Vyskov - the Moravian town that kept rising from the ashes

In Spotlight this week, we go to Vyskov, a town of 23,000 inhabitants, which lies about half an hour's drive from the Moravian capital of Brno. The first written reference to Vyskov dates back to 1141, where its name appears on an ecclesiastical document. By the thirteenth century, Vyskov was listed as part of the property of the Bishop of Olomouc and it was prosperous enough to be considered one of the bishopric's most important towns by the fourteenth century.

The Hussite Wars, which broke out in the Czech Lands after supporters of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus rebelled against the Catholic King Wenceslas IV following the execution of their leader, brought a halt to Vyskov's early development. Renata Kotulanova is a historian at the Vyskov museum.

"The bishop of the time Jan Zelezny was one of the main opponents of Hussitism. He was one of Hus's accusers at the Council of Constance [where the Czech reformer was burnt at the stake]. He was very much hated by the Hussites in the Czech Lands. Naturally, they set about razing all that belonged to him. The town of Vyskov was very badly devastated by the Hussites. In addition to this, the nearby bishop's castle of Melice was destroyed. Although this building only stood for around a century, the so-called Melice tiles [from the castle's hearth] have survived to this day. They are one of the museum's most important exhibits and are practically unique in Europe. No other localities can boast such wonderfully decorated glazed fireside tiles."

In fact, ceramics are something of a Vyskov speciality. Besides the Melice tiles, the museum also hosts an impressive collection of colourful folk ceramics unique to the region.

The Vyskov museum itself is housed in the town's castle, which was first erected as a gothic fortress in the fifteenth century, but later converted into a renaissance chateau.

After being devastated during the Hussite Wars, Vyskov enjoyed a prolonged period of development and renewal. It was rebuilt under the auspices of Bishop Tas from Cerna Hora. A time of prosperity followed as Vyskov's industry boomed thanks to the fact that it lay on a number of trade routes. The town also became well known as a centre of drapery and pottery production.

But if Vyskov's central location helped the town greatly during periods of stability, it also meant that it was vulnerable to marauding troops in times of conflict. Consequently - says Renata Kotulanova - the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century saw the town relive the destruction and renewal it underwent in the Hussite era:

"The town lies on the crossroads between Brno, Olomouc and Kromeriz, which was a great advantage in times of peace, but which also meant that it was always affected by any conflict that took place in the Czech Lands. After the Thirty Years War, [Bishop] Karel Dluhy had to rebuild the town again because it had been occupied and burnt down by Swedish forces in the conflict. Paradoxically, this was very advantageous for the Vyskov, because during this period the bishop added a baroque wing to the chateau, he restored the chateau gardens and put in loggias, and he established a gallery at the chateau, which had a rich collection of 220 paintings. A theatre was also opened, where they performed Italian operas. The episcopal mint was even moved to the town for a while. At that time the place was actually known as the "Moravian Versailles".

Unfortunately, this golden era came to an abrupt end in 1753 when Vyskov succumbed to a massive conflagration, which left only two buildings standing. The fire of Vyskov had actually been started by a 17-year-old girl called Viktorie Vesela. She had set fire to some buildings in the hope of securing work for her boyfriend who was a carpenter. Viktorie ended up paying for what she did and - rather fittingly - was burnt at the stake for her crime.

Vyskov's famous castle was destroyed in the blaze and although a new building was constructed it never achieved its former glory. Even so, it was still considered a fitting location for the Russian General Suvorov to billet there during the Napoleonic Wars. Tsar Alexander of Russia and Emperor Franz of Austria also met there on the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz, which took place in the nearby Slavkov district.

Although Vyskov once again rose from the ashes of the great fire of 1753 and expanded greatly during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, it was to go up in flames once more in 1917, when another massive fire swept through the town. The blaze took two days to be quelled and 730 Vyskov citizens lost their lives in the conflagration. It also did extensive damage to the town's renaissance square.

Like so many previous conflicts in the region, the Second World War was to also take its toll on Vyskov. Renata Kotulanova again:

"The town itself was very badly affected at the end of the war, because the front gradually moved Vyskov from Brno along with the Red Army. There was a major clash here when Vyskov was liberated on 30 April. The Germans retreated to the surrounding hills and the town was basically under fire until victory was declared on 9 May. As a result Vyskov was one of cities worst affected by bombing during the war."

These events left a lasting impact on the town and although its pretty main square was rebuilt once more and is still worth a visit, it's hard not to wonder how splendid it might have looked today had it survived the turbulent events of the town's history.

Vyskov expanded greatly during the twentieth century and became a garrison town following the establishment of Czechoslovakia after the First World War. Thanks to its military past, the town has a fascinating museum of military aircraft, mostly from the Soviet era.

Vyskov is also famous among Czechs as the birthplace of Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia's first communist president. Apart from the dubious "honour" of being home to a notoriously Stalinist president, the renowned Arab scholar Alois Musil is another of Vyskov's famous sons. This Orientalist travelled extensively in the Middle East at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. His seminal works on Arab language and culture made him one of the leading Arabists of his day and his status in the field was only rivalled by that of English scholar T.E. Lawrence of Arabia. Many of the artefacts that Musil brought back from his trips to the Orient are now on permanent display at the Vyskov museum.

Besides taking in all the castle museum has to offer, no trip to Vyskov would be complete without paying a trip to the town's zoological gardens. Established in 1965 by local animal lover Zdenek Sokolicka, the zoo has grown in terms of its size and ambition from a small petting zoo of farmyard animals to an extensive facility housing many exotic animals from all over the world, including yaks, camels and lemurs. Nevertheless, one of the zoo's managers, Dagmar Neperenova, says the enterprise has managed to retain a distinct identity as a unique menagerie of domestic animals from around the world:

"We specialise in farm animals and in the so-called primitive breeds of animals, which have retained the basic characteristics of the original species. We have farm animals from all over the world - from Africa, Asia and South America. We primarily have ducks, goats and sheep - breeds of animals that were much more common in the past but which have become increasingly exotic. The children who come here today are often seeing sheep or goats for the first time."

Anyone visiting Vyskov should make sure to go to the zoo's newest enclosure - the DinoPark. Dagmar Neperena says, this small-scale "Jurassic Park" has helped put the town on the map by becoming one of the most popular tourist attractions in the south Moravian area.

"Last year we launched a new project for the zoo in that we opened a dinosaur park. This consists of a natural area inhabited by life-size models of these primordial creatures, some of which also move around. This is definitely a big attraction for families with small children and school excursions. Last year it helped us increase the number of visitors to the zoo to 180,000, which now ranks us alongside other zoos. There are not many small zoos with those sorts of attendance figures."