By Abby Kutlas from Northwestern University.
Over the last few months, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to places that are on many a bucket list and Pinterest travel board, from Budapest to the Swiss Alps and Salzburg. When I look back at my time abroad, however, I will always have a fondness in my heart for a town no one in the United States has probably ever heard of: Brno.
Brno is the second-largest city in the Czech Republic, with around 400,000 inhabitants, and is the judicial authority of the country, hosting the Supreme Court. Brno also has 13 different institutes of higher learning with 89,000 students total, and you can definitely feel that presence in the city. CIEE took all of the kids in the journalism program to Brno a few weekends ago to check out this adorable town in the Moravian region of the country, and it was a surprisingly fantastic weekend.
We left for Brno via bus on Friday morning, and two-and-a-half hour later we arrived in front of Masaryk University to tour their alternative radio station, Radio R. Radio R started eight years ago as a place to air alternative music but has expanded to educational programming, lifestyle shows and discussion hours. They let us broadcast live with them, and it was so much fun! They were so sweet, and as a journalism student, it’s always great to see people my age taking initiative and capitalizing on their passions.
After our visit to Radio R, we had a quick lunch and then went to Villa Tugendhat. Villa Tugendhat is considered a masterpiece of Functionalist architecture designed by Ludwig Mies van de Rohe. It was completed for the Tugendhats in 1930, but as a Jewish family, they had to flee when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. The house was taken over by the Gestapo until the end of World War Two, and then it was turned into a dance school until 1950. From there, Villa Tugendhat was under the control of the Czechoslovak state and was turned into a rehabilitation center for children with spinal defects. The building unfortunately went into disrepair until rights for the villa were transferred to the city of Brno in 1980. It underwent some repairs at that point but underwent a huge renovation a few years ago, and now looks almost exactly how it would have been when the family lived there. Modern architecture is usually not my thing, but this house was so fascinating. Not only was it absolutely enormous, it had a number of technological advances that were truly spectacular for the times, and hey: a house tour is a house tour. (My friends who know how obsessed I am with real estate and HGTV will understand.)
The tour was also really interesting for two other reasons. One: we had to cover our shoes with plastic as soon as we entered the house using these futuristic machines that melted sheets of plastic around our feet. Two: our tour guide was endlessly sassy and had a dry sense of humor, which added an extra layer of awesome to the whole experience.
(Also: all photos credit to Molly. Only one of us was allowed to take pictures under the photography permit!)
After the tour of Villa Tugendhat, we checked into our very nice Best Western hotel and made our way to the Moravian wine tasting.
Just a quick geography lesson for y’all before I continue. Prague is in the part of the Czech Republic historically known as Bohemia. Bohemia is known for its beer. The eastern part of the country is the traditional land of Moravia, which is known for its wine. Needless to say, as a wine-over-beer person, score one for Brno in my book.
Anyway, we all went to the tasting in a little humid wine cellar and were not expecting a lot. I mean, you’ve heard of Italian wine, wine from California, wine from Chile, but Moravian wine? Where is that in Hyvee? Thankfully, we were promptly surprised by how wonderful each sample was. We had the opportunity to taste nine different wines (four whites, two rosés and three reds) and eat lots of delicious local cheese. Technically, CIEE is a dry program (because we are all American students), so it makes me laugh that they paid for us all to get pretty tipsy, as the “samples” they poured were usually nearly-full glasses. I’m so upset that I can’t take wine back in my suitcase because of that pesky US drinking age, because I truly enjoyed each kind we tried.
After our little outing, a bunch of us decided to go out to check out the local bars and clubs. It was an eventful night, with the most adventurous of our group (you know who you are) asking a waiter to come to a club with us and then getting cozy with a DJ and the rest of us dancing like crazy people to 90s music.
The next morning, after a fantastic breakfast at the hotel, we embarked on a walking tour of Brno. It was a crisp autumn day and the leaves were all the special Czech variety of gold, and so of course, we had to do a cute photo shoot.
The tour took us around Špilberk Castle (dating back to the 13th century) and the adjoining Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, through the old town area and to Brno City Hall. On the tour, we learned a lot of the city’s legends and stories and got a good feel for the character of Brno. Also, coincidentally, our tour guide was a foreign exchange student in Grand Island, Nebraska about six years ago!!! She went to Central Catholic, so we didn’t know any of the same people, but seriously, what a small world. After getting a quick lunch, a bunch of us set out to find a thrift store. Many miles of walking and failed attempts later, we stopped at a cute little place for cupcakes. The upside was that it was a completely gorgeous day (how many times can I say that in one post?) and it was nice to take a long walk with friends. We all took a quick nap after our shopping adventure and woke up ready to try out some of the cool restaurants and bars we had seen the night before. At our dinner location, the ceiling was a shag-carpet version of Audrey Hepburn and they had really good guacamole. I also tried to wear a pumpkin as a hat (it was Halloween, for God’s sake!) and a giant spider crawled down my face. Spooky.
On Sunday, we had another wonderful hotel breakfast and then walked to the Museum of Romani Culture. For centuries, Roma people (commonly referred to as Gypsies) have been regarded as socially backward by the mainstream cultures they live alongside and have been systematically oppressed by the countries they settle in, and the Czech Republic is no exception. At the museum, we watched a short documentary about the case of a young man accusing a young Roma man of beating him so severely that his kidney was removed. This claim started what was essential a giant witch hunt for young Romani men and incited greater xenophobia among Czech people. Three weeks after the Czech teenager made these allegations, he admitted that he had actually fallen from the balcony of a friend’s apartment and was too afraid to tell his mother, so he blamed it on the Roma. It was heartbreaking to see how easily even the mainstream, supposedly unbiased media latched on to the theory that a Roma man was responsible for the crime. After the screening, we had a conversation with two of the museum’s directors about racism in the Czech Republic and in the United States, which was quite interesting. After saying goodbye to the Museum of Romani Culture, we headed to lunch and then back to the bus to go home.
Honestly, I did not approach my weekend in Brno with terribly high expectations, but I am so glad CIEE provided (forced us to go on) this trip. The city is so vibrant and fun, and I strengthened so many friendships during that weekend. It’s also really fun to travel within the Czech Republic instead of just staying in Prague…it makes this place feel even more like home.