In late 2017, our World Heritage Journey had the opportunity to visit the eight World Heritage sites in eastern Czechia (as it’s sometimes known these days, though still officially the Czech Republic). It’s amazing that there’s so many World Heritage sites in such a small area. These World Heritage sites are all quite varied, with an interesting mix of religious, cultural, architecture and natural sites. Read on to discover more about eastern Czechia, a sadly underappreciated part of the world!
1. Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc
Olomouc is an interesting and charming little town, and home to one of the smallest World Heritage sites we’ve visited so far. It’s a “plague column”, a religious monument common in the 17th and 18th centuries. This particular monument was built in 1754 by local craftsmen, in gratitude for the end of a particularly devastating plague. It’s covered in beautiful baroque statues wrought in gilded copper and stone, depicting various holy figures including the Holy Trinity, Jesus, the 12 Apostles, plus local saints and patrons. Interestingly, a local man named John Sarkander is also included – a controversial addition as he was a local religious hero but not a saint, and it was considered uncouth to include a non-saint among saintly company. The problem was solved in 1995 when John Sarkander was canonised by Pope John Paul II.
2. Gardens and Castle at Kroměříž
Despite the intimidating-sounding name (it’s pronounced Krom-yer-chitch!), this World Heritage site is a gorgeous environment. Dating from the mid-18th century, the castle itself is interesting but the gardens are the real highlight of this World Heritage site. Done immaculately in the Baroque style, there are fantastic groups of flower beds, statues, formal gardens, and informal English gardens too. We had a lovely afternoon wandering around the gardens, despite inclement weather and the lack of colour in late autumn. I’m told they’re absolutely beautiful in the springtime! One interesting fact – the castle is where much of the movie Amadeus was filmed.
3. Litomyšl Castle
Some castles are noteworthy for their fortifications, others for their dramatic locations or incredible architecture. But Litomyšl Castle is very different! It’s famous for its exterior decorations, done in a type of stone etching known as sgraffito. In this technique (from which modern graffiti takes its name), the stone is whitewashed in plaster and the negative image scratched out, leaving a bright white image remaining. It’s absolutely remarkable, and one of the main reasons Litomyšl Castle is now a World Heritage site. It’s also well maintained on the inside, with lots of Baroque-era furniture and decoration still surviving. I especially loved the contrast between the “gentlemen’s room” featuring smoking lounges and billiard tables, and the “ladies room” featuring pianos and sewing machines!
4. Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk in Zelena Hora
This fascinating church in eastern Czechia has one of the most unusual designs I’ve ever encountered. It’s laid out as a 12 point star, surrounded by other 12-pointed shaped motifs. It’s also in a very dramatic spot, atop a hill surrounded by rolling fields and plains. St John of Nepomuk himself was a Czech priest who was martyred in the 13th century after refusing to divulge the Queen’s secrets from confession. When his tongue was discovered in the 18th century the church was constructed in its honour, and features the incorruptible tongue motif in several places. It’s a really interesting and unique spot, and one that speaks volumes about a fascinating part of Czech history.
5. Jewish Quarter & Basilica of St Procopius in Třebíč
Třebíč is a beautiful little river town in the south of Czechia, not far from the Austrian border. Here, the Basilica of St Procopius stands atop a high hill and towers over the town. It was built in the 13th century in Romanesque style, and contains some beautiful stained glass windows, including a gorgeous rosette. Nearby, on the bank of the river, stands the Jewish Quarter, considered to be one of the best preserved Jewish ghettos in Europe. Sadly, for much of history Jews have been confined to ghettos, and this area is no exception. Here there are still a hundred or so Jewish houses, two synagogues and a Jewish cemetery. But it comes with a brutal reminder of modern history – during World War II all of the Jews in town were sent to Nazi extermination camps, and only a handful returned.
6. Historic Centre of Telč
Telč was probably our biggest surprise in eastern Czechia. It’s on the World Heritage list for its large town square, lined with beautiful pastel-coloured shopfronts and houses. They all have a fantastic Moravian feel to them, very neatly kept, and beautifully painted as well. Telč became rich as a cross-roads between Moravia, Bohemia, and Austria, and you can still see the results of that today. The large 17th century Renaissance chateau building is also apparently well worth a look, but sadly was closed for renovations when we visited.
7. Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape
This cultural landscape is an immense manicured parkland area that covers almost 300 square kilometres of south-eastern Czechia. It’s so large that several towns are contained within it! The key World Heritage aspects here are the two large chateaux owned for centuries by the Liechtenstein family (yes, those Liechtensteins!), one of which was their principal residence for hundreds of years. We spent a lovely day exploring the parklands, marvelling at the various follies that had been built in the parklands for their amusement (including a huge lake, a minaret, and a Roman-style triumphal arch).
8. Tugendhat Villa in Brno
Nestled on a hillside in the leafy northern suburbs of Brno, Czechia’s second city, Tugendhat Villa is a remarkable example of modernist architecture. Built in the late 1920s for the wealthy local Tugendhat family by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, it made heavy use of new modern materials and techniques. Even today, nearly a full century later, it looks remarkably modern and on trend. Sadly, the Jewish Tugendhat family only lived here for a few years before Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia forced them to flee, never to return. It was later used as headquarters for the Gestapo and the Soviet military, and in 1992 the documents to formally separate Slovakia and Czech Republic were signed in the villa. Quite an interesting history! Though if you want to visit the inside, be sure to book ahead! Visits are by appointment only, and sell out months in advance.