Day 9: Brno

We managed to get up around 8:00 am, showered, and then had breakfast downstairs in the café attached to the pension (cottage cheese, spreadable cheese, cheese cheese, coffee, etc.), all served to us by a nervous waiter who kept getting yelled at by the woman in charge.  Given that wasn’t our problem, we ate and then set out to see the sights of Brno by following along the suggested walk thoughtfully outlined by the TI booklet.  Before our walk started, though, we wanted to get out some cash but discovered our Capital One ATM card didn’t appear to work at any single ATM in Brno.  Although frustrating and something we would have to deal with at the end of the day, we started with our walk.

“Dragon” must surely mean “crocodile” in Czech

This started us at Old Town Hall (with the crooked spire and crocodile photo op cut-out, which Jim amenably agreed to put his head into), took us to New Town Hall, Šilinger Square, the Denis Gardens, Petrov (St. Peter’s church), and Capuchin Square, where we sidelined the walk for a few moments to go into one of the creepiest sights ever, the Capuchin Crypt (entrance fee was 70 CZK each).  This place is a monastery that had been built forever and a day ago and is filled with preserved bodies of men from times past.  Apparently the exceptional ventilation system that was included in the original plans makes this an ideal place for which to preserve bodies, so we were able to witness them all in all their semi-decayed glory.  A bit disturbing, yes.

Once back outside among the living, we picked up our walk again and it led us near the train station.  One thing I had researched before we left is a place to do laundry in Brno, and thought I had knowledge of the general vicinity in which it should be.  Despite Jim’s protests that we were going the wrong way, we set off and proceeded to walk and walk and walk until I think we were almost to Prague – and the laundromat (Bar Pod Baloney), or the street it was supposed to be on, were nowhere to be found.  So we retraced our steps and went down the road Jim had originally wanted to go on, almost immediately finding the correct street.  Oops, my bad.  We located the address where the laundry should be, but it wasn’t there.  A bit pie faced, we stopped into a café for a coffee where the super nice woman informed us the laundromat had closed that location a while back and moved to the north side of town.  Ok, so the internet isn’t foolproof.

Nevertheless, we didn’t let the prospect of wearing stinky clothes the rest of the trip get us down, and we decided to rearrange the order of the suggested walk and get straight to the big castle atop the hill.  Along the way we found a store selling jewelry and all kinds of African artifacts, where Jim patiently waited while I selected a gorgeous pair of coral and silver earrings as a souvenir.  He’s such a good girlfriend.

Špilberk Castle up on the hill

Finding the path to the Špilberk Castle along Husova Street, we made the steep climb up to the castle (does anyone ever build a castle that isn’t on top of the largest hill in the area?), enjoyed and photographed the views from up top, then went in to tour the Casemates, which was once used as a prison that housed the area’s worst criminals.  The entrance fee was 70 CZK and we were in luck, as it also included a real treat:  a man working at the entrance who spoke perfect English (he was born in the Czech Republic but his family fled to England during WWII) and who was very proud of his hometown.  As we were the only tourists (possibly the only tourists that day, and certainly the only American tourists in quite some while), he personally took us over to where our self-guided tour started and gave us a run-down of the place.  After getting the introduction, we entered the Casemates and found that it was not only very creepy, but very, very cold.  We saw rooms that were used for prisoners (sometimes up to 50 at a time), rooms for guards, the kitchen, and all kinds of dark, dank cubbyholes along the way.  We even saw some prison cells that are called the Josephine rooms, as during the Josephine time capital punishment was illegal.  Well, no problem, they just dumped the prisoners into these cold cells where they usually didn’t live more than 30 days down there.  Problem solved.

The Nazis also used the Casemates during WWII after fortifying many of the walls with extra bricks to make it a safe bunker.  Of course, they high-tailed it when the Soviets came a’callin’.

The pizza window (left), waffle house (right), and Jim enjoying a bit of both

Having our fill of prison life, we went back outside to warm up, finish touring the castle grounds, and pick up the last remnants of our walk.  We started back at Comenius Square, where we again got slightly derailed because we saw that same pizza stand from the day before, where people come in droves for a slice.  Intrigued, we filed into line and purchased a slice (we turned down the offer to put ketchup on it) for the low price of 16 CZK.  It was delicious and we immediately wanted another.  But before we did that, we went next door to a desserts place where they made waffles topped with whipped cream and a topping of your choice (called Gofry).  We went with chocolate, and for 15 CZK we had a little slice of heaven.  This just whetted our appetite for more, so Jim got another 16 CZK slice of pizza before we were once again on our way.  Or so I thought, until Jim came across a hot dog vendor so he bought one at 10 CZK.  This hot dog was genius, which is why it is now called the Genius Hot Dog in our household, as the bun was one long sleeve with a hole on top and the woman dipped the hot dog into a vat of mustard before popping it into the bun, thereby distributing the mustard evenly.  Wow.  To boot, our entire meal cost us the equivalent of $3.  Talk about VFM!

Ok, NOW we were ready to resume our walk, which took us to Moravian Square, the Janácek Theater, the Mahen Theater (which was gorgeous from the outside), the Centrum (Brno’s first skyscraper, which only made it to the 4th floor), Malinovsky Square, a Minorite Monastery, the Roman Square (where we had to hunt for a bit before finding the 3 roosters), and then we doubled back to Old Town Hall to see the death mask in the wall, something we had missed earlier in the day.  The death mask belonged to a man who had bilked the community out of money a few hundred years earlier so they immortalized his crime on this wall as a warning to the townspeople not to be corrupt.  Tsk, tsk.  Anyhoo, our last stop was St. James Square to see the large cathedral before going to the TI to use their internet and try to get to the bottom of our ATM card not working nonsense – and find out exactly where that elusive laundromat had gone.

