Most popular Brno souvenir is for free

Sometimes the best souvenirs of a place are things that unexpectedly come your way and cost nothing. Brno’s astronomical clock provides tourists with the chance to take away something special.

When the Moravian metropolis installed its „astronomical clock“ on the city’s main square in 2010 it was unprepared for the storm of controversy that it caused. Made of polished black granite it was supposed to resemble a giant bullet but instead people joked about its phallic shape, giving it a number of unflattering nicknames. It was dubbed “the giant vibrator” or the country’s most expensive penis – having cost 12 million crowns. Moreover, despite the manual installed next to it people complained that it was difficult to determine the exact time –accusing the authorities of wasting public funds. However, the clockwork mechanism has unexpectedly proved a hit – a saving grace for the modern Brno landmark.

Brno astronomical clock | Photo: Hana Ondryášová,  Czech Radio

According to its creators, the clock was designed to commemorate the heroic defense of the city against the Swedish army during the Thirty Years’ War. In 1645, the Swedish army laid siege to Brno for nearly three months. The invaders were about to prevail when the city was saved by the bell – which rang at 11 AM rather than noon, a deadline set by the Swedes for capturing the city. To celebrate that, a glass ball rolls out of one of the clock’s four openings at 11 am every day. On special occasions a glass ball rolls out every hour.

The glass balls have different motifs and as the hour approaches, the clock is surrounded by dozens of people –tourists waiting for an unusual souvenir, or some of the locals who have started a collection.

The balls have given the city authorities the opportunity to commemorate events and personalities by the chosen symbol in the glass ball at a given time. The first glass ball was adorned with the city’s coat of arms, three crowns or a design commemorating General Torstenson, a Swedish field marshal and artillerist who transformed the use of field artillery helping to win important victories in the Thirty Years’ War. On special occasions the balls are related to contemporary events – such as the Donate Blood for Brno campaign, which aimed to recruit new blood and bone marrow donors. The special series also appeared on June 14, World Blood Donor Day, and September 19, World Bone Marrow Donor Day.

Photo: Tomáš Kremr,  Czech Radio

The motifs are usually designed in Brno’s colours –red and white. On special occasions there are exceptions. For instance during Advent the clock releases 13 balls every day – 312 in the course of Advent – and there is a special Christmas motif – for instance a Christmas tree with the respective year engraved on the ball.

Since the clock was installed it has released close to six thousand glass balls. They were designed by eighty-three-year-old glass artist Jaroslav Svoboda, whose work has appeared in galleries in New York, Zurich and Moscow among others. Contrary to what one might expect the glass balls are not mass produced with the help of a mold – they are all handmade and original – which is why they are perceived as souvenirs and collectors’ items.

Photo: Tomáš Kremr,  Czech Radio

The most difficult thing was to figure out how to get different motifs inside the ball, "admits Jaroslav Svoboda, who works closely with a team of skilled glassmakers, led by Lukáš Verner. He explains how each ball is made.

“At the start you have molten glass in the furnace. The glassmakers pick it up with their pipe and then insert coloured glass powder into the centre to create the given motif. Then they add  another layer of molten glass and, with the help of a mold, complete the shape of a ball. If it is the right size, it will pass.”

Then the glass balls are then left to cool before going to the grinders who work on them for close to an hour getting rid of any unevenness that remains on the ball where it was attached to the glass pipe or engraving a date if need be.

Jaroslav Svoboda | Photo: Miloš Šenkýř,  Czech Radio

Jaroslav Svoboda , a glass artists par excellence and the owner of the glassworks, says that the balls are made exclusively for Brno.

“This is exclusively a product for Brno, it is a symbol of the city and some firms and companies even order these balls as a representative gift for their partners.”

Jaroslav Svoboda says the question of how these glass balls should be transported to Brno was quickly solved by the glassworks’ female staff.

“Our girls came up with a simple and ingenious solution –they suggested we use egg trays. The glass balls are about four centimeters in diameter and they fit into the hollows perfectly.”

For tourists who do not spend a longer time in Brno, it is good to know that slightly smaller copies of these balls are sold as souvenirs in Brno‘s tourist and information centers. One costs 290 crowns and comes with a leaflet providing information about the clock and the given motif.

Brno astronomical clock | Photo: Hana Ondryášová,  Czech Radio

According to the staff of the information centers , the balls sell well, mainly due to foreign tourists.

Local collectors hanging around the clock looking to pick up one of the original balls say they would never buy a „fake“. It would rob them of the excitement of waiting for the real thing, choosing the right side of the clock and grabbing it ahead of others when the ball slides out. Some say they rely on good luck, others claim they have a system to determine where the next ball will emerge.

People fascinated by the Brno landmark can also buy magnets, mugs and T-shirts with a picture of the Brno clock and even a small model of the clock itself –an eighteen-centimeter tall paperweight that costs around 1,000 crowns.

In the eleven years of service the clock only stopped once – in May of 2021 – but it was fixed within a couple of hours and been working like the proverbial clockwork ever since. As for Jaroslav Svoboda and Lukas Verner they reckon they will keep designing and making new balls for Brno as long as the clock keeps “ticking”.