Kept in Czech

29 Jun 2006 by business traveller

It is difficult, on the face of it, to understand why people know so little about Brno (pronounced like "Burno" with a rolling "r"). With its stunning gothic cathedral, vast castle, ancient churches, high-quality museums and interesting architecture – not to mention its compact centre with labyrinthine streets filled with cafés, bars and restaurants – the Czech city deserves more attention than it receives.

But one word puts things immediately in perspective: Prague. The Czech Republic suffers from the "Prague effect" – the vast majority of visitors pay little attention to its other cities, so taken are they by Prague's famous architecture and lively, romantic atmosphere, and other parts of the country seldom get a look in.

But that is finally changing, at least for Brno. Now that low-cost flights have arrived – Ryanair began a daily service from Stansted in March 2005 – so has the first wave of curious weekend break tourists, with as many as 6,000 a month on Ryanair flights alone. Hotels and attractions have responded with improvements, and a new state-of-the-art terminal is being built at the airport, with wireless internet access and expanded retail opportunities. All in all, there's a definite feeling that Brno is a city to watch.

Brno has long been accustomed to playing second fiddle to Prague. It is the Czech Republic's second city, with a population of 370,000, and is located about 100 miles southeast of Prague. It is also 60 miles north of Vienna, 70 miles north of Bratislava and 110 miles northwest of Budapest. Having four Central European capitals within about an hour's drive gives the city a pivotal position in the region.

Partly thanks to this fantastic location, Brno has become a powerful economic centre over the years. The Chamber of Commerce points out that there are 105,000 "business entities" in the city, and regularly uses around phrases such as "bridgehead for the EU", "crossroads of Europe" and "traditional business heartland of Europe".

The visiting business traveller will be unsurprised to learn that the city has an industrial edge, with sprawling suburbs and estates housing workers who toil at its many factories producing parts such as light fittings, dashboards, brakes and bonnets for car plants in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and Slovakia. Central Europe is an important car producer with Skoda, Volkswagen, Kia, Hyundai, Toyota, Peugeot and Citroen plants not far away and all requiring deliveries. Other factories produce tractors, gas turbines, steam boilers and railway parts. Engineering, software development and the pharmaceutical industry are also big employers.

This thriving industry has not encroached on the historic parts of Brno. The St Peter and St Paul Cathedral, on a small hill at the southern tip of the historic centre, is a must-see. It's an interesting gothic structure with an intriguing history. It was here, according to legend, that the midday bells were rung an hour early during a siege of the city by the Swedish in 1645. Word had reached Brno defenders that the Swedes would cease attack at midday if they had not broken through – thus the city survived the Thirty Years' War.

At the base of the hill is the slightly eerie but compelling Kapucinska hrobka, a church crypt filled with the mummified remains of Brno's ancient great and good. Meanwhile, on another, nearby hill are the imposing ramparts of Spilberk Castle, a large fortress that was known as one of the world's most fearful prisons during the Hapsburg Empire. It has a museum filled with displays explaining the horrors of the time, as well as one floor dedicated to Brno's leading functionalist architects.

Brno is known for its modernist and functionalist architecture. A great place to get an insight is at Vila Tugendhat at the northeast side of the historic centre, around 15 minutes' walk from the cathedral. Vila Tugendhat was designed by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and was completed in 1930. It is one of his most famous works and its open plan design, minimalist styling, large windows, chrome finish and stylish furniture would not look out of place in a swish LA hotel lobby. Tours run hourly, and reservations are required.

Another place to see is the Mendel Museum at the Abbey of St Thomas, which was once home to Austrian abbot Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-84) – probably Brno's most famous inhabitant. This is where Mendel studied the inheritance of genetic traits, through experiments with garden peas and bees, which became the basis for all modern genetics. Visitors can see the old bee hives and the foundation stones for the hothouse in which he cross-fertilised the peas, and there is an excellent little museum describing his world-changing discoveries.

The city centre takes about half an hour to walk around and there are more than enough cafés, bars, restaurants, bookshops and art galleries to keep visitors occupied. Brno has been thoroughly Westernised since the collapse of communism in 1989, but is certainly not as fast-moving and flashy as Prague – which some locals regard as being perhaps a little too fast paced.

There are, however, several new shopping malls including a large new complex near the train station, which is crowded at weekends with people browsing the Western and local brand-name fashion stores. This complex is thriving. On my visit a fashion show was being held in the central atrium with hundreds looking on. There is a large choice of airy cafés, which make it a good meeting point.

Clothes here can be as expensive as in the UK, but food and hotels are cheaper. A three-course meal with wine at a top restaurant is unlikely to top £20 a head, while a single room at a top hotel might come to £85, depending on when you book. The Holiday Inn Brno is a popular business choice, with rooms from £95. It is next to the Central European Business Centre, the largest exhibition complex in Central Europe, parts of which date from 1928, when the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture of Czechoslovakia was held. A year-round programme of events covers fairs ranging from fashion and textiles to bakery and confectionery, wine, veterinary science, heating and air conditioning, plastics, rubbers and composites, welding and footwear (among much else).

