Olomouc: Where rich Baroque history and a thriving international community meet
Olomouc: Where rich Baroque history and a thriving international community meet
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The city of Olomouc lies in the eastern province of Moravia. The sixth biggest city in Czechia with a population of about 100,000 - Olomouc is home to countless historical landmarks and one of the 17 UNESCO sites in the country. Not only a historically important city, but today a very international one, as Palacký University attracts thousands of internationals from all corners of the earth to learn and study in Moravia.
I took a trip to Olomouc to learn more about its history, and speak with some of the international students who are shifting the landscape of the city.
It’s a chilly autumn morning, and the bright sun lights up the colours of the red and yellow leaves on the trees as my train cruises through the Moravian countryside. The train, bound for the Moravian city of Olomouc, jerks into the station. I hop off, eager to catch the next tram headed in the direction of the historic centre.
To my surprise, the trams move incredibly slowly in Olomouc, nothing like the zip of the number 9 in Prague. But as my day begins to unfold, and as I meet the locals in the city, I realise the speed of the trams is indicative of the way of life in Olomouc - slightly slower in pace, not as rigid in schedule, a more laissez-faire attitude than what I’m used to in the nation’s capital.
I jump off the tram and head towards the upper square of the historic centre, to find Martina Zdražilová, a tour guide who lives in Brno but specialises in the Olomouc region. Martina has kindly agreed to show me around for the day and enlighten me on the historic gems the city has to offer.
“The upper square is the heart of the city, and also the region of Haná- it’s the most fertile region of the Czech Republic. The farmers were very rich in this area given that it was a very fertile region with lots of fields. It’s a local joke that the farmers here had time for everything, so you somehow cannot be in a hurry here.”
That explains the speed of the trams!
As we move through the square, Martina points out the building of the old town hall, which has been used for over 600 years and is home to the second best known and second oldest astronomical clock in Czechia, but we’ll come back to that.
The history of Olomouc dates back centuries – to Roman times. There’s even a legend that Julius Cesar founded the city, as Martina explains to me.
“People in Olomouc are very proud that its history goes back to Roman times, and it was allegedly founded by Cesar. Archaeologists confirmed that there was a Roman camp here. Until recently it was believed that the northernmost part of the Roman Empire was in Mušov, which is close to Mikulov - on the border between Czech Republic and Austria. But now we know that the Romans did reach Olomouc, but on the other hand, the idea that the city was founded by Cesar is probably only legendary.”
But while the city enjoyed a triumphant start as part of the Roman Empire, its history has been tumultuous.
“Olomouc used to be the largest city in Moravia, and it was very proud of its position - it always combined three functions. It was a royal city, the seat of the Bishop, and had a very strong military. But the flourishing part of its history was interrupted by the 30 Years War, which was a problematic time for the whole country and all of Europe. Olomouc was defeated by the Swedes in 1642 and was occupied for eight years and 24 days. It went bankrupt, and also lost its seat as the most important city in Moravia, and Brno became the official capital of Moravia.”
As we begin to move through the upper square, Martina points out various fountains which, she tells me, are part of a series of six Baroque fountains placed around the city, inspired by figures from ancient mythology. They depict Neptune, Hercules, the Tritons, Caesar, Mercury, and Jupiter.
As we admire the town hall, Martina points out the fountain placed directly in front of it. It's decorated ornately with a statue of a… dolphin? Not exactly the national animal of Czechia, but Martina explains the history and meaning behind it.
“The singer and poet Arion became rich in Sicily and Italy thanks to his musical talents. He was returning to Greece on a ship, but when his fellow citizens learned of his wealth, they forced him to jump off the ship into the sea. But he was saved by a dolphin, and was safely brought home where he could tell everyone what happened to him. The city of Olomouc had the same story, it had a high position that was taken away during the 30 Years War, and they wanted powerful individuals like the Emperor to learn of this injustice.”
After learning about the history of the fountains, we head in the direction of another famous monument in Olomouc, the Trinity Column, a designated UNESCO site here in Czechia. According to Martina, these Trinity Columns are something unique to Central Europe.
“Central Europe is an area where you can find plague columns, also known as Trinity Columns. They were erected at the end of plague epidemics in gratitude to God for ending the terrible disease, and became very typical throughout the Baroque era. This column is 32 metres high, and at the top it’s decorated with a sculpture of the Holy Trinity. There are 18 statues of saints, 12 light bearers, and six apostles. It is the only structure of this type which includes a chapel inside.”
