Brno in the Czech Republic;

A recent visit to the Czech Republic was designed and planned for us to experience first-hand the famous Christmas Markets in Prague and Brno which allowed a glimpse into a number of other aspects, including cultural heritage, wine-tasting, some of the country’s fascinating history, etc.

The visit coincided with the centenary anniversary of the birth of Czechoslovakia, celebrated jointly by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, with a number of events happening in the Grand Duchy this year.

The south-east of the country is relatively flat, with much of the land given over to agriculture. It has a traditional wine production industry, primarily white like Luxembourg, as well as growing corn, sunflowers, rape seed, fruit, etc.

Driving through the region, as we did after meeting up at Vienna airport in neighbouring Austria, the lands are now tilled and the vines pruned, ready for the oncoming winter. Daytime temperatures are already hovering around zero Centigrade. Crossing a lake, the surface of which is already partly frozen over, there were hundreds of water birds on the surface, a sign that it must have a nature protection status of some level in operation. But maybe it just goes some way to explain why the region’s culinary delicacy is goose...

Although the Czech Republic currently has 13 official regions; going back to the times of the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the primary regions were Moravia (to the east), Bohemia (to the west) and Silesia (part of which is in the current Czech Republic), former countries in their own right.


The city of Brno to the south of the country has a population of around 400,000 inhabitants, of which around 80,000 are students in this university city which has its origins as the centre of the region’s textile industry. Nowadays, the city has boomed thanks in part to a significant IT sector, with many multinationals having centres in Brno as geographically it is situated within around 2-3 hours drive of Prague, Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest.

Christmas specialities of the local Brno restaurants are served in the local Christmas Market in the Dominican Square which used to house a monastery but is now the town hall - this is just one of the four squares that host Christmas Markets in Brno, the largest of which offers traditional handcrafts as its speciality, from candles to ceramics and sheepskin products, with food dishes including a large (schnitzel-sized!) version of Luxembourg’s gromperekichelscher, the domácí bramborak, as well as a wide range of gingerbread decorations.

It also has one of the largest nativity scenes of any Christmas Market. Walking up to the top of the nearby old town hall’s bell tower offers stunning views across the city and over the market squares, although the wind-shear factor up there was not insignificant...

A local (to Brno) speciality is Turbonost, a warm apple cider and apple brandy drink - comparable to Luxembourg’s gluwein - and well worth it to get into the festive spirit and to warm up. Later, when we were to reach Prague, we discovered the Christmas tipple there was a warm mead, made from honey, with a syrupy texture

Meanwhile, the largest of the four Christmas Market squares (in Brno) hosts a large Ferris Wheel as well as an ice rink. Around 18:00 the Christmas Market squares were bristling with people getting off work as well as young families and tourists mingling together. Afterwards, many headed to the trendy bar area which had seen one of the municipal districts being completely rejuvenated with young entrepreneurs setting up their own - often very successful - businesses, many of which are in the hospitality sector.

This weekend also saw the annual re-enactment of the battle between Napoleon’s forces and the Austrians, in 1805, with a parade of soldiers (from both sides) through the city centre in the early evening. Together, these experiences helped paint a picture of Brno and its inhabitants as being warm, welcoming, entrepreneurial and creative.

Villa Tugendhat (Brno)

One of the main Czech offerings to the world - apart from beer and Skodas - is design, both regarding items such as furniture and glass, as well as architecture and interior design. Brno has a number of villas open to the public that showcase one aspect of this heritage.

The famous Villa Tugendhat is situated on the outskirts of Brno, in the wealthy Cerná Pole neighbourhood: built in 1928-30 of reinforced concrete, it is recognised as one of the pioneering prototypes of modern architecture in Europe. In 2010-12 it was renovated, much to its original form, to open as a contemporary museum.

It housed the Tugendhat family, with the parents and their young children’s rooms adjoining on the street level, with the servants’ quarters in the annex. The architect, Mies van der Rohe, characterised the interiors with 3m high doors, large spaces, minimalistic interiors and lot of natural light, as well as the use of chrome. Much of the interior was of rosewood, some of the original still surviving.

