So I was more than a little intrigued when, after I had asked Tanja, a university student sitting next to me, where I should head next, she looked me squarely in the eye and pronounced the name of a city I'd never heard of before:
"O-lo-moatz" was the unfamiliar name that rolled off her tongue. She leaned in, as if telling a secret, and whispered, "Olomouc is better than Prague."
With that endorsement, I headed east by train the next day and arrived three hours later in the ancient capital of Moravia. Often called "Little Prague" by the Czechs, Olomouc has everything Prague does: rich cultural traditions, a lively arts scene, splendid architecture, beautiful churches. But what makes Olomouc attractive is its size, relative anonymity and relaxed university-town demeanor. With only 106,000 people, Olomouc feels like a small town. You can wander its cobbled lanes steeped in 1,000 years of history without bumping into hordes of package tourists.
Olomouc and I didn't start off on good terms. On the first morning of my weeklong visit, I lost my passport, having dropped it somewhere between the train station and the center of town. Intent on finding it, I headed out with Greg Chandler, an Aussie expatriate who owns the cozy Poet's Corner Hostel, where I stayed. Greg was an apt guide — he speaks near-fluent Czech and loves to show off his adopted city — and the search for my passport turned into an impromptu walking tour.
We made our way to the center of Old Town, divided into two irregular, sloping plazas, Upper Square and Lower Square. Upper Square, the heart of Old Olomouc, may be the only plaza in the Czech Republic where a church is not the focal point. My eyes were drawn instantly to the monumental Holy Trinity Column, a Baroque masterpiece. Standing 115 feet tall, the 18th century column is a revelation. Nothing in Prague can match its soaring explosion of pillars, elegant balustrades, richly ornamented sculptures of Czech and Moravian martyrs, Christian saints and gleaming gilded reliefs. Today its religious significance seems lost on Olomouc residents. It's a natural rendezvous point and hangout for teenagers who relax on its pedestal while nibbling on a favorite local snack, corn on the cob on a stick.
Scanning Upper Square, I marveled at the architectural variety — Renaissance palaces, Gothic burghers' houses and assorted buildings with medieval foundations and renovated pastel facades. Next to Holy Trinity Column is the 15th century Town Hall, with a 247-foot tower where visitors can get wide views of the city and the surrounding fertile plain.
"It's hard to believe that almost all of this was rebuilt from ruins," Greg said.
His reference to the eight-year siege by the Swedes during the Thirty Years' War reminded me of the city's violent past. From 1642 to 1650, Swedish troops occupied and plundered Olomouc. Fewer than 2,000 of the city's 30,000 inhabitants survived. But its residents began rebuilding and restoring their city. Despite a 1709 fire that burned more than a quarter of the town, and subsequent occupations by Prussians, Russians and Austrians, the fortifications preserved the center's Baroque character.
On the facade of Town Hall is an astronomical clock, which at noon every day reminds residents of another dark period in the city's history — communist rule. The 15th century clock has seen numerous face-lifts and restorations, but none more dramatic than the makeover completed in 1955. Officials removed the original dancing Apostles and replaced them with a schmaltzy parade of citizen-workers. A blacksmith rings in the hour with a swing of his hammer. Once in a while, Greg told me, there is talk about restoring the Apostles, but the Socialist figurines remain.
As we moved away from Upper Square, Greg pointed out another pleasing feature of Olomouc: its impressive array of public sculpture, especially the six Baroque fountains that date to the 17th and 18th centuries. The fountains — of Caesar, Hercules, Jupiter, Neptune, Mercury and Triton in triumphant poses — reveal the city's fascination with things Greek and Roman.
Language lessons with a smile
Having graciously given up his morning to help me look for my passport, Greg dashed off to run some errands but not before settling on a time to meet me for dinner.
The Czech word for "nice" or "kind" is hodni, and it aptly describes Greg and Olomoucans I met. Although I encountered fewer English-speakers here than in Prague, people were patient and eager to help. My feeble attempts at Czech were rewarded with broad smiles.
I mangled a drink order at the Cukrarna Maruska cafe, at 28 Rijna St. I meant to say, "I'll have one cup of coffee with milk and sugar." Instead I blurted out, "I'll have zero coffeehouse milk and pastry." The women behind the counter shook their heads and chuckled, then gave me a quick primer on Czech numbers one through five. With their help, I managed to stutter out "One coffee milk sugar." The ladies beamed.
Greg had recommended that I lunch at Pod Limpou, a cellar restaurant. I took a stool at the bar. This is the place for hearty, no-frills pub food. My roast chicken came on a cutting board adorned with a fat lettuce leaf. As is typical at Czech restaurants, side orders — here, dumplings, vegetables and bread — cost extra. Even then, the meal, topped by Radegast, a dark Moravian beer, cost half of what it might have in Prague.
As I finished off my plate, the barman poured a shot of a clear liquor and offered it to me, compliments of the house. "Welcome to Olomouc," he said. "You try it. Typical Czech drink."
It turned out to be fiery slivovitz, the plum brandy popular in Central Europe. One sip burned my throat and vaporized my insides. But not wanting to be rude, I polished off the shot and left.
The cool late autumn air and a stroll through the ribbon of parks bordering the Morava River were bracing. The Hapsburg reign asserted itself here in the well-manicured grounds of Smetana Gardens and their 781-yard-long esplanade lined with chestnut trees.