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Brno is the second city of the Czech Republic, and the capitol of the ancient state of Moravia (the modern-day Czech Republic is basically made up of the states of Bohemia and Moravia). The city's written history dates back to the11th century, but there has been a settlement on this time for considerably longer than that. In the 19th century rapid industrial growth, especially in the textile industry, lead to Brno being known as "the Manchester of Austria". Seeing as though I'm from the Manchester of Manchester I thought I'd better have a look at the place.
Today Brno remains an industrial city with a sprawl of ugly suburbs made of factories and high-rise housing. However, at the centre of everything the historic old town, made up of a combination of baroque churches and palaces, and art nouveau apartments, has survived more or less intact, and this is where we spent most of our time.
Brno is a history of science (Gregor Mendel developed his theory of genetics here) and culture (the composer Leos Janacek spent most of his working life in the city). We found plenty to see and do, and it remains considerably cheaper and less hectic than Prague. Give it a try!
Brno has its own tiny airport. As well as a handful of charter flights a week to the Med., there's also a daily service between Brno and London Stansted on RyanAir, which started running in March 2005. The flight from Stansted took us about 1 hour 40 minutes, on the way back it was just over 2 hours thanks to air traffic in London. The usual RyanAir provisos apply; there are no allocated seats, although RyanAir do now allow those who check in earliest to board and nab the best seats first (we made the most of our weight advantage and grabbed exit seats on the way out); no complimentary food and drink on board (although the bar isn't that expensive; I thought that £3.75 for one of those mini bottles of wine was decent enough value to have 2); don't expect the airline to put you up in a hotel if the flight is delayed (although RyanAir has an excellent punctuality record - both our flights arrived ahead of schedule). Anyway you can't really argue with RyanAir's prices; we booked a few months advance and including taxes and a credit card charge our return tickets set us back all of £36, an unbelievable bargain (to put it into context, our coach tickets from Heathrow to Stansted cost £26). Even up until a couple of weeks before we left we could still have got a return for less than £50, but the further in advance you book the cheaper it is.
On arrival if you're one of the last to leave the plane (it's a bit of a stroll to the airport building) you might have to wait for 10 or 15 minutes to get through Immigration as there are only a couple of Immigration kiosks. You won't have to wait long for your baggage though. When leaving the airport there's not really that much to do. Before you check-in there's s small snack bar, and a series of photos detailing the history of the airport, with some pictures of Czech pilots who flew for the RAF in World War 2. It didn't take us long to check-in and get through security. After check-in there's another snack-bar and a couple of very limited duty free kiosks (not bad if you want to buy Starobrno beer or memorabilia though). The departure lounge is nice and bright, with plenty of comfy seats. Definitely in its favour the airport is impeccably clean (with plenty of toilets for those who are flying after a heavy night). I really can't imagine it handling more than one flight at a time though.
As a legacy of the Hapsburg Empire, and its industrial importance, Brno is a major rail junction and so has very good rail links. Brno is on one of Europe's major rail routes which runs from Berlin to Budapest (also stopping in Bratislava and Prague, among other places). There are several trains a day to both Prague (which take just over 3 hours) and Bratislava (about 1 hour 40 minutes away). Brno is also on the Prague to Vienna line (it's less than 2 hours to Vienna, which is probably Europe's main rail interchange, from where you can get trains to just about anywhere in Europe and even Asia). Other direct trains run to and from Bucharest (via Budapest), Hamburg (via Prague and Berlin), Dresden and Kosice (Slovakia).
Destinations within the Czech Republic include Breclav (on the Austrian border), Ceska Trebova (for connections to Poland and Russia), Jilhava, Ceske Budejovice (home of real Budweiser!), Plzen (home of Pilsner!), Ostrava, and Olomouc.
This is a great site for planning train journeys (either international or domestic) in the Czech Republic; according to this you can get by train from London to Brno (via Brussels and Berlin) in less than 21 hours.