Construction of the Trinity Column in Olomouc began in 1716 and was completed in 1754. The idea for the column came from a local stonemason, Vaclav Render. Since he had no children, he poured all of his money into the column's construction, but unfortunately, never lived to see its completion; he died in 1733. However, the column has withstood some of the most brutal invasions, as Martina tells me.
“Only four years after the column's completion, Olomouc was besieged by the Prussian army. The shaft of the column was hit, and the city sent a delegation to the commander of the Prussians and asked them not to aim at the column. The commander was so surprised that he actually obeyed and turned the cannons in a different direction.”
Olomouc is truly one of those cities with a historical landmark at every corner, but one sticks out like a sore thumb - the socialist astronomical clock. Martina tells me more.
“The astronomical clock now looks very modern, and it reminds us of the communist era of the 1950s. It was damaged at the end of the Second World War, but its damage was not as serious as that to the astronomical clock in Prague. It was decided that its appearance would be changed to remove all the references to the church. It was simplified, and now we can say that it’s part of history, even though it’s a history that was not very nice or joyful.”
Aesthetically it is completely different from the astronomical clock in Prague. Martina explains the design to me.
“The mosaic was designed by Karel Svolinský, who was born in Olomouc. On the sides, you can see the typical activities in the different months of the year. The upper side is decorated with folk motifs, and you can see beautiful local folk costumes, which reflect the fact that Olomouc was a rich region.”
Just as she finishes explaining, the clock strikes noon, the one time that the astronomical clock rings - for roughly ten minutes. Except, instead of angels ringing the bells, it’s workers.
The socialist clock is one of the remnants of the city’s and the country’s communist past. Martina explains that during the communist era, many of the historical buildings in Olomouc were dilapidated and fell into disrepair. But as she says, today she’s proud of the city that it’s become.
"I’m proud of it, and it’s part of my job to show people the Czech Republic and the sites here. I’m very happy that now we don’t have to be ashamed of what the city looks like.”
“I’m proud of it, and it’s part of my job to show people the Czech Republic and the sites here. I’m very happy that now we don’t have to be ashamed of what the city looks like.”
Times certainly have changed since the communist era, and that includes the demographic makeup of the city. Olomouc is home to Palacký University, the oldest higher education institution in Moravia, and the second oldest in Czechia. While situated outside the nation’s capital, the university attracts thousands of international students every year.
Nearly one quarter of the university's 23,000 students come from abroad, and I met with two of them in Olomouc. In a bustling cafe next to the Mlýnský Potok river, I meet 24-year-old Omkar Karvekar, a PhD student from India, and Ahmed Basal, a 23-year-old Bachelor’s student from Egypt. Omkar tells me what he likes about Olomouc.
“I’ve had such a good experience so far here in Olomouc. I can work on my PhD here, push my career, but at the same time, I can have a lot of fun. Because of the international hub at the university, I’ve met a lot of people and made really good friends. The vibe I’m feeling here is awesome. For international people, Olomouc is great compared to other cities in the Czech Republic. I’ve been really impressed by the education and the culture here in Olomouc.”
For Omkar, his love for Olomouc isn’t fleeting, he plans on staying as long as he can, even after he completes his PhD.
“I would love to stay here, and I will try to extend my stay here because I love the city so much, the architecture and everything.”
I asked Ahmed what he thought of his experience in Olomouc so far and he had this to say.
“Life in Olomouc has been interesting, that is the least I can say. I’ve lived in two different dorms here, and in both there have been many international and Erasmus students. There’s always life in these dorms, and you really can’t plan your day, you never know what will happen tomorrow or even in two hours. Almost everyone I have met from the international community has been amazing - nothing short of amazing.”
I spend the rest of the afternoon with Omkar and Ahmed. They tell me more about their life here in Olomouc, and we take a walk through Rudolfova park, a favourite spot of theirs. As our time comes to an end, I wonder what life would be like here in Olomouc without this wave of international students bringing new life to the city. So I asked Ahmed what he’s learned from the other internationals in Olomouc, and what life would be like without them.
“I thought I knew some things about different countries, but now I know much more about different cultures, and it’s all because of the international community right here in Olomouc.
"Without the international students, life in Olomouc wouldn’t be that vibrant. The students here are the heartbeat of the city.”
“I’m meeting people from Turkey and Latin America. Without the international students, life in Olomouc wouldn’t be that vibrant. The students here are the heartbeat of the city.”
This region’s assets include the university town of Olomouc, the fairytale landscape of Bouzov, the spa Karlova Studánka with the cleanest air in Central Europe.
With its rich history, stunning architecture and beautiful skyline Prague attracts visitors from all over the world. But there is much more to see in Czechia.