Mikulov brings together history, wine, art and design
Nestled at the foot of the Pálava Mountains in the south of Moravia, the picturesque town of Mikulov is one of Czechia’s most attractive destinations. While the town is best known for its wine cellars and historical monuments including an old Jewish quarter, there is more to Mikulov than meets the average tourist’s eye. For instance, few people know that in the past few decades, the town assembled one of the largest collections of contemporary Czech art.
A small diesel train brought me to the town of Mikulov, on the Czech-Austrian border, in the southeast of the country. When its monumental castle emerges like a mirage on the horizon along with a cluster of white chapels on top of the limestone hill above, visitors feel as if they are about to enter some kind of fairy-tale land. The town’s deputy mayor Petra Korlaar confirms that Mikulov is no ordinary place.
“First of all, Mikulov is very special for its geographical position, it’s literally on the border between the Czech Republic and Austria and therefore, it has accumulated something of both cultures. It’s not typically a Czech town, you can see many historical levels in Mikulov that are connected not only to the Czech Republic but also to its neighbouring countries.”
Sometimes dubbed “Czech Tuscany”, the area around Mikulov has a lot in common with Italy, including its wine-making tradition.
“We are one of the main regions for viticulture. Around the town, you can see some beautiful vineyards that are based on calcareous soil, which gives a unique taste to our wines. Many visitors come to learn about and enjoy these wines. The biggest event of the whole cultural year is the Pálavské vinobraní. It is a festival that is about wine and always takes place on the second weekend in September. In our dramaturgy, it is also like a music festival and that’s a bit unique. Therefore, people are very happy to come to Mikulov for three days, not only because they can enjoy the new wines or discover the wines from previous years, but they can also enjoy high-quality music events.”
Featuring rock and folk music, theatre performances, panel discussions, and of course, much wine tasting, the grape harvest festival attracts thousands of people to Mikulov every September. It marks the culmination of a long series of events that fill the town’s cultural calendar almost back-to-back during the warm months of the year. Petra Korlaar again:
“Summer is of course, the main tourist season, but it’s also the main cultural season. Through the decades, the town has hosted many international events. One of them is a guitar festival which hosts international performers. We also have an Art Symposium which for thirty years welcomes artists not only from the Czech Republic but also from abroad who are living, literally, with the citizens for one month and are painting and creating art here in this town. And there are many more music and theatre happenings as well.”
Among the participants of the annual Mikulov Art Symposium in one of its previous years was the Prague-based artist Michaela Vrbková. Originally from Mikulov, Michaela has never lost touch with her hometown.
“The symposium usually lasts one month and different artists are working and living here in the town, working in their studios in the castle, and visitors, tourists, can come to the castle, to their studios and see them at work. And then, at the end of that residency, there is an opening show, an exhibition, where visitors can see what the artists created during that month.”
This year’s grand exhibition opening took place on the first weekend of August and the paintings and sculptures will be on display until late November at Mikulov Castle. Some of the works will then become part of the town’s extensive collection of contemporary Czech art.
It is quite unique for a town the size of Mikulov to offer such a huge array of cultural events, both those with mass appeal and those appreciated mainly by highbrow culture aficionados. Everyone who is someone on the Czech art and design scene makes sure to show up in Mikulov at least once a year. Artist Michaela Vrbková mentions one such occasion.
“There is a happening at the end of May, in Mikulov Castle, an exhibition called ‘Křehký’ which means ‘fragile’, and it’s an exhibition of famous Czech artists that are working with fragile materials in the design department. Daniel Piršč, a famous Czech designer who has his manufacture here in Mikulov, always takes part. He lives and works here. So, it’s also an interesting place to see.”
The award-winning designer’s porcelain objects can be spotted in the town’s bistros and cafes and are on sale on the main square along with regional wines and other local products made from grapes, such as vinegar and brandy.
On a hot August Saturday, while a rock music festival was underway in the town’s open-air theatre and visitors at the castle admired the fruits of this year’s Art Symposium, another exhibition opening was taking place in one of the town’s private galleries.
Following in his parents’ footsteps, Theo Piršč, now studying fine art in Prague, has come back to his hometown to present a show of his paintings, titled “Vista”.
“My first exhibition was in Prague originally, but I wanted to connect with my hometown a bit more, so I took my art to Mikulov.”
How would you describe your art, is it oil on canvas?
“Actually, it’s something quite similar to oil, it’s alkyd which is a sort of fast drying oil.”
And what are your favourite topics?
“Well, I love to look at intricate details in water and nature itself and the exact micro details of, like, the forests that nobody really pays attention to.”
And did you feel special support from the crowd tonight?
“Yeah, actually, I was really surprised by the amount of people that came to look at my art. It was really sort of scary, but it was really nice to see so many friends and family.”