If you don't fancy the train, how about the coach? As with the trains there are good links to Prague (4 hours or so, less for an "express") and Bratislava (just under 3 hours). To get to Vienna you're best taking a coach to Bratislava and changing there, although there are a few direct services.
International coach services to and from Brno include Kosice, Belgrade (10 hours away), Sofia (over 20 hours distant!) Plovdiv (Bulgaria), Naples (around 21 hours away, stopping off in Venice, Bologna, Florence, and Rome, en route), Kiev (25 hours of arse-numbing joy distant), Rotterdam (via Arnhem, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and the Hague), Thessaloniki, Livorno (Italy, stopping off in Genoa and Pisa), Geneva (via Prague, Strasbourg, and Berne), Paris (17 hours), Tallinn (an insane 29 hours away, stopping in Vilnius and Kaunas), Hamburg (via Berlin, Hanover, and Bremen), Cologne (via Frankfurt and Bonn), Karlsruhe (via Munich and Stuttgart).
The coach from London to Brno (via Calais, Aachen, and Prague) takes a mere 24 hours. I think I'll stick to RyanAir.
You can check Czech (sorry!) coach services here.
Brno sprawls out for quite some distance, but with the exception of the airport and some of the city's modernist architecture, just about everything of interest to the tourist is in or near the compact OldTown, which is at the heart of Brno.
The Old Town is roughly oval in shape, and extends 1 k.m.north to south and just over half that from east to west; it is bounded on the north and east by Koliste, and to the south and west by Husova, busy roads which follow the lines of the old city walls. The Spilberk Hill is along the western edge of the old town, Petrov Hill, on which the cathedral sits, is tucked away in its south-west corner. At the centre of the Old Town is namesti Svobody (Freedom Square). The busiest and main commercial street of the Old Town is Masarykova, which runs south east from namesti Svobody to the railway station.
With the exception of a few roads the Old Town is entirely pedestrianised, so the only way to see it is on foot. Luckily (especially after you've had a few) most of the streets in the city centre are in pretty good condition. It's pretty much impossible to get lost in the Old Town too, as no matter which direction you walk in after a few minutes you'll either reach the ring-road, Masarykova, or namesti Svobody. The street map in the Rough Guide is OK, but we picked a very good (free) map of the city centre from a leaflet stand at the airport.
The railway station (hlavni nadrazi), an ornate 19th century building that looks more like a theatre or museum, lies just to the south of the Old Town, on Nadranzi. The bus/coach station, a depresing toilet, is to the south of the railway station (through the pedestrian underpass, go past Tesco, and use the elevated walkway), although some coaches still use the old station, which is on Benesova, more or less opposite the Grand Hotel. If you're after a tram the main interchanges are opposite the railway station, and around the junction of Hsuova and Maresova on the north edge of the Old Town.
The airport (Brno Turany) is a few kilometres south east of the city centre. We got an amazing fly-over of the city centre when we were coming in to land and taking off. A 15 minute taxi ride to the city centre - there were plenty of taxis outside the terminal building, and we were the last out of the airport from our flight - cost us around 300 crowns. Alternatively you can take the number 76 bus, although there are only one or two buses an hour. This is the airport's website.
Brno has a cheap and widespread public transport system, based on trams, buses, and trolley-buses. If you're staying within walking-distance of the Old Town the chances are you won't need to use it. There seems to be a fairly complicated range of different tickets but if you click on this site and then on the little Union Jack on the right hand side of the page you'll get reasonably straightforward advice (in English) on how to buy tickets and use the public transport system. The same site also has timetables (in Czech).
If you want one there's no shortage of taxis in the city centre. We only used them to get too and from the airport (when we both in reasonably sober condition) so I can't really comment on their propensity or otherwise for ripping passengers off. Both the drivers we had seemed friendly enough, and the fare was around what we were expecting. If you're using a taxi the usual rules apply; it's probably best to get your hotel to call one for you; if you're hailing one in the street try to go for one with a prominent company logo; either agree the fare in advance or make sure that the meter is turned on; if you think you've been ripped off ask for a receipt and to see the driver's licence; if you've been driven past the same church 4 or 5 times you're being taken for a ride in more ways than one.