The main living area, one floor down, is a whopping 247m2 but which could be compartmentalised into four, using curtains in a similar way to separating or opening up hotel function rooms nowadays. It has a splendid Onyx wall (which changes colour by the light from outside), study, library, lounge and dining area, as well as a magnificent winter garden. Its floor-to-ceiling glass windows in metal frames were single-glazed; however, the centrepiece could be controlled electrically to be lowered in its entirety to allow a fully open vista over the sloping garden overlooking the city.

The house was fully electrified and was fitted with both a central hearing system and a ventilation system, including a humidifier, and was one of the first to have motion sensors (yes, back in 1930).

The family had to flee in 1938, first to St Gallen in Switzerland and then to South America, as the Nazis confiscated the house - the family tried to restitute the house in the late 2000s, but had run out of time. It is now owned by the city of Brno and was restored to its former grandeur. After WWII, when it was occupied by the Messerschmitts and used as Gestapo headquarters, the house was used for a ballet school, then as a rehabilitation centre for children.

The Villa Tugendhat is regularly used for filming, for 1970s-1980s settings, with “The Glass Room” shot there recently and due to be released shortly.

Brno Cathedral

The interior of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul (Brno) is primarily Baroque with impressive 84-metre-high Gothic towers. One fascinating detail involves the church bells ringing at 11:00 instead of at noon: according to legend, the reason for this is that during the Thirty Years' War the invading Swedes had promised that they would call off their attack on Brno if they had not succeeded in taking the city by midday on 15 August. Some shrewd Brno citizens decided to ring the bells an hour early on this date, fooling the Swedes into breaking off the siege and leaving empty-handed...


The city of Prague currently has around 1.3 million residents, with its left bank and right bank either side of the Vltava river. Its public transport system runs 24 hours/day, with its metro system running three lines, also a bus system and tram network - nowadays it is easier to travel within the city using public transport rather than driving one’s own car.

Prague offers a huge range of architectural styles, often with animals adorning the outside of buildings. It is known as the city of one hundred spires or one thousand churches: the true figure is around 550. More on religion later...

We walked from the Prague Castle atop the hill, through narrow streets and Liechtenstein Square, past buildings and Churches built and rebuilt by the Knights of Malta, under and then across Charles Bridge and its iconic statues, to the right bank and the famous Astronomical Clock.

Our tour guide from Czech Tourism relayed countless stories and anecdotes of the city’s historical past, painting a fascinating mosaic of the city over the centuries, way too much to relate here, and one of which was the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which helped pave the way from communism to democracy; other stories related to Swedish forces in the 1620s, during the 30 Years War.

One of the significant things about Prague, apart from its historical past, is its architecture and design. Another is music, with a multitude of classical concerts on offer, with music from the likes of Mozart, Dvorak and Vivaldi.

Regarding religion, 80% of Czech nationals are atheists and 11% are Catholics, with 41 years of Communism actively discouraging following and practicing any religion. We were also told of the annual tradition of St Nicholas in the Czech Republic, who comes on the evening of 5 December (like in Luxembourg) bearing gifts of chocolates and sweets, but accompanied by “the devil” and “an angel”.

Prague Castle

The castle is one of the largest in the world and dates back to the 9th century; it is currently used as the office of the Czech President and resembles a small city. It houses a chapel, a basilica and the city’s cathedral, for which work started in 1344 and was eventually completed in 1929; it includes various architectural styles including neo-gothic and baroque. Other parts of the castle are built in renaissance and gothic styles.

The original Czech crown lies in the treasury in the cathedral. Also, Charles (later Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, son of John the Blind) and all Bohemian kings since the 13th century are all buried in the crypt, with the remains of Wenceslas (second son of John the Blind) in the cathedral itself.

Our guide recalled the great fire of 1541 which destroyed part of the castle and much of the city (left bank), and also the 30 Years War from 1618-1848 between Catholics and Protestants.

The Basilica was built in the 10th century, with stone walls and a wooden roof. It was originally linked with the nearby convent. There are also dungeons and torture chambers for the more gruesome of tourism experiences. The Golden Lane, named after the goldsmiths who used to work there, is quaint and well worth a visit. When Franz Kafta visited Prague, he stayed here for a while and wrote a short story here.