There is also Hotel International, at the foot of Spilberk Castle. This modernist-style building has 262 rooms and is a short stroll from the cathedral and the central Liberty Square; its lobby is often photographed in international magazine shoots. Rooms here start at £95; there is a wireless connection at T-Mobile rates (the Holiday Inn has 24-hour wireless access for £25). Another hotel choice is the Royal Ricc, a small 30-room, boutique hotel with a good restaurant, close to Liberty Square. Rooms start at £85 and wireless internet is a more reasonable £12 a day.

International firms are drawn to the region for its low-cost wages relative to Western European countries – IBM, Siemens and Honeywell all have plants near Brno – but the reason they flourish, according to Petr Bajer, chief executive of the Brno Chamber of Commerce, is because they realise there is such a large supply of local talent: Brno has a large student population of more than 50,000.

"We have six universities and a high level of education," says Bajer. "It is a skilled and educated workforce. Our location is excellent and we have a strong industrial history going back to before the Second World War. We have always been known as 'the Czech Manchester'."
Brno's closest connections, however, are with Leeds, with which the city is partnered, and Nottingham, as Nottingham Trent University has connections with Brno International Business School.

Bajer would like the Czech Republic to join the euro by 2010, and believes the country can meet the entry criteria soon. He says that foreign trade across the country increased by a quarter in the year following the Czech Republic joining the European Union in April 2004. He adds: "Brno is the capital of trade fairs in the Czech Republic. In my opinion, Prague is simply not as influential."

Ryanair was the first international flight from Brno Airport, an old military airport with a runway long enough to take a jumbo. Since flights began they have had a healthy 87 per cent average occupancy. Lufthansa followed Ryanair in November 2005 with flights to Munich, and Czech Airlines began twice daily flights to Prague in December of the same year. The airport is building a new departure terminal costing £5.5 million, which will be ready by this summer.

"Before Ryanair flew to London we had no scheduled traffic, just charters going to Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and Spain," says Tomas Placek, director at Brno Airport. "We now take roughly 20,000 people a month. We know that about 55-60 per cent of travellers are Czech passport holders, 8-10 per cent are Slovak, and the rest are from elsewhere. We get people from Britain, the US, Japan, the Netherlands and Austria."
He says that a lot of passengers on Ryanair flights are students and au pairs: "It is good for the local community to travel and have experiences overseas. They learn languages and pick up skills and one day they will return and bring those experiences with them."

Placek says the airport is in talks with Easyjet to discuss the possibility of flights between Brno and Bratislava and Berlin. "Easyjet is a pan-European airline now, so maybe this is possible," he says. It has also discussed Aeroflot fights to Moscow, and is trying to set up flights to northern Italy with several carriers.

Most business travellers are likely to come to Brno during the trade fairs. Milos Dospel, manager at the Holiday Inn, which is a favourite with pop groups and stars such as Deep Purple, the Prodigy and Mick Hucknall when they perform in Brno, says: "During fairs we have 100 per cent occupancy. People need to book well in advance." The local tourist board can provide details of several three- and four-star options in the city centre at busy times.

What do local British interests make of Brno? Mirek Dostal is managing director of Invest Projekt, part of the British-owned AMEC group. It provides engineering support to foreign companies thinking of setting up in the area, negotiating planning permission from local councils and consultations on how to attain grants from EU funds.

Dostal says: "This city has got so much potential. There are very good universities providing skilful staff. Wages are about 35 per cent lower than in Prague, yet it is much easier to find the quality you want. The location close to Vienna and Bratislava is good. Once the new airport terminal is finished things will be even better."



Holiday Inn Brno (ichotelsgroup.com) has rooms from £95. Suites are from £112. Internet access is based on T-Mobile charges. A one-minute walk from the convention halls.

Hotel International (hotelinternational.cz) has rooms from £85, breakfast included. Suites are from £172. Wireless internet access is £25 a day.

Hotel Royal Ricc (romantichotels.cz) has rooms from £85, breakfast included. The suite, which has a private terrace, costs from £158.


Royal Ricc Restaurant (romantichotels.cz) has three-course meals, including dishes such as salmon fillet in sesame crust, breast of duck and beef sirloin, served in an arty backroom with a small bar. Costs from £22, wine included.

Restaurant Prominent at the Holiday Inn hotel offers three courses with wine from £20; example dishes are goose liver followed by roasted leg of lamb and chocolate cake. Considered one of the city's finest restaurants.

Empire Restaurant and Cocktail Bar (+42 533 420 137) is a casual place for steaks, pizzas and beers on the third floor of the mall on Liberty Square, costing about £10 for a meal with drinks.


Hourly tours are offered, Wednesday-Sunday from 1000 until 1800 (+42 545 212 118, tugendhat-villa.cz). Admission fee is 120CZK (£2.90).


Brno Chamber of Commerce (ohkbrno.cz) for support and basic city statistics.

Central European Exhibition Centre (bvv.cz) for forthcoming trade fairs.

Brno Airport (airport-brno.cz) for the latest routes and terminal information.

Brno City Municipality (brno.cz) for city basics.

Czech Tourist Board (discoverczech.com) for hotel information.


Czech & Slovak Republics (Lonely Planet, £14.99).


Ryanair (ryanair.com) has return fares from Stansted to Brno from £42.58.

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