We stayed in the 4-star Best Western International, on Husova, which we booked through Octopus Travel. As you can see from the picture below it's an ugly 70s concrete block, a bit of an eye-sore.
Inside, however, it's a completely different story. The hotel has obviously been thoroughly renovated fairly recently, and is bright, pleasant and airy. Among its facilities are a gymn and sauna (needless to say we went nowhere near those!); a gift shop selling such essentials as postcards, stamps, newspapers, and bongo magazines; a highly rated (and rather expensive) restaurant, a beauty parlour (again, unvisited by us for obvious reasons), and a surprisingly pleasant bar complete with comfy chairs and, for some reason, a pond and fountain. Not surprisingly we ended up in the bar for a pint at some point everyday, and it's described in a little more detail further down. This is also where breakfast is served, but for a variety of excellent reasons we never actually managed to make it down in time (what do they expect if they only serve breakfast until 10am ?!?). Our room (a twin, with 2 single beds, with a suitably manly distance between them) was bright and clean, with modern furniture. Having a table and chairs was a welcome touch. The room had a safe, air conditioning (we just opened the window), a minibar, satellite TV, "hotel movie channels", (i.e. porn! you have to pay to watch it, but you do get a choice of porn in 4 languages, as if anyone watches porn for the language!), and a well-equipped bathroom (although we could definitely have lived without the German-style "shelf" toilet").
The staff were friendly and helpful, and most of them seemed to speak some English.
The main reason we picked the International was its location; it's on Husova so it's just on the edge of the old town, and it's immediately opposite the Spilberk castle. A five minute walk in either direction would take us either to the Spilberk hill, or the heart of the Old Town. The view from our room was pretty impressive too.
We paid £190 for 3 nights here. Given the hotel's location and facilities I'd say that this represented good value for money.
There are other city centre hotels in Brno; bth Octopus Travel and RyanAir Hotels have a reasonable selection, although for some reason HotelsCzech, the site I usually use to book hotels in the Czech Republic didn't have anything. Just remember that a lot of hotels in Brno are at the big exhibition site which is a few miles from the city centre.
OK, I'll admit it. We ate like pigs in Brno. We stuffed ourselves. We gorged. Any other euphemism you can think of we probably did that too. Brno's Old Town is packed full of restaurants and bars, and they're very reasonably priced; we mostly ate in up-market, tourist-oriented places and the most we spent on a meal was around £14 each, and that included 2 of the most expensive bottles of (Czech) wine on the menu, and an alcohol-inflated tip.
What you won't find is that much variety; most restaurants in the city centre serve Czech food, or variations on it. There are plenty of pizza and pasta places, we saw a couple of Chinese restaurants, but generally speaking "ethnic" restaurants are about as common as a back-packer's tip. Then again, what kind of idiot would go to Brno for the Thai restaurants? Still, if you like your meat you'll be as happy as a pig in shit, most restaurants serve as many different type of dead animal as you could possibly want, game seeming to be pretty widely available. Veggies should be able to cope; every restaurant we went in had a fish option or two, as well as dishes involving cheese or mushrooms. Every restaurant we tried had a menu translated (sometimes quite creatively!) into English, but as I said we were eating in top-of-the-range places.
If you're in search of fast food you'll find several branches of McDonalds in the city centre, and there are plenty of hotdog and burek (meat or cheese in greasy pastry) stalls dotted around, especially near the railway station.
The first place we tried was Restaurace Spalicek, which you'll find in the old looking green building on Zelny trh. Maybe this'll help.
