The Czech region of Moravia is an undiscovered landscape full of tradition and history. On the bike along the River Morava, an understated but multifaceted area unfolds, full of stories – and without oncoming traffic
A spotted piglet tripping across the grass between the thatched roofs of Archeoscans in Modrá, a small open-air museum in the east of the Czech Republic. He scavenges along the stacked tree trunks and braided branches that make up the sturdy structures that must have been exactly like this more than a millennium ago. This place was possibly the center of Greater Moravia, a historic country within the Czech Republic (next to Bohemia and Silesia) that celebrated its heyday in the Middle Ages. It is also the end point of my bike tour of this former country, which in the present day is characterized as a rolling patchwork quilt that is crossed by the Morava River, after which the medieval empire is named. The region is considerably less crowded than its western neighbour Bohemia, home to the Czech capital, but thanks to centuries of domination by changing rulers – from Austria- Hungary to the Soviet Union – it is at least as versatile here. The birth of Moravia was here, among the wooden huts, and it became the beginning of a rich history.
My bike tour starts a few days earlier in Kroměříž, in style and stateliness a kind of time capsule of the 17th-century Habsburg monarchy. On the main square, it is still virtually empty this morning, around eight o’clock. Historic façades in pastel hues capture early rays of sunshine and a crooked bell tower casts a pointed shadow over the square, where the bright colours of a small, slightly misplaced fairground attraction contrast strikingly with its historical décor. As quiet as it is there now, it must have been as lively as it is around the 17th century, when the city was in demand with habsburg high society. The structures betray their importance – the stately plastered walls, large windows and ornate curves of their Baroque architecture come to me from all sides, as if I were walking through a small Vienna lookalike. I turn another corner when the shining centre of the city looms in front of me: the Archbishop’s Palace, surrounded by endless fairy-tale gardens full of special trees and raked flower beds. The residence saw numerous prominent guests – even the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Sissi slept there.
In front of the stately palace, I see a man pulling a bright blue poncho over his head and smoothing it out. It is Zdeněk Urbanovský, a born and bred Moravian and the next few days my companion during the bike ride through his home region. He has a cheerful, round face and doesn’t seem discouraged by the rainy weather forecast. ‘It doesn’t detract from the beauty of Moravia,’ he claims firmly as he swings his leg over his electric mountain bike.
On the first part of our bike ride we let ourselves show our way through the River Morava. The surface of the water reflects the grey sky above us, but Zdeněk is right – the surroundings radiate a serene calm. Vast fields over rolling hilly landscapes with here and there a tuft of trees shoot past as our wheels speed along the reed-clad shore. Rainwater splashes up in the bends and along the heiige horizon I discover the contours of the onion dome atop a church in a remote village. The peaceful vistas characterize the country, which stretches from Bohemia in the west to the border with Slovakia; wavy, fertile and endless. The largest city in the area is Brno – even the largest in the country after Prague, but its less than 400,000 inhabitants are just a pittance of the millions capital.
In Moravia you come not for metropolitan delights, but for the tranquility, the fields and the quirky places. Like brewery and restaurant Harley Pub in Otrokovice, where we pause halfway through the tour and warm our rained-out bodies to a hearty bowl of soup. On the way to the toilet I discover hidden next to the wooden bar a door, which leads to a private Harley Davidson museum, spread over two floors. As I walk between the slightly rusting steel and the American memorabilia, I wonder if this stuff ever expected to end up here, in a small town in the southeastern Czech Republic.
In this same town, the Morava flows together with the Bata Canal, one of the many stamps printed on the region by the famous shoe manufacturer Tomáš Bat’a. It may not be a big name in the rest of Europe, “but here everyone knows him,” zdeněk says as he takes his bike off the lock again. ‘His shoe shop, Bata, can still be found in many Czech cities.’ In Otrokovice the factory stood and to run it it needed fuel. In the 1930s, therefore, the 52-kilometre canal was built to transport coal more efficiently from the southern city of Hodonín. Over the waves prosperity flowed again into Moravia.
We get back on the pedals and cycle on to Zlín, where our tour ends today, but the history of Bat’a once began. As we approach the city, I see the industrial side of the region increasingly emerging: rusty bridges connect fields of rapeseed and every now and then a narrow chimney or factory building rises in the view, illuminated by the finally breaking rays of sunshine. We drive into the city past a striking monument in the form of a concrete plateau with rows of shoes; He does not hide his heritage.
The city is nothing like the Habsburg finesse of Kroměříž, less than 30 kilometres away, but is no less impressive. The interwar building style of the Bata complex that dominates the centre of the city brings a certain charisma; clean lines, lots of concrete and weathered charmingly over the years. The industrial functionality and appearance of the city seeps into the uniform rows of red brick houses in the residential areas, which unfold over the hills. Built for the employees of Tomáš Bat’a, after his ideas about the ultimate functional city.
Zlín was a centre of modernity in Moravia and the time-breaking ingenuity was not limited only to the Bata factory, where Tomáš Baťa applied assembly line techniques from the American automotive industry. As I walk through Zlín I quickly catch the eye of the literal highlight of the city: Building 21, the first skyscraper in the Czech Republic and one of the first in Europe. Here was bata’s headquarters, spread over the 16 floors with interesting architectural but also technological details. For example, the rare paternoster lift – continuously passing cabins without a door in front of it, where you can step in every 30 seconds to reach the next floor – but also the office of Tomáš Bat’a itself is a special masterpiece. Time has stood still; I discover an old fashioned phone, yellowed plafonnières above me and wood everywhere. “Tomáš was a busy man – he didn’t have time to wait for an elevator anywhere,” Zdeněk chuckles as we walk into space, and before I can ask him what he means, the ground beneath my feet moves. Slightly rattling and simmering we begin to rise; The whole office is an elevator.
The last part of our journey to modrá terminus follows an ancient pilgrimage route that ends in the slightly further away Velehrad. The village is home to the second largest church in the country, the Basilica of Mary Ascension and The Saints Cyril and Methodius, which attracts countless pilgrims every year. Along the road, ornate trees sway and we do not encounter a human being; perfect conditions for quiet contemplation. “It’s one of my favorite routes,” says Zdeněk, “because it’s beautiful here in every season. When I was here a while ago, the trees were still in bloom.” We make our way and are suddenly surrounded by rapeseed. In the bright sun it seems almost fluorescent, but doom occurs in the distance, where thick, dark clouds pile up and slowly drift our way. I step off my bike for a moment, to witness the wondrous play of light and shade over the yellow-green patchwork, but there is a need if we want to reach our end point without wet clothes. I jump back on my steel steed and shoot after Zdeněk, who disappears just behind a lock around the corner.
The further we cycle, the deeper we go into Moravian history. Just before the first raindrops we arrive in Modrá, ending at the Moravian beginnings. It seems like the ideal place to start a realm, close to the river and in the wide perimeter nothing but those wondrous fields, as far as the eye can see.