Cities / Towns Visited: 28
Countries Visited: 11
Steps Taken Today: 15,599
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,130,195
Awaking to a cool, dew filled morning, we ate our meagre hostel breakfast (it’s only saving grace being that it involved doughnuts), and headed to the edge of town. Enjoying the quietness of the surroundings, we made our way leisurely up through the gardens to yet another hill top castle; Spilberk Castle.
After wandering around its fortified walls to try and get a scale of the bulking medieval structure, we slipped through the gates, purchased out ticket, and let the adventure commence. The first part you see, which is impossible to miss as it is literally beside the ticket desk, is the medieval pharmacy. With its beautiful wooden cabinets, signature glass and ceramic tincture jars, and bright brass scales, it’s exactly what you would expect from a place that dispensed opium as a treatment for menstrual cramps and menopause (see gents, if you think we’re just being weak when we complain about cramps, they used to give us hard drugs to numb the pain).
Turning left just outside the door we scurried up the stairs, through the heavy wooden door, and up yet more stairs until we found ourselves in the corner tower of the fortified walls. Looking out over the quaint little city, with its many historic old buildings, it was hard not to be anamoured by its beauty, but also undeniably aware of the advantageous position the castle has.
Now that we’d seen the top, it was time to venture down below, into the casemates. Spilberk used to be one of the worst prisons for inmates in the entire Austro-Hungarian empire, and many did not survive their imprisonment. Making our way into the chill of the subterranean stone cells it was not hard to see why. With poor ventilation, constant damp, and overfilling of cells, many died of malnutrition and disease. It was hard to imagine the hardships of not just hardened criminals, but also political prisoners who were simply suffering because they disagreed with the ruling parties. It was also fascinating, but not surprising, to find out that the Nazis had used the prison for their own barracks during the course of WWII. There was even some remnants of the communications station they had set up during their occupation.
Eventually we resurfaced and headed through to the large courtyard to enter the main exhibition. As we passed the carillon of bells, which instead of being mounted in a bell tower, are hanging from one of the walls just past the castle’s well. We were taken a little by surprise as the hour ticked over to eleven and the bells sprang into life, deafeningly loud their song rang out across the city.
The first part of the exhibit inside looks at the long history of the construction and restoration of this beautiful but intimidating sight. The most interesting part being the collection of items they found in the well when they cleaned it out. From the usual plethora of coins to everyday items like pairs of glasses and pieces of ceramics, all the way to the skeleton of an unfortunate soldier from several hundred years ago. When you think about it, well water is mildly disgusting, no wonder they used to just drink beer and wine.
We soon discovered that the museum is huge, with a corridor filled with information about the love and use of fireworks locally, especially at the castle; a corridor filled with story after story of the people and groups who were kept in the prison and their unfortunate fates; and a floor filled with the history of the town of Brno with a plethora of artifacts and information, especially about its importance in the production and trade of fabric. There was also a detailed display on the one time the fortifications almost fell into the hands of Swedish soldiers (for the record, they didn’t win, and no army ever managed to take the fortress). They also have a corridor filled with local art from the centuries. The last large exhibit is about Bruno’s contributions during WWI, which like most of the Czech Republic is complicated as many of their soldiers sided with the Allied forces, gambling their lives in the hope that their country would be freed from the rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy; a gamble which succeeded, as the monarchy was dethroned at the conclusion of the war, and the countries were divided up into self ruling lands (you know, right up until the Nazis came and ruined it all, and then after they were done, Russian communism swept in). In all the entire feat took us a good 5–6 hours to get through. It was amazing, but my only criticism is that there were not many tourists visiting, which is great for freedom of movement, but as they had a staff member standing in almost every room supervising it, it was quite awkward viewing the displays and taking photos in dead silence with someone watching over your shoulder the whole time. For someone with social anxiety, it made me a little antsy.
Eventually it was time to wander back to town. We had a little time left, so we decided to tick another attraction off the list; the St. James Church Ossuary. Now as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, I find death fascinating, so cemeteries, crypts, and ossuaries are always of interest. As we crept down below the church, grabbed our tickets, and quickly read the information on the history of the site, we finally stepped into the tunnels. This ossuary holds some 50,000 people, and when they were clearing the tunnels to try and find the extent of it, they found it stretched much further than they had expected. It is the second largest ossuary in the world, outdone only by the Paris Catacombes. The bones have all been kept in their resting place here, (although some are taken out for testing to try and discover more about the life and death of the people during that period in history. Only a small section has had the bones stacked neatly at the edge, to allow the public to come and view the burial site, and it was into this area we stepped. Now, unlike Paris, there is not a crush of disrespectful people touching and taking selfies with the remains of these historic ancestors of ours. With a soundtrack of sombre instrumental music playing gently in the background which was made especially of the site, it was hauntingly beautiful. As we reached a display of some 150 skulls positioned in a stepped arrangement, I was once more overwhelmed by the thought that each and every one of these was an individual soul, with its own stories and memories, its own joys and griefs. There is something humbling and mildly existential crisis inducing about being in the company of all that remains of us in the end. With a thankful heart we concluded our visit.
Once more we sauntered back to the hostel via the supermarket for provisions for another home cooked meal, before we collapsed into satisfied slumber, but first we had one final stop. Ever since I’d heard about them a few months before departing on our adventure I had wanted to try chimney cake, a kind of rotisserie cake which is essentially a sweet leavened dough wrapped in strips around a thick wooden skewer, and cooked rotisserie style over hot coals, or sometimes in specially designed ovens, it is then traditionally rolled a sugar mix with walnuts or almonds. The stand we went to though, had several different flavoured sugars you could chose for the exterior. And much to our delight they also offer cone shaped versions filled with soft serve ice cream. Thus after a 12 minute wait, my desires were fulfilled as we were handed our cones, one in cinnamon sugar, and one in chocolate sugar; and both drizzled with chocolate sauce. All I can say is that it was heaven. It is essentially like a cornetto, if the cone was a warm doughnut which is crispy on the outside and wonderfully soft on the inside. I’m not sure I will ever enjoy a normal ice cream cone again. As a chef, finding food like this is the epitome of why I have always wanted to travel. It is and will always be important for people to go out and see the world, but I beseech you all to taste the world too. You can learn more about a culture, history, and a people through its food than almost other medium.