We ended up in there on our first evening in Brno, after wandering around for a while to get our bearings we were suddenly overcome by an overwhelming hunger and thirst (happens to us quite a lot...) and this seemed as good a place as any to satisfy our lusts. It turned out to be a pretty good choice. They have an extensive menu, with the emphasis on game. I had the pheasant breasts in mushroom sauce which was excellent, moist and full of flavour, with fluffy dumplings to soak it all up. My simian companion opted for the roast goose breast which came with bacon dumplings and puréed spinach. The only problem was that the idiot hadn't read the menu; most restaurants in Eastern Europe will include an approximate weight of the dish on the menu, and had he read that he was about to be served with 800g of dead goose he might have had second thoughts. It was huge. Still, he had a go and managed to eat most of it. I had a sample too, and it was delicious. They served reasonably priced Starobrno beer at 30crowns (more on that later) and we had a couple of those. It helps wash down goose... The total cost of that little lot came to just over 600 crowns (around £15), great value for money.
Restaurant Cerny Medved ("Black Bear") is on Jakubske namesti, house in what used to be the "English Club". It's quite a classy place with comfy chairs and impeccable service, but they let us in too. The apeman had the roe deer with spuds and vegetables which he said was excellent. I had the stuffed steak, which comprised of a sirloin steak, stuffed with smoked ham and cheese and covered in breadcrumbs, with a side order of potato wedges. Sounds a bit of a mouthful and it was but absolutely delicious, definitely the best meal I had in Brno. I rounded that off with a pudding of fried apples in cinnamon which was lovely, sort of like apple strudel but without the pastry. We washed all that down with several beers (Starobrno, I think) a piece, and ended the meal on a sophisticated touch with a cognac a-piece (not quite so sophisticated when you threw it up in the street afterwards though, was it Dave?!?), before waddling out into the night several pounds heavier. And the total cost of such a gastronomic blow-out? Even including an over the top tip (the waitress was cute) we spent around £12 in there. An absolute bargain. All in all a great place, very highly recommended. They have their own website.
We found a similarly high standard at Restaurace Vianria Pod Radnicnim Kolem, at Mecova 5, close to the old town hall. It's a lovely place, down in one of those old brick cellars that I seem to be drawn to for some reason. The menu is extensive, although all the meals have been given whimsical names, based on episodes from Brno's history (luckily the menu also describes exactly what everything is). The sleepy chimp had the sirloin steak, which also came with egg, bacon, vegetables, and a side order of potato wedges. I had a pepper steak (man-sized, naturally) which also came with trimmings and potato wedges (or "American potatoes, as they're known; a bit snappier than "Freedom fries", I think). The steak was excellent, really tender and full of flavour. We both had big plates and they were both full, so perhaps ordering a side plate of vegetables was a tad unnecessary, but being the fat bastards we are we polished that off too. To swill all that down we decided to sample the vino; the restaurant has a decent range of Czech wines, and apparently they have wines you can drink straight from the barrel but we never got around to that. We started off with a bottle of the modry portugal, which was superb and then moved on to the andré which wasn't quite as good but still eminently quaffable. Throw in refined surroundings (they have live music on Thursdays and Fridays) and helpful, friendly service and the £15 or so we each spent in here represents real value for money. Another top place, well worth a visit. The restaurant also has its own website.
I doubt you could find a more tourist-friendly location for a restaurant in Brno than that of the Restaurant Club Ogilvy, which is actually inside the Spilberk fortress. We ended up in here because we started going round the Spilberk museum without realising first just how big it was and then about half way through decided that we were starving. We were a bit worried that give its location it could turn out to be a massively over-priced tourist trap serving crap but we could have been more wrong, the food was very good and surprisingly cheap. Having both had a fairly heavy night the night before we decided to play it safe and went for the comparative safety of chicken. I had mine grilled (in some kind of light sauce I couldn't place) the apeman had his fried (fried breast in breadcrumbs), both with slices of roast potato. Very good it was too, excellent service, and the Starobrno beer went down a treat. Another fine place! This is another place that has its own website.
