399) who had been responsible for St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge in Prague.

Using nearby quarried sandstone, work on the church carried on until it was interupted by the Hussite Wars that raged through the early to mid 1400s.

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The curch interior seen from the second level.

Work resumed on the structure in the late 1400s and continued to the late 1500s when the city’s silver mines had been depleted.

The distinctive roof was put on the church and it has stood, at only half its intended size, to the present.

Shortly after the second period of construction was concluded, the church saw a number of renovations under the watch of the Jesuit order that brought Baroque styling to it.

The final stages of construction, carried out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the restoration of much of the church’s original Gothic look.

While the church did not achieve the grand status of a cathedral, it most certainly has achieved a level of greatness through its inclusion on the UNESCO list. A placement it earned through its authenticity, tangible connection to the city’s history and it’s influence on the architecture of subsequent structures around Europe.

The Right Saint for the Job 

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Sculpture of a silver miner.

Owing to the very risky nature of their work, miners have always been an understandably very religious group of people.

In light of this fact, consecrating this church to St. Barbara could be seen as a very obvious choice. Barbara is the patron saint of miners and anyone who works around explosives and thus faces the risk of a very sudden and violent death on a regular basis.

Historically, it was typical to install a small shrine to the saint at the entry or junctions of mineshafts and near military gunpowder storage facilities.

Many organisations, both civilian and military, continue to honour St. Barbara to the present. December 4 is the traditional day of the saint.

When depicted in art, St. Barbara is typically recognised by her attribute of a tower with three windows. Other attributes associated with her are a chalice, palm leaf and lightning.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The church’s vault.

Being highly visible and on Kutná Hora’s main tourist route, St. Barbara’s is not at all difficult to find or visit when in the city.

While it is open daily, it should be kept in mind that it is still a functioning church and that respect should be exercised by visitors towards those worshipping there.

Regular services are held there on Sundays.

The following links will give you further information on the church from historical and tourism aspects:
http://www.kutna-hora.net/en/barbara.php/
http://destinace.kutnahora.cz/d/cathedral-of-st-barbara

This link will take you to a page outlining the most current opening hours, entry fees and rules for visiting the church:
http://www.khfarnost.cz/wordpress/?page_id=417

This is a link to the UNESCO page about Kutná Hora and includes details about the church:
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/732

Litomyšl – The Renaissance Remains

A Pocketful of Culture 

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Litomyšl’s main attraction: the stunning UNESCO listed Renaissance chateau.

Tucked into the far reaches of Eastern Bohemia, in the Bohemia-Moravia borderlands, is the historic city of Litomyšl.

Owing to the fact that it is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the birthplace of famed composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), Litomyšl is one of the country’s better known tourist destinations and many visitors have read about it before they arrive in the country.

Officially gaining status as a city in the 13th century, Litomyšl has its origins in 11th and 12th century settlement in the area. In its history, the city has served as the seat of nobility and bishops as well as an important centre of education and culture.

Because of Litomyšl’s importance as a centre of education through the 19th century, many notable names in the Czech arts and culture scene were attracted to living there during that period. The influence of many of those people can still be seen and felt in the city today.

The modern city is very aware and in touch with its past and uses it to good advantage in guiding the tourist.

At that, let’s spend some time in Litomyšl:

Show Yourself Around 

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Smetana Square, one of the largest public squares in the country.

Perhaps befitting a place with education and enlightenment playing a major role in its history, Litomyšl invites and encourages visitors to show themselves around and learn about the city via a well prepared self-guided tour map available in city tourism offices or online at the city website. The map covers almost 20 points of interest in the very walkable centre of the city.

The recommended start and finish point for the self-guided tour is the 500 metre long Smetana Square. One of the largest public squares in the Czech lands, it is lined with arcaded facades in Baroque, Classicist and Renaissance styles. Also on the square is the Gothic styled town hall tower.

Leaving the square from the north end will take you past the statue of Bedřich Smetana and put you in the vicinity of the Neo-Renaissance style Smetana Hall and the Pedagogical High School with its sgraffito decorated exteriors.

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Front of the Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross.

Further along the route, you will find a monument to writer and educator Alois Jirásek (1851-1930). Jirásek spent several years in Litomyšl as a high school history teacher and is considered to be one of the most important Czech authors of his time.

In the same area, you will find the Baroque style Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross. This church belonged to the Piarist order who were invited to Litomyšl in 1640. Dedicated to education, the Piarists played a major role in the city’s reputation as a learning centre for centuries. The order left the city in 1948, leaving the church behind.

It is worth travelling up the towers of the church as a great view of the chateau can be enjoyed from the balcony between the towers.

