“Second” Czech city cool again

Brno, photo: Vít Pohanka

Brno is cool again. The second city of the Czech Republic is finally shedding its somewhat shabby image and finding healthy self-confidence. Its streets are filling with smart shops and there is a lot to do and see. As our reporter Vít Pohanka found out it is definitely a place worth visiting.

Brno - view from Špilberk Park, photo: Vít Pohanka
As old newsreels attest, Brno was for decades associated mainly with two annual international events: its motorcycle Grand Prix and annual engineering fairs. But even though they were supposed to showcase the successes of the communist country’s organized sport and planned economy they were in fact proving the opposite:

“At the start of this traditional race there were competitors from 12 countries. Our racers took the lead right away. Masterly style of riding is shown here by Šťastný, followed by Čada, Helikar and Australian Hinton who is riding Norton. The brave ride by our competitors, however, does not account for much. For their motorcycles have frequent defects and soon have to drop from the race one after another."

"Now, the Grand Prix has become solely a foreign competition. Halmayer from the Federal Republic of Germany is in comfortable lead on his NSU. And he becomes the champion in both categories of 350 ccm and 250 ccm.”

And despite the obligatorily optimistic tone of the commentator similar disappointments were experienced by visitors to the International Engineering Fair year after year.

Brno - city of the young, photo: Vít Pohanka
“Jet plane admirers can peek right into their engines. The Jawa exposition cannot be missed even by those who already have this motorcycle at home. There are whole workshops in the exposition halls that produce spare parts on the spot. The motor-car exhibition is one of the most attractive for all visitors.”

Rather than convincing visitors that the country was doing well, the Brno Fairs unwittingly let them compare the substandard socialist products with higher quality Western output. A lot changed after the fall of communism in 1989. Brno still hosts the Grand Prix, but these days on a world quality Masaryk Circuit as part of the prestigious MotoGP Championship. The engineering and other fairs in the much modernized Brno Exhibition center are industry events of truly global significance. But for many years the city itself seemed to kind of lag behind, unable to shake off the shadow of the past.

All that has changed in the past few years and I am on my way to meet Don Sparling a Canadian who has lived in Brno since the communist days. I began by asking him how that came about.

Don Sparling - a Canadian in Brno, photo: Vít Pohanka
“It is a long story which I’ll shorten. I actually visited Czechoslovakia in 1968, before the Soviet-led invasion and I went back to England, where I was then, and I decided I wanted to remain in Europe for another year. And for various reasons – I had originally planned France which didn’t work out – I thought maybe I’ll come to Czechoslovakia, its an interesting place after the invasion, nobody knows how it is going to play out exactly. So I sent a letter to a couple of language schools, one in Brno and one in Prague. And the Prague language school kind of wavered while the Brno language school said - we are preparing a visa and we expect you to start teaching in six weeks. So I ended up in Brno in March of 1969. My original plan had been to stay here for the rest of that academic year and the following year and then to go back to Canada. But then I had the chance to go to Prague where I spent seven years. And in 1977, having got married to a woman from Brno in the meantime, I came to Brno and started teaching at the university. And I have been here ever since.”

Just for us to have an idea – what was Brno like in the 1970s?

Brno - view from Špilberk Park, photo: Vít Pohanka
“Grey, grey and grey. Very little investment, by the end of the communist period for instance the castle area in Brno, which is the second largest castle area in the country, was completely shut down to the public because the buildings were in such bad condition and the park was overrun with weeds and bushes and trees and so on. So physically it was very depressing. On the other hand, because it wasn’t Prague, it wasn’t at the centre of the communist party’s interests there was more freedom in Brno, so the main experimental theatre in Czechoslovakia (Husa na provazku) was here in Brno and there was a very vibrant cultural scene which was both legal and semi-legal and underground, so it was a very exciting place to be.”

Were they any other foreigners in Brno?

“There were five native English speakers and I knew them all by their first names. Two were older ladies who had married Czech airmen in WWII and had come here after the war with their Czech husbands. One was an American woman of Czech descent who had come in the 60s and had fallen in love with a Czech and had stayed here and there was me and also a British guy who came a little bit after me. Same story, fell in love, married a Czech woman and stayed here. So there were only five of us.”