It was at the TI where we found the girl who had helped us the day before, but she pretended not to recognize us for some reason.  Perhaps she was still miffed we hadn’t allowed her to book us the room.  I did, however, make sure to tell her how happy we were with our accommodations and she seemed to get over her hurt so we were once again back in her good graces.  I even bought a Brno souvenir (a clothespin clip thing with the castle on it that is intended to become a magnet at some point), as a gesture of goodwill.  In return, she told me the laundromat was a ways away and it immediately became clear we were not going to do laundry in Brno.

While I worked our way back into the TI girl’s good graces, Jim struggled on the internet, trying to log into our Capital One account.  Not having any success and with a growing level of frustration, we got a phone number off the web and set off to call them.  This was easier said than done, as our pension did not have a phone for us to use (this was despite our begging and pleading, we don’t think they understood what we meant by “collect call.”  But a quick aside:  when we went into the reception office we encountered a rude American couple who were checking in with their grown daughter and the wife was loud in her demands that breakfast be suitable for them, given they didn’t eat meat.  She kept repeating to her husband – who was well within earshot of the English speaking reception girl – to “tell them we are Vegetarian-o.”  Now, we don’t speak much Czech, but we are pretty sure the word for vegetarian isn’t Vegetarian-o).  Ok, back to our situation:  the reception girl pointed us in the direction of the nearest pay phone, which happened to be at the post office just down the street.  We headed out there and after having MUCH trouble trying to figure out how international phone calls work and what you have to do to make a collect call, Jim was finally connected to a woman at Capital One who turned out to be no help at all over the course of the 30 minute collect phone call.  Bottom line was we were unable to use the card the rest of the trip, but this is why you should always carry backups from different accounts.  We were no rookies.

A bit irritated by the entire ATM fiasco, we next went to the train station to see about tickets to Prague for the next day.  After locating the “Information” office, we wound up at the window of an “Information” lady who quite possibly could be the new gold standard for lack of information.  The problem wasn’t that she spoke no English, no, we could easily get around that.  It was that she was absolutely unwilling to part with any knowledge she had regarding trains to Prague, which, arguably, is the most popular route out of this train station.  Once she realized we were standing our ground and not budging until we had some sort of information, she sighed, typed a few things into her antiquated CRT terminal, then, while we patiently waited, she printed out said information on a dot matrix printer that groaned and squeaked with each line of information printed.  In case you ever wondered where the world’s dot matrix printers had gone, they’ve wound up in Brno.  Some time later, the printer stopped moving and the paper was spit out, so she purposefully and slowly tore it off and handed it to us.  Hmm.  There were only 2 trains listed on this paper, neither of which was particular convenient to us.

By this point, we had been standing at this woman’s Information Window for easily 7 minutes while we had waited for her to relay any information whatsoever, and then waited even longer for the printer to groan and moan its way through the print job.  But we still didn’t have the information for which we were searching, so we pressed her about the possibility of there being more than 2 trains a day to Prague, you know, that same Prague that is the busiest, largest city in the Czech Republic?  She sighed again and then did the most curious thing:  she reached into her drawer and pulled out a train schedule that listed every single train per day between Brno and Prague, of which there were several.  Why in the world hadn’t she just given this to us to begin with, which would have saved us the trouble of standing there staring pointedly at her for so long and would have saved her the pain and agony of doing her job?  And based on what criteria had she selected the first two trains for us, the ones that were produced by the antique dot matrix printer?  It was all very strange indeed, and we left scratching our heads and giggling.

Did someone call a taxi?

In need of a beer at this point, Jim agreed to making the trek to a bar I’d found online before we left, a bar that supposedly sells more Pilsner Urquell beer per square meter than anywhere else in the world (and also a place you are supposed to mind your Ps and Qs, ordering anything but a beer – and a large beer, at that – is deeply frowned upon).  Relishing the thought of being able to brag about that fact, we started the walk that turned into quite the hike, given the bar was geographically farther away in reality than it looked on the map.  Along the way we stopped for another slice of 16 CZK pizza at “our joint,” rationalizing that if we were to drink more beer we should get on a base.  About 45 minutes and quite possibly 8 miles later, we reached the Holy Grail only to find it filled elbow to asshole with smoke and men.  Cautiously deciding we needn’t engage ourselves in such an activity that may end with us getting pummeled in the back alley, we opted to go to a bar down the street, another apparently locals-only joint called Johnnie’s.  Johnnie’s had more breathing room, but we still elected to sit in the front near the door in case things went bad in a hurry.  I ordered us 2 0.5L Pilsner Urquell beers, but Jim watched her pour them and when the Pilsner line on the tap wasn’t working properly, he watched her top them off with another local beer called Kozel.  We pretended to be none the wiser, which was likely a smart move.  The crowd in Johnnie’s looked like a rough and tumble one.

After somewhat uncomfortably drinking our beers, we decided to high-tail it and head back into the area around our hotel to be in more familiar surroundings, so we paid our bar tab and made the long walk back.  We found ourselves in search of a bar that sold Starobrno, which was supposed to be a local beer, and found a great restaurant/beer hall-type place that fit the bill called Restaurace U Jošta.  It was here where we had two more 0.5L beers each, and by the end were quite tipsy.  For those doing the math, we have consumed 1.5L of beer by this point.

In serious need of food, we stumbled on down to the Pizza Coliseum and feasted on a couple of salami pizzas (Jim’s had hot peppers) while seated at a table right next to the pizza maker’s counter.  I’m not sure if the pizza was really that good or if it tasted that good because we were drunk, but it sure was a fine meal.

Once full, we were able to safely get back to our hotel and sleep the night away.  Well, until we were woken up at 5:20 am by a group of drunken people who had likely been drinking 0.5L beers all night.  We know how it goes.

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