The opening address was delivered by former Mikulov Regional Museum employee and now cabinetmaker and furniture designer Filip Brichta, who has lived in the heart of the town’s former Jewish quarter since the mid-1970s. Although often perceived as a traditional Moravian town by many Czechs, Mikulov has a more complex history, as Mr. Brichta explains.
“Mikulov before the Second World War was mainly a German town with quite a large community of Jews. And as a result of the Potsdam Agreements and all the mess after the Second World War, it was fully – nearly fully or from 70 percent – resettled in the 1950s. So, most of the people that live in the town now do not have roots here over several generations. Of course, there are some exceptions.”
Mr. Brichta is also one of the people behind the annual event celebrating the town’s heritage of cultural diversity. Taking place in mid-July, the Nations of the Thaya Region festival features music, dance and traditional cuisines from the region as well as further afield, reminding people that ultimately, we all came from “somewhere else”.
“It’s mainly focused on this ‘furball’ of xenophobia, racism, fear of ‘the other’, and one of those focuses is trying to bring the past of the town – that was mainly German – to terms with the present.”
From folk to classical music concerts, from street food to fine dining, Mikulov has something to offer to everyone including wine connoisseurs and history buffs. Its main square is bustling with life, and you can hear the languages of the Central European region as well as those from more distant corners of the world. Scott, who came from the United States, told me what he liked about the town.
“Well, the whole city is absolutely beautiful. Everywhere that you look, it’s just something special, authentic, it’s very old, but in great condition. I can’t really say that anything would be my favourite but if you come to the Czech Republic, you should put Mikulov on the top of your list because it’s a really special place for architecture, history, culture, and wine, of course. So there’s so many things, so many reasons.”
And as deputy mayor Petra Korlaar says, one of those reasons is particularly romantic.
“I believe the trend started off a couple of years ago in one of these wedding magazines. There was a picture of Mikulov and because we are a Baroque town, historical, of course, it’s very romantic, with all the vineyards around, with the landscape around, and therefore we became very popular also for weddings, and stags dos and hen nights.”
While young brides-and grooms-to-be from all over the country are enjoying their last days of single life in the wine cellars, and newly-weds are taking photos in the magnificent castle gardens, an authentic local wedding is taking place in the town. Blocking off one of the historical streets, dozens of wedding guests are dancing to live Roma music, further adding to the somewhat Mediterranean atmosphere of the town. And as artist Michaela Vrbková told me, this peculiar holiday vibe is something that is experienced by the locals as well.
“I like to come back here, because I always have a feeling that time is not running as fast here as it does in Prague. Probably it’s because Mikulov looks a little bit like some Italian city – or it has that vibe – and I feel like I’m on vacation here. So, I come back to Mikulov to visit my parents and also to work because I am a part of the family business, but working here is not that stressful. The summertime is the best time, because a lot of culture is happening here, there are a lot of festivals and art exhibitions and stuff like that. But I also like to come here during the wintertime, because the town is more calm, it’s more peaceful, because there are not so many tourists like during the summertime.”
Many things in Mikulov can be enjoyed even outside the summer tourist season: its monumental castle with its historical and art exhibitions, the beautifully renovated synagogue, the recently uncovered Jewish ritual mikveh bath, the well-preserved Jewish cemetery with the graves of celebrated rabbis and much more. While the weather is still warm, deputy mayor Petra Korlaar has personal recommendations.
“Well, I would say, an early morning walk to the top of the Holy Hill or maybe at sunset, if you prefer. A walk in the vineyards or in the botanically rare region of the CHKO (Protected Landscape Area) park, which is also a UNESCO biosphere. There are many things to do around the city, but of course also inside the town. You can visit the castle which has several exhibitions or the historical Baroque burial chapel on the main square.”
The tower clock of St. Wenceslas Church on the main square measures time that seems to have a different quality in Mikulov. A weekend visit is not nearly enough and that’s why people love to come back for more of its rich offerings. But if you ask tourists in the streets what they think the town’s biggest attraction is, you get a clear answer.
“Well, Mikulov is the heart of Czech wine country, so the entire area is full of vineyards, acres and acres of them. In the immediate vicinity is Valtice which is a beautiful wine town. There’s the Czech Wine Salon, which boasts the 100 best Czech wines that experts choose every year. So you can go visit their cellars. There’s Pálava which is a famous wine region just adjacent to Mikulov. And the whole wine experience here is the main reason why you would come here and it’s something special and definitely worth experiencing.”
With a population of just some 7,000, the town of Mikulov is now a heavyweight when it comes to tourism as well as its impact on the Czech cultural scene. Once a closely guarded border crossing between communist Czechoslovakia and Austria, drab and neglected by the authorities, over the past three decades Mikulov has flourished into a prosperous, open and cosmopolitan community, respectful of its multicultural heritage and proud of its generous hospitality.