Communist Czechoslovakia was a centralized state – though Prague managed to keep an international flair – did you ever regret that you stayed here in the provinces rather than going to Prague?

Old Brno, photo: Vít Pohanka
“Oh,no, no. I left Prague deliberately after seven years partly because I wanted to be with my family in Brno, but also because I got really fed up with what I call the Prague mentality, this sense that no world exists outside of Prague, that the belly-button of the world is in Prague and so on. It is a very self-centred city. And I was quite glad to get away from that even if I had a wonderful seven years in Prague and I had lots of friends there and did kind of weird things in Prague – on the one hand, I was very active in folklore and on the other hand I was with underground musicians, so it was a very strange, kind of schizophrenic life in Prague, though positively so I would say.”

What would you recommend to a curious sightseer who wants to learn about the history of Brno, not just see a few sights? What are the interesting places in Brno – be it social, art of even industrial history?

“Many of the historical buildings from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries were torn down in the 19th century but they were replaced by building –in many cases – by the top architects in Central Europe. Brno is very close to Vienna and so Vienna served as a model and when we tore down the walls of the city we built a ringstrasse–a circular boulevard which is lined with these great public buildings museums and so on in a very sophisticated late 19th century style. And then in the 20th century Brno became the centre for what we call the functionalist movement in architecture. So the centre of Brno is in fact a very interesting and lively mixture of these things. It is not a dead city. One of the problems with the cities that were preserved is that they are a bit dead – you can’t build new buildings, you have to make everything look like it did 100 years ago, so in a certain way it is like going through a museum – this isn’t the case in Brno. Brno is a very lively city, it has 400,000 people of whom 90,000 are students, so it is a young, lively city.”

Would you say that Brno with its architecture is more like a child of the 19th and 20th century?

Brno, photo: Vít Pohanka
“Definitely, it still has the old church buildings for instance, it still has a few palaces from the 17th and 18th centuries but yes, the 19th and 20th century are dominant and 21st century as well. It keeps developing. “

We are now standing in a square that’s very lively, there are some stalls and I would say prosperous looking shops. I was here a few years ago and it was not as lively as this. What happened?

“That’s a question that everybody’s asking. I don’t think there is any one answer to that question. I think generally speaking the economy has improved, so there’s more opportunities to spend, and there are more shops and cafes and restaurants. I think though that one of the crucial factors is that Brno, about ten years ago, started to attract big multinational companies, such as Honeywell, IBM, Red Hat etc. It was the fruit of a city policy that began in the 1990´s. At that time Brno was in some ways even worse off than under communism because its basic industry was textiles which collapsed, was basically wiped out. So, the city hall was looking for a new strategy and decided to turn Brno into a research & development, high-tech hub using the large student population as a kind of base for this policy. It was about 2005 to 2007 that these international companies started moving in and they have made a huge difference. There are a lot of foreigners here these days as well.”

“A second thing that revitalized the city – and trust me, this is no political statement – is that there was an election about three years ago that brought in a whole new city council. In came very young people, some of them even „kids" in the late twenties and early thirties. They had and still have a much more open mind about how the city should be run. To give you an example: the old city council said it was impossible to ride bicycles in the center of the city because there would be collisions with the trams and other traffic. They fought this idea for years, for them, it was absolutely impossible. The new city council simply got rid of the rule and bikes are a completely normal part of the traffic and nobody gets hurt, nobody complains. It was a new generation that came up with new ideas to liven up the city.”

Brno - Freedom Square, photo: Vít Pohanka
But it is not all just about more money in people pockets, smart shops, and bikes in the streets. Brno has become a more livable, manageable, attractive city, especially for young people. Meet Irena Ošťádalová, a woman in her late twenties who came from Prague to become the executive director of Impact Hub Brno, a branch of a global network of co-working spaces that support start-ups with innovative ideas. She moved to Brno with some hesitation, but it soon evaporated:

“At first, I was a bit afraid that I would be bored here. That did not happen. Brno is a very lively city. I simply love the feeling that I can spend my time down in the streets, working even in cafes, creating projects for the city and its people. Brno itself is a kind of hub. I can definitely imagine staying here and even starting a family. It is big enough for me to find everything I need and small enough to create personal relationships.”

There could hardly be a better PR statement for present-day Brno than Irena´s words. It may be the second city in the country after Prague, but it is bursting with energy and youth.