We just sat down outside Pizzeria Arca di Adria (on namesti Svobody) for a few to beers and to admire the view. A couple of beers later we decided that we might as well stay for some food too. The monkey had some kind of pasta thing, which seemed very nice. I made the mistake of ordering a seafood pizza. OK, so ordering a seafood pizza in a land-locked country might not be the best idea ever. And ordering one when you've still got a dodgy stomach from the previous evening's bacchanalian excess makes it even more stupid. But I had visions of a pizza topped with plump prawns and mussels. There were a couple of rather shriveled mussels but I've no idea what most of the rest of the stuff was. The only other thing I was able to identify was an octopus; a whole, mini octopus, complete with tentacles and suckers, I swear the little bastard was winking at me. That put me right off, and I was only able to finish about a quarter of it (needless to say the octopus remained untouched), earning a disapproving look from the waitress, before returning to a liquid diet. It's a nice place for a beer though, and as I said the monkey's pasta was fine, so just be more sensible with what you order than me (maybe I should have gone for the apple and banana pizza) and you should be OK.
Right then, that's enough food, let's talk about bars. Good news is that are plenty of bars in the old town, and many restaurants that will be quite happy for you to just sit there drinking beer. In the spring and summer many bars have outdoor seating, the perfect way to watch the world go by for a while. Opening hours are enlightened too; nearly everywhere stays open until midnight. The bars right in the city centre seemed to be among the first to close, but you'll have no problems finding somewhere to keep you going through the wee hours (in more senses than one...). We found that the bars with longer opening hours tended to be on the edge of the old town, and we happened on a few good ones just to the north-west of the city centre, a bit further out than the University.
The local beer is Starobrno, and most places in Brno serve this. Many Czech beer enthusiasts don't rate Starobrno, and while it doesn't have the depth of flavour of Staropramen or Pilsner Urquell for example, it's perfectly drinkable and light-years ahead of the effluent that passes for lager in the UK. Best of all it's not that gassy either so it goes down quickly and you can drink gallons of the stuff without feeling too bloated (unless, like us, you're already bloated before you start drinking). Most bars should have more than one variety of beer on tap (restaurants might not give you the choice), and most Czech brands are widely available, a few places had imported beer too (Amstel or Stella, usually) but, really, what's the point? As for price, you should be pleasantly surprised. Most of the bars we were in charged 20 crowns (less than 50p) for half a litre of Starobrno.
OK, in no particular order, here are some the places where we ended up whiling away time.
We ended up in Divadelni Hospoda Vasela Husa on Petrska because we were passing, we fancied a couple of beers, and it looked a nice enough place. Simple as that. The bar is attached to the "experimental theatre" on Zelny trh which meant that everyone rushed in for a swift drink during the interval before being summoned back to the performance by a gong. Unless that was all a part of the performance? Who can say with experimental theatre? Reasonably priced beer, an interesting looking range of Czech wines, and a relaxed (if slightly intellectual) atmosphere. Probably the place for a reflective pint or two rather than a raucous session.
Steakovny a Pivny Bar ("Steak and Beer Bar", a manly name!) on Slovakova was one of those places where we decided to pop our heads round the door to see what it was like and ended up staying for a couple of hours. This is another brick cellar place (with a motorbike hanging off the roof for some reason, although it certainly isn't a biker bar). One end of the cellar is a restaurant, the other is the bar, which is where we spent most of our time. They have a fine range of draft beers, at least 5 different varieties (maybe even more if it wasn't just us seeing double), great prices (we spent a couple of hours discussing the issues of the day, and it set us back less than 100 crowns - £2.50 - for 6 beers, although the light-weight monkey was drinking by the third of the litre rather than the half), and long opening hours (the sign on the door says they're open until 4am). Definitely recommended.
The Whiskey Bar at Gorkeho 58 is a bit of a walk from the city centre. It has a very impressive array of whiskeys, many single malts that I'd never heard of, but apart from that there's nothing special about it. Probably worth a visit if you're a fan of whiskey though.
On the same road, and a place with much more character, is the Music Club Hobit, a friendly underground place with a bit of a Tolkein fixation, and some strangely eclectic decor - a couple of fish tanks, and a preserved snake in a jar, among other things. I couldn't decide if the place smelled of incense or something more herbal. Weird but very welcoming, we liked it here!
