10 June 2012

A trip to Brno's International Fireworks Festival

A picturesque 1h 40min journey from Vienna through Lower Austria's prominent wine region, the Weinviertel, Brno is about halfway between Vienna and Prague.

To kill time until the beginning of the closing performance co-delivered by the Czech Republic and Austria, my friend Kat, her parents and I used the sunny day for some sightseeing in the country's second largest city (population 400 000).



Known today as one of Europe's largest exhibition centres, as host of international motor races, the annual fireworks festival Ignis Brunensis (lat. 'fire of Brno'), important centre for higher education, HQ of AVG technologies and large wine festival every September, the city is most of all proud of its legacy as former capital of the Great Moravian Empire.

Eventually, Moravia became one of the states of Czechoslovakia and I was told that even today, Moravians are proud of their cultural heritage and regard themselves as distinct from 'the Czechs'.
Informally, local freelance journalist and blogger Michal Kašpárek describes the city as the geek capital of the Czech Republic. His blog Brno Now is the local equivalent of Time Out, so if you consider paying the city a visit and wonder what is on or would like to get an insider's view on a city he is 'madly in love with', you know where to look. By the way, he also explains the mystery of the 'cock clock', one of the local sights commemorating the victory over Swedish invaders in 1645. Kat finds it resembles the London Gherkin. I found it reminiscent of a monument on Damtrak in Amsterdam, an association probably evoked by the tacky tourist traps and some other shops which have been allowed to occupy, unregulated, the lower levels of otherwise beautiful historic buildings in the city centre, much to the annoyance of locals themselves.



Brno is home to several museums, galleries and churches, most conveniently within walking distance of each other. Should you ever need to venture further or couchsurf with anyone living in the satellite suburbs typical of (not only) ex-Communist cities, you can always hop onto one of the many 'trolleybuses' or trams that swiftly take you to your destination.


Perhaps the most popular sights are the cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (which was closed when we got there) and Špilberk (German: Spielberg) castle which was considered the toughest prison in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. Being on a hill, it was also the venue of the opening and closing fireworks during the Ignis Brunensis and was therefore, also closed. The competition itself takes place on a dam where the water reflection mirrors the fireworks as a special effect.

Špilberk Castle

Since the hill would be the obvious choice for the crowds of spectators, we decided to watch the fireworks from the small park where we had some authentic Czech food (and some of us in Czech beer) which not unlike traditional Viennese cuisine, is rather meaty and starchy with thick creamy sauces. From the park, we had an unblocked and truly magnificent view on Špilberk castle.

The fireworks finale was totally worth the trip. Huddled under umbrellas, people stared at the sky in silent anticipation. Kat remarked that we all looked like we were waiting for the arrival of aliens. :D Someone tuned their mobile phone to the local radio station and turned the volume to maximum for all in the park to follow the countdown and the classical music.

And suddenly, the night sky was illuminated by the brighest lights...!



Famous residents of Brno include:
  • Gregor Mendel, grandfather of genetics trained as an Augustinian priest at a local monastery before he studied at the University of Vienna where one of his teachers was physicist Christian Doppler.
  • Physicist Ernst Mach was born in Brno and also studied at the University of Vienna.
  • Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, first president of Czechoslovakia. An eager advocate of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire around WWI, he went into exile and lobbied around the world, including London, Geneva, Paris, Russia, Tokyo and the US, where he taught at the Univerity of Chicago (the city then being the centre of Czechoslovak immigration). While he was in London, he was one of the first members of staff at the newly established School of Slavonic and East European Studies at KCL before it became incorporated into UCL.