In one of the castle courtyards, there is even a Christmas Market - a similar size to the one in Luxembourg city’s Place d’Armes.

The castle area is so large and comprises so many components, including the royal palace and three other palaces, that you can spend a full day exploring Prague Castle. One of the large rooms actually hosted jousting tournaments, with knights on horseback...

Eating Out

The Restaurant Tanzberg in Mikulov (on the drive between Vienna airport and Brno) offered our first taste of Czech food, with a goose menu on offer as the speciality of the region (Moravia - Prague is in Bohemia along with the entire west of the country). Despite a rural setting and situated just inside the border from Austria with the motorway having ended 20km or so ago, this was a modern restaurant in a rustic hotel inna rural town. The food was surprisingly tasty and was well worth the slight detour.

At the Atelier Bistro in Brno, a trendy restaurant tucked away in the modern area of cocktail bars and wine bars, we sampled a number of local wines, including some young organic wines, from the region before tucking in to a sumptuous dinner of goose terrine with foie gras for starter, and either catfish or steak for the main course, accompanied by root vegetables with potato and celery purée.

The Plzenska restaurace in the Municipal House on Republic Square in the centre of Prague serves traditional Czech cuisine; the outside of the building, its entrance and - in particular - the cavernous restaurant dining room interior, which is located underground, have the most amazing art deco decor which was designed by the best Czech artists and painters around 1918, the year it opened. We started with small Czech pancakes (bramboraky), a local goulash soup and then Svícková (a beef dish) and the traditional kachna (roast golden duck) with red cabbage and dumplings.

The Café Imperial, one block from the Republic Square, was built in 1914 and also offers a stunning combination of art deco and art nouveau, a collection of glass and ceramic decorated tiles adorning the restaurant’s pillars. To eat, we had the traditional meal many Czechs have on 26 December - roast duck, cabbage and potato dumplings. Like the Plzenska restaurant above, the setting is at least half the dining experience (on 24 December, the traditional meal is carp, with 25 December spent visiting families).

The Lokal has the longest beer hall in Prague and, besides offering tastings of different Czech beers, and an explanation on the three different ways to pour and serve Czech beer, also offers local Czech cuisine here - we sampled the schnitzels and potato salad which complemented each other beautifully. They also serve a local cola, created during communist times as American/western products were not allowed; this “brew” had a distinct licorice taste.

For those with a sweet tooth, there is the nearby Perníckuv sen, a gingerbread shop & café - the making of gingerbread can be traced back to the 1300s in Bohemia. We tried different Christmas biscuits, including gingerbread. Traditionally, Czech housewives would bake around 18kg of Christmas biscuits at the start of Advent...

The Cukrárna Myšák is a delightful café which serves great coffee and tea, along with local traditional cakes, including apple strudel and cream rolls.

The Eatery, a short drive to the outskirts of the city, is a recently-opened “nouvelle Czech cuisine”. With starters of celery soup (with celeriac too) and a Jerusalem artichoke salad, and main courses of pork belly with Brussels sprouts and cabbage, and organic chicken with leeks (no potatoes, rice, pasta nor dumplings), and for dessert a poppy seed white chocolate mousse in plum sauce, plus a cheese selection. Apart from the classic tastes, the difference here is that the kitchen is completely open to the restaurant, for all diners to observe their dishes being prepared - such as Windsor or Le Sud in Luxembourg.

Where to stay

Brno: the International Hotel, a Best Western. Ideally located in the city centre for exploring the Christmas Markets, with spacious and 4* rooms, with a sumptuous breakfast buffet.

Prague: the Vienna House Andel’s Hotel. Situated very close to public transport (buses trams and the metro) as well as accessible by foot to the Christmas Market and just a few minutes' walk from Charles Bridge.

How to get there

We flew Luxair to Vienna, drove 2 hours to Brno, took the train to Prague and flew KLM back to Luxembourg, via Amsterdam. Luxair also flies directly to Prague between April - October.