Pegas at Jakubska 4 (in the Hotel of the same name) is a beer-hall that brews it's own beer (you can see the copper vats behind the bar). I think that this place grew on us straight away - a fat waiter is always a promising sign in my opinion! The beer was lovely, strong with a dry, fruity taste, and an absolute bargain at 16 crowns for a half litre, and they have plenty of urinals for you to sluice it away. Definitely worth staying here for a pint or three!
I can't remember the name of this next place, but it's easy enough to find, just head down Janska and it's the first bar you'll see as you pass the church of St Janu (on the same side of the street as the church). It's a pleasant, quite airy place, spread out over three floors, with a few TV screens making it a popular place to watch football (or MTV, when we were in). Starobrno is 20 crowns a half-litre. It seems popular and was always pretty busy when we were in there. By the way, on Tuesday evenings for some reason they have a topless waitress bringing beer to your tables. Nobody seemed to bat an eyelid. I kept my eyes closed.
Hospoda u Saska a Krak is a pleasant little bar on Dominikanska. We ended up there on our last afternoon in Brno, looking for somewhere to eat before our flight. Unfortunately for some reason the kitchen was closed when we went but we decided to stay for a couple of beers anyway principally because the barmaid had a magnificent chest and few reservations about showing it off. Sorry to be crude but that's just the way it is sometimes. So instead of the magnificent meal we had planned we ended up with just about enough time to choke down a Big Mac. Sometimes it's hard to be a man... Chest notwithstanding, it's a very pleasant bar by the way.
We actually ended up popping into our hotel bar for at least a pint at some point every evening. At 50 crowns for half a litre of Starobrno it's on the expensive side, but it was quite a relaxing place and so we used it to either plan the rest of the evening's debauchery, or for a quick time out in mid-debauch and come up with new tactics, maneuvers. The fountain next to the bar added to the atmosphere, although all that gurgling water did make me want to go for a piss rather more often than I otherwise would have. And it was funny watching the fat, middle-aged business men trying to pick up some of the ladies of negotiable affection who frequented the bar, especially the porky bastard who's attempt to sidle seductively up to some poor girl's table came to naught when he stumbled and emptied a cup of coffee over her, before uttering the immortal line "I'm going up to my room, follow me in five minutes" (she did!). Sometimes people-watching can be great fun...
Perhaps you're looking for somewhere to boogey on in to the early hours? You'll find Zelena Kocka ("Green Cat") at (or, more accurately, under) 25/27 Masarykova. It's a nightclub that has the advantages of cheap beer (25 crowns a half litre) and staying open until 5am. It's not the biggest place, but it has a reasonably sized dance floor, a rather eclectic playlist, plenty of chairs for the older (or larger) patron to recuperate, and a decent bar. Other attractions include table football (10 crowns a game; I whipped the monkey-man's arse even though he could play using both his hands and his feet). The signs on the toilets are a bit confusing though, it wasn't really my fault that I ended up in the lady's by mistake, and at least I only did it the once. The club was pretty quiet on a Monday and Tuesday, when it was free to get in, but was lot livelier and busier on a Wednesday when there was a charge (can't remember how much, but less than 50 crowns).
I'm not entirely sure how I ended up in Two Faces, which is on Biskupsa, close to the Cathedral. I didn't stay long, and I don't remember much about it, other than that the music was quite trance-y, and things were being projected on the walls. The website brings back a strange sense of deja-vu though.... They let me in too, which is always a good sign, in my estimation. I'll try it again when I'm a bit more sober next time.
The seasoned drinker can hardly fail to notice, with an eager eye, the vast number of "Non-Stop" or Herna bars that you'll find throughout the city centre. There are dozens of them. The majority of these are basically fruit machine parlours with bars added as an after-thought, so the atmosphere might not be the best for drinking, and I doubt that many of them would serve beer on tap. I didn't go in any so I'm not in a position to recommend or otherwise, but if you are tempted to try one out I'd avoid the seedier looking ones around the railway station.
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