One of the most beautiful towns in Moravia and historically an important location in the Czech Republic is Znojmo - a town whose foundations date back to the 11th century. For centuries Znojmo guarded the regions of southern Moravia, part of an elaborate chain of defending castles along the Dyje River and the border with Austrian lands, developing from a promontory fort to medieval stronghold and local seat of administration for the Premyslids - the first line of Czech kings. By the mid 1200s Znojmo was dominant, complementing neighbouring castles at Bitov and Vranov.
Lukas Snopek, a guide at Znojmo Castle, explains why, early on, Znojmo became an important site:
"This region has always been very fertile and rich - one reason why even early prehistoric settlements were founded here, and of course the high promontory on which Znojmo was later founded and the hill that mirrors it across the river - a pilgrimage site - were naturally chosen for strategic reasons. Both are formidable, and give an excellent view of the surrounding lands."
And, it wasn't long before Znojmo was given official status.
"Earlier, the castle, some churches, squares, and buildings all formed different parts of the settlement, but they were ultimately unified by the town walls. The exhibit you can see here shows the deed that declared Znojmo a royal town in 1226."
As a fortress - whose medieval walls survive in large part to this day, Znojmo was tested repeatedly in battles between neighbouring Austrian rulers and Bohemian kings: sources describe massive plundering on both sides. Down through the centuries Znojmo would repeatedly come under fire, in alternating periods of prosperity and hardship. Battles, and struggle, quite simply, were a way of life. Important dates in the town's history include:
1278: the death of King Otakar II, who fell at the Battle of Marchfeld (or, as it is known here, the Battle of Moravian Field). At this time Znojmo briefly came under Habsburg rule.
1404: Znojmo withstood an intense siege led by Austrian Duke Albrecht IV and Hungarian King Sigismund - probably the first time siege engines in Moravia were used.
The period of the Hussite Wars: Znojmo was repeatedly targeted - but also rewarded. All rulers vying for power in the region knew how important it was to gain the town's allegiance, and were willing to grant the town important privileges in return.
The 16th and 17th centuries, when nearby Vienna was invaded by the Turks, and later, when Europe suffered the ravages of the Thirty Years' War.
Through it all Znojmo survived. Today, one can still tour the extensive ramparts, walking down to the slow-moving water of the Dyje River, visualising with one's mind's eye the town's turbulent past.
"From here, you can see the castle grounds, everything that belonged to the palace."
High above the embankment Lukas Snopek shows me around Znojmo Castle, which houses the South Moravian Museum. It featutres extensive exhibits for a rainy day: exhibits which include early archaeological finds, furniture, paintings, and exquisite bedrooms and flowery drawing rooms decorated with furniture from the 17th to 19th centuries: the Baroque, Rococo, & Empire. Lukas Snopek again:
"This Baroque interior shows how the aristocracy lived. If you look at the paintings you can see that they are very specifically hung in what is called panelage - a geometric balance. Paintings were modified in order to fit well with the rest of the setting. If a painting was too big, it was simply shortened; if too small they added canvas and painted something extra in. Then all your paintings could fit together well and it was something to be proud of and something to be displayed."
Along the way through the castle/museum, you'll also notice a fine exhibit that includes a series of historic targets from the early 1800s, painted with scenes from daily life but also containing numerous holes. The holes, shot through, form an unusual aesthetic element: random "modern" black dots that make the paintings rather more interesting. One of the more striking features: a scene from Znojmo in which locals defend the town from Napoleon's army.
"A small battle between the Emperor and Napoleon's army took place in 1809 - which the Austrian forces lost. Even so, the inhabitants of Znojmo fought tooth & nail and were able to keep the French outside the city, for which they were duly rewarded. This historic target depicts the battle and you can see how valiantly the town was defended!"
Also in the exhibit, you'll have a chance to see many different panorama views of Znojmo through history: early maps and paintings. Many, you may notice, feature a square tower on the promontory. It was Romanesque and no longer stands.
Luckily the rest of Znojmo Castle suffered no such fate!
Znojmo Castle is just a small part of what this historic Moravian town has to offer but it is not a bad place to start. There is much, much more in the way of a famous Rotunda of the Virgin Mary, churches, a magnificent monastery, and, for those who enjoy light hiking or extensive cycling, dozens of kilometres of well-marked bicycle routes that go right through nearby Dyje National Park.
Returning in the evening on a late summer's day, you will be hard put to find a more striking silhouette than this medieval town. Znojmo, one of the most enchanting places to visit in the Czech lands.