THERE’S a long-standing joke in the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno. “We know wine,” they say. “We keep the best wine for ourselves. The mediocre stuff we sell to tourists, and the really bad stuff we send to Prague.”
It’s fair to say the Czech Republic’s two main cities have quite a rivalry. A few years ago, Brno’s mayor spend a small fortune on building a modern-version of Prague’s spectacular clock in the city’s main square.
It’s a phallic, towering, slowly-twisting statue that almost nobody can use to tell the time, and once a day it omits a strange glass marble, because … nobody seems to be quite sure. It’s odd, largely because the city doesn’t need to compete.
If Bohemian Prague is home to the dark history and literary pretensions, laid-back Brno has a fast-growing collection of its own unique lures.
A once impenetrable walled city, its main attractions are in a compact hub – a spot that’s become pleasantly alternative in the way it presents itself.
Trams chug through the pretty, classical streets. Local bars consist of shacks selling hefty glasses from Moravian vineyards, served in the open air around bubbling fountains.
Cocktail bars like the magical Bar That Does Not Exist (Ktery Neexistuje, in the local lingo) have a menu of thousands of fiery, fruity concoctions made from a mind-boggling selection of boozy bottles.
In fact, the general off-the-wall vibe to Brno is probably its main allure. An architect, for example, once got irritated by negotiations over compensation for his construction of the soaring Church of St James, and so adorned a window ledge with a fornicating, nude-bummed symbol who still rests there today.
Then there’s the Brno dragon, adorning a tunnel in the city hall, said once to have plagued the city (his modern incarnation looks suspiciously like an alligator).
St James’s church’s relatively recently discovered ossuary is a creepy, claustrophobic series of underground tunnels, home to wall-to-wall heaps of skulls and bones, while bunker 10-Z – a former secret Soviet underground bunker close to the city’s heart – might have jokingly-plastered pictures of atom bombs on its walls today, but the other relics remind us of its deadly serious practical applications.
While Brno tends to align itself culturally with Vienna (another snub to capital Prague, we suspect), Ostrava, near the Polish border, is a totally different, if more rugged beast.
This was once a Soviet metal-manufacturing heartland, and while it’s moved on to become something of a tech haven, the allure of those almost dystopian rusting hulks that are the former factories, and the modern adaptations of the ferric wastelands, is as surreal as it is enticing.
The main draw is Vitkovice – a massive complex that once comprised Europe’s largest steelworks.
Its towering empty shell soars over the city; a twisted maze of pipes and dirty warehouses that looks fresh from a dramatic war movie.
At its heart, a climb to the top of the blast furnace gives you shaky views of the endless brown tubes that weave below. You can sip wine in a hard hat, eyeing up a train that’s rusting gently into the knee-length grass 200ft below you, before exploring a cultural centre built into a former gas container.
Rebranded Bolt Tower after the Jamaican sprinter won several key races in the city over the years, the tour involves perilous strolls along metal paths with nothing but 100 metres of air beneath them.
The theme continues elsewhere: exploring the recently-closed mines around the city remind visitors of hardships.
Miners here were paid well by most standards, but the grinding of the steam-operated machinery (still working) and the shaky lifts are just the adornments of a spot where you can also see the devastating medical records, and hear of times when the literal canary in a coalmine was still a necessity.
Buildings like Dul Michal still bear the physical scars of a former life, in their simple markings like the wear on the stone staircases, as well as in the hook-filled rooms that once lifted miner’s clothes out of reach.
Like Dolni Vitkovice, Dul Michael has undergone a transformation, and now hosts try-it-yourself forges and a stark modern art gallery, hosted in a room where the windows are still marked with the paint designed to disguise the mine from bombs during World War II.
Then there are the hills – the Pustevny slopes are filled with colourful wooden buildings and gentle sloping paths where you can uncover Radegast, the Slavic God of hospitality.
His chubby, horned statue guards hilltop snack shacks, where the beer of the same name flows, before you cruise the hilly roads to the base on board a souped-up, gravity-powered scooter.
It might not be what you come for, but the city heartland is fast developing, too. Known for spawning Czech tennis great Ivan Lendl, and Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame, it’s home to grandiose, sweeping riverside parks, affordable high-end hotels, and manic nightlife in Stodolni Street, where party-til-sunrise bars serve cheap cocktails and pump out Euro-dance hits.
There are hip graffiti-coated streets bars tucked into tiny squares. Across the gentle river you’ll find a castle that’s slowly collapsing into the heavily mined soil, while kayakers make waves beneath bridges made from the steel that used to sit beneath it. The pace of life is, it seems, dead slow.
This sums up the East’s major draw: it’s not Prague. It’s not pretentious, but it is crammed with action; is cheap, adventurous, and markedly different.
In Brno, the area has real class, while Ostrava has deep Soviet scars that have become a cleverly developed asset. This is Czechia, but not as you know it.