Between the Piarist church and the city’s other major holy building, the Presbytery Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross, you’ll find the monastery gardens. For many years after the Piarists left, this area was left untended and blocked off to the public. In the late 1990s, work took place to restore and refresh the gardens to the beautiful and relaxing park that it is today bracketed by the two churches.

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Monastery gardens with the Piarist church in the background.

Contained in the park is a fountain that features a group of statues by contemporary Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek (1926-2017).

Leaving the park will take you past the Gothic style Presbytery Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross. This church originally belonged to the Augustinian order which had a monastery in the city from 1356 to 1428.

From the Augustinian church, you can go in two directions:

A short walk east of the church will take you to the Portmoneum, a museum dedicated to Josef Váchal (1884-1969). Váchal was a writer, illustrator and printmaker who was a unique character with a rather enigmatic art style. Admittedly, his own connection to Litomyšl is somewhat tenuous as he was there relatively briefly at the invitation of a local art collector and fan of his work, Josef Portman. Portman contracted Váchal to paint two rooms in his house, the resulting work was a sweepingly complex collection of imagery that is very difficult to interpret.

The art in Portmoneum certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea and it is a lot to absorb at once. However, if your tastes include Avant-garde, you may want to pay it a visit.

If you follow the street directly outside the church entrance, you will find the oldest church in the city as well as Váchal street.

Váchal street is a short lane leading back to Smetana Square. It is notable for the arches over it and the walls of the buildings on either side of it covered in sgrafitto images from one of Váchal’s books.

Renaissance Resplendent 

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The impossing and spectacular chateau.

Near the Piarist church, you will find the star attraction of Litomyšl: the Renaissance style UNESCO listed chateau.

The chateau was commissioned by the powerful Pernštejn family and built between the 1560s and 1580s. When finished, it was a rare example of an Italian Renaissance arcaded palace outside of Italy.

In 1649, the chateau and city came into possession of the Trautmannsdorf family and shifted to the Valdštejn-Vartenberk family in 1758. Under Valdštejn-Vartenberk ownership, the chateau underwent extensive alterations that added a number of Baroque features to the structure.

It was during the Valdštejn-Vartenberk ownership period that Bedřich Smetana, son of the chateau brewery’s brewmaster, was born in 1824. It is possible to visit the apartment where the composer was born when you visit the chateau.

The chateau and city would switch hands again in 1855 to the German noble house of Thurn und Taxis. This house would be the last noble owner of the chateau. They held it until the end of the Second World War when all Germanic families were expelled from the Czech lands and their properties seized by the state.

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Looking into the chateau’s arcaded courtyard structures.

The chateau has remained under state ownership since the end of World War II and it was declared a national cultural monument in 1962.

In the 1970s restoration work on the chateau’s extensively sgraffito covered exterior began with the work being overseen by Olbram Zoubek.

In 1999, the chateau and its grounds were inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The chateau is considered a textbook example of an Italian Renaissance style arcaded castle unique in both the level of preservation and its location outside of Italy.

Honouring the Past 

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The statue of Bedřich Smetana on the square that bears his name.

As mentioned earlier in the article, Litomyšl is a city very much aware and in touch with its past.

Since 1946, the city has hosted an annual classical music and opera festival called “Smetana’s Litomyšl”. It is one of the oldest and biggest music festivals of its sort in the country.

There is also a youth version of the music festival that has been held annually since the early 1970s.

Another historical resident of the city has been commemorated through having a festival bear their name. Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová (1785-1845), wrote what was for many years the only cookbook available in the Czech language. Entitled “A Household Cookery Book or A Treatise on Meat and Fasting Dishes for Bohemian and Moravian Lasses”, the book was first published in 1826 and was a bestseller through much of the 19th century. The book has been republished countless times and modern printings of it can still be found regularly in Czech bookshops.

The city’s annual gastronomy festival, held since 2012, is named after Rettigová.

Paying a visit and Learning More 

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The sgraffito walls of  Váchal street.

Outside of the centre, Litomyšl is a quite normal town with no touristy feeling. as such, it can be done as a day trip from several other places. However, it is not the most direct of places to access if you are travelling by bus or rail.

If you are travelling by train, it’s best to plan Česká Třebová as your end stop and take a bus from there to Litomyšl as there is regular bus service between the two cities. The bus platforms in Česká Třebová are directly outside the train station entrance.

If you want to learn more about the city, it’s attractions and calendar of events; this is a good link to start with:
https://www.litomysl.cz/?lang=en

The tourist portal for East Bohemia also has some good information:
https://www.east-bohemia.info/litomysl/