Spoiled for choice. If there is one thing we learned when driving through the Czech Republic, it's that the country is so full of pretty towns it’s hard to decide what to see in a limited time. Ultimately, we decided to base our 3-week itinerary around the country’s UNESCO sites, which is how Kromeriz became a destination.
Getting a private tour
Czech Tourism arranged for us to meet up with Mr. Zdeněk Urbanovský, who worked with Eastern Moravia Tourism and knows the area intimately. He smiled in sympathy when I tried to pronounce Kroměříž correctly. You see, it’s not Krom-a-ritz, it’s actually Krom-yehr-zheesh. What a tongue-twister, especially since the Czechs roll their r’s!
Zdenek surprised us by telling us that Kromeriz (er, Kroměříž, to be precise) is one of the most visited cities in the Czech Republic. Though it was hard to tell on this dreary autumn day, Kromeriz earned its “the Athens of Haná” moniker thanks to its remarkable architecture, culture, and flower-filled setting. Czechs, it seems, associate Kroměříž with riots of flowers, elegant fountains, a majestic chateau, and a world-class botanical garden.
We would soon find out why.
History of Kromeriz
Standing at the crossroads of important trading routes, the now-popular Kroměříž began its existence as a humble market town about 1000 years ago. In the late 13th century the Bishop of Olomouc built his summer residence here, and he made sure it was regal enough to reflect his church’s power and wealth. This worked out well for Kromeriz, because the resulting increase in population helped it grow into a wealthy and influential town.
The archbishop’s residence made Kromeriz a target for religious wars over the centuries. Its devastation in the 14th and 17th centuries prompted extensive rebuilding, most notably the picturesque Renaissance-era arcades that surround the city’s central town square. Sure, it’s pretty, but that was not what makes Kromeriz so attractive to visitors.
The Archbishop’s Palace
We began our day with a tour of the most impressive building in Kromeriz: the magnificent Archbishop´s Chateau. Unfortunately, the powers that be won't let peons like us take photos inside the building so if you go, you'll have to put your camera away.
Regardless, one thing was obvious on our tour: Money buys influence, and Catholic bishoprics are no exception. Charles II of Lichtenstein was one of those who bought the title of Bishop of Olomouc. The Archbishop spared no expense in decorating the chateau’s almost 40 rooms and halls. I would assume he intended to demonstrate that God was blessing the Catholic Church for its work.
The impressive Assembly Hall played a role in history as well. The meetings of the Imperial Council of the Habsburg monarchy were held there instead of Vienna. Its ornately-painted ceiling of the Assembly Hall boasts 22 crystal chandeliers. (You can see this room in many movies, including Amadeus.)
Charles II of Lichtenstein amassed a phenomenal collection of Central European paintings of the 15th-18th centuries, including van Dyck and Titian.
But it wasn't all work and no play for the archbishops. They had plenty of entertainment, including a pool room and hunting room. Did I mention the wine cellar? What kind of Catholic Archbishhop would he be without good wine?
Get visiting information here.
Climb the tower for a bird's eye view of Kromeriz
After our tour, we detoured to the castle’s 34-meter-high tower. It was built on the foundations of the old castle. With no one around to police our photography, we braved the rainy weather and trudged up its 206 steps to the open-air balcony. Our efforts rewarded us with an unforgettable 360° view of the town and surrounding countryside.
Church of St. Moritz
Nearby is the Church of St. Moritz, one of the largest Gothic structures in the Czech Republic. It was built for Bruno von Schauenburg, the Bishop of Olomouc and founder of the town. He ended up being buried here.
This church and the nearby Church of St. John the Baptist share a secret: Hidden within their walls is a passageway which leads all the way to the chateau. The bishop had it built so he could celebrate mass without having to go outside. Was his goal to keep his feet dry or to avoid the parishioners?
Černý Orel Brewery
Before driving to the nearby gardens, we stopped in Černý Orel (The Black Eagle) for lunch. It is well known for its tasty microbrews and excellent cuisine.
The 300-year-old historic building was once a pharmacy. You can stay in their guesthouse or hotel, arrange a visit to their brewery or try the handmade chocolates they produce. We bought a small assortment of chocolates and shared them later that night. We should have bought more; they were excellent!
Kroměříž Archbishop's Gardens
After lunch, it was time to enjoy Kromeriz's legendary flowers. The Archbishop established a private ornamental garden in the 17th century, but now it's open to the public. The garden features fountains and statues, a collection of unusual trees and plants, meandering paths, and ornamental flower gardens with symmetrical designs. Apparently, the designs change every year, but I wonder how much people notice, considering the impressive centerpiece.
