Olomouc - a treasure trove of historical architecture

Caesar's fountain, photo: Luckajanotova, Wikimedia Commons, Licence CC 3.0

With its sloping cobbled streets, beautiful baroque churches and an abundance of historical architecture, Olomouc is easily one of the most appealing cities in the Czech Republic outside of Prague. Typically, this bustling university town in North Moravia owes much of its architectural splendour to its long and somewhat chequered past. Some claim that this ancient city dates back as far as Roman times, when it was reputed to have been founded by Julius Caesar himself.

Josef Linek, who works for the city's townhall, says there may be more to this story than just mere legend:

St. Moritz Cathedral, photo: CzechTourism
"You know, according to archaeological excavations, we can say that the Roman army was definitely here and that they had a camp in the vicinity of Olomouc. But nobody actually knows whether Julius Caesar was here or not. That's a legend, but [at least] it's a nice legend."

Whatever about the truth of its Caesarean origins, there is no doubt that Olomouc became a major seat of administrative power once Bohemia and Moravia were united in the 11th century. Its strategic trading position on the road to Krakow certainly added to its importance. It became the seat of an archbishopric in 1063 and was actually capital of Moravia from 1187 to 1641.

Caesar's fountain, photo: Luckajanotova, Wikimedia Commons, Licence CC 3.0
All of this made Olomouc a target for Swedish troops, who occupied the city during the Thirty Years War. This conflict had a devastating impact on the city. Many of its gothic and renaissance buildings were destroyed and most of its population perished.

But, as Josef Linek points out, the subsequent reconstruction of the city helped it become the architectural jewel it is today.

"After the Thirty Years War, the city was horribly damaged and almost completely destroyed, so everything had to be rebuilt again. Because this happened in the 17th century, almost all of the buildings here are now in baroque or later architectural styles."

Chapel of Jan Sarkander, photo: Daniel Baránek, Wikimedia Commons, Licence CC 3.0
Besides some gothic remnants, such as the impressive St. Moritz Cathedral, Olomouc has some classic examples of baroque architecture, including St. Michael's Church and the Chapel of Jan Sarkander. It is also famous for its spectacular townhall and six Baroque fountains, which are actually seventeenth and eighteenth-century embellishments of the wells that comprised the town's original water supply.

Josef Linek says that Olomouc's massive Trinity plague column, which was built by the local designer Vaclav Render, is perhaps the dominant feature of the town's rich architectural tapestry.

"This column was built in the 18th century. It was built as a way of giving thanks to God for saving the city from the plague. It was built by a really famous Olomouc architect - [Vaclav] Render. The construction of the column took more than 20 years. It is over 35 metres high and there are more than 40 sculptures on it. In 2000, the column was added to the UNESCO's list of historical monuments, and it is the only column in the world to make this list."

Trinity plague column, photo: CzechTourism
Besides its architectural heritage, Olomouc is also something of a cultural hub. For instance, the composer Gustav Mahler worked here as a choirmaster in the 1880s and has a street named after him.

The city is also known as a seat of learning. Over 14,000 students attend the local Palacky University. In a town of around 100,000 people, such a high student population certainly makes Olomouc a lively and exciting place to visit. Many of its 300 bars and clubs are often full of young scholars letting their hair down.

Palacky University has always prided itself on its academic excellence and is perhaps best known as the place where the soft contact lens was discovered. Since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, it has taken advantage of a more open climate to forge closer links with other similar institutions abroad. Vice Rector Milada Hirschova says Palacky has now become a truly international university:

"The change since 1989 has been huge. It has changed immensely. Before 1990, the university had about 4-5,000 students, so that number has now tripled. It used to be a small, regional, closed school, which had hardly any contact with foreign universities. Now, we have about 24 partnership agreements with foreign universities. Every year, we also have around 200 students coming under EU programmes or other exchange programmes with foreign universities."

Palacký University, photo: Kristýna Maková
This influx of foreign students is a far cry from the days before 1989, when the only frequent non-Czech visitors to the town were Soviet soldiers from a nearby garrison.

Inge - a European Studies major from Holland - finds this opportunity to study in a former outpost of the Eastern Bloc to have been a fascinating experience:

"I really like Olomouc. It's wonderful. I love it. There are beautiful old buildings [here]. But you can also see the buildings of the communist regime, and it's really striking. We've seen lots of churches, which are really beautiful. And then you see some buildings that just seem to be dropped in the centre of the city, and there's no thought of any architectural style behind them. It's really kind of different."

As Inge says, Olomouc is not all about beautiful, classic styles of architecture.

The city's orloj or astronomical clock is notorious for the mechanical proletarian figures that shuffle past its clockface when it chimes.

As Josef Linek explains, this socialist remodelling of the astronomical clock is a far cry from the religiously inspired procession of its more famous counterpart in Prague.

"Historically, the face of [our] astronomical clock was much closer to the face of Prague's astronomical clock. But because it was damaged at the end of the Second World War, a decision was taken to reconstruct it in a particular way. This happened in 1950 during the communist era, so they decided to build something that was 'close to the workers' - something that would show agriculture here and which would depict workers, but in the way that communists wanted them to be seen. That's why we have this face on our astronomical clock here and why you can't see any religious reference or any hint of the Catholic faith, etc."

Besides the socialist astronomical clock, perhaps the most striking architectural legacy of communism in Olomouc is the Prior shopping centre, a huge, concrete monstrosity, which stands incongruously amongst the glories of the city's old town.

This monument to socialist functionalism was built in the 1960s and 70s on a square in front of the St. Moritz cathedral. Some say it was actually constructed there to prevent people from being able to congregate and protest at one of the city's natural focal points.

Now, fifteen years after the fall of communism, Josef Linek says that the Prior building may well remain in place for the foreseeable future, as a stark reminder of a dark chapter in the city's history:

"It's difficult to say whether we should remove it or not, because it would cost so much money. Maybe it could happen in the future, and I guess would be really great to have that big square back again. But it's still there for the time being. We'll have to wait and see what might happen in the future."