It would be impossible to miss that snow-white pavilion standing in the center of the garden. Inside, a Foucault’s Pendulum swings in its center. I must have been one of the few who enjoyed watching it; the other visitors seemed more interested in the ornately tiled rooms around the perimeter.
A 244-meter colonnade runs along one side of the garden, and it is said that you can stand at one end and speak to someone at the other end in a normal voice. We tried it but didn't have much success. Rather than try to make it work, we climbed a nearby staircase and found ourselves on the roof of the colonnade. It offered a fabulous view of the patterns of flowers and pathways, plus the occasional Greek or Roman god for accent.
Call me old-fashioned, but I found it just a little disconcerting that a Catholic bishop actually wanted statues of pagan gods in his garden. Good thing the Church never had another inquisition to punish him for it.
Moving on. As nice as the gardens were, this plant lover preferred the historical greenhouses, partly because of the lush greenery and partly because there was a wedding photo shoot going on in one of them. Hungary, Taiwan, Cambodia … it seems we encounter weddings wherever we go. We really enjoy seeing happy people.
Unless you enjoy gardens, Kromeriz really doesn’t need a full day, especially when it’s rainy. We left it behind and drove through the drizzle to the town of Modra for a unique view into the area’s history. ArcheoSkanzen is an open-air archeological site that includes a full-scale replica of a 9th-century Slavic fortified settlement of Great Moravia.
Under other circumstances, it would have been fun to explore the complex because it was based on actual objects found during archaeological excavations. Alas, it was too wet and too late in the day for us to see. Visitors can also see demonstrations of folk crafts and cultural events inspired by the ancient Slavs. There is even a museum with finds and the remains of an early medieval church.
But no, not today. Zdenek still had another place to show us after this. We turned our backs and entered the newly-opened (September 2016) Center for Slovakian Traditions. Zdenek approached the desk to ask for a tour.
The center was still in its infancy and not fully staffed or equipped, but what we saw looked promising:
- An interesting display of traditional costumes and crafts from various Slovakian regions.
Skanzen also had:
- A Moravian wine museum, which is on the local wine trail’s wineries and distilleries. Here, visitors can not only get acquainted with the process of burning fruit and viticulture history, but they can also taste the products typical of the local region – fruit spirits and wine.
- A regional produce shop (local crafts, dried fruits, ciders, wine bar and café)
Moravian wine. It's not about beer here.
I'm sure you're aware that the Czech Republic is well-known for its beer. What you may not know is that the country produces excellent reds and whites as well. Here, high-end dispensers hold 104 varieties of regional wines. You use a key card and pay according to how much you put in the glass.
Curious to taste some new-to-me regional grape varieties, I happily volunteered to sample a few of the vintages. Unfortunately, the Czech zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving meant that my travel companions were not permitted to participate.
I guess they could have, if we had intended to stay at the adjacent Skanzen Hotel.
Here's what I liked best about this place: They have a public distillery. What a brilliant idea! Locals have been making their own hooch for years and not paying the required duty to the authorities. It's not as cheap as doing it yourself at home, of course. But I guess it's worth the extra money to save some time and effort. Just bring in your fruit, pay the fees and taxes, and let them do the work!
I guess their philosophy is, if you can't beat them, change the rules and help them play the game.
Finally, Zdenek brought us to the town of Velehrad, which was the first place Pope John Paul II visited after the fall of Communism. Christianity came to this part of Europe over 1150 years ago, when two Greeks arrived in this village to preach the faith in the local Slavic language.
I imagine the land hasn't changed much in the last 1150 years, though the buildings certainly have.
Cyril and Methodius had a massive effect on both faith and learning in this part of Europe. Methodius translated almost all of the Holy Bible into Slavonic and Cyril created a new alphabet (Cyrillic) to help him do that. The Russians still use it. If you take a close look at Cyrillic letters, you will see their resemblance to the Greek Cyril grew up with.
By the way, Czechs don't use Cyrillic, so you can read road signs without any problem. Sorry, Cyril.
The upshot of all of this history is that Velehrad Monastery and its basilica are a pilgrimage site and the spiritual heart of Czechia. No wonder there's a monastery here. The country even has a national holiday to commemorate Saints Cyril and Methodius.
Velehrad Basilica of the Assumption and St Cyril and Methodius
The basilica has been standing on this site since the 13th century. When it was rebuilt in early Baroque style, the outline of the original, larger foundation was left in the pavement in front of the entrance. It's nice how they paid homage to the first church.
We escaped the drizzle to appreciate all the effort and planning that went into this beautiful building. It must have been a labor of love. A lot of hard work went into the ornate interior.
Just as we were about to bid goodbye to our new friend and head to Brno, the sun broke through the clouds, leaving us with this parting shot. The cross at the Basilica was erected to commemorate John Paul